The Ten Most Significant Criminal Justice Stories of 2011

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Beginning this month, The Crime Report introduces an annual assessment of the most significant criminal justice news and developments of the year, produced with the help of our staff, partners, contributors, and bloggers across the country.

What we want to celebrate and take note of—more than anything else—are developments in criminal justice policy, practice and theory that challenge preconceptions and break new ground; and that are worth following up in 2012.

Lists are inevitably subjective. Your list may be different from ours—and that’s fine. We want to hear your comments, suggestions, ideas—and criticism.

Some of our choices cover ideas and approaches begun years before–but for one reason or another showed special promise or produced interesting and replicable results in 2011. Many of the programs that attracted headlines or commentary this year in fact had their roots in the paradigm-busting ideas of a few hardy thinkers as much as a decade ago.

The usual critique is that change in our criminal justice systems happens, for the most part, grudgingly.

But it can happen. Below are some examples that prove the point.

One final note, which we can’t over-emphasize: this list includes notable accomplishments on both the left and the right of the spectrum: we honor both the Right on Crime movement begun by conservatives and new civil rights activism by Eric Holder’s Justice Department— underlining The Crime Report’s rigorous non-partisanship.

It’s been an honor serving our wide and varied community this year—and we wish you & yours a happy, healthy and safe 2012!

–Stephen Handelman, Executive Editor, The Crime Report.

1. Right on Crime

Corrections spending has expanded to become the second fastest growing area of state budgets— trailing only Medicaid. So in one of the most surprising developments of 2011, a group of conservative thinkers decided to do something about it. In just the short year since the group, Right on Crime, has been formed, it has gathered an impressive list of national signatories, including former Florida government Jeb Bush, Edwin Meese and current GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

Their priorities this year have included: fighting over-criminalization in Connecticut, consolidating partly empty prisons in New York and prison diversion programs in Ohio, among others.

Props to Right on Crime for working on the underlying issues of criminal justice reform and not just calling for more tough-on-crime measures.

–Cara Tabachnick

2. Eyewitness ID

Concerns about the reliability of eyewitness identification have preoccupied legal experts for decades. On August 24, the New Jersey Supreme Court provided a major impetus towards changing the way eyewitness evidence is used in criminal cases, with a ruling that provides judges with a new set of ground rules. Citing a “troubling lack of reliability” in such evidence, Chief Justice Stuart J. Rabner, writing for the majority, declared, “From social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves that the possibility of mistaken identification is real.”

New Jersey judges from now on must look at nearly a dozen factors that could affect credibility, ranging from how long a time the witness observed the event to whether the witness was identifying someone of a different race. Although the ruling applies only in New Jersey, the national impact could be significant. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the issue (for the first time since 1977). A ruling is expected by next Spring. However the ruling goes, longtime advocates of re-thinking eyewitness identification such as the Innocence Project, believe that the New Jersey ruling was a landmark step towards accepting scientific research that shows memories are as subject to “contamination’ as any physical evidence.

“Human memory does not operate as a videotape,” wrote TCR blogger and forensic expert James Doyle this year. “It is not stored in a reliable state and available for replay when needed.Specific memories are easy to contaminate, and the contamination (when it occurs) is hard to identify.”

—Stephen Handelman

3. Hawaii HOPE experiment

Project HOPE, a refreshing approach to probation violators , has proven very effective at

reducing crime, drug use and incarceration of felony probationers. This year, its methodology and approach became the increasing focus of attention of courts and law enforcement in jurisdictions around the U.S. as the system has come under increasing budget strains.

HOPE is based on a collaborative working arrangement among key system actors (court, probation, prosecutor, public defender, jail, sheriff and law enforcement). The trigger was the realization by Honolulu Judge Steven Alm, newly assigned to the First Circuit criminal bench, that the probation enforcement system was broken. Rather than take the easy way out and accept things as they were, he set about to fix it.

From the beginning, performance data was collected to enable researchers to assess the effectiveness. The model was implemented at essentially no cost. Funding was subsequently provided (primarily for drug treatment) when the evaluation showed that HOPE worked.

The HOPE model is simple, elegant and based on what we know about how human beings develop and change. But there have been questions about whether it can be applied elsewhere. In 2011, we went a long way towards answering that question following a National Institute of Justice-Bureau of Justice Assistance randomized controlled trial (RCT) field experiment with four jurisdictions. Also a preliminary evaluation (by Angela Hawken and Mark Kleiman) from Seattle just came out, with excellent results.

Proven rules of child rearing are replicated in HOPE. Set clear expectations and limits, establish consequences for non-compliance, and deliver the consequences quickly and consistently when rules are violated. People, including children and most probationers, aren’t stupid. They “get it” when we are serious about observing and enforcing the rules. They also “get it” when we are not serious, which is unfortunately the case in most courtrooms. That so many probationers and parolees violate the rules should not come as a surprise!

–William Burrell

4. Non-incarceration interventions utilized by San Francisco

San Francisco sends adults and juveniles to prisons at a rate well below the average of other counties, saving taxpayers between $147 and $278 million in 2010 for their non-incarceration alternatives, according to CJCJ’s recent report .

