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Less than a year before ‘988’ suicide help number is activated, some states may not be ready



WASHINGTON – A new three-digit phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, set to launch next July, is expected to increase the use of mental health crisis services as access becomes easier.

But advocacy organizations worry some states may not have the funding or capacity to support increased use of the “988” hotline and its related programs.

“We’re envisioning the number… to be a way to really transform the way national crisis response is handled in the United States,” Laurel Stine, senior vice president of public policy for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Capital News Service. “It’s a pivotal moment for the mental health and behavioral health community.”

The “988” line is intended to be a faster, easy-to-remember way to get help in a mental health emergency. Calls to the new number will be routed to the already-in-existence National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The Maryland Department of Health is expecting an increase in the volume of calls and messages once 988 goes live, spokesman David McCallister said in an email to CNS.

“We expect contact volume to increase due to ease of remembering a three-digit number,” McCallister said.

An increase in calls means additional costs for local crisis centers in the hotline network that field calls and provide care.

McCallister said the federal government has provided funding to states, including Maryland, through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to support these services. Maryland is using those funds to support crisis call centers, he said.

The state has also submitted a draft plan addressing issues like funding and capacity to Vibrant Emotional Health, the administrator of the hotline. McCallister said the department is awaiting feedback on the draft plan. The finalized plan is due in January.

According to a state legislation map provided by the mental health advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness, only 20 states have so far had even proposed 988-related bills for funding and implementation.

Federal funding for the hotline flows through the Substances Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. According to a press release from that agency, the Biden administration’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2022 allots $102 million for the transition to 988, in addition to separate funding for other suicide prevention programs.

The proposed federal funding is “significant,” according to Stine. “However, we believe that additional resources are needed.”

Cost estimates for one year of nationwide implementation for the three-digit number go as high as $240 million, she explained.

When Congress cleared the way for the establishment of the three-digit number with the passage of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 last fall, it included provisions to allow individual states to levy taxes on phone bills to help fund and implement the hotline and crisis intervention services that would follow calls for assistance. That bill was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump.

Four states so far have passed bills including phone bill fees for this purpose. One signed into law in Virginia establishes a 12-cent fee for most wireless phone plans, and an 8-cent fee for prepaid wireless plans, which will fund crisis call centers in the state.

But because individual states need to develop their own funding and implementation plans, there is some concern among mental health advocates that they won’t all be ready for the “988” launch less than nine months from now.

“This kind of crisis infrastructure is going to take a lot of communities some time to develop, but they need to get started now,” said Angela Kimball, national director of government relations, policy, and advocacy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“The real fear though, is that if people call 988 and expect a mental health response, we want them to get a mental health response,” Kimball said. “We don’t want what we’ve always had, which is typically a law enforcement response.”

Kimball explained that police calls to mental health emergencies have sometimes led to arrests, inappropriate uses of emergency departments and hospitals, as well as deaths.

“That kind of trauma and tragedy is the last thing that we need,” Kimball said.

On average, 130 people die by suicide every day in the United States, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. As a result, crisis intervention and care are major public policy priorities for mental health advocacy organizations.

Those groups say the work doesn’t stop at providing the hotline — there needs to be a system that addresses the need for care after someone calls.

“There is a subset of people, about three in 10, for whom the phone call isn’t going to be enough,” Kimball explained.

In 2020, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline received 2.4 million calls.

Of those calls, 42,934 came from Maryland. About two-thirds of those Marylanders were connected with one of the eight crisis centers covering all regions in the state.

These crisis centers are facilities for people experiencing a mental health crisis where they can receive an evaluation, care, and referrals for more long-term treatment. Advocates say they are more effective and humane alternatives to placing someone in a hospital emergency department during a mental health crisis.

“A lot of our work is focused on the states in order to ensure that states take up legislation to fund the work,” Stine said. “And so we’re devoting a lot of our time to this.”

The 988 three-digit hotline is not yet operational. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800)273-8255 or visit its website at

Capital News Service

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Release of Adnan Syed focuses attention on Maryland wrongful prosecutions



BALTIMORE – Attorney Erica Suter recalled the disbelief in the voice of her high-profile client, Adnan Syed, the subject of the viral podcast “Serial,” when the judge told him he was being released from prison after 23 years for a murder Syed says he did not commit.

