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Just Reported

Can We All Get Along?

q & a

September 2, 2014 03:43:00 am

By Cara Tabachnick

Photo by .v1ctor Casale, via Flickr

Can we learn from our mistakes? America’s system of justice may finally be ready to apply the same techniques for identifying crucial flaws that have been used or years in the medical and aviation worlds. 

At least that’s the hope of a landmark pilot project now underway under the aegis of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The project, called “Sentinel Events” reviews focuses on three cities—Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Baltimore, where major justice stakeholders—such as police, court officials and probation authorities—will examine together a case or incident that went wrong (e.g., a wrongful conviction) and try to identify the glitches or wrong turns—the ‘sentinel events’—that might have allowed them to catch mistakes before they ballooned into an injustice or egregious harm to public safety.

Next week, the NIJ will introduce the concept to the public for the first time, in a collection of essays written by some of the nation’s leading criminologists and justice practitioners. The volume, called Mending Justice, is intended to jumpstart a national debate about radically transforming the current system of “silos” in which each component—from courts to law enforcement—operates with little regard to what the others are doing. 

It will be available in hard copy and online September 8.

In an exclusive to The Crime Report, Milwaukee DA John Chisholm, one of the essayists (and a participant in the Sentinel Event pilot), discusses why he supports the concept, why he believes it should be a key tool for U.S. cities—and why its implementation might have prevented the tragic events in Ferguson MO last month—with Cara Tabachnick, managing editor of TCR.

The Crime Report: Why did Milwaukee decide to participate in the “Sentinel Events” project?

John Chisholm: As a jurisdiction, we’ve been committed to working not only among ourselves to try and improve the quality of our justice system, but we’ve recognized in order to do that most effectively we need to bring people in from the outside, in particular people who have the mix between academic experience and practical application. One of the processes we have been engaged in [over] the last couple of years is working with the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) and their evidence-based decision-making framework. The premise behind that is you actually can improve your systems by working collaboratively, by identifying points in the system of what actually works and doesn’t work.

The NIC project has focused on four major areas: reducing the number of individuals with mental health issues in the system, looking at risk factors in people entering criminal justice system, expanding our actions beyond the traditional ‘charge/ don’t charge [approach], and early intervention. We are also working with the Department of Corrections to develop ways of reducing failures with individuals who are placed on supervision. But the one thing we realized is that you still have significant system failures in different areas, and when those events occur we rarely take the time to focus on those failures.

We don’t determine what happened, why it happened, how it could have been prevented, and in some way that it could have been addressed in a much more effective way had we different process systems or players. Sometimes it’s as simple as people having better information.

TCR: What would you define as a significant event?

JC: When the National Institute of Justice suggested this they really had broad parameters of what a significant event can be. They left it to the jurisdictions to identify. Some of the obvious would be wrongful convictions or significant numbers of people who are detained in early stages of review for longer periods than are necessary or appropriate, or significant delays in the system that can cause you to lose victims, so they are no longer available as witnesses.

TCR: Was there something in particular in Milwaukee that needed to be fixed?

JC: One of our advantages we have had a community justice council for the past eight years. We sat down with the council and asked each of our key players to come up with an event that they thought was significant and should be addressed. The courts had a focus, prosecutors and defense attorneys had their focus, the police department had their focus, and as we were discussing it and laying out the different options, what we found was that the one area we all kind of agreed hasn’t been looked at hard enough is the juvenile justice system.

We have something of a bifurcated system here in Milwaukee. Our juvenile system is on a different campus than our adult system, but we’ve come to realize that there are a lot of intersections between the two systems. 

Fresh on everyone’s minds was a case when a man under correctional supervision—who had significant contact with the juvenile system—went out and committed a homicide. This case [allows the system] players who normally don’t get to talk to each other to sit down and map out exactly what happened. 

TCR: What did you find?

