November 1, 2008
What kind of prison relief does Prop. 5 promise?
Whatever else might be said about Proposition 5, it would be difficult to dispute that it would reduce prison overcrowding and save taxpayer money. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) estimates that the measure would reduce the prison population by more than 18,000 inmates, or a bit more than 10% of the current population of 171,000. In addition, the LAO calculates that under Proposition 5, there will be 22,000 fewer parolees.
As a result, California taxpayers would save at least $2.5 billion, according to the LAO. To put that number in perspective, $2.5 billion would be enough to pay the salaries of 37,500 elementary school teachers or healthcare for 2 million California children.
This prison population reduction is sorely needed. California currently has too many nonviolent offenders behind bars, and too many nonviolent parolees are sent back to state prison for technical violations of parole -- very often a minor drug violation such as a positive urinalysis. With our prison system at 60,000-plus inmates over capacity, Proposition 5 will help ensure that scarce incarceration space is used for serious and violent offenders.
The ballooning prison population is quickly moving beyond a run-of-the-mill policy problem and becoming a true crisis for our state. Here is how serious the situation is: Just this Monday, a federal district court judge ordered that state officials cough up $250 million for prisoner healthcare by Nov. 5 or risk being held in contempt of court with possible fines of up to $3 million a day.
Frankly, given the dire nature of our overcrowding problem and the difficult choices the state faces, Proposition 5 might be worth considering even if the reduced prison population and taxpayer savings came with costs in the form of a slight decrease in effectiveness. But they don't. Proposition 5 would achieve its inmate reductions and tax savings without sacrificing efficiency. Indeed, Proposition 5 would improve our efforts to combat addiction and related crimes by offering a public-health solution (drug treatment) to a public-health problem (drug abuse).
How do we know Proposition 5 would work and wouldn't lead to dramatic increases in crime, as its opponents charge? Because of the track record of Proposition 36, a similar but more limited drug-treatment ballot initiative approved by California voters in 2000. [Mark Godsey]
October 31, 2008
Lost-gun ordinances usually fire blanks
Lose a gun in Cleveland and fail to report it to police and you could face a $250 fine and 30 days in jail. But in the 12 years that ordinance has been on Cleveland's books, only two people have been taken to court for failing to report a lost or stolen gun.
That experience, and those of other cities, suggests that Pittsburgh's proposed ordinance on reporting lost or stolen guns and others cropping up all over the state and nation warrant neither the fear they are engendering in foes, nor the hope they inspire in advocates.
The target for anti-violence advocates is the so-called straw purchaser -- someone with no criminal record who can therefore pass a background check and buy a gun, but then sell it or let it fall into the hands of someone who uses it for crime. When police trace that gun back to the original purchaser, that person often gets off the hook by claiming it was stolen or lost.
"Without a lost-and-stolen gun provision, [investigators] are kind of powerless when they trace the gun back to someone who says it was lost or stolen," said Jana Finder, Western Pennsylvania coordinator of Ceasefire PA, which is pushing the measures. She said they're "targeting the people who [sell guns to criminals] regularly."
Neither Ceasefire PA nor other anti-violence or gun control groups contacted could name a city that has aggressively enforced a lost or stolen gun reporting law.
"It doesn't work anywhere it has been tried," said Rachel Parsons, a Washington, D.C.-based spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. The group objects to the reporting laws because, she said, those whose guns were stolen "were already victimized, but we are going to criminalize [them] anyway."
Still, the NRA could not point to anyone who was unfairly victimized by existing lost or stolen gun reporting laws.
Cleveland certainly hasn't gone overboard.
"We've had two documented instances in which people have been brought before the court for violating the ordinance," said Martin L. Flask, Cleveland's public safety director. One was in 1996, the other five years later. In four other cases, police charged someone with failing to report, but prosecutors dropped it. [Mark Godsey]
Why Did Key Angola Witness Go To The 'Dog Pen'?
Louisiana's Angola prison is often referred to as "The Farm." On one edge of its vast acres of corn and cotton are the prison's isolation cells, where two inmates, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, spent the past 36 years in solitary confinement. On the other side, high on a hill is a far more comfortable place: the dog pen.
"This is the place to be, I mean look around," says inmate Randolph Matthews, standing in front of a dozen barking dogs separated by cages. "There's no fences, you live in a house, you have perks. If you didn't know it, you would never know you were even in prison."
