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

 More Guns, Fewer Cops Cited in 'Senseless Violence' Trend

More than 1,000 people have been murdered this year in Illinois' Cook County, a nearly 50 percent  increase since 2019. In Philadelphia, over 500 were murdered, a 12 percent increase from 2020.
Baltimore also saw an increase in murders — 311 so far in 2021 compared to 302 a year earlier. The city's police commissioner, Michael Harrison, blamed gun violence. "Whether it's young people, whether it's older people, people solving their conflict with violence, namely gun violence," he told CBS News. Another factor is the rise of ghost guns — firearms that lack commercial serial numbers and can be assembled at home. Baltimore officers have seized more than 300 ghost guns this year.

There are fewer police officers on the streets. After steady growth for decades, local police lost about one percent of its workforce from 2019 to 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. After George Floyd's death and a summer of protests demanding police reform, some major cities, like New York City and Oakland, cut police funding.  We did a survey of a couple of hundred police departments showing retirements increasing, resignations increasing," said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum. "The workforce is shrinking." The senseless violence has often claimed the lives of innocent children. In August, 8-year-old PJ Evans was killed in a barrage of gunfire during a family gathering in Prince George's County, Md. "It's just straight gun violence at this point to where it's just senseless," said Evans' uncle, Antoine Dotson. Three men have been charged  with the boy's death.

 Syrian Officials Run 'Captagon' Drug Cartel

In Syria, an illegal drug industry run by powerful associates and relatives of President Bashar al-Assad has grown into a multibillion-dollar operation, eclipsing the country's legal exports and turning it into the world's newest narcostate. Its main product is captagon, an illegal, addictive amphetamine popular in Arab states. Operations stretch across Syria, including workshops that manufacture the pills, packing plants where they are concealed for export and smuggling networks to send them to markets abroad. An investigation by The New York Times found that much of the production and distribution is overseen by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president's younger brother and one of Syria's most powerful men.

Major players include businessmen with close ties to the government, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and other members of the president's extended family, whose last name ensures protection for illegal activities. The newspaper obtained information from law enforcement officials in 10 countries and interviews with drug experts, Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade and current and former U.S. officials. The drug trade emerged after a decade of war, which shattered the economy, reduced most Syrians to poverty and left members of Syria's military, political and business elite looking for new ways to earn hard currency and circumvent U.S. sanctions. More than 250 million captagon pills have been seized across the globe this year, 18 times the amount captured four years ago. "The idea of going to the Syrian government to ask about cooperation is just absurd," said Joel Rayburn, U.S. special envoy for Syria during the Trump administration. "It is literally the Syrian government that is exporting the drugs. It is not like they are looking the other way while drug cartels do their thing. They are the drug cartel."

 Maine AG Rules For Police in Every Fatal Shooting

Maine authorities have ruled in favor of the police in all 175 cases of officers shooting civilians since the state began tracking data in 1990, USA Today reports. “That’s an incredible batting average,” said state Rep. Thom Harnett, a former assistant attorney general. “It’s very shocking for the attorney general not to have found any law enforcement officer guilty of unlawful behavior after they’ve shot and killed someone in the entire history of the state of Maine,” said Michael Kebede of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” “In all the cases I’ve seen the AG do, there’s never been a follow-up interview,” said Hunter Tzovarras, an attorney who represented families in a dozen deadly force cases over a decade. “There’s maybe a tendency, either implicitly or even intentionally, to take the officer’s version at face value and not look for evidence that would contradict it.”

News outlets have questioned why Maine has the highest rate of fatal police shootings in New England, despite there being more densely populated and more policed states in the area. In 2019, a new bill created a review panel for deadly force cases after the Attorney General's office finishes investigating. The panel has sided with the AG every time. The AG is also now required by law to issue a ruling within six months. "Is it possible that in reality all (these) scenarios were scenarios where the police conduct was justified?" said Andy Horwitz of Rhode Island's Roger Williams University School of Law. “It’s possible, but it’s highly unlikely and I think what that is telling you is the system is broken and the investigations are not sincere.

