Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Jury Nullification Can Veto Prison Profiteering"

Fuly Informed Jury Association writes about for-profit prison corporations lobbying against laws that would relieve prison overcrowding.

FIJA quotes from an article in Republic Report:
In recent months, a broad, cross-ideological coalition has pressed forward to reform mandatory minimum prison sentencing. In some cases mandatory minimum sentencing can lead to a lifetime in jail for nonviolent offenders. But a strange group has appeared on lobby disclosure forms reviewed by Republic Report. Prison labor companies are attempting to influence the bill, and they refuse to reveal what they’re doing and why. 
The group is called the Correctional Vendors Association, an organization that represents companies that use prison labor to produce everything from furniture to clothing goods. CVA has spent $240,000 on lobbying over the past year, and forms show the organization is interested in shaping the outcome of the Justice Safety Valve Act, or S.619, a bill proposed Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) to allow judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum in many cases, including drug-related sentences.
Correctional Vendors Association lobbies against a bill that would give them a smaller captive workforce. Congressmen dislike voting against any bill that can be construed as tough on crime. That combination is hard to beat.

FIJA reminds us that we have a way to fight back: jury nullification.
Remember that even a single conviction on just one of many charges—even a seemingly minor one—can trigger excessively harsh penalties due to mandatory minimum sentencing schemes, three strikes laws, 10-20-life rules, sentence enhancements for acquitted conduct, and so on. And harsh penalties mean a ready supply of forced labor who are often paid less than 50 cents [an] hour for work that would command several dollars an hour in the free market. 
Inside the courtroom, of course, we will often be misinstructed by judges that we “must” convict if the prosecution proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt. But this is simply not true. Judges cannot require jurors to deliver a Guilty verdict, and jurors cannot be punished for voting their consciences. Jury nullification is not only your right, but your duty if it is necessary to deliver a just verdict.
Jury nullification can be a powerful tool in the cause of justice and FIJA does a fine job reminding us of that.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

the effect of violence on children and the need to do something about it

In an opinion piece in the Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska US Attorney Deborah Gilg talks about the need to recognize how violence affects children. She writes:
More than half of America’s children and teens are in some way exposed to violence in their homes, schools and neighborhoods every year, according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice study. Many are victims of violence themselves, but many more will witness violent crimes or share the trauma when their families, school friends or neighborhoods are targets of violence and abuse. Unfortunately, many of these young people will experience violence from multiple sources, compounding the trauma and its effects. 
The consequences of this kind of exposure can be difficult to measure, but the harm is real.
We know that children and teens exposed to violence are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They are also more likely to fail at school, be absent from school and experience learning difficulties. These children are also more likely to enter into, and stay in, abusive relationships. They are also at higher risk of going on to commit crimes themselves.
It comes as a surprise to find that I agree so strongly with a US Attorney. Witnessing violence or being in the middle of it can have long-lasting effects on children. We should do more to protect children from violence.
A good place to start for all of us is by listening to young people and being engaged in their lives. 
Well, now...that seems a tepid approach to the problem she describes. Wait, though. She has more:
If you’re interested in learning more about the effects of violence on children, the U.S. Department of Justice has produced a video series Through Our Eyes: Children, Violence, and Trauma, available at The DOJ also has launched the Defending Childhood initiative to address the exposure of America’s children to violence as victims and as witnesses.
A video? I would have preferred a more robust response but she is a busy woman. Maybe she doesn't have time to think of more effective ways to lessen the violence that surrounds children. If it isn't too presumptuous of me to think that I can help, I came up with a few ideas. Maybe she can use her powerful voice as US Attorney to promote ideas that would have a more immediate impact on reducing violence than, say, a video.

Stop shooting the family dog. When I was small, I witnessed a neighbor drive over and kill one of our dogs. It was an unfortunate accident but it was a terrible thing for a small child to see. Imagine how terrifying it must be for children to see a law enforcement officer--someone who is supposed to protect and serve--shoot their family dog. 

Stop sending SWAT teams into homes where children are present when that level of force is not necessary. People, including the children, have been hurt and killed in those raids. Watch this video of a SWAT raid in Columbia MO and try to imagine being a child in that home. Radley Balko estimates law enforcement agencies carry out over 100 SWAT raids every day across the country. How many children are affected by violence in their homes perpetrated by law enforcement?

