December 6, 2008
Mental health system ailing
Shannon Harps, a young Sierra Club worker, devoted her life to improving her community before she was killed last New Year's Eve. But her death may spur major mental health system reforms that could result in improved public safety, better care for the severely ill and tighter control over dangerous offenders.
A task force convened by the King County Prosecutor's Office and state Department of Corrections has completed a nearly yearlong investigation into the mental health and criminal justice systems that let James Williams roam the streets homeless and hallucinating in the hours before he allegedly chose Harps at random and stabbed her with a kitchen knife.
Williams, a severely mentally ill man with a long history of violence, is now facing a murder charge.
The 160-page report found glaring examples of poor communication, a critical shortage of hospital beds and commitment laws that don't adequately address the complex needs of people who become enmeshed in both the legal and mental health systems after committing violent crimes.
On Friday, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg will present 64 wide-ranging "concepts for reform" to the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee. [Mark Godsey]
December 5, 2008
European Human Rights Court Rules to Remove Innocent People's DNA Samples from UK Database
From timesonline.co.uk: Hundreds of thousands of DNA and fingerprint samples face being removed from police national databases after a court ruled today that holding details of people with no criminal convictions breaches human rights laws.
The European Court of Human rights said in a landmark judgment that retaining the fingerprints and DNA samples of people acquitted of crime, or when proceedings are dropped, breaches a person's right to respect for private life.
Ministers have until March to decide how they will implement the judgement and no samples or fingerprints will be removed from the two datasbases until then.
An estimated 800,000 of the 5.1m samples on the DNA database are of people with no criminal conviction.
The options facing the Government are slim. They could adopt the position in Scotland where DNA samples taken during criminal investigations from people who are not charged or later acquitted of alleged offences are destroyed.
Another option is to see if there is some way in which it would be possible to continue to hold samples of people tried and cleared of serious offences such as murder, manslaughter, rape and serious violence or limiting the time samples of innocent people can be held.Rest of Article. . . [Bobbi Madonna]
Prosecutors warn against more budget cuts
Kentucky prosecutors warned yesterday that further state budget cuts could significantly disrupt prosecution of crimes and leave the state's court system in shambles.
"It's going to be chaos,'' said Christian County Attorney Mike Foster, a member of the Prosecutors Advisory Council, which held an emergency meeting in Frankfort yesterday. "It is the entire prosecutorial system for the state of Kentucky.''
Gov. Steve Beshear has asked all state entities -- including county and commonwealth's attorneys -- to draw up plans for how they would deal with a 4 percent budget cut for the remainder of the fiscal year.
For the commonwealth's attorneys, who prosecute felony offenses, a 4 percent cut -- following cuts enacted at the start of the budget year on July 1 -- could result in layoffs of up to 100 people, said Warren County's Chris Cohron, president of the state Commonwealth's Attorneys Association.
"It's very troubling," he said.
County attorneys, who handle drunk driving, domestic violence and child abuse and neglect cases, could be forced to lay off as many as 77 employees, Foster said.
Prosecutors' offices have nothing left to slash but staff, Foster said. And that mean some crimes could go unprosecuted and others may be dismissed for lack of an available prosecutor, he said.
"When you're talking about public safety and criminal justice, that is the foundation of government,'' he said. "When you abandon that, government has basically abandoned its responsibility to citizens.''
Jay Blanton, a spokesman for Beshear, said the governor is seeking the draft proposals for budget cuts as he prepares to address a projected $456 million shortfall. The proposals are due tomorrow.
Though Beshear hasn't decided which agencies to cut, "there's no way to avoid cuts, and the cuts will be painful,'' Blanton said. [Mark Godsey]
17 Dallas police officers violated high-speed chase policy, report finds
Seventeen officers violated the Dallas Police Department's high-speed chase policy in a September pursuit that left an officer seriously injured, an internal affairs investigation has concluded.
None of the officers, including the one who was injured, were authorized to be involved in the 28-minute chase that began in Lake Highlands when a driver tried to run over several officers during a confrontation in an apartment parking lot.
Two pairs of officers also face discipline for having turned off their squad cars' in-car video cameras in violation of the department's policy, according to the report obtained through an open-records request.
