Warnings to offenders

“Hey, YOU! Yeah, YOU! Here’s what YOU’ve been doing that we don’t like, and here’s what’s going to happen to YOU if YOU don’t stop it, pronto!” Thirty chronic domestic assailants in High Point, NC, just got personalized warning letters from the police chief.

When Hume said that all government depends entirely on opinion, he could have been talking about crime control. Deterrence as a strategy relies on the opinions of offenders about what will happen to them; a severe penalty that the offender doesn’t anticipate has no deterrent effect. And in fact many offenders, especially those subject to special laws such as the Armed Career Criminal statute or repeat-offender sentencing, and those who are special enforcement targets as high-rate offenders, have no idea how heavy the hammer is until it lands on them.  

That suggests that enforcement agencies should directly communicate deterrent threats to the people they’re trying to deter. (In a non-zero-sum game, communication can have content.) Roughly, the message is “Hey, YOU! Yeah, YOU! Here’s what YOU’ve been doing that we don’t want YOU doing any more, and here’s what’s going to happen to YOU if YOU don’t stop it, pronto!” That’s the burden of a HOPE warning hearing, or a Ceasefire-style gang call-in, or the meeting with all the dealers in a High-Point-style low-arrest drug crackdown.

Well, David Kennedy has been at it again. Thirty habitual domestic assailants in High Point, NC, just received letters on the model of the one below. The text is from a real letter; the name has been changed to protect the guilty. Each letter is hand-crafted to a single offender.

 

February 21, 2012

High Point Police Department
High Point, North Carolina 27260

Dear Mr. Jones,

Your continual behavior in the domestic violence arena has recently come under the scrutiny of the High Point Domestic Violence Task Force. Our Task Force is taking a strong stance against those individuals who continually abuse their respective partners and do not comply with Domestic Violence Protective Orders. The High Point Police Department and the High Point Community Against Violence and other partners are working closely to stop domestic violence in any form.

We have researched your individual record, Mr. Jones, and we have determined that if you assault another person and cause injury, we will be able to charge you with a Felony Habitual Misdemeanor Assault. Additionally, if you commit another Felony, we will be able to charge you as a Habitual Felon. Your cases will be handled in Superior Court, and we have a commitment from the Guilford County District Attorney’s Office that they will prosecute you for those felonies to the fullest. You should be aware that if you are charged with a Felony Habitual Misdemeanor Assault, we will be able to charge you as a Habitual Felon as well. If convicted of a Class I felony, your minimum, mandatory active sentence could start anywhere between 35-44 months. If convicted of a Class H felony (which is the class for Habitual Misdemeanor Assault), your minimum, mandatory active sentence could start anywhere between 89-111 months. If convicted of a Class G felony or higher, your minimum, mandatory active sentence could start anywhere between 103-128 months.

Of course, we hope that you will follow all of the laws of North Carolina, and it is our hope that we will not have to charge you with any crimes. Please be forewarned, Mr. Jones, that you have come onto our radar, and we are watching for any crimes you may commit in the future with a new, particular interest. Domestic violence will not be tolerated.

Because of your criminal record you are a Federal Felon and are prohibited from possessing a firearm or ammunition at any time for any reason good or bad.

Sincerely,

Chief Jim Fealy

 

I bet this works. I’d love to see the same approach to everyone on the LAPD “ten percenter” lists and similar lists elsewhere. And it just begs for an experimental design, though High Point decided that they couldn’t justify ethically not sending a letter to anyone they’d identified as eligible. This is the secret to having less crime and less punishment.

 

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

47 thoughts on “Warnings to offenders”

  1. Very interesting. I wonder if it would help if his mother signed it too, and maybe a couple neighbors, or his boss. I guess some of them could just be cc’d.

    Mark, what do you think about the SF sheriff situation? Should they toss him out on his bum, or what? Or would he have more to lose if he stays in office? Is it special treatment to ask the question? I am confused.

  2. Good idea, but the language in the letter is aimed at someone with WAY more education than the average recipient. It could use a tough session with a plain-language specialist. It reeks of bureaucracy, and though bureaucracy can be scary (see recent posts about James Wilson and Max Weber), it doesn’t scare people who don’t understand what it’s telling them.

