Less Bail Means Less Jail

If you had guess what most people in the American jail system had been convicted of, what crime would you pick? Robbery? Driving while intoxicated? Loitering? The correct answer is “nothing”, and that’s why the historic drop in the U.S. crime rate hasn’t been coupled with an equally massive decline in the jail incarceration rate.

Jails don’t just hold inmates who have been convicted of crimes. They also hold people like the late Kalief Browder who are accused of crimes but have yet to be tried in court. Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows that the U.S. jail population is increasingly composed of such people, who may not be guilty of anything.


The report notes that from 2000 to 2014, “95% of the growth in the overall jail inmate population (123,500) was due to the increase in the unconvicted population (117,700 inmates).” The U.S. population increased by almost 35 million people over this period, meaning that the essentially flat number of convicted inmates would represent a sizable fall in the jail incarceration rate if it hadn’t been largely cancelled out by the surge in unconvicted inmates.

Why are so many more non-convicted people in jail now than in the past? Vera Institute highlights the role of bail conditions. During the era when the crime rate was much higher, judges became increasingly less willing to release defendants on their own recognizance. By 2009, 61% of felony cases attached financial conditions to pre-trial release, a 50% increase from 1990.

Finding the money to put up a bail is a challenge for lower-income arrestees (i.e., most arrestees): the “choice” between making bail and sitting in jail is often not really a choice at all. Because low-income people increasingly stay behind bars waiting for their day in court, the collapse in the crime rate hasn’t translated into a comparable decline in the human and economic costs of America’s jails.

Political leadership for a policy of “less bail means less jail” could ameliorate this problem. As a policy proposal, “less bail” has two components. Continue Reading…

The Marcy case, cont.

One of W. Edward Deming’s 14 points for quality assurance is “drive out fear,” and Deming is one of my moral and intellectual heroes.  It runs like a river through all the reporting on the Marcy affair (see the links in my previous post), and also on reporting sexual abuse on campus generally, that we have not driven out fear at Cal: victims of abuse, by men who can damage their lives and careers, are broadly afraid to stand up for their rights; witnesses are afraid to step up and drop a dime.  Fewer than one in twenty rape victims in college report or complain formally.  We’re in court now defending ourselves against the justice department for mishandling sexual assault cases. Students in astronomy are not OK with things as they are.

This whole vile episode did not begin in a drunken frat party, but with a peer group of senior faculty protecting one of their number–whether because of his charming wit and lively presence, or his management of a Niagara of research money we do not know–from the discomfort of a serious talk with the chair or dean, and documents in a file, when he started his campaign of abuse.  All of them are obligatory reporters under UC rules, by the way; but there’s no talk of going after them for ducking that duty.  Anyway, there’s always another student sending in an application (docility in a labor force is surely a virtue, which fear usefully furthers), and seriously, Geoff is One of Us! Think how awkward this will be (for us) if it gets out (of our senior common room), not to mention if Marcy decides the hunting is better at MIT.  We’re serious scientists here, not social workers, and everyone needs a hobby.  Continue Reading…

4 Reasons Drug Arrests Matter—And 2 Reasons Why They Don’t

A few weeks ago the FBI released its estimate of 2014 arrests and it appears that we are still, as a country, addicted to drug arrests—particularly marijuana arrests. More than 1.5 million people were arrested for drug offenses in 2014. I’ll start with one of my reasons why this doesn’t matter. Count me among those who know that drug sentencing is not the only reason our prisons and jails are full—let all drug offenders out and we’d still have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, which means we have some tough work to do if we really want to reduce mass incarceration—but that doesn’t mean that drug arrests are irrelevant. Here are four reasons why drug arrests themselves are worth spotlighting, with an initial caveat—drug arrests encompass a wide variety of activity. Simple possession of a limited amount of pot could account for a drug arrest; so could trying to sell meth to a kid. For this analysis, then, I’ll focus on the single biggest contributor to drug arrests: marijuana possession arrests, which account for almost forty percent of all drug arrests.

