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A daily report on important news nationwide from Ted Gest of Criminal Justice Journalists, plus commentary and research highlights.

 COVID-19 Again Hits Jails, Prisons

In Philadelphia's jail, the number of COVID-19 cases has tripled in two months. In Chicago's lockup, infections have increased 11-fold. New York City jails are struggling with a 13-fold increase in less than a month. COVID-19 is once again surging behind bars, posing a renewed threat to a high-risk population with spotty access to health care and little ability to distance, reports the Marshall Project. It's unclear whether the surge is due to the highly contagious omicron variant. Still, as caseloads skyrocket and omicron becomes the dominant variant, experts worry the coronavirus is once again poised to sweep through jails and prisons. Inmates face uncertain access to booster shots, vaccine hesitancy and staffing shortfalls that have created even harsher conditions.

"The overcrowding. The poor sanitary conditions. The lack of access to health care," said Monik Jimenez, an epidemiologist at Harvard's School of Public Health. "Masking is only going to do so much when you have people on top of you." Prison officials are giving prisoners little information. "They're not telling us anything about omicron or anything else for that matter," said Rachel Padgett, a federal prisoner in Florida. Inmates said they were less concerned about catching the virus than about being locked down because of it, facing months confined to their cells and bunks with no way to call home, see their families or go outside. Aside from a lack of data about booster availability, many states that routinely released real-time data about infections and vaccinations in the first year of the pandemic are now releasing information monthly or not at all, said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein of the COVID Prison Project at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

 Did FBI Surveillance in Portland Chill First Amendment Rights?

Last year, protesters marched once again through the streets of Portland, sending a message that putting a Democrat in the White House would not resolve problems with a system of policing and corporate wealth that they saw as fundamentally unfair. "No cops, no prisons, total abolition," they chanted. Some activists, dressed in solid black clothing and masks that may signal a readiness to cause trouble without being readily identifiable, smashed windows at the local Democratic Party headquarters. The event included anarchists, antifascists, communists and racial justice activists. There were others mingling in the crowd that day: plainclothes FBI agents, the New York Times reports.

The FBI set up extensive surveillance operations inside Portland's protest movement, with agents standing shoulder to shoulder with activists, tailing vandalism suspects to guide the local police toward arrests and furtively videotaping inside one of the most active domestic protest movements. The breadth of FBI involvement in Portland and other cities where federal teams were deployed at street protests became a point of concern for some in the Justice Department who worried that it could undermine the First Amendment right to wage protest against the government. Some insiders believed that the teams could be compared to FBI surveillance transgressions of decades past, such as the COINTELPRO projects that sought to spy on and disrupt activist groups in the 1950s and 1960s. There has been no evidence so far that the bureau used similar surveillance teams on right-wing demonstrators during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. 

 Pet Scams Rise As More People Seek Dogs During Pandemic

Lauren Case of Arkansas paid $850 online to a scammer who promised to send a puppy that never arrived. Case filed a complaint with the Arkansas Attorney General's office. Similar cases have skyrocketed across the U.S., boosted by more people looking to adopt pets during the pandemic, reports Stateline. Attorneys general in many states have launched investigations and, filed lawsuits. In the first year of the pandemic, pet adoptions soared, according to the American Pet Products Association, with ownership rising in 2020 to 70 percent of households, an all-time high. The pet frenzy created a shortage, giving scammers a bigger opening. Pet scams "more than doubled last year and are on pace to be pretty much the same this year," said Steve Baker, international investigation specialist for the Better Business Bureau, which runs a scam tracker for bogus pet sites. "It really, really took off during the pandemic. I don't think it's possible to search online for puppies and not come across a scam."