Stop putting so many people in prison. The United States has 2.2 million prison inmates. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (, one in 28 children have a parent in prison. This doesn't count the kids who have a sibling or other family member in prison. How does that affect children? 

Stop relying on mandatory minimum sentences to push a defendant into taking a plea agreement and start proving your cases in court. Introducing mandatory minimum sentences has increased sentence length even for crimes that do not carry a mandatory minimum. Tearing families apart is traumatic for all family members. Tearing them apart for longer than necessary is cruel. 

Children in homes with a drastically reduced income, children with a parent struggling to be everything to everyone--prison spouse, mother and father--in the midst of his or her own grief, children grieving for the family member in prison, children unable to visit the prison because distance and expense are too great...these children suffer a violence that the US Attorney does not address. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

deserving a chance for a pardon

A 25-year-old registered sex offender has been granted a hearing before the Nebraska Board of Pardons. This is excellent news for this young man because if he is pardoned, he will regain his civil rights and he will no longer be on the sex offender registry. 

According to the Omaha World-Herald article, it is unusual for a sex offender to be granted a hearing because
[t]he Pardons Board rarely considers the applications of sex offenders. But board members said they are willing to listen to this one because Weich has lived an exemplary life except for one crime committed as a 14-year-old.
An exemplary life should be rewarded. 
He didn't rape, fondle or even touch anyone. In 2003 he and two other teenage boys made a secret video of two or three female classmates using a shower at his mother's house in Pierce, Neb. The incident involved a game of truth-or-dare and the camera also caught one of the girls using the toilet, according to documents in his Pardons Board application.
A non-contact crime committed as a 14-year-old, not repeated. He was charged as an adult because the crime was not discovered until he was 18.

This man has gained some powerful allies. A state trooper for one and Nebraska's Attorney General, Jon Bruning, for another.
Other factors in [this man's] favor include pre-sentence psychological evaluations that found he is not a sexual predator and showed he was a minimal risk to reoffend. He completed all of his probation requirements, which included more than 20 sessions with Dr. Kevin Piske, a Norfolk psychologist who specialized in treating sex offenders.
Not a sexual predator, unlikely to reoffend, got through probation with no trouble. Saw a psychologist for awhile. This man is a success story.
The psychologist was one of 93 people who submitted letters in support of [the man], which likely represents a record number, said Sonya Fauver, the board's administrator.
Ninety-three letters of support! Many friends in his corner. 
[His] status forced him to give up on his dream of playing football for a major college program. He had been invited to walk on at Kansas State University, but he was told the school couldn't take a chance on a sex offender. He also had to leave the dorms. 
Although it was difficult, he found off-campus housing and finished his second semester at Kansas State.
Later, he was offered a football scholarship and began playing at Wayne State College in Nebraska. Again, he wasn't allowed to live on campus. He got his degree in business management in 2012.
The registry still haunts [him], especially when it comes to finding employment and housing. He said he has held some temporary jobs but hasn't been able to get an offer related to his major when employers learn he is a registered sex offender.
Recently, he had the opportunity to show the National Football League his punting skills. One of his college coaches called him "the best punter he has seen in his 30 years as a coach" so it seems this young man may have a chance at a position in the NFL.
“How many people do you know in the world who would even have a chance to make it in the NFL?” [one of his supporters] asked. “But he can't because of this. It just doesn't seem fair.”
No, it doesn't seem fair to have lived an exemplary life and yet be held back because he is a registered sex offender. 

Among the 93 letters is a letter from 
...retired District Judge Patrick Rogers, who presided over [the man's] trial. 
“I commend him for all of his accomplishments since 2007, even while carrying the burden of his offense,” Rogers wrote. “He could have easily given up, as I believe so many others do.”
But do so many others give up? 

Statistics show that, like this man, very few registered sex offenders commit another sex crime. 

Like this man, most registered sex offender are first-time offenders.

Like this man, most are deemed at low risk to reoffend.

Like this man, most are not considered sexual predators.

Those are not signs of people who gave up. Those are signs of people who are very much like this Nebraska man.

Like him, they have trouble finding employment. Like him, they have trouble finding a place to live. 

Like him, they have hopes and dreams for the future that have been stymied by their status as a sex offender.

This young man who lives an exemplary life deserves every chance at his hopes and dreams, just as other law abiding citizens do. 

Just as every other law abiding sex offender does.

