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A 15-year employee being fired from a valve manufacturer in suburban Chicago started shooting Friday, killing five co-workers and wounding five police officers before he was killed by police, reports the Associated Press. Aurora, Il., Police Chief Kristen Ziman said  Gary Martin, 45, “was being terminated” before he started shooting at the Henry Pratt Co. in the city 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Chicago. In addition to the five employees killed, a sixth worker was taken to a hospital with injuries that were not life threatening.

Ziman said officers arrived within four minutes of receiving reports of the shooting and were fired on as soon as they entered the 29,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. “May God bless the brave law enforcement officers who continue to run toward danger,” said Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. John Probst, a fellow employee, told ABC7,  “What I saw was the guy running down the aisle with a pistol with a laser on it.” Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said, “It’s a shame that mass shootings such as this have become commonplace in our country. It’s a shame that a cold and heartless offender would be so selfish as to think he has the right to take an innocent life.”

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President Trump again spoke fondly on Friday about the practice of executing drug traffickers, the Washington Post reports. While declaring a national emergency to secure funding to build his long-promised border wall, Trump digressed to speak about a recent conversation he had with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Their criminal list — a drug dealer gets a thing called the death penalty,” he said of China. “Our criminal list a drug dealer gets a thing called: How about a fine?”

Trump continued: “When I asked President Xi, I said, ‘You have a drug problem?’ No no no.” I said, ‘You have 1.4 billion people what do you mean you have no drug problem?’ No we don’t have a drug problem. I said, ‘Why?’ Death penalty,” Trump said, imitating someone who speaks broken English. Trump has repeatedly praised authoritarian leaders around the world and shown a particular affinity for the punitive measures some have used against drug traffickers. Human rights experts said Trump’s praise for Xi is concerning and misleading. “Not only do they execute people without due process, they run a dictatorship that’s getting tighter and tighter by the day,” Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Activists and civil libertarians are being routinely put in prison.” China Daily, a state-run newspaper, reports that China solved “140,000 criminal cases related to drugs in 2016, arrested 168,000 suspected drug users, seized 82.1 tons of drugs and destroyed 438 drug labs.” There were 2.5 million known drug addicts in China in 2017.

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People are getting creative about smuggling drugs into jails and prisons. What might seem like a normal letter to an inmate could be saturated with liquid K2, a synthetic marijuana. A greeting card may be concealing drugs between its layers. In August, Pennsylvania state prisons went on a nearly two-week lockdown after officials said 60 staffers were sickened by synthetic cannabinoids. The same month, nearly 30 employees at an Ohio facility reportedly received treatment for fentanyl exposure, which some say can yield negative effects if accidentally touched or inhaled. Citing similar safety concerns, state and local corrections facilities around the U.S. are restricting prisoners’ interaction with the outside world, reports Governing.

After Pennsylvania’s lockdown, the state implemented a rare policy of sending prison mail to a Florida-based company where it is scanned and stored on a database for 45 days. A digital copy of the mail is forwarded to Pennsylvania’s state prisons for inmates to view. Legal mail from lawyers and courts undergoes a separate but similarly stricter process. Policies like these have been met with pushback from inmates, their families and legal advocates, who say this increased isolation violates inmates’ rights, strains their relationships and harms their mental health. In New Hampshire, the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the state, leading to a settlement permitting prisoners to receive some handmade drawings. The ACLU has sued Pennsylvania over the legal mail policy, arguing that it violates inmates’ First Amendment rights. The new mail policy is part of the state’s $10 million security effort to stop drug flow. The state also installed drone detectors and established a separate center for inspecting book deliveries. More jails and prisons are offering the chance to connect with inmates through video, email and instant messaging, in many cases, eliminating in-person visits in exchange.

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A year after the Parkland, Fl., high school attack, what happened before and after it have become the focus of multiple inquiries, including an ongoing criminal case and statewide investigations, reports the Washington Post. The web of examinations, which include a death penalty case against the shooter and probes looking at the actions of law enforcement and school officials, is a broad response to a tragedy marked by repeated missteps. One investigation already faulted law enforcement officers and school officials, while another still is looking at the police response. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has called for a new probe to be carried out by a grand jury looking at Parkland as well as broader school-security issues.