Scammers often pattern their sites after legitimate puppy companies, using the same fonts and sometimes even the same pictures and descriptions, but altering the pictures just slightly, adding a holiday bow or Santa hat at this time of year. The Better Business Bureau said online shopping scam reports to its BBB Scam Tracker jumped during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, people lodged 1,515 pet scam complaints with losses of $1 million. In 2020 that rose to 4,552 complaints with losses of $3.3 million. Pet scams made up 34.5 percent of online shopping scams reported to the bureau. The number of pet scams remains high this year. In the first nine months of 2021, there were 3,116 reports with losses of $2.4 million. Younger people were more likely to be scammed in 2020, with 51 percent of them under 44. The average financial loss reported to the BBB Scam Tracker was $722. While 82 percent of pet scam reports involved dogs, other animals included cats, birds and iguanas.

 Nearly $100B Stolen in Pandemic Relief Funds

Nearly $100 billion at minimum has been stolen from COVID-19 relief programs set up to help businesses and people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic, says the U.S. Secret Service, the Associated Press reports. Most of the total is attributable to unemployment fraud. The Labor Department reported about $87 billion in unemployment benefits could have been paid improperly. The Secret Service has seized more than $1.2 billion while investigating unemployment insurance and loan fraud and has returned more than $2.3 billion of fraudulently obtained funds by working with financial partners and states to reverse transactions. The agency has more than 900 active criminal investigations into pandemic fraud, with cases in every state; 100 people have been arrested. 

The Justice Department has prosecuted over 150 defendants in more than 95 criminal cases and has seized over $75 million in cash proceeds derived from fraudulently obtained Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds, as well as numerous real estate properties and luxury items purchased with the proceeds. One of the best-known programs created through the March 2020 CARES Act, PPP offered low-interest, forgivable loans to small businesses struggling to meet payroll and other expenses during pandemic-related shutdowns. Early in the pandemic, law enforcement focused on fraud related to personal protective equipment, the Secret Service said. Authorities have now prioritized the exploitation of pandemic-related relief after federal funding through the CARES Act attracted the attention of individuals and organized criminal networks worldwide.

 'Ghost Guns' Popular Among Anti-Government Groups

Guns N' Bitcoin, founded in 2019, promotes new ways to develop and purchase "ghost guns" that are 80 percent complete gun, sold with a kit of the materials needed to finish building the firearm. Another increasingly popular option is building ghost guns out of entirely 3D-printed parts. These guns have no serial number and don't require background checks; their rise poses serious obstacles to law enforcement's ability to track sales and distribution. Ghost guns account for a growing number of guns used in crimes. Less documented is the growing popularity of these weapons among far-right and anti-government movements, reports HuffPost.

Gun safety advocates say ghost guns are ending up in the hands of individuals who are radicalized through online channels and predisposed to violence. These people are finding new ways to anonymize the design, purchase and dissemination of weapons, creating an entire industry beyond government regulation. Almost 24,000 ghost guns were recovered from potential crime scenes between 2016 and 2020. "It's not an overstatement to say that the propagation of ghost guns increases the likelihood that individuals in these far-right movements have the tools they need to engage in mass violence," said Jon Lewis of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. "Ghost guns fit into a perfect niche of undetectable, untraceable and keeps the government away from you." Gun safety advocates have pushed for stronger legislation to control the flow of guns. Only 11 states regulate the sale and possession of ghost guns, and in eight of those states, these laws were passed in 2018.

 Inmates Can Stay in Home Confinement, DOJ Says

Under pressure from criminal justice reform advocates, the Justice Department reversed a Trump-era legal opinion that could have required several thousand federal convicts to return to prison from home confinement if the Biden administration declares an end to the pandemic national emergency. That seems remote with the rise of the Omicron variant, but the opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel meets demands from reformers and lawmakers that officials find a way to allow prisoners who've been living at home for a year or more under pandemic-related legal authorities to remain at home to serve the remainder of their sentences, Politico reports.