This young man is not the exception. He is the rule.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

casual cruelty to children

Children suffer when a parent goes to prison but who would expect that the suffering can be worse when that parent is released from prison? After the parent has been away from home for years, the anticipated reunion is often prohibited, even when the child was not a victim of the parent's crime.

A man who was convicted of possession of child pornography, released to a halfway house to serve out the remaining few months of his sentence, is not allowed to see his children. He is not allowed to talk to them on the phone or to write to them.

He must be dangerous to them, one might think.

If he were a danger to his own children, why was he allowed to live at home between entering his plea and his sentencing? Why were the kids allowed to visit him at prison?

His halfway house is 30 minutes from his home. The kids know he is out of prison and they know they are not allowed to see him. Their mother can spend time with him but he can be sent back to prison if he sees or talks to the kids.

How does this make sense? How can this cruelty be anything but evil? It protects no one and throws children into an emotional tailspin they most emphatically do not deserve.

Another family, another cruelty:

The dad is out of prison but not allowed to see his son. Before he can see his son, his probation officer and his therapist require him to disclose the details of his crime to the son. This was a hands-on crime, so the thirteen-year-old son will hear every detail of the crime. It gets worse. The disclosure will also include details about sex between the parents, whose sexual activities were not part of the crime in any way.

What middle-school child needs to hear details of any sexual encounters, let alone his dad's? Note, too, that the therapist requiring the disclosure is not the boy's therapist. If the boy is seeing a therapist, that therapist was not asked if this disclosure was wise. One wonders if the continual discussion of details of the sex crime is gratifying in some way to the probation officer or the therapist.

The casual disregard for the children of sex offenders is astounding. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

high shock value; low information value

Fourteen men arrested for exploiting children via the Internet. 
Twenty-seven thousand subscribers of the website operated by those arrested.
Two hundred fifty-one victims as young as 3 years old. 
Forty terabytes of pornographic images.

According to a Reuters article on, a Department of Homeland Security investigation uncovered a 27,000-member, subscriber-only website (or websites; it is not clear) that made child pornography available. 

According to a USA Today article,
Those members and users, according to documents, "coerced hundreds of minor boys to record themselves engaging in sexually explicit conduct.'' Unknown to the child victims, the videos were allegedly transmitted to Johnson's sites, allowing members to view and download the videos.
This sounds horrifying. Some of it may be but let's sort out the words calculated to shock and frighten us.

On the USA Today video, the ICE spokesman says the amount of storage needed for the porn on the web servers was 
...forty terabytes, five times the size of all the information stored by the Library of Congress.
That's an impressive number, to be sure. Not many of us have an external drive that holds even a single terabyte, so forty terabytes must be, like, VAST. On the same video, a line from a court document is highlighted:
...websites contained approximately 2000 sexually explicit videos of young boys...
It is safe to say that a boy masturbating in front of a webcam (with parents and/or siblings down the hall) is not likely to produce a full two-hour movie so those 2000 videos cannot account for all forty terabytes. The website must have offered images other than those of the boys, perhaps even--dare to imagine--legal pornography. 

In addition, the comparison to the size of the Library of Congress ignores the fact that no one knows how many terabytes (or petabytes) of storage the LOC would require if all its documents--and movies!--were digitized. The comparison was used for effect, not for accuracy.

The victims were all boys ages 13-15, with the exception of eight girls and two boys around three years old. Members and operators of the website enticed the boys to perform on camera and the images then ended up on the website. Sometimes the operators/members posed as young girls asking the boys to show or do something for the camera.

Hard to tell if the subscribers were all seeking child porn or how many of them were involved in soliciting the illegal images or how long any of them were subscribers. Was it a month-by-month subscription so that the same subscriber could be counted multiple times? (Rest assured that the feds have already collected as much data about the subscribers as possible from the website. I imagine they could answer my question if they were so inclined.)

Given the information we have, the victims were enticed, not forced, so we have teen-aged boys, foolishly performing before a webcam. The two little ones? Those images are not described, but if someone did something to or with those little guys, they should be held responsible. On the other hand, if the images are not described, perhaps the images don't have the shock value needed for the story.

If over 200 boys will perform for a webcam when a stranger entices them, how many boys are doing the same for their real-life friends? In this case, the boys are called victims and ICE can claim to have saved them from the bad guys. 

In other cases, teens who upload naughty videos are called child pornographers.