Matthews and a few other inmates live in a beige house next to the dogs. This select group doesn't have to deal with correctional officers or eating with other inmates. Rather than working in the fields, dog pen residents spend their days caring for the bloodhounds and attack dogs that chase down escapees.
It took Matthews almost two decades to work his way to the dog pen. It took Hezekiah Brown only a few days.
Brown was the state's main witness in the case against Wallace and Woodfox, who were charged with the brutal murder of a young correctional officer named Brent Miller in 1972. Now all these years later, questions are being raised about the testimony on which the case stands. [Mark Godsey]
When the Police Go Through Your Email: Quirk of Search Law Sets Off Alarm Bells
When you look at your BlackBerry, you see a gadget full of important email, contacts and other files. Increasingly, authorities see admissible evidence.
In a small but growing number of cases, customs officials and police officers have been carrying out warrantless searches of the contents of laptops, mobile phones and other wireless devices. This spring, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in California ruled that "reasonable suspicion is not needed for customs officials to search a laptop or other personal electronic storage devices at the border," including international airports.
And in a handful of instances, courts have supported local police interpretations of legal searches to include browsing through phone call lists and text messages on cellphones when they arrest suspects.
Adam Gershowitz, a professor at the South Texas College of Law, argues law enforcement officials are flirting with a dangerous invasion of privacy under the "search incident to arrest" doctrine, which allows officers to search "containers" on the person of or within the reach of suspects without probable cause.
The doctrine is designed to protect police from a suspect who could reach for a hidden weapon and to prevent suspects from concealing or destroying evidence. Mr. Gershowitz argues that iPhones and other "smart" devices are, in the eyes of the law, now nothing but containers subject to warrantless search.
He and other privacy-rights defenders are calling for a law to make electronic technology different from ordinary containers that can be seized and scrutinized in warrantless searches. They note that warrants are by design a form of checks and balances, protecting suspects from unreasonable searches by requiring the approval of a magistrate, a detached third party. [Mark Godsey]
October 30, 2008
19 crimes tied to mental health patients
State officials last week opened an investigation into the latest case of an Allegheny County mental health patient connected to a violent crime.
The state Department of Public Welfare doesn't comment on the details of such investigations, but the newest one coincides with the death of 39-year-old Dawn McGuire, whose decomposing body was found Thursday in the Shadyside apartment of David Wayne Alexander.
Police have charged Mr. Alexander, 40, with homicide. He told police that he strangled Ms. McGuire, according to a criminal complaint. The pair had lived together for several months.
Mr. Alexander, who has used a wheelchair since a car accident in North Carolina a decade ago, has a history of mental illness. Last year, he signed a court-ordered plan that compelled him to seek outpatient treatment at Mercy Behavioral Health.
Ms. McGuire's death is one of at least 19 serious incidents -- which the state calls "sentinel events" -- in Allegheny County since August of last year involving people with mental health problems.
The most prominent one centers on Andrea Curry-Demus, a Wilkinsburg woman who has been charged with killing a pregnant teenager and stealing her baby.
Very few violent crimes are connected to people with mental illnesses, but this year's high-profile cases have prompted state and local officials to take a closer look at how services are provided to people who live in the community -- at a time when Mayview State Hospital is nearing closure and more patients with criminal records are being treated in unlocked facilities. [Mark Godsey]
L.A. announces plan to reduce backlog of unexamined DNA evidence from violent crimes
Top city officials Tuesday unveiled a plan to help the Los Angeles Police Department's crime lab reduce its massive backlog of unexamined DNA evidence from violent crimes, but they acknowledged that the funding for the proposal was less than certain.
Under the terms of the plan, which the City Council is expected to vote on today, the LAPD would allocate $700,000 to hire 16 more DNA analysts and support staff -- a boost of about 33% over current staffing. The city would also increase by $250,000 the funds earmarked to pay private laboratories that the LAPD hires to help with the daunting workload.
Our fundamental duty as elected officials is to ensure the safety and well-being of each of our residents," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at a late afternoon news conference attended by Police Chief William J. Bratton and City Council members. "When crimes are committed, particularly the heinous crimes of rape -- we have a solemn obligation to seek justice."