    1. I was going to make this point, but you made it, so I’ll only pile on. According to Bill Gates’ grammar checker, the Flesch-Kinkaid grade level of this selection is 13.6: college level. IIRC, insurance regulators are aiming to get policy language somewhere around 10th grade, which is still pretty hard for a lot of people to handle.

      [btw, I’ve found that my professional writing is helped a lot when I try to keep it below 11th grade. It’s not easy, and often requires a lot of redrafting. But it is doable.]

      1. Maybe the letter should begin with an advisory: For those who need assistance, please have your lawyer read the letter and explain it to you! (What are the literacy rates in the greater South anyway?)

        1. The person this is addressed to has had a bit of education in this particular legal jargon. No doubt he has heard much of the terminology from police, lawyers and of course judges.
          But it could benfit from a headline like:
          Hey Dummy!! Beat up your wife again and you will be doing hard time.

          1. We can’t assume that someone who has been in the court-room repeatedly actually understands the language that is being used… instead, we can assume that quite a few defendants cue off their lawyers and work from an ad-hoc script.

            My experience in social services technical writing leads me to believe that getting a Flesh-Kincaid score to a middle school level will actually lead to effective and wide-spread understanding and learning.

    2. Excellent point. And I would say that when a topic is upsetting, as this one probably is even to a beater, then the language needs to be even more clear than usual.

    3. This was my reaction also.

      Also, the letter waits until near the end of the second paragraph to explain the penalties the offender might face. If Jones is an inattentive type he may well have stopped reading much earlier.

    4. This is an excellent point. I think it is probably hard to get the balance right between seriousness and clarity. But as long as the attempt is being made to make a deterrent impact, you’d want to get this as right as possible.

      Heck, to that end, it might end up being worthwhile to send someone out to expain the situation in no uncertain terms.

      1. Bad Mark! If you are going to redact, double check it. Somebody did fix it shortly after my post.

  3. I dunno. Something about this feels off.

    On a practical level, if there’s an ongoing, systematic failure to make criminals aware of the consequences and implications of re-offending, then sending a letter is a really, really inadequate fix. Not because southerners are illiterate (hyuk hyuk hyuk) but because if you were trying to tell someone something while making sure they ignored you, this is how you’d do it. In states where there are “three strikes” laws, I’m guessing the judges are pretty careful to hammer the point home at the sentencing for “strike two.” (Ditto for the parole officer, etc.) But if you can become a “habitual felon” because no one ever really explained to you that you wouldn’t always be getting a six-month suspended sentence, then all the letter will do is give someone a chance to say, “Hey, c’mon, we sent him that letter!”

    I also think that how popular this idea is will depend a lot on what kinds of criminals get letters. Domestic abusers are a pretty safe target. What about drug crimes, where there are already huge racial and class penalties built in to the system? What happens when there’s a mass arrest of Occupy Wherever protestors, and they all pay a $25 fine for their Class-AAAA micro-misdemeanor public nuisance convictions? The local police chief could write them all letters saying (absolutely truthfully) that defendants with pre-existing criminal records (like them) get much higher sentences, so they’d better mind their own business from now on, hint hint. I think we’d say that was pretty abusive, but it’s fundamentally the same thing.

  4. I like this idea. How about a warning to every gun buyer in states that have “stand your ground” laws informing them of the rest of the body of law regarding self-defense, such as the bar against excessive force and how aggressors forfeit the complete defense altogether unless they retreat first?

    1. I thought that the whole point of “stand your ground” laws was that you need not retreat before using deadly force. This is the basis on which I have always opposed such laws.

  5. This is the first time anybody has done this, so we’ll see how it works and how it can be improved. But:

    -I’m pretty sure that the language can be made more accessible in various ways. But, also, these are in some ways highly technical matters (there’s no very easy way to gloss some of the legal issues and categories involved in plain english), and – as has been noted – these are people with a lot of experience with the system and with access to legal advice.

