A more beautiful (and fair) beautiful game

As you all know, I love soccer (football, for my international readers).  And I love the World Cup.  But watching so much always reminds me of how frustrating it is.  One horrible rule?  The penalty kick.  It was so nice to see Adam Gopnik (generally an amazing writer on criminal justice issues) make the strong case for modifying this rule:

The more serious objection concerns the ancient and much agonized over matter of the penalty. Every good game has an Achilles heel, something that is just all wrong with it, and the trouble usually comes from some unanticipated hole in the rules, or in the way they’re enforced. Baseball’s is the endless and ever-growing delays that come from ringing pitchers in and out for lefty-righty matchups; basketball’s are those twenty-minute-long final two minutes, with all the dull strategic fouling; my beloved ice hockey’s is the needless violence that, meant to keep the game honest, ends up making it merely brutal. Soccer-football’s is always the same: the tiresome, unresolvable did-he-fall-or-was-he-pushed arguments that take place when a player goes down in the penalty area. The trouble is built into the rules of the sport: if you allow players to foul in front of the goal with minimal punishment, then the optimal strategy is to foul all the time. But, if you offer what amounts to capital punishment, a near certain goal, for a foul, then playing up a mild or debatable push offers a huge advantage, and the player gets rewarded out of all proportion to the offense—which encourages the absurd playacting and diving that disgusts even hardened fans. [emphasis mine]

Watching the games, my teen-age son—who lives and dies with Chelsea and France—suggested that the resolution of this difficulty was, in truth, staggeringly simple: award a penalty only for a foul that removes an authentic chance on goal, and award a direct free kick for all other fouls in the area that don’t. In a flash, you would bring some justice to the area and distinguish between contact meant to do something dastardly and contact that, though a violation of the rules, is merely contact.

Of course, this would make it a “judgment call,” but all such calls are already judgment calls; the new policy would just allow the referee a finer area of discriminating judgment. And, though you would not end the fakery and playacting, you would at least put a small brake on it: no one would really think he could sell a foul and win a goal unless he had had a chance at a goal seriously stolen. The point of the writhing and agonizing is to buy a goal at the price of a ridiculous performance; if you knew that the purchase price included losing a chance to score one, there might be more effort devoted purely to getting the chance to score. (A free kick, after all, is hardly an impotent penalty to offer for a lesser foul.)

The estimable Paul Doyle, of the Guardianmade exactly the same proposal three years ago: “Rather than be lambasted for tweaking the rules to better serve justice, referees should be formally given the right to use their discretion when it comes to fouls in the area, awarding either a direct free-kick or a penalty, depending on how likely it was that a goal scoring chance would have ensued (as well, perhaps, as on the degree of malice).”

Amen!  And since a British writer already made the same argument, its just not ugly Americans who don’t get soccer.  While trying to find the Gopnik piece (which I couldn’t at first remember where I read) I also came across this commentary on the matter which I quite liked:

So let me get this straight:  You play 90 minutes of soccer, average roughly 13 shots a game, accurately strike those shots less than 38% of the time, and put less than 3 of those shots in the net … both teams combined.  But if fouled somewhere in the 18 yard box despite a potentially low percentage chance of scoring, you get a free kick so close to the goal that the goalie is merely left with guessing in an attempt to stop it.

Sound about right?

We’ve all heard the adage, let the punishment fit the crime.  In the case of soccer, their penalty kick is akin to executing someone for lifting a Snickers bar from the Oyster Bay Drug and Sundry…

I understand that a player with a fantastic scoring opportunity cannot be allowed to be chopped down by a tackle, without fear of a severe consequence.  After all, I’ve established that scoring opportunities are few and far between, so everyone should be treated according to its obvious value.  But why not allow some level of subjectivity in regards to individual fouls?  Some may warrant a penalty kick, while others merely a direct kick or some more difficult version of the existing penalty kick…

The penalty kick in soccer would be the equivalent of a hit batsman in baseball being awarded a swing off a tee.  I can see it now; Mike Trout is hit by a Felix Hernandez fastball, and the Los Angeles Angels bring Albert Pujols to the plate for one cut from the tee.

Or the NFL making all pass interference calls, regardless of where they occur on the field, to be placed on the opposition’s 1-yard line.

Or the NBA rewarding a 10-point free throw for a clear path intentional foul.

Those are ludicrous, but so is the penalty kick in soccer.

Yes!!  And driving into work today, I was listening to Colin Cowherd making a point that I’ve thought myself so many times. Basically soccer just needs to clean up dirty play through better officiating– the point being to let the most skilled players actually demonstrate their skill.  That’s what we all came to see– right?  And the way to do that is simple– more than one referee.  Sure there are the assistant referees on the side, but a huge portion of their attention simply goes to the offside call.  The idea that the massive acreage of the soccer field is patrolled by a single official empowered to call most fouls is ludicrous on its face.