Despite the rhetoric, however, the proposal is not a panacea and does not guarantee that the LAPD will have the funds it needs to process the entire backlog of roughly 7,000 cases, authorities acknowledged. Even if approved, the plan would still fall about $900,000 short of what is needed to keep pace with new crimes and meet the LAPD's goal of clearing about 2,500 of the older cases this year. Also, at least $4.2 million in additional funds would be needed in coming years to fill 20 more analyst positions and continue the contracts with outside labs. LAPD and city officials expressed hope that the shortfall could be made up from private donations and increased federal funding. [Mark Godsey]
After Hudson deaths, Chicago vows to fight rising murder rate
The bodies of Hudson's mother Darnell Donerson, 57, and brother Jason Hudson, 29, were found Friday. On Monday, the body of Julian King, 7, Hudson's nephew, was discovered. Police say William Balfour, 27, the estranged husband of Jennifer Hudson's sister Julia Hudson, is a "person of interest" in the case.
Mayor Richard Daley said Tuesday that the Hudson slayings, which police say might be linked to a family dispute, could not have been stopped. He vowed to reduce the murder toll, which stands unofficially at 436 so far this year. From January to September, there were 14.6% more murders than in the same period in 2007, the Chicago Police Department says.
"We're not proud of it," Daley told reporters. "We'll get it down. We'll do things differently."
Police Superintendent Jody Weis said last week that he is creating a 150-officer task force to disrupt gang activity and promised to move more police into high-crime neighborhoods. Weis told the City Council that the gang culture is "the driving force behind the vast majority of violence, with more than half the murders committed by gangs." [Mark Godsey]
October 29, 2008
FBI report: Anti-gay crimes up
There were 7,624 hate crimes reported in 2007, down 1% from 2006. Crimes based on sexual orientation — 1,265 in 2007 — have been rising since 2005.
A hate crime is one motivated by bias against a person's race, religion, sexual orientation or other status.
"Until we make laws that make it clear these attacks are not OK, the nation will continue to be scarred," says Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. In 19 states, hate crime laws don't cover sexual orientation.
Other changes in 2007:
• Race-related incidents, 51% of the reported hate crimes, fell 3%.
• Incidents against Latinos increased for the fourth year, from 426 in 2003 to 595.
• Bias incidents against Asians increased by 4% from 181 to 188.
• Crimes against Muslims declined 26% to 115 incidents, considerably down from 481 in 2001. Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University, says that drop shows the effect of 9/11 waning.
Latinos and Asians, he says, are likely to be targets as the economy worsens. "Working-class Americans feel they have to compete more with immigrants," Levin says. [Mark Godsey]
Two Mid-South men held in plot to kill Obama
Two Mid-South men with strong white-supremacy beliefs are in custody after planning a state-to-state killing spree, targeting black citizens and ending with the assassination of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, federal authorities said Monday.
Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tenn., near Jackson, and Paul Schlesselman, 18, of Helena-West Helena, Ark., hatched their plan after they met on the Internet last month and discussed their shared interest in "White Power" and "Skinhead" philosophies, officials said.
"The individuals began discussing going on a 'killing spree' that included killing 88 people and beheading 14 African-Americans," according to an affidavit filed by Special Agent Brian Weaks of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "The numbers 88 and 14 have special significance within the 'White Power' movement."
The two men had accumulated a sawed-off shotgun, pistols and a .308-caliber rifle and planned to attack an unnamed, predominantly black school and end with an attack on Obama.
"Schlesselman states that they planned to drive their vehicle as fast as they could toward Obama, shooting at him from the windows," the affidavit said. [Mark Godsey]
ROY WASDEN: Proposition 5 would expand on the failures of Proposition 36
In November 2000, Proposition 36 won voter approval on the promises of lower prison populations, significant cost savings and lower crime rates by removing incarceration from the sentencing options available to judges dealing with drug defendants.
Under Proposition 36, judges can only order drug defendants to treatment. With no threat of incarceration, a judicial order to attend treatment is hollow and very few persons ordered into drug treatment even sign up for it. Defendants simply keep using drugs, almost always financed by criminal behavior. A precious few go to treatment and succeed but most addicts get sicker and sicker. They commit more and more crimes until their sickness and criminal behavior finally result in death or a sentence to incarceration for one of their other crimes.
Despite the promises of Proposition 36, prison populations have swelled to record numbers and costs for incarceration have increased dramatically. Despite record numbers of arrests, property crime rates have not dropped. It is discouraging to see in a recent survey of defendants sentenced to diversion under Proposition 36 that they have an average of 11 felony arrests. It is important to realize that every crime an addict commits does not get reported and, of the crimes that are reported, not every crime is solved. Conservative estimates are that at least 10 crimes are committed for every one that results in arrest.
