When Donald Trump was elected president, it was a safe bet—considering his campaign-trail rhetoric—that we were headed back to a tough-on-crime era in Washington.
Just how tough, however, no one could imagine.
The hardline makeover of the Justice Department clearly preoccupies readers of The Crime Report, who have overwhelmingly chosen the reversal of many of the reforms begun during the Obama administration as the most important criminal justice news development of 2017.
Does that suggest—as some in Washington might be eager to point out—yet more out-of touch liberal bias?
Not likely. Our readers are among the country’s most sophisticated and knowledgeable consumers of criminal justice news. They include leading academics and practitioners in the field, as well as advocates and journalists, and come from both the left and right.
Judging from the comments of our respondents, there is a broad consensus that we are heading in the wrong direction.
Will their concerns find a receptive audience in Washington? Will there be a course correction in 2018? There’s reason to believe the tough-minded approach to crime and punishment currently pervading the corridors of the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice headquarters at 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW is far from monolithic.
Concern for the future also governed TCR readers’ choice of our criminal justice newsmakers this year.
Tied for first place were former FBI Director Robert Mueller, special counsel for the Russia probe, and the collective participants in the #MeToo Movement. The winners, each in their own way, were lightning rods for the polarized national mood. Whatever you may think of them, their courage and determination have had a significant impact on the justice debate in 2017—and will likely continue next year.
Mueller’s steady, by-the-books probe of the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia has continued in the face of White House resistance (and threats to shut it down)—burnishing his well-earned reputation as a critic of government abuses of power. (A recent example was his resistance as FBI director in 2001 to the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to expand wiretapping surveillance.)
The thousands of women—many of them anonymous—in the #MeToo movement flooded social media with painful stories of long-suppressed trauma suffered at the hands of sexual predators in workplaces from Hollywood to Main Street. Their courage in coming forward has transformed how we talk about—and address—systematic sexual misconduct.
Some, noting that comparatively few of the accusations have ended in court (yet), argue this is less a criminal justice story than a socio-cultural one.
But it’s hard to dispute the view of reader Jonathan Ben-Menachem who observed that the #MeToo movement, and the responses to it, have shifted the “norms for harassment and assault,” and that 2018 is likely to see the movement for accountability played out in courtrooms across the nation.
The results of our Seventh Annual Readers Poll of Top Newsmakers and Top Ten Stories are listed below.
But first, an important disclaimer to what you are about to read: Our annual polls, like similar surveys elsewhere, don’t pretend to be “scientific;” they only reflect the views and perspectives of the self-selected sample of readers with the energy and interest in engaging with them.
We present them, nevertheless, as a contribution to the unfolding public debate on criminal justice; and even if you disagree strongly with the results, we hope you will use them as a spur to discussions in your classrooms, homes and workplaces.
We’ve added where appropriate 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. And to all of our readers—we wish you a happy, healthy and safe 2018.
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.
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THE TOP TEN JUSTICE STORIES OF 2017
1.The DOJ Reverses Course. Since becoming Attorney General, former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions has presided over the slow unraveling of many (though not all) of the justice reform efforts begun during the previous administration. Sessions’ targets have ranged from civil rights reviews of police agencies to a return to Obama-era attempts to reduce sentences for nonviolent federal drug offenders.
In its defense, administration advocates point to rising violence and crime (this is disputed by many criminologists, most recently the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University); but the singular bipartisan movement aimed at reducing the factors that drive up both mass incarceration and recidivism has stalled at the federal level. We reported earlier this year that the backtracking extended even to a change of rhetoric, where phrases like “over-representation of minorities,” and “justice-involved youth” are banished. It hasn’t stopped the national momentum—many states in fact are pursuing reform strategies—but the federal retreat from the reform debate persuaded a decisive majority of TCR poll respondents (80 percent) to make this development their top choice.
