Can courts be compassionate, in crime prevention and punishment?

Most states with red flag laws passed them after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Advocates say the effectiveness of the laws would increase if more authorities and the public knew how to use them.  

1. United States

Red flag laws are saving lives throughout the U.S. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now allow courts to temporarily seize firearms to prevent deadly violence. These measures – also known as extreme risk protection orders – make it possible to act on early warning signs and avoid gun deaths, typically keeping guns away from a person at risk for committing violence for up to a year. In five states, petitions must be filed by law enforcement, while other states also allow family members, health care providers, co-workers, and school officials to submit a request. Petitioners must offer substantial evidence to meet legal requirements.

Why We Wrote This

In our progress roundup, courts wield power in attempts to both right history and prevent future harm. We’re also reporting on some energy-saving initiatives.

Despite criticism from some gun rights activists, the tool has garnered wide support among law enforcement, health care professionals, and lawmakers. Colorado Sheriff Tony Spurlock, a Republican and staunch Second Amendment supporter, says the law is saving lives in his community, but is underutilized. Now, in Colorado and elsewhere, leaders are allocating funds to educate the police and public about these laws and address knowledge gaps. Mr. Spurlock’s office has released podcasts and Facebook videos to help residents understand the petition process. In Florida, Fort Lauderdale Detective Christopher Carita is helping teach fellow officers best practices for using the state’s red flag law. “This is about having a tool that gives someone assurance that the ultimate goal is not to hurt them or lock them up,” he said. “It’s to save their life or prevent them from doing something they can’t undo.”
Stateline, Colorado Attorney General

2. Brazil

A member of the Krenak ethnic group participates in a 2019 demonstration in Brasília in defense of local Indigenous people.

A Brazilian federal court has condemned the government for the abuse, imprisonment, and displacement of the Krenak Indigenous people. More than 8,350 Indigenous people were killed during the country’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, while many others were tortured or lost land. The southeastern state of Minas Gerais, where the regime set up concentration camps known as the Krenak Reformatory and Guarani Farm, was the site of some of the worst abuses. Forced labor and torture were commonplace, say advocates for native tribes, with cruel and arbitrary punishments doled out for behaviors like speaking the Krenak language or loitering.

Decades later, a court has found the federal government, state government, and national Indigenous affairs agency guilty of human rights violations. Judge Anna Cristina Rocha Gonçalves ordered the government to organize an official apology ceremony, deliver reparations, and take measures to rehabilitate the Krenak culture and language. Brazil’s current president is known for his far-right, anti-Indigenous policies, making many uncertain if his administration will follow through with the court’s demands. Still, Indigenous leaders and supporters have celebrated the decision. “Justice, however slow, is being served,” said Indigenous chief Geovani Krenak. “The decision gives us hope. ... We know what is ours by right and what we suffered, but it will be a message for the rest of society that they should not give up fighting.”

3. France

Retrofitted public housing buildings in Paris offer insights on how cities can merge housing and climate goals. The waiting list for affordable housing – much of which was built in the 1930s and has seen rapid decay in recent years – has grown as surging private rents push tenants out. Meanwhile, the city’s climate plan calls for residential buildings to achieve 60% energy savings by 2030. Public housing agencies, with their mix of public and private capital, have been making public buildings more livable and sustainable for more than a decade through comprehensive remodeling campaigns.

The agency Immobilière 3F, for example, began upgrading buildings in 2015, starting with insulation and ultimately spending less than $50,000 per unit. Residents’ energy bills have since dropped 47%. The city’s main public housing agency, Paris Habitat, started a $42 million overhaul of the 500-unit Marcadet building last year. By 2024, the group aims to replace windows, elevators, and doors, and install new ventilation systems and natural cork insulation. This comes after more than two years of consulting with tenants, a critical step in getting buy-in and creating a plan for housing displaced residents during renovations. Experts say these Paris projects could serve as a guide for U.S. cities such as New York, where authorities face challenges of building trust with tenants, reducing a backlog of repairs, and updating neglected and inefficient structures.

4. Africa

Digital tools are boosting production for small farmers throughout Africa. Nearly 85% of farming families around the world own less than 5 acres of land each, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, and these families are responsible for about a third of the world’s food supply. But the smaller the farm, the harder it can be to access credit and insurance, reach new markets, and utilize mechanization and precision farming. At the same time, experts say global food production needs to grow dramatically to feed rising populations. Aloysius Uche Ordu, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, says digital technologies “are eliminating the traditional inefficiencies of smallholder food production and helping to close the yield gap.”

The mobile app Hello Tractor records the movements of a rental tractor in Umande village in Nanyuki, Kenya.

A 2020 report found there are more than 400 digital tools used to help address agriculture issues in sub-Saharan Africa. These include the app Hello Tractor, which allows smallholders to rent tractors at an affordable rate. DigiFarm in Kenya facilitates access to lower-cost supplies and potential buyers without an intermediary; Nigerian startup Zenvus analyzes soil data and advises farmers on the best fertilizing and irrigation methods. With women slightly less likely to own a cellphone and internet penetration at about 26%, researchers say that there’s a need for improved infrastructure and digital literacy for farmers to fully benefit.
Thomson Reuters Foundation, FAO


Scientists have developed a technique for extracting precious and heavy metals from electronic waste. The mining of metals such as rhodium, copper, and gold for consumer electronics has been linked to health issues, environmental pollution, and war. Most discarded devices end up in landfills; only 20% of hazardous electronic waste around the world is recycled. But a new method of “urban mining” improves upon traditional leaching and smelting recovery of these materials.

The process, pioneered by the lab of Rice University chemist James Tour, uses a jolt of electricity to instantly heat e-waste to 5,660 degrees Fahrenheit, vaporizing the precious metals. The gases are then separated into a cold trap, where they condense into solid form. According to the team’s research, which was recently published in Nature Communications, the flash heating process uses 80 times less energy than typical commercial smelting and 500 times less than tube furnaces available in laboratories. “We found a way to get the precious metals back and turn e-waste into a sustainable resource,” said Dr. Tour.
The Independent, Rice University, Electronics TakeBack Coalition

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