Category Archives: Criminal Justice

Learning from My Students

We’re at that point in the semester when my students in Law and Public Policy are doing their team presentations–sharing the results of research via Power Points and mock debates. More than one of these presentations has taught me something I didn’t know. (This is one of the “perks” of the profession, actually–you learn a lot when you teach.)

One of the teams chose to research prison privatization, a subject about which I know very little.

They began by noting that private prisons were rare prior to 1980, that they became more common in the eighties, and that between 1990 and 2009, America experienced a 1600% increase in its prison population. Given the significant sums of money involved,  they wondered whether this dramatic increase in incarceration might be at least partially explained by contractual obligations to fill cells in those proliferating private facilities.

Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group dominate the private prison industry, and according to the students’ research, the industry is very profitable. (Corrections Corporation of America had a share price of $1 in 2000; in 2013 it was $34.34.) In one representative contract, in Tennessee, CCA was guaranteed an occupancy rate of 90%, a guarantee that required frequent moves of inmates out of public facilities and into the private ones. Both the guarantee and the frequent shuffling of prisoners are evidently common.

You don’t have to be a bleeding heart to recognize that inmates–large numbers of whom have not been convicted of violent crimes– are entitled to be treated humanely. The number of fines, lawsuits and investigations into the management of these facilities strongly suggests that the profit motive takes precedence over the provision of basic medical care, nutrition and even physical safety.

Where there’s profit, there’s usually politics, and private prisons are no exception.

In 2013, the Indiana General Assembly undertook to modernize the state’s criminal code. One of the original changes would have reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of pot; however, Governor Pence intervened, insisting that penalties for marijuana possession and dealing be increased rather than decreased.

According to a news article at the time,

 One proposed change expected to be voted on Thursday would make possession of between about one third of an ounce and 10 pounds of marijuana the lowest-level felony rather than the highest-level misdemeanor. Indiana is eighth on the list of states where GEO does its spending, as it’s sunk more than $60,000 into state elections there. It specifically contributed $12,500 to the 2012 Pence campaign, which doesn’t seem like much without context. That contribution made GEO one of Pence’s top 30 corporate contributors, ranking in front of US Steel Corp, Caterpillar, and Koch Industries.

When prisons are profit centers, the incentives are all perverse. 

Shenanigans and the Proposed Justice Center

The Ballard Administration’s proposal to build a new Justice Center complex across the river from downtown just hasn’t smelled right for a whole host of reasons.

No one seriously doubts the need for such a facility, but critics have raised a host of legitimate concerns about this particular proposal. The excessive secrecy with which bids were solicited and evaluated raised red flags. The decision to use private financing via a lease/purchase when a public bond issue would be significantly cheaper makes no sense. The Council’s fiscal analyst has challenged the accuracy of claims that cost savings would cover lease payments without a need to raise taxes.

It isn’t just fiscal concerns, important as those are. Prior administrations have spent millions of dollars and much political capital building a robust downtown; what will happen to that downtown market if lawyers and other justice system enterprises (from bondsmen to court reporters) no longer work, shop and eat in the center city?

Architects and city planners have panned the design, and criminal justice reform groups have warned that going ahead as currently planned will foreclose needed changes to a dysfunctional system.

The Administration has ignored the critics, shrugged off the concerns and intensified pressure on the Council for a quick approval. That insistence on the need for haste has been unseemly, considering the huge amounts of money involved and the important issues raised, and Councilors on both sides of the aisle have expressed a desire to engage in a far more thorough and public review.

Unseemly, however, wasn’t the word that came to mind when I read the following in the Indiana Lawyer. 

Indianapolis City-County Council Chief Financial Officer Bart Brown said councilors have told him they’ve been offered up to $50 million in projects spread among five districts if they vote to approve the proposed $1.6 billion criminal justice complex.

The Administration has dismissed these allegations as “rumor,” and I certainly have no independent evidence one way or the other. It seems highly  unlikely, however, that five City-County Council members would invent such a story out of whole cloth.

As I wrote last month,

a deal this complex and expensive, intended to span this long a time-frame, needs to be done right. That means it needs to be thoroughly vetted by all stakeholders. I get suspicious when we’re given a short window within which to commit vast amounts of public money, and when the purported need for speed is based upon dark warnings that we need to move quickly in order to “lock in” benefits we aren’t even sure are there. 

I get a lot more suspicious when those lobbying for speed are offering a quid pro quo.

I suspect that someone stands to make a lot of money, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t us taxpayers.

Evidence of Wrongdoing? We Have the Solution!

Of course, it is Texas. Still….

The House Bill 2918 introduced by Texas Representative Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) would make private citizens photographing or recording the police within 25 feet of them a class B misdemeanor, and those who are armed would not be able to stand recording within 100 feet of an officer.

As defined in the bill, only a radio or television that holds a license issued by the Federal Communications Commission, a newspaper that is qualified under section 2051.044 or a magazine that appears at a regular interval would be allowed to record police.

This is exactly the sort of measure for which the Yiddish word “chutzpah” was invented. (For you non-Yiddish-speakers, “chutzpah” has been defined–inadequately–as “gall or nerve.” The standard illustration is a kid who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.)

The ubiquity of cameras has uncovered troubling and evidently none-too-rare incidents of police misconduct, most of which have involved the fatal shootings of unarmed black men. You might think that the appropriate response would be aimed at correcting the problem: better training, psychological testing to weed out the bad apples, etc.

But no.

Since it appears that cameras have made it harder to get away with unconscionable behavior, we should get rid of the cameras. Problem solved.

These people have no moral center. Worse, they have no shame.

 

 

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.

“Inoculation”

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.