What discipline the officers may face has not been determined. But the chase, along with an October incident in which a squad car fatally struck a 10-year-old child while racing at least 29 mph over the speed limit without sirens or lights on a darkened road, prompted the department to tighten its procedures on how officers respond to emergencies.
Senior Cpl. Glenn White, president of the Dallas Police Association, said he believed that much of the criticism aimed at officers has been unfair second-guessing.
"Officers are going out there trying to do the best they can. God forbid when something happens, because when it does, everybody's up for scrutiny and we're all criticized," Cpl. White said.
Police Chief David Kunkle said he had not yet been briefed on the results of the internal investigation and could not comment on it.
A panel formed by Chief Kunkle has separately made several recommendations to improve the department's management of police pursuits. One calls for a station supervisor to monitor the speeds of those officers rushing toward the chase or following it. [Mark Godsey]
Walking in cops' shoes -- in the line of fire
I'M WALKING the beat with Officer Casey when the 911 call comes in.
Disturbance. Downtown. Hurry.
We rush to the scene and enter a crowded restaurant, our hearts racing. At a far table by the window a man, 40ish, is arguing with a woman sitting across from him.
An object in his hand catches the light.
"Seattle police!" Casey barks. "Put down the knife! Put down your knife!"
The man turns to look at us. He says he just wants to talk to her. Casey, turning red from anxiety, draws his service revolver from his hip and takes aim.
"Put down the knife! Put it ..."
The man ignores the command 16 times. He stands up and inches closer to the woman, keeping his eyes on us. In a blink, he wheels around and plunges the knife into her.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Bullets blast his back. Too late.
"Damn," Casey says under his breath. He turns and sighs: "Can I try again?"
Welcome to the police world of second chances.
Officer Casey isn't really a sworn Seattle officer -- he's my colleague, P-I crime reporter Casey McNerthney.
The restaurant is actually a video projection on a giant screen in a high-tech Seattle Police Department simulator in Tukwila. We wanted a taste of what goes through an officer's mind in the heat of the moment -- in high-stress, rapidly unfolding encounters that involve the use of force. [Mark Godsey]
December 3, 2008
15 officers caught in FBI drug sting
"I ain't always been in law enforcement," a Harvey cop allegedly bragged to the drug dealer whose business he was paid to protect. "I sold a lot of weight at a young age, I just never got caught."
His luck ran out Tuesday, though, as federal authorities unsealed charges against the Harvey police officer and 14 other law-enforcement officers.
The drug dealer was an undercover FBI agent who secretly recorded his conversations. Two civilians were also charged.
The FBI said it launched the yearlong sting after widespread reports from informants and other cops that law-enforcement officers in southern Cook County were engaging in robbery, extortion and distribution of narcotics and weapons.
"When drug dealers deal drugs, they ought to be afraid of the police—not turn to them for help," U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald said during a news conference announcing the charges.
Authorities charged 10 Cook County corrections officers and sheriff's deputies, four Harvey police officers and one Chicago officer with providing protection for what they thought were a dozen large-scale shipments of cocaine and heroin.
The transactions took place from August 2007 to August 2008 in parking lots throughout the south suburbs, as well as one at DuPage Airport.
Assigned to ferret out police corruption, the undercover FBI agent took a job at the Skybox, a strip club in Harvey, sources said. Posing as a big-time drug broker, he convinced Ahyetoro "Red" Taylor and Raphael Manuel, both corrections officers, to assist him and reach out to friends to work security as well.
The officers were told to carry their weapons and badges and use them to fend off anyone who might try to interfere in the deal, including other dealers or suspicious police officers, authorities charged.
The 15 officers shared in a combined $44,000 in payoffs for their illicit security work, a total of $400 to $4,000 for each deal, according to the charges. [Mark Godsey]
DNA search fails to find relatives of unknown serial killer
The Los Angeles Police Department's hunt for an elusive serial killer who has stalked women in South L.A. for more than two decades was dealt a setback Tuesday when a controversial search of DNA databases for the killer's family members came up empty.
"We were hoping," said LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, who is overseeing a task force of detectives working to solve the case. "Police work is very much about exploring every avenue. We went down this one and it didn't turn out to be fruitful."