    -I’m pretty sure, as well, that the “Hey dummy” suggestion is hyperbolic. But it’s worth pointing out that a lot of the theory behind this kind of move is rooted in what we know about the perceived legitimacy of the law and about procedural justice. Treating people with respect, honoring their agency as persons, and giving them control over their own outcomes are central to all that. They’re used to “hey dummy” from legal authorities; they’re not used to this. They’re also used to being told, over and over, that the next time they do something there’s going to be a drastic consequence, and having that be a lie. This is designed to change that.

    -@ Matt: there absolutely is “an ongoing, systematic failure to make criminals aware of the consequences and implications of re-offending.” It is well documented, by research and in practice, and operates at several levels. One is simply not making any effort to publicize the mere existence of various laws. The recipient of this letter is open to a federal felon-in-possession gun prosecution if he’s caught with a gun; these are serious (five year mandatory minimum) sentences, and the government has never made any systematic effort to let people know that law is on the books. Even sentenced offenders may not know what their own records are, or what they imply; they may know they were sentenced to probation that last time, but not whether what they were convicted of was a misdemeanor or a felony (which is what triggers the federal law). Some sentencing frameworks are so complicated they take experienced legal analysis to sort out – most street offenders are not going to be able to do the legal research, and then apply it to their own records, in order to figure out whether they meet the criteria for application of the North Carolina habitual offender statutes. They only know when they’re charged, which is too late for deterrence. Judges and probation and parole officers absolutely do not do this as part of their regular work. Beyond all that, there’s so much discretion in these proceedings that even if one knows that the law applies, one is in no position to know that the DA has decided to in fact apply it if possible: nearly no gun cases go federal, for example, relative to the volume of state gun cases, and frequently even the prosecutors involved don’t know which way they’ll jump until they get a particular case. That why it’s so important that in this letter it is communicated that the DA will in fact proceed as he can, but often would not, proceed.

    All of that makes a good case for working these issues out in advance for at least a crucial subset of offenders. For some indication of why this is worth exploring, see Figure 2 here:

    http://www.psnchicago.org/PDFs/2009-PSN-Research-Brief_v2.pdf

    This is an evaluation of a Chicago intervention with gun felons that includes explicit communication of their status with respect to the federal gun laws (the intervention also includes an offer of social service and a community-standards element, which are also present in the High Point DV intervention). There is no follow-up on the enforcement (or service) side: the only intervention is informational. The effect is very large.

    I’ll note that I’m regularly perplexed by the opposition to the very simple ideas represented in the Ceasefire/HOPE/drug market intervention/24-7 new deterrence thinking. The simple idea here is, if you’re prepared to do something drastic to somebody the next time he crosses a line, let’s tell him so. Say that, and step back for the wave of carefully reasoned arguments about why that’s a bad idea. So let’s go with the opposite: when you’re prepared to do something drastic to somebody the next time he crosses a line, let’s NOT tell him. Doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    1. “Treating people with respect, honoring their agency as persons, and giving them control over their own outcomes are central to all that. They’re used to “hey dummy” from legal authorities; they’re not used to this. ”

      I really like this. We tend to be a bit sloppy when faced with dysfunctional behavior, in terms of how we view the cognition behind it. Where I teach, 16 and 17 year old kids rountinely act like 3 or 4 years olds (no – I’m not exaggerating). A common – completely understandeable – response from staff is disbelief, shock and offense at such immaturity. “What are you, some kind of dummy?!!”. (Not usually in such disrespectful language, but we have our moments).

      Because when we have a chance to take a step back, there is no real reason for shock or disbelief. The explanation is perfectly clear, when taking into account the particular student’s life experiences, and ultimately their failure to have properly *learned* appropriate self-control, self-discipline, emotional management, etc. Whatever their story is, the fact of the matter is that they have not been able to develop adequately.

      Something I have found fascinating in working with such teens is that, once a degree of rapport has been established, how often it is that they are able to express their own insight into their behavior. Unformed, lacking in narrative, etc., sure, but they know at some level their inadequacies. Some of the best work I feel I have done, the most progress I have made with students, has been achieved through helping them to better understand themselves by trying to create an environment in which they feel safe enough to be vulnerable. This is not done by diminishing them and provoking their superficial pride and ego through humiliation (flying off the handle is actually embarrasing, in that you are not in control of yourself, and end up with regrets).