 Biden Announces Anticorruption Plan

The Biden administration announced a plan to combat global corruption by assisting foreign governments, increasing financial literacy and creating new regulations on real estate purchases in the U.S. to help prevent money laundering, reports the Wall Street Journal. The "Strategy on Countering Corruption" includes several steps to combat corruption by cracking down on criminal networks and improving cooperation between various federal agencies including the State Department, Treasury, Commerce and U.S. Agency for International Developmentand law enforcement. The plan was released on Monday in advance of a virtual Summit for Democracy that will be hosted later this week with 100 countries are participating. Corruption breaks public trust, deepens inequality (both economic and political), and degrades business. Estimates put the cost of corruption between two and five percent of global gross domestic product.

The U.S. is expected to begin levying sanctions against foreign officials it accuses of corruption and abuses of human rights."Countering corruption is not a simple task," the plan reads. "Changing embedded cultures of corruption requires significant political will, and achieving sustained progress can take decades." The Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) proposed regulating all cash real-estate purchases. It would create reporting requirements on transactions in 12 areas where residential property sells for over $300,000. "Increasing transparency in the real-estate sector will curb the ability of corrupt officials and criminals to launder the proceeds of their ill-gotten gains through the U.S. real-estate market," said Himamauli Das of FinCEN. "Addressing this risk will strengthen U.S. national security and help protect the integrity of the U.S. financial system." Over $2.3 billion has been laundered through real estate in the U.S. between 2015 and 2020. The strategy calls on Congress to work with other government agencies to create anti-corruption laws and regulations.

 Six More States Allow Concealed Guns Without Permit

Six more states no longer require residents to hold a permit to carry a concealed firearm, reports Stateline. Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, Tennessee, Texas and Utah this year enacted what gun rights advocates call “constitutional carry” measures. A legislative priority for groups such as the National Rifle Association, 21 states now have such measures in place. Many states still have restrictions on possessing firearms in certain government buildings. More states may be added to the list before the end of this legislative season. The Ohio House last month passed a bill that would eliminate a requirement for gun owners to take an eight-hour class and undergo a background check to carry a concealed firearm in public. Wisconsin lawmakers also are debating a permitless carry bill.

Similar bills have passed in one legislative chamber in both Louisiana and South Carolina this year.  The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether New York’s gun permitting system violates the Second Amendment—a case that could gut firearm permit rules nationwide. Permitless carry laws eliminate what proponents say is a time-consuming step for people who want to arm themselves for self-protection. When Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed his state’s permitless carry law this year, the Republican tweeted that “it shouldn’t be hard for law-abiding Tennesseans to exercise their” Second Amendment rights. Gun safety advocates and law enforcement agencies argue that having more people with concealed firearms endangers communities and police officers. The Center for American Progress found in a study that since Wisconsin enacted a law in 2011 allowing residents to carry concealed weapons with a permit, gun-related homicides and aggravated assaults have risen. Gun-related homicides and assaults were on the decline in Wisconsin before 2012, but began to shift upward during the implementation of the law.

 Denver Suburb Copes With Rise in Teen Shootings

In the Denver suburb of Aurora, a truck full of teenagers opened fire in a high school parking lot. Three were wounded as students ran away in fear. One of the boys charged told investigators he and his friends brought guns to what they expected to be a gang fight because “it’s the way it is in this town,” the Associated Press reports. The shooting took place on Nov. 19 at Hinkley High School. After the initial shots were fired, the boys drove away while pointing guns out the windows. The teens had a callous attitude about their need to be armed. One 16-year-old said he would use bullets in a fight so that he wouldn't mess up his clothes.

