Category Archives: Criminal Justice

Pot and That Kettle of Booze…

Are you one of those soft-headed “libruls” who want to decriminalize pot? If so, add this to your list of arguments.

A new study compared all kinds of substances, and found that pot is more than 100 times safer than alcohol.(They didn’t take the “munchies” and consequential obesity into account, however…)  Researchers found that booze is actually the deadliest substance of all, and–based upon their findings– recommended that US law enforcement focus a lot less on pot-related crimes.

According to the Washington Post

Those are the top-line findings of recent research published in the journal Scientific Reports, a subsidiary of Nature. Researchers sought to quantify the risk of death associated with the use of a variety of commonly used substances. They found that at the level of individual use, alcohol was the deadliest substance, followed by heroin and cocaine.

So, put that in your pipe and smoke it. (Okay, a little inappropriate humor there….)

For the past thirty years, at least, criminal justice scholars have documented the flaws in American drug policy. The drug war has been a costly, monumental failure–in addition to its clear failure to reduce hard drug use, it has decimated communities of color, ruined countless lives, distorted foreign policy…and the beat goes on.

Drug use is not the same thing as drug abuse. And drug abuse should be addressed as the  public health issue it is, not through the criminal justice system. (You’d think we might have learned a thing or two about overreaction during Prohibition…)

When ideology and “morality” trump evidence and common sense, you get profoundly stupid policies. We do “profoundly stupid” a lot.


I once debated a law school professor who supported the death penalty. His argument was simple. Capital punishment is like vaccination (this was before the rise of the bizarre anti-vaxxer phenomenon). As he saw it, vaccination makes a very few people ill, while preventing disease in millions of others.  With capital punishment, a few innocent people are executed, but many more people are kept safe.

( I asked him whether he’d feel that sanguine about a “few mistakes” if he were  innocent and on death row. But I digress.)

More to the point, there is no credible evidence that capital punishment has a deterrent effect that protects anyone. Especially in “crimes of passion”–where one angry spouse picks up that easily-available gun and offs the other, for example–the notion that the shooter indulges in a cost-benefit analysis before pulling the trigger is ludicrous.

If we really wanted to deter murder, we’d limit possession of guns.

Justice Scalia once suggested that the execution error rate was minimal, around 0.027%. As usual, his figure was a product of ideology rather than research.

Four scholars–Samuel Gross (University of Michigan Law School), Barbara O’Brien (Michigan State University College of Law), Chen Hu (American College of Radiology) and Edward H. Kennedy (University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine)–recently examined data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Department of Justice in an effort to estimate the rate of false convictions among death row defendants.

After examining 7,482 cases, they estimated that 1 in 25 death row inmates are wrongly convicted. They conclude: “With an error rate at trial over 4%, it is all but certain that several of the 1,320 defendants executed were, in fact, innocent.

If 4% of people who got vaccinated died–and there was no credible evidence that inoculation prevented disease– I’d join the anti-vaxxers.



An Unintended Message From NYPD

New York police don’t like Mayor DeBlasio.  That’s their privilege, of course, but they don’t work for the Mayor, they work for the citizens of New York–and the  childish behavior they exhibited during funerals of their fallen comrades isn’t winning them any fans. As the New York Times noted in a recent editorial,

With these acts of passive-aggressive contempt and self-pity, many New York police officers, led by their union, are squandering the department’s credibility, defacing its reputation, shredding its hard-earned respect. They have taken the most grave and solemn of civic moments — a funeral of a fallen colleague — and hijacked it for their own petty look-at-us gesture. In doing so, they also turned their backs on Mr. Ramos’s widow and her two young sons, and others in that grief-struck family.

This distasteful and infantile behavior was followed by a more consequential action: a work slowdown during which NYPD is refraining from issuing tickets for traffic offenses and arresting people for “low level” behaviors. Presumably, this is intended to hurt the city in its pocketbook. According to the Atlantic,

 In their latest move, officers have begun a “virtual work stoppage” throughout the city by making fewer low-level arrests and issuing fewer citations. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, New York’s largest police union, urged its members not to make arrests “unless absolutely necessary,” according to the New York Post‘s report.

Think about that for a minute.

Shouldn’t police always refrain from making arrests that aren’t “absolutely necessary”?

What if the men in blue focused their energies and resources on actual threats to public safety, rather than–for example–people selling single cigarettes on the street? (For a snarky cartoon on the subject, click here.) (For a compelling analysis of the overall situation, click here.)

