Some years ago (can it really be 14 years?!) I guest-posted on this website a screed on John Lott, whose integrity, shall we say, leaves a lot of room for improvement. In that same time period I recall seeing a cartoon (it might have been in the NY Times) which had everyone in the street, including babies in their carriages, packing guns. Do any of you remember it, have the URL for it, or have a scan/copy of it? It unfortunately seems to be appropriate once again, with kids shooting kids at an unimaginable pace. If you have copied it but can’t post it here, please send it to me at my gmail address, maltzmd.
New data shows continued contraction in the number and rate of Americans being imprisoned. Let’s break it down.
The federal system helpfully updates its inmate count every week, so I was able report on the system up to the present moment. Because the Congress has been so dysfunctional in recent years — even unable to pass criminal justice reform when every key player in the House and Senate supports it — the federal system had been lagging the state-level move toward cutting prison populations, which started around 2008. However, thanks mainly to changes in drug-related sentencing (with icing on the cake from Obama’s clemency initiative), the system is now declining in size at last. The data are summarized below. You can read my full analysis at Washington Post Wonkblog, and read a thoughtful critique of my analysis by Professor Douglas Berman here.
Reporting of state data has a significant lag, so 2016 year end data just came out. What happens in the states matters way, way, more than the federal system because that’s where 7/8 of the prisoners are held. I break down the newly released data in another Washington Post Wonkblog about the now nearly-decade long contraction in that population.
What jumps out the most is the African-American imprisonment rate is at a more than quarter-century low. For Black males, the size of the drop from the peak is equivalent to the entire Black male population age 16 and older of Washington, D.C. plus that of Dallas. There’s a long way to go but this is a big change.
p.s. In addition to comments on the issue, I welcome comments on my charts. Since my Wonkblogs generally only appear on line, I decided to start color coding the text in the chart label to help people tell which line is which. What do you think? Also, like Kevin Drum, I think dual Y-axis charts are boffo. What do you think? Last, I am not mad about the year being in the middle rather the bottom of my federal chart, if anyone knows how to do that I’d appreciate it.
p.p.s. I have updated the second chart based on suggestions. I was not able to implement the suggestion to have only some years on the bottom because when I selected any interval for labels I selected it left off the 2016 label making it seem the data didn’t go as far as it did.
If you’ll get over chortling about the fact thatÂ the Oklahoma state senator who just pleaded guilty to child sex trafficking was Donald Trump’s Oklahoma campaign chair last year, the case raises some serious questions about federal law and sentencing.
The facts appear to be simple: a 17-year-old boy met Sen. Shortey on line and asked him for help in earning money. Shortey offered him money for sex. The boy agreed, and they met in a motel room. The boy’s girlfriend, who had followed him to the motel, called his father, who phoned the police,Â who came and busted the pair in flagrante.
Shortey was first charged under Oklahoma law with “soliciting prostitution of a minor, prostitution within 1,000 feet of church, and transporting for the purpose of prostitution.” (I’d like a slow, careful explanation of why the crime was aggravated by the fact that there was a church within a 333-yard radius of the motel, but perhaps we can leave that for another time.)
The state charges were dropped after he was indicted federally for sex trafficking of a minor and two counts of child pornography: one for sharing videos for with two individuals and another for soliciting a minor for photos of himself. Shortey has just pleaded guilty to the sex trafficking charge, for which he faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison (which, with good time, means about 8 1/2 years behind bars). The maximum is life.
Note the elision here. The federal law is designed to get people who run commercial juvenile prostitution enterprises, and in particular enterprises involving interstate or international movement of juvenile sex workers, often involving coercion or deception. That’s as horrible a crime as it’s possible to imagine – morally much more culpable than, for example, homicide done in the heat of passion – and fully justifies extremely harsh sentencing. But Sen. Shortey didn’t do any of that. He purchased sex from a 17-year-old, in a state where the age of consent is 16. (Oklahoma law distinguishes commercial from non-commercial sex, so that the boy’s being under 18 made the offense a more serious one.) Shortey didn’t use coercion or trickery, or in any obvious way abuse his public office. Continue Reading…
Leigh Corfman says that she was fourteen years old and waiting with her mother outside a courtroom before a custody hearing when Roy Moore, then thirty-two and an assistant district attorney, offered to stay with Corfman while her mother went into court. Corfman says Moore used that opportunity to get her phone number, and subsequently took her out on several dates. On one of those occasions, he took her to his home, undressed her down to her underwear, undressed himself to the same extent, fondled her through her bra and panties, and attempted to put her hand on his genitals.