The inquiries may play out for years. Nikolas Cruz, the ex-student who confessed to the attack, was indicted on 34 murder counts. The case represents something unusual for an attack on the scale of Parkland: a trial for a suspect charged in a mass shooting, proceedings that could provide an extended, emotional look at the Valentine’s Day carnage. In a comparable case, a gunman who killed a dozen people in an Aurora, Co., movie theater in 2012 ultimately faced trial. Three years passed between the massacre and the jury’s decision to find him guilty on all counts. In Florida, public defender Howard Finkelstein, who represents Cruz, said it would be wrong for the state to execute Cruz after authorities missed so many warning signs about him before the shooting. In seeking a new grand jury probe, DeSantis said he had been told “there is a need to examine the crimes and wrongs that precipitated the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting and that even now result in unsafe schools across the state.”

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In 2015, a landmark settlement in a California solitary confinement case capped a years-long protest movement spearheaded by incarcerated men to reform a system that unfairly kept thousands of people in isolation. It was supposed to overhaul the state’s use of solitary confinement. It turns out the hard-fought battle is far from over, Mother Jones reports. Last month, U.S. District Judge Robert Illman found that California is failing to hold up its end of the bargain. As part of the agreement, the state was subjected to court-ordered monitoring for two years to ensure the implementation of reforms, largely ending indefinite solitary confinement and greatly restricting the kinds of violations that could land someone in isolation.

That monitoring was supposed to end in 2017, but the court decided that the state used unreliable and disingenuous means of qualifying people for restrictive housing, “improperly returning class members to solitary confinement and frustrating the purpose of the Settlement Agreement.” “This is really a systemic problem,” says Rachel Meeropol of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the organization responsible for reviewing the two years of rules violations reports turned over by the corrections department. “It’s not a couple of isolated incidents.” On another indication of continued resistance to enforce reforms. the state filed an  appeal last week. Before the settlement, California inmates could be isolated indefinitely if prison officials found them to be associated with a gang, which could mean something as innocuous as having Aztec art or a birthday card from a purported gang member. Meeropol says California had more men in solitary for longer with less justification than any other state. A year after the agreement, it seemed like a success: Indefinite isolation was down by 99 percent. Overall, California’s solitary population dropped 65 percent, from around 10,000 to under 3,500 people between 2012 and 2016.

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More than 40 percent of Baltimore police officers who took part in a recent survey said they don’t feel comfortable making proactive arrests, the Baltimore Sun reports. The survey by Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer was sent to police department leadership, officers and civilian members who responded anonymously. Some 43 percent said they do not feel “comfortable making self-initiated arrests,” which Schleifer said refers to proactive calls when officers are on patrol and they witness an incident and intervene, as opposed to calls they respond to through 911. “They’re afraid,” Schleifer said. “In this political environment, you have to justify every move you make.”

Schleifer shared the results with Acting Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. “It’s refreshing. He’s seen challenges similar to ours,” Schleifer said. He said Harrison is taking action by evaluating the command staff and determining what, if any, changes need to be made. Forty-four percent of responding police said they don’t “fully understand the consent decree” under which the police department is operating. One officer wrote: “Morale won’t rise until … officers receive consistent public support from the Mayor, City Council and State’s Attorney. No one is asking that corruption be tolerated. What we are asking is that when we investigate crimes and make arrests or issue citations that our elected leaders support us when we encounter resistance.” A detective said: “We don’t have enough people in my unit. The volume of cases we have is absurd given our manpower. It leads to mistakes, and inadequate follow up investigations which lead to sloppy prosecutions. None of which is for lack of trying.”

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Chicago police are investigating the possibility that the reported attack on “Empire” star Jussie Smollett was staged as they question two people including an actor connected with the show, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. Detectives believe the men, both of whom are black, are the same people shown in a surveillance image released by police days after the purported attack, said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. Detectives were able to trace their location through ride-hailing and taxi records from the area where Smollett said the attack happened. Officers searched a home where at least one of the “persons of interest” lives and recovered personal effects including cell phones.