In leading up to Tuesday's anticlimax, state officials had painstakingly created a list of possible relatives from the state database of felons' DNA profiles. They then eliminated potential matches through further genetic testing and by reviewing public records to determine ages, addresses and names of family members. In the end, there were no matches.
The possibility of a match had raised hopes among LAPD detectives that they would catch a break in a case that has stymied the department for years. The task force is now left to continue with ongoing efforts to revive leads from old cases, search for missed clues and hope someone with knowledge of the killer comes forward.
He sexually assaults the women and kills them by shooting or strangling them, often leaving their bodies in alleyways along Western Avenue. [Mark Godsey]
FBI power in terror cases grows
Beginning Monday, the FBI will get increased power to investigate suspected terrorists under revised administrative guidelines that some Muslim Americans and civil rights advocates in metro Detroit are concerned may target innocent people.
The new Justice Department guidelines will allow FBI agents, for the first time in terrorism-related cases, to use undercover sources to gather information in preliminary probes, interview people without identifying who they are and spy on suspects without first getting clear evidence of wrongdoing.
They're the most significant changes the Bush administration has made since 2003 to rules that govern security investigations in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
FBI officials say they need the changes because they are hamstrung by outdated rules that limit their ability to investigate people in national security cases.
FBI agents have met with Arab-American representatives in metro Detroit twice to assure them that the new guidelines won't target them, pointing out that the rules state they must be applied in a "reasonable manner that respects liberty and privacy."
But critics say the plan will allow for abuses by agents, including more racial and religious profiling and intrusive investigations into political and religious groups.
Those concerns are amplified in Michigan, a major center of Islam and home to the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States.
Some say they worry there will be more undercover agents and informants infiltrating mosques, attending events like Palestinian conferences, and snooping into the private lives of ordinary residents.
"There is anxiety the Middle Eastern community will be targeted," said Dearborn attorney Nabih Ayad, who often defends Arab Americans charged in national security cases. "There is always a danger in the implementation when you give such discretion in the hands of agents."
Those concerns may be revisited again sometime next year. Because the new guidelines were not created through legislation, President-elect Barack Obama's administration could decide to remove them. [Mark Godsey]
New Charge for Bernard Kerik
"Nope, it's all in my book," Kerik said when asked in 2002 if there was "anything embarrassing that he wouldn't want the public to know about." In "The Lost Son," Kerik admitted fathering a daughter while he was a soldier in Korea and said his mother, a prostitute, was murdered.
In a beefed-up indictment issued Tuesday, Manhattan federal prosecutors said Kerik should have owned up to his ties to a mob-linked contractor as well as his failure to pay taxes for a nanny he employed.
Kerik attorney Barry Berke said Kerik's statements were not false since the White House query was vague.
The new indictment, which replaces a previous one, still charges that Kerik got free renovations from a would-be city contractor and filed false income-tax returns.
Kerik was forced to withdraw his nomination for homeland security czar shortly after his name was floated.
Article available here. [Brooks Holland]
December 2, 2008
Can swabbing for DNA go too far?
In the settlement around Cove Run Creek, nobody said no when police came asking for their DNA.
A dead baby, wrapped in a flannel shirt and plastic bag, then stuffed into a knapsack, had been abandoned in the woods in North Union, Fayette County, sometime in 2000. As police tell it, the dozen or so girls questioned were perfectly willing to allow a trooper to take a saliva swab from their mouths so a lab could trace the DNA.
"Usually if they have nothing to do with it they have no problem giving up the swab, the sample," explained James A. Pierce, the trooper who cracked the case earlier this month.
Sarah S. Hawk, a 25-year-old woman from the area, was found by that process of elimination. Her DNA was obtained by a search warrant after one of her sisters voluntarily gave a swab this spring.
When the lab identified the sister's DNA as belonging to a relative of the baby, police got search warrants so that they could get swabs from the other sisters. Miss Hawk's came back a match, and she later confessed.
Probably, say legal scholars. But the wider question about how much the government can gather -- and possibly retain -- in the course of solving a crime is far from settled.
"It's emblematic of the problem. We think science is going to be the solution to all our problems," said Tim Sparapani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
He worries that a growing reliance on DNA screens, and law enforcement's growing desire to bank such data, could undermine privacy and skew law enforcement.