"We do not lightly depart from our precedents, and we have given the views expressed in our prior opinion careful and respectful consideration," said Assistant Attorney General Christopher Schroeder. About 36,000 federal inmates were released early due to the pandemic, largely based on authority Congress included in the CARES Act passed in March 2020. Most have finished serving their sentences, but about 4,500 faced the threat of being returned to prison when the pandemic emergency terminates. Two months ago, reformers expressed outrage about press reports that Biden administration lawyers had concluded that the legal opinion OLC issued in the waning days of the Trump administration was correct. "We thank Attorney General Garland for responding to our request to rescind this Trump-era opinion and look forward to continuing to work with the Biden Administration on community-based strategies to improve our criminal justice system," said Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

 Philadelphia Creating Police Unit to Solve Shootings

Philadelphia police are creating a unit devoted to solving non-fatal shootings. With the number of people shot in Philadelphia approaching 2,200 for the year, Channel 3 Eyewitness News has learned police officials are close to announcing the launch of a 40-detective unit. It's unclear when the unit will go live, but sources say it will be a significant allocation of resources at a time when shootings and homicides have spiraled into record territory. District Attorney Larry Krasner said witnesses to shootings must cooperate with investigators, an element he explains is driving a dismal solution rate.

"We need the help of the public, the solve rate for shootings at this time is around 17%," Krasner said. "We can't have a city where 83% of shooters are getting away with those shootings." We need to help with the public. We need them to come forward and we need you to understand that our office and the police will do everything in our power to protect you, to make sure that you are not in danger."

 Homeland Security Agents to Test Body Cams

Agents with a Department of Homeland Security investigative unit will wear body cameras for the first time as part of a six-month pilot program testing the costs and benefits of using the technology in federal law enforcement, the Associated Press reports. The cameras will be used by 55 members of the SWAT-like special response teams at Homeland Security Investigations in Houston, Newark, and New York. Homeland Security Investigations, which focuses on transnational federal crimes such as drug and human trafficking and fraud, is a component of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, (ICE). A senior ICE official said the agency expects to expand the pilot to include officers who conduct immigration enforcement arrests. 

“With its body worn camera pilot, ICE is making an important statement that transparency and accountability are essential components of our ability to fulfill our law enforcement mission and keep communities safe,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said. Homeland Security Investigations agents are expected to use the body cams when carrying out such actions as making pre-planned arrests, questioning suspects and executing search warrants. The footage would be available to defense lawyers in criminal cases as part of the discovery process as well as to others under the Freedom of Information Act. The pilot program is intended to evaluate the cost of the program and the effectiveness of the equipment.

 Errors By MN Trainer Potter Preceded Wright Shooting

A Minnesota jury is deliberating manslaughter charges against former Brooklyn Center, Mn., police officer Kim Potter in the April 11 killing of Daunte Wright, 20, who was pulled over for having expired license tags and an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror, the Associated Press reports. Potter was training a newer officer, Anthony Luckey. She testified that if she had been alone, she “most likely” wouldn’t have pulled over Wright. Potter said Luckey wanted to make the stop. Policing experts agree that it’s good for trainees to interact often with the public, but using traffic violations as a way to check for more serious lawbreaking — criticized by some as "pretext stops" — has come under scrutiny, especially because such stops have led to the deaths of Black people in recent years.

When attempting to handcuff Wright, Luckey made the mistake of not moving the suspect away from the open car door, so Wright got loose and got behind the wheel. Police experts say Potter should have intervened as soon as Luckey made that error. Once Wright jumped into his car, the situation became chaotic, with Potter pulling her handgun while yelling, “I’ll tase you! I’ll tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!” Ryan Getty, a professor at California State University at Sacramento who has specialized in developing police field training, questioned whether Potter was even qualified to be a field training officer because she made the fatal error of grabbing her handgun instead of a Taser.

 2021 One of the Worst Ever for Cybercrime

Cyberattacks on major technology providers and the interconnected world of software and hardware that power the global economy continued at a relentless pace in 2021. Instead of one company at a time being victimized in a traditional data breach, thousands were often exposed simultaneously. Businesses, hospitals and schools also worked to defend themselves against an onslaught of ransomware attacks, which increasingly reap $10 million dollars or more in extortion payments, the Wall Street Journal reports. U.S. officials and security experts said the past year has been one of the worst on record for cybersecurity, marked not just by such repeated discoveries of bugs considered historic in their scope and potential severity but an onslaught of ransomware attacks on businesses and critical infrastructure as well.

