The Ten Most Significant Criminal Justice Stories of 2012


Even in a year marked by heart-wrenching tragedy, we believe it's important not to lose sight of developments in criminal justice that promise to improve the lives of millions of Americans—and even make us safer–as we enter 2013.

For our second annual “Top Ten” list, The Crime Report asked readers, contributors and columnists to join us in nominating the stories and issues they believe have had the most significant impact during 2012—and will bear watching over the next year.

We won't pretend the list is definitive. And, perhaps in a reflection of the kind of year it has been, not all the choices represent “positive” impacts.

But as we've also noted this year, criminal justice appears to be one of the few areas of our national life where there is broad bipartisan agreement on the shape of an agenda for change.

That's worth celebrating in 2012.

Later this week, we'll be running the second part of our annual feature: the top policymakers or newsmakers in criminal justice during 2012.

In some cases, we've credited your comments—although space doesn't permit us to do more. But for those of you who took the time to suggest ideas—our heartfelt thanks.

And to all our readers, from our staff and contributors, we wish you a safe holiday period—and a rewarding and healthy 2013!


1. Supreme Court LWOP decision in Miller v Alabama: progress on Juvenile Justice

On June 24, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that mandatory sentencing of offenders under 18 to Life Without Parole (LWOP) for certain major crimes such as murder violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment.

The decision “will have ramifications for years to come,” noted TCR essayist Matthew Mangino, noting that 39 states will now 'need to amend their existing statutes for juveniles charged with first degree murder.”

And it capped a year of impressive and far-reaching progress in the area of juvenile justice, advancing what TCR contributor Barry Krisberg wrote this year was the “slow march to justice for children.”

Some of the most notable efforts include the closure of juvenile training schools and other youth detention facilities around the country, as authorities began a fundamental re-think of how they deal with juvenile offenders.

“The large congregate juvenile facility is a dinosaur,” Krisberg commented in a note to us, “as states increasingly move towards home-based care and the use of smaller facilities closer to home.”

Not coincidentally, “Close to Home” was the name of a landmark program launched by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2012, with bipartisan support, to create facilities for young offenders in their own communities rather than shipping them upstate—an innovative program which by its own merits would otherwise have earned special mention in the Top Ten.

Adding to the impact of the Court ruling and state actions, efforts to end such egregious practices as solitary confinement for young offenders and placement of youth in adult detention took a huge step forward during the year.

One example, cited by TCR contributor Liz Ryan of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national advocacy group: the set of reforms instituted in Colorado to remove youths awaiting trial from adult jails and allowing judges discretion to decide whether to prosecute young people in adult courts.

Miller v Alabama, as The New York Times noted in a June editorial, underlined a “shift in how the U.S. judicial system views young felons—from irredeemable predators to victims of circumstance with a potential for rehabilitation.”

But it has also left plenty of tough issues to be settled in 2013. Most notably, what to do with the 2,100 persons currently serving life for crimes they committed as juveniles.

An even larger question, underscored by a story written by Daily Beast reporter Clark Merrefield, a 2012 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting fellow, is whether the judicial system can catch up with scientific findings about adolescent brain development.

2. Marijuana Legalization in Washington and Colorado

The nation's so-called War on Drugs took a significant turn in 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use. Voters' decisive approval of Colorado's Amendment 64 and Washington's Initiative 502 will permit those 21 years of age and older to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana.

Whatever your feelings on drugs, it's hard to overlook the votes' significance—as a sign of a new pragmatic approach towards grappling with the nation's addictions. “It directly challenges the 'reefer madness of the last century; and most importantly eliminates (in these two states) a widely used means of police control that's resulted in criminal records for tens of millions of Americans,” comments TCR Los Angeles bureau chief Joe Domanick.

Any shift towards legalization or even modification of federal policies will also have international ramifications—particularly in Latin America, where governments have keenly felt the murderous impact of drug cartels serving the U.S. market.

How the federal government will react remains an open question. President Barack Obama has said that pursuing recreational pot users in Washington and Colorado won't be a “top priority” of the Justice Department, but he's given no indication that the feds will support any larger change.

Still, the growing skepticism (or weariness) of Americans towards current drug policies adds clout to the arguments of those who have been advocating treating our obsession with drugs (of all kinds) as a medical rather than a law enforcement challenge.

