Welcome to Crime and Justice News

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

 Can Counselors Be New Face of Public Safety?

Amid a nationwide reckoning over police brutality, crisis centers are hailed as a vital alternative to having officers respond to mental health emergencies — a way to keep police and their guns away from people in need of help, rather than arrest. A quarter of all fatal police shootings in the last six years involved someone in the throes of a mental health crisis, reports the Washington Post. A man in psychological distress died after Rochester, N.Y., police placed a bag over his head and pinned him to the ground. In Salt Lake City, a mother called 911 for help with her 13-year-old son, who has autism, only to watch as officers shot him 11 times, leaving him partly paralyzed. More than one-third of the calls where Montgomery County, Md., police exerted force in 2020 involved people "suffering from some form of mental illness," a report said. Montgomery County's crisis center has built a strong record over three decades of resolving conflicts peacefully and keeping people out of jail.

Like many other government health services, it has seen funding cut in tight budget years. Saddled with a growing slate of responsibilities, the 24 counselors have had to turn down more calls for help, leaving a service gap that has been filled by police. After the killing of George Floyd, Montgomery's county council agreed to hire 12 more crisis counselors, part of a long-term plan that includes having counselors respond to certain incidents without a police escort. Dozens of other cities and counties are taking similar steps. Montgomery leaders tout the changes as an early step in their effort to "reimagine police." Inside the center's old, cramped operations room, staff are ambivalent about being cast as the new face of public safety. Some are concerned about changing long-standing protocols of working in tandem with officers; others say elected officials are asking them to solve social problems that stretch far beyond their control. Crisis counselors respond when there's a naked person riding a lawn mower down a highway, or someone yelling at the shadows underneath a bridge. They show up when a schizophrenic man is setting fires to his neighbor's furniture, and when a 13-year-old finds her father hanging from a basement pipe. Most of the people they treat are poor, uninsured Black and Latino residents. By the time their services are needed, counselors say, the county's social support system has in many ways already failed.

 Biden Picking More Women, Minority Judges

President Biden has set an aggressive judicial agenda in his first five months, rapidly nominating potential judges with an unprecedented emphasis on racial, professional and gender diversity. His early effort to cement a lasting legacy on the courts comes after four years of former President Trump's successful campaign of filling the judiciary with right-wing judges, reports The Hill. Biden has already nominated 24 lawyers to the federal courts, three of whom have been confirmed by the Senate over the past two weeks. Biden's first slates of nominees have been notable for their personal and professional diversity, with the president seeking to add more women and people of color, as well as former public defenders and public interest lawyers. 

The emphasis on professional diversity came after a pressure campaign from activists who called on Democrats to take a new approach to selecting judicial nominees to add balance to a federal judiciary that is dominated by former prosecutors and corporate attorneys. Democrats and activists have shown a sense of urgency around judicial confirmations after four years of the Trump administration and a Republican Senate majority making judgeships a top priority. Trump's judges were overwhelmingly white and male and were largely drawn from pools of legal talent selected by conservative groups like the Federalist Society. Trump's success at leaving behind a lasting conservative legacy on the courts has helped advocates make the case that Biden and Senate Democrats need not only to prioritize confirmations, but also change the calculus that goes into deciding who gets a lifetime appointment. Molly Coleman of the progressive People's Parity Project said that the current imbalance on federal courts has made the legal system inhospitable to those championing causes and clients that sitting judges likely argued against as attorneys.

 CA Court Halts Detention of Inmates with Mental Illness

A California appellate panel rejected the state's policy of detaining individuals with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities in county jails while waiting for them to be found competent to stand trial, reports Courthouse News Service. Thousands of people are being held in jails across the state because they've been found incompetent to stand trial but have not received treatment. The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed in 2015 against the California Department of State Hospitals and Department of Developmental Services by the family members of county jail detainees. Under the law, individuals charged with a crime cannot be tried or sentenced if they've been found incompetent to stand trial after a mental health evaluation. 