2.Sexual Misconduct. The roll call of power players from Hollywood, politics and the media forced out of their jobs following allegations of sexual harassment and assault swelled into a crescendo this fall and shows no sign of stopping. As of mid-December the number of people felled by the allegations had reached 97 men—and one woman. Some 71 percent of poll respondents considered the unfolding debate over sex and power in the workplace a significant criminal justice development. The sheer number of revelations, ignited by media reporting, unlike individual scandals of previous years (The Cosby trial for instance), have driven a new national debate about the effectiveness of existing laws and regulations on sexual harassment and assault, while at the same time, for many critics, raised questions about due process. The debate is likely to get a bigger hearing in 2018 as civil and criminal cases begin to appear.
3.Sanctuary Cities vs. Washington. Arguments that undocumented immigrants are driving the rise in criminal violence (see #1 above) have been the backdrop for a tug-of-war between the Trump administration and cities that have resisted stiffening mandates to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The struggle also takes place against a context of rising immigrant detentions and deportations (already evident during the Obama years). As reader Dan Stageman observes, “The stubborn refusal to draw meaningful distinctions between ‘criminal’ and ‘non-criminal’ immigration violators represents an ideological escalation of crimmigration policy.” The crackdown on immigrants received votes from 70 percent of poll respondents.
4.Police in the Hood. The 180-degree turn from the former administration’s justice policies has extended to policing. Not only are feds backing away from support for civil rights reviews, but they are re-shaping the 23-year-old Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, to the frustration of many chiefs, in line with Sessions’ concerns over what he has called the trend towards “harmful intrusion” into local control. Among other changes, approval of federal grants to local law enforcement for “collaborative reform initiatives” is now tied to local agencies’ willingness to follow Washington’s mandates for cooperation with immigration authorities.
At the same time, controversies over police use of force moved from the streets to the courtroom in 2017. The acquittal this month of Arizona police officer Daniel Shaver, who shot a man seen on video as begging for his life, underlines the relatively few convictions of officers accused of unjustified shootings. Many police agencies across the nation have taken a lesson from the tragedies of previous years and begun major changes in training. Readers also noted that this year has laid the groundwork for serious examination of policing strategies towards the mentally troubled and substance abusers—an encouraging development that promises to expand in 2018.
5.The Opioid Crisis. President Trump’s declaration of the opioid epidemic as a “national public health emergency,” followed the next month by a presidential commission report, recognized a scourge that now takes 175 lives a day. But our readers noted that the criminal justice dimensions of the crisis—ranging from prosecutions of heroin dealers who give addicts a cheaper alternative to opioids, to rogue pharmacists who have created a black market in painkillers, to lawsuits against big pharmaceutical companies who have earned millions from the plague—can’t be swept under the rug.
Some readers also observed that the innovative strategies developed by police, courts and public health workers in many cities across the country are a significant departure from the racially biased (and ineffective) War on Drugs that dominated the national response for decades. “This is a huge opportunity to rethink sentencing for low-level drug offenders,” commented Katie Greer of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. At the state level, at least, they’re paying attention. The growing tragedy of opioids, with no end in sight, is one reason the development jumped to number five in our list this year, from number 10 in our 2016 poll.
6.The White House Probe Draws Blood. Robert Mueller, special counsel for the Russia investigation, is one of our 2017 Newsmakers, but the commission he leads also rates special attention in the year’s stew of justice news. The Mueller team’s dogged efforts have unearthed a questionable pattern of influence-peddling involving presidential advisers, allies, and relatives at home and abroad. They secured a guilty plea from former national security adviser Michael Flynn in December, an early indication that the findings of the former FBI Director’s commission could shake up the White House in 2018—that is, if efforts by some Republicans to shut it down don’t succeed.
7.Deadly Fire. The mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Tx. —two of the deadliest such incidents in US history—added renewed urgency this year to the efforts of gun control advocates, even while Congress appears to be going in the opposite direction by considering a bill that will extend concealed-carry rights across state lines. One version of that bill, which allows holders of legal concealed-carry permits to carry a concealed firearm to another state where it is legal, passed the House this month. “The ever-diminishing lack of political will for gun reform now has its own cynical slogan: Now Is Not the Time to Talk About Gun Violence,” comments TCR Contributing Editor David Krajicek. The two incidents, among the more than 300 examples of gun-propelled mass violence in 2017 (so far) received 64 percent of readers’ votes.
