Trends | April 2015



All Eyes on Witnesses 

Eyewitnesses often provide information critical to criminal investigations and court cases. But when they incorrectly identify an innocent person as the culprit, it can result in the wrong person going to jail—and a guilty one remaining free to commit more crimes. 

Illustration of a silhouette of a mug shotMistaken identifications have been a factor in more than 70 percent of the 325 wrongful convictions overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence since 1989, according to the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating wrongly convicted people.

Although no combination of procedures can prevent all mistakes in eyewitness identification, researchers, law enforcement personnel and state lawmakers continue to find ways to improve the accuracy of the process. 

A 2014 study committee appointed by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report detailing the best available scientific understanding of eyewitness identification, including everything from the nature of human memory to the soundness of the procedures used in witness identifications. To improve the reliability of eyewitness identifications and their use as evidence, the committee suggested:

  • Conducting “blind” lineups in which even the person administering the lineup doesn’t know who the criminal suspect is.
  • Video recording all lineups and eyewitnesses’ responses.
  • Giving witnesses a uniform set of instructions before they view a lineup. 
  • Giving juries standardized instructions explaining the factors that could affect an eyewitness’s accuracy or recall, such as how much time has passed since the crime or whether the witness experienced trauma.
  • Instructing juries to consider whether police followed proper procedures in dealing with evidence.

Currently, 18 states have passed legislation to study or regulate eyewitness identification procedures. 

Last year, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and Vermont enacted laws addressing many practices promoted by the NAS study committee, and Colorado and New Mexico have introduced similar bills this year.

—Rich Williams

What is Fair?

The Michigan Legislature is the latest to pass legislation that supporters hope will bring a greater level of fairness between Internet and brick-and-mortar retailers when it comes to sales taxes. The legislation requires large online retailers such as to collect and remit the state’s 6 percent sales tax.

Although all residents of the 45 states that tax sales are supposed to pay taxes on their online purchases, few do. This is partly due to two Supreme Court rulings—National Bellas Hess v. Illinois in 1967 and Quill Corp. v. North Dakota in 1992—that supported the “nexus” argument that retailers, including catalog and online sellers, need only collect sales taxes for the states where they have a physical presence, or “nexus.” 

In 2008, New York State was the first to pass an “affiliate nexus law” that expanded the meaning of “nexus” to include work performed by entities within a state that could be attributed to an online or remote vendor, thus requiring the remote vendor to collect and remit New York sales tax. 

Since 2008, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia have enacted similar legislation to expand the definition of “nexus” in an effort to collect the taxes they are owed. While the laws’ effectiveness varies by state, generally they have not come close to helping states collect the amount of revenue many were anticipating.

In fact, some states may have lost revenue after enacting “affiliate legislation” when out-of-state vendors—in response to the legislation—severed relationships with in-state entities. In those cases, not only did states fail to gain the ability to collect sales taxes from the remote vendors, they also lost income tax revenue due to the hit in-state entities received when remote vendors cut their ties to the state. 

Federal legislation such as the Marketplace Fairness Act in the Senate and the Remote Transactions Parity Act in the House, seek to remedy some of this by giving states the authority to require the collection of sales taxes by remote sellers. The National Taxpayers Union has estimated that states lose as much as $35 billion a year in uncollected taxes on remote sales.

—Max Behlke

Banking on Energy 

As state policymakers continue to investigate ways to increase efficiency and develop renewable energy—as well as to bolster resiliency by making the energy system less vulnerable to outages—some are turning to energy banks. State energy banks (also known as “green” or “resilience” banks) are public-private partnerships that combine public funding with private capital and expertise to lower the cost of investing in renewable, resilient or efficient energy projects. These banks provide an array of financing tools that allow customers to make payments on low-interest loans while realizing the benefits of the project as soon as it is complete. Eligible projects include updating insulation in an older building, adding solar panels to a retail center or equipping a public building with technology to generate power during outages.

By coordinating these services in one place, proponents of this new type of energy financing believe states will be more successful at leveraging funds from the private sector. They will also benefit from the multiplier effect private sector investments often have, all while making technology more competitive and less expensive through broader adoption. 

