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Criminal Justice and Public Safety

In this section we report on issues relating to public safety.

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Acosta cuts budget to fight child exploitation

2019-Jul-10By: Barry Shatzman

Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta has proposed cutting funding to the government agency that fights child labor and human trafficking.

By 80 percent.

Under Acosta's proposal, funding for the International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB) would be reduced from $68 million to $18.5 million.

Cuts proposed despite Acosta's acknowledgement of problem

In the agency's 2017 report on child labor, Acosta writes in the foreward, "152 million child laborers and 25 million forced laborers are estimated to still sweat and toil worldwide."

Acosta explains the problem as an issue of fair trade - writing that "U.S workers have been left to compete on an uneven playing field."

He adds that "these reports show us that we need to accelerate progress toward ending child labor, forced labor, human trafficking, and modern slavery. This is vital if we are to make trade fair for all."

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FBI surveillance devices may interfere with 911 calls

2018-Aug-24By: (External links)

FBI surveillance devices may interfere with 911 calls, U.S. senator says

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Louisiana police strangle man asking to see warrant against him

2018-Aug-03By: (External links)

Video: Louisiana Cops Strangle Black Man to Death for Asking to See Arrest Warrant

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House casts (symbolic) vote to end Civil Asset Forfeiture

2017-Sep-30By: Rob Dennis

Republicans and Democrats alike in the House of Representatives have unanimously voiced their support to end the law enforcement practice of confiscating property from people who haven't been convicted of a crime.

Under civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement agencies can seize cash, cars, businesses and homes from people they suspect of criminal activity, before the suspects have been convicted - or even arrested and charged.

The practice, in large measure a response to the drug war, seems to upend the constitutional presumption of innocence. In order to get their property back, individuals have to prove it was not obtained through criminal means.

Yet it currently is considered constitutional. For nearly 200 years, the Supreme Court has ruled that civil forfeiture punishes the property, rather than the owner. When the government seizes property, it files a complaint against the property itself, leading to bizarrely titled court cases such as United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins.

The practice also raises conflicts of interest concerns - because the confiscated assets often go to the very departments that are seizing them.

Many states have clamped down on the practice in the past three years. But state and local law enforcement agencies had been able to get around the restrictions by giving seized property to the federal government, which then would return some of the proceeds to the local agency.

The Obama administration put an end to this Equitable Sharing Program in 2015. However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in July that he would reverse the Obama-era policy.  

The House's action to curb civil asset forfeiture came in the form of three amendments to the Make America Secure and Prosperous Appropriations Act. They would block the attorney general from reinstating the policy. The amendments were sponsored by Republicans Justin Amash and Tim Walberg, and Democrat Jamie Raskin, with bipartisan co-sponsors. They were approved by a unanimous voice vote.

Though the spending bill - with these amendments - passed the House, it is not likely to pass the Senate in its current form due to numerous provisions that would be detrimental to the environment and the health of many Americans (click on the bill's link for a list of some of these provisions).

It passed the House on a party-line vote, with Rep. Collin Peterson the only Democrat voting in favor. It will need 60 votes to pass the Senate.

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Trump Re-OKs transfers of military weapons to police

2017-Aug-28By: Rob Dennis

President Trump has signed an executive order that again will allow the unrestricted transfer of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.

The order rescinds a ban on transfers to police departments of equipment such as...

o Armored vehicles that run on tracks (rather than wheels)
o Weaponized aircraft and vehicles
o Grenade launchers
o Bayonets
o Weapons and ammunition of .50-caliber and higher

It also removes restrictions on other gear, and restores federal grant programs for police departments to purchase military-style equipment.

More than $5 billion in surplus equipment has been transferred to law enforcement since Congress initiated the program in 1990 (since 1997 it has been referred to as the 1033 Program).

President Barack Obama restricted the equipment transfers in January 2015 after police in Ferguson, Mo., deployed armored vehicles and other military gear to quash protests against the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, drawing widespread criticism.

A study published in the American Economic Journal found that the transfer of surplus military equipment to law enforcement leads to a small reduction in crime - with no increases on the number of assaults on police officers, offender deaths, and arrest rates.

