Friday News Roundup: Rise of the Digital Prison

Friday News Roundup latest news

This week in the news: Hotels in the hot seat for human trafficking, coronavirus threatens jails and prisons, America’s “digital prison,” a pre-arraignment counsel pilot program, and more. 

Human Trafficking

Lawsuits Accuse Big Hotel Chains of Allowing Sex Trafficking

Dozens of recent lawsuits filed use a federal sex-trafficking statute against large corporate entities in what legal experts consider a rare use. More than 40 have been filed at the federal level, and Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Marriott International Inc. and Wyndham Hotels & Resorts Inc. are among the defendants. In addition to monetary damages, the lawsuits seek agreements that force hotel parent companies to implement broad measures to prevent trafficking, including at their franchises. (Ramey, The Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2020)

Justice System

4 Ways to Protect Our Jails and Prisons from Coronavirus

When COVID-19 arrives in a community, it may also show up in jails and prisons. This has already happened in China, which has a lower rate of incarceration than the US. People in the US are incarcerated at a rate of about one million times per month, and the number of staff who go to work and families who visit these places is even greater. The article calls for integrating our nation’s 5,000 jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers with our pandemic response efforts. It gives four recommendations for minimizing exposure, standardizing data, communication, policy, and more. The policies are based on the novel Swine Flu threat in 2009 and the author’s experience working inside the health service of the New York City Jail system. (Venters, The Hill, February 29, 2020)

Will Tennessee Finally Reform Its Draconian Drug-Free School Zone Laws?

A bill moving through the Tennessee state legislature would reform the state’s harsh drug-free school zone laws that turn minor drug violations into mandatory sentences that rival—and sometimes exceed—punishments for rape and murder. Republican state Rep. Michael Curcio sponsored the bill that would reduce the sizes of the zones from currently covering the area within 1,000 feet of any school, park, library, or day care to 500 feet. The zones cover more than a quarter of the state’s total land area within city limits. It would also remove the mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses within the zones and give judges discretion to waive sentencing enhancements in certain circumstances. (Ciaramella, reason, March 2, 2020)

The Dangers of America’s Expanding ‘Digital Prison’

Every day, more than 200,000 Americans are wearing electronic ankle monitors that allow courts, police, or corrections authorities to track their movements as a condition of their release from prison, allowing those formerly incarcerated (and some awaiting trial) to escape confinement while reducing prison and jail populations; and they protect public safety by lowering the chances of future criminal behavior. However, a new study in the Cardozo Law Review argues they are a form of “digital prison” that not only makes it harder for formerly incarcerated individuals to successfully reintegrate into civil society; they may even increase the odds that they will end up back behind bars. (TCR Staff, The Crime Report, March 2, 2020)

Quandary for 2020 Democrats: Which Criminal Justice Changes Get Priority?

With sweeping justice reform already a focus of the 2020 election, the entire Democratic field supports reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, diverting low-level offenders from jail, ending or modifying the cash bail system, changing drug laws, and removing an array of legal barriers that restrict people’s lives after they have served their time. The Justice Action Network, a bipartisan coalition, developed a questionnaire that Democratic candidates answered identifying, for instance, the first criminal justice legislation they would propose, the first executive action they would take, and their top priority among several bills pending in Congress. (Astor, The New York Times, March 2, 2020)

Juvenile Justice 

A 10-year-old Boy Pretending to Play ‘Fortnite’ with a Toy Gun Spooked a Driver. Police Charged Him with a Felony.

Gavin Carpenter was pretending to be a character in the video game “Fortnite” last summer when he spooked a driver by pointing a toy rifle with an orange tip at the man’s truck. No projectiles were being launched, there were no injuries or damage, but the 10-year-old was ultimately charged with a felony for menacing. He completed a diversion program and community service to get his record expunged. “I knew I did something wrong,” Gavin told KXRM, “but I don’t think I should have got arrested and taken in a car with handcuffs on and taken to a place to get mug shots and my fingerprints.” (Shepard, The Washington Post, March 3, 2020)

Public Defense

A Pennsylvania County Fired Its Two Top Public Defenders for Doing Their Jobs

The Washington Post released an opinion piece criticizing Montgomery County, Pa., officials for firing Dean Beer, the county’s chief public defender, along with Keisha Hudson, the second-ranking attorney in the same office with little explanation and a refusal to answer questions. Pennsylvania is one of only two states that provide no state funding for indigent criminal defense, so the public defense office relies on county officials. The article writes it is “vital that public defender offices be free from political pressure.” (Balko, The Washington Post, March 2, 2020)

‘It Results in More Justice’: New Santa Clara County Public Defender Program Looks to Even the Field at Arraignments

A pre-arraignment counsel pilot program in Santa Barbara County, is a county-funded initiative in which public defense attorneys and investigators meet with select defendants within 48 hours of their arrest. The team has secured some form of release for 79% of defendants since its October implementation. It’s estimated that at least half of those decisions were the result of the lawyers’ early advocacy. (Solanga, The Mercury News, San Jose, March 2, 2020)

Treatment Court

Federal Legislation Would Grow, Sustain Veterans Court Programs

As veterans court programs expand nationwide, the federal government is exploring opportunities to provide additional resources to local courts through the Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act of 2019. It would task the Department of Justice with establishing an office to provide additional funding and technical assistance to veterans courts. Read more for how this would affect and work with resources for veterans court at the state level, specifically Indiana. (Covington, The Indiana Lawyer, March 4, 2020)