Depressing and (sadly) unsurprising criminal justice news

Via the Post:

Nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department as part of a massive investigation started in 2012 of problems at the FBI lab has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency, government officials said.

The findings troubled the bureau, and it stopped the review of convictions last August. Case reviews resumed this month at the order of the Justice Department, the officials said.

U.S. officials began the inquiry after The Washington Post reported two years ago that flawed forensic evidence involving microscopic hair matches might have led to the convictions of hundreds of potentially innocent people. Most of those defendants never were told of the problems in their cases.

The inquiry includes 2,600 convictions and 45 death-row cases from the 1980s and 1990s in which the FBI’s hair and fiber unit reported a match to a crime-scene sample before DNA testing of hair became common. The FBI had reviewed about 160 cases before it stopped, officials said.

The investigation resumed after the Justice Department’s inspector generalexcoriated the department and the FBI for unacceptable delays and inadequate investigation in a separate inquiry from the mid-1990s. The inspector general found in that probe that three defendants were executed and a fourth died on death row in the five years it took officials to reexamine 60 death-row convictions that were potentially tainted by agent misconduct, mostly involving the same FBI hair and fiber analysis unit now under scrutiny.

The number of innocent people in this country who surely have been convicted due to sloppy and misguided and forensic “science” is just mind-boggling.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Very nice Vox animated short explaining the political uniqueness of North Korea.  Some really interesting historical perspective I was totally unaware of.

2) Eminent health care expert Victor Fuchs on why the US spends so much more on health care than other nations.

3) New York Times on why Americans are not so great at math.

4) It’s really just pathetic and amusing to see conservatives try and explain politics with regards to race by pretending that today’s Democratic party is of a piece with the virulently racist Democratic Party of the pre-Civil Rights era South.  Nice takedown from Jamelle Bouie.

5) Speaking of race, I’m feeling pretty confident these pre-school boys would not have been suspended so much if they were white (and so is their mom).

6) Say what you will about Texas justice (and I’ll say a lot), but give them credit for doing a lot more than many other states to remedy their history of gross injustice.  Here’s an interesting case of a man who was exonerated via DNA and didn’t even know about it until after the fact (he had already finished his prison sentence).

7) Nice essay from national security reporter extraordinaire, Tom Ricks, on why he has found himself moving leftward in recent years.

8) Really interesting analysis of “kidspeak.”  Let’s just say “like” means so much more than you may realize.

9) I talked to the NYT reporter who wrote this story for a good 30 minutes, but not even a single quote.  That said, it was a really interesting conversation and hopefully it will lead to some NYT quotes in the future.  Oh, and it’s a good story on NC politics.

10) This is wild.  Apparently we harvest the blood of horseshoe crabs to create a basic and widely-used test for the presence of bacteria.

11) Really enjoyed this Amy Davidson comment on Republicans and immigration policy:

It is one thing for Republicans to decide that they will not be the party of immigration reform, but it is another to decide that they will be the anti-immigration party. If they do, they will define themselves in opposition to America’s future and, incidentally, to its past—one built by newcomers like the gold prospector from Canada who, in 1876, sailed on a ship around South America and staked a claim that became the town of Oracle. In the short term, there may be benefits, in the form of an energized base, but enjoying them requires a distinct lack of shame. If Adam Kwasman was abashed by his Y.M.C.A. mixup, many of his allies don’t think that chasing down a busload of kids was a mistake at all. No children had been brought to Oracle since then, and that was enough for some to call the episode a victory. For the Republican Party as a whole, it might be better described as a dangerous temptation.

12) There does seem to be a place for “broken windows” policing.  But it seems clear that place is not always and everywhere.  Circumstances matter– who would’ve guessed.  Nice NYT editorial:

Mr. Bratton is a pioneer of broken windows policing and Mr. de Blasio is a stout defender. The tactic was embraced in the crime-plagued New York of 20 years ago. But while violence has ebbed, siege-based tactics have not. The Times reported on Friday that the Police Department made 394,539 arrests last year, near historical highs.