“At the trial table, he turned to me and said, ‘I can’t believe it’s real,’” Suter said.

Troy Burner, 50, remembers that feeling. Burner, who also lives in Maryland, spent 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit before a judge ruled in 2018 that, like Syed, prosecutors had failed to give him a fair trial.

According to records and attorneys at the Innocence Project, Syed and Burner are just two of thousands of cases of wrongful prosecution.

At least 3,000 exonerated individuals in the U.S. have spent a combined 25,000 years of their lives behind bars due to wrongful prosecution as of March 2022, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a database compiled by the University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law.

They were there because of false confessions, failures to disclose relevant evidence, and criminal justice systems lacking reform have led to thousands of wrongful prosecutions, said Suter, an attorney in the Office of the Public Defender.

“It’s not just one factor,” said Suter, also the director of the Innocence Project Clinic in Baltimore. “It’s a function of how our system was designed.”

Syed was freed after a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge ruled the prosecution had withheld critical evidence at his trial that could have prevented his conviction.

Syed’s release points to the prevalence of such prosecutorial conduct. In Baltimore, Suter said that 80% of recorded exonerations involved the state withholding evidence.

In 2021, there were 161 exonerations in the U.S., and official misconduct occurred in 102 of those cases, according to the national registry. Of the 102 cases with official misconduct, 59 were homicide cases.

When prosecutorial misconduct is found, seldom are there repercussions, according to studies.

The Chicago Tribune, one of the nation’s premier publications, looked into 11,000 homicide cases nationwide between 1963 and 1999 with prosecutorial misconduct. The publication found that out of the cases with substantial prosecutorial misconduct, “not a single state disciplinary agency publicly sanctioned any of the prosecutors,” according to The Innocence Project’s Prosecutorial Oversight report.

The Liman Prosecutorial Misconduct Research Project at Yale University conducted a study that surveyed disciplinary practices and ethical rules of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., and found that the workers who are most likely to find prosecutorial misconduct, such as prosecutors and defense attorneys, do not report it because they work in “a culture that does not support reporting, poor administrative processes and professional disincentives,” according to the oversight report.

There may or may not be repercussions in Syed’s case, said State’s Attorney for Baltimore Marilyn Mosby. Part of the reason is establishing intent from the prosecutor, she said.

“Sometimes it’s due to negligence,” Mosby said. “Sometimes it’s intentional. It’s really difficult to prove an intentional sort of misconduct.

“I have not yet seen any vindictive prosecution. I haven’t seen any sort of charges or appeals that are lodged against prosecutors. You have to establish intent, and oftentimes negligence is not criminal intent.”

Arrested at 17 for allegedly killing his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, Syed could have spent the rest of his life in prison if it weren’t for Maryland’s Juvenile Restoration Act.

Passed by the General Assembly in 2021, the law says individuals who were arrested at the time of the crime as a juvenile and have served at least 20 years can request the court to take another look at their sentence.

Syed remains under house detention for the next 27 days, awaiting a decision from Mosby’s office whether he will be retried or exonerated.

In an interview with Capital News Service, Mosby said her decision is dependent on the outcome of the DNA evidence connected with Syed’s case.

“If the DNA comes back and it’s some other person, then clearly, I’m going to go in, and I’m going to certify his innocence,” she said. “But if it comes back to him, then that’s a consideration, in light of all the negative contributing factors that we utilize to ask for a new trial.”

Suter said she expects to see a new trial date set for 2023 because the state must decide within 30 days from Syed’s release Monday whether to retry the case, and the results of the tests of the DNA evidence probably will not be back before then. A new trial date, however, does not mean the state will retry Syed.

Even if the case is dropped, Syed will have spent more than half of his life in prison.

Burner said nothing could make up for his time spent in prison. He said he spent half of his life behind bars based on five false and ever-changing testimonies of one witness who placed him at a Washington, D.C., crime scene.

In Burner’s case, he was released from prison because of the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2016, which allows people under 18 years of age to petition the court for a retrial after the crime they served at least 15 years.