"A lot would depend on how the samples were acquired," countered Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional scholar at Yale Law School who recently published a series of provocative proposals for a nationwide DNA data bank, to be built from samples taken at birth.
The database, he argues, would be a wellspring of information from which innocent suspects could be cleared and the real malefactors determined, much the way fingerprints now provide lock-sure evidence against real culprits, a sort of safeguard against wrongful prosecution. [Mark Godsey]
Lessons from Hurricane Katrina: Prison Emergency Preparedness as a Constitutional Imperative
Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the United States, in terms of casualties, suffering, and financial cost. Often overlooked among Katrina's victims are the 8,000 inmates who were incarcerated at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) when Katrina struck. Despite a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, these men and women, some of whom had been held on charges as insignificant as public intoxication, remained in the jail as the hurricane hit, and endured days of rising, toxic waters, a lack of food and drinking water, and a complete breakdown of order within OPP. When the inmates were finally evacuated from OPP, they suffered further harm, waiting for days on a highway overpass before being placed in other correctional institutions, where prisoners withstood exposure to the late-summer Louisiana heat and beatings at the hands of guards and other inmates. Finally, even as the prison situation settled down, inmates from the New Orleans criminal justice system were marooned in correctional institutions throughout the state, as the judicial system in New Orleans ceased to function.
The resulting effects were both tragic and unconstitutional, as the suffering at OPP could have been prevented. This Article asserts that prison administrators have a constitutional duty to plan for emergencies, and argues that the failures of New Orleans officials to do so violated prisoners' Sixth and Eighth Amendment rights, as well as internationally recognized human rights standards. With the wealth of training and planning materials available to prison officials and the knowledge of possible emergencies, it is unconscionable for prisons to have nonexistent or inadequate plans. Assessing change through litigation and legislation, this Article advocates a mixed approach, using judicial and legislative remedies for the abhorrent violations of well-established prisoners' rights. The Article recommends that states develop mechanisms, such as emergency courts, to enable the administration of justice to resume promptly following serious natural or man-made disasters. Prisons and courts should internalize the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, which demonstrated the consequences of inadequate preparation and planning for prisoners' safety during and after a major emergency. [Ira P. Robbins] [Mark Godsey]
Roman Polanski Files for Dismissal of Criminal Case
Circuit Court Finds Defendant Had Right to Cross-Examine Witness about Swastika Tattoos
The broad discretion that the Sixth Amendment confrontation clause provides to trial judges to control the presentation of evidence was abused when a federal district judge barred a defendant from cross-examining a government witness about the witness's swastika tattoos, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held Nov. 18 (United States v. Figueroa, 2d Cir., No. 06-1595-cr, 11/18/08).
The court reasoned that the witness's tattoos tended to suggest that the witness would lie in court about ethnic groups, including the one to which the accused said he belonged.
The defendant was charged with illegally possessing a sawed-off rifle that was found at his residence. At trial, one of the government's witnesses was a man who testified that he had sold the gun to the defendant a week before it was seized by police and that at the time of the sale the barrel had not been shortened.
The defendant, who was an acquaintance of the witness, knew that the witness had swastika tattoos on his body, and he sought to cross-examine the witness about any bias toward the minority ethnic group of which the defendant was a member. The district court concluded that the fact that someone has a swastika tattoo does not make that person more or less likely to be truthful and, therefore, the defendant's proposed cross-examination was an effort to present “bad character” evidence in violation of Fed. R. Evid. 608(b).
Under established U.S. Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedent, district judges have wide latitude to restrict defense attorneys' cross-examination of prosecution witnesses about relevant matters in order to protect witnesses, prevent repetitive evidence, and avoid confusing or distracting juries. As explained in Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673 (1986), and its progeny, a criminal defendant can demonstrate a violation of the confrontation clause “by showing that he was prohibited from engaging in otherwise appropriate cross-examination designed to show a prototypical form of bias on the part of the witness, and thereby to expose to the jury the facts from which jurors could appropriately draw inferences relating to the reliability of the witness.”
Racism Is Prototypical Bias.
In an opinion by Judge Robert D. Sack, the Second Circuit characterized the district judge's ruling in this case as being based solely on the ground that the proposed cross-examination was designed to elicit evidence of a witness's “character for truthfulness or untruthfulness,” which is inadmissible under Fed. R. Evid. 608.