The mayor and the commissioner should acknowledge the heavy price paid for heavy enforcement. Broken windows and its variants — “zero-tolerance,” “quality-of-life,” “stop-and-frisk” practices — have pointlessly burdened thousands of young people, most of them black and Hispanic, with criminal records. These policies have filled courts to bursting with first-time, minor offenders whose cases are often thrown out, though not before their lives are severely disrupted and their reputations blemished. They have caused thousands to lose their jobs, to be suspended from school, to be barred from housing or the military. They have ensnared immigrants who end up, through a federal fingerprinting program, being deported and losing everything.

13) And lastly, the NYT is beginning a series on how we need to end our prohibition on marijuana.  Let me reiterate– I’ve never smoked dope, never will, and will strongly discourage my kids, but our current policy is an utter failure on so many levels and needs to be changed.  Here’s the first of the NYT series on state-by-state policy.

How the FBI manufactures terrorists

Last night I watched a terrific HBO documentary, “The Newburgh Sting.”  It is basically the story of how the FBI completely manufactured a terrorism case.  The FBI offered four ex-cons $250,000 dollars to blow up a synagogue and parked military planes.  The “terrorists” were quite clear they didn’t want to hurt anybody, but they would gladly take a quarter million dollars and pretend to actually be serious Muslims (they were all nominally Muslim at best) for the money.  Guess what, if the criteria for being a terrorist is a willingness to engage in serious property destruction for $250,000 than there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of terrorists in this country.  Were these guys stupid?  Absolutely.  Amoral?  Sure.  Terrorists?  Not on your life.  Deserving of 25 year prison sentences for a crime the FBI created out of whole cloth to entice them?  No way.  Damn, damn, damn, I hate that our government behaves this way.

And let’s not forget the opportunity cost.  The FBI certainly does not have unlimited resources.  All those resources turning poor, greedy, ex-cons into terrorists would surely be better off trying to catch real terrorists.  Also, as the film points out, how much better off would we be if the FBI would work with mosques, rather than alienating them by having them wonder if every new member isn’t an FBI informant seeking to create “terrorists” from among their members.  Naturally, this is not a one-off case.  First time I heard about the FBI manufacturing terrorism was this excellent This American Life episode.

If you have HBO, watch this.  If not, here’s some good articles I came across.

Race and criminal injustice

So, I listened to this slightly old Gist podcast this morning.  Sure, I know about the role of race and social class in our criminal justice system, but it still remains bracing and distressing to hear first-hand accounts of the institutional racism.  Then I watched this (again, terrific) John Oliver segment on our prison system.  Such an indictment.  Middle-class white people doing drugs?  No problem.  Black people?  Prison for you.  And so much more.  If you care about criminal justice in America, you really owe it to yourself to watch:

Then I (finally) read from a conservative taking our criminal justice system to task.  Nice to see from somebody who writes for the National Review, rather than just a libertarian, like Balko:

Imagine if I were to tell you there is a large group of government employees, with generous salaries and ridiculously cushy retirement pensions covered by the taxpayer, who enjoy incredible job security and are rarely held accountable even for activities that would almost certainly earn the rest of us prison time. When there is proven misconduct, these government employees are merely reassigned and are rarely dismissed. The bill for any legal settlements concerning their errors? It, too, is covered by the taxpayers. Their unions are among the strongest in the country.

No, I’m not talking about public-school teachers.

I’m talking about the police.

We conservatives recoil at the former; yet routinely defend the latter — even though, unlike teachers, police officers enjoy an utter monopoly on force and can ruin — or end — one’s life in a millisecond.

Yep.  And again a litany of horrible police misconduct that all too often is barely punished.  I am ashamed to admit I had not heard of the case of Eric Garner in New York City.  The police killed him by choking him and sitting on him while he cried out “I can’t breathe.”   The above piece links to the horribly disturbing video.  His offense?  Allegedly selling cigarettes on the street.  More here from the NYT Editorial:

Mr. de Blasio and the police commissioner, William Bratton, say there will be a thorough investigation into Mr. Garner’s death. The undercover officer, Daniel Pantaleo, had to surrender his badge and gun; another officer was put on desk duty. Two paramedics and two emergency medical technicians were placed on modified duty. The Civilian Complaint Review Board, meanwhile,has promised to re-examine the last five years of chokehold complaints. The board received 1,022 such complaints since 2009 and substantiated nine of them, recommending administrative trials for the credibly accused officers. But, in all but one of those cases, they received the lightest sanctions or no punishment at all. This is not reassuring.

