Friday, March 09, 2007

News of the Day

This New York Times article discusses the findings of a report issued today by the Police Executive Research Forum about the significant and alarming resurgence in violent crime across the United States:

Violent crime rose by double-digit percentages in cities across the country over the last two years, reversing the declines of the mid-to-late 1990s, according to a new report by a prominent national law enforcement association.

While overall crime has been declining nationwide, police officials have been warning of a rise in murder, robbery and gun assaults since late 2005, particularly in midsize cities and the Midwest. Now, they say, two years of data indicates that the spike is more than an aberration.

“There are pockets of crime in this country that are astounding,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which is releasing the report on Friday. “It’s gone under the radar screen, but it’s not if you’re living on the north side of Minneapolis or the south side of Los Angeles or in Dorchester, Mass.”

Local police departments blame several factors: the spread of methamphetamine use in some Midwestern and Western cities, gangs, high poverty and a record number of people being released from prison. But the biggest theme, they say, is easy access to guns and a willingness, even an eagerness, to settle disputes with them, particularly among young people.

“There’s a mentality among some people that they’re living some really violent video game,” said Chris Magnus, the police chief in Richmond, Calif., north of San Francisco, where homicides rose 20 percent and gun assaults 65 percent from 2004 to 2006. “What’s disturbing is that you see that the blood’s real, the death’s real.”

As reported in The Guardian U.K. and elsewhere, a British think-tank, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Management, and Commerce (RSA), has released a comprehensive two-year study on that country’s drug policy. According to The Guardian:

Government drug policy is failing and drinking and smoking should be considered as dangerous as many illegal substances, according to a report published yesterday.

The two-year study headed by academics, drugs workers, journalists and a senior police officer called for a radical rethink of government drugs policy. It said addiction should be treated as a health and social problem, not as a crime issue.

Drugs laws are driven by "moral panic" according to Anthony King, chairman of the report, who said: "There is a real problem about politicians taking sensible decisions in a field as politically hazardous as this. There is a need to inject into the debate a degree of calm rationality - less foaming at the mouth and more thinking."

The report states that the current classification system is "crude, ineffective, riddled with anomalies and open to political manipulation".

At the heart of the study - published by the RSA commission on illegal drugs - is the proposal of a health and social approach to drug addiction. "Drugs policy outcomes should be judged in terms of harms reduced rather than drugs seized or offenders prosecuted," it states. "The idea of a drugs-free world, or even a drugs-free Britain, is almost certainly a chimera."

Doubtless, Mike will have much to stay about the study upon his return.

Finally, the editorial board of the Newark Star Ledger lauds the New Jersey Legislature today for implementing a study of Megan’s Law thirteen years after it passed the law.

Thirteen years after its passage, the Legislature has decided to bring Megan's Law -- the tough state law requiring police to alert communities about the most dangerous sex offenders -- in for a checkup. Lawmakers want to know whether the law is working the way they in tended.

Not only is this a good idea for Megan's Law but it is probably a good precedent that ought to be emulated with other landmark legislation.

Following the death of Megan Kanka, the 7-year-old Hamilton Township girl who was raped and murdered by a twice-convicted sex offender living across the street, public outrage was palpable. Lawmak ers understandably wanted to do something. It's not uncom mon for legislators to rush to enact legislation based on a horrific crime, but seldom do they come back to see whether the new law is producing the desired results.

Sens. John Girgenti (D-Ber gen) and Peter Inverso (R-Ber gen) have introduced legislation authorizing the review after learning of uneven application of the law. Data gathered by the Administrative Office of the Courts show there are significant and unexplained disparities in the application of Megan's Law from county to county.

Eight percent of sex offenders in Morris County and 9 percent in Passaic County were deemed by prosecutors and judges to be dangerous enough to be listed on the State Police Megan's Law Web site. By contrast, more than 40 percent of the sex offenders in Atlantic and Cape May coun ties are listed on the Internet site.

Under Megan's Law, whether convicted sex offenders' names and residences are posted on the Internet depends on their classification -- tiers one through three. Tier-three offenders are automatically included in the Internet registry because they are considered the most likely to reoffend. Tier-two offenders may be in the registry. Those classified as tier one pose the least risk and are not listed on the Internet site.

The difference from county to county may simply reflect variations among sex offenders, but the fear is that offenders with very similar backgrounds face different fates. That's what Girgenti and Inverso want to find out. Under their bill, which was voted out of committee last week, the Violence Institute of New Jersey at the University of Medicine and Dentistry will study the application of the law. The proposed legislation should be enacted.
Another study, funded with a federal grant obtained by the state Corrections Department , is looking at the cost effectiveness of Megan's Law.

Together these efforts should be able to target possible weaknesses in a law that has received widespread public support.

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