He was convicted in 1994 for a murder he did not commit and sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

“I lay [in prison] multiple times a day, and I just sit there, and to be quite frank, in my mind, I will say, I wish that I did actually do it because, for me, that would have satisfied my conscience that I was in there for a reason,” Burner said.

At the time of his conviction, Burner said he was an amateur boxer hoping to go professional. He also worked for the Department of Public and Assisted Housing, now the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said he was one month away from being certified in home building and maintenance repair.

His hopes and dreams were crushed after being convicted, he said.

“Going into the courtroom, I can still remember today and hear the screams from my mom,” Burner said. “I went in feeling like a dead-beat, and I failed in many ways.”

Burner was released on parole in 2018 and exonerated from his charges in March 2020.

Under Washington, D.C.’s compensation bill, Burner should have received $200,000 for every year spent in prison. A portion of Burner’s compensation was devoted to the Venable-Burner Exoneree Support Fund, which provides financing to hire mentors and navigators for exonerees to help them re-enter the world after being released from prison, he said.

Under Maryland’s exoneree compensation law, which went into effect July 1, 2022, Syed would receive the state’s median annual income for each year he was imprisoned.

Burner said he found his purpose working with the Justice Policy Institute and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, advocating and building awareness for wrongfully convicted people like him.

“I’m a fighter by nature,” Burner said. “So, I understand when you lose that hope, you lose yourself. So, being here now, I just try to be and create and show that hope that guys [who] aspire to one day, see the world again, that they got somebody out here working for them.”

By Abby Zimmardi and Shannon Clark 
Capital News Service 

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Beagles rescued from Virginia dog-breeding facility get star treatment in D.C.



A beagle was rescued from the Envigo medical dog-breeding facility in Cumberland County, Virginia, at a Capitol Hill event on Sept. 22, 2022. (Jennifer Shutt / States Newsroom D.C. Bureau)

WASHINGTON — Now-famous beagles rescued from a breeding and research facility in Virginia were on Capitol Hill on Thursday as an animal welfare group and a California congressman pushed for legislation that would promote the adoption of research animals.

“It’s unfortunate that animals are still allowed to be used in testing. That hopefully is going to go away very, very soon. But while it’s happening, we can do better,” said Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-California.

The beagles came from a controversial Envigo medical dog-breeding facility in Cumberland County that shut down under pressure from federal regulators because of a string of animal welfare violations, the Virginia Mercury has reported.  Federal agents in May seized hundreds of dogs and puppies found to be “in acute distress.”

A judge in July approved a plan to move 4,000 beagles from the facility to shelters for adoption, making national headlines. One adopter turned out to be Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and her husband, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, who are now living in California.

Virginia lawmakers pass new regulations for controversial beagle breeding facility

On Thursday, several of the beagles were at the Capitol to get petted and shown off at a “meet and greet” and to help make a point about animal research.

Cárdenas, a California Democrat, introduced a bill last October that would require any facility receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health to make “reasonable efforts” to adopt any dog, cat, or rabbit deemed suitable for adoption once that animal is no longer needed for biomedical and behavioral research.

The legislation has just four other co-sponsors: Joe Neguse of Colorado, Jimmy Panetta of California, Donald Payne Jr. of New Jersey, and Dina Titus of Nevada.

When asked about the strategy for reaching the level of support the bill would need to clear the House and the Senate, Cárdenas told States Newsroom that he plans to push back on criticism from the medical research industry that the measure is “too onerous.”

“I don’t buy that,” he said.

Monica Engebretson, North America campaign manager for Cruelty-Free International, said 15 states require animal research facilities to offer dogs and cats they no longer want for adoption. But she believes a nationwide law is needed.

Engebretson said the group has had some success in the past in getting policy changes enacted through the annual legislation that funds the NIH, which is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, and hopes to do so again with this current policy proposal.

The NIH’s website says that it’s “committed to continuing to develop non-animal model alternative methods.” However, it notes that “we are not at a point where alternative approaches can completely replace the use of animals at this time.”

“The alternatives simply cannot accurately replicate or model all the biologic and behavioral aspects of human disease,” NIH writes. “Until that time, animal models will remain integral for NIH-supported research.”