Plaintiffs argue that treatment is delayed to an unreasonable degree, forcing mentally ill inmates to languish behind bars for months or longer before they're transferred to a treatment facility — effectively denying their right to due process. Because state hospital beds are limited, the American Civil Liberties Union said inmates should be allowed to be treated at community treatment centers, where space is more readily available. ACLU attorney Michael Risher said the number of people considered incompetent to stand trial has been increasing over the past decade and the state hasn't kept pace by adding treatment beds and staff. With a 1,600-person backlog of inmates awaiting care, these people are in jail for months, often in solitary confinement because of their mental health status. The court ordered the state to start providing treatment to these individuals within 28 days, said Risher.

 Critics Assail Biden's Backing Marathon Bomber Death Penalty

Opponents of capital punishment are expressing frustration with the Biden administration's request this week that the Supreme Court reinstate the death penalty against Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Critics see the Department of Justice move as inconsistent with President Biden's calls on the campaign trail to eliminate capital punishment. Outright repeal of the federal death penalty would require legislation, which is unlikely to clear the current Congress given the deep partisan divide. Advocates say Biden could take steps on his own to curtail executions carried out by the federal government and are renewing calls for him to do so, reports The Hill.

Last year a federal appeals court vacated Tsarnaev's death sentence. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the trial court had failed to screen jurors adequately for possible bias, and erred in excluding evidence that Tsarnaev had been influenced by his older brother. Tsarnaev, 27, will serve multiple life sentences in federal prison if he is spared a death sentence. Former President Trump asked the Supreme Court in October to reverse the appeals court decision and reimpose the death penalty for Tsarnaev, and the justices agreed in March to take up the government's appeal. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, last year marked the first time the federal government conducted more executions than all states combined, though some of the disparity was from delayed court proceedings due to the pandemic. The Tsarnaev case was seen as early test of whether the Biden administration would break with Trump and deliver on the president's stated opposition to the death penalty. 

 SC Executions Halted Pending Firing Squad Plan

The South Carolina Supreme Court halted executions until procedures for its newest method of execution by firing squad are finalized, CNN reports. A law passed in May sought to close a loophole that allowed for inmates on death row to postpone executions indefinitely as long as drugs required for lethal injection were unavailable. South Carolina does not have the drugs needed to perform lethal injections. Under the new law signed Gov. Henry McMaster, inmates must now choose either electrocution or firing squad as their method of execution. Previously, the electric chair was the only method available.

South Carolina is the fourth state to allow executions by firing squad, joining Oklahoma, Mississippi and Utah. The director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections said that as of June 3, the only method of execution available in the state is electrocution. "Lethal injection is unavailable due to circumstances outside of the control of the Department of Corrections and firing squad is currently unavailable due to the Department of Corrections having yet to complete its development and implementation of necessary protocols and policies," the state told the court. 

 Marshals Service Lacks Resources to Protect Judges

The U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) doesn’t have the resources it needs to keep federal judges safe, says the Justice Department's inspector general. The agency doesn’t have sufficient capabilities to monitor threats made on social media, the report found, and the home security system it provides for its protectees offers “limited or outdated equipment.” In addition, USMS needs to hire 1,200 more deputy U.S. marshals to meet its responsibility of ensuring the protection of more than 32,000 judges, prosecutors and court officials. Threats against federal judges are skyrocketing, Politico reports.

The report said that from 2016 to 2019, the Marshals Service saw an 89 percent increase in “security incidents,” inappropriate communications and threats directed at the people it’s supposed to protect. The rate of threats directed at judges has jumped even more: by 400 percent in 2020, according to 60 Minutes. Last July, a gunman murdered New Jersey federal Esther Salas’s son and injured her husband in an effort to kill her. The killer, Roy Den Hollander, hated women and described himself as anti-feminist. The day after killing the judge’s son, he was found dead in an apparent suicide. A list of potential targets found in his rental car included the names of three other female judges. Congressional efforts to improve judges' protection have failed. Last December, a bill that would have let judges remove social media posts containing their personal information languished in the Senate. Federal judges sought more than $113 million to protect their buildings from attacks after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. That money has yet to materialize. USMS officials said they concurred with the inspector general's recommendations.

