Many Americans will be glad to see the end of 2016.
Violence seemed to crowd out most of the other headlines—whether it was police killings of civilians, ambushes against cops, terrorist-inspired murder, or urban homicides. And whatever their political views, Americans reported high levels of stress resulting from the bitter—and occasionally racist and misogynist— rhetoric that accompanied the presidential contest.
So it should surprise no one that our sixth annual feature on the year’s ten top criminal justice news stories and developments, and the most impactful criminal justice newsmaker, reflects those feelings of unease, as well as concern about what the future holds.
“We’re hurting,” said then-Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown, who was overwhelmingly selected by staff, contributors and readers of The Crime Report as the most significant criminal justice newsmaker of the year.
Brown was speaking in the wake of the shocking ambush of police officers by a lone sniper in July, which left five dead and nine wounded. But he might just as well have been referring to the sense of pain and loss experienced this year by countless American families that lost loved ones to violence.
Some of those families live in Chicago, where the toll of killings reached the stunning number of 739 (so far) this month, or other troubled neighborhoods in 13 of the nation’s largest cities which experienced increases in homicides. Others live in Orlando, where the nation continues to mourn with the relatives and survivors of the June 12 nightclub massacre which took 49 lives and represented the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism since 9/11.
And we stand in silent tribute to the officers who lost their lives—not just in Dallas, but in Baton Rouge, Americus, Ga, and other places where law enforcement has been targeted in a disturbing series of armed attacks.
These were among the stories and developments singled out by those who participated in this year’s survey.
Our poll also showed that the pervasive climate of uncertainty was exacerbated by two other developments that had—and will continue to have—a major impact on criminal justice. The first was the election of Donald Trump, whose self-described “law-and-order” candidacy represented a throwback to the “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s, and which many observers worry portends abandonment—or at least a freeze—of the nationwide justice reform movement that received a boost during the eight years of President Barack Obama’s administration.
Over half of those who participated in the poll this year selected the revelations by American intelligence agencies that hackers connected with Russian intelligence not only penetrated the e-mails of U.S. campaign operatives, but used what they found in selected leaks intended to influence the election outcome. Congressional investigations may or may not show whether the attempts originated at the highest levels of the Kremlin—in the office of President Vladimir Putin himself—but what’s increasingly clear is that American cyberspace is in danger of becoming a vast crime scene, vulnerable to political as well as commercial sabotage.
An important disclaimer to what you are about to read: Our annual surveys are far from “scientific,” but they reflect the views and perspectives of some of the most knowledgeable observers of criminal justice today: journalists, academics, justice practitioners, think-tankers and advocates (in other words, TCR readers and subscribers).
As such, they are—and should be—a contribution to the public debate on criminal justice.
A final note: We’ve added where appropriate (and shortened for space) some of our participants’ comments on the reasons for their choices, as well as some issues and newsmakers which didn’t make the final list, but which we think are worth noting.
To those of you who participated in this year’s exercise, we appreciate the time you took during the busy holiday season to respond. To all of our readers—we wish a happy, healthy and safe 2017.
And as we prepare for another year of impactful developments, please also consider subscribing or making a donation (or both!) to The Crime Report, the nation’s most comprehensive online hub for criminal justice news, research and commentary.
THE TOP TEN JUSTICE STORIES OF 2016
1.Cops and Guns. As of December 21, 933 civilians were shot by police in cities and towns across the country, almost matching the nearly 1,000 deaths resulting from officers’ use-of-force last year. In last year’s TCR poll, the nationwide movement, spearheaded by groups like Black Lives Matter and generated by civilian deaths, was the lead development. Over 80 percent of our participants in this year’s poll think it is still the nation’s biggest criminal justice challenge. A typical comment from Michelle Anderson charged that cops’ “Protect and Serve” motto has degenerated to “Arrest And/or Shoot First.” The Washington Post, which last year launched the country’s only comprehensive database on police shootings, found that in the first six months of 2016, about half the shooting victims were individuals of color.