JC: We are in that process right now. We are meeting regularly and establishing a timeline—looking at everything from when this kid was born to the time he committed his offense. It’s a pretty fascinating stuff, I can tell you so far, We are looking at it from perspectives that normally wouldn’t be done. For example, [we’re examining] his public health background and trying to figure out if this kid was exposed to high lead levels. What kind of health interventions did he experience early on? How soon was he brought to the attention of the child welfare system? What were his parenting interactions?

We know they were extremely challenging, both his parents were deeply crime-involved and he was one of seven or eight kids from multiple fathers. At a very early age we know he was engaging in violent behavior. These are all things that are coming out in this process.

TCR: Should the criminal justice system be tracking challenging cases like this? Is this criminalizing youth without cause?

JC: There are a number of structural and legal obstacles that need to be addressed. For example, any time you try and collect information not just on an individual‘s background but a population’s background, ideally you would need access to all databases that had contact with the individual. We have already started that process with Dr. Mallory O’Brien (an epidemiologist that works with the DA’s office). She is working on building a data hub that would merge the data systems from about 7-8 different systems.

If you link all these systems and hide their identity on an individual basis –using a code in each system—and then link them that way you would be able to look across the population and identify high-risk kids. For example, if you have kids that have high exposure to lead and you can track them through the juvenile court system, then through the public school system, then the welfare or foster care system or involvement with law enforcement, you can actually create a profile of what are the risk factors that really stand out and how they are linked. It could be poor performance in the public school system or low reading scores, which is a huge red flag or behavioral disorders showing up early. Then we can check to see if they are in the child welfare system, and then we can see them show up very early at 16 or 17 years old into the criminal justice system.

TCR: So how would you address these types of cases now?

JC: Hopefully through this process we’ll identify what really works. What has been eye-opening for a lot of criminal justice professionals, in particular prosecutors and police, is that most of us have grown up in a system that believes you charge a criminal offense because there is a necessity for accountability and punishment; but that there is also a belief that by doing so you are deterring the behavior in the future. We are coming to understand that while that may be true, there are sometimes much more effective ways of deterring behavior [rather than making young people] wards of the system for a long time.

If you intervene in a different way early on, often through extensive wrap-around services that address the behavioral needs, you can stop an individual from entering the criminal justice system. For a very small percentage of individuals who have a large number of these red flags, you need to do the intensive work, and make sure that they are properly supervised and getting the type of [help] that will be shown to prevent behaviors that result in tragedies.

TCR: Do you think this type of system could have prevented the tragedy of Michael Brown’s death and aftermath in Ferguson, MO?

JC: What is unfolding now is part of the explanation why systems don’t engage in this process. When a terrible event happens everybody descends upon it and has their own take on what is really going on. And what is absolutely [missing], as far as I can tell right now, are any actual facts.

Everybody has his r own perspective on what happened, but there isn’t any space [for analysis]. Everyone demands a response from the system based on their preconceived idea of what should happen on the case; but it’s all done in a complete vacuum of facts. And until those facts are developed and the system is allowed to do that in a professional, thorough and independent way, you really can’t comment. That is the potential advantage of doing retrospective analysis: you ‘ve got the time and space to get people to open up about what they did do and what they didn’t do, but you often can’t do that doing exigent circumstances. So a lot of times people just don’t do it. In fact most of us just don’t do it; we just don’t take the time to go back and look. We should be looking not just at Ferguson, but police-related shooting cases as a whole.

TCR: Can these ideas expand to other cities?

JC: People think of the criminal justice system in the United States as a monolithic system, but in reality it’s not. there are 3,200 or even more counties, and the counties are generally the organizational structure for most criminal justice systems. Even though they all operate generally under state and federal laws, even within the states themselves those laws change. And at the local level, the ordinance and local laws are different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The number of social services or the size of police forces also differ.  