Reason 1: Racial disparities. Marijuana possession arrests are wildly disproportionate on the basis of race, as any reader of Michelle Alexander  knows. If you assume that white drug usage rates are roughly the same as those of people of color (and you can do your own math here), there’s no making sense of the fact that drug arrest rates affect communities of color at such a high rate. One way to equalize this, of course, would be to arrest more white people. I think if we did, we’d start to see the political calculus changing on drug arrests (so watch out, those of you who attend Phish concerts). But at the very least this poses some legitimacy problems for law enforcement, and, as Tom Tyler reminds us, legitimacy is the key to community cooperation, and community cooperation is the key to solving crimes.

Continue Reading…

“The odds are approximately 3,720 to 1″

It’s been our trendsetting exoplanet week at the RBC. After the heavy stuff from Mike on tenured stargropers with too much immunity and from me on Renaissance cranks with not enough, here is something lighter for a rainy Sunday.

Fan image of Niven's puppeteer

Fan image of Niven’s puppeteer

We love Bruno-style speculations about intelligent aliens fron other stars. Thrint, tnuctipun, puppeteere, kzin, kdatlyno, grogs, pak, moties, and outsiders – and that’s just from Larry Niven’s imagination. But they all come up against Enrico Fermi’s famous question, made in a Chicago cafeteria in 1950:

Where are they?

I had a nice explanation for the non-appearance of intelligent aliens. No, not the one that intelligent life does not exist on earth either. Human history indicates that contact between societies at different levels of culture and technology is normally disastrous for the weaker. Any ethical civilization would minimize it, except to prevent disaster. Now any civilization capable of building interstellar ships must be ethical, or it would have destroyed itself by ecocide or the genocidal warfare enabled by the weapons available well before that technological level. Ergo, any alien civilization surviving long enough to launch interstellar ships would refrain from doing so on ethical grounds. QED.

Cute, isn’t it. The weakness is the disaster cop-out. Iain Bank’s SF novels about the very ethical and advanced Culture depend on this loophole, in the adventures of agents of the embarrassing spook agency Special Circumstances. This is set up to carry out deniable interventions in murderous lesser civilizations, for their own good of course. Closer to home, when European colonialists reached Easter Island in 1722, weren’t they justified in intervening to halt the self-destruction of the Easter Islanders described by Jared Diamond? Their population had crashed 80% to at most 3,000. It might have been – only in fact the colonialists made the situation much worse by disease and slave-raiding, reducing the native population to 111 by 1877.  Non-interference looks the better course.

I now have a much more prosaic explanation. Space is full of junk.

Continue Reading…

My House, my rules

Responding to the desperate pleas of the House Republican Caucus, seeing clearly my patriotic duty, in the spirit of bipartisanship, after prayerful consideration and consultation with my family, and with great reluctance and a profound sense of my own unworthiness, I have decided to accept the Speakership.

Any new Speaker will want to make new rules, designed to rescue the House from the nearly universal contempt into which it has been brought since January 2011.

So here they are:

1. Every Member seeking recognition to speak shall first put on a clown nose.
2. To enable longer “District Work Periods,” the House shall not be in session except on weekends.
3. In the interests of transparency, members of the majority party shall remain naked at all times.
4. In any speech supporting the use of torture, each sentence must end with the word “Clarisse.”
5. No Member who has not been sterilized shall offer a bill restricting access to birth control.
6. Citizens visiting the House Galleries retain their Constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
7. Majority-party members of committees probing phony scandals shall wear the Lidless Eye of Mordor.
8. No Member currently in an adulterous relationship shall also abuse alcohol or other drugs, or take bribes.
9. Any speech citing the Bible or claiming its authority must do so in the original Greek or Hebrew.

Footnote  Of course, every movement needs a hashtag. This movement has two:

#KleimanForSpeaker #NewRulesOfTheHouse



Maybe John Yoo will have lunch with him? [see note at end of post]

Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy is a big deal in big science, apparently on the Nobel Prize short list.  A Sirius-level magnitude star in Berkeley’s constellation.  For  a decade, at least, he’s also been a serial harasser of women and on notice about it, in a field that has a big problem treating women as colleagues. Not a careless act or slipup: a long-time hobby. Everyone knew about it; women had a whole network to warn each other about him.  You will, however, be pleased to know that Cal deeply deplores this behavior, and after six months of finding out what, apparently, any one in the exoplanet trades could tell them, he has been given a sharply worded admonition and told to not do it any more! His department chair, who presides over a faculty of 21 men and 3 women, counsels them that the episode is “hardest for Geoff in this moment”.  No, really; this guy thinks this is something that happened to Marcy! and in case you think the god of irony is on travel today, that chair is also our Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion.