That was incorrect as a matter of law, the circuit court decided, because cross-examination of the witness regarding his swastika tattoos was sought “not to show the witness's ‘character for truthfulness or untruthfulness,’ Fed. R. Evid. 608; it was to impeach the witness for bias.” The court said that in a recently decided habeas corpus case, Brinson v. Walker, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 23303 (2d Cir. Nov. 13, 2008), it made clear that racial bias is a “prototypical form of bias” covered by the Confrontation Clause 9 (see related story in this issue).
Although the court acknowledged that groups other than neo-Nazis sometimes display swastikas for reasons that have nothing to do with hatred or bias, it decided that, in the case before it, the district judge understandably assumed that the swastika “is commonly associated with neo-Nazi groups harboring extreme forms of racial, religious and ethnic hatred and prejudice against minority groups,” including the group in which the defendant asserted membership. Relying on this assumption, the court said, “[t]he fact that a witness customarily carries or displays a swastika, as a tattoo or otherwise, … would tend to suggest that he or she holds racial, religious or ethnic prejudices,” which “in turn suggests a basis on which the jury could find the witness's testimony not credible.” Because the jury could have found that the witness's tattoos were indicative of bias, cross-examination of him on that subject was “relevant,” and thus admissible under Fed. R. Evid. 402, “irrespective of its admissibility vel non under Rule 608,” the court said.
The court upheld the defendant's conviction after concluding that the other evidence of the defendant's guilt rendered the violation of his confrontation rights harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Full article here. [Brooks Holland]
In a Brooklyn Parking Lot, the End of a Quiet Life
The church custodian saw him first: a man alone in a parking lot, swinging a folding chair like an ax, bringing it down toward the windshield of a parked van and stopping, an inch from the glass. Then backing up and dancing around with the chair, a strange ballet. Then swinging again, over and over.
The custodian yelled for the man to stop, and turned and ran for help inside the Coney Island church, where police officers chaperoned the truants of Brooklyn and Queens.
A minute later, Officer Dawn Ortiz, gun in hand, was in front of the man with the folding chair. He swung, brushing the chair against her, and in a second she had fired her gun for the first time in her career. The single bullet grazed the man’s wrist and pierced his heart, killing him. He lay on the ground atop the chair.
The shooting did not provoke much attention. The dead man, a 5-foot-8, 153-pound day laborer, had no identification; the police used his cellphone to track down his brother and give him a name: Gilberto Blanco. Still, his body lay unclaimed in the medical examiner’s office for most of a week.
A few hours after the shooting, at 12:45 p.m. on Nov. 13, the police said that the shooting appeared to be within the department’s guidelines. While the man did not have a gun or knife, the department said the officer was at risk of being killed or seriously hurt with the chair, the key criterion justifying the use of lethal force. [Mark Godsey]
Standing their ground: More citizens enforcing the law themselves
"I'm killing you right now! You shouldn't have looked at me, man! Go ahead. Say goodbye. Say goodbye. I'm blowing you away right here.''
But when the teen suddenly fled, Morelli's fear morphed to rage. Pursuing his attacker and dodging bullets in a high-speed car chase -- the action caught on a 911 tape -- Morelli was able to jot down a tag number that helped police track down the assailant.
"It was straight out of Clint Eastwood-type stuff,'' Morelli said later. "But I knew if I did nothing, nothing would happen.''
It turned out to be quite a coup for public safety: The youth, police allege, had terrorized city schools in a series of handgun incidents and had robbed another family in a home invasion.
At the same time, Morelli's actions pose troubling questions about just how far citizens should go in protecting themselves from crime.
Like Bernard Goetz, the "Subway Vigilante'' who shot four would-be robbers on a New York City train in 1984, a new generation of citizens who are retaliating against thugs and attackers are finding acceptance, even celebrity, among a public frustrated with crime.
Just this fall, a Tipton County homeowner made news when he exchanged gunfire on the street with fleeing burglars. A Rosemark man gained wide attention, too when he held two intruders at gunpoint.