Smollett spoke to detectives about the case on Thursday. Guglielmi tweeted that, “Media reports [about] the Empire incident being a hoax are unconfirmed by case detectives.” Smollett told “Good Morning America” that he believed the two people caught on a surveillance camera were his attackers. He said, “I want them to find the people that did it … I want them to see I fought back.” Smollett said he was on the phone with his manager after leaving a Subway restaurant about 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 when he heard someone shout “Empire” as he crossed an intersection.

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Even as crime news—from mass shootings to the continued fallout from the #MeToo movement—dominate national media coverage, the continued drop in coverage of local justice issues threatens to leave millions of Americans in the dark about the practices and problems of the U.S. justice system, according to The Crime Report’s annual survey of criminal justice coverage.

Layoffs or closures in many mid-market or small outlets across the U.S., and the recent bloodletting in online news sites like BuzzFeed News and Huffpost, have affected the news media’s ability to fulfill the crucial watchdog role over courts, police and justice agencies in many communities, the survey concluded.

The U.S. justice system overwhelmingly comprises players who operate in state, county and municipal jurisdictions, where policies and practices directly affect millions of people.

“Budget and staffing pressures have forced  many outlets to combine traditional justice beats with others and to reduce deep-dive reporting on local justice issues,”said  the survey, prepared by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

The number of employees in newspaper newsrooms fell 45 percent between 2008 and 2017, from about 71,000 to 39,000, a Pew Research Center study reported last summer.

Commenting on the Pew findings, media critic Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote, “One problem with losing local coverage is that we never know what we don’t know. Corruption can flourish, taxes can rise, public officials can indulge their worst impulses.”

The survey was based in part on a a conference call conducted by Criminal Justice Journalists with criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University; William Freivogel of Southern Illinois University and the Gateway Journalism Review; Roger Goldman of Saint Louis University School of Law; and Dan Shelley of the Radio Television Digital News Association, with contributions by Marea Mannion of Pennsylvania State University and Brandt Williams of Minnesota Public Radio.

The survey was produced with the support of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

Although it focused on coverage during 2018, the survey noted that “the workforce problem shows every signs of continuing this year.”

Despite the grim outlook, the report noted some “bright spots.”

Several local news outlets produced fine coverage of important subjects in their areas, such as the prize-winning Cincinnati Enquirer’s reporting on the opioid overdose crisis in that hard-hit area, the Miami Herald’s investigations of abuse of inmates in Florida prisons, and the Houston Chronicle’s stories on similar problems in the sprawling Texas prison system.

“Some of the smallest outlets, mostly in rural areas, have demonstrated enthusiasm for reporting on the rural jail crisis and opioid overdose deaths,” the survey added, citing for example the “impressive collection of stories” produced following a training program for rural media on covering justice issues, particularly the jail crisis, in the “heartland,” organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ), publisher of The Crime Report, at John Jay College.

Those stories can be read here.

Turning to the national landscape, the survey cited an Associated Press survey of editors, which found that criminal justice issues were involved in five of the six top news stories of 2018, topped by the Parkland, Fl., school shooting on Valentine’s Day 2018 that led to a national student movement for gun control.

‘Progressive Prosecutors’

The one other story in the leading half-dozen was the 2018 midterm elections, which was marked by special media attention to the emergence of a new wave of “progressive” prosecutors from both parties, whose actions will come under increased attention over the next several years.

The survey noted that the quality of reporting is generally high.

“The CMCJ continues to receive dozens of high-quality entries in its annual competition for prizes for the best coverage during the previous year, so it should be clear that there is plenty of good reporting going on in this important area,” it said.

Editor’s Note: Winners of the 2018 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting will be recognized at a prize dinner next week. Their stories can be found here.

