Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

ICYMI: Yesterday’s can’t-miss justice system news

ICYMI: Yesterday’s can’t-miss justice system news


Note: This first appeared in our daily In Justice Today newsletter. To get stories like these in your inbox every day, you can sign up here.

In today’s news roundup, we bring you stories about questions surrounding the use of DNA evidence, misuse of labor by ICE detainees, the lawsuit challenging drivers license suspensions for failure to pay fines, and prosecutorial misconduct in Tennessee (yes, again), among other stories.

Forensics

  • Putting Crime Scene DNA Analysis on Trial. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will be launching a study of certain types of DNA analysis used in criminal investigations by inviting all private and public forensic labs in the country to analyze the same set of DNA, and then comparing the results. In an interview with ProPublica, John Butler, a DNA expert who will be leading a team of NIST scientists for the study, discussed the importance of this first-of-its-kind study, which aims not to critique certain platforms, but to explore the different responses that various methods might produce when analyzing a complex DNA mixture. Butler emphasizes that “just because you have a big number doesn’t mean that you got the right person” when explaining why it is crucial for the jury, judge, prosecution and police to understand the range of possibilities that can follow from the result of a DNA analysis. According to Butler, without effective communication of the meaning of the results, testing is useless. Butler also puts the type of testing being done now in context: though DNA is heralded as the “gold standard” of forensic science, labs are usually not prepared for the complex intricacies involved in today’s analyses. The water is further muddied by the use of commercial software such as the Forensic Statistic Tool (FST); the need for commercial protection of proprietary information must coexist with the bedrock principle of transparency in science. [Lauren Kirchner / ProPublicaSee also We profiled ProPublica’s coverage of FST’s controversy in our 9/11and 9/27 issues.
  • No Backlog: Why the Epidemic of Untested Rape Kits Is Not a Symbol of Insufficient Police Budgets But Instead a Failure to Investigate Rape. The Memphis Police Department will keep Sex Crimes detective Ouita Knowlton on the force, despite the criminal investigation underway into her leaking of confidential files to the family of a rape suspect. Ouita supervised the DNA Unit, which was formed to investigate cases with untested rape kits. Memphis was not alone in this backlog; untested kits have plagued precincts across the country, from Detroit to Cleveland to Los Angeles. Though the police departments in question usually blame a lack of funding, the National Institute for Justice cites other reasons, among them victim-blaming beliefs by police, no written protocol for submitting kits to the lab for testing, high turnover in police leadership, and lack of community-based victim advocacy services. Further, Ohio Public Defender Tim Young points out that modern DNA testing methods have been around since the mid-1990s, and law enforcement’s reluctance to use them is simply a symptom of a police culture that fails to prioritize justice. Young’s assertion is supported by a 2015 Michigan State University study of police reports involving Detroit’s untested kits, which found most cases closed after minimal investigation, and a 2016 clearance rate of only 36% of rapes according to FBI statistics (a percentage that likely includes non-arrest clearances such as the victim ceasing to cooperate). [Meaghan Ybos / In Justice Today]

Punishing Poverty

  • Federal Judge Restores Drivers’ Licenses to Two With Unpaid Traffic Tickets; May Be First Ruling of its Kind. A federal judge reinstated the drivers’ licenses of two named plaintiffs in a class action suit challenging the practice of suspending licenses for failure to pay fines. The suit alleges that such suspensions violate constitutional guarantees of due process when individuals are not given an opportunity to be heard in court regarding their ability to pay. This exacerbates a cycle of poverty when people lose their jobs due to their inability to legally drive, which then makes it even more difficult to get out from underneath growing fines, fees, and court costs. The litigation is ongoing, and the order does not restore the licenses of other members of the class of litigants, but this interim step was based on the judge’s determination that the plaintiffs are likely to prevail when the case is resolved. [C.J. Ciaramella / ReasonSee also We first covered this lawsuit in our 9/25 newsletter.

Crimmigration

  • ICE’s Captive Immigrant Labor Force. So-called “voluntary work” programs at private-prison companies that house detained immigrants may actually look more like forced labor camps. Several complaints, lawsuits, and an ACLU investigation contain disturbing allegations of illegal exploitation of immigrant detainees. As ICE arrests rise dramatically with little increase in deportation rates, the swelling numbers of detainees—many of whom do not have criminal records—potentially provide a “captive workforce” for private prison companies, which operate with little oversight or reporting requirements. [Michelle Chen / The Nation]
  • Oakland Police Chief Made False Statements About ICE Raid. Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick claimed repeatedly that an August ICE raid of an Oakland home was part of a criminal trafficking investigation. But the raid did not result in any criminal prosecutions, and some immigration advocates have alleged that Kirkpatrick “repeatedly supplied false information.” The case has raised a number of concerns, including whether ICE has expanded the definition of human trafficking to include assistance to juveniles who immigrate without their parents, as well as the blurring of the line between criminal and civil enforcement by federal immigration officials. [Darwin BondGraham / East Bay Express]

