Category: Crime & Punishment

WSJ Highlights Gov. Deal’s Leadership in Justice Reform

One of the factors contributing to Governor Nathan Deal’s re-election victory last November was the attention he paid to criminal justice and prison reforms. His efforts during his first term include revising how sentences are handed out in misdemeanor and felony cases, modifying the juvenile justice system, and working to make it easier for those having served their time to re-enter society.

Last week, President Obama began work on similar reforms at the federal level, visiting a prison in Oklahoma and proposing reforms in juvenile justice. CNN’s coverage includes this statement from the President:

The President has made overhauling the nation’s criminal justice system one of his top domestic priorities as his time in office wanes.

“My goal is that we start seeing some improvements at the federal level and that we’re then able to see states across the country pick up the baton, and there are already some states that leading the way in both sentencing reform as well as prison reform and make sure that we’re seeing what works and build off that,” Obama said Thursday.

Of course states, many led by Republican governors, are already at work on justice reforms, and this editorial in this morning’s Wall Street Journal highlights the efforts of Governor Deal in this area.

The measures Mr. Deal has pushed include giving judges more leeway in sentencing for low-level offenders and allowing charter schools into prison to help inmates get a high school diploma. Mr. Deal appreciates that most prisoners will be released eventually, so society has a big stake in ensuring they have help to find a job and avoid falling into a life that will send them back to prison.

He’s managed to reduce the prison population while keeping crime low, and he’s not alone. A Pew Charitable Trust study reports that from 2008 to 2013 the 10 states that instituted prison reforms and cut their incarceration rates the most saw a greater drop in crime rates than the 10 states that increased their prison populations most.

Georgia Will Execute a Mentally Disabled Man

:: Update ::
Warren Lee Hill is dead. At 7:55 this evening, he was executed in Jackson, Georgia.

In a democracy, the responsibility for a government’s actions ultimately rest with its citizens. Tonight, a mentally disabled man was killed in our name.

Original post:

Tonight, our state will put Warren Lee Hill to death.

Peach Pundit has covered his case before. In 1986, he shot Myra Wright, his girlfriend, 11 times and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Four years later, he bludgeoned a fellow prisoner  (Joseph Handspike) to death with a nail-studded spike. The details of these murders aren’t in contention.

The nature of the man who committed them is. Based on the reports of seven doctors, Mr. Hill has an IQ of 70, placing him on the border of intellectual disability (formerly referred to as mental retardation.) Though four doctors have always maintained he was disabled, three others declared in 2000 that Mr. Hill was not disabled based on two interviews and six days of consideration. In 2013, those three doctors signed an affidavit affirming that Mr. Hill was intellectually disabled based on advances in behavioral psychology and new materials on his mental state. Yet state courts have ruled this reversal legally irrelevant because it is not based on new evaluations of Hill.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the execution of “mentally retarded persons” is forbidden by the Eighth Amendment prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” In May of last year, a 5-4 ruling expanded this decision by striking down Florida’s “bright line” policy that found anyone with an IQ north of 70 intellectually capable. Libertarian-leaning Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that “Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number. Courts must recognize, as does the medical community, that the IQ test is imprecise….”

Since a 1967 public school test, Mr. Hill’s mental capabilities have been questioned; he ranked in the bottom 2% of the population. Since 1991 (longer than I’ve been alive), Mr. Hill has lived under a death sentence. His last day has come and passed three times now, most recently in 2013 due to a court ruling on the chemicals involved in executions. Numerous individuals and organizations of stature have come out against his execution, including former President Carter, the GA Bar Association, the state NAACP chapter, the ACLU, the Council of Europe, the Archbishop of Atlanta, and, most importantly, the victim’s family, who were never consulted about the case.

