Black Lives Matter is Top News Story of 2015

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Judging by news reports, Americans were experiencing more fear and insecurity in the closing months of 2015 than at any time since the 9/11 attacks. Last week’s massacre in San Bernardino and the earlier shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs reignited long-festering debates on gun control and domestic terrorism.

Nevertheless, in our fifth annual survey of the most significant criminal justice news stories and developments, TCR readers looked beyond those tragedies to focus on the injustices experienced daily by our most marginalized citizens at the hands of the U.S. justice system—and the network of civic activist groups that has emerged in response.

In choosing the growing political profile of Black Lives Matter and related organizations as the major development of 2015, readers also appeared to signal their faith and optimism in the ability of American civil society to drive change.

“(Black Lives Matter) brought national attention to issues of police brutality in the U.S.,” said one TCR reader who requested anonymity. “And they have continued to fight to keep this subject in the spotlight.”

Although the San Bernardino event occurred after we posted our nominations last week, that didn’t mean the incidents of mass killings which have plagued America during a violent year—such as the June 17 massacre of nine people in an African-American church in Charleston, SC and the shooting spree in Colorado Springs that left four dead (including the shooter) and nine injured on November 27—were ignored.

The troubling phenomenon of domestic terrorism—targeted attacks that have been tied at least in part to ideological hatreds or racial bias—came in at fifth place on TCR’s “Top Ten” List.

Nevertheless, by an overwhelming consensus, the most important developments were those that represented seedbeds for change.

And we think that’s significant. TCR readers, of course, are among the country’s most informed audience when it comes to criminal justice. Many of you are deeply involved in the nuts and bolts of the system, as academics, practitioners, advocates and journalists (just to name a few categories).

So your grassroots-informed confidence is a useful counterpoint to the pessimism, anger and fear that seem to dominate cyberspace and the daily headlines as we head into the 2016 presidential election year.

Here’s what you decided were the significant news developments this year, in order of voting, along with some of your comments:

1. Black Lives Matter

Born out of nationwide protests following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in Florida, Black Lives Matter picked up influence following the events in Ferguson last year—emerging in 2015 as both a powerful voice for young Americans of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, and a potent organizing platform for a new national conversation on race, policing and the justice system. Along with similar activist groups such as Campaign Zero, it has fueled what some are calling the Second Civil Rights Movement—and it’s resonated beyond U.S. borders.

As the reader quoted above pointed out, Black Lives Matter and related organizations have also made “an international impact in countries like Mexico and Brazil, which similarly struggle with high levels of police corruption and brutality.”

2. Policing Goes Viral

A citizen’s cellphone camera captured the graphic details of the April 12 detention of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, whose death in police custody sparked several days of rioting. A June 8 video showing a white Texas police officer manhandling young black people at a pool party led to the officer’s dismissal. Another video on Oct 26 showed a school resource officer in South Carolina throwing an unruly student to the floor. In all three cases, the videos went viral on YouTube. Over the course of 2015, such videos—including footage captured by officers’ body-worn cameras or patrol car dashcams—have become the reflex accompaniment to stories about policing. “We are learning, as long suspected,” quips TCR Contributing Editor David Krajicek, “that cops lie at least as much as the rest of us.”

The now-ubiquitous presence of such technology is transforming America’s relationship with law enforcement, and over 56 per cent of readers in our survey made this a close second to the rise of Black Lives Matters. “Without it,” wrote Carl Dash, “the pervasiveness of police misconduct would be dismissed.” Another anonymous reader wrote that it has changed “the way every single officer across the country approaches his or her job.”

As many as 4,000 U.S. police agencies have already assigned body-worn cameras to their officers. For citizens, police as well as prosecutors, the implications of these new tools are still unclear. Readers acknowledge that even as they encourage a “profound change” in police conduct, they are also likely to raise concerns about privacy as the technology continues to spread.

3. Sentencing Reform

On October 22, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a long-awaited overhaul of federal sentencing—moving the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to the Senate floor. There is still widespread skepticism that all of the proposed changes will ever be enacted into law, but together with the ongoing movement at the state level to enact similar reforms, it has helped to galvanize the national conversation over reducing incarceration—and garnered over 45 percent of TCR votes to take third place in the year’s list of top stories.