 Critics: Private Firm Backs Police Shootings of Black Men

The North Carolina sheriff's deputies who fatally shot Andrew Brown Jr. in April could have avoided taking his life, policing experts say, if they had followed best practices and not opened fire when he fled in a car as they tried to serve warrants. The fatal shooting may have complied with the Pasquotank County Sheriff's Office use-of-force policy, which allows deputies to shoot at a moving vehicle even when best practices say they shouldn't. The Sheriff's Office obtained its use-of-force policy from the Texas-based company Lexipol LLC, which sells ready-to-use manuals that prioritize officers' discretion – policies that hold them to a minimum standard that's defensible in court rather than best practices in policing, reports USA Today.

Lexipol says its policies set appropriate standards for officers while considering the challenges of making split-second decisions. Policing experts and civil rights advocates say the company's guidelines have contributed to a heavy-handed approach that has cost the lives of Black men. The company says it works with 8,100 public safety agencies and municipalities in at least 35 states and is the largest U.S. purveyor of law enforcement policies. Lexipol caters to small and midsize departments that make up the majority of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. The company promises to keep them up to date with evolving standards and case law. Critics say its policies are vague and permissive, and departments are unlikely to customize them because policymaking is time-consuming and expensive. Lexipol's website is loaded with arguments against best practices advocated by policing experts, such as mandating de-escalation and limiting officers' discretion. Lexipol clients have included police departments in Brooklyn Center, Mn., where Daunte Wright was killed this year, and Pasadena, Ca., where Anthony McClain was killed in 2020. St. Anthony, Mn., adopted Lexipol after Philando Castile was killed in 2016. Sacramento, Ca., did so after Stephon Clark was killed in 2018. All were Black men.


 Portland Officer Charged With Hitting Protester With Baton

A grand jury charged a Portland police officer with assault after he was filmed hitting a protester in the head with his baton during last summer's demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd. Officer Corey Budworth, who has been with the Portland Police Bureau for more than five years, is accused of "unlawfully, knowingly and recklessly causing physical injury" to the protester, who said the blows left her with head and back pain, the Washington Post reports. Budworth faces one count of assault in the fourth degree, a misdemeanor that carries up to a one-year jail sentence.

The indictment in Multnomah County is one of few criminal cases filed against officers who used force during protests and riots after the death of Floyd. The case also appears to be the first time a Portland police officer has been charged for striking or firing at someone during a protest. In a statement announcing the indictment Tuesday, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said Portland police had acted professionally as they responded to demonstrations in the city that at times turned violent. There was "no legal justification" for Budworth's actions, he said. The Portland police union acknowledged that Budworth had used his baton to move the protester, but didn't intend to hit her in the head. Budworth was part of a "rapid response team" that was called to the Multnomah Building near downtown Portland the night of Aug. 18, 2020, to contain a demonstration that had spiraled out of control. Police officials declared a riot after someone broke windows and threw a molotov cocktail into the building. 

 Trump Asylum Policies Reversed

The Biden administration is reversing a series of Trump-era immigration rulings that narrowed asylum standards by denying protection to victims of domestic violence and those who said they were threatened by gangs in their home country, Politico reports. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued orders Wednesday repealing a rulings Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued in 2018 and another that acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen released in January. The actions restore previous legal standards as the new administration carries out a public rulemaking process to get public input on how to assess when threats from private actors can be the basis for an asylum claim.

The Justice Department said Garland's moves followed up an executive order President Biden issued in February that gave federal officials nine months to issue new regulations governing the interpretation of when an asylum applicant faces danger of persecution based on his or her membership in a "particular social group." Garland's actions mean that in the meantime, immigration judges will be free again to grant asylum to individuals based on threats of domestic abuse or violence from drug gangs that control large swaths of Central America. Some whose claims were already denied could benefit from a Justice Department review of the cases people filed in federal court after being turned down based on the Sessions orders. The moves, which effectively broaden asylum standards, carry some political risk for the Biden administration as it struggles to control a surge of migrants illegally crossing the border or presenting themselves at border checkpoints and seeking asylum. Biden's executive order was mainly focused on the southern border and migration from Latin America. However, immigrant rights advocates hailed the developments as a return to a more humane asylum policy.