It was just one in a string of several teenage shootings that took place over a two-week span. This has renewed interest in the problem of gun violence and gangs in an area where police has been under scrutiny for its treatment of Blacks. Easy access to guns and the pandemic's effect on the mental health of minority teens has exacerbated the problem. Shootings involving children and teens have increased in recent years. Black children are four times more likely to be fatally shot than are white children. The Black and Latino population in Aurora has increased as cost of living in Denver has gone up. Not only have families of color been hit harder health-wise by the COVID-19 pandemic, but economically as well, both of which contribute to declining mental health. The city is working on a new youth violence prevention program to combat the increase in child and teen shootings.

 Will DOJ Deal With Sex Abuse in Federal Prisons?

When Kara Guggino of Florida was locked up in 2012 on a federal armed robbery charge, she says a  Bureau of Prisons official repeatedly raped her in a Florida lockup. She was not surprised when the Associated Press report that more than 100 federal prison employees have been arrested or convicted of crimes since 2019. AP called BOP "a hotbed of abuse, graft and corruption [that] has turned a blind eye to employees accused of misconduct." Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called for the firing of BOP Director Michael Carvajal, a Trump administration appointee, reports the Washington Post. Representing more than two dozen women who have accused BOP officials of sexual abuse, Atlanta lawyer Bryan Busch says, "It's been very frustrating, because getting the government to actually prosecute these people has been very, very difficult." He filed a lawsuit last year on behalf of Guggino and others that was settled.

Guggino, 37, says the rapist gave her a morning-after pill and "told me to take it right now in front of him." The lieutenant retired with full benefits and was not prosecuted. Deborah Golden, a Washington, D.C.-, lawyer who has represented federal prisoners for two decades, said BOP has a "worrisome culture of lawlessness." Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL.) demanded greater accountability at the Coleman Florida federal prison in a letter to Carvahal.  All female prisoners apparently were transferred from Coleman "just two days prior to [an] on-site audit" required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, Rubio wrote, asking, "How can you be confident in the findings of an audit that failed to interview female inmates who were held at ... Coleman?"

 Black Man's Conviction Voided Over Court's Confederate Symbols

Symbols of the Confederacy filled the room where an all-White Tennessee jury last year decided to convict Tim Gilbert, a Black man, of assault. Gold lettering on the door welcomed people to the "U.D.C. Room" honoring the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Framed on the wall: the flag known as the "Blood Stained Banner." A portrait of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis watched over the deliberations. State appeals court judges agreed last week that Gilbert, 55, deserves a new trial, reports the Washington Post. They said that some evidence in Gilbert's trial was improperly admitted and that officials failed to show that the Confederate memorabilia did not interfere with the verdict. Gilbert said the decorations "embolden" juries to act with racial prejudice.

The "slavery and the subjugation of black people are inextricably intertwined with the Confederacy," wrote Judge James Curwood Witt Jr., and those ideas "are antithetical to the American system of jurisprudence and cannot be tolerated." Attorney Jonathan Harwell, who helped the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers back Gilbert's appeal, said the Confederate tributes were a menace to defendants and jurors of color alike, The court spoke plainly about the Confederacy's racism, Harwell said, without "beating around the bush." He credited Gilbert's attorney, Evan Baddour, for approaching an old courthouse with fresh eyes. "The truth is, dozens, if not hundreds, of other attorneys have been in that courthouse, have seen that jury room, and either it didn't strike them as problematic, or they weren't willing to take the stand that he was willing to take," Harwell said.

 Split Court Decision Allows U.S. to Outlaw Bump Stocks

An 8-8 split in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated a lower court ruling allowing the federal government to outlaw rapid-fire devices known as bump stocks as machine guns, Courthouse News Service reports. A three-judge panel had ruled against the government. The case relied on a precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1984 case Chevron USA Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council Inc. That case says that a court may not substitute its own opinion in the place of a reasonable interpretation made by an administrative agency.

Appeals Judge Helene White, an appointee of President Obama, said, "There are many areas where Congress relies on agency expertise to implement laws with criminal applications. Just to name a few, we have highly technical and complex securities, tax, workplace safety, and environmental-law regimes in which the applicable agency exercises delegated authority to promulgate regulations fleshing out statutory provisions." Judge Eric Murphy, an appointee of President Trump, argued in his dissenting opinion that the court was acting outside of its purview. "Under traditional principles," he said, "the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] lacks the power to make criminal what was lawful. And reliance on Chevron throws overboard what has long been a critical check on an agency's ability to enact criminal rules: such rules 'must have clear legislative basis.' The bump stock rule does not."