However, the study found that fewer crimes were prevented by vehicles and weapons, compared to nonlethal equipment such as computer technology and office supplies - which also are part of the program (but were not restricted by the Obama administration).

The equipment tends to be used mostly in routine - rather than extreme - situations, according to a 2014 study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The study found that almost 8 out of every 10 militarized police SWAT deployments were to serve search warrants - most commonly in drug investigations. Only 7 percent of the deployments were for hostage, barricade or active-shooter scenarios. More than half of the people affected were black or Latino.

The Trump administration also has overturned other Obama-era criminal justice policies, including a plan to end private prisons, Department of Justice consent decrees to tackle civil rights abuses, and curbs on civil asset forfeiture.

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Many inmates kept in prison after sentences end

2016-May-24  (Updated: 2016-Jun-07)By: Barry Shatzman

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is looking into why more than 4,000 prison inmates since 2009 were not released when they were supposed to be. Three inmates were held for more than a year after their sentences ended.

According to the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), most of the late releases were beyond the control of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Reasons included an inmate's sentence being reduced to a shorter time than he already had served.

However, 157 cases were the result of staff errors. That represents a small percentage, but the cost is significant to both the inmate and society. The OIG reports that it cost taxpayers approximately $1.5 million to pay for both the additional incarceration and lawsuits.

There are other costs as well. When an error is discovered, the inmate is immediately released. The quick release may deprive the inmate of programs that would help him reintegrate into society - as those are planned to take place before the scheduled release date.

Errors also resulted in 5 inmates being released early. All of them were rearrested within a month, and none were charged with any crimes while free. There still is the potential for harm to society and to the inmate - who might have found a job and re-established family and community ties, the report stated.

Low staffing - the result of a hiring freeze and the 2013 sequester - contributed to the staff errors, the report states.

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In a car crash? The Textalyzer can test for distracted driving

2016-Apr-28By: Barry Shatzman

If you're in a car crash, a police officer can test your breath to see if you've been drinking alcohol. The state of New York is proposing that police also be able to see if you were using your cell phone at the time of a crash.

The bill would allow officers to use a tool call the Textalyzer, which would scan your phone for prohibited activity such as texting, talking on the phone without a hands-free device, or taking a picture. The scan would not examine the content of an email or text message - it merely would detect whether one was sent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that each day in the United States more than 8 people are killed and 1,000 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver.

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Bill would require ID to buy prepaid phones

2016-Mar-23  (Updated: 2016-May-11)By: Barry Shatzman

Inexpensive cell phones with prepaid time are a practical option for someone who needs a phone just for emergencies or other limited uses.

Because they can be bought with cash and don't require signing up with a carrier, they can be used completely anonymously - which has made them a standard tool for those planning to commit crimes.

Before law enforcement can even attempt to link the phone number to a person, these burner phones can simply be thrown away and replaced with a new one (with a new phone number).

Rep. Jackie Speier has introduced a bill that would require anyone buying these mobile phones to provide identification with their name, address, and birth date. The information would be kept with the service provider and would be available for law enforcement officials to use.

In a statement about the bill, Speier pointed out that burner phones have been used to plot terrorism attacks. "As we've seen so vividly over the past few days, we cannot afford to take these kinds of risks. It's time to close this 'burner phone' loophole for good."

A similar bill was introduced in 2010 by Sen. Charles Schumer.

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Nearly 150 wrongly convicted people exonerated last year

2016-Feb-03  (Updated: 2016-Feb-09)By: Barry Shatzman

149 people were exonerated of crimes last year for which they had spent an average of 14 years in prison, according to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations.

Some statistics about the exonerations...

o 58 were for homicide convictions. More than two-thirds were minorities. Half were African American. Five of those exonerated had been sentenced to be executed.

o 27 of the wrongful convictions were based on false confessions - mostly by defendants who were minors or mentally handicapped.

o 65 of the wrongful convictions involved official misconduct.

o In 75 of the convictions no crime actually had occurred.

While 149 people actually were exonerated, the National Registry of Exonerations estimates that there are tens of thousands of people who are falsely convicted of a crime each year.