Milwaukee is in the top ten when it comes to the most challenging demographics and poverty and a host of other significant challenges—but that doesn’t make it any different than any other jurisdictions. The challenges are the same, just different magnitudes. The benefit of this process right here is that it could be used and adapted to any size jurisdiction at the local level. They just need to work with one another in an open and honest way, and there should be no pointing blame during these reviews, which are aimed at achieving some level of clarity and honesty, and (ultimately) a commitment to change. There isn’t any system in the United States that is perfect, there just isn’t.

TCR: What should other jurisdictions be reviewing in their own system?

JC: Do they talk to each other on a regular basis? That would be the first question I would ask. They need to talk to each other in some type of structured way on a regular basis. It is an essential thing that should exist at each county level. There needs to be a commitment from system actors that they sit down on a regular basis and examine their system, and to be open to bringing other people in to review.

If you don’t do that, then you get what you usually see, which is different parts of the system pointing fingers at other parts of the system. Police pointing fingers at social workers not doing their job; the court saying that prosecutors and defense aren’t doing their job. It’s a vicious circle. That’s the game that is played constantly, fingers are pointed, and everyone says ‘that is not my responsibility; I’m doing my job.’ As long as you are locked in that paradigm you are not going to get any change.

Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

Some Philly university students give crime reports low grades

PATRICIA MADEJ & CINDY STANSBURY, Daily News Staff Writers madejp@phillynews.com, 215-854-5938

Tuesday, September 2, 2014, 3:01 AM

IN JANUARY 2011, a University of Pennsylvania student was assaulted about three blocks from campus, allegedly by a “flash mob” of up to 40 youths. Penn did not issue an alert to students about the incident.

On Easter weekend last year, a 20-year-old La Salle University student was abducted about a mile from campus and sexually assaulted. La Salle officials did not send out an alert.

Five months ago, a 19-year-old Temple University student was walking with her boyfriend a block from campus when a group of teens approached, one of whom beat her face with a brick. Within a half-hour, the same group attacked two other students nearby. Temple waited three days before issuing a statement about the incidents.

When it comes to reporting crimes involving students, federal guidelines are subject to interpretation. As a result, in each of these cases, three major Philadelphia universities were left to make a judgment call about whether an off-campus crime constituted a “continuing threat.”

At a time when increasing numbers of students live off-campus, these examples highlight a growing concern voiced by students at the city’s five major four-year institutions:

How can I know where I’m safe?

‘The way of life’

Although Temple, Penn and La Salle all complied with the law in these instances, some students say they’re frustrated and would prefer that crime alerts be sent out more frequently.

The Temple student in the brick assault – who underwent oral surgery as a result – said an alert should have been sent out sooner.

“I want Temple to be safer because of this,” said the woman, whose identity is being withheld by the Daily News for her safety.

“That’s just the way of life at city schools,” said a 22-year-old Drexel University student who was robbed at gunpoint last September on the edge of campus.

James Kurtz, a Drexel student who was not involved in the gunpoint robbery, said that many students think the crime alerts are inconsistent.

“We kind of wonder why we weren’t notified through [the alert] system first, when we hear about it through other channels,” said Kurtz, 22, a fourth-year computer-engineering major.

Jim Moore, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Clery Act compliance division – which tries to assure that universities effectively report crimes under the guidelines of the law – said the alerts are meant to prevent a similar crime from happening and to promote awareness.

“A lot of students tell us that they want to know if certain types of crimes have occurred in their living environment so they could be more proactive,” he said.

Blurred lines

Under the Clery Act, institutions must send out an alert if authorities perceive an “immediate threat” or a “continuing threat” to students and staff.

The schools don’t have to issue an alert if the threat is off-campus, although they are permitted to do so if they think it’s needed, federal officials said.

For urban universities, this issue creates blurred lines. At Philadelphia’s five major institutions, on-campus housing is available to only 29 percent of enrolled undergrads, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The rest either commute or find off-campus housing.