 Hackers Are Now Targeting Internet Phone Services

Criminal groups ar now targetting companies that manage broadband phone services across the globe by threatening to flood digital lines with traffic and force them offline unless they are paid a ransom, NPR reports. Extortionists have found that the number of phone calls placed through the Internet has dramatically increased and it is a serious issue when major providers are down. Companies that manage digital calls, a.k.a voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services must transmit audio in real time when facillitating calls of any kind, including: business, personal and emergency. Small companies, people living abroad, large carriers, telecommunication companies and call centers all frequently use VoIP for various purposes. If these companies come under fire they quickly fail. "The challenge is that when you put all of the phone system on the internet, it exposes it to all of the other things that can go wrong on the internet," says Matthew Prince of Cloudflare, a company that provides protection against these kinds of attacks.

While providers are keeping quiet about these attacks, criminal hackers are targetting anyone willing to pay to have their business put back online. "I think the point that we're at right now is what we see is that there's a sort of huge spectrum in terms of preparedness: from organizations that don't know about the problem and are prepared, to organizations that know about the problem but aren't able to invest or are willing to invest because they don't think it relates to them," says Jen Ellis the cybersecurity firm Rapid7. Extortionists have realized that they can weaponize digital traffic to disrupt a company's operation. The hackers are using names of well-known groups to build legitimacy and incite fear so that people will pay the ransom.

 How Unarmed Alabama Accomplice Came To Be Executed

Nathaniel Woods was executed in Alabama in 2020, 15 years after his conviction in connection with the shooting deaths of three Birmingham police officers. Woods never killed anyone. He was unarmed when the officers were gunned down while rushing into a drug house to execute a warrant for his arrest on a misdemeanor. Alabama, one of 26 states where an accomplice can be sentenced to death, argued that Woods had intentionally lured the officers to their deaths. It did not have to prove that he actually killed anyone in seeking a conviction for capital murder, reports the New York Times.

The Death Penalty Information Center estimates that of the 1,458 U.S. executions between 1985 and 2018, 11 involved cases in which the defendant neither arranged nor committed murder. Even rarer are cases in which the person was unarmed and uninvolved in a violent act,cases like that of Woods, whose defenders say he had no foreknowledge of the violence to unfold and fled in terror as the bullets flew.
"Nathaniel Woods is 100% innocent," another death-row inmate, Kerry Spencer, wrote in a letter in support of Woods. "I know this to be a fact because I'm the man that shot and killed all three of the officers." The Times tells the story of Woods' life and how he came to be put to death.

 CO Grocery Shooter Incompetent to Stand Trial

On the recommendation of four experts, a Colorado judge declared the man suspected of shooting and killing 10 people in a grocery store in March incompetent to stand trial, Courthouse News Service reports. Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa will be transferred to the state mental hospital in Pueblo to undergo treatment. The court will reevaluate the case in March. The victims, aged 20 to 65 years old, included three King Soopers employees, several shoppers and a police officer.  On March 22, prosecutors say Alissa opened fire on the King Soopers in oulder with a Ruger AR-556 assault-style weapon and a semiautomatic handgun. He wore a green tactical vest and jeans. Officers quickly apprehended him.

Alissa was chaarged with 10 counts of first degree murder and more than 30 counts of attempted murder. If convicted, he faces life in prison without parole.Colorado repealed the death penalty in 2020. After six years, Robert Dear, the suspected gunman who killed three people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood in 2015, has yet to receive the clean bill of mental health needed to stand trial. After sitting dormant for nine months, the city of Boulder and King Soopers said the store would reopen in January 2022 for its 50th anniversary.

