District attorneys are among the most influential actors in the criminal justice system. They decide where to focus prosecutorial resources. They determine whether to charge the most serious provable offense or lesser offenses. They choose whether to stack charges, and whether to choose charges carrying harsh, mandatory minimum sentences. They decide what to offer in plea negotiations, and whether to threaten additional charges against uncooperative defendants.
ProPublica Illinois, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that does investigative journalism, recently published an article about inaccuracies in Chicago's gang database. Police and law enforcement officials routinely cite the gang database when investigating and prosecuting crimes. The database is also used for immigration enforcement, criminal background checks and other purposes.
An estimated eight million people use Amazon's Alexa, the virtual assistant that can make lists, set timers, dial phone calls and even tell jokes. Depending on your setup, it can turn off your lights, set your home security system, and turn on and tune your TV. She recognizes different voices and can key various activities and lists to individuals based on their voices. She can keep track of most everything you're up to, and she's always listening.
Studies have shown that invalid or inaccurate forensic science is a factor in almost half of wrongful convictions. In the approximately 354 cases where DNA later exonerated an Innocence Project client, poor forensic science contributed to most of the underlying convictions.
Two criminal justice experts have cast serious doubt on the legality of many police activities in Milwaukee. Just as many African-Americans and Latinos have claimed for years, the evidence shows that they and their neighborhoods are being unfairly targeted for police stops and pat-down searches -- often with no legal basis.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has just made his opposition to a bipartisan sentencing reform bill clear. Calling the legislation a "grave error," he said the proposed changes would reduce the sentences of "a highly dangerous cohort of criminals."
An unfortunate fact about our criminal justice system is that minorities are frequently sentenced to more time for the same crimes as whites. In the U.S., African-Americans, for example, make up 13.3 percent of the population but account for 38 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons, according to federal data.
Journalist Robert Draper writes in the current issue of National Geographic about "surveillance creep," the seemingly unchecked proliferation of closed-circuit cameras by municipalities for law enforcement and security purposes.
When a crime scene sample has evidence of more than one individual crime labs attempt to assign the results to particular individuals. When there are DNA alleles from only two people the process is usually straightforward -- there is a "major contributor" and "minor contributor" identified. The problem becomes more complicated if there is evidence of DNA from three or more persons in the mixture. Until recently, many labs reported results as "inconclusive" because separating the mixture of DNA was too subjective. Then several software companies developed algorithms that could assign the DNA profiles to particular individuals by using statistical probabilities. This method of "probablistic genotyping" has been controversial among scientists in the field and forced courts to confront much new evidence.
In many ways, news that disparities exist in the U.S. criminal justice system based on race evoke thoughts of Captain Renault, Claude Rains' character in "Casablanca," shutting down Rick's Café and exclaiming, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"