      One student of mine, who I, for pedagogically tactical reasons, chose to essentially counsel all period instead of doing my normal rounds, wanted so adamantly for other people not to treat her like she was “crazy”. This, she asked for, while recounting the time she got in trouble for yelling at the cops to leave her the “f#ck alone”. “But *****”, I told her, “you ARE crazy. You have serious anger problems. But you know what, that’s OK. We’re all a bit crazy at times. And most of us haven’t been through half of what you have. “. More than anything, she wanted validation. She knew she was a mess, but she didn’t want to be only a *mess*. Ever since that day, she still barely does her work. But some kind of calm seems to have come over her, and she no longer seems like the quietly brewing tempest she once was. If only she can continue to find others in her life who validate her, she’ll have a chance of making it.

      There’s a deep logic to human behavior. So many of us take our developmental maturity for granted, and subsequently find it difficult to understand the behavior of those who fail to behave appropriately. In what might be described as egotistic arrogance, we imagine their level of cognitive awareness to be equal to ours, and thus the behavior to be not an outgrowth of natural development, but of conscious disregard. And when we treat them thusly, I think it entirely logical for them to take extreme offense. Because yes, if they knew better, they would be “dummies”. But they obviously didn’t really *know* better (in a sort of universal, developmental sense). We can see this illustrated quite clearly in the classic case of the cold, unloving parent or guardian: a child makes an honest mistake, and the caregiver over-reacts, i.e. assumes more developmental capacity than is appropriate. We naturally understand this to be a miscarriage of justice.

      While adults are not children, and the infractions maybe more severe, the same dynamic is at work. We ought to recognize our intuition about the child’s treatment and imagine it in the emotional composition of the perpetrator. If he is not treated with dignity, there will be no object to which he will be able to appeal for justice, other than that which resides within his own, internal understanding of fairness. A subjectivity which of course, considering transpiring events, and certainly in the “heat” of the moment, as higher brain functions are limited, ought not be something in which to place our faith. So as we still have a leveraging role to play in our relationship, mutual respect is an invaluable commodity.

      What any of this matters in an impersonal threat of instiutional deterrence, I’m not sure. But I thought it worthwhile to add my ruminations on the subject of cognition and clarity in human relations.

    2. I’ll note that I’m regularly perplexed by the opposition to the very simple ideas represented in the Ceasefire/HOPE/drug market intervention/24-7 new deterrence thinking.

      I can’t speak for other opponents, but my opposition is prior to the communication; my problem is with the sanctions available.

      This example is a great case-in-point; the threat is to take a misdemeanor (a minor crime–on the order of shoving someone in a bar fight) and enhance it with three different enhancements–the habitual misdemeanor to get it to a felony, enabling it to count as a habitual felony,and prosecuting it aggressively–to get a maximum 6 months in jail offense to be a nearly 10 years in jail offense.

      1. Yes. The existing legal structure, which will be applied regardless of whether the offender understands it ahead of time. This way, he understands it and can adjust his behavior accordingly.

        Beyond that, those enhancements are there for a reason and are applied, in practice, rarely and for a reason. These letters were given to a handful of the most violent and persistent domestic abusers in a city of about 100,000. They do to their partners “on the order of shoving somebody in a bar fight” over and over and over and over. These laws were written for their kind, recognizing that for certain chronic offenders looking at each offense as an isolated incident is fundamentally misleading.

        1. I’d say a improved sense of proportion in these sanctions would be appropriate.

          You do a nice job defending these “enhancements” as you call them, but you really haven’t addressed Sam’s point about the appropriateness of “enhancing” a 6-month sentence into 10 years. Seems a bit extreme to me. Isn’t there something effective, but less extreme? I don’t want to pay for 10 years of incarceration for someone who shoves his wife around, bad as that is, when something less extreme would work. Where are the in-between options, and why wouldn’t they work?