Marcy is so contrite and abashed that he has personally written a uniquely mealy-mouthed letter of apology and posted it on his own web page, where we can learn that even a Nobel Prize candidate can be clueless enough to need ten years of “deep and lengthy consultations” to figure out what any woman over the age of six could tell him, and indeed what many of his adult victims have been telling him in “complaints…going back more than a decade“.

Now, this is a good opportunity to all calm down and not get emotional, and do a little cost-benefit analysis.  And let’s be sure to keep our eye on the ball, which is doing more better science for the benefit of all humanity, plus getting more bigger grants at Cal.  How serious is this, really?  On the one hand, Marcy undoubtedly published more brilliant papers, and found more planets, on account of the emotional support he appropriated for himself from his female grad students. Sort of like the Japanese victories that wouldn’t have happened without the “comfort women” who nourished the soldiers’ morale, right? If he had been fired or driven away early in his tenure here by an administration more concerned for our own women’s dignity and morale than his comfort, he would have done famous things somewhere else, which is  at least as bad as doing less of it here.  So there was great scientific value created by letting him do his thing his way as long as possible.  Slapping his wrist gently, as we have, assures several more years of high-powered scientific achievement, maybe even that Nobel Prize, before having to upset him again, even if he should backslide immediately, because these investigations cannot be rushed.  Best of all, any women inclined to blow a whistle and upset Marcy or another Big Man groper will be suitably abashed and discouraged by seeing how little their abuse counts, and not make waves.

So the scientific benefits of letting this skeeze skate as long as possible are enormous, one could say cosmic.  On the other side, what were the costs?  Well, at least three of his victims dropped out of astronomy entirely, so whatever discoveries they might have made are gone.  There’s the science other women in the department aren’t doing day by day, because they are enraged, afraid, anxious, and demoralized as they see, year after year, that the senior people who are supposed to be taking care of them and mentoring them are OK with a big shot  treating them like toys [only one? I have no evidence, but I know organizational culture is usually a pervasive thing].

Some number of women who could be probing the cosmos in our shop didn’t come and are doing it elsewhere. And this is not just a “women’s issue”: every man on the Cal faculty, and in science everywhere, is suffering some degree of harm as women we work with, quite understandably, are giving us the fisheye because of stuff like this. Not to mention men being hit on by gay, or female, profs, and yes, that happens too.

On balance, I don’t think coddling Marcy had net benefits in science: we don’t even have to examine all that mooshy stuff about human dignity and a safe workplace and equal rights!

We have a Vice Provost for the Faculty in charge of this stuff. Obviously not VP for the students, as her office mission statement confirms, but one can’t do everything.  Janet Broughton is a philosopher specializing in theories of mind (to be fair, that might well leave little time for theories of heart, or ethics).  And when you’ve spent your career in the field with the smallest percentage of women faculty of any of the humanities, I guess you could get to think that’s the way it s’posed to be.

Now we have a PR disaster. When you cover up and enable outrage for the comfort of Important People, better wear a hat, because sooner or later It’s Going to Start Coming Down. [minor non-substantive edits 10/X/15]

[more here 12/X/15]

[added 10/X/15] If you don’t think it should be this way, there is a (very gently worded) petition you can sign here.

[added 12/X/15] a couple of people have criticized what they took to be an implication that John Yoo is a sexual harasser.  I do not mean that; as far as I know Yoo is a perfect gentleman in all his personal and professional relationships. I meant to use him as an example of a professor with whom no colleague should share so much as a cup of coffee. Yoo is a war criminal who enabled and justified torture in our name (that didn’t even obtain useful intelligence). As a government lawyer, he violated his professional obligations, dissserved his client,  shamed my country, and implicated me as a citizen in those crimes. To my knowledge, he has never retracted his torture memo.

The Berkeley law school dean’s office suite is decorated with paintings of Abu Ghreib.