A separate report by the Innocence Project released in February documents 337 cases in which wrongfully convicted people were exonerated by DNA evidence in the past 25 years.

Of those 337 wrongly convicted people...

o 206 were African American
o 104 were Caucasian
o 25 were Latino
o 2 were Asian American

Combined, those who were wrongly convicted and then exonerated served more than 4,500 years in prison. Twenty of those had been sentenced to be executed.

The Innocence Project report states, "These DNA exoneration cases have provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events, but arise from systemic defects that can be precisely identified and addressed."

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Local police barred from receiving military equipment

2015-May-18By: Barry Shatzman

Local police departments no longer will be allowed to receive certain military equipment from the federal government.

The equipment includes...

o Armored vehicles that run on tracks (rather than wheels)
o Weaponized aircraft and vehicles
o Grenade launchers
o Bayonets
o Weapons and ammunition of .50-caliber and higher

A committee of top administration officials has determined that the now-banned equipment has a "substantial risk" of being misused and could "significantly undermine community trust and may encourage tactics and behaviors that are inconsistent with the premise of civilian law enforcement."

The Federal Interagency Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group was created by President Obama in response to concerns over the "militarization" of local law enforcement agencies.

In addition to recommending which equipment to restrict, the committee also was tasked with coming up with ways to ensure law enforcement agencies that receive equipment are properly trained and that the equipment is not used in ways that violate civil rights.

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Senate passes bill to fight human trafficking

2015-Apr-23  (Updated: 2015-May-29)By: Barry Shatzman

The Senate has approved a bill that would strengthen enforcement of human trafficking laws and provide support to victims. Part of the funding would come from a fine imposed on those convicted.

The Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act passed 99-0, yet it had been held up for a month over a clause to prevent any of money from fines being used to pay for abortions (read the Lobby99 related story).

Senate Democrats objected to a clause known as the Hyde Amendment - which prevents federal money from being used to pay for abortions. In this case, the clause would have applied to the money from fines - the first time it would apply to money not from taxes.

The bill was modified so that none of the money from fines would be used for any health services - making Senate Republicans willing to remove the Hyde Amendment from that part of the bill. Health services would instead be provided from federal funds. Because that money still remains restricted by the clause, the "compromise" is merely an accounting change.

It is too early to know how this bill would deal with victims who become pregnant - since the Hyde Amendment provides for exemptions in the case of rape.

2015-May-29: President Obama signed the bill into law.
2015-May-19: The House of Representatives approved the Senate's changes.

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Supreme Court: Warrant required to search mobile phones

2014-Jun-25By: Barry Shatzman

The Supreme Court has ruled that police must obtain a warrant to search the mobile phones of people they arrest. The case was Riley v. California.

A police officer still may examine the device for a hidden weapon such as a razor blade, but may not search the electronic contents without a warrant.

For more, read the New York Times story.

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Supreme Court: DNA samples may be taken from arrestees

2013-Jun-05By: Rob Dennis

The Supreme Court ruled that police can take DNA samples when someone is arrested in connection with a serious crime.

The federal government and 28 states allow DNA to be collected from people who are arrested - some only in the case of a violent crime and some only after a conviction.

The case, Maryland v. King, was a challenge to Maryland law - based on the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. The fourth amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The challenge was brought by Alonzo Jay King, whose DNA was taken after a 2009 arrest for assault and used to connect him to an unsolved rape and robbery.

In Maryland, the sample is destroyed if the person arrested is not convicted.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the 5-4 decision, which overturned a ruling from Maryland's highest court. He said the use of DNA for identification "is no different than matching an arrestee's face to a wanted poster of a previously unidentified suspect; or matching tattoos to known gang symbols to reveal a criminal affiliation; or matching the arrestee's fingerprints to those recovered from a crime scene."

The police have a legitimate interest in identifying the person in custody and making sure a dangerous person is not released on bail, he said.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that the law violates the Fourth Amendment - "that the government may not search its citizens for evidence of crime unless there is a reasonable cause to believe that such evidence will be found."

For more, read the Washington Post story.

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