Bail Reform

  • Too poor to make bail: Alabama forced to reform ‘two-tiered’ jail system.In Alabama, four lawsuits have been filed challenging the money-bail system. In Randolph County, Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and Civil Rights Corps have filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kandace Edwards, challenging the county’s money bail system. Edwards, at the time seven-months pregnant, was accused of forging a $75 check and held on a $7,500 bond. She couldn’t afford the bail amount, and might have remained in jail for months, but for a judge ordering her release after the lawsuit was filed. Systemic change may be coming, however slowly and unevenly. In Jefferson County, judges ordered bail hearings between 48-72 hours after arrests for those who could not afford bail, prompted by the mere threat of an ACLU lawsuit. In Dolthan and Clanton counties, courts have issued standing bail orders so that some can be released without money bond if they cannot pay. [Anna Claire Vollers / AL.com]

Prosecutors

  • Meet the write-in candidate who wants to challenge Cy Vance. After coming in third place in the Democratic primary to become the next Brooklyn District Attorney, Marc Fliedner says he is now prepared to challenge Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance as a write-in candidate in the borough’s upcoming November 7, 2018 election—an election in which, at present, Vance faces no challengers. Fliedner’s announcement comes close on the heels of reports that Vance’s office declined to prosecute Harvey Weinstein (reports that include allegations that Vance’s decision was affected by financial contributions and his relationship with Weinstein’s attorneys). Vance was also recently criticized by revelations that he declined to prosecute Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr., under circumstances that also raised the specter of unseemly financial influences. “Cy Vance, Eric Gonzalez, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, seems it’s about power and money and the drive to hold on to both,” Fliedner told The New York Post. “Even when it’s at the expense of what is so obviously right under the law.” [Emily Saul / New York PostSee also We reported on other fierce criticisms of Vance’s policies, particularly those hurting the poor, in our 8/31 newsletter.
  • Shelby County District Attorney Has Another Conviction Overturned.The Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee granted a new trial to Joshua Bargery as a result of the trial court’s exclusion of expert testimony that supported Bargery’s contention that there were multiple attackers involved in the crime. The case also involved multiple allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. For example, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich called an expert witness for the defense, which the court said “substantially interfered with [the witness]’s prior determination to testify, in violation of the Defendant’s constitutional right to present his own witnesses to establish a defense.” Additionally, the court found that the trial prosecutor improperly accused Bagary’s defense lawyer, in front of the jury, of “coming up with the Defendant’s story.” Although the court found these actions to be improper, the court did not find that either provided a basis for granting a new trial. [Jeni Diprizio / Local Memphis]

Policing

  • US police killings undercounted by half, study using Guardian data finds.The call for better data collection of police killings continues after a Harvard study, comparing the data from the Guardian’s “The Counted” and the Nation Vital Statistics System (NVSS), revealed that the federal database “misclassified 55.2% of all police killings, with the errors occurring disproportionately in low-income jurisdictions.” Many deaths were categorized as “assault” rather than “legal intervention,” the term the NVSS uses for police killings. Unfortunately, this is not the first time federal databases have come under fire for the poor quality of their data. Just last year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI had to rework their programs which had been previously undercounting officer-involved killings. Justin Feldman, the lead researcher in the study, argues that “[t]o effectively address the problem of law enforcement-related death, the public needs better data about who is being killed, where, and under what circumstances.” [Jamiles Lartey / Guardian]

Welcome home, Diane!

This week’s top justice system stories in New York

This week’s top justice system stories in New York


Each week, the Fair Punishment Project monitors the news in New York, talks to local journalists and advocates, and share the most important stories with you through our weekly New York newsletter. In this week’s New York newsletter, we brought you stories about ICE raids, the future of Rikers Island, a program that is cutting down on gun violence without involving the police, a new plan for getting rid of cash bail, and many others.Be sure to subscribe to our New York newsletter here.