Nevertheless, as TCR contributing editor David Krajicek points out, police appear to be listening. “Largely out of view,” he writes, “professional policing organizations are working with law enforcement agencies to establish best-practice reforms that focus on de-escalation,” and other conflict-averting strategies, as well as improvements in training and recruiting. The outcome of such efforts will bear watching in 2017.
2.Trump(ed) Justice? President-elect Donald Trump made “law and order” one of the central themes in his political campaign, effectively putting crime high on the national election agenda for the first time in many years. While many of his charges related to crime rates were inaccurate, they underlined the mindset of some top advisors like Rudy Guiliani and Sen. Jeff Sessions (now attorney general-designate), who have been openly hostile to the reform efforts pushed during the eight years of Barack Obama’s administration. It’s still too early to tell what a Trump administration will actually do, but his election “caps a period of great uncertainty—and great promise—in criminal justice reform with a heightened (and ominous) degree of uncertainty going into the next,” commented TCR columnist Dan Stageman.
Particularly worrying is Trump’s lack of interest—or lack of knowledge—in science-based reform efforts. “If he applies that know-nothing mindset to the evidence-based practices that have begun to inform new thinking about incarceration and sentencing policies, reformers are going to be in for a bumpy ride,” University of Texas/Austin criminologist William Kelly wrote in TCR last month. Some 68 percent of TCR poll participants selected Trump’s election as the most important development in criminal justice this year.
3.Targets in Blue. The year began on an ominous note with the shooting deaths of Ohio policeman Thomas Cottrell and Salt Lake City-area officer Doug Barney. With the assassinations of five Dallas police officers (and wounding of nine others), and an additional three Baton Rouge cops in July, an alarmed public joined the law enforcement community in concerns that the anger over officer-involved shootings was generating in turn a new, dangerous climate for the men and women who protect us. Actually, the number of officer deaths continues to be markedly lower than in previous decades: 32 up until the end of July according to the latest available statistics)—while a significant increase over last year. Nevertheless, the 14 “ambush-style” attacks recorded through July added to the feelings of police vulnerability. Departments in New York, Los Angeles and some other cities now require officers to travel in pairs. And this month, two more officers in Americus, Ga—Nicholas Smarr and Jody Smith—were added to the roll call of tragedy. Both were killed while investigating a report of domestic violence.
4.The Russian Connection. “Gucifer 2.0” and “Cozy Bear” sound like the inventions of an over-imaginative screenwriter, but they represent an ominous watershed in American political history. They are the monikers used by a succession of mystery-shrouded and anonymous Russian-based hackers who began penetrating the email accounts of American political operatives in 2015. As the campaign swung into high gear in 2016, the hackers made thousands of emails available to Wikkileaks and others, which in turn leaked them to eager news outlets. The consensus among American intelligence agencies that it was an effort sponsored at the highest levels of the Kremlin to influence the outcome of the election against Hillary Clinton was rejected by the Trump camp. But the cyber-sabotage, the first ever attempted by a foreign power in an American election, was a chilling reminder of American vulnerability to cybercrime—and the difficulty of prosecuting its overseas-based perpetrators.
5.Bipartisan Justice. Whatever the future holds for justice reform at the federal level, over half of survey respondents believed the movement for change in states and municipalities continues to be a noteworthy development. In a report we noted this month, the Urban Institute said “justice reinvestment” strategies have spurred “significant criminal justice reform” in 28 states. The reforms include legislation on sentencing, improvements in community supervision practices and diversion of individuals who commit non-serious offenses from prison. The process has had downs as well as ups, with some states deciding to drop reform efforts and others encountering stiff opposition based on budget and other considerations, and it’s not clear whether the efforts will receive support from the Trump administration. But TCR readers felt the fact that it is supported by legislators and philanthropic organizations otherwise sharply divided along ideological and partisan lines offers one of the few encouraging prospects for change in the criminal justice system for 2017.