Weekend Film Recommendation: Trilogy of Terror – Amelia


Our Halloween month of scary movie recommendations continues this week with an exercise in “doll horror”, which is almost its own cinematic sub-genre. Villains like the murderous clown doll in Poltergeist, the knife-wielding Chucky, and the ventriloquist’s dummy in Dead of Night, have an uncanny ability to scare the pants off of audiences. This week’s film recommendation is another triumph of doll horror: The Amelia segment of the 1975 movie Trilogy of Terror.

Trilogy of Terror was an entry in a high-quality made for TV movie series: The ABC Movie of the Week. The series was a playground for rising directors and future stars as well as a chance for some old hands to enjoy a last hurrah. I have previously recommended the ABC Movies of the Week Seven in Darkness, Night Slaves, and The Screaming Woman. But Trilogy of Terror is better remembered than any of those films, probably because of the nightmares a generation of Americans experienced about “that doll”.

The movie comprises three distinct stories, all starring Karen Black. The first two are about as good as any average-quality episode of Night Gallery, Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, i.e., serviceable but unremarkable entertainment. But the third, titled Amelia, is a grab-you-by-the-throat masterpiece. The plot is simple: A young woman has purchased a Zuni hunting fetish which is alleged to contain the spirit of a savage warrior who will be contained as long as the gold chain around the doll is never removed. Guess what happens!

Karen Black’s acting gifts are essential to making this segment of the trilogy work. In a single phone call to her mother, she reveals Amelia to be a woman who has trouble asserting herself, is easily bullied and wants to avoid confrontations. Black’s establishment of her character makes what happens next more emotionally intense. Black also does an excellent job selling the physical confrontations with her foe, which very easily could have been too campy to be scary.

The segment was made by horror masters Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson, whose fine update of Dracula I recommended a few years back. As a director-writer team they were consistently creative yet simple in their artistic goals: They aspired only to scare and entertain people, and they were very good at it. Amelia also benefits enormously from creative camerawork by Paul Lohmann and terrific editing by Les Green, which never lets the audience catch its breath.

Amelia is 16 minutes of tension and a bloody scary good time. I embed this minor classic of the horror genre below for you to enjoy.

Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno 2
The Campo dei Fiori piazza in Rome holds a tony street-market: funghi porcini, ecological olive oil, and not a Chinese T-shirt or fake Vuitton bag in sight. In the middle of the bustle stands a sombre statue of a hooded monk, put up by anticlericals in 1889. It commemorates Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar who was burnt alive there on 17 February 1600 for multiple counts of heresy. These included a belief that the stars were suns floating in infinite space, surrounded by their own planets and life. Following the technical recommendations of the 14th-century Catalan inquisitor Nicholas Eymerich, Bruno was fittingly gagged to prevent unseemly outbursts.

The execution was a far worse crime than the trial of Galileo. That ended in a forced and formal abjuration, and fairly open house arrest for the rest of his life. His books were banned, but they had done their work. It’s become a nice symbol: Scientific Truth versus clerical obscurantism. The Truth wins in the end, so it’s a more or less happy ending.

That tidy narrative does not fit Giordano Bruno, a brilliant crank. He wrote about two books a year, moving around Europe, from Geneva to Oxford to Wittenberg to Venice, until his welcome ran out in one city after another. A few of the ideas he fired off turned out right, like the floating stars. But he had no evidence for this speculation, and like all his mediaeval predecessors relied on a priori intuitions. (Corrections from experts welcome as always.) Galileo’s attack on Aristotelian physics and cosmology was modern, specific and based on experiments like the falling weights at Pisa, and his observations of sunspots and Jupiter’s moons though his new telescope. The first evidence against the sphere like a planetarium with the fixed stars stuck to the inside was the discovery of a variable star (Mira Ceti) in 1596, when Bruno had been in the cells of the Inquisition for three years. Sunspots followed in 1611, a little after Jupiter’s moons. By Newton’s time, stars as floating suns had become a common view among cosmologists. It wasn’t until 1838 that any star (61 Cygni ) had its distance measured by parallax, finally disproving the planetarium theory, abandoned long before by scientists. The first exoplanet orbiting Gamma Cephei A was discovered in 1988;  and no life has been detected yet on any.

Giordano wrote fast on everything else as well. His heretical views included metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls, magic and divination, as well as unorthodox positions on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the virginity of Mary, and transubstantiation. We’ve met people like him on the Internet: characters who have never met a flashy contrarian idea they didn’t immediately fall for. They are not the dangerous radicals authority need worry about, men like Galileo with a big idea they use as a lever to crack open orthodoxy on some previously hidden fault line.