Crimmigration

  • NYCLU Suit Claims Trump Holding Asylum-Seeking Immigrants Indefinitely. Immigrants in detention in Batavia, New York claim that the Trump administration has put a hold on their parole process, keeping them from their families and stopping them from properly preparing their asylum application. The New York Civil Liberties Union, working the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), are seeking an injunction to provide the immigrants with their legal right for a proper parole process, along with a bond hearing after six months of detention. The Buffalo Federal Detention Facility abruptly stopped providing asylum-seekers with parole following the inauguration of president Trump. “Even though federal policy states that parole should be granted to asylum-seekers who can establish their identity and are not a flight risk or danger, Batavia officials effectively stopped granting parole to asylum-seekers in late January, leaving dozens of people who fled violence and persecution to languish in jail,” the groups wrote in a statement announcing the lawsuit. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruledthat courts will have to consider financial resources when setting bonds for detained immigrants, including asylum seekers. A hearing on the injunction is scheduled for October 27th. [Jason Grant / New York Law Journal]
  • ICE Arrests 45 New Yorkers In 4 Days As Part Of Nationwide Raid On Sanctuary Cities. An immigration sweep targeted at cities that don’t fully cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) included the arrest of 45 New Yorkers, according to ICE. According to Emma Whitford at Gothamist, a third of those arrested in New York had “no criminal record.” Under the Obama administration, those with criminal convictions were made a priority for enforcement; under the Trump administration, the dragnet has been widened to include any undocumented immigrants. Cities like New York, which were targeted for their “sanctuary city” policies, help put immigrants on ICE’s radar by cracking down on low-level offenses like turnstile jumping and drinking in public. The vast majority of individuals arrested in New York City are immediately fingerprinted by the NYPD, which then sends those fingerprints to the federal government. Arrests by ICE in New York and New Jersey have increased by 38% between January and May of this year as compared to 2016. [Emma Whitford / Gothamist]

Jails

Prosecutors

Alternatives to Policing

  • Big Drops in Gun Crime Reported in NYC Neighborhoods Where ‘Violence Interrupters’ Patrol. A national program that uses community members to help de-escalate potentially violent situations has been successful in two neighborhoods in New York City, according to researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The “Cure Violence” program, which pursues from a “public-health” approach to stemming violence, as opposed to stop and frisk or gang policing, “was responsible for statistically significant drops in the number of shooting victims and gunshot hospitalizations in areas of East New York, Brooklyn, and the South Bronx,” according to the report. In the South Bronx, gun injuries were down 37 percent, while shootings were down 63 percent. The drop in gun crime in those two neighborhoods follows the success of the same program in Queensbridge, the largest public housing project in the country, which went over a year without a fatal shooting. Instead of surveilling social media and waiting for crimes to occur to establish conspiracy cases against young men, and then pursuing massive raids, the “Cure Violence” program aims to stop violence before it occurs, without the need to involve law enforcement. [Ann Givens / The Trace]

Policing

  • Syracuse 14-year-old sues city cops claiming school officer put him in chokehold. T.H. wanted to be a police officer… until he was almost killed by one. The NYCLU is suing the Syracuse police department after a plainclothes officer put a 14-year-old into a lethal headlock, similar to the one used on Eric Garner in Staten Island. T.H., as he’s being identified in the lawsuit, was walking away from a fight outside his school when Sgt. Dennis Regin grabbed T.H. by the neck and threw him to the ground. T.H. lost consciousness, but police officers refused to take him to a hospital. T.H. suffers from asthma. The NYCLU is alleging that the Syracuse Police Department has an “inadequate” use-of-force policy. [Julie McMahon / Syracuse.com]

Bail Reform

  • How We Can Make New York City’s Bail System Fairer Right Now.Under New York law, judges aren’t limited to exclusively imposing cash or bail bonds. They could also use “alternative forms of bail,” like offering just a fraction of cash bail, or no cash at all. But convincing judges to do this has been a hard task. Over the course of three months, the Vera Institute of Justice trained public defenders in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens on how to request these types of bail. Judges were skeptical — only 99 cases out of thousands were given alternative forms of bail, but within those 99 cases, there were promising results. Insha Rahman, the project director for Vera writes, “Those released had a court appearance rate of 88 percent and a rate of pretrial re-arrest for new felony offenses of eight percent.” She believes that by continuing to ask for “alternative forms of bail,” public defenders can make a huge impact on the city’s onerous and degrading criminal justice system. [Insha Rahman / City & State]
  • And for a quick demonstration of how broken the city’s bail system is, let’s check in on how they city is helping make it easier to pay the massive amounts required of cash bail:

Head slap emoji, indeed.

More in Explainers

Spotlight on juvenile life without parole

Wikimedia Commons

Spotlight on juvenile life without parole


Note: This first appeared in our daily In Justice Today newsletter. To get stories like these in your inbox every day, you can sign up here.