8.The FBI Under the Gun. Since the glory days of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI has received its share of criticism and outright fury—even from sitting presidents. But President Trump has raised the rhetoric to a level that many feel threatens to undermine the Bureau’s effectiveness for years to come. The sacking of Director James Comey in May, followed by a series of presidential tweets challenging the agency’s nonpartisan reputation, has kindled a “war” between the White House and the country’s top law enforcement agency, in the words of TCR contributor Adam Wisnieski. It’s a war where everyone loses.
9.Louisiana’s Justice Reforms. The state of Louisiana leads the nation (and in fact the world) in the rate of incarcerated individuals. But that may turn out to be a historical footnote, if the significant changes introduced to Louisiana’s criminal justice system, take root. The changes, which encompass giving deserving prisoners early release for “good time,” and increased funding for reentry services, are modeled in part on innovations that have already produced reduced recidivism rates in other states. They were the result of “historic” efforts by organizations, elected officials and individuals on all sides of the political spectrum, wrote Elain Ellerbe, the director of Louisiana’s “Right on Crime” group, who submitted the nomination. Some 61 percent of TCR readers agreed with her.
10.Politics on the Gridiron. Ex-NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 protest of racial bias in law enforcement—kneeling during the national anthem before the game—represented a tipping point for athletes during 2017. His symbolic action was imitated by hundreds of NFL players, and the angry tweets of President Trump only added fuel to the fire—even bringing in the fan-conscious billionaire club owners who seemed willing at first to ignore (or in some cases supported) the movement. Political protest has always been a feature of mainstream sports, but the 2017 movement is likely to bring more athletes into the justice reform debate next year. Think 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Kaepernick remains at the forefront: this month he paid a controversial visit to the Rikers Island jail in New York, which has weathered accusations of human rights violations against prisoners.
Even though they didn’t make our 2017 “Top Ten” list, several other developments attracted TCR readers’ notice. The death of a 32-year-old woman during a “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville, Va., in August, underlined fears about the rise of hate crimes influenced by White supremacist and extremist groups operating under the innocuous handle of Alt Right. This week, the Charlottesville police chief abruptly retired after a review found shortcomings with his force’s actions during the protest.
The appointment of conservative Colorado jurist Neil Gorsuch to fill the seat left by the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court received a sizeable portion of votes from readers disturbed by the administration’s aggressive efforts to change the composition of America’s legal landscape, starting from the top but extending down to appellate courts. In some cases, the efforts have become embarrassing examples of political overreach. This week Matthew Petersen withdrew his name for consideration of a federal judgeship after he was forced to admit he had never tried a case.
Several cities across the U.S. experienced continued increases in homicides this year, fueling the Washington mantra that a “scourge of violence” threatens to engulf America. Criminologists say a closer look at the figures suggests that even the worst-hit places like Baltimore remain isolated developments in a decline in crime rates that has been underway for at least a decade.
That hasn’t removed the obligation of local authorities to address the factors that have made at-risk neighborhoods unsafe for millions of Americans. Many readers believe those factors can be addressed by policies that look at the drivers of repeat criminal behavior, from poverty to the lack of training and job counseling for inmates set to be released. Interestingly, we’re told that a major White House initiative is in the works, thanks to some high-level support despite the general distrust of “reform.” This is definitely worth watching in 2018.
Similarly, while our staff and contributors’ nominations of the return of Meek Mills to prison for a probation violation didn’t make the Top Ten, many readers agreed that it exposed the inadequacies of the country’s mass supervision system, which even senior probation and parole administrators agree is in need of reform. “Instead of serving as a check on the unbridled growth of jails and prisons, community corrections has followed and surpassed corrections growth, often widening the net of social control and compounding the damage of incarceration with mass supervision,” commented Vincent Schiraldi, a former probation head in Washington DC, now at Columbia University.