It’s a development, explained one reader, “I never expected to see.” What made it particularly significant, added Carnegie Mellon criminologist Alfred Blumstein, was that it represents the “single issue on which the left and right have been able to come together.”

4. Jails in the Spotlight

For most Americans who find themselves in trouble with the law, jails are the primary experience with the nation’s justice system, with 12 million people entering them every year. But discussions about corrections reform have largely focused on prisons, overshadowing the serious abuses and overcrowding that afflict county and municipal detention facilities across the nation.

But this year, the curtains began to lift on this long-neglected corner of justice—as a result of some well-publicized tragedies. On June 8, Kalief Browder, a young man who spent three years in New York’s notorious Rikers Island detention facility awaiting trial (including two years in solitary) commited suicide at his parent’s home—adding momentum to a growing movement to close Rikers down. Less than two weeks earlier, the MacArthur Foundation announced the first of its pilot grants to 20 cities in a $75 million project to fund innovative programs aimed at reducing the use of jail.

“Focusing on jails and unnecessary pretrial detention prevents harm and damage to individuals, families and communities,” wrote Fred Patrick, adding that he hoped greater attention to jails as the “front door to mass incarceration” will leave “fewer people… exposed to conditions of confinement that are not well-suited to prepare people to succeed upon return to the community.”

5. The Charleston Massacre

The June 17 massacre of nine people in a historic black church in Charleston, SC by a young white man spouting white supremacist views added to concerns about “lone wolf” domestic terrorism in the U.S.—concerns that were exacerbated by the tragedies in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino. Some readers considered such incidents as more examples of the ease with which high-powered weapons can be obtained by troubled individuals, pointing for example to the murders of 10 people (and injuries to 9 others) at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon by a heavily armed 26-year-old student (who then killed himself). But others focused on the rising incidence of bias and hate crimes, such as the killing of three Muslim Americans in Chapel Hill, NC in February.

6. Presidential Pulpit

President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a U.S. prison on July 16 when he toured Oklahoma’s El Reno Correctional Institute—capping a year in which he used the White House as a bully pulpit to weigh in on issues ranging from policing (attending a conference of police chiefs in Chicago and a justice summit in DC) to prison reform. In May, his Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued its final report with a long list of recommendations on reforming law enforcement.

The president’s high profile in criminal justice earned votes from readers both as a top newsmaker in 2015 as well as a significant news development. (Next week, TCR will announce the Criminal Justice Newsmaker of the Year.)

In a comment that reflected the views of many TCR readers, Fred Patrick called Obama’s role “huge.” Singling out, as well, federal efforts such as reviving elements of the once-moribund Pell Grants for prisoner education and directing a federal review of the overuse of solitary confinement, Patrick praised the president for using “smart politics to push and cajole on CJ reform”—not to mention giving Attorney General Eric Holder and his successor Loretta Lynch “the room and support to push forward on these important matters.”

7. Right & Left Together

In a perhaps not-unrelated development, leading foundations and advocates across the political spectrum announced on February 19 the Coalition on Public Safety to press for a major overhaul of corrections and sentencing at the federal and state levels. Prominent conservative voices like Koch Industries have joined the coalition. Koch underlined its commitment by organizing what it called a “trans-ideological” summit on justice in New Orleans in November. While skeptics abound, readers believed the love-fest between liberals and conservatives is likely to have an impact on the justice debate in 2016.

Andrew Davies, for example, described it as agenerational shift in the politics of law and order.” And he related it to some of our top choices above: “Almost everything else in our current criminal justice scene—from Black Lives Matter to capital punishment repeal to the Ferguson Effect debate—only makes sense if you first understand there is a new political language being talked in this area. It’s a huge, seismic shift changing the landscape of the whole field.” TCR Contributing Editor Graham Kates called it the “mainstreaming” of the national conversation on justice reforms.

