Category Archives: Criminal Justice

File Under “Duh”

Andrew Sullivan recently reported on some interesting research into the consequences of state-level marijuana legalization.

A 2012 research paper by the Mexican Competitiveness Institute in Mexico called ‘If Our Neighbours Legalise’, said that the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado, Washington and California would depress cartel profits by as much as 30 per cent. A 2010 Rand Corp study of what would happen if just California legalised suggests a more modest fall-out. Using consumption in the US as the most useful measure, its authors posit that marijuana accounts for perhaps 25 per cent of the cartels’ revenues. The cartels would survive losing that, but still. “That’s enough to hurt, enough to cause massive unemployment in the illicit drugs sector,” says [fellow at the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center David] Shirk. Less money for cartels means weaker cartels and less capacity to corrupt the judiciary and the police in Mexico with crumpled bills in brown envelopes. Crimes like extortion and kidnappings are also more easily tackled. …

Mr Shirk puts it this way. If you ask enforcement folk how large a dent their interdiction efforts – seizures, arrests, helicopter raids and so on – actually have on cartel earnings, they will say between 5 and 10 per cent. But just a few states embracing legal cannabis may end up robbing them of two to five times that amount.

In other words, when you reduce demand for an illegal product–in this case, by offering a legal alternative–you reduce illegal behavior associated with the marketing of that product.

Since cannabis is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, regulating its sale and taxing it–rather than criminalizing its use– would appear to be a win-win.

Family Fights

We are a weird family. I should just admit it.

You want examples?

Several years ago, my eldest granddaughter–then 13– interrupted a lively dinner discussion by our extended family, saying “Stop it! Just stop it! All this family talks about is politics and I’m sick of it!” I apologized and said we’d talk about anything she wanted. What did she want to discuss? “School uniforms. I don’t think we should have to wear uniforms.”

Not long after 9-11, when our daughter was still on IPS’ School Board, she and my lawyer son disagreed about encouraging schoolchildren to recite the Pledge. He cited Barnette v. Board of School Commissioners of West Virginia; her Christmas gift to him that year was The Story of Our Flag.

And so it goes–at least in our family.

Most recently, my two younger sons have been arguing about Edward Snowden. On Facebook, my (very liberal and idealistic) middle son approvingly posted the New York Times editorial arguing that Snowden should get clemency; his brother (the lawyer) shot back with Fred Kaplan’s article for Salon, Why Snowden Won’t (and Shouldn’t) Get Clemency.  That led to a spirited exchange, to put it mildly.

Each one called and tried to get me to weigh in on his side.

In other families, I am told, children call their mothers (when they do) to ask for money, or to report on life events, or even to ask advice.  Mine call to talk politics and argue policy.

For what it’s worth, I agree with my lawyer son on this one. As Kaplan–like me, a foe of NSA domestic spying– notes in his article, had Snowden only disclosed information about domestic surveillance, leniency might be appropriate. But he did much more than that. He disclosed information having nothing to do with domestic spying, or even spying on our allies. He disclosed information about intelligence gathering practices that are not “illegal, immoral or improper”–information useful to the Taliban and Iran, among others.

Kaplan quotes Snowden telling the South China Morning Post that he took his job with the express intention of gaining access to NSA information–rebutting the assumption that  what he learned on the job so distressed him that he decided to broadcast what he’d found. He only stayed on the job for three months– just long enough to get what he’d come for. (He also lied to some 25 co-workers, telling them he needed their logons and passwords as part of his system administrator duties. Predictably, those co-workers were subsequently fired.)

There were also his glowing remarks about the “commitment to human rights” shown by Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, his praise of Hong Kong’s devotion to freedom of speech, and his expressed intent to share the pilfered documents with “every country where the NSA had operated.”

Someone who really wanted to shine a light on government misconduct–to engage in the time-honored tactic of civil disobedience–would not have taken refuge in countries whose interests are inimical to ours. He would have stayed in the U.S., made his case, and accepted the consequences of his actions.

Had Snowden limited his disclosures to the NSA’s clearly unlawful domestic activities, had he remained in the U.S. to argue that his actions were in service of the Constitution and Rule of Law, he would be a whistleblower entitled to our consideration.

Bradley Manning was a whistleblower. Snowden is not, and the fact that his disclosures will end up doing some collateral good really doesn’t change that.

My lawyer son’s analogy is apt: if someone goes on a shooting spree and kills two innocent people and one murderous son-of-a-bitch, the fact that he rid the town of the SOB doesn’t excuse the murder of the other two.

I hate taking sides when my kids have an argument, but sometimes, it’s unavoidable. At least they aren’t arguing about who Mom loves best…





The Beginning of the End of the War on Drugs?