San Francisco has 2.2 percent of California’s population, but only 0.9 percent of its incarcerated adults and juveniles.

The city pays $213 million into the prison system each year, more than twice the $92 million its residents generate in state prison costs. Savings came from lower-than-average use of the Three Strikes law, as well more use of alternatives to incarceration. Statistics show crime has also declined with the use of such policies.

–Lisa Riordan Seville

5. Changing rape definition

After years of complaints from police and advocates alike, the FBI is now seriously considering changing how it defines rape. Since 1927, the definition of rape used by the FBI has been “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will,” which excludes incidents of anal or oral penetration, male rape, and incidents where force is not used.

Many states already track such crimes but don’t submit them to the federal Uniform Crime Reporting data collection program as rapes because of its narrower definition. That, experts say, misleads the public about the prevalence of rape and leads to fewer resources to investigate the crimes and catch the attackers.

The momentum for change has been building since Fall 2011, when advocates and law enforcement met about this issue. An FBI panel recommended a new federal definition of rape. The directive is awaiting the signature of FBI director Mueller. Kudos to people behind the push, as this new definition will not only bring justice to victims of sexual assault but bring more awareness and training to law enforcement and the public.

–Cara Tabachnick

6. Think Outside the Cell

Think Outside the Cell: A New Day. A New Way, the first national symposium and call to action on issues affecting the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated, and their families, brought together some of the best minds in the country in New York City in September 2011. The symposium, at New York’s Riverside Church, was an outgrowth of a project begun in 2005 by former New York Times Reporter Sheila Rule, and her husband Joseph Robinson, who is serving a 20-year term in a New York state prison, to publish the writings of prison inmates.

The meeting, which was addressed by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and other major figures, covered reintegration, recidivism, mass incarceration, the social stigmas and depression faced by the formerly incarcerated, and collateral damage of incarceration on families and communities.

The event proved to be an overwhelming success, due in large part to the critical need of family members, social justice activists, lawmakers and others for accurate information on the myriad concerns and challenges faced by everyone touched by prisoner reentry

–Mansfield Frazier

7. New Media In Criminal Trials

The use of new media to cover criminal trials, most notably the extensive use of Twitter to cover the Steven Hayes trial in Connecticut, was a notable development in 2011. The defense claimed that more than 140,000 Twitter messages were sent by reporters during the trial.

Although this trial wasn’t the first in which the use of new media, including live blogging, was an issue, it’s worth noting because 1) the defense was pointing to the use of new media as a ground for appeal, claiming it poisoned the jury; and 2) it indicates a trend in how reporters will likely be covering criminal cases, especially high profile ones, in the future.

–Robin Barton

8. DOJ Website
The U.S. Department of Justice created a new website,, in 2011 to help

taxpayers judge the effectiveness of state and local anticrime programs.

The site, unveiled this past June at the National Institute of Justice’s annual crime research conference near Washington, D.C., was billed by federal officials as a “single, credible, online resource to inform practitioners and policymakers about what works in criminal justice, juvenile justice, and crime victim services.”

Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General for Justice Programs, started the project when she returned to government service in 2009. A team of experts from her office and the Maryland- based private firm Development Services Group (DSG) assembled the database by reviewing academic studies that have reviewed hundreds of anticrime programs under accepted scientific standards.

Each program was classified in one of three categories: effective, promising, or no effects. Officials emphasized that the site is a work in progress, with new evaluations added almost daily.

–Ted Gest

9. Revival of US DOJ civil rights division

The Department of Justice breathed new life into its civil rights division during 2011, with investigations of police departments in New Orleans, Seattle and Portland, OR. The division is also bringing charges against controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio following a three year investigation into his alleged racial profiling tactics against undocumented immigrants. And as the political season swings into high gear, the DOJ is also taking aim at alleged voter suppression tactics employed in several states, such as the requirement of photo IDs.

The actions bear the imprint of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who has withstood repeated calls for his resignation—most recently 75 members of Congress co-sponsored a vote of ‘no confidence’ in his ;leadership, based partly on the so-called “Fast and Furious” scandal involving controversial efforts by agents of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to take down a Mexican drug cartel. “I think what I’m doing is right,” Holder said in an interview with The New York

Times this month. “The stands I have taken are totally consistent with a person who is looking at things realistically, factually.”

–Ted Gest

10. Justice Realignment (California)

In May 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s severe prison overcrowding constituted “cruel and unusual” punishment under the 6th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and ordered the state to reduce its adult prison population by over 30,000 inmates within the next two years. The state responded in Oct. 2011 with a “realignment plan” that amounted to an historic shift in in the state’s sentencing laws that now sends people convicted of nonviolent and non-serious crimes to local county jails instead of state prison, and gives the counties responsibility for their inmates custody, rehabilitation and supervision.

The shift is expected to save California hundreds of millions of dollars in in reduced costs to a state prison budget that had gone at high as $11 billion a year, while producing 67.5 percent recidivism rate— one of the highest in the country. Critics charge that realignment will put pressure to release inmates early on the 32 of California’s 58 counties that already have court- ordered limits imposed on their jail populations, and could negatively impact California’s record low crime rate.

–Joe Domanick

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