"I've always felt if you're in fear of your life you can use your gun,'' said Steve Rutter, who pulled a 9mm handgun on intruders who'd tried to drive off with his 16-foot flatbed trailer. Rutter's action led police to bust up a large theft ring. [Mark Godsey]
Cops Say Legalizing Drugs Can Boost Economy by Billions
This Tuesday, December 2, a group of law enforcers who fought on the front lines of the “war on drugs” and witnessed its failures will commemorate the 75th anniversary of alcohol prohibition’s repeal by calling for drug legalization. The cops, judges and prosecutors will release a report detailing how many billions of dollars can be used to boost the ailing economy when drug prohibition is ended.
“America’s leaders had the good sense to realize that we couldn’t afford to keep enforcing the ineffective prohibition of alcohol during the Great Depression,” said Terry Nelson, a 30-year veteran federal agent and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). “Now, cops fighting on the front lines of today’s ‘war on drugs’ are working to make our streets safer and help solve our economic crisis by teaching lawmakers a lesson from history about the failure of prohibition. We can do it again.”
WHO: Federal agents, street cops, detectives, corrections officials and a Harvard economist
WHAT: Release of “We Can Do It Again” report on benefits of repealing drug prohibition
WHEN: This Tuesday, December 2, 2008 @ 10:00 a.m. EST
WHERE: National Press Club; Zenger Room; 529 14th Street, NW; 13th Fl.; Washington, DC
***phone press conference also available at 1:30 p.m. EST***
“We Can Do It Again: Repealing Today’s Failed Prohibition,” highlights how the “war on drugs” – just like alcohol prohibition – subsidizes violent gangsters, endangers public health and diminishes public respect for the rule of law. The report also details how the newer prohibition comes with the much graver threat of international cartels and terrorists who profit from illegal drug sales. Yet, it leaves readers on a hopeful note…
“We’re starting to see an emerging consensus that drug prohibition just doesn’t make sense,” said Seattle’s retired Police Chief Norm Stamper, a LEAP member. “Three out of four Americans now say the ‘war on drugs’ has failed, and so do the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. Now, it’s up to the new administration and Congress to follow through.”[Tom Angell] [Mark Godsey]
More information about LEAP and a copy of the report will be uploaded at http://www.WeCanDoItAgain.com/
December 1, 2008
Plaxico Burress Turns Himself In On Gun Charge
Troubled Giants star Plaxico Burress turned himself into a Manhattan precinct Monday morning where he is expected to be charged after accidentally shooting himself in the right thigh while drinking at a Midtown nightclub.
Walking with no sign of a limp from the bullet wound, Burress stepped out of a black Cadillac Escalade in front of the NYPD's 17th Precinct just after 8 a.m. Wearing dark jeans, a white collared shirt and a black jacket, he stared straight ahead as he walked and ignored shouts from an assembled group of reporters and fans.
His lawyer said the wide receiver would be arraigned at 1 p.m. at Central Booking and would plead not guilty to charges of criminal possession of a weapon.
"He's standing tall," said attorney Benjamin Brafman. "He's a mature adult handling this very well, I think, under the circumstances."
"He...has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from people who I think understand that he's a fundamentally decent man in a difficult situation," Brafman said.
Burress, 31, was partying at the Latin Quarter nightclub with teammates after midnight Saturday when he fumbled with the gun tucked in his waistband, accidentally firing a single round that ripped through his right thigh.
Burress, who signed a $35-million contract extension in the wake of the Super Bowl win, has been a season-long distraction to the Giants and his Big Blue bosses hinted before yesterday's game that the receiver's tenure in the Meadowlands may be coming to an end.
Burress' lawyer stressed that his client can still suit up for the defending champs.
Read full article here. [Brooks Holland]
Treatment programs key to winning war on drugs
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office, commissioned by Sen. Joe Biden, has come to an unsurprising conclusion: After more than $6 billion spent, the controversial drug control operation known as Plan Colombia has failed by large margins to meet its targets.
The goal had been to cut cocaine production in Colombia by 50 percent from 2000 to 2006 through eradication of coca crops and training of anti-narcotics police and military personnel. In fact, cocaine production in Colombia rose 4 percent during that period, the GAO found. With increases in Peru and Bolivia, production of cocaine in South America increased by 12 percent during that period. In 1999 it cost $142 to buy a gram of cocaine on the street in the United States, according to inflation-adjusted figures from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. By 2006 the price had fallen to $94 per gram.