 States Try to Balance Capitol Security, Openness

The Oregon legislature expelled one of its members this month for knowingly shepherding rioters into the Capitol in Salem in December. At the same time, state officials around the U.S. are moving to tear down security fences and cautiously open capitol buildings to the public. The balance between openness and security has become complicated for state capitol officers and some observers say leaders would be wise to heed the simmering unrest just below the surface as far-right groups  involved in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection continue to stew over what they falsely think was a stolen presidential election, reports Stateline.

The January 2021 American Perspectives Survey by the American Enterprise Institute found that Americans are divided over the legitimacy of Biden’s win and a significant number of people condone the use of violence in the face of what they see as a political failure. The survey found that nearly three in 10 Americans and 39 percent of Republicans agree that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires violent actions.” Another eight in 10 Republican respondents said the political system is stacked against conservatives and agreed with the statement: “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, suggested it’s not just officials at state capitols who need to reassess their security. Local and county government buildings are vulnerable too, he said. He suggested officials maintain some kind of perimeter protection around public buildings, with limited entry and exit points.

 Public Unaware of Many Crime Trends, Totals

Answers to a New York Times quiz showed common misperceptions about crime trends. The most widely held involved Chicago. Readers were asked to rank Chicago nationally in murder rate. The options were first, third, fifth or seventh. Most picked first and only eight percent chose the right answer (seventh), the newspaper says. Chicago's reputation has been influenced by portrayals in film and TV; news coverage; and political messaging. Former President Trump repeatedly criticized Chicago, saying it was "worse than Afghanistan." Conservatives have long depicted Chicago as a crime capital. Critics have used the opportunity to fault President Obama for not keeping his home city safe and to argue that gun restrictions are not able to stop violent crime. New York also tends to be viewed as violent. It reported 2,245 murders in 1990, but by 2017, the number had fallen below 300. Readers fared better in assessing that trend. Still, 44 percent did not know that New York's murder rate has been below the national average in recent years. 

Nationwide, crime declined for a quarter-century starting in the early 1990s. For a large share of Americans, perceptions didn't keep up with reality. In the quiz, only about four in 10 readers knew that the national murder rate last year was lower than the 1990 rate. A Pew Research report in 2016 found that "voters are usually more likely to say crime is up than down, regardless of what official statistics show." For decades, Gallup has asked people whether they think there is more or less crime in the U.S. compared with the year before. Almost every year, the public — usually by overwhelming margins — has said crime has increased. It is common to blame falling police budgets for last year's increase in murders. The National Fraternal Order of Police, former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas have been among those making that connection. The available evidence suggests that budgetary changes were not a cause of last year's murder increase.

 Impatient Democrats: Garland Should Clean House at DOJ

Congressional Democrats are intensifying pressure on Attorney General Merrick Garland to clean house at the Justice Department after revelations that President Trump's DOJ secretly seized communication records belonging to Democratic lawmakers, congressional staffers and journalists. Garland has worked to reassure Democrats that he's taking the issue seriously and pledged to support an independent inspector general's investigation. Democrats are quickly growing impatient and already taking matters into their own hands, opening a formal probe this week to determine who was responsible and hold them accountable, Politico reports. "We cannot wait for the inspector general to share even his preliminary findings with DOJ, some months or years from now, before Congress contemplates a response," said House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY.)

Nadler's panel will investigate the Trump Justice Department's efforts to obtain communications records belonging to two top critics of the former president — House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) — in addition to their aides and family members. Emails released Tuesday showed then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows pushed senior DOJ officials to investigate Trump's unsubstantiated claims of election fraud. While damaging reports from the Trump era pile up, however, Garland's DOJ has maintained the Trump administration's positions on high-profile lawsuits involving the former president and Garland's predecessor, William Barr. That's heightening the urgency of Garland's task for many top Democrats. Schiff says he has urged Garland to review "the entire degree to which the department leadership was politicized by his predecessor." Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) said, "Part of the issue is that Merrick Garland needs to get a sense of what is actually happening. There's a lot of Trump people there doing various things." Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said, "I want to give [Garland] the benefit of the doubt. He comes out of the judiciary and may not have all that great situational awareness about the malevolent political forces around him." 