In any other state, Mr. Hill’s condition would prevent his death. Based on the “preponderance of evidence” test used in death-mad states like Texas and Oklahoma, the four doctors testifying on his behalf would be more than enough to reduce his punishment to life without parole. The recanting of their testimony by the three doctors that testified for the state would put the matter beyond question. Yet Georgia’s standard for mental disability is the near-impossible “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

That standard clearly contradicts the spirit of the Court’s 2014 Hall v. Florida ruling cited above. Government has no power greater than the power to order death; recognizing that, the Supreme Court has limited that power in regards to those who straddle the line between the competent and those who have “the mental capacity of a child.” Better safe than cruel.

This morning, the Georgia Parole Board refused to grant clemency to Mr. Hill. On January 20th, the Georgia Supreme Court denied further hearings. Hill’s lawyers have made their final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping that they will grant a stay before his 7 P.M. execution. Given the court’s restrictive ruling in Hall v. Floridahis attorneys face a potential nightmare scenario: that his execution will be ruled illegal after his death.

Since at least the 1992 death of Ricky Ray Rector (who died so that Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton could become president and famously saved the pecan pie from his last meal “for later”), mental deficiency and Southern executions have been tied in the national and international conscious. It shows up in Family Guy gags and lazy stand-up routines; it has become one of the region’s many clichés. Given our recent obsession with the state’s image and competitiveness, one would expect the state’s power structure to move against the execution if only to prevent the slew of news coverage. Indeed, Charlie has written that “Executing a man who is mentally disabled will not help Georgia maintain and preserve the option of a death penalty.  Quite conversely, it may speed its demise.”

Those who are not capable of understanding the consequences of their actions should not bear the ultimate punishment. Let us hope that the Supreme Court spares us this barbarism.

 

Scant Evidence – Thus Far – to Support Body Camera Mandates

Speaking of unintended consequences and benefits that are difficult to quantify…

During yesterday’s edition of All Things Considered, NPR broadcasted a story detailing the lack of substantive data supporting police body cameras..

Wearable video cameras are fast becoming standard-issue gear for American police. The cameras promise a technological answer to complaints about racial bias and excessive force.

But in fact, the beneficial effects of body cameras are not well-established yet. And the police departments that rushed to buy them are now dealing with some unintended consequences.

The people who like body cameras always point to a study done in Rialto, Calif., in 2012. Researchers found that officers who wore cameras used force less often — incidents dropped by more than 50 percent. That settles it, right?

But one of the researchers who ran the study, Alex Sutherland of the University of Cambridge, says Rialto was not a definitive answer on the effectiveness of cameras.

“The Rialto study is one study. And it could be a fluke,” Sutherland says.

“It’s a small department,” he says. “The police chief was kind of involved in implementation.” Sutherland says that if these particular circumstances aren’t present, then perhaps these cameras “wouldn’t be as effective. But we just simply don’t know that at the moment.”

Some of the unanswered questions: Did the cameras make the difference, or was it the officers’ verbal warnings about being recorded? How important was the camera’s novelty — after all, this was three years ago; does the effect fade as people get used to the cameras?

Sutherland says we can’t say anything definitive until more studies are done, in more places.

“If public money is being spent on this technology, the onus is certain to make sure that it’s being evaluated as it’s being rolled out, rather than deciding that it works and then that’s that,” Sutherland says.

There are currently bills in the Georgia House and Senate that would mandate body cameras for all law enforcement officers in the state; if it becomes law, local governments in every corner of Georgia will presumably need to come up with a way to fund this mandate, which is estimated to run about $125 million for the first three years. Several Georgia police departments, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, have already purchased body cameras, so they are taking on the uncharted task of determining how these cameras impact their community and their police force, but it’s arguably premature to require these cameras for every law enforcement officer in the state with so little data supporting their universal adoption.

Anti-Human Trafficking Film To Play In Atlanta For 1 Week.

Yesterday we received a press release informing us that a movie dealing with the topic of human trafficking will appear in the Atlanta area for a one week limited run. From the release:

Just in time for human trafficking awareness month, the film is now going to play in Studio Movie Grill theaters and will be playing at the Studio Movie Grills at Holcomb Bridge starting on January 30th for one week. The proceeds from the showings in Studio Movie Grill will benefit Traffick911. Tickets are $10.

