criminal justice reform

  • August 25, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Ira Ellman, Professor at Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

    Proponents of criminal justice reform never talk about sex offenders. They’re political untouchables subject to debilitating legal restrictions that typically continue for decades after they have served their sentence.  The Supreme Court upheld two such restrictions in a pair of cases decided in 2002 and 2003.  Those decisions were grounded on the factual assumption that sex offenders have a re-offense rate of about 80 percent , a rate so “frightening and high” that it justified their harsh post-release treatment. The Court’s colorful language about the re-offense rate has since been quoted in nearly 100 judicial opinions, and is often relied upon to justify America’s harsh and distinctive laws on sex offenders. It turns out, however, that the “study” the Court cites for this 80 percent re-offense rate does not exist. More importantly, the scientific studies that do exist show that the great majority of people required to register as “sex offenders” under current laws are in fact very unlikely to commit a sex offense. That’s partly because the sex offender label is applied so broadly that it includes many people who never posed a high risk, and partly because in so many states, living offense-free for fifteen or twenty years after release doesn’t get one off the public sex offender registry, even though studies show those who do not re-offend for fifteen years are very unlikely to do so thereafter.

    A few state supreme courts have now reevaluated the constitutional status of such laws. Read a summary of my forthcoming article reviewing these developments, with a link to the fuller version.

  • August 14, 2015

    by Jim Thompson

    In The New York Times, Nick Pinto examines the “bail trap” that exists in our nation’s prison system, an outdated mechanism that excessively burdens low-income individuals.

    Michael E. Miller at The Washington Post writes about the increased rate of violent crimes against transgender Americans despite gains in visibility.

    In The Hartford Courant, Edmund H. Mahony and Matthew Kauffman report that the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional.

    Kathy Pezdek at The Marshall Project argues that police officers should not be able to view video footage of their arrests prior to being questioned about an event. 

  • August 12, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Tom Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack College; 27-year veteran of Boston Police Department

    When I was a rookie police officer in the late 1970s, it was the subcultural norm to misrepresent the truth in official recordings and reporting of factual incidents involving the police and those whom they encountered in the performance of their duties.  It was commonly accepted, even expected, that in preparing official police reports for presentation to superiors that the "truth" would be rendered in such a fashion as to extricate line officers from any hint of wrongdoing and portraying the incident in a manner most flattering to the police position. In fact, later in my police career, as a lieutenant, it was part of my responsibility (unwritten of course) to assist subordinate officers and colleagues in preparing such fictitious renditions of events. Although unaware at the time, we were establishing and perpetuating the police narrative.             

    As a young police officer testifying on the witness stand, I could have told the court that I pursued and apprehended the suspect/defendant on the planet Mars and have been believed. Although never having received formal instruction in the art of deception, and although the word “lie” would never be fully articulated or encouraged by any of the actors in the criminal justice system, prosecutors, judges, colleagues and other court officials were all keenly aware that sworn testimony often involved versions of the truth that bore little resemblance to actual events as they occurred on the street.  

    For the police had full “command and control” of the law enforcement narrative and this narrative has, certainly beginning with events in Ferguson, Mo., last August, shifted from the firm grasp that law enforcement has held on it for generations, to one that is openly interrogated, challenged and seen with widespread skepticism on the part of those concerned with social justice and police violence, oppression and the pervasive disregard of the provisions of the Constitution.

  • July 28, 2015

    by Jim Thompson

    Jennifer Steinhauer at The New York Times writes about bipartisan congressional efforts to reform the outdated mandatory sentencing laws that have left our federal prisons overcrowded.

    In The National Law Journal, Karen Sloan reports on a new “low bono” program in Baltimore, quoting Dean Robert Weich of the University of Baltimore School of Law who argues that this program will benefit students, schools and the profession alike.

    Christian Parenti argues in Jacobin that the public sector is to blame for the buildup of a modern police state that has tones of an oppressive, white supremacist past. 

  • July 27, 2015

    by Jim Thompson

    Frank Bruni at The New York Times discusses the failures of the Electoral College system, quoting John Koza, the well-known advocate for a national popular vote, and citing a FairVote study that confirmed candidates focus their campaigns on certain electorally-valuable states while ignoring the rest.

    Nancy Cook writes in The Atlantic about the need for greater social safety nets and expanded labor protections for the growing population of freelance workers.

    In The Atlantic, J. Douglas Smith examines potential setbacks to the “one person, one vote” principle of American democracy. A forthcoming Supreme Court case, Evenwel vs. Abbott, threatens to reverse decades of democratic gains.

    At The Guardian, Ed Pilkington reports on transgender inmates, quoting Ilona Turner of the Transgender Law Center who argues that denial of medical services for transgender prisoners constitutes an Eighth Amendment violation.