Friday News Roundup: June 14, 2019

Friday News Roundup

This week in the news: Read about a new wave of prosecutorial transparency, the number of people with cut sentences thanks to the First Step Act, the troubling truth about how many people get an opportunity to go to trial in the federal justice system, and so much more.

Criminal Justice News

First Step Act Cut Sentences for 1,051 Fed Prisoners in Four Months: Report

Just over 1,000 individuals incarcerated in federal prisons were granted sentence reductions in the four months since the First Step Act was signed into law, according to a new report by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC). Their sentences were reduced by a mean of seventy-three months or 29.4 percent, as a result of the resentencing provisions allowed under the act. The USSC found that over a quarter of the 1,051 resentencing motions were granted by federal courts in Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia, and over 91 percent of the individuals whose sentences were shortened were African American and 98 percent were male. (TCR Staff, The Crime Report, June 10, 2019)

Crime Rates in Largest U.S. Cities Continue to Drop

Crime in the thirty largest US cities is estimated to have declined in 2018, with decreases in the rates of violent crime, murder, and overall crime, according to a new Brennan Center analysis of the available data. Murder rates in particular were down by 8 percent from 2017, a significant drop. 2018 marks the second straight year that murder rates have fallen, too, after increases in 2015 and 2016. Overall, however, US crime rates have dropped dramatically since peaking in 1991. (Lau, Brennan Center for Justice, June 12, 2019)

A Troubled Virginia Jail Looks to Add Guards, but Advocates Push for Decarceration

As the Hampton Roads Regional Jail proposes spending $7 million for 113 new guards, advocates renew calls for officials to improve conditions—and an Appeal analysis suggests that the jail could save millions by incarcerating fewer people with mental illness. Between 2003 and 2018 there were sixty-eight in-custody deaths at this regional jail, as well as millions in legal settlements. The facility’s oversight board proposed adding 113 officers and one full-time psychiatrist at a cost of $7 million to satisfy the DOJ’s demands to drastically improve its conditions of confinement. (Morrison and Menachem, The Appeal, June 11, 2019)

Spotlight: A City Council Says No to More Police

Last week, in a 4-3 vote on the 2019-20 budget, the City Council in Durham, North Carolina, voted against funding 18 new police officers. It voted instead to raise the wage for part-time city workers to just over $15 an hour. With that, the city joined jurisdictions around the country that are critically evaluating requests for increased funding for law enforcement and finding that they cannot be justified—both on grounds of community safety and in the dollars they take away from other vital expenditures. (Gullapalli, The Appeal, June 10, 2019)

Only 2% of Federal Criminal Defendants Go to Trial, and Most Who Do Are Found Guilty

This troubling article by Pew Research Center exposes how rare trials really are in the federal criminal justice system – and how acquittals are even rarer. Nearly 80,000 people were defendants in federal criminal cases in fiscal 2018, but just 2 percent of them went to trial. The overwhelming majority (90 percent) pleaded guilty instead, while the remaining 8 percent had their cases dismissed, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data collected by the federal judiciary. Most defendants who did go to trial, meanwhile, were found guilty, either by a jury or judge. Put another way, only 320 of 79,704 total federal defendants – fewer than one percent – went to trial and won their cases, at least in the form of an acquittal, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. (Gramlich, Pew Research Center, June 11, 2019)

2020 Candidates Suggest Decriminalizing Marijuana, Improving Police Training

As the number grows of 2020 presidential candidates attempting to tackle criminal justice reform, their approaches vary. Earlier this month, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro released a multi-tiered plan to reform policing across the nation. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) became the first candidate to propose a plan to monetize and build an economy around recreational marijuana in addition to tackling the criminal justice aspect to the drug. Former Vice President Joe Biden has also talked in favor of decriminalizing marijuana and expunging criminal records for possession charges, but thinks each state should decide whether or not to legalize it. In March, Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced the Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense (EQUAL Defense) Act of 2019 that would create a $250 million grant program to fund public defense. And so many more have come out with their plans of reform. Read them all here. (Garcia, ABC News, June 10, 2019)

Public Defense News

Spotlight: ‘A New Wave of Prosecutorial Transparency’

According to this article, prosecutors are some of the most powerful players in the justice system, and yet, the least transparent – but this article also says, this is starting to change. Connecticut is poised to “become the first state to begin collecting prosecutorial data statewide, under legislation that received rare unanimous votes in both the state Senate and House of Representatives within the past week,” said the Associated Press. This will be part of the effort to try and understand what disparities may or may not exist. The Connecticut bill, which Governor Ned Lamont is expected to sign, will require prosecutors to compile a variety of data, including how many defendants received prison time, plea bargains, and/or diversionary programs. That data will then be broken down by race, ethnicity, sex, and age. (Lustbader, The Appeal, June 7, 2019)

The Prosecutor’s Race Making Arlington Interesting

In Arlington, a monthslong battle between incumbent commonwealth’s attorney Theo Stamos and her challenger from the left, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, is drawing notice and money from criminal justice advocates nationally. A political action committee funded by billionaire George Soros has put nearly $600,000 on behalf of Dehghani-Tafti. The overall spending in the race, approaching $1 million, is roughly four times greater than usual. Read more here. (Harris and Chen, Politico, June 10, 2019)

Juvenile Justice News

Legal Representation Is Essential for Abused Children – and Smart for States

In 2017, 3.5 million children received an investigation or alternative response for child abuse or neglect, and 674,000 were deemed to be victims of abuse and neglect at the hands of their parents or guardians, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) data. This OpEd details that, due to this data, quality legal representation is essential to protecting the basic constitutional rights and privileges of all parties, including children. Research indicates that legal representation for children is associated with better outcomes, shorter times in foster care or expensive group home settings, and is cost-saving for states. (Fellmeth and Davis, The Hill, June 11, 2019)