 279 Migrant Children Reunited with Families Using Two Websites

Some 279 children have been reunited with their families through a new government website designed to help migrant families find their children. In September, President Biden’s Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families created two websites, one in English and one in Spanish, for separated families to sign up for reunification, Axios reports. These websites are named Together.gov and Juntos.gov. Children from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Brazil and Venezuela have been identified on these websites and are on their way to reunification.

In 2018, the Trump administration established a zero-tolerance policy in an effort to prosecute every immgrant who illegally crossed the border. This caused almost 4,000 children to be separated from their families between mid-2017 and the beginning of 2021. As of Sept. 23, 1,727 children were still separated. As of Monday the task force has reunited 63 families. Famillies who are reunited and arrive in the U.S. are eligible for three years of parole and can receive authorization to work. This status may be renewed. "We encourage families who were separated under the prior administration’s 'zero-tolerance' policy and seeking reunification to self-identify and register through our official websites, Together.gov and Juntos.gov." said Michelle Brané of the family reunification task force.

 Parents of MI School Shooter Charged With Manslaughter

A Michigan prosecutor filed charges against the parents of a 15-year-old boy accused of fatally shooting his classmates at an Oakland County high school this week, a rare move she said was justified by the “egregious” facts of the case, the Washington Post reports. James and Jennifer Crumbley, parents of shooting suspect Ethan Crumbley, face four counts each of involuntary manslaughter, said Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald. The teenager killed four students and wounded seven people at Oxford High School on Nov. 30, using a semiautomatic handgun purchased days earlier by his father in the deadliest school shooting in more than three years.“ While the shooter was the one who entered the high school and pulled the trigger, there were other individuals who contributed to the events,” McDonald said.

James Crumbley bought the 9mm Sig Sauer SP 2022 pistol on Nov. 26. Acme Shooting Goods in Oxford confirmed Ethan was present when his father bought the gun, McDonald said. She cited social media posts from the parents that confirm the gun was for their son. Ethan was called to the school's office before the shooting, but “no discipline was warranted,” the school superintendent said,, the Associated Press reports. "There’s been a lot of talk about the student who was apprehended, that he was called up to the office and all that kind of stuff. No discipline was warranted,” said Tim Throne, leader of Oxford Community Schools. “There are no discipline records at the high school. Yes this student did have contact with our front office, and, yes, his parents were on campus Nov. 30.”  Parents are rarely charged in school shootings involving their children, even as most minors get guns from a parent or a relative’s house. There is no Michigan law that requires gun owners keep weapons locked away from children. 

 Thousands in Chicago Jailed on Drug Cases That Are Tossed

Tens of thousands of Chicagoans — mostly Black men — have been jailed in the past two decades on drug charges everyone knew from the beginning were never going to stick, an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association (BGA) found. Police, prosecutors and judges knew, but no one has put a stop to it. Many of those arrested have lost jobs, homes and relationships. They've had to pay thousands of dollars to get their cars out of the city's impound lot, and they often struggle to pay bills while fighting their addictions. "I can't pay the phone bill," said a cook who was arrested for possessing small amounts of heroin. "I'm two months behind on my rent. Child support, I got kids to take care of. I can't do anything."

In addition to the human toll, this constant churn of dead-end arrests costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars every year. "What a waste of time and resources to drag people into court on a drug charge and dismiss it," said Ben Ruddell of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "What's the point?" The BGA and the Sun-Times analyzed 280,000 drug possession cases using nearly two decades of court data compiled by The Circuit, a collaborative of news organizations. The examination disregarded arrests involving marijuana, which has been decriminalized in Illinois. About half of the drug possession cases in Chicago between 2000 and 2018 — about 140,000 — were dropped at early stages. That dismissal rate has soared in recent years. An examination of all 10,480 cases from 2018 in which drug possession was the most serious charge found that 72 percent were tossed. The dead-end arrests are the result of a longstanding, commonly understood rule among prosecutors not to pursue criminal charges against anyone caught with user-level amounts — around a gram.


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