But, citing the analysis by the Post’s Margaret Sullivan, the survey said much of the local coverage revolves around “scandals” in a particular city or region; nevertheless readers still have little information about the day-to-day problems and issues related to “basic operations of the criminal justice system,” which arguably have a larger impact on their lives and the lives of their families.

“On a broader scale, it is fairly rare to see the news media produce serious stories about what causes the high level of violence that continues around the nation, even while rates of reported crime clearly are lower than they were in the 1990s,” the report said.

The survey noted a forthcoming book by Thomas Abt of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a former U.S. Justice Department anti-crime official, entitled “Bleeding Out,”  which faults the media for not paying enough attention to the underlying issues of violence.

 “Evenhanded stories about everyday violence often find it hard to compete for attention.”

According to Abt, “In [today’s] sensationalized, polarized environment, evenhanded stories about everyday violence often find it hard to compete for attention. And it is these stories that can celebrate the successes of treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and explore the science supporting them.

“The media—mainstream, new, and social—must do a better job of getting the word out on such stories.”

While some local newspapers and television stations do run occasional feature stories on projects aimed at the violence problem, the fact that overall crime rates around the U.S. are not so high as they have been in past decades means that the media typically do not focus on the issue unless there is clear increase in law-breaking in their circulation areas, the survey said.

Read the full survey here.

Readers’ comments welcome.

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Wesley Bell wants to change how criminal cases are prosecuted in St. Louis County, Mo., but he says it will cost more, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. The prosecuting attorney and his advisers have appeared before the County Council twice this year to ask for $1.5 million for additional programs and staff. The extra money would allow Bell to spend $13.4 million this year. That’s 13 percent more than last year and 43 percent more than two years ago under Bell’s predecessor, Robert McCulloch. Fresh off a budget battle with County Executive Steve Stenger, the council has been in no hurry to honor the request.

Bell’s changes have been aimed at reducing people and paper flowing through the county courthouse and jail. He has decriminalized marijuana possession and child support cases, sought to release more defendants without bail and send more defendants to medical or mental health treatment before they are charged. The county has until now had a limited diversion program run by the courts. Council member Tim Fitch, the former county police chief, said it seemed to him that Bell’s changes would result in less work for his existing staff, and questioned the need for more support. Bell says his reforms will save the county millions of dollars by not housing inmates in the jail. Fitch, the former county police chief, said he was skeptical when a public official says “give me more money and I can save you more money than you’re giving me.” St. Louis County has lagged behind peers in diverting drug defendants for treatment. Kansas City’s Jackson County sent more than 11 percent of its felony cases to an “alternative court” last year, and the city of St. Louis sent 7 percent. St. Louis County sent less than 1 percent of its felony cases to alternative courts.

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At a federal courthouse in Tennessee, a judge signed an order allowing ailing inmate Steve Cheatham to go home. At a prison hospice unit in North Carolina, the patient died before he heard the news, the New York Times reports. For years, terminally ill federal prisoners like Cheatham have had the option of what is called compassionate release. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons would often decline to grant it, allowing hundreds of petitioners to die in custody. One provisions of the prison-reform law signed by President Trump on Dec. 21 sought to change that, giving inmates the ability to appeal directly to the courts.

Cheatham, 59, did that, filing a petition last month so that he could go home to die. He became one of the first to be granted release under the new law. Then came the harsh truth that made so many families pin their hopes on the law’s passage in the first place: Days and even hours can mean the difference between dying at home or behind bars. Created in the 1980s, compassionate release allowed the Bureau of Prisons to recommend that certain inmates who no longer posed a threat be sent home, usually when nearing death. As more inmates grew frail in federal penitentiaries, a multilayered bureaucracy meant that relatively few got out. A 2013 report by a watchdog agency found that the compassionate release system was cumbersome, poorly managed and impossible to fully track. An analysis of federal data by the Times and The Marshall Project found that 266 inmates who had applied between 2013 and 2017 had died, either after being denied or while still waiting for a decision. During that period the bureau approved only 6 percent of applications. Many state penal systems, which house the majority of inmates, have their own medical release programs with similar problems.

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