Posts tagged as:

crime and punishment

A twelve-minute Cato podcast in which I talk to Caleb Brown about how government can roll minor fines over routine offenses into crushing financial burdens and years of entanglement in the criminal justice system. A particular problem: systems that assign fines and payments to the account of actors in the justice system and for-profit private contractors which can operate under a perverse incentive to trip up petty wrongdoers and keep them in the system. The National Public Radio special “Guilty and Charged,” based on a yearlong investigation, is here. Many of my examples are taken from it, including the persons drawn into the system after fishing out of season and making an illegal left turn, and the woman saddled with a $10,000 debt on emerging from prison. Radley Balko discusses. I’ve written earlier on the problems with private probation, on a Shelby County, Alabama judge’s 2012 finding that the town of Harpersville was engaged in a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket,” and more broadly on law enforcement for profit and its forfeiture branch.

Related: Tyler Cowen on a new book about persons living at the margins of the law, Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.

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  • Radley Balko weighs in on Philadelphia bodega-robbery scandal: “I want to refer to these thugs as ‘rogue cops,’ but given that [they've thrived] how rogue can they really be?” [Washington Post, earlier here, here, here, etc.]
  • Speaking of Philadelphia cops: “16 Philly police, firefighters earned more than $400,000 in overtime since ’09” [Brian X. McCrone and Emily Babay, Philly.com]
  • Also from Balko: “Police cameras are great, except when the video goes missing“; “Police shooting 377 rounds into a car occupied by two unarmed men “raises concerns.” That’s one way of putting it.” And a not very funny t-shirt;
  • “Mission creep”: Department of Homeland Security has its fingers in many more pies than you might realize [Albuquerque Journal]
  • Felony murder rule: “Sentenced To Life In Prison For Loaning His Roommate His Car And Going To Sleep” [Amy Alkon] Sentencing reform is bipartisan issue on both sides [L.A. Times]
  • How many parents and caregivers are behind bars on scientifically bogus “shaken-baby” charges, and is there any urgency to finding out? [Matt Stroud, The Verge; earlier]
  • Milwaukee cop drives into sober woman’s car, charges her with DUI [WITI via Greenfield]

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On “The perils of privatized probation,” Radley Balko seems convincing to me [Washington Post], quoting The Economist’s “Democracy in America“:

I’ve written about these fees before, but here’s a quick refresher: if you get hit with a $200 ticket you can’t pay, then a private-probation company will let you pay it off in instalments, for a monthly fee. Then there may be additional fees for electronic monitoring, drug testing and classes—many of which are assigned not by a judge, but by the private company itself. When probationers cannot pay, courts issue warrants for their arrest and their probation terms are extended—a reprehensible practice known as “tolling”, which a judge declared illegal last year. These are folks who had trouble paying the initial fine; you have to imagine they’ll have trouble paying additional fines. It’s plausible to posit that these firms’ business models are based on assigning unpayable fees to people who lack the sophistication, time, will or whatever to contest them. One might even say these predatory firms treat the long arm of the law as sort of lever on a juicer into which poor people are fed and squeezed to produce an endless stream of fees.

The incentives of the private companies do not, to put it mildly, appear well aligned with the interests of the public. More in our law enforcement for profit tag. Update: Sarah Stillman in the New Yorker with a damning investigative article.

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News of criminal babies

by Walter Olson on April 11, 2014

Nine-month-old infant fingerprinted after being charged with assault and attempted murder in Pakistan [Lowering the Bar, BBC]

Follow-up: baby gets off on technicality. @DavidBCohen1 on Twitter: “This sends a bad message to violent babies.”

It’s no longer a specifically enumerated crime to do that on the streets of Houston in an annoying or flirtatious way [Volokh]

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  • After criticism of heavy-handed Ankeny, Iowa police raid on persons suspected of credit card fraud, not actually reassuring to be told militarized methods needed because one house occupant had firearms carry permit [Radley Balko, more, more]
  • Advocates strain mightily to fit unpopular Dunn verdict into Stand Your Ground theme [David Kopel, Jacob Sullum] More: sorry, pundits, but Rasmussen poll shows public’s plurality SYG support unshaken [Althouse]
  • “‘Drop the Cabbage, Bullwinkle!': Alaskan Man Faces Prison for the Crime of Moose-Feeding” [Evan Bernick, Heritage] “Criminalizing America: How Big Government Makes A Criminal of Every American” [ALEC "State Factor"]
  • “We’ve also bred into dogs … an eagerness to please us.” Bad news for K-9 forensics [Balko]
  • “Has overcharging killed the criminal trial?” [Legal Ethics Forum] Is the “trial penalty” a myth? [David Abrams via Dan Markel, Scott Greenfield]
  • What if cops, as opposed to, say, gun owners, were obliged by law to purchase liability insurance? [Popehat]
  • That’s productivity: North Carolina grand jury managed to crank out roughly one indictment every 52 seconds [Tim Cushing, TechDirt]
  • “When do awful thoughts, shared with complete strangers, become criminal actions?” [Robert Kolker, New York mag]
  • Why grants to local police departments are among the federal government’s most pernicious spending [Radley Balko, whose new Washington Post blog/column is thriving]
  • How bad did you think Florida prosecutor Angela Corey was? She might be worse [Balko, earlier]
  • “The unintended consequences of compensating the exonerated” [Will Baude]
  • Thousands of Americans are behind bars following shaken-baby convictions. How many are innocent? [Jerry Mitchell, Jackson Clarion-Ledger/USA Today, earlier here, here]
  • Private probation as “judicially sanctioned extortion racket” [The Economist]
  • “DOJ to Prohibit Profiling Based on Religion, National Origin, and Gender in Federal Investigations” [FedSoc Blog]

An official with the Department of Justice has signaled that the administration may be willing to consider much more extensive use of presidential clemency for inmates serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses under the former sentencing regime, a development I welcome in a new Cato post. Further observations from Mark Osler and Doug Berman (“there are currently over 3,500 pending pardon and commutation applications at the White House right now” which makes it a little odd to suggest that the missing ingredient is more applications) and more [excerpts from speech by Deputy Attorney General James Cole].