If what Corfman says is true, Moore committed a felony under Alabama law (which hasnâ€™t changed in the meantime).Â Moore says that none of it happened: â€œI never knew this woman. I never met this woman.â€
Mooreâ€™s defenders say that he ought to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and that a â€œmere accusationâ€ (as Donald Trump called it) shouldnâ€™t block Mooreâ€™s election to the U.S. Senate. â€œItâ€™s just he-said, she-saidâ€ is the favored phrase. (Moore and his friends also want to ignore the three other juvenile but barely legal girls who say he took them out and kissed them.)
As Mitt Romney among others has pointed out, this is absurdly confused; itâ€™s an attempt to apply courtroom standards outside their proper realm. No one thinks an ordinary political charge needs to be proven beyond reasonable doubt before voters take it into account, and thereâ€™s no reason why a charge that happens also to be felony should be any different. (Moore’s attempt, and that of his supporters, to blame the Washington PostÂ for concocting “fake news,” while it might be effective political rhetoric, lost all of its logical force when the Wall Street JournalÂ re-interviewed the Post‘s sources and found that all of them confirmed that the Post had accurately reported their statements.)
Even if this were a criminal trial, Moore might well be convicted. Leigh Corfman’s sworn testimony would be sufficient to establish a prima facie case. It would then be up to the jury to weigh the credibility of the accusation against the credibility of the denial and decide whether they were convinced, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Moore was guilty. Sometimes the jurors decide that they are so convinced, even if itâ€™s simply the bare word of the accuser against the bare word of the complainant: in a mugging, for example, there may be no other witness or physical evidence. If the victim has no apparent motive to lie â€“ while the accused has the strongest of motives, the desire to escape a felony conviction â€“ it may not be unreasonable for a jury to decide that the accusation is convincing enough to convict.
But Moore’s position is actually much worse than that of our hypothetical robbery suspect. Continue Reading…
It’s not “carnage,” and it’s not a reason to panic or adopt cruel, stupid policies, but it really isn’t good news.
Yes, year-to-year homicide rates are statistically noisy, especially at the city level, because homicide is a relatively rare event. But an increase of roughly 20% over two years isn’t just statistical noise. And though there are indeed dramatic increases for identifiable local reasons in places such as Chicago, that’s not what’s driving this train: the 2016 increase showed up in small tows as well as big cities. [Update: Robert VerBruggen makes a key observation: white-on-white homicide rose more in percentage terms than black-on-black homicide.]
But the real reason to be concerned isn’t that homicide has gone up for two years in a row; it’s that it was flat in the two previous years, pretty clearly breaking the 20-year downtrend starting in 1994. Yes, even after two bad years, we’re much better off than we used to be. But even at 5 homicides per 100,000 – about half the 1994 rate – our current rate is three times the Canadian rate, five times the UK rate, and ten times the Norwegian rate. That’s nothing to write home about. Getting the homicide rate moving back down ought to count as an important national goal.
Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan, set the Flint water crisis in motion by implementing his deeply-felt beliefs (I infer from his behavior, always the best evidence) that spending tax money, or exercising government regulatory power, for the benefit of poor people–especially poor black people who probably vote wrong if you let them grow up–is a moral offense.
He is also a very strong (not the strongest/rape-and-incest) abortion opponent, and we don’t have to infer, because he’s on the record about that.Â It turns out he and his gang of vicious, reckless, subordinates committed the biggest mass abortion episode in US history; lead in Flint’s water not only damaged thousands of little kids for life, but killed hundreds in utero.