The NIH also has an Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. But neither its Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals nor its Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals includes any proposals or suggestions for whether cats, dogs, and bunnies should be available for adoption after they are no longer needed.

The office notes on its website that it “supports the safety and protection of animals and reminds institutions that their policies must clarify the disposition of animals acquired for research once the research has ended, which may include adoption.” It also says it “will not assume legal or financial responsibility for any adoption program” of research animals.

by Jennifer Shutt, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.


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Kaine says Mountain Valley Pipeline provision in Manchin bill ‘could open the door to serious abuse and even corruption’




Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D) on Thursday sharply criticized a provision of the federal energy permitting reform bill that would force the completion of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, saying that “it could open the door to serious abuse and even corruption.”

“If they demonstrate on the merits that they should be entitled to build a pipeline … then build it by all means,” Kaine said in a lengthy speech on the U.S. Senate floor. “But don’t embrace the need for permitting reform and then choose one project in the entire United States affecting my state and pull it out of permitting reform, insulating it from the normal processes.”

The completion of the 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, intended to carry gas from the Marcellus shale fields in West Virginia to southern Virginia, has been a political flashpoint in Virginia since it was first proposed in 2014.

Opposition to the project has led to numerous court challenges, a settlement with Virginia over more than 300 environmental violations, and the yanking of multiple federal permits by judges in the Richmond-based U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Today, most of the unfinished portion of the pipeline lies in Virginia’s Giles, Craig and Montgomery counties.

This August, the project grabbed national attention when Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, said he had agreed to support Democrats’ sweeping Inflation Reduction Act in exchange for approval of separate legislation to reform the nation’s energy permitting processes. A one-page summary of what the legislation would do included the completion of Mountain Valley.

The text of the bill, which was released Wednesday, would require the federal government to issue outstanding permits for the project within 30 days, including authorizations from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect endangered species, from the Bureau of Land Management to allow the pipeline to cross the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia and from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to approve its remaining crossing of federal waters.

The legislation says that none of those actions would be subject to review by the courts. Additionally, it would transfer any other legal action related to the pipeline or challenges to the act itself from the 4th Circuit to the D.C. Circuit.

On Thursday, Kaine said Congress should not interfere with specific judicial and administrative review cases and called the transfer of jurisdiction away from the 4th Circuit “a very, very dangerous precedent.”

“What ground would there be for such a historic rebuke of my hometown federal circuit court, to say that just because they ruled against a powerful energy corporation, we will in an unprecedented way strip jurisdiction away from them in a pending case that is midstream and not allow them to hear it?” he asked.

Manchin’s proposal, known as the Energy Independence and Security Act, is attached to Congress’ stopgap spending bill, which is intended to keep the government operating after the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. A vote on the spending bill is expected next week.

Manchin’s office did not respond to a request for comment about Kaine’s remarks.

by Sarah Vogelsong, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Manchin permitting reform bill includes approval of Mountain Valley Pipeline



WASHINGTON – The energy permitting proposal that centrist Democrat U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III made a condition of his support for the Inflation Reduction Act would impose timelines on federal agencies responsible for approving energy projects, according to the text of the measure released late Wednesday.

Congressional Democrats are deeply divided over the Manchin permitting bill, with some on the left worried it would remove tools for communities to oppose projects with major environmental impacts. The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, blasted the Manchin plan on Wednesday night and said, “My colleagues and I don’t want this.”

A provision in the legislation to approve the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia and Manchin’s home state of West Virginia also alienated Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who said he was not consulted and raised strong objections.

“I cannot support the Mountain Valley Pipeline-related provisions in this legislative text,” he said in a statement. “Over 100 miles of this pipeline are in Virginia, but I was not included in the discussions regarding the MVP provisions and therefore not given an opportunity to share Virginians’ concerns. In that sense, I stand in the same position as many of my constituents who have felt ignored along the way.”

Meanwhile, Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley is leading a letter from Senate progressives urging separate votes on a must-pass stopgap spending measure and the permitting legislation, according to a Politico report.

Adding to problems, the top Senate Republican on the chamber’s spending committee told States Newsroom Wednesday afternoon that the inclusion of the permitting measure and other provisions may make the stopgap bill unworkable.

But Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has continued to say the Manchin plan will be included in the stopgap spending bill to keep the government open when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Details on Manchin plan

The Manchin bill would not remove any federal permitting requirements.

Instead, it would prescribe timelines for federal agencies to complete their reviews, including a two-year target for National Environmental Policy Act reviews on major projects. Such reviews can take up to 10 years, Manchin has said.

The bill includes a section requiring federal agencies to approve the 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has been partially constructed to send natural gas from West Virginia to southern Virginia, upsetting Kaine.

Federal climate deal could force completion of Mountain Valley Pipeline

The bill would also set a five-month limit on court challenges and require federal agencies to act within six months when a court remands a decision to them.

Manchin’s proposal would also designate a lead federal agency to coordinate project reviews. The lead agency would monitor requirements and deadlines set at the state level.

Manchin and other supporters of the measure have said it’s needed to deliver energy from renewable sources like wind and solar.

“If you’re going to build a wind farm or a solar farm in the middle of the desert where there’s no people … you’ve got to have permitting reform to get it done,” Manchin said Tuesday. “You’re not going to be able to deliver the energy that people need.”

American Clean Power Association Heather Zichal said that “as renewable energy projects become more prevalent … we must consider reasonable permitting reforms that preserve the substance of bedrock environmental laws while expediting the review process under them.”

But other environmental groups have already come out in opposition to the measure.

“Building a clean energy future that benefits all Americans cannot start by silencing frontline communities and eroding the laws that protect our access to clean air and water,” said Southern Environmental Law Center Director of Federal Affairs Nat Mund in a statement. “It’s absurd to suggest this deal, early versions of which were literally covered with fossil fuel lobbyists’ digital fingerprints, will do anything but exacerbate climate change at the expense of communities that depend on clean air and water that this proposal threatens.”

Progressive opposition

Members of Senate Democrats’ progressive wing have for weeks criticized potential permitting reforms, which they say would remove power from local communities seeking to challenge pipelines and other projects.

Merkley, the chairman of the Senate appropriations panel on Interior and environmental agencies, and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, all reportedly signed on to the letter calling for separate votes on the permitting bill and the stopgap bill — which would allow senators to stake out a clear position on the Manchin plan.

A spokeswoman for Merkley confirmed the Politico report but declined to comment further or provide a copy of the letter Wednesday.

“We are making clear we would like a separate vote — a separate debate and a separate vote — on the permitting process,” Warren told reporters Wednesday.

More than 70 House Democrats sent a similar letter to leaders of their caucus earlier this month.

Grijalva, who spearheaded House Democrats’ letter, issued a strong statement in opposition to the Manchin proposal.

The measure shortens public comment periods, provides fewer ways for communities to oppose projects and weakens enforcement of foundational environmental and public health laws, the Arizona Democrat said.

Federal court (again) overturns (another) Mountain Valley Pipeline permit

“These dangerous permitting shortcuts have been on industry wish lists for years,” he said. “And now they’ve added the Mountain Valley Pipeline approval as the rotten cherry on top of the pile. The very fact that this fossil fuel brainchild is being force-fed into must-pass government funding speaks to its unpopularity.”

Kaine, who recently reintroduced separate legislation with Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner to increase public input and notification requirements for pipelines as well as clarify the circumstances under which eminent domain can be exercised, said he agreed “with the need to reform our broken process for permitting infrastructure” but disagreed with the congressional approval of the pipeline.

“Green-lighting the MVP is contrary to the spirit of permitting reform,” he said. “Such a deliberate action by Congress to put its thumb on the scale and simply approve this project while shutting down opportunities for full administrative or judicial review is at odds with the bipartisan desire to have a more transparent and workable permitting process.”

In a statement accompanying the bill announcement, Manchin repeated that Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House had all agreed to pass the legislation, which was part of a deal this summer to pass the Inflation Reduction Act.

The Democrats opposed to the bill have not threatened to vote against the combined measure and risk a government shutdown.

Spending bill pitfalls

With annual government funding set to expire at the end of the month, Congress is expected to consider very soon a short-term bill to keep the government open for the coming months.