          1. To say it again, these are the most dangerous chronic DV offenders in a city of 100,000. They have records of assault, stalking, sexual assault, assault with weapons, and on and on. These warnings are not sentences. They are notices that (in concert with the rest of the intervention) if, after being put on formal notice of these risks, being addressed by their community, and being offered a wide range of help, they continue to be seriously violent, these existing legal sanctions will be applied as the law permits. Given the realities of working within the criminal law – it does not allow us to do what we would like to do, it allows us to do what the law provides for – no, I have no problem with this.

            Part of the reason we are brought to this point, and part of why these guys have often a fifteen- and twenty-year history of domestic violence that has come repeatedly to the attention of the authorities and nothing has happened to make them change their ways, is that their domestic terrorism is all too frequently reduced by others to “pushing his wife around.” If they did it to strangers they’d have been locked up long ago. If they do it to their women it doesn’t matter.

          2. I’m in agreement with you for the most part, and of course, if there’s already a way to escalate a 6-month misdemeanor all the way to a 10 year felony, it’s certainly sporting to inform those who might have that applied to them, and probably at least somewhat successful as a deterrent. That’s all good. I’m not as comfortable with the idea that prosecutors have been granted the discretionary power to “enhance” a charge into “Felony Habitual Misdemeanor” and then enhance it again into “Habitual Felon” for the same single offense that would otherwise be a misdemeanor for a first-time offender. I’m very curious about the criteria that qualifies one for the Habitual enhancements.

            It strikes me as odd that the people you refer to as “the most dangerous chronic DV offenders” would need to be informed of this in the first place. I would think the worst repeat offenders must have already served several of the shorter misdemeanor sentences by the time their record would justify consideration of a minimum, mandatory active sentence starting anywhere between 89-111 months for the next one. Wouldn’t the judges at each of the trials have already warned them, and wouldn’t the prosecutors have already used the threat as plea-bargaining leverage? Seems to me they should already know “the man” has his eye on them and should have been repeatedly warned to their faces. I’m not sure how much a sternly-worded letter adds to that.

            Say Mr. Jones is touched by the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s noodly appendage and changes his evil ways. Then someone bumps into him on the street and falls down, claiming injury. Because of his presumably horrific record (which he has no doubt earned for himself, but presumably has paid his “debts to society” for those crimes), the fate of the next ten years of his life are in the hands of a Justice system that boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world. That thought brings me no comfort.

          3. BTW: It wasn’t my intention to marginalize domestic violence or reduce it to “pushing his wife around.” I was using the terminology from the comment I was referring to (on the order of shoving someone in a bar fight), but “shoving” is less appropriate as a way to describe the kind of domestic violence directed at wives by chronic offenders.

          4. Something’s odd about the “reply” function here. This is in response to Freeman’s comments below.

            “Wouldn’t the judges at each of the trials have already warned them, and wouldn’t the prosecutors have already used the threat as plea-bargaining leverage? Seems to me they should already know “the man” has his eye on them and should have been repeatedly warned to their faces. I’m not sure how much a sternly-worded letter adds to that.”

            The judges emphatically would not have done that. Judges look at the case before them, not at the defendant’s history or future. Prosecutors likewise. It took a careful and historically unprecedented analytic effort to identify these men as the chronic dangerous DV offenders they were. They had been skating through multiple arrests, prosecutions, and dispositons for, in some of their cases, fifteen years and more. These explicit warnings were needed as counterweight to everything their history had shown them: that they will get away with everything they do. Deterrence theory formalizes this social learning by chronic offenders that they face little real legal risk as “the experiential effect.”

            This is real-world stuff, not some cartoon theoretic. Real people make these decisions. They will be looking for what these men in fact do: rape, stab, shoot, strangle, and terrorize. Some made-up slip and fall does not feature.

          5. Something’s odd about the “reply” function here. This is in response to Freeman’s comments below.

            That is an artifact of the limit on comment “nesting”.

            Judges look at the case before them, not at the defendant’s history or future. Prosecutors likewise.

