Top 5 Random Depressing Problems in Criminal Justice

(Written in August)

  1. Forensic science is already shaky and, if DNA can be fabricated, it’s about to get even shakier.
  2. The public defender system is poorly funded and in shambles.
  3. Poor, mentally ill youths generally end up dumped in jail
  4. Florida sends a lot of teens to prison for life
  5. Our prisons are no longer rehabilitative, often torturous, and we send tons of people to them.

Thoughts on The Wire Season One

(From January 7)

Over the break Kathleen and I watched a bunch of movies, but season 1 of The Wire delivered beyond the hype it got from friends. It gives a crash course on the frustration and futility of local cops fighting drug gangs on the street level in West Baltimore. The police jump through major hoops to get an idea of the shape of the organization, and use civilians who risk their lives informing on the gangs, but there’s zero day to day effort made to actually keep drugs out of the hands of people.

The police would do more good just walking up and slapping drugs out of the hands of dealers directly all day. What you have instead is the slow methodical building of cases designed to put away upper level gang members. This takes a lot of time, and in the meantime people suffer from addiction and the added pressure applied to the gangs results in increased violence. In the end a few people designated to take the fall (or with the least information to barter with) get sent away, and the addicts remain potential customers, ensuring the business continues to attract new members. Continue reading  

Skateboarding and the (Fake) Broken Windows Theory

Nike’s latest glossy skate video “Debacle” is stitched around several highly-realistic, faked acts of vandalism and assault, but none shocking if you’ve watched a lot of skate videos; I just assumed they were real until the disclaimer appeared at the end. I’ve seen pros show off how they cut chains to break into schools; accidentally break real windows and flee; verbally assault owners and security guards; scream obscenities and throw things in fits of rage; accidentally hit bystanders (hard) with 8 lb. boards or their bodies; and generally behave like drunken delinquents.

Along with fearlessness (healthy to a point), disregard for authority and the care for other peoples’ property is baked into the pop culture, and, although probably a very small percentage of skaters make any trouble, those that do make a real problem for cops trying to keep areas free of gangs of boys who want to emulate the pros in acts and attitude. Any criminologist will tell you the perfect recipe for crime is an unsupervised group of young males predisposed to rule-breaking.

So, unfortunately, incidents like this are common. On camera a cop threatens to brake the arm of a generally compliant but obviously tired kid. This is, of course, after the kid calmly calls the LEO a “fuckin’ dick” (twice) and several minutes after the group filming had apparently damaged city property (“It’s against the law to pry those up — you’re not a city worker”) and ticked off folks enough to call the police.

I love skateboarding and it’s a real shame it’s now apparently criminal in San Francisco (a classic collection of skate spots), but I understand why cops and property owners support these bans. It’s hard to vilify officers who’re asked to bust up active skate spots. The business owner that allows her property to become a regular spot is just waiting for damage, graffiti, reduced foot traffic from weary pedestrians, and potential litigation from parents/bystanders.

MTV star Rob Dyrdek has worked quite a bit to design and promote public skate parks, which are great for the vast majority of respectful skaters, but previews of his upcoming movie Street Dreams look like it will try to convince the public that skaters who insult business owners to their faces, make trouble in motels, and sand skate stoppers off school handrails are unfairly oppressed and just need their own parks. It will only “tell the story” of a minority of skaters and it won’t do the rest any favors.

Kleiman on Crime and Punishment

Remind your fiscally conservative politician that all these have severe public costs:

  • Crime
  • Prison cells
  • Disease spread in overcrowded prisons
  • Reduced number of working citizens
  • Broken families and lack of role models
  • Public fear of victimization

Evidence shows we can have a criminal justice system that actually convinces most criminals to give up crime while handing out far shorter and fewer jail and prison sentences, and without spending more money. Mark Kleiman’s new book shows how it can be done, and here’s to hoping smart-on-crime may someday overtake the dumb tough-on-crime rhetoric that got us into this terrible mess.

I highly recommend watching Mark’s recent talk on the subject. Here’s a summary:

Since the 1960s, the U.S. prison population has increased fivefold. Prisons today hold one inmate for every one hundred adults — a record rate in American history, and one unmatched by any other country. But despite the high prison population, crime has stopped falling. Punishments can seem random in their severity and implementation, minorities and the poor still disproportionately become victims and inmates, and enforcement — particularly of probation and parole — is haphazard. How can crime be controlled? UCLA Public Policy professor Mark Kleiman, author of When Brute Force Fails, visits Zócalo to offer a new strategy for cutting crime, reducing the prison population, and still enacting swift, certain, and fair punishment. [video]

Why Our Government Shouldn’t Kill

From a comment on a Radley Balko post about Troy Davis:

the state can’t be trusted to sort the innocent from the guilty with the 100% accuracy necessary for executions to be morally defensible, even if death is a theoretically just punishment…

From what I read everyday it’s abundantly clear that this is true. The criminal justice system has corrupt prosecutors and judges, drastically inadequate public defender resources, corrupt forensic scientists, and plenty of bogus testimony and pseudoscience sold to juries as proof. The latest news could change everything: DNA evidence might be forgeable. If this can be done, a corrupt law enforcement individual will mostly certainly manufacture DNA evidence in the future.

From the ACLU’s Death Penalty Q&A:

Since 1973, 123 people in 25 states have been released from death row because they were not guilty. In addition, seven people have been executed even though they were probably innocent. A study published in the Stanford Law Review documents 350 capital convictions in this century, in which it was later proven that the convict had not committed the crime. Of those, 25 convicts were executed while others spent decades of their lives in prison. Fifty-five of the 350 cases took place in the 1970s, and another 20 of them between 1980 and 1985.

…Who gets the death penalty is largely determined, not by the severity of the crime, but by: the race, sex, and economic class of the prisoner and victim; geography — some states have the death penalty, others do not, within the states that do some counties employ it with great frequency and others do not; the quality of defense counsel and vagaries in the legal process.

…Poor people are also far more likely to be death sentenced than those who can afford the high costs of private investigators, psychiatrists, and expert criminal lawyers. Indeed, capital punishment is “a privilege of the poor,” said Clinton Duffy, former warden at California’s San Quentin Prison. Some observers have pointed out that the term “capital punishment” is ironic because “only those without capital get the punishment.”

…study after study has found serious racial disparities in the charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty. People who kill whites are far more likely to receive a death sentence than those whose victims were not white, and blacks who kill whites have the greatest chance of receiving a death sentence. … Minorities are death-sentenced disproportionate to their numbers in the population. This is not primarily because minorities commit more murders, but because they are more often sentenced to death when they do.

Setting aside all moral and emotional arguments, by using the few cases where there is indisputable proof of guilt to justify capital punishment, we guarantee it will be abused to execute many more innocent persons.