6.Legal Pot. Last year, the TCR survey spotlighted the growing number of states whose voters approved legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use. That trend strengthened this year with the passage of referenda in California, Nevada and Massachusetts. As of this month, Americans in 29 states and the District of Columbia now support some form of legalization. But that in turn has set the stage for a potential clash with the (apparently) hardline views of the incoming Trump administration on the “drug war.” Obama’s Department of Justice tacitly adopted a hands-off approach to prosecuting federal drug violations in states where pot is legal. Whether the next DOJ regime will continue that policy is anyone’s guess, but as TCR Los Angeles bureau chief Joe Domanick points out, California’s pro-pot decision alone, thanks to the size of that state’s economy, is likely to “put pressure on the government to reclassify or de-schedule the drug.”
7.Orlando Nightmare. On June 12, a security guard named Omar Mateen, a self-described follower of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, walked into the Pulse, a popular nightclub among the LGBT community in Orlando, and began shooting. Before police were able to intervene, he had killed 49 people and wounded 53. It was called the deadliest mass shooting in American history, and the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism since 9-11. Just as significantly, it reminded Americans of their vulnerability to the same threats that “lone wolf” actors pose elsewhere in the world (most recently in Berlin).
Especially worrying is that the targets of these individuals are not confined to large cities like New York (where bombs left in a trash can exploded in September, injuring 29 people), but include unlikely places like St. Cloud, MN where 10 people were knifed at a shopping mall by a Somali immigrant who claimed he was inspired by ISIS. As David Krajicek wrote in TCR soon after the Orlando shootings, they represented “a convergence of the contentious subjects that have dominated American discourse in the recent past: the singular presidential campaign, political paralysis over guns, fears and frustrations about terrorism, and the nation’s views of ‘others,’ including Muslims and the LGBT community.”
8.Murder Cities. Homicides rose in 13 of the largest American cities this year, underlining fears that the nation is facing a new wave of violent crime. In fact, those fears may be premature. NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, which reported the results of a survey of 25 cities this month, also noted that the murder count declined in 12 cities—including some that had been experiencing high rates of killing in previous years. Nevertheless, in those cities where murders increased—led by Chicago, which continues to report record levels of homicides –police and municipal leaders face a combustible mix of poverty, unemployment, gang violence, drug trafficking, and easy gun availability that has so far defeated attempts to curb the murder toll.
Arguably, news coverage of the plight of those at-risk cities helped fuel the public-safety fears that candidate Trump further stoked during the election—even though in most cases, homicides were confined to specific neighborhoods and victimized individuals already involved in criminal or gang activity. Nevertheless, examining the roots of the violence and strategies for prevention/intervention will be an overriding preoccupation of criminologists and community agencies next year. TCR reader Dianne R. Layden suggested that the complex phenomena of issues now facing America—generated by examples ranging from the Orlando massacre to police shootings—“reflect the connection between violence and social issues in America.”
9.Hate Goes Mainstream. Until Dylann Roof opened fire in an historic black church in Charleston last year, killing nine parishioners, most Americans took comfort in the idea that racial and ethnic-inspired violence belonged to an earlier and uglier era of U.S. history. But in the weeks after the election, the number of incidents of harassment and intimidation of minority groups surged past 1,000, underlining what many felt were the viral racial politics triggered by a divisive campaign.
While the number of such incidents appears to have subsided since, examples continue to surface around the country, prompting warnings from civil rights organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, who charge that once-fringe white supremacist and neo-nazi groups have become empowered through the so-called “alt-right” since the campaign. Particularly notable is that many of the reported incidents occurred on college campuses. Although Trump has asked such groups to “stop it,” many fear the volatile atmosphere generated by blatant campaign appeals to extreme-right nationalists will be a test for authorities at every level of government. This month, Roof was convicted on 33 counts, including hate crimes resulting in death. The sentencing phase of his trial, where he faces the possible death penalty, begins early next year.