            I’ll defer to your expertise on this one, the only experience I have with judges and prosecutors being municipal courts, which no doubt differ quite a bit from criminal courts. In the municipal court realm, it is common to see a judge warn an offender that he has been in front of the court for a given offense too many times, and the sanctions will escalate if they continue offending.

            This is real-world stuff, not some cartoon theoretic. Real people make these decisions. They will be looking for what these men in fact do: rape, stab, shoot, strangle, and terrorize. Some made-up slip and fall does not feature.

            First, if someone does rape, stab, shoot, or strangle someone, those are already felony charges, not misdemeanors enhanced into felonies, so we’ve drifted off the subject a bit, I think. Second, doesn’t it depend on the prosecutor? If a prosecutor thinks he can get a felony conviction for a misdemeanor offense against someone with a particularly bad rap sheet, I think a lot of them would try.

    3. Just sent an e-mail to your cuny.edu address with some questions—please let me know if there’s another address that’s better.

    4. My tongue in cheek sample header seems to have stirred some negative reaction. So let me try to be semi serious:

      “DEAR MR. JONES, YOU ARE A REPEAT OFFENDER OF THE SERIOUS CRIME OF WIFE BEATING. ANY FUTURE CONVICTIONS FOR BEATING YOUR WIFE WILL RESULT IN MANDATORY PRISON TIME FROM 3 TO 10+ YEARS.
      ************************************************************************* Please read below for a more detailed explanation. It may be a good idea to discuss this with an attorney if you have questions.
      *************************************************************************
      This notice is sent to you with the hope of helping you to avoid ruinig your and your family’s lives.”

      Now is that a bit more respectful and helpful? Professional writing and consultation with counselors could give more effective crafting of a stock headline. The last person to see this is a lawyer just to make sure it isn’t in some way illegal (for god’s sake don’t let a lawyer add anything).

      1. For what it’s worth, I recognized the cheek, but happened to think of a larger context David seemed to be reminding us of. I could have been more clear in my response.

  6. @David — In re your first point, yes, these are in some ways highly technical legal matters, but I’m with the “simplify the language” commenters. Here’s the first of many such examples.

    “If convicted of a Class I felony, your minimum, mandatory active sentence could start anywhere between 35-44 months.”

    This could say “For a Class I felony, your mandatory sentence will be three years or more.”

    Also, as an oh-by-the-way, the long paragraph with the long sentences could be broken into two (or perhaps even three) shorter paragraphs. That would help reading comprehension for anybody of moderate education. No good logical reason for it; it just works that way.

    Chief Jim Fealy has done a helluva job here, but every writer needs an editor, and I bet there’s an English professor at High Point University who would be happy to lend his talent to such a worthwhile enterprise.

    1. One suggestion I have is to state the sentences in years rather than months. That may seem trivial, but to me, at least, “seven and a half years” sounds more ominous than “eighty-nine (or ninety, if you want to nit-pick) months.” I don’t know why.

      For the record, I agree that this kind of notification is a good idea, and my comments are directed only at the way the letter is worded.

  7. OTOH, formal language also has its advantages. It shows the reader that the powers that be are not stooping to the targets’ levels.

    When I first read Zimring and Hawkins’ book, Deterrence, some 35 years ago, I wondered just how deterrence was supposed to work without any communication. As I recall, they distinguished general deterrence (i.e., the public’s knowledge that a proscribed action or activity would bring on a sanction) from specific deterrence (a specific actor’s knowledge that a possible activity would result in a penalty — even though the probability of that actor being caught was very low). But even with specific deterrence, there was no formal communication. This letter makes the threat explicit.

    Moreover, I’ve often wondered about the way deterrence has been (supposedly) handled — mishandled, I might say — by economists from Becker on, who just look upon a negative correlation coefficient between an activity and a penal policy as evidence of deterrence.

    1. One of the central ideas from Zimring and Hawkins is that deterrence is a form of advertising. They’re explicit about the core function in deterrence of communication. That central insight is then virtually always ignored in practice. What we’re doing in this example, and in related ones, is the deterrence equivalent of direct mail.