It should go without saying that neighborhoods should feel protected by law enforcement, and that officers should be expert at defusing conflicts and avoiding lethal violence.

And lastly, you should really take some time and read this fabulous Sarah Stillman piece on the criminal justice system’s war on poor people.  Truly disgusting and depressing.

Let ‘em out

Okay, let’s start by saying that I think most violent felons need to be serving substantial prison sentences.  That said, we incarcerate far too many people for far too long in this country.  That might be worthwhile if it actually kept us safer.  But there’s not a lot of evidence that it does.  Nice Wonkblog post on how recent prison reductions in NY and NJ have not done anything to increase crime rates, as you might expect if all this incarceration was actually reducing crime:

The Sentencing Project

The sentencing Project

We certainly can’t take these three charts and conclude that reducing prison populations reduces crime. But these trends do make it harder to argue the opposite — particularly in the most heavily incarcerated country in the world. As the Sentencing Project puts it, “in the era of mass incarceration, there is a growing consensus that current levels of incarceration place the nation well past the point of diminishing returns in crime control.”

The militarization of the police

Great New Rules from Bill Maher.  I especially like how Maher points out that it is huge failure of “small government” conservatives to stand up to such egregious abuse of governmental authority.

Criminalizing poor parenting

I kept adding articles about this topic to my pending quick hits list until I decided this just needs it’s own post.  The degree to which state bureaucracies seem to be willing to criminally punish poor parents (i.e., those who cannot always find affordable, reliable child care) while working (or going to college class, etc.) is truly abhorrent.  Not to mention the willingness to totally destroy families all in the name of “best interests of the children.”  Best interests my ass.

First, Radley Balko.  Several disturbing examples you should read, but here’s his conclusions:

You needn’t approve of the parents’ actions in any of these cases to understand that dumping them into the criminal justice system is a terribly counterproductive way of addressing their mistakes. (And I’m not at all convinced that three of the four stories were even mistakes.) The mere fact that state officials were essentially micromanaging these parents’ decisions is creepy enough. That the consequences for the “wrong” decision are criminal is downright scary.

It doesn’t benefit these kids in the least to give their parents a criminal record, smear their parents’ names in their neighborhoods and communities and make it more difficult for their parents to find a job.

Jessica Grose:

Debra Harrell, 46, let her 9-year-old daughter play outside alone at the park. The South Carolina child had a cellphone she could use to call her mother in case of emergency. On the girl’s third day alone at the park, someone asked her where her mother was. The girl said her mom was at work. (Harrell works at McDonald’s and didn’t want her daughter to have to sit inside the restaurant for hours on a beautiful summer day.) The result? Harrell was arrested for “unlawful conduct towards a child” and put in jail; her daughter is now in the custody of the department of social services.

Most commentators—save for a few busybodies interviewed by the local news who nattered on about the possibility of the child being abducted by a strange man, something that’s extremely rarethink that authorities went way too farin arresting Harrell. It angers me, as a citizen, to see the police overreach this way. How is it benefiting this child to be put in the custody of social services? And since I’m a parent, Harrell’s arrest scares me: How can I appropriately parent my child when doing something that seems relatively safe, if out of fashion, can get you arrested?

Connor Friedersdorf (longer excerpt, but spot-on):

The case is disturbing on several levels.

1) Parents ought to enjoy broad latitude in bringing up their children. There are obviously limits. The state ought to intervene if a child is being abused. But letting a 9-year-old go to the park alone doesn’t come close to meeting that threshold. Honestly, it seems a bit young to me, but I don’t know the kid or the neighborhood, it doesn’t sound as though the mother had any great option, and as I didn’t give birth to the kid, support her, and raise her for 9 years, it isn’t my call.