  • Under new Illinois law, third offense of tossing cigarette to ground will be a felony [Andrew Stuttaford]
  • “The New York Times calls for prosecutors to establish an ‘open file’ policy to combat prosecutorial misconduct.” [Nicole Hyland, LEF; New York Times; Radley Balko, whose column at the Washington Post has now launched]
  • “Three Arrests Illustrate the Impact of New York’s Silly Seven-Round Ammunition Limit” [Jacob Sullum]
  • Forfeiture reform on the agenda in Michigan? [John Ross/Reason, Institute for Justice, earlier]
  • Speaking of law enforcement for profit, more on the proliferation of fees and third-party collectors that can land minor miscreants in “debtors’ prison” [Fox News; related, Balko]
  • “Want to stop repeats of Columbine and Newtown? Deprive mass killers of the spotlight. Can the media do that?” [Ari Schulman, WSJ via @garyrosenwsj]
  • “She’s regretted the lie that sent him to prison ever since.” [NY Mag]

A reform proposal floated in a 2010 Cato Institute policy analysis is now becoming a pilot project in one Texas county. More: Greenfield.

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I’ve got a new op-ed for Bloomberg View (first time I’ve appeared there) calling last week’s venture in presidential clemency “mingy and belated” and, if aimed at prison overcrowding, “like trying to bail out Lake Michigan with a paint can.” On Thursday President Obama commuted the sentences of eight inmates caught up in the crack cocaine sentencing fury, all of whom had already served at least 15 years for what were often relatively peripheral involvement in the drug trade. Clarence Aaron, for example, was serving three life sentences without possibility of parole for a first-time nonviolent offense. Many advocates from all political viewpoints pushed for Aaron’s release, among them Debra Saunders who wrote dozens of columns on his case in the San Francisco Chronicle over the past 12 years (Also in Minneapolis Star-Tribune and other papers, and AP roundup of opinion columns; & Scott Greenfield, Pardon Power).

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Someone must have deactivated the Dallas Morning News’s B.S. detectors [Amy Alkon] The paper’s editors uncritically cheer new proposals from Texas Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Ted Poe for legal changes including wider use of forfeiture and more draconian sentences for johns. More: “There have been two compelling-prostitution cases filed in Har­ris County this year. Not 300,000. Two.” [Mark Bennett] Yet more: the paper corrected 11/24.

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Over Labor Day weekend, hundreds of teenagers held an illegal party in the upstate New York home of former NFL star Brian Holloway. They left a wide swath of photos on social media, and Holloway put up a website identifying more than 100 of the 300 partiers. “But rather than apologize to Holloway for their children’s behavior, some parents have contacted their lawyers to see what legal action they can take” against him. [New York Daily News; response from radio personalities Chuck and Kelly, WGY]

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Mark Hansen in the ABA Journal with an overview of how crime labs have finally come under scrutiny following a “string of shoddy, suspect and fraudulent results” in Boston, New York, North Carolina, Nassau County, N.Y. and elsewhere.

In St. Paul, Minn., assistant public defender Lori Traub stumbled into her local lab’s problems and

says she was horrified by what she found: The lab, an old-fashioned “cop shop,” was run by a police sergeant with no scientific background, had no written operating procedures, didn’t clean instruments between testing, allowed technicians unlimited access to the drug vault, and didn’t have anyone checking anyone else’s work. Analysts didn’t know what a validity study was, used Wikipedia as a technical reference, and in their lab reports referred to “white junk” clogging an instrument.

It gets much worse. A West Virginia state serologist, following the DNA clearance of a man he had previously identified as a rapist, “was eventually found to have falsified test results in as many as 134 cases during a 10-year period.” Oklahoma City Police Department crime lab chemist Joyce Gilchrist

who testified as a prosecution expert in 23 death penalty cases, including those of 12 inmates who were later executed, was fired in 2001 for doing sloppy work and giving false or misleading testimony. Nicknamed “Black Magic” by detectives for her seeming ability to get lab results no other chemist could, Gilchrist was never prosecuted for her alleged misdeeds, though she reportedly was named a defendant in at least one lawsuit against the city by a convicted rapist who was later exonerated.

More: And according to a new paper, it turns out that many state police labs are actually paid per conviction, a practice that tends to incentive false-positive error.

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Some reactions, and cautious praise for the changes, from Tim Lynch at Cato, Ken at Popehat, and J.D. Tuccille at Reason (and more on lawmakers’ reaction).

In my new CNN.com piece I argue that we shouldn’t let anger over the Zimmerman acquittal shred the rights of criminal defendants: “awarding new powers to prosecutors will likely mean that more black people will end up behind bars.” [CNN](& Steele; thanks for Instalanche to Glenn Reynolds)

P.S. Some may wonder whether a toughening of hate crime laws might be an exception to the general rule that minorities have much to fear from a broadening of grounds for prosecution. Leaving aside whether the hate crime issue has any relation to the Martin/Zimmerman case (few lawyers believe Zimmerman could be found guilty of a hate crime, and when the FBI investigated him last summer it found no evidence of racial motivation; more on this from Michelle Meyer), per FBI statistics for 2011, blacks are actually overrepresented among persons charged with hate crimes, at 21 percent compared with 14 percent of general U.S. population.

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