  8. Two points from a non-expert, if you’ll tolerate them:

    1. I like this approach in particular because I strongly suspect that the amount of info that defendants absorb when the mean old judge is talking at them from the bench approaches zero. I’d be interested in learning whether any studies have looked at this – perhaps I’m wrong about it. But the chief public defender in Philadelphia once said that people charged with a crime are typically concerned, above all, with having the experience end – which helps explain why they sometimes accept unfair plea bargains and even plead guilty to crimes they haven’t committed. I’d bet it also limits their ability to focus on a judge’s admonishments and absorb them.

    2. I’m skeptical about this approach, not only for the literacy-related reasons others have raised, but also because people in the offender population simply don’t receive, open, and read their mail all the way through. Maybe this letter will have a scary- and official-looking seal on the envelope and some big, bold letters in the text – and, more importantly, this is presumably just one prong of a larger, multilateral effort – but only some defendants will actually get the letter, and some of those will ignore it anyway, and of those who read it, many won’t get past the opening paragraph no matter what grade level it’s written at.

    1. I agree. I don’t open all my mail either, especially if it looks like a form letter.

      If you’re going to do this, I’d use more than one way to get in touch with people. You might want to text and call them too. Why not? And for heaven’s sake, do *not* let the lawyers be in charge of the language!!! Bad, bad idea.

      You need to put not only a 3 for 3 years, but a really BIG 3.

  9. Interesting technique, and I believe new in the U.S. SOCA in the U.K. takes the same approach, inspired by (no kidding) Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. Police can’t be everywhere and prosecutors can’t investigate everything, so SOCA takes low level information and provides it directly to criminals, e.g., “Mr Jones, we noticed you have imported 200 kg of the following chemicals. We are concerned because these chemicals are all used to manufacture crack cocaine on a large scale. We are worried about you because your business may put you in touch with serious drug traffickers, for example the man in the enclosed photo, who is shown talking to you at the docks. Please be careful not to involve yourself with him as serious criminal penalties will result”. And the letter was signed personally by the head of SOCA (Bill Hughes at the time).

    1. Thanks for the link, that’s interesting.

      There’s actually a long history of this being effective in various ways. From my book Deterrence and Crime Prevention (footnotes omitted):

      Letters threatening legal action sent to sixty-two persons stealing cable
      television with illegal descramblers led two-thirds of them to remove the
      devices. Heavy and often inaccurate publicity surrounding the introduction
      of Massachusetts’ Bartley-Fox law, which imposed a one-year mandatory
      penalty for illegal possession of a firearm, led to increased compliance and
      indeed to unnecessary “compliance,” as firearms owners responded to media
      portrayals of the law rather than to the law itself. Zimring and Hawkins
      report on a study of university parking enforcement in which an existing
      regime of prohibitions and fines—for which the fines had not been collected—
      was supplemented by an announcement of enhanced fines for repeat
      violators and the automatic deduction of penalties from university paychecks.
      Large decreases were observed amongst the worst prior violators, a
      change Zimring and Hawkins attribute to chronic offenders being put on
      “notice that their parking behavior was really forbidden.” Jeremy Travis,
      former Deputy Commissioner for Legal Affairs in the New York City Police
      Department, relates a similar story: City landlords who had ignored warnings
      that they were violating legal requirements requiring them to attend to
      drug trafficking by tenants flocked to comply after being sent a letter
      reporting that one of their peers had had his building seized under federal
      asset-forfeiture laws.

      Depite this it’s taken me about ten years to get anybody to try it in a systematic way for serious offenders. Nearly everybody in law enforcement to whom I proposed it loved the idea and then didn’t do anything. The High Point folks, as has been their pattern, put their heads down and did it.

      1. How effective is a letter in comparison with a face to face meeting at the police station? A meeting would cost substantially more, but the cost would still be insignificant as compared with the cost of prosecution and jailing. How about taking Mr Jones to visit the kind of prison where he may end up?

      2. Jeremy Travis,
        former Deputy Commissioner for Legal Affairs in the New York City Police
        Department, relates a similar story: City landlords who had ignored warnings
        that they were violating legal requirements requiring them to attend to
        drug trafficking by tenants flocked to comply after being sent a letter
        reporting that one of their peers had had his building seized under federal
        asset-forfeiture laws.