10.Opioid Epidemic, Continued. One curious fact emerging since the campaign was that support for Donald Trump was highest in areas that have experienced the highest deaths from opioid abuse. Considering that the same red-state electorate has also been victimized by the loss of manufacturing jobs and the pervasive sense of being “left behind” by the economy, the connection illustrated why an otherwise deadlocked Congress was moved to pass in its waning hours the 21st Century Cures Act—the first coherent effort by Washington to tackle what many consider America’s most worrying public health crisis. Drug overdose deaths—over half of them linked to opioid use—were already the leading cause of accidental deaths in the U.S. in 2015. The new law will provide $500 million in federal funding to help states develop treatment and diversion programs for substance-abusers. But many observers say a lot more needs to be done.
Several additional developments suggested by TCR readers are worth noting, even though they didn’t make the “Top Ten.” Several poll respondents pointed to the February death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as a critical milestone for American jurisprudence. The vacancy he left has gone unfilled because of the Senate’s refusal to consider the Obama administration’s nominee. The incoming administration has signaled it will nominate someone who will toe the conservative line on issues like gun control and abortion. As Graham Kates points out, the outcome of the coming nomination battle will “have a significant impact on the criminal justice system for a long time.”
In August, the Department of Justice announced private prisons will no longer be contracted to house federal offenders, a move that reader Alex Friedmann called a “sea change” in U.S. incarceration policy—but he quickly noted that “it’s not expected to survive under the Trump administration.” Will his prediction bear out? The private prison industry appears to think so: Shares in CoreCivic Co., former the Corrections Corporation of America, surged 43 percent after the election.
Reforms in pretrial justice, such as the use of risk-assessment strategies by courts to determine those most likely to need confinement before trial and rethinking the use of money bonds, are gaining traction in many U.S. jurisdictions. Cherise Fanno Burdeen observed that “the dysfunction of the CJ system, (the) influence of the bail-bonding industry on efforts to advance pretrial justice, and the deaths in custody of pretrial defendants” were developments worth watching in the coming year and, she noted, “We have the chance to do something about it that doesn’t take years of legislative battles.”
TCR NEWSMAKER OF 2016
DAVID BROWN. Since he took charge of the Dallas police six years ago, Brown has attracted national attention as a “progressive” police leader committed to community policing, better training and recruitment of minorities. All of those arguably helped him lead his city through the trauma of an ambush that cost the lives of five police officers in July–and ensured that the hard-won climate of openness and partnership between Dallas residents and police was preserved. For Brown, the crisis was especially personal: Just after he became chief in 2010, his son fatally shot a police officer before being killed during a shootout with law enforcement officers. The first African-American to lead the Dallas force, Brown began pushing for reforms long before the nation was galvanized by concerns over police shootings by the 2014 killing of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Mo. He has since retired from the force to pursue other activities, including a stint as an ABC-TV analyst and a book, which is due next year. But for many readers, he remains the model for what smart, 21st century policing in America can be. “If we really want to do something about violence, we need the good people to stand up,” commented a reader who signed his name as “Matt” and called Brown a “true hero.” He was the top pick of a majority of TCR readers and staffers.
DONALD TRUMP, as noted above, thrust criminal justice policy into the headlines this year for the first time in decades. And he has also set the stage for fierce battles in the coming years over the future of the criminal justice system. While it’s entirely possible that President Trump may soften or reverse some of the hardline approaches to crime he advocated during the campaign, much will depend on who occupies the key posts in the Department of Justice.
Attorney general-designate Jeff Sessions has been a staunch opponent of efforts to eliminate or reduce mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenders, and as a senator was instrumental in stalling a bipartisan bill to overhaul federal sentencing guidelines. But he has also supported stronger federal action on the opioid crisis. Many observers believe the new team at justice is unlikely to follow the previous administration’s forceful strategy of placing police departments accused of racial bias under “consent decrees.” Also uncertain is whether the new administration will continue to support community policing and other strategies advocated by the Obama government’s much-praised Task Force on 21st Century Policing. TCR contributor Adam Wisnieski worries that Trump’s campaign speeches employed “rhetoric that hasn’t been politically mainstream for a decade.”