Uruguay has legalized pot.

Before the passage of the law, Uruguay’s president made an important point; admitting that legalization was an experiment, he stressed the importance of finding an alternative to the deadly and unsuccessful war on drugs. “We are asking the world to help us with this experience, which will allow the adoption of a social and political experiment to face a serious problem–drug trafficking,” he said. “The effects of drug trafficking are worse than those of the drugs themselves.” 

Yes. That is an “inconvenient truth” that everyone from Milton Friedman to the lowliest academic researcher has documented. Drug abuse (which, interestingly, is nowhere defined in the law, which simply prohibits the use of scheduled substances) is a public health problem, and criminalizing it doesn’t help anyone. It does, however, incentivize the drug trade, erode civil liberties, disproportionately affect the black community and make hypocrites of us all.

If pot were legal, regulated and taxed, we could control children’s access (it is harder in most communities for teens to get alcohol than pot) and generate income.

In Uruguay, the government will actually sell marijuana rather than taxing it. Andrew Sullivan reports that

Under the new law, Uruguayans registered with the government will be allowed to buy up to 40 grams (1.4 ounces) of marijuana from government-licensed pharmacies. Private companies roped in to help produce enough weed to meet local demand will have to sell their crop to the government for distribution. The government will rake in some extra cash in the process. The black market for marijuana is worth some $40 million. The government won’t earn as much; it plans to sell the drug for about $1 a gram, roughly 30 percent less than the black market price. But it can count on a lot of customers: Uruguay has a relatively high percentage of pot smokers for the region – third only to Argentina and Chile.

If Uruguay’s experiment works, there will be increasing pressure to end a “War” that has been one of the costliest failures of public policy in the history of the country. And that’s really saying something, because we have a habit of legislating stupid and costly failures.

Criminal Justice by the Numbers: The Moneyball Approach

“The approach is simple. First, government needs to figure out what works. Second, government should fund what works. Then, it should stop funding what doesn’t work.”

That, in a nutshell, is Peter Orszag’s summary of a recent, detailed set of recommendations  issued by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s law school. He calls it “the Moneyball approach”–going by statistical evidence rather than gut impressions.

The Brennan Center’s proposal, Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration, is a plan to link federal grant money to modern criminal justice goals – to use that grant money more strategically– to promote innovative crime-reduction policies nationwide and to reduce crime, incarceration and the costs of both.

The proposal, titled “Success-Oriented Funding,” would change the federal government’s $352 million Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, by focusing on the government’s current criteria for determining whether a grant has been successful.  (Fortunately, given the gridlock in Congress, It could be implemented by the DOJ– it wouldn’t require legislation.)

The fundamental premise of the program is that “what gets measured gets done.” If you are measuring the number of arrests, you’ll increase arrests. If you are measuring reductions in crime or recidivism, you’ll get reductions in crime and recidivism.

A blue-ribbon panel including prosecutors and defense lawyers, Republicans and Democrats, academics and officeholders has signed on to the proposal. As Orszag noted in the Forward:

Based on rough calculations, less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely. With so little performance data, it is impossible to say how many of the programs are effective. The consequences of failing to measure the impact of so many of our government programs — and of sometimes ignoring the data even when we do measure them — go well beyond wasting scarce tax dollars. Every time a young person participates in a program that doesn’t work but could have participated in one that does, that represents a human cost. And failing to do any good is by no means the worst sin possible: Some state and federal dollars flow to programs that actually harm the people who participate in them.

Figuring out what we taxpayers are paying for, and whether what we are paying for works.

Evidence. What a novel idea!

Crime and the City

Our son Stephen is home from the Big Apple for Thanksgiving. He lives in a spiffy new high-rise on the west side of Manhattan, in a redeveloping neighborhood that I would have been afraid to walk in even ten years ago.

I don’t worry about his living in that neighborhood, however, because crime in New York has fallen steadily over the past couple of decades. You can quibble about the reasons (my son suggests it’s because poor people can no longer afford to live there; defenders of “stop and frisk” say it’s because racial profiling and willingness to ignore the civil liberties of minorities has worked), but whatever the reasons, the bottom line is that New York is 65.4% less dangerous to live in than Indianapolis.

According to, ”in New York, as compared to Indianapolis, IN you are: 40.5% less likely to get robbed, 45.6% less likely to get murdered, 81.8% less likely to get your car stolen.”

Last year, Indianapolis had 11.5 murders per 100,000 people. New York had 6.3. We had 52.2 rapes per 100,000; New York had 13.3. Etcetera.

I seem to recall Greg Ballard running for Mayor on the promise that he would make crime “Job One.”

I hope he’s doing better with whatever Job Two was…..