Last December, cybersecurity professionals began to unravel an extraordinary cyberattack on a little-known company based in Texas called SolarWinds. By hijacking the firm's software-update mechanism, the hackers had gained the means for covert entry into their choice of thousands of unsuspecting customers. This month, the flaw found in Log4j, a routine piece of free software, prompted especially grave warnings, with some officials estimating that hundreds of millions of devices are at risk. The reliance on intertwined software and hardware ensures that a vulnerability hidden in a tool such as Log4j can cause wide-ranging disruption. A hack of the Microsoft Corp. Exchange email software in March, later attributed by Western nations to China, rendered tens of thousands of victims across the globe vulnerable to destructive attacks. In July, an attack on Dutch enterprise-software provider Kaseya by a criminal gang of Russian hackers was used as a springboard to launch ransomware strikes. "When there's a risk in one part of the system, it has the potential for a global ripple effect," said Sherri Davidoff of the cyber firm LMG Security.

 Harvard Prof Guilty of Hiding Ties to China

A Harvard University professor charged with hiding his affiliation to a Chinese-run recruitment program was found guilty on all counts Tuesday, the Associated Press reports. Charles Lieber, 62, former chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, was charged with two counts of filing false tax returns, two counts of making false statements, and two counts of failing to file reports for a foreign bank account in China. The jury deliberated for three hours before announcing the verdict in Boston federal court. Prosecutors argued that Lieber, who was arrested in January, knowingly hid his involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Plan — a program designed to recruit people with knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property to China — to protect his career and reputation. Lieber denied his involvement during inquiries from the National Institutes of Health, which provided him with millions of dollars in research funding. 

Lieber concealed his income from the Chinese program, including $50,000 a month from the Wuhan University of Technology, up to $158,000 in living expenses and more than $1.5 million in grants. In exchange, Lieber agreed to publish articles, organize international conferences and apply for patents on behalf of the Chinese university. The case is among the highest profile to come from the U.S. Department of Justice’s “China Initiative.” The effort launched in 2018 to curb economic espionage from China has faced criticism that it harms academic research and amounts to racial profiling of Chinese researchers. Hundreds of faculty members at Stanford, Yale, Berkeley, Princeton, Temple and other prominent colleges have signed onto letters asking Attorney General Merrick Garland to end the initiative.

 Native Americans Struggle With Opioid Epidemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the U.S., deaths from drug overdoses surged by nearly 30 percent, climbing to a record high. The drug crisis has diversified from an overwhelmingly white affliction to killing people of color with staggering speed. The death rate last year was highest among Native Americans, for whom COVID-19 piled yet more despair on communities already confronting generations of trauma, poverty, unemployment and underfunded health systems, the Associated Press reports. Beyond opioids, people are dying from deadly cocktails of many drugs. Deaths involving methamphetamine have nearly tripled in recent years, with Native Americans 12 times more likely to die from it. Drug dealers now cut nearly every drug on the street with fentanyl, a cheap and deadly synthetic opioid so potent the equivalent of a sugar packet can make 40 doses. 

Unemployment in Indian country surged to twenty six percent. With the federal government’s disinvestment in Native communities, many were already living on the brink of poverty — sometimes just across the street from predominantly white gated communities and summer vacation resorts. Indian health care has been underfunded for decades. When the American government forced Native Americans off their land, it signed treaties with tribes promising to provide for them necessities like health care. The deaths from addiction are proof it’s never kept its word, said Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith. The national average for health care spending is just over $11,000 per person, but tribal health systems receive about a third of that and urban Indian groups even less, according to the National Council of Urban Indian Health. COVID-19 added another blow to this already stressed system. Smith introduced a bill this summer that would provide $200 million to Indian organizations to bolster their mental health and addiction treatment. The bill, stalled in Congress, would empower Native organizations to address addiction their own way.