Studio Movie Grill – Holcomb Bridge
2800 Holcomb Bridge Rd.
Alpharetta, GA 30022

Here’s a little bit about the movie:

Feature film synopsis: After sneaking to a party with her friends, sixteen-year-old Amber Stevens goes missing. Forced into the world of Sex trafficking, her family and community fight to get her back. Inspired by actual events. So much can happen in 8 DAYS.

All proceeds from the film go to anti-trafficking organizations to build safe homes for the victims of this crime. See more at www.findamber.com, www.8daysfilm.org; Facebook: www.facebook.com/8daysfilm; Twitter and Instagram: @8daysfilm

And the trailer:

Unable to Contact Congressman, Gwinnett’s SWAT Team Uses Surplus Military Equipment to Capture Suspect

The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri drew the nation’s attention to the use of military equipment by the Ferguson police as a way of keeping the rioters under control. In Georgia, the Doraville police were called to task for a rather gruesome video of an armored vehicle posted on their home page.

All of this caused Georgia’s Fourth District congressman, Hank Johnson, to try to get support for a bill he introduced that would limit the ability of local police agencies to obtain military grade equipment from the federal government.

In Gwinnett County, Sheriff Butch Conway isn’t a big fan of Johnson’s bill. According to the Gwinnett Daily Post, Conway would like to see what Johnson would do in a situation where SWAT was called out on a mission.

“I don’t think I have Hank’s cellphone number,” Conway said this week, “but I would like to contact him the next SWAT callout we have and, instead of taking one of our armored vehicles to the location, I would invite Hank to walk up to the door and see if they’ll surrender their weapons and come out peacefully. Because Hank seems to think that’s all it takes.”

The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office has received a number of items through the [federal 1033 military surplus] program over the years, most notably an armored personnel carrier known as an LAV150. Used primarily to transport SWAT team members to and from dangerous scenes, it contains no offensive weapons but is plenty daunting.

Conway called the LAV150 a piece of “vital equipment,” and it represents the most conspicuous acquisition any Gwinnett County law enforcement agency has made via the 1033 program.

The Gwinnett Sheriff's Department posted this picture of its SWAT vehicle on Facebook Friday.
The Gwinnett Sheriff’s Department posted this picture of its SWAT vehicle on Facebook Friday.
Thursday, Gwinnett’s SWAT team was called out to capture a murder suspect barricaded in a Lawrenceville home, and sure enough, the sheriff tried to contact the congressman. From a media release posted on Facebook by the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office:

The LAV150 armored personnel carrier, provided to the Sheriff’s Office by the federal 1033 program, which allows the military to give law enforcement agencies a variety of surplus equipment, enabled SWAT members to safely gain close proximity to the home for peaceful negotiations and to maintain communication via the LAV’s speaker system after Jenkins’ cell phone died.

Sheriff Butch Conway was at the scene and, as promised, placed calls to Congressman Hank Johnson’s cell phone (which was discovered to be a wrong number) and office. He was advised by the Congressman’s staff that Congressman Johnson was not available and that the Sheriff’s message would be relayed. At the time of this press release, Sheriff Conway’s call has not been returned.

The murder suspect surrendered after a two hour standoff that included the department rescuing two children inside the home.

Alabama Federal Judge Arrested in Atlanta

An Alabama federal judge accused of assaulting his wife at an Atlanta hotel has been charged with battery.

The AJC is reporting that  55-year-old U.S. District Court Judge Mark Fuller was arrested early Sunday morning after a reported altercation at the Ritz Carlton.

The woman was treated for injuries but refused to be taken to a local hospital. Her identity hasn’t been released.

Fuller is a judge in the Middle District of Alabama in Montgomery and presided over the bribery trial of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy in 2006.