If these estimates are accurate, we could assume that the average addict in Proposition 36 has committed about 110 crimes. Clearly, leaving these addicted persons on the streets of our community creates a tidal wave of crime committed to finance drug use.
However, crime is not the only concern. Addicts in our community infect others with their sickness as they carry on their drug-centered life style. When we consider all the costs it can only be said that Proposition 36 is an expensive and dismal failure. The promises of Proposition 36 have not come to fruition for one simple reason: there is no accountability. [Mark Godsey]
October 28, 2008
State hopes new prisons, early release cut crowding
A steady rise in the number of inmates and the political risks of paroling prisoners early are complicating the state's efforts to ease crowded conditions in its prisons.
The 27 existing lockups now hold nearly 47,000 inmates, which is up from a population of just over 36,000 in 1998. The number of inmates is now 8 percent over the current capacity of 43,300.
And the tide keeps on rising. State Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard estimates that the overall prison population could top 57,000 by the end of 2012. Legislators' desire to be "tough on crime" and the public's fear of rising drug-related crimes have led to longer and more mandatory sentences.
Correctional costs, at $1.6 billion for 2008-09, are the third biggest item in the $28 billion state budget, after education and welfare costs.
Progress to ease the crowded cells is going slowly. The Department of Corrections wants to build three new state prisons, each costing $200 million and holding 2,000 inmates. But the first of the three new prisons won't be open before mid- to late 2011.
The state Legislature has enacted a new law, one advocated by House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, R-Philadelphia. It's aimed at making more nonviolent prisoners eligible for early release. They would have to complete programs to ease their transition back into society, such as anger management and overcoming drug use, before being paroled.
By paroling more appropriate prisoners, officials believe they can moderate the rising tab for prison construction and operational costs, and thus ease the financial strain on state taxpayers. [Mark Godsey]
Progress Is Minimal in Clearing DNA Cases
LOS ANGELES — Local and state law enforcement agencies have made uneven progress in reducing a nationwide backlog of cases awaiting DNA analysis over the past four years, according to reports filed by more than 100 agencies with the National Institute of Justice.
The patchy results came despite stepped-up efforts by the federal government, including nearly $500 million in grants since 2004, to help crime laboratories reduce the backlog.
Victims’ rights groups and some law enforcement officials say the untested evidence, much of it stemming from sexual assault crimes, leaves open the possibility that thousands of criminal offenders have gone unpunished or are on the loose and committing new crimes.
“That’s always a concern,” said Sharon Papa, an assistant chief in the Los Angeles Police Department, “because, unfortunately, oftentimes rape is a serial crime.”
The problem seems most severe here in Los Angeles, where the Police Department has the largest known backlog, about 7,000 cases, including many with rape kits from sexual assaults.
The backlog comprises a mix of open cases and solved cases awaiting analysis and entry of DNA into state and national databases. [Mark Godsey]
Davis backers come in all stripes
In his Oct. 21 op-ed about the Troy Davis death penalty case, Spencer Lawton, the district attorney who prosecuted the case in 1991, asserts that: “The only information the public has had in the 17 years since Troy Davis’ conviction has been generated by people ideologically opposed to the death penalty, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the accused.” That is simply not true.
And the fact that it is not true matters, just as the fact that Davis, whose execution has been stayed by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, may be innocent matters.
Neither Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr nor former FBI Director William Sessions can be characterized as ideologically opposed to the death penalty. That shoe does not fit. Nor does it fit the many citizens of Georgia who simply want to hold the Board of Pardons and Paroles to its word: “[We] will not allow an execution to proceed … unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused.”
Lawton is resorting to ad hominem attack on the moral integrity of the concerned members of the public who have stepped forward to challenge the legitimacy of using the power of the state to execute Davis.
Certainly, many are categorically opposed to the death penalty. But that does not mean they are not especially concerned and aggrieved when that power is wielded without due regard for the weakness of the case against the accused.
Nor does that approach recognize that many, myself included, who oppose the death penalty do so not on the grounds that it is morally untenable in all cases, but rather out of the well-founded concern that it is too awesome a power to be wielded by human hands. We know too well the truth of the oft-recalled adage: “To err is human.”
Many of us can imagine a crime that would, in our judgment, justify the use of the death penalty. No one, however, or at least no one guided by any moral precepts, can justify the use of the death penalty when there is significant question as to guilt. [Mark Godsey]
October 27, 2008
A Varied, Troubled Past May Affect Credibility
Michael Mineo, the 24-year-old man who has accused the police of brutality, spends much of his time at the Brooklyn tattoo parlor where he works as a body piercer, friends say, and calls his friends from there his brothers and sisters.