2) By arresting this mom (presumably causing her to lose her job) and putting the child in foster care, the state has caused the child far more trauma than she was ever likely to suffer in the park, whatever one thinks of the decision to leave her there. Even if the state felt it had the right to declare this parenting decision impermissible, couldn’t they have given this woman a simple warning before taking custody?

3) The state’s decision is coming at a time when it is suffering from a shortage of foster families, as well as a child protective services workforce so overwhelmedthat serious child abuse inquiries are regularly closed in violation of policy.

Perhaps most concerning of all are the surfeit of cases where child protective services censures parents for ostensibly jeopardizing a kid’s safety in a manner that is totally disconnected from any statistical realities about the actual dangers faced.

He then links to the excellent comments about what actually endangers children, which I linked to a few weeks ago.

And, finally, he follows up with another disturbing, harrowing story of a 35-year widow who’s children were taken away and subjected to awful experiences in various foster homes because she left her four 10 and under children home while she went to a college class.  And even if you think that is negligent parenting (a reasonable argument, but the full context matters), the idea that the state’s solution to this was actually in the best interests of the woman’s children is completely risible.

This is just all wrong.  Sadly, though, I do think it fits into Balko’s larger theme:

A couple of themes we explore here at The Watch are the increasing criminalization of just about everything and the use of the criminal justice system to address problems that were once (and better) handled by families, friends, communities and other institutions. A few examples from recent headlines show those themes intersecting with parenthood.

This simply needs to change.

Prosecutors want to prosecute

Really good NPR story about how a number of states are looking to overhaul their prison sentencing– especially unduly harsh drug sentencing– but prosecutors and jailers are pushing back.  Why?   First, because for some people, more prisoners equals more jobs and more money for law enforcement– forget considerations of justice and unnecessary human misery:

Liz Mangham, a lobbyist, has represented the conservative sentencing reformers in Baton Rouge. While they’ve made progress, she says they appeared to cross a red line this spring with a bill to step down Louisiana’s stiff penalties for possession of marijuana.

Under current law, possession is a felony on the second offense. A third may get you as much as 20 years in prison. Mangham recalls the scene when the bill came up for a crucial hearing…

“The Judiciary Committee room was full. The anteroom across the hall, which is twice the size, was full, and the halls were full … of [district attorneys] and sheriffs coming down to oppose the bill,” she says.

The bill died on the spot. In Louisiana and other parts of the South, district attorneys and sheriffs — who Mangham calls “the courthouse crowd” — have a lot of political clout at the state level. She says it’s understandable why most sheriffs opposed the bill, because they house state prisoners in parish jails and every prisoner represents a payment from the state.

“So when you’re making money to warehouse prisoners, why on earth would you be in favor of sentencing reform?” Mangham says.

Depressing.  And as for the DA’s, they are opposed because they like to extort/blackmail accused criminals with the harsh sentences:

The vast majority of criminal cases in America are resolved through plea bargains. Defendants plead guilty out of fear of getting a worse sentence if they don’t. Plea bargains jumped above 90 percent in the 1980s and ’90s, in part because a wave of harsh new sentences for drug offenses strengthened prosecutors’ hands when bargaining with defendants.

“For a DA to have the ability to dangle over someone’s head 10, 20 years in jail, that provides them with tremendous leverage to pretty much get whatever they want,” says Louisiana State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans and former public defender.

Morrell was one of the sponsors of the marijuana sentencing reform bill that failed in Baton Rouge. He says one of the benefits of that reform would have been a reduction in the power of prosecutors to, as Louisiana courthouse slang puts it, “bitch” a defendant. A reference to Louisiana’s habitual offender law, it refers to a DA threatening to use past convictions — often for marijuana possession — to multiply the length of a defendant’s potential sentence…

John de Rosier, the district attorney of Calcasieu Parish, La., says “we have people all the time that we know have been involved in robberies, rapes and murders. We haven’t been able to prove our cases, but we’re in court with them for second-offense possession of marijuana. What do you think we’re going to do?”

That’s commonly referred to as “prosecutorial discretion,” and it’s an argument that alarms sentencing reformers like Morrell.