Franklin Road: Growing Pains of Gentrification

Tuesday night of this week I attended a town hall meeting in Marietta almost entirely by accident.  I drove through the blinding rain to Franklin Road to fulfill contractual obligations in regards to a focus group.  What I stumbled upon though, was a vibrant meeting of community members, religious leaders, council members, and the Marietta Police discussing the revitalization and crime of Franklin Road.  If you are unaware (as I was) Marietta passed a $68 million dollar bond issue to revitalize the dilapidated Franklin Road area.  The bond will essentially raze buildings (including apartment complexes) in order for new buildings to be built as well as areas for business.  In addition to the downside of some apartments being lost in the process, the bond will essentially raise taxes for Marietta residents.  However, it should be said that there is no anticipated owner occupied property lost in the redevelopment process.

However, the issue at hand at this particular meeting was less about taxes or even lack of homes and more about children, crime and safety.  Read more

Case Against Former Cobb EMC Chief Can Go to Trial

The Georgia Supreme Court issued a ruling today upholding an indictment of former Cobb EMC CEO Dwight Brown. The Marietta Daily Journal reports that in a 5-2 decision, the court said that even though members of the grand jury that indicted Brown back in 2012 were customers of the electric utility and therefore possibly biased against Brown, there was no constitutional requirement mandating juror impartiality.

The indictment is the second one to accuse Brown of improper conduct while he was Cobb EMC’s CEO. A previous indictment was tossed out by the Georgia Supreme Court in September, 2013. In that case, the court decided the indictment was not obtained in a place open to the public. The current indictment, which consists of 31 counts including theft and racketeering charges, was filed in 2012.

The case will be heard before Cobb County Superior Court Judge Robert Flournoy.

Deal to Veto Private Probation Bill

Over at the AJC, Greg Bluestein is reporting that Governor Nathan Deal intends to veto House Bill 837, the Private Probation bill that some said would limit public disclosure of information about private probation companies, and others saw as giving too much power to those companies over probationers.

In a statement, the Southern Center for Human Rights applauded the governor’s veto and explained many of the objections to the bill:

In courts around Georgia, people who are charged with misdemeanors and cannot pay their fines that day in court are placed on probation, most under the supervision of for-profit companies until they pay their fines. On probation, they must pay these companies substantial monthly “supervision fees” that may double the amount that a person of means would pay for the same offense. Private companies now supervise about 80 percent of all people on probation for misdemeanors in Georgia. Under the leadership of the private probation industry, Georgia has the highest rate of people on probation of any state in the country. Probation is preferable to debtor’s prisons, but the modern alternative is not too far removed.
Read more

Another Moral Monday, This One Protesting Stand Your Ground

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, is holding his third Moral Monday event at the state capitol, with this rally focusing on Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law.

The rally begins at 4 pm.

Fort was quoted on All News 106.7 Monday morning as saying the law encourages a “shoot first” mentality. He says the law permits the use of deadly force when there is only a perception of danger, not real danger.  He also says blacks are more likely to be injured or killed under Stand Your Ground.

President Obama has also called for a review of Stand Your Ground laws across the nation.

Just My Opinion …

Terroristic threats are a crime. I know from experience during a tour of duty in a metro Atlanta 911 center that police can arrest individuals for threatening another person. Even a finger jabbed, in anger, into another person’s shoulder or chest can constitute assault.

I also know that retreat is always … alwaysalways the best option in these instances.

But what’s being overlooked in this debate is that, the person who institutes the threat is committing a crime. Threats are a crime. So what happens to that perpetrator? What consequences does that person face from threatening an innocent person?

Doesn’t a repeal of Stand Your Ground criminalize self defense?

Legislature Considering a Bill to Arm Firefighters

State lawmakers are considering a new gun-carry bill aimed at firefighters. The bill would allow guns to be carried openly or concealed as long as the firefighter has permission from the local fire department.

AllNews 106.7 is reporting the bill comes nearly a year after an armed gunman held a group of firefighters captive in Gwinnett County.

The firefighters had been responding to an emergency medical call at a house. The firefighters were not injured, and the gunman was later killed by police.

Jerry Henry, with gun rights group Georgia Carry, says he supports it. “I think that everyone who engages in any job, or goes outside of their house, and even in their homes should have the opportunity to protect themselves. I don’t know what makes firefighters different from anybody else.”