“Historically [students would live] one or two blocks [off-campus] . . . now it’s five or six,” said Capt. Joseph Bologna, of West Philly’s 19th Police District, which patrols parts of the St. Joseph’s University campus.

When a crime happens off-campus, it might not present an immediate or ongoing threat to those within campus borders, but it’s still a threat to those who live slightly outside them.

“At some point, you are asking schools to know about incidents that are not a part of their jurisdiction,” said Moore. “That’s why we draw the line.”

University statements concerning the La Salle student’s Easter abduction and the Temple student’s brick attack were sent out by the universities after news organizations reported the stories.

La Salle officials said they decided not to send an alert because the incident was not an ongoing threat.

Temple’s email to the student body three days after the brick incident said an alert wasn’t issued because, “Temple was not made aware of the attacks until several hours after the events took place.” The email also said that alerts are sent only in the event of an “immediate or imminent threat.”

All five Philly universities work with the Philadelphia Police Department. In the brick attack, Charles Leone, executive director of Temple’s Campus Safety Services, said an alert wasn’t issued sooner because of a delay in communication between police and his organization.

In hindsight, Leone said, he would have liked to send an alert to the student body had the communication delays not occurred.

Each university has upper-level administrators who decide if an incident constitutes an emergency worthy of an alert.

For example, at La Salle, three administrators are responsible for making a judgment that affects the safety of a student body that numbered about 5,000 undergrads and 3,000 graduate students in 2012-13.

Alerts are issued when three upper-level officials decide that the case poses a threat, the report says.

Alison Kiss, executive director of the Wayne-based nonprofit Clery Center for Security on Campus, said bureaucratic procedures often can hinder the schools’ ability to quickly send out alerts after a violent incident.

“A chain of approvals is not optimal,” she said in an email.

Moore, the federal Clery Act official, said that schools occasionally have failed to issue timely alerts because one person in the chain was not available.

“If you have to go through a whole process with various people to get clearance, then time is wasted getting approvals,” he said.

Dragged by her hair

No alert was sent out after an 18-year-old Temple freshman was dragged by her hair and beaten by a group of about 10 girls outside an off-campus house party last October. Her cellphone was stolen and she was hospitalized.

“We look at the situation and we see what the impact is,” said Temple’s Leone, regarding alerts.

After Temple’s brick incident, students voiced outrage over the university’s communication delay. More than 2,000 people signed an online petition titled “Expand Temple University’s Patrol Area/Jurisdiction,” aimed to “help us regain the essential sense that we are safe attending Temple University.”

In 2011, Penn’s Undergraduate Assembly cited several instances in which the alert system caused controversy, including the “flash mob” incident. The assembly passed a resolution urging the university to recognize the value of the alerts.

“[The UA] strongly urges the Crisis Management Team to recognize that the dissemination of more information, and especially the dissemination of more information as swiftly as possible, is the more useful option for undergraduate students,” the resolution said.

By contrast, John Gallagher, director of public safety and security at St. Joe’s, sent out an alert for an armed robbery at an off-campus Rite-Aid, believing that even though it didn’t involve a student, knowledge of the crime was vital to students’ safety.

“We know a lot of people in the St. Joe’s community will use that store,” he said.

Some students said they wished they’d be notified more quickly of crimes against students off-campus, even if only via Twitter.

“I do think it’s important to be notified and aware of where we are and what’s going on,” said Sierra van den Dries, 23, a graduate student at Penn. “I feel like I am really in the dark about stuff like that.”

“I think once you have lived here, it’s just kind of something that you get used to,” said Taylor Collins, student-body president at Drexel. “It’s not alarming when you get the alert, and I think that attitude that most students have is, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’ But I think the more lightly people take it, the more vulnerable they are to the situation.”

“Campus is safe, I feel safe on campus,” said the Temple student who was attacked and robbed of her cellphone. “But students don’t realize that four or five blocks in another direction, it’s not safe at all.”


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