“That level of discretion ought to be terrifying to people,” Morrell says. “If you cannot convict someone of a murder, of a robbery, whatever, the fact that you have a disproportionate backup charge to convict them anyway kind of defeats the purpose of due process.” [emphasis mine]

Morrell gets this exactly right.  Prosecutors don’t get to decide on their own somebody is guilty and they’ll make sure somebody gets way-too-many years in prison for a drug possession charge because they don’t actuallyo have enough evidence for the crime they think the accused is guilty of.  That’s a complete violation of basic standards of justice.

It is great to see conservatives and liberals coming together to reform our absurd sentencing laws when it comes to drugs.  But frustrating to see the attachments to injustice that stand in the way.

Super-Mega Quick hits

Sure, I’m at the beach, but quick hits will not be denied!  (In fact, it’s extra long as a direct result)  There’s a ton, but I didn’t feel like breaking them up this week.  Sorry.  Enjoy…

1) Krugman on conservative delusions about inflation.  It really is pretty amazing how these continue.

2) Challenges universities face from a professor’s point of view.

3) Loved this essay in the Atlantic on how all the mothers in animated movies are dead.  Or at least essentially out of the picture.  A notable exception– The Incredibles, one of the best animated films in the past decade (and a favorite of all the Greene kids and parents).

4) Nice Brenday Nyhan in the Upshot.  When beliefs and facts collide, beliefs win.  Though, not for me and my enlightened and scientifically-minded readers :-).

5) Apparently, this is the year of 42 year old women.  It just so happens I’m married to one.

6) Kristof on just one more sad story of wronful imprisonment.  I’m going to be reading this guy’s book.

7) Three psychological findings I wish I’d known in high school.  Indeed.

8) I so loved classic rock when I was a teenager.  I thought I was much too cool for the rock of the times.  Of course, now that’s “classic rock” too.  538 with a look by the numbers.

9) Nice Economist piece on the myth of the omnipotent presidency and the damage that the myth does.

10) Yahoo Tech presents 15 entertaining novelty twitter accounts.  Some of these really are awesome.

11) Fascinating story on the last days of Diane Rehm’s husband and how we starved/dehydrated himself to death (he had advanced Parkinson’s).

12) Back before youtube there was jibjab.  This land is your land was a revelation.

13) Okay, turns out that whole how to/not to praise children thing really is getting complicated.  Still, I think it is clear that it is a good idea not to over-praise nor praise excessively for innate abilities.

14) Nice Salon piece on how NC”s new Republican-led voter disenfranchisement laws really are the most evil in the country.

15) I was fascinated by this Atlantic piece on how the “crossover” has taken over the new car market.  I had no idea.  Of course, my cars are from 1998 and 2000.  Really interesting on the history of cars versus minivans versus SUV’s, etc.

16) When I first read about the Kentucky State Senator and the temperature on Mars, I figured he couldn’t really be that dumb.  Turns out he’s not.  But still pretty damn stupid.  I’m sorry, Democratic state legislators just don’t come this dumb.

17) Pope Francis, radical environmentalist.

18) There was going to be a Seinfeld episodes about guns, but the cast nixed it when they were already rehearsing.

19) It is just too easy to be declared a suspicious person by the US Government.  With all sorts of bad consequences.

20) How coffee fueled the Civil War.  My sense is that stimulant drugs have fueled soldiers whenever and wherever they have been available.

21) You all know about my love for apples.  Turns out, I’ve really got to get my wife to start eating more.

Race and Criminal (In)Justice in two graphs

Via Vox:

Drug_use_by_race

Us_drug_arrest_rates

Now, there may be a reasonable explanation for some of that gap, and Vox tries.  But there’s just now way you can explain away a gap that large absent institutional racism.

And, of course, there’s plenty of documentation about the historical connection between race and attitudes toward particular illegal drugs.

Better gun policy

Very nice Q&A with a gun policy expert in TNR:  Hits some key points and completely undermines the NRA’s counter-arguments:

Why should we believe guns per se are the problem?  Isn’t it true that guns don’t kill peoplepeople kill people?