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he and fellow GOP lawmakers may filibuster the short-term government funding bill — which would need Republican support to pass — if Democrats add too many additional provisions.

That means they would not supply the 10 Republican votes needed for any legislation to advance in the evenly divided Senate.

“What could be telling would be when Schumer puts the legislation on the floor and there’s a motion to proceed, subject to debate, subject to 60 votes — that vote will be indicative of maybe things to come if he’s loaded it up with extraneous things,” Shelby said. “It probably won’t carry that well.”

When asked about Manchin’s permitting reform bill, which at that point had not been made public, and Schumer’s commitment to add it to the must-pass government funding bill, Shelby said, “I think it’s going to be hard to carry that.”

“We haven’t seen the language of it,” he said. “But it’s a raw political deal.”

by Jacob Fischler, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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U.S. House passes bill reforming Electoral Count Act to stop Jan. 6 repeat



WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Wednesday passed a bill updating a 19th-century law in an attempt to prevent the subversion of future presidential elections.

The Presidential Election Reform Act, which passed 229-203, is meant to deter a repeat of the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, in which the U.S. Capitol was attacked by a mob of pro-Trump supporters trying to stop Congress from certifying the presidential electoral votes.

Nine House Republicans joined Democrats in voting for H.R. 8873, which would revamp the Electoral Count Act.

“If your aim is to prevent future efforts to steal elections, I would respectfully suggest that conservatives should support this bill,” Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, said on the House floor. “If, instead, your aim is to leave open the door for elections to be stolen in the future, you might decide not to support this or any other bill to address the electoral count.”

Cheney, along with Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on Sunday that the bill “is intended to preserve the rule of law for all future presidential elections by ensuring that self-interested politicians cannot steal from the people the guarantee that our government derives its power from the consent of the governed.”

On the House floor, Lofgren said the bill “will make it harder to convince people that they have the right to overthrow the election.”

Both lawmakers are part of the House special committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

The bill raises the threshold for an objection to a state’s electoral vote from one member of each chamber to one-third of each chamber, a big increase, and makes it clear that the vice president’s role in certifying electoral votes is purely ceremonial.

GOP objections

A majority of Republicans pushed back against the bill, with Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois labeling it partisan and Rep. Bryan Steil of Wisconsin calling the process rushed.

Davis said that Democrats were perpetuating a false narrative that Republicans are election deniers and want to overturn elections, while Steil said that Americans have lost faith in their election system, and the bill does not do anything to quell those fears.

“Will the bill before us boost people’s confidence in our elections process?” Steil asked. “The bill fails the test.”

Virginia’s U.S. House delegation split on party lines Wednesday, with all Democratic representatives voting for the bill and all Republicans voting against it.

The House Rules Committee held a hearing on the measure Tuesday and voted 9-3 to send the legislation to the House floor. All Democrats in that committee voted for the bill, and all the Republicans who voted opposed it.

Trump actions

The push to clarify the election certification process comes after former President Donald Trump tried to pressure former Vice President Mike Pence to block the 2020 presidential election results certification.

The Jan. 6 insurrection, spurred by Trump, shortly followed. Four people who were part of the mob died, and five police officers responding to the insurrection also died in the days and weeks following.

Current law allows a congressional representative paired with a senator to object to a state’s electoral votes, which Republicans did. But they were interrupted from their objections when the mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol.

Because the vice president’s role in the certification of electoral votes isn’t exactly clear, Trump tried to pressure Pence not to certify the election.

Trump was impeached by the House for a second time for his role in the insurrection.

Senate version

The future of the House measure is unclear because the Senate is working on its own legislation.

The Senate held an August hearing where Sens. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat, argued for the need to update the 1887 electoral law.

The senators said the current law is archaic and ambiguous and that their bill had several reforms, including clarification of the role of the vice president when certifying electoral votes.

Collins announced Wednesday she had 10 Democratic and 10 Republican co-sponsors for the bill, meaning its passage could reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance past a filibuster in the Senate.

“Our bill is backed by election law experts and organizations across the ideological spectrum,” Collins said in a statement. “We will keep working to increase bipartisan support for our legislation that would correct the flaws in this archaic and ambiguous law.”