3. The Connecticut School Shootings and Mass Gun Violence

Milwaukee. Seattle. Minneapolis. Aurora.

Last week, Newtown CT was added to the sad list of places where a gun-toting stranger opened fire in a public place and left shattered lives and families in his wake.

The 15 separate mass shootings this year left 84 dead and dozens injured. Just as tragically, they challenged our assumptions of safety and immunity from the kind of murderous violence that is supposed to be confined to unstable, poorly governed societies “elsewhere.”

Criminologists and psychologists assure us that the kind of indiscriminate mayhem that occurred in places like the Aurora, CO movie theater, where 12 people died at the hands of a troubled young man with a semi-automatic weapon; or the mall in Portland OR, where earlier this month, two people were killed by a 22-year-old who opened fire randomly; is—and will always be—rare.

But that offers little comfort.

Predictably, Newtown re-ignited the nation's ongoing debate about gun laws, about how we treat and detect mentally ill persons and even about our own cultural fascination with violence. Obama has called on the nation to ask some “hard questions.”

But as TCR's Washington Contributing Editor Ted Gest notes in response to the hardest question of all—whether serious policy changes are likely to happen as a result of the Connecticut tragedy—“If past history is any guide, the sad answer is probably not.”

That doesn't mean the discussion is not worth having. It was no coincidence that within hours of the Newtown shootings, educators around the country were advising teachers and parents on how to answer kids' questions—and relieve their fears.

The essential challenge facing all of us following this year of unfathomable violence is how we can ensure that we never have to answer such questions at all.

4. Trayvon Martin and the intensifying conflict over gun control

One of the most controversial responses to this year's spate of shootings was that their intensity—the number of deaths—might have been reduced if more “law abiding” Americans rather than less were allowed to carry guns.

Arguably, there was no more notable (or controversial) test of that proposition than the February 26 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American youth, in a gated community in Sanford FL.

He was allegedly shot at point-blank range by George Zimmerman, a community law enforcement volunteer, who claims that he was acting in accordance with Florida's “Stand Your Ground” laws—which he said entitled him to use lethal violence to defend himself when his life was threatened.

That argument will get a full airing when the case comes to trial in 2013—but it has already become a cause celebre for those who advocate the spread of “Conceal and Carry” laws and other legislative statutes that supposedly reinforce Americans' Second Amendment rights to carry and use firearms. Such laws are almost universally opposed by law enforcement authorities, who argue that it will make their own jobs harder—and further endanger public safety.

Advocates, on the other hand, say such laws will deter the most violent criminals—or at the very least reduce the toll they take.

But what is incontrovertible is that Americans are buying more guns than ever: gun sales have nearly doubled in the past decade, even as overall crime rates have declined.

And as law enforcement itself suffers from budget cuts, the growing use of neighborhood watch and other community law enforcement volunteers has come under sharp spotlight.

The fact that the Trayvon Martin case has turned into a major national battleground in the gun control issue is also a testament to the rising power of social media to affect our criminal justice agenda.

Many observers believe the Florida shooting—and the shortcomings of the initial investigation by local law enforcement—would have remained a local tragedy, were it not for the efforts of Martin's parents and a dedicated group of supporters whose social media postings on Twitter and Facebook, along with old-fashioned lobbying, quickly went viral and grabbed national attention.

As TCR Deputy Editor Graham Kates observes, noting that both sides in the case are now using those tools, “It has been game-changing.”

5. Social Impact Bonds and DOJ's “Investment in Innovation”

Can the private sector play a role in preventing recidivism? In August 2012, New York City formally launched an initiative in cooperation with Goldman Sachs & Co to support a program aimed at reducing reincarceration rates among young people, based at Rikers Island prison.

The idea was to attract private investor support for social investments that would pay modest dividends if the programs met their goals.

The novel idea has also been picked up by the Department of Justice, which announced two months later support for similar pilot projects—including one called “Pay for Success” in Cuyahoga County, Ohio—that would 'work with philanthropic and other investors to invest in innovative, data-driven service providers that can achieve results.” That plus a similar program in Lowell, MA will receive $800,000 under the federal Second Chance Act.