President-elect Barack Obama won his historic victory by promising pragmatic, results-oriented solutions aimed at the common good. The recent report demonstrates that Plan Colombia does not fit those criteria.
The primary lesson for the new administration to take from Plan Colombia's failures is something that many economists have been saying for years: Efforts to decrease the supply of drugs in America without major efforts to curb demand for them will only increase the profits of drug dealers and the associated crime rates.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy, under which Plan Colombia and other drug control programs operate, spends 65 percent of its $12 billion annual budget on supply-side efforts and only 35 percent on the demand side. In 1971, when the Nixon administration initiated the war against drugs, the pragmatic goal was to have the exact opposite: two-thirds of funding for treatment and prevention and one-third for law enforcement, crop reduction and drug interdiction.
During the Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations, however, strict laws were put in place aimed at reducing the availability of drugs on the streets. These have served to give the United States the highest incarceration rates in the world, with more than one in 100 Americans in jail or prison. Mass incarceration has broken up families and communities, at a huge economic cost. In general, it costs about $34,000 to lock someone up for a year and only $3,300 to provide year-long substance abuse treatment. [Mark Godsey]
Gun checks may violate federal law
The Delaware State Police have been conducting secret background checks of some gun owners since 2001, a process known as "superchecks" that may violate federal law.
The checks have resulted in confiscation of weapons, some for legitimate reasons, but have subjected many citizens to a search of mental health records that in most cases police would be unable to access.
In Delaware, when someone attempts to purchase a pistol or rifle, he or she must first sign a consent form authorizing a criminal and mental health check by the state Firearms Transaction Approval Program.
These background checks are initiated when a gun dealer calls the firearms unit seeking approval to sell a weapon.
Employees of FTAP conduct about 10,000 background checks a year using computers that link to criminal and court databases and a mental health database maintained by the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services.
Through a request made under the state Freedom of Information Act, The News Journal obtained the results of nearly 4,000 background checks conducted by FTAP from 1998 to 2008 in which gun purchases were denied by state police. The state must destroy records of approved gun purchases within 60 days under a law designed to prevent agencies from compiling lists of gun owners.
The FTAP program was created by lawmakers, and funded by taxpayers, to aid licensed gun dealers, but The News Journal found that more than 10 percent of background checks denied by FTAP were requested by state troopers, not by gun dealers attempting to authorize a legal sale.
None of their superchecks involved gun sales and none of the people checked by state police had signed a written consent form. But all the superchecks, state police said, were gun-related.
Because FTAP checks of legal gun ownership are destroyed, it's impossible to tell from the data how many superchecks state police routinely conduct. A DHSS spokesman said his agency does not keep a record of the number of times FTAP employees have accessed the state's mental health database. [Mark Godsey]
Spare the innocent
Another innocent man has been freed. When will state legislators respond to what can only be called a crisis of wrongful conviction in New York? Perhaps in January, when Democrats take over the State Senate.
Albany has been woefully uninterested in this subject. New York has the nation’s third-highest number of people exonerated, but it has done little to keep the law from devouring more innocent suspects. The main obstacle has been the State Senate, where Republicans have shown virtually no interest in reforming the system.
It’s not as though this is a minor issue. Twenty-four New Yorkers have been exonerated through DNA testing, according to The Innocence Project, and 13 of thoses cases involved witness misidentification. That’s how Steven Barnes wound up in prison almost 20 years ago, convicted of a murder he did not commit.
Now 42, Barnes was convicted in 1989 of murdering acquaintance Kimberly Simon in Oneida County. The conviction was based largely on circumstantial evidence; witnesses testified they might have seen him with Simon or near the crime scene, according to the Utica Observer-Dispatch.
DNA testing, then in its infancy, was of no use. Further tests in the mid-1990s also were inconclusive, because of the continuing limits of the science.
But techniques have dramatically improved since then, and a new round of tests led to Barnes’ release from prison on Tuesday, two decades after he was wrongfully convicted.
It is not specifically the fault of state legislators that, at least 24 times in recent years, state criminal courts have convicted innocent people, including Anthony Capozzi and Lynn DeJac, both of Buffalo. But it is emphatically their fault that the state’s criminal justice system continues to operate in largely the same way as when it produced these wrongful convictions. [Mark Godsey]