Some people do truly horrible things that frighten and appall me as much as anyone. But their behavior should not be the moral guide for our behavior; that they failed to show mercy to their victims does not mean that we should sacrifice our own humanity by mimicking them. I think about this principle often, because it’s part of what undergirds my opposition to capital punishment (yes, in all cases) and also part of what sickens me about 75 year olds on dialysis spending their final years in prison.
I suggest a different way forward in Washington Post.
Cigarette taxes protect health by reducing smoking.
But tax disparities across states create a multi-billion-dollar annual market in smuggled tobacco products. Current enforcement efforts are inadequate and ill-organized.
As a result, the illicit trade in tobacco products (ITTP) is growing, and the larger the market grows, the harder the problem of controlling it. (That’s the usual positive feedback problem in violation rates due to enforcement swamping.) So inaction now has long-lasting costs.
Tax equalization would solve the problem, but isn’t likely to happen. Feasible changes in enforcement strategy could protect health and revenue while reducing crime.
There has been a host of recent articles and books decrying the use of â€œbig dataâ€ to make decisions about individual behaviors. This is true in commerce (Amazon, Facebook, etc.), but also true in criminal justice, my field of research. Moreover, some of the algorithms that forecast dangerousness are proprietary, making it all but impossible to determine the basis for challenging a sentence based on the algorithmâ€™s outcome. Recent books, such as Weapons of Math Destruction and The Rise of Big Data Policing, underscore the dangers of such activity. This is the essence of an autopilot approach to forecasting behavior â€“ hands off the wheel, leave the driving to us.
There is some research that supports this type of algorithmic decision-making. In particular, Paul Meehl, in Clinical versus Statistical Prediction, showed that, overall, clinicians were not as good as statistical methods in forecasting failure on parole, as well as the efficacy of various mental health treatments. True, this book was written over fifty years ago, but it seems to have stood the test of time.
It is dangerous, however, to relegate to the algorithm the last word, which all too many decision-makers are wont to do (and against which Meehl cautioned). All too often the algorithms, often based on so-so (i.e., same-old, same-old) variables â€“ age, race, sex, income, prior record â€“ are used to â€œpredictâ€ future conduct, ignoring other variables that may be more meaningful on the individual level. And the algorithms may not be sufficiently sensitive to real differences: two people may have the same score even though one person may have started out doing violent crime and then moved on to petty theft, while the other may have started out with petty crime and graduated to violent crime.
That is, the fact that a person has a high recidivist score based on the so-so variables should be seen as a threshold issue, a potential barrier to stopping criminal activity. It should be followed by a more nuanced look at the individualâ€™s additional life experiences (which do not fit into simple categories, and therefore cannot be included as â€œvariablesâ€ in the algorithms). That is, everyone has an age and a race, etc., but not everyone was abused as a child, was born in another country, or spent their teen years shuffling through foster homes. Therefore, these factors (and as important, the timing and sequence of these factors) are not part of the algorithm but may be as determinative of future behavior as the aforementioned variables. This is the essence of a power steering approach to forecasting behavior â€“ you crunch the data, but I decide how to use it and where to go.
Regarding power steering, I’m sure that many of you would rather look at an animated map of weather heading your way than to base your decisions (umbrella or not?) on a static (autopilot) weather forecast (BTW, does a 30 percent chance of rain refer to the likelihood of my getting wet in a given time period or to the fact that 30% of the area will be rainy and may skip me entirely?). The same issues are there in crime analysis. A few years ago I coauthored a book on crime mapping, which introduced the term that heads this post. In that book we described the benefit of giving the crime analyst the steering wheel, to guide the analysis based on his/her knowledge of the unique time and space characteristics of the areas in which the crime patterns developed.
In summary, thereâ€™s nothing wrong with using big data to assist with decision-making. The mistake comes in when using such data to forecast individual behavior, to the exclusion of information that is not amenable to data-crunching because it is highly individualistic â€“ and may be as important in assessing behavior than the aforementioned variables.