        Also not a big fan of the idea of forcing private citizens to police other private citizens under threat of forfeiture of their private property. This isn’t the kind of country or the era where landlords own and are therefore responsible for their serfs and government owns the landlords.

        1. This too is perfectly normal. A bar that is consistently violent and used to deal drugs can lose its license. A rental property that is known to be used for drug dealing by its owner can, after what is in practice extensive due process, be seized. Since that is true, putting landlords on notice that they not only can but will in fact lose their property is both fair and, it turns out, effective.

          1. OK, but a liquor license is not the private property of the bar, so that doesn’t apply to my critique. Now let’s say that a “property that is known to be used for drug dealing” is located in a government housing project, which is not at all uncommon. The government itself with all it’s enforcement power has been unable to eradicate the drug dealing, but somehow we should consider it proper for the same government to threaten forfeiture of private property for other landlords who find themselves in a similar situation?

        2. Again, something’s wrong with “reply” here. Response to Freeman’s comment below.

          I like your logic. The government runs military and police forces. It has been unable to eradicate criminality and sometimes homicide in those forces. It therefore follows that the government has no standing to attend to criminality, including homicide, in the civilian population. Perfect.

        3. As I explained in a previous reply, the missing “Reply” link on some comments is due to the limit on comment “nesting” in the blog software. Without a reasonable limit, back-and-forth conversations would end up in a long skinny column on the right side of your screen. I replied to myself this time so it would show up under your response while leaving you a handy Reply link.

          I like your logic as well. The government runs police forces. It has been unable to eradicate criminality in general population. It therefore follows that the government has standing to dump it’s responsibility to police the civilian population and force them to police each other under threat of asset forfeiture. Perfect.

          Please read slower. I have never said the government has no standing to enforce the law. I said that’s their job and they don’t (or shouldn’t) have standing to force private citizens to do it for them and threaten to take away their property if they don’t.

  10. I had a go at rewriting the letter. While using essentially the same phrasing, I think that simple restructuring makes it stronger. Incidentally, the two sentences about the “habitual Felon” charge are ambiguous – I’ve followed the second rather than the first.

    Dear Mr. Jones,

    You have a criminal record including repeated incidents of domestic violence. Domestic violence will not be tolerated, and it is our policy to crack down hard on habitual offenders.

    You have come onto our radar, Mr. Jones, and we have researched your record. We are watching for any crimes you may commit in the future with a new, particular interest.

    If you assault another person and cause injury, we will take the following action against you.

    * We will be able to charge you with a Felony Habitual Misdemeanor Assault.

    * Additionally, we will be able to charge you as an Habitual Felon.

    * Your cases will be handled in Superior Court. We have a commitment from the Guilford County District Attorney’s Office that they will prosecute you for those felonies to the fullest.

    * Felony Habitual Misdemeanor Assault is a Class H felony. If convicted of this, your minimum, mandatory active sentence could start anywhere between 7 years 5 months to 9 years 5 months.

    * You may of course be convicted of a more serious offence. For a Class G felony or higher, your minimum, mandatory active sentence could start anywhere between 8 years 7 months and 10 years 8 months. Even if you are convicted of a lesser Class I felony, your minimum, mandatory active sentence could still start anywhere between 2 years 11 months and 3 years 8 months.

    Of course, we hope that you will follow all of the laws of North Carolina, and that we will not have to charge you with any crimes. That is why I am issuing you this warning.

    I also remind you that because of your criminal record you are a Federal Felon and are prohibited from possessing a firearm or ammunition at any time for any reason good or bad.

    For your information, our new policy has been developed by the High Point Domestic Violence Task Force. Our Task Force is taking a strong stance against those individuals who continually abuse their respective partners and do not comply with Domestic Violence Protective Orders. The High Point Police Department and the High Point Community Against Violence and other partners are working closely to stop domestic violence in any form.

    Sincerely,
    Chief Jim Fealy

Comments are closed.