I understand that rules should be enforced, and minor transgressions shouldn’t get a free pass forever. But at least to date, this deliberate focus on behaviors that actually pose a danger to the public has produced no upsurge in serious crime. The very plausible conclusion is that (a) we have too many rules forbidding behaviors that don’t threaten public health or safety, and (b) police departments are spending too much of their time hassling the little guys.

Whatever message NYPD thinks it’s sending (the powers-that-be should never, ever criticize us for anything?), the message a lot of people are hearing is: (a) maybe legislators should resist the urge to outlaw so many behaviors that don’t make us less safe, simply because they disapprove of them, and (b) maybe the police should spend more time focusing on arrests that are “absolutely necessary.”

Good Cop/Bad Cop

The long-simmering tensions between police and the communities they serve have erupted in a series of protests and confrontations, triggered by events in Ferguson and New York. I’ve posted about this before, and I don’t intend to belabor the very different points of view expressed by the protestors and those sympathetic to them, on the one hand, and (some) citizens and police, on the other.

I will say that the officers who turned their backs on Mayor DeBlasio during the funeral of the two policemen shot by a mentally-deranged man in New York dishonored themselves and their colleagues, and disrespected the officers whose memorials should have been the focus of the day.

Fortunately, those childish displays are not typical of the men in blue, nor are the disheartening reports of police officers who belong to the KKK, who use disproportionate force, and who otherwise display “conduct unbecoming.” Many more officers are like Steve Anderson, Chief of Police in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Chief recently responded–point by point– to an email from a citizen critical of official restraint during peaceful demonstrations in Nashville. His response went viral. You really need to click the link and read the entire exchange, but here is a representative sample:

• “I just want myself and my family to feel that our city is safe, and right now we don’t feel that way.”

I have to admit, I am somewhat puzzled by this announcement. None of the demonstrators in this city have in any way exhibited any propensity for violence or indicated, even verbally, that they would harm anyone. I can understand how you may feel that your ideologies have been questioned but I am not aware of any occurrence that would give reason for someone to feel physically threatened.

• “I have a son who I have raised to respect police officers and other authority figures, but if he comes to me today and asks “Why are the police allowing this?” I wouldn’t have a good answer.”

It is somewhat perplexing when children are injected into the conversation as an attempt to bolster a position or as an attempt to thwart the position of another. While this is not the type of conversation I ordinarily engage in, here are some thoughts you may find useful as you talk with your son.

First, it is laudable that you are teaching your son respect for the police and other authority figures. However, a better lesson might be that it is the government the police serve that should be respected. The police are merely a representative of a government formed by the people for the people—for all people. Being respectful of the government would mean being respectful of all persons, no matter what their views.

Police officers like Chief Anderson–and there are many like him, fortunately– understand their constitutional and public safety duties, even if some of the citizens they serve do not.

Crazy Has Its Own Logic

Like many Americans, I have been following the protests in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the reactions of police and others. I was particularly impressed by the thoughtful statement issued by Kareem Abdul Jabbar in the wake of the mounting tensions between police and the communities they serve.

Jabbar began by noting that his father and his grandfather were both police officers. He then addressed the recent assassination of the two officers in New York.

We need to understand that their deaths are in no way related to the massive protests against systemic abuses of the justice system as symbolized by the recent deaths—also national tragedies—of Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, and Michael Brown. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the suicidal killer, wasn’t an impassioned activist expressing political frustration, he was a troubled man who had shot his girlfriend earlier that same day. He even Instagrammed warnings of his violent intentions. None of this is the behavior of a sane man or rational activist. The protests are no more to blame for his actions than The Catcher in the Rye was for the murder of John Lennon or the movie Taxi Driver for the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. Crazy has its own twisted logic and it is in no way related to the rational cause-and-effect world the rest of us attempt to create.

Those who are trying to connect the murders of the officers with the thousands of articulate and peaceful protestors across America are being deliberately misleading in a cynical and selfish effort to turn public sentiment against the protestors. This is the same strategy used when trying to lump in the violence and looting with the legitimate protestors, who have disavowed that behavior. They hope to misdirect public attention and emotion in order to stop the protests and the progressive changes that have already resulted. Shaming and blaming is a lot easier than addressing legitimate claims.

Shaming and blaming, unfortunately, are the currency of the day.

I don’t understand why it is so difficult to see the difference between criticism of inappropriate police behavior, on the one hand, and antagonism to police and policing on the other. I can complain about service at a restaurant without being labeled “anti-restaurant.”  I can criticize a schoolteacher without being anti-education. If I punish misbehavior by my children, that is actually evidence that I love my children enough to raise them properly.

Most police officers are good guys. Some, however, aren’t.

Police who get angry and defensive when someone points that out are probably part of the problem.