Energy banks can be tailored to meet states’ specific energy or environmental goals. For example, New Jersey’s Energy Resilience Bank was established after the extensive damage to energy and public infrastructure caused by Superstorm Sandy. The state announced the launch of the bank last fall, which is funded with $200 million from the state’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery allocation. The first series of projects will be upgrades to water and wastewater treatment plants, allowing plants to operate during power outages.

Connecticut, New Jersey and New York have established energy banks, and Maryland enacted legislation to study the issue during its 2014 session. Connecticut was the first when the legislature created the quasi-public Connecticut Energy Finance and Investment Authority in 2011. Funded with a mixture of private, state and federal funds, the goals of the bank are to help communities achieve energy security, improve the reliability of the energy supply, create jobs and support local economic development projects. 

According to the authority’s 2013 annual report, it has invested more than $220 million, which has helped create 1,200 jobs and avoid 250,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. This is equivalent to removing 2,500 cars from the road. Future projects include financing retrofits to older buildings to increase their energy efficiency and installing fuel cells and other small-scale renewable energy producers.

—Jocelyn Durkay

The Good Earth | By the Numbers

April 22 marks the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, started in 1970 as a day to appreciate our natural environment. How are we doing?

Americans who describe themselves as “environmentally conscious”

Americans who describe themselves as “green”

1.5 million
Hybrid vehicles sold in the U.S. from 2004 to 2009

Those who say they turn the lights off when they’re not needed

Americans who say they recycle 

Americans who say they make an effort to use less water

Portion of new single-family homes built with air-conditioning in 2012 (49 percent were in 1973)

Portion of workforce who biked to work in 2012

Average number of pounds of trash each American produces daily, more than 1,600 lbs. annually

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau 2012 American Community Survey, U.S. Energy Information Administration, Readers Digest Book of Odds Survey, Environmental Protection Agency

Tennessee’s Promise

President Obama’s proposal for a federal-state partnership to provide tuition-free community college across the country resembles a program created by the Tennessee General Assembly last year.

The Tennessee Promise scholarship and mentoring program gives recent high school graduates the opportunity to attend state community colleges without paying tuition or fees, starting next fall. More than 58,000 students (roughly 90 percent of high school seniors) completed scholarship applications last year for the program.

To pay for it, Tennessee created an endowment fund with most of the original support coming from $300 million of lottery reserve funds and $47 million in one-time state general fund dollars.

Several other states have discussed similar programs, and lawmakers in at least eight states have introduced legislation either to offer free community college or to set the groundwork to implement the president’s plan.

Obama’s proposal, “America’s College Promise,” would increase federal funding to cover three-quarters of the average community college tuition, but would require states to cover the rest. If all 50 states participate, the administration estimates the plan would benefit 9 million students a year and save each an average of $3,800 in tuition.
Congressional action is needed to implement the program, and the initial reaction has been unfavorable from Republicans, who say it’s outside the purview of the federal government and unaffordable.

Tennessee Promise scholarships are “last dollar” grants, meaning students must first exhaust all other sources of financial aid, including all federal Pell Grant aid. If all of the other sources of financial aid combined do not cover tuition, then students will receive a Promise Scholarship for the amount that is unmet. 

Tennessee’s mentoring component of its program will be just as important for students’ success as the financial component, supporters say. Each Promise applicant is assigned a mentor to help them navigate the college-selection process. Research shows that at-risk students who work with a mentor are significantly more likely to aspire to attend college and enroll in degree programs.

In February, a bill to expand the program was working its way through the Tennessee General Assembly. Senator Mark Green (R) believes it “really cleans up some language for folks in the military,” by allowing high school students who chose military training over community college to also participate in the Promise scholarship program.

For the last few years, several state legislatures have been discussing how to make community college more affordable. Nearly every state offers programs for students to earn college credits or industry-certified credentials nearly free of charge and without having to enroll in a community or four-year college. The most common programs offer college-level courses to high school students. Despite differences in what states offer students through these dual-enrollment programs, research consistently shows that participants are more likely to stay in college and accumulate more college credits than comparison students.

—Suzanne Hultin and Dustin Weeden

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