FBI Chief JAMES COMEY tied with Trump for second place in this year’s newsmakers poll, largely because of his 11th-hour announcement in October that he was renewing a probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of her private server for official emails—which he had previously concluded did not warrant a criminal investigation. Comey subsequently announced a few days before the November 8 vote that the probe had turned up no new incriminating evidence; but by then the doubts he raised about Clinton arguably clinched her defeat—particularly in states where a narrow difference of votes made all the difference.
That conclusion is far from universally accepted, but throughout this campaign year Comey’s high political profile has earned him unflattering comparisons to J. Edgar Hoover. (Earlier, Trump accused Comey of being “bribed” by Democrats to look the other way from Clinton’s supposed transgressions.) Some readers, however, felt he was an inspiring example of probity as a high government official. Michelle Anderson, who describes herself as a “white, 52-year-old Texan female who voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012,” called Comey’s decision to go public “correct”—regardless of the timing. “Any individual that chooses to do what’s right versus what’s popular (or) politically advantageous will stand out in today’s society,” she wrote.
On the other hand, TCR Los Angeles bureau chief Joe Domanick called Comey’s “unprecedented interference” in the campaign an “extraordinary breach of tradition for an investigator or prosecutor.” Washington bureau chief Ted Gest focused on other Comey actions that had a significant impact during the year, including “his outspokenness on race and policing, his insistence that the FBI do better on its database on police shooting, and his semi-endorsement of the Ferguson Effect theory on why crime has gone up in many big cities.”
The debate is certain to be renewed next year. FBI directors are appointed for 10-year terms on the principle that they should be outside the four-year presidential cycle, and thus immune from political interference. Appointed in 2013, Comey has served less than half of his tenure. Will President Trump keep the non-political principle intact—or look for a new director who has not been tainted by this year’s political warfare? There may be no better signal about the direction of the new president’s administration.
Finally, a few other names surfaced in our reader and staff selections which we consider worth mentioning. Richard Cohen, president of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center has “long been a guiding light for Americans concerned about a surge in hate groups,” writes TCR contributing editor David Krajicek, adding that the group’s “reputation for painstaking and objective analysis…proved especially important this year.”
Two governors also received special notice. On August 24, Republican Bruce Rauner of Illinois signed a far-reaching juvenile justice bill that was considered a template for smarter treatment of justice-involved juveniles—including allowing judges to divert first-time offenders guilty of minor offenses from prison. Just as notable was the fact that he won support from both political parties—a model for criminal justice bipartisanship in states across the nation (see #5 in our Top Ten above). Michelle Anderson called him an “example of leadership that truly serves the needs of his constituents.”
Similarly, the bipartisan campaign for justice reforms led by Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, achieved significant reductions in the state’s incarcerated populations this year. In a December TCR article focusing on his reforms, Christopher Moraff wrote, “Over the past year alone, the number of inmates in Department of Corrections custody has declined by nearly eight percent (and) during the month of November, the DOC — which oversees both prisons and jails in Connecticut — experienced its largest population drop on record.”
A few of our poll participants added Russian President Vladimir Putin to the list of 2016 criminal justice newsmakers. While our annual survey is traditionally limited to U.S. figures, the strong possibility—hinted by U.S. intelligence—that the Russian leader was behind the cyber-trickery aimed at undermining our election is sobering enough to merit his selection as someone who had an impact on criminal justice in America—both directly, in his alleged sponsorship of cross-border cybercrime; and indirectly, by swinging the election outcome towards Donald Trump, whose approach to crime and punishment will stamp the U.S. landscape over the next four years—and perhaps longer.
A stretch? Perhaps. But so much else in criminal justice this year has defied expectations and confounded assumptions, that the addition of President Putin to our annual list seems a logical way to underline the uncertain climate Americans face as they prepare for 2017.
Stephen Handelman is the editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.