Gwinnett Sheriff Says Jail Population Down; Credits Sec. 287(g)

A federal law allowing law enforcement personnel to check the immigration status of criminal suspects has been credited for reducing the inmate population at the Gwinnett County Jail. From the Gwinnett Daily Post:

The Gwinnett County jail saw 34,341 inmate admissions in 2013, a drop of more than 5,500 inmates and about 14 percent when compared with 2008. Over the same time period, the jail’s average inmate population dropped roughly 19 percent, hitting just 2,180 last year. A facility that was once “severely overcrowded” now has “a lot of empty housing units.”

[Butch] Conway, Gwinnett’s sheriff since 1997, pointed to one primary factor: a controversial federal program called 287(g).

Under Section 297(g), once trained sheriff’s deputies at the jail identify an incoming inmate as an illegal immigrant, that person is given a detainer that provides for eventual deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The program is also used in Cobb, Hall and Whitfield counties.

While Sheriff Conway credits 287(g) for reducing crime in Georgia’s second most populous county, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union see the program as a case of racial discrimination.

The program has led to deportation of thousands of people and separation of countless families. Between 2006 and April 2012, 14,831 people were deported through 287(g), making Georgia rank fifth among all states based on numbers of deportations.

287(g) has also encouraged racial profiling and targeting of communities of color in the four 287(g) counties. This was recently experienced by Jon-Christopher Sowells who was stopped and subsequently arrested by Snellville police in Gwinnett during a test drive of a BMW for no apparent reason. “They’re treating me like I’m a criminal and I hadn’t done anything,” he told the news media.

Gwinnett began using the 287(g) program in November, 2009. The 2008 recession and subsequent collapse of Gwinnett’s construction industry undoubtedly convinced many immigrants to depart the county and seek their fortunes elsewhere, which could be another factor in the reduced jail population.

Whatever the cause, the reduced number of inmates hasn’t lowered the costs of operating the detention center. Operating expenses, especially labor costs, have caused the sheriff’s budget to increase slightly over the past few years.

Carter: Georgia’s Prison Guards Need a Raise

The chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee says Georgia’s prison guards need a raise, and reducing the state prison population might free up enough money to make that possible.

State Sen. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler) was reacting to a report linking low pay to the high turnover rate among prison guards. Carter said the state is already taking steps to reduce the non-violent prison population.

He told All News 106.7 over the weekend that fewer prisoners means fewer prison guards, and that could mean higher pay for the remaining guards.

The State Department of Corrections had a 31 percent turnover rate last year. The Department of Juvenile Justice reported a 57 percent turnover rate.

Steal School Electricity And Go To Jail

I happened to stumble upon this over at Slashdot. They link to both a story on Ars Technica and 11Alive. This is from Ars:

Kaveh Kamooneh plugged an extension cable from his Nissan Leaf into a 110-volt external outlet at Chamblee Middle School while his son was practicing tennis. A short time later, he noticed someone in his car and went to investigate—and found that the man was a Chamblee police officer. “He informed me he was about to arrest me, or at least charge me, for electrical theft,” Kamooneh told Atlanta’s Channel 11 News.

11Alive has more details:

[Sergeant Ernesto] Ford said he sought the arrest warrant after determining that school officials hadn’t given Kamooneh permission to plug in his car. Ford said Chamblee Police did so without asking school officials if they wanted to prosecute the alleged theft of electricity. A DeKalb Schools spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Records show Kamooneh spent more than 15 hours in the DeKalb County Jail for plugging his car into a school’s electrical outlet.

Kamooneh acknowledges he hadn’t asked permission first. “When I got there, there was nobody there. It was a Saturday morning,” he said.

“A theft is a theft,” Sgt. Ford said. When asked if he’d make the arrest again, he answered: “Absolutely.”

So, of all the things not to do. Don’t steal your local public school’s electricity…even if it was only about 5 or 10 cents worth. ‘Cause that’s just bad.  Remember, it’s For The Children™.