Other developments singled out by readers included the rise in female incarceration, the development of deflection and pre-arrest diversion as “a newly emerging field” and, in California, Julia Hess noted that her state is “leading the nation in creating more smart on crime initiatives and legislation.”
TCR contributing editor David Krajicek nominated what he termed the “dumbing down” of crime statistics and research. “First, the FBI mysteriously removed dozens of tables and charts that had routinely been included in (its) annual Uniform Crime Report, and in November, Trump appointed a man with no background in criminal justice or statistics as top executive of the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics,” wrote Krajicek. “This seems to be another piece of the anti-science bias that has become a keystone piece of the Republican manifesto.”
Which brings us back, of course, to number one in this year’s list.
TCR NEWSMAKERS OF 2017
None of the newsmaker nominations, drawn from names suggested by TCR staff and contributors, captured a majority of this year’s reader votes, reflecting perhaps the large number of potential candidates— or maybe the fact that we were on the wrong track entirely, as a few readers complained (see below).
But the plurality of votes went to special counsel Robert Mueller, and the # MeToo Movement, who were each tied at 40 percent. Former TCR contributor Matthew Mangino summed up for many why Mueller stood out in the year: “Without twitter, talk shows or press conferences, (he) is making a lot of noise, methodically sifting through the remnants of a campaign bent on winning at any cost.”
The comments supporting the collective choice of the participants in the social media campaign, underscore the reasons why many also chose the sexual misconduct story as a landmark development in 2017. The campaign took off in October, when actress Alyssa Milano encouraged spreading the phrase, tweeting that, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
“The #MeToo movement has helped empower all working women—and men—to address sexual misconduct in the workplace,” wrote one reader who asked to remain anonymous. “Were the president not under investigation and the opioid crisis out there, this would be the hands-down #1 newsmaker for 2017.”
And the movement has resonated internationally as well. In Colombia, for instance, former female combatants of the FARC guerrilla group were inspired by #MeToo to seek a reckoning for violent crimes committed against them when they were recruits—some as young as 11—adopting the Spanish translation as their hashtag (#yotambien).
Others who received significant support were Glenn E. Martin, founder and president of JustLeadership USA, who has given the voice of the formerly incarcerated a long-overdue hearing and was hailed by one anonymous reader as “one of our nation’s leading civil rights icons of the early 21st Century;” the aforementioned Colin Kaepernick, whom reader Lori McKinney nominated along with Robert Mueller as individuals “showing by example that change can come as a result of consistently doing your job and sticking to your principles.”
TCR Washington Bureau Chief Ted Gest highlighted the governors “who are leading in criminal justice reform,” a long list that he said should include Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, “who is bringing a business approach to criminal justice.”
But several of our readers took us to task for what they regarded as the gender-biased list of choices. One anonymous reader said she found it “kind of disappointing and ironic that all the ‘newsmakers’ you have listed here are men except for the lumped together #me too group.”
And in fact several offered names we wish had been part of our original list. Julie Hess nominated Elizabeth Calvin of Human Rights Watch, noting that her “advocacy on behalf of youthful offenders had changed the tide in California and hopefully the nation.” Another reader, who signed herself only as a “woman” suggested Susan Burton, who has leveraged her experience in prison to become an advocate for the rights of the formerly incarcerated.
Another anonymous reader nominated California Sen. Kamala Harris, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and “all of the public defenders and immigration attorneys, the majority of them women, who set up shop in airports when Trump issued the first disastrous travel ban.”
Points well taken.
Meanwhile, we at The Crime Report want to take a moment to extend our special thanks to the many people working this holiday at the grassroots of the justice system—police on the beat, health care workers dealing with the terrible after-effects of opioid overdoses, public defenders, parole and probation officers, juvenile streetworkers, the formerly incarcerated working as peer counselors, and countless others.
They may not make “news”—in fact they would probably count it as a success that their charges are not the stuff of tragic headlines—but they are the people whose skills in overcoming the many flaws of our justice system every day during 2017 earned the admiration and gratitude of all Americans.
Stephen Handelman is editor-in-chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes your comments.