8. Heroin in the Heartland

Many are calling the rise in heroin addiction the “sleeper issue” in the 2016 campaign—affecting suburban communities as well as inner-city residents. Combined with what law enforcement and political leaders in many states have identified as an upsurge in prescription drug abuse and the spread of new “designer drugs,” it has re-kindled a long-overdue debate about whether to shift the country’s “war on drugs” from a focus on punishment to providing better tools for treating addiction as a health epidemic. In response to these concerns, the White House on August 17 announced an initiative to fight spreading heroin and prescription drug abuse in 15 states, combining treatment programs with a stepped-up battle against drug traffickers.

9. Rethinking the Death Penalty

Long an ever-green issue in our annual rankings, the debate over capital punishment reached a potentially decisive moment during 2015, TCR readers believe. Nebraska became the seventh state in the last decade to repeal the death penalty on May 27, but the repeal was suspended after local groups secured support for a referendum on the issue next November. That, in the words of one commentator, makes it “ground zero” in what is expected to be a new battle that could eventually end in the Supreme Court.

The issue similarly roiled other states in 2015. Massachusetts enacted a death penalty moratorium, while Oklahoma, Georgia and Mississippi were among the jurisdictions wrestling with the use of lethal injections. Meanwhile, although national support for the death penalty is dropping, juries have taken widely different approaches. Dzokhar Tsarnaev received the death penalty for the Boston Marathon bombings, but James Holmes got 12 life terms for the Aurora, CO theater shootings. Is the legal landscape changing? Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer hinted in June it may be time to reconsider the constitutionality of capital punishment.

10. A New Crime Wave?

Homicide counts rose during 2015 in Baltimore, New Orleans and a half dozen or more big cities. As TCR’s Washington Bureau Chief Ted Gest says, the crime spikes raise questions “about whether the nation’s crime decline has bottomed out, and whether police loss of aggressiveness under criticism is a contributing factor.” Readers noted the controversy over the supposed “YouTube Effect” of viral video (see above) on de-policing—a theory that got controversial backing in October from FBI Director James Comey..

But at the same time, the reported increases fueled a longstanding debate about crime statistics that will prove significant over the coming years. A movement is already underway, led by major law enforcement organizations as well as criminal justice researchers, to press the Justice Department for an overhaul of the way the nation compiles and assesses crime figures.

The concerns about a new crime wave edged out some of the other developments vying for placement in our top Ten list—but just barely—so we thought it’s worth noting some other major developments on our list that caught readers’ attention during the year.

Immigration and Crime: The July 1 killing of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle by a stray bullet fired by an undocumented immigrant while walking on San Francisco’s Pier 14 added fuel to the unfolding debate over immigration, crime and “sanctuary cities” —and is likely to resonate during the 2016 campaign.

Juvenile Justice: Several readers singled out the November 6 proposal by Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 20. If the governor’s proposal—the first such in the nation—becomes law, it will influence the developing debate over alternatives to a juvenile justice system that many advocates charge ignores the most current research on adolescent brain development and puts too many at-risk youth behind bars.

In that respect, as TCR contributor Marc Schindler noted, the “significant and sustained drop in juvenile confinement” nationwide should attract special notice, contrasting with the “modest” one percent drop over the year in the adult prison population.

We’re the first to admit that “lists” can be artificial frameworks—and many readers chose to add their own stories to the original nominations prepared by TCR staff and contributors.

Some of those stories, such as Pope Francis’ visit to a Philadelphia prison during his historic September tour of the U.S. (and his denunciation of capital punishment in a speech to Congress) echo some of the developments highlighted by readers above.

Others are noteworthy in their own right. One reader, for instance, called our attention to the achievements during the year of the movement for “Swift and Certain” punishment in Washington State, launched in 2014 and spearheaded by then-state Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner and Dr. Angela Hawken at Pepperdine University.

That in fact underlined, as we noted above, the prevailing optimism among our TCR readership for the eventual triumph of smart, evidence-based approaches to justice reform.

As one reader put it, “continuing on the path we have been going in the criminal justice system has been futile.”

It’s a message we hope gains traction on the campaign trail next spring and fall.

Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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