Galileo is far too easy a test case for freedom of speech, because he happened to be demonstrably right on a matter of scientific fact. We should not try to defend Giordano Bruno on the grounds that he was right by chance on one thing, but simply that he was entitled to express opinions that were his own and not those of approved authorities. It it’s for real, freedom of conscience and speech holds for crackpots, blasphemers, racists, xenophobes, revolutionaries, and heretics.

The Inquisition’s investigation and trial of Giordano Bruno involved no less than eight cardinals: Bellarmine, Madruzzi, Borghese (later Pope Paul V), Pinelli, Arrigoni, Sfondrati, Manuel, and Santorio. We can imagine the earnest discussions among these cultivated and worldly princes of the Counter-Reformation Church, a far cry from the provincial fanaticism of a Tomás de Torquemada.

 - He doesn’t seem to have any followers, so you could say that the threat is minimal.

- We don’t know how many impressionable young men have read his books, so the rot may have spread further than we know.

- Our mistake with Luther was not coming down hard on him while we still had the chance.

- Can’t we send him to a quiet monastery in the Alps?

- We need to send a strong message.

With the Torquemadas and Hitlers of this world, you can make a case if you really try for diminished responsibility. Hitler’s biographers disagree on the question whether he can be held morally responsible for his actions. Did he know that what he was doing was wrong? The alternative proposition, that these men were as insane as rabid dogs, should lead to very similar action, so the problem has limited practical interest. You clearly cannot make this argument for Bellarmine and the others. Their atrocity was quite deliberate.

The Vatican defended the execution of Bruno till recently. Wikipedia:

In 1942, Cardinal Giovanni Mercati, who discovered a number of lost documents relating to Bruno’s trial, stated that the Church was perfectly justified in condemning him. On the 400th anniversary of Bruno’s death, in 2000, Cardinal Angelo Sodano declared Bruno’s death to be a “sad episode” but, despite his regret, he defended Bruno’s prosecutors, maintaining that the Inquisitors “had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life.”

This mealy-mouthed half-apology will not do. If Pope Francis wishes to make amends for the many cruelties his Church (like mine, on a much lesser scale: Erastianism has its benefits) has inflicted in the name of orthodox faith, he knows how to do it properly. The Vatican has a busful of cardinals. On 17 February next, he can send eight of them to the Campo de Fiori to celebrate a penitential Mass in the rain for all prisoners and martyrs of conscience, in apology to that hooded and brooding statue.

Competition: diasyrms for Trump

Donald Trump said this about Ben Carson, a rival for the Republican nomination :

He was a doctor, perhaps an OK doctor, by the way.

The trope usually goes by Pope’s phrase “damning with faint praise”, but I’m sure RBC readers do not need reminding that its technical Greek name in rhetoric is diasyrm.

The put-down is feeble. You can’t take away from Dr. Ben Carson his outstanding medical qualifications and stellar career. He headed the department of paediatric neurosurgery at the teaching hospital of Johns Hopkins, which likes to think of itself as the best medical school in the world, possibly with reason. It is a great tragedy that in his very last operation in Baltimore before leaving medicine for politics, Dr. Carson heroically donated to his patient half the grey cells in his cerebral cortex.

It is Donald Trump‘s pathological vanity – he is in textbooks  as an example of narcissism – that makes him far more vulnerable to diasyrm. Readers are invited to supply examples. To get you going, a better jibe from Lloyd George:

[Neville Chamberlain] would make a good Lord Mayor of Birmingham in a lean year.

My suggestions:

  • Donald Trump has demonstrated far greater acumen as an investor than Bernie Madoff.
  • Donald Trump is magnetically attractive to women, for six months.
  • Trump’s dramatic hairdo would assure him a future as a hairstyling model for the leading trade magazine in North Korea.
  • Trump regularly demonstrates his superior people-management skills in firing no-hopers on reality TV shows.
  • Donald has never, ever had sex with a pig.

Entrants please remember the praise part. Straight insults do not count, however ingenious and deserved. Example: at Oxford, I once heard the young Quentin Hogg described as “a shining wit, as Dr. Spooner might have said”.