Those 10 Senate Democrats include Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Warner of Virginia, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Chris Coons of Delaware, John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Alex Padilla of California.

The 10 Senate Republicans include Collins, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Todd Young of Indiana, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

by Ariana Figueroa, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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U.S. Senate report says government failed to count deaths of incarcerated people properly



The perimeter of Greensville Correctional Center is protected by multiple layers of fencing, razor wire, and guard towers. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice did not properly count nearly 1,000 deaths of incarcerated people in jails and prisons, according to a bipartisan report released Tuesday by a U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee.

The 10-month investigation by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, found that DOJ failed to enforce the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, which requires states that receive federal funding to report prison and jail deaths to the agency.

“What the United States is allowing to happen on our watch in prisons, jails, and detention centers nationwide is a moral disgrace,” Ossoff, a Democrat, said in his opening statement.

States that fail to follow the law can lose up to 10% of their funding for state and local law enforcement agencies under the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program.

“These failures were preventable,” according to the report. “DOJ must act quickly to remedy the outstanding implementation failures, and Congress should continue to monitor DOJ’s implementation efforts.”

The Senate investigations panel held a hearing Tuesday afternoon following the report’s release, during which two witnesses whose family members died in custody in Georgia and Louisiana also testified. Both deaths were of pre-trial people, meaning they had not yet been convicted of a crime.

The Department of Justice did not comment on the subcommittee’s report but pointed to the testimony of Maureen Henneberg, the deputy assistant attorney general for operations and management in the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs.

Lack of reporting

From 2000 to 2019, the Bureau of Justice Statistics collected and made public information about deaths in custody that was provided to DOJ. Then the agency would inform Congress of its data. But DOJ then transferred that task to its Bureau of Justice Assistance, which began collecting data in the fiscal year 2020.

Since the transfer, DOJ has not reported the data that the Bureau of Justice Assistance has collected, according to the report.

The report found the agency was not fully cooperating with the panel’s investigation, and “DOJ’s resistance to bipartisan Congressional oversight impeded Congress’ ability to understand whether (the Death in Custody Reporting Act) had been properly implemented, delaying potential reforms that could restore the integrity of this critical program.”

“This information is critical to improving transparency in prisons and jails, identifying trends in custodial deaths that may warrant corrective action — such as failure to provide adequate medical care, mental health services, or safeguard prisoners from violence — and identifying specific facilities with outlying death rates,” the report noted.

In the fiscal year 2021, the report found that DOJ “failed to identify at least 990 prison and arrest-related deaths; and 70% of the data DOJ collected was incomplete.” Of those deaths, 341 were prison deaths disclosed on states’ public websites, and 649 were arrest-related deaths disclosed in a reliable public database.

The report found that the Justice Department did not properly manage the data collection transfer from the Bureau of Justice Statistics to the Bureau of Justice Assistance and that most of the information on deaths that occurred in custody during the fiscal year 2021 was incomplete.

About 70% of the records on deaths that occurred in custody were missing at least one data field as required by the reporting law, and about 40% of the records “did not include a description of the circumstances surrounding the death.”

Andrea Armstrong, a professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law who studies prison and jail conditions, said that making available data on prison and jail deaths can help prompt reviews of staffing, discipline, and mental health protocols.

“Deaths in custody may signal broader challenges in a facility,” she said.

Working to fix problems

Ossoff and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the top-ranking Republican on the panel, grilled Henneberg on why the Department of Justice has not fixed its data collection process.

“You’ve utterly failed,” Johnson said. “This isn’t that hard.”

Henneberg said the department is working to fix the issues, and many of the underreported death counts are from states.

“The states have no leverage to compel their local agencies to provide the data,” she said.

Additionally, she said that while there is a penalty for states that do not accurately report deaths in custody under the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program, the department is concerned that “the penalty may have unintended, negative consequences and has not implemented the penalty.”

Gretta L. Goodwinthe director of homeland security and justice at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said a review by two investigators found that the department missed almost 1,000 deaths in one year.

“We believe that’s an undercount,” Goodwin said.

by Ariana Figueroa, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.


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