Guns are not the sole reason why the U.S. has such unusually high homicide rates, but our lax gun laws may be the most important determinant. Rates of non-lethal violent crime, adolescent fighting, and mental illness in the U.S. are average compared with other high-income countries.  [emphasis mine]

A major, major feature that gun supporters ignore is that most all these illegal guns began is legal guns.  That’s what we need to crackdown on:

OK, so we’ve never really tried to make background checks truly universal. Why should we believe that will work?

When criminals get guns, they get them from friends, family, or from an underground market source. Without universal background check requirements, there is little deterrent to selling guns to criminals or gun traffickers. State laws mandating universal background checks deter the diversion of guns to criminals. The most comprehensive screening and background check processes, where potential gun purchasers apply in person for permits to purchase handguns, are associated with lower homicide and suicide rates.

But won’t there still be a whole bunch of guns out there, being sold illegally and falling into the hands of criminals? 

Yes, some criminals will be able to steal or purchase guns already in circulation. But many of the estimated 300 million guns in civilian hands can’t be easily acquired by criminals. Lots of gun owners lock their guns in safes or have other ways to secure their firearms, practices that can be increased by laws and educational campaigns. And it’s not as easy or risk free for criminals to buy guns in the underground market as is commonly believed. Duke economist Philip Cook has studied Chicago’s underground gun market and said, “there may be a lot of guns, but there is a shortage of trusted sellers.” With greater accountability measures and choking the supply of new guns into the underground market, street prices will rise and fewer dangerous people will have guns.

And, of course, contrary to what the NRA says, this does not really hurt legitimate gun owners:

I’ve heard the NRA say that gun control takes guns away from law-abiding citizens, not criminals. Isn’t that true? Aren’t we better off allowing people to defend themselves with a firearm? 

This is a bogus argument that has worked extremely well for the gun lobby’s fundraising and been instrumental in its success in fending off common-sense gun laws. Requiring a background check of prospective purchasers does not take away guns from law abiding people, nor does close regulation and oversight of gun dealers.

The gun lobby says that background checks will lead to registries of gun ownershipand, eventually, the confiscation of weapons.  But federal law forbids anything resembling a federal gun registry, we’ve had background check requirements for sales by license dealers since 1994 without registries or gun confiscation, and states that do have their own gun registries have never used them to remove guns from law abiding citizens.

Sorry, this is not just some agree to disagree kind of issue.  There’s smart policy on one side versus NRA/gun-nut hysteria on the other.

Quick hits

1) On the fashions of World Cup soccer coaches.

2) New Republic has a new Jonathan Cohn-led policy blog.  I’m looking forward to good stuff.

3) Really wanted to give this own post since I’m always fascinated by IUD policy, but it’s just not happening.  Anyway, good Slate story about an Ohio legislator who wants to ban coverage for IUD’s (while admitting he doesn’t actually know anything about medicine).

4) So, what do those extra thousands for a premium DSLR lens really get you anyway?

5) How Americans pronounce common tech words (I had no idea some people say “wiffy.”)  And it’s .gif with a soft “g” damnit!

6) Sticking with language, love this on words that are most known to only men or only women.  Two thoughts… Paladin!!  and damn, I thought I’d know more of the “women” words.

7) I’ve only remembered to try this with a paper towel once, but it didn’t quite work.  Maybe I need to shake more.

8) Nice NPR story on trying to be a better parent.

9) It’s really kind of pathetic that it has taken this long to have the technology in place to allow planes to have consistently descending glide paths in their landings.  The good news is that it finally is and that it saves a ton of jet fuel.

10) Loved this on the under-performance of top NBA draft picks.  And 538 makes the case that teams should draft college sophomores (I just don’t think freshman year is always a good enough sample size for prediction).

11) Yes, sports heavy week.  Loved this Atlantic piece on the siblings of World Cup players, especially Clint Dempsey’s big brother.

12) The relationship between political attitudes on guns and abortion.  Richard Nixon brings it all together.

13)Science, politics, and NC beaches.  Personally, I just hope Topsail Beach lasts long enough for me to take my grandkids there.

14) Jeffrey Toobin on when the Constitution itself gets it wrong and (again) the folly of Scalia’s originalism.

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