He has applied for a city license to apply tattoos, though officials said he has yet to complete the licensing process, and friends say he favors industrial work clothes like Dickies and the music of the rapper Lil Wayne.
In recent years, he has had frequent run-ins with the police and has been arrested at least five times since 2003, according to court records. Two of those arrests involved marijuana possession. In April, he was accused of beating someone with a wooden stool during a fight at the tattoo parlor, Jiggaman Tattoos. That case is still pending.
“He has no family, only friends he calls his family,” said Jilma Brown, 20, who is his roommate in a three-bedroom apartment on Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn. “When you look at him, you’re going to think he’s a bad guy, but he just wants love.”
In a city where allegations of police brutality almost always leave murky, contested trails, investigators seeking to bridge the yawning gulf between the two accounts of what happened to Mr. Mineo will spend at least some time evaluating the credibility of the people who tell them.
Mr. Mineo says that at midday on Oct. 15, for no apparent reason, five police officers chased him into a busy subway station, where they knocked him to the ground and punched and kicked him before one of them sodomized him with the antenna of a walkie-talkie, or a similar instrument. He spent five days in a hospital recovering from his injuries. [Mark Godsey]
Residency restrictions for sex offenders popular, but ineffective
Despite research that shows sex offender residency requirements actually hamper the rehabilitation of offenders, jurisdictions across the country continue to pass them, including Allegheny County last year.
Experts say the laws, which prohibit convicted sex offenders from living within a certain distance of schools, day care centers and parks, also don't work to help cut down on recidivism.
These types of residency restrictions have been passed in at least 30 states and thousands of municipalities nationwide. Even as prosecutors, criminal justice researchers and child advocates say they don't work, parents and legislators continue to push for the tough laws.
County Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, who was the primary author of the local bill passed in October 2007, said he wrote the law that parents wanted.
Mr. Gastgeb said he originally intended for the restrictions to apply only to offenders whose victims were children. But after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the county this month, Mr. Gastgeb learned that the law actually applies to all registered sex offenders, no matter their victims' ages.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of six sex offenders who said they could not find anywhere to live because of the restrictions.
At the time the suit was filed, Mr. Gastgeb said he would amend the law so that it applied only to sex offenders whose victims are children.
But days later, he changed his mind.
"I do think it's legally sound, and I do think we'll prevail in court," Mr. Gastgeb said. "So a certain section of the county is off-limits. That's the way it is. [Mark Godsey]
Controversial DNA plan uncertain
Immigrant advocacy organizations are decrying a proposal by the Bush administration to collect DNA samples from federal detainees, including illegal immigrants.
Under the plan, the DNA samples would be added to the FBI's national database, which contains the genetic codes of millions of felons, the Houston Chronicle reported Sunday.
"It's such an incredible shift to go from collecting DNA from people in the criminal system to imposing it on people who have no connection to a criminal offense -- immigrants in the civil immigration system," said Joan Friedland, immigration policy director with the National Immigration Law Center.
Congress authorized the plan in an amendment to the 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. It was signed into law in January 2006.
Although the Dec. 31 program start date is approaching, the final rule on the DNA collection has yet to be published in the Federal Register, and funding for the program is in question. [Mark Godsey]
Louisiana Court of Appeals Trashed 2,500 Habeas Patitions
A 2007 suicide note by a clerk of the Louisiana Court of Appeals who killed himself at the courthouse revealed that 2500 prisoner petitions had been summarily rejected over a period of 13 years without having been read. According to a reporter, "Although every criminal writ application is supposed to be reviewed by three judges, he was deputed to winnow out any that had been filed pro se and arrange for their automatic rejection." The Louisiana Supreme Court ordered that the petitions be considered by judges not involved in the improper rejection. (Opinion here) However, some, including Supreme Court Justice Weimer, objected to allowing judges from the same circuit decide the petitions, because all of the judges knew about the improper practices for at least several onths before taking any steps to remedy it. In addition, it is not clear that all of the judges cooperated fully with the police investigation of the suicide. According to the Times-Picayune, "In one investigative report, a detective wrote that Chief Judge Edward Dufresne Jr. was being evasive when asked some questions about problems with [the clerk's] employment, and withheld a suicide note from police for several hours after Peterson's death, until after officers had left the building." [Jack Chin] Thanks to Ted Schneyer for the tip.