A careful reading of the story should raise questions as well as eyebrows. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

you thought the registry was just for sex offenders?

The sex offender registry includes more than sex offenders. A Pennsylvania woman is surprised to find that she is required to register.
Four years ago, [she] was convicted of interference with custody of children. That crime falls under the newest version of Megan's Law, and [she] must register as a real sex offender.
The news site offers what little comfort it can.
Although [she] feels singled out, there are hundreds in our area who never committed a sex crime yet they, too, are now registered as sex offenders.
Ah, well then. Hundreds of others on the registry even though they didn't commit sex offenses.

Once there is a registry, legislators will be unable to resist enlarging its scope. Legislators make laws and it is much easier to pass a law that no one dares to argue against.

Abolish the registry.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

the mystery of the missing sex offenders

A fear-mongering news report from Omaha's KETV talks about sex offenders who go missing.
According to Nebraska’s sex offender registry, there are more than 900 convicted offenders living in Douglas County alone. 
Chris White, a deputy U.S. marshal with the Metro Area Fugitive Task Force, said about 90 of those convicted offenders are hiding. 
“There are more people absconding every day. That number compiles [sic] unless we get after it,” White said.
A multi-agency task force tracks down the missing sex offenders.
“I assume that they're reoffending, that they're dropping off the radar because they don't want law enforcement to know what they're doing,” White said.
Is that the only reason a sex offender might choose not to register? If the deputy U.S. marshal were paying attention, he might notice that there are one, two, three, and more reasons.

Ninety out of nine hundred sex offenders are presumed reoffending, according to White. But are they? Of all the sex offenders who have dropped off the radar, how many have been rearrested for sex crimes?

Because the recidivism rate for registered sex offenders is about 5%, we can estimate that about 45 of the 900 commit another sex offense. But wait: Failure to register is considered a sex offense even though there IS no sex offense committed--so of the 45, how many of them go back to prison for failure to register? The reporter doesn't even touch on that question.

If deputy marshal White had his way, all ninety of the missing would be back in prison, even without them having committed another sex offense.

The sex offender registry is touted as a way to protect our communities. The Nebraska registry says:

Nebraska State Statute 29-4002 declares that sex offenders present a high risk to commit repeat offenses and that efforts of law enforcement agencies to protect their communities, conduct investigations, and quickly apprehend sex offenders are impaired by the lack of available information about individuals who have pleaded guilty to or have been found guilty of sex offenses and who live in their jurisdiction. Because of that, the legislature determined that state policy should assist efforts of local law enforcement agencies to protect their communities by requiring sex offenders to register with local law enforcement agencies as provided by the Sex Offender Registration Act. 
Five percent is a high risk for repeat offenses? That seems a bit hysterical when other recidivism rates are 70.2% for robbers, 74% for burglars, and nearly 79% for car thieves. Nebraskans should be concerned that their state statutes are based on information not even close to accurate.

The Nebraska registry explains how it is to be used:

This information is to be used to provide public notice and information about a registrant so a community can develop constructive plans to prepare themselves and their family. Sex Offenders have "always" been in our communities. The notification process will remove their ability to act secretly.
The community would do better to prepare themselves and their families for the sex offenders who have yet to be apprehended because most sex offenses are first-time offenses. The next sex offense in your town will in all likelihood be committed by someone not on the registry.

The sex offender registries protecst no one, though it is possible it protects jobs for members of the task force busy tracking down 90 people--ninety people for whom the task force has no reason to believe have committed another sex crime. 

Imagining someone is out there committing crimes is not the same as reasonable suspicion. Statistics say it isn't reasonable at all.

Another perspective on the same KETV news report: 
The research shows that former offenders in Nebraska have a year-to-year reoffense rate of less than 1 percent. It shows that Nebraska's public shaming website drives people from their homes. The City of Omaha has a residency restriction ordinance that illegally created a new classification of "predator" -- some harmless people with misdemeanors fall under the classification. Why not assume someone's been evicted because of the ordinance? That's just as likely or more likely than the reoffending. 
Nebraskans Unafraid has documented cases where a former offender has reported the correct address to a local sheriff, but the address still ends up listed incorrectly on the registry because of a clerical error. An offender might go to prison because of a clerical error. It is as easy to assume someone in a short-staffed law enforcement office is messing things up as it is to assume that a former offender is reoffending.