 Black People, Women Likely New Gun Owners

Gun purchases accelerated in the U.S. during 2020-2021 compared to 2019, with more than five million adults becoming first-time gun owners between January 2020 and April 2021 compared to 2.4 million adults in 2019, found a study on new gun ownership. The survey, conducted by Professor Matt Miller at Northeastern University and published Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, shows that between January 2019 and April this year, around 7.5 million people, or 2.9 percent of all adults who had not previously owned guns, purchased them, reports The Guardian. Most, about 5.4 million people, brought the weapons into homes that had not previously had them.

"The proportion of gun sales to new gun owners compared to existing gun owners is around the same at 20 percent," Miller said. "What changed is the volume of gun purchases." According to the study, the total number of gun purchases rose from 13.8 million to 16.6 million between 2019 and 2020. Of those, approximately half of all new gun owners were female and nearly half were people of color. According to the study, 55 percent of new gun owners were white, 20.9 percent were Black and 20 percent Hispanic. "New gun owners are more likely to be Black and they're more likely to be female," Miller says. What concerns researchers is not that gun sales increased during the pandemic, but that more households now have firearms, potentially exposing more families to the risk of having guns in the home.

 School Threats Spike Nationally After Michigan Shooting

Disturbing messages and vague threats on social media are spiking nationwide after the shooting at Michigan's Oxford High School that left four dead and seven seriously injured, reports the Washington Post. At least 60 schools in Michigan closed this month after the Oxford shooting, as did districts in Ohio and Pennsylvania. In a “challenge” last week that swept the social network TikTok, students promoted school shootings supposedly planned for Dec. 17 — for many, the last day of class before winter break. Schools from Washington, D.C., to California closed for the day or added police. More than 150 threats surfaced nationwide in the week after Oxford, said criminologist James Densley of Metropolitan State University, a co-founder of the Violence Project. By comparison, Densley, who tracks news reports, recorded 151 school threats for the entire month of September this year, itself a fivefold increase over the number seen in a typical September.

Every threat sets off alarm bells, putting staffers, parents and students on edge and forcing administrators to make a choice. “I think we have to take every single threat very seriously right now — it doesn’t matter how it might seem innocuous,” said Laurel Thompson, a board member of the School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA) who was involved in the response to the 2018 shooting at Parkland High School in Florida. “We never know which one is going to be the one. We never want to make a mistake.” When ominous rumors spread on TikTok of a possible day of shootings nationwide last Friday, administrators struggled to understand whether they were genuine. Officials in Maryland’s Howard County wrote a message to families of “a new TikTok challenge encouraging students to make school shooting threats to schools” and asked parents to urge their children not to participate. “At this point, there are no credible threats,” the message said. “However, even hoax threats create fear and cause disruption to the school community.”

 In Shift, CO Panel Tables Plan to Drop 'Sex Offender' Term

Under pressure from the governor and the state's public safety director, Colorado's Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB) reversed its controversial November decision to scrap the term "sex offenders" in favor of "adults who commit sexual offenses." The board voted 16-2 last Friday to "table" the language change and refer it back to a subcommittee. It's possible the board will votes again to change terminology, but the tabling means it's not likely to happen anytime soon, reports the Denver Post. Last month, the board voted 10-6 to stop using "sex offenders" in its own principles and policies. The board controls treatment standards for people convicted of sex offenses. Changing the language would not have affected treatment or management policies. Still, it was hailed by supporters as an important step away from labels and toward "person-first" language that research shows can improve rehabilitation prospects.

The board then opened a public comment period. The language change was discussed on talk radio, on Fox News and in The Daily Caller, in addition to various Colorado outlets. More than 400 people submitted comment on the matter, an overwhelming number for a state board that tends to generate little public attention. Public defenders and people who have committed sexual offenses, plus their family members and advocates, were supportive of the change. Victim advocates and members of the general public opposed a language change. Law enforcement leaders opposed the change from the start. "The coddling from some of the offender-affiliated representatives was repugnant," tweeted Colorado sex assault survivor and motivational speaker Kimberly Corban. "This shift is offensive for those of us who have experienced victimization at the hands of sex offenders who don't like their 'label.'" Gov. Jared Polis said, "We must be wary not to normalize violent acts of sexual aggression or even give the appearance of normalizing such unacceptable behavior." 

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