It's of course too early to know whether this kind of program has a chance at producing results, but it signals an impressive effort by the DOJ to start putting its money into innovative funding—even at a time when money is scarce. As Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech to the International Association of Chiefs of police, such programs are aimed at “the development, implementation and expansion of proven strategies for intervention.”

Other programs targeted by the DOJ this year for “investments in innovation” include: smart probation ($3.7 million, seven states); and neighborhood-level anti-crime project in 15 cities ($11 million).

6. Three Strikes Reform in California

The marijuana referendums last November nearly overshadowed the decision by California voters to reform the state's mandatory-minimum sentencing practices, popularly known as the Three Strikes law.

First instituted more than two decades ago in response to fears of rising crime, the law proved to be one of the most draconian in the nation—consigning offenders to life in prison for even a minor offense such as shoplifting if it was a third conviction.

Passage of Proposition 36, which modifies the law, represents a “victory for human decency and common sense,” wrote TCR contributor Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine School of Law who had argued unsuccessfully at the Supreme Court for a rejection of the law.

It was also part of a “larger nationwide story that has questioned the costs and efficacy of the lock-em up, mandatory minimums stampede of the 1990s,” writes contributor Dave Krajicek. “Bravo, California!” adds TCR essayist Robin Barton. We agree.

7. Camden (NJ) Fires its Cops

In November 2012 Camden (NJ) Mayor Dana L Redd submitted to the state's civil service commission a long-awaited plan to lay off its entire 273-officer police force. The explanation: the city could no longer afford to pay them. Starting in 2013, law enforcement in the city will be contracted out to a county force of non-unionized officers.

A threatened suit could still halt the plan, but Camden's dilemma underlined a grim year of belt-tightening that has affected every level of criminal justice spending across the nation. As reader Steven Jones wrote us, what happened in Camden could “very well provide a blueprint for the restructuring of the 18K+ local police departments in the U.S.”

8. Connecticut and Capital Punishment

In April, 2012 Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish the death penalty. Pointing out that just two people have been put to death in the state in the last 52 years—and 'both volunteered for it,” Gov. Dan Malloy called it a “moment for sober reflection, not celebration.”

Indeed, Connecticut's decision is particularly worth noting in the week following the state's worst gun tragedy. Even though abolition continues to face fierce and powerful opposition, it's part of an underlying trend away from capital punishment across the nation. Executions in the US have decreased by 50 percent in the past decade; and in 2012, Texas reported that the population on the state's death row is lower than it has been in 23 years.

9. Prison-to-College Pipeline

Among the casualties of the 'tough on crime' policies of the last decade were programs designed to support prisoner higher education—on the grounds that such programs (for example, Pell grants for inmates) merely coddled felons. But in 2012, New York State signaled its willingness to re-think such policies with the decision to support the “Prison to College Pipeline (P2CP)”

P2CP, a pilot program launched in Otisville Correctional Facility, two hours north of New York City, was pioneered by professors at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The program funnels inmates who pass college-level courses to a City University of New York college after release—and also brings John Jay undergraduates to the facility to study alongside the inmates. (Full disclosure: the TCR is housed at John Jay and is partially supported by the school).

In this, it is similar to prisoner education programs launched elsewhere, such as the Philadelphia-based Inside Out Prison Exchange, which reader Cherise Fanno Burden nominated as a 'new and fresh approach to prison education—or education period!”

As such programs make headway around the states, with evidence showing a direct impact on lowering recidivism rates, the prospect of a return to federally supported higher education for prisoners education may no longer seem an impossible dream.

10. Pro Bono Requirement for New York Bar

Becoming a lawyer in New York state from now on will require spending time as champion of the poor and oppressed. In the first ever such requirement in the nation, New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced last May that every applicant to the New York bar must show at least 50 hours of pro bono service.

The program, which already affects some first and second year law students and will become mandatory for all by 2015, accepts a variety of legal cases as “credit”—ranging from legal aid services to legal work for nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.

“On every level it makes sense, for new lawyers, for the profession as a whole, for legal providers, for the judges,” said Lippman. Adds TCR Managing Editor Cara Tabachnick: “It is a concrete step towards easing the burdens of public defense and definitely bears watching”—particularly as the nation prepares to mark the 50th anniversary next year of the Supreme Court's ruling in Gideon v Wainright .

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

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