Our focus today is on juvenile life without parole sentences. Yesterday, California became the 20th state to ban JLWOP. Washington could become the next state to eliminate JLWOP, as the question of the constitutionality of the sentence is now pending before the state supreme court. In the states that retain JLWOP, resentencing hearings continue to take place after the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory JLWOP sentences back in 2012. In Pennsylvania, over 70 of these former lifers have been released. Meanwhile, in a handful of places like Baton Rouge and Detroit, prosecutors continue to push for these death-in-prison sentences.


Juvenile brains are not fully developed, which leads to comparatively poor judgment and impulse control, and greater susceptibility to situational forces and peer pressure. Over the past decade, courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have acknowledged that for these reasons children are not as culpable as adults, and that sentencing decisions should acknowledge the immense capacity that juveniles have for change. For example, juveniles convicted of a homicide offense cannot be automatically sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, but instead must be found to be “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible.”

California Bans JLWOP. Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that eliminates juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) in the nation’s most populous state. California is the 14th state to end JLWOP in the past five years (and the 20th state overall to do so). The law applies retroactively, meaning that over 300 people sentenced to die in prison for a crime committed before the age of 18 are eligible for parole after their 25th year of incarceration. This is not an automatic release provision, but instead provides the hope of release for those who can demonstrate adequate maturity and growth. [Christopher Cadelago / Sacramento Bee] The JLWOP ban is part of a package of nine juvenile justice reforms that the Governor signed into law yesterday. [Jazmine Ulloa / Los Angeles Times]

The Constitutionality of JLWOP is Now Before the Washington Supreme Court.Earlier this year, an intermediate appellate court in Washington heldthat JLWOP violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. [Opinion in State of Washington v. Brian Bassett] As evidence that the punishment is an excessive one, the appellate court noted that the United States is the only country in the world to permit JLWOP. It also found convincing the “recent proliferation of legislative decisions to ban juvenile life without parole sentences.”

The prosecution appealed the ruling, and last week, the Washington Supreme Court agreed to review the case. [Washington Supreme Court Order List] Sara Jean Green from the Seattle Times wrote a comprehensive piece on the Bassett decision. [Sara Jean Green / Seattle TimesSee also As discussed in our specialU.S. Supreme Court edition of the newsletter, Johnson v. Idaho, a case challenging the constitutionality of JLWOP, is among the petitions pending review at the Supreme Court this Fall. The Fair Punishment Project filed a friend of the Court brief in the case. [Amicus Brief of the Fair Punishment Project]

A Round-up of Recent Juvenile Life Without Parole Cases.

  • When he was 14-years-old, Gregory Sourbeer shot and killed his mother. That was in 1976, back when Gerald Ford was President of the United States. On October 6th, a judge in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, re-sentenced Sourbeer to provide parole eligibility after 25 years, making him immediately parole eligible. His case will proceed to the state’s parole board. [Jonas Fortune / Lancaster Online] As The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Samantha Melamed reported last month, 70 of Pennsylvania’s over 500 juvenile lifers have already been resentenced and released since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision barring mandatory JLWOP. [Samantha Melamed / Philadelphia Inquirer]
  • Hillar Moore, the elected District Attorney of East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has called himself “a progressive DA,” and he’s been invited to attend prosecutorial reform events at the Obama White House and the John Jay School of Criminal Justice. [Jessica Pishko / Slate] Yet, while the nation continues to abandon JLWOP sentences, Moore is pressing for a death-in-prison sentence for Montreal Jackson, who at 16-years-old killed a man after a struggle ensued when Jackson tried to steal the man’s bicycle. Jackson recently had a resentencing hearing because his 2001 mandatory JLWOP sentence is unconstitutional. The judge is expected to rule on whether Jackson should be parole eligible later this month. A prosecutor in Moore’s office told the judge that Montreal Jackson is “clearly irreparably corrupt.” [Joe Gyan / The Advocate]
  • In Detroit, Prosecuting Attorney Kym Worthy, had asked a judge to reissue a life without parole sentence for a man who has served over 40 years in prison after being convicted of murder at the age of 17. The man, Charles Lewis, contends that he is innocent and that transcripts of his alibi witness are in his official court file, which has been lost or destroyed. Efforts to “re-create” the file are now two years in the making. While the prosecution wants Lewis’ JLWOP sentence reinstated, the defense is asking that Lewis be released on bond until a final ruling is made. [Diane Bukowski / Voice of Detroit] For more detail on the Lewis case, and a great overview of the current state of juvenile life without parole sentencing, read Jessica Pishko’s recent article in The Nation. [Jessica Pishko / The Nation]

More in Podcasts