Of course, the traditionalists I’m sure have all sorts of complaints for this.  But neither reform would fundamentally change the essence of the game and they would, without a doubt, make the sport more fair, and a more compelling athletic contest.

Using technology for smarter punishment

I was reading and loving Dylan Matthews’ Vox post on why we should be using less prisons and more high-tech location monitoring (GPS, etc.) and thinking that this is basically just what my go-to Criminologist, Mark Kleiman, would have ordered.  Of course, at the end, Matthews’ basically says as much.  Kleiman is all about using research to use our criminal justice resources far more efficiently.  And when you consider that prison space is among our scarcest resources, our current use– in addition to being monstrously inhumane by international standards– is also monstrously inefficient.  It’s a great piece (I think just the sort of thing for which Ezra wanted to create Vox) and you should read it, but basically it comes down to the fact that we should save prison for violent offenders, repeat offenders, and those who violate their location monitoring (i.e., high-tech house arrrest).  Of course, that may not sound punitive enough to you, but as far as smart and efficient use of society’s criminal justice resources, it is surely the way to go:

While the idea of house arrest has been around for millennia, it has always suffered from one key defect as a crime control tool: you can escape. Sure, you could place guards on the homes where prisoners are staying, but it’s much easier to secure a prison with a large guard staff than it is a thousand different houses with a guard or two apiece.

Today, we have something better than guards: satellites. The advent of GPS location tracking means it’s now possible for authorities to be alerted the second a confinee leaves their home. That not just enables swift response in the event of escape; it deters escape by making clear to detainees that they won’t get away with it.

Researchers have tested electronic monitoring as an alternative approach to parole, probation, or other criminal punishments that fall short of imprisonment — and it’s been a huge success. An Urban Institute analysis found that electronic monitoring reduces odds of re-arrest by 23.5 percent relative to traditional probation, and a randomized study in Switzerland found major advantages to electronic monitoring compared to mandated community service…

So, if electronic monitoring can work just as well as prison — and keeps prisoners from being physically and sexually assaulted by guards and other inmates, and saves money, and perhaps even allows some inmates to earn a living while serving time — why not switch?

[rapists and murderers, basically]

But the fact of the matter is that rapists and murderers are a distinct minority of the prison population, at least in the United States. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2011 only 12.6 percent of state prisoners in 2011 were there for murder, 1.5 percent for negligent manslaughter, and 12.4 percent for rape or sexual assault. That’s only 26.5 percent of the overall prison population. The numbers are even starker in federal prisons: only 3.8 percent of prisoners committed any kind of violent crime.

And here’s Matthew’s brief proposed solution:

A solution

So how’s about this. The US should:

1. Move those imprisoned for offenses short of homicide or sexual assault to GPS-supervised house arrest as soon as is practicable, with a guaranteed, immediate prison stay for those who violate its terms.

2. Reserve prisons for repeat offenders and those who’ve committed truly heinous crimes.

There are obviously other details to be worked out. You wouldn’t want people convicted of domestic violence to be sentenced to home confinement with their victims, for instance; in those cases, some kind of alternate housing would have to be offered to ensure separation.

But if successful, this plan could reduce admissions by at least half, probably much more. Hopefully, this will just be a temporary measure. In principle, it could get to the point technologically where house arrest becomes as hard to escape as prison is. At that point, abolishing prison outright starts to become imaginable. UK home secretary David Blunkett spoke too soon when he referred to electronic monitoring as “prison without bars,” but that dream is attainable. As Kleiman once put it, “My view is that if you know where someone is, you don’t have to put them in the cage.”

I’m sure as hell on board.  It’s great to see that there’s more and more places experimenting with punishment through technology, and very importantly, focusing on the swiftness and certainty of the punishment– the true keys to deterrence– rather than the severity.   Technology as a savior is often oversold, but it is quite clear that it could really do wonders to continue to protect the public, punish the guilty, help rehabilitate the guilty, and do it for far less money than we currently spend.  We’ll always need prisons.  But we sure as hell don’t need them for 1 in every 108 Americans or the 1 in 3 black males who will be imprisoned over a lifetime.

Cuban PID

Lots of good stuff from Pew lately that I’ve been remiss in getting to (between World Cup and volunteering to be a group leader at Vacation Bible School it’s been hard to find time this week).  At least wanted a quick post on this Pew report about Cubans shifting towards the Democratic party.  Historically, Cuban immigrants have been very  Republican (largely because of the anti-communism/anti-Castro) thing.  But for younger Cubans– like pretty much everybody else in America who is not white– they are increasingly realizing the Republican party is not for them:

Political Affiliation Among U.S. Cubans

The impact of younger Cubans is reflected in those figures. Over half (56%) of Cubans ages 18 to 49 identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party compared with 39% of those 50 years and older. Conversely, older Cubans tend to identify with or lean toward the Republican Party more than younger Cubans, by 44% to 23%. Even so, the share of older Cubans who are Republican has declined over time. In 2002, among all Cubans, some 68% who were 50 and older said they identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party.


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