 Milwaukee Residents Dissatisfied with Police Performance

Milwaukee residents give low ratings to the city’s police department, reports USA Today. A survey by Suffolk University and the newspaper looked at attitudes toward law enforcement amid reckoning over law enforcement around the nation. A third of those surveyed, 35 percent, say the city’s police are doing an excellent or good job, but 61 percent said they are doing a fair or poor job. The assessment among Black residents was particularly harsh: Only one percent say the department is doing an “excellent” job. The poll shows views of the police are complicated, however, with an overwhelming majority of residents saying the problem is “a few bad apples” on the force, not systemic racism by most officers.

The city's police department is without a permanent chief with the violent crime rate skyrocketing during the pandemic and the civilian oversight board embroiled in controversy. Some changes have been made throughout the past year, including the banning of chokeholds and the adoption of a formal community policing policy. The survey found continuing suspicion among many residents toward law enforcement and the difficulties ahead in restoring trust. For the Milwaukee Police Department, the most encouraging finding may be that 63 percent of those surveyed, including a majority across racial lines, agree that Milwaukee police generally treat people of different races fairly, even if there are a few "bad apples" on the force. In contrast, 29 percent, including 36 percent of Black residents, agree that the Milwaukee police are racist in the way they treat people, even if some of them try to do a good job.

 Saudi Embassy Helped Citizens Facing U.S. Charges Flee

A 2018 street fight with two strangers in Greenville, N.C., resulted in Raekwon Moore being stabbed to death, the Washington Post reports. Police apprehended Abdullah Hariri and Sultan Alsuhaymi, both citizens of Saudi Arabia, who eyewitnesses and surveillance camera footage placed at the scene. Prosecutors charged them with first-degree murder but they probably will never stand trial. Days after their alleged crime and before they were charged, they returned to Saudi Arabia, which has no extradition treaty with the United States. The murder charges against the two are the most serious known against dozens of Saudi citizens who are wanted in the U.S.

The Saudi government’s assistance to its citizens who are accused of violent crimes has drawn scrutiny from U.S. law enforcement and condemnation from members of Congress. The FBI concluded that Saudi government officials “almost certainly assist US-based Saudi citizens in fleeing the United States to avoid legal issues, undermining the US judicial process, according to an intelligence bulletin issued in August 2019, which was declassified under legislation written by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to extract more information on the Saudi government’s role. Many Saudis charged with violent crimes were in the United States to study at colleges or universities. Hundreds of thousands of young Saudis have enrolled at U.S. institutions of higher learning over the decades -- 60,000 in 2018, the Saudi government said.

 Trump Finance Chief Could Face Charges This Summer

The Manhattan district attorney’s office appears to have entered the final stages of a criminal tax investigation into Donald Trump’s long-serving chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, the New York Times reports. A grand jury has been hearing evidence about Weisselberg, who is facing intense scrutiny from prosecutors as they seek his cooperation with a broader investigation into Trump and the Trump Organization. It remains unclear whether prosecutors will seek an indictment of Weisselberg, which would be the first criminal charges stemming from the long-running financial fraud investigation into Trump and his family company.

The investigation into Weisselberg focuses partly on whether he failed to pay taxes on valuable benefits that Trump provided him and his family. The Trumps have long been able to count on Weisselberg’s fealty. After working for Trump’s father, Weisselberg has served as the Trump Organization’s financial gatekeeper for more than two decades. Even if Weisselberg chooses not to assist the investigation into his boss, charges against him could mean trouble for Trump. Weisselberg has kept a low profile during his long tenure at the company. His name surfaced three years ago in connection with a federal investigation into hush money paid during the 2016 presidential campaign to two women who said they allegedly had affairs with Trump. Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer who helped arrange the payments to the women, has said Weisselberg was involved. Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2018, is cooperating with the investigation.


Any opinions expressed or positions taken here on Crime and Justice News are those of their respective
authors and should not be construed to be the opinions of ASU or any of its sub-units or programs.