The arbitrariness of the death penalty

Not only does the death penalty vary dramatically between states, even within states there is huge variance– quite often depending upon how bloodthirsty the local prosecutor is.  For example, I always tell my classes about Harris County, Texas (Houston) which typically executes more people than any other state.  Nice article in Slate looking at how much difference the particular prosecutor makes (along with plenty of disturbing examples of over-willingness to use the death penalty).  Love this summary:

What distinguishes these counties from neighbors that have mostly abolished the death penalty, in fact if not in law? Perhaps the biggest factor is the presence of a handful of disproportionately deadly prosecutors who represent the last, desperate gasps of a deeply flawed punishment regime. Most of their colleagues are wisely turning away from a practice that has revealed itself to be ineffective at deterring crime, obscenely expensive, inequitably administered, and not infrequently imposed upon the innocent. But America’s deadliest prosecutors continue to pursue death sentences with abandon, mitigating circumstances and flaws in the system be damned.

And here’s some nice examples:

Cox is one of them. Jeannette Gallagher of Maricopa County, Arizona, is another. She and two colleagues are responsible for more than one-third of the capital cases—20 of 59—that the Arizona Supreme Court reviewed statewide between 2007 and 2013. Gallagher recently sent a 19-year-old with depression to death row even though he had tried to commit suicide the day before the murder, sought treatment, and was turned away. She also obtained a death sentence against a 21-year-old man with a low IQ who was sexually abused as a child, addicted to drugs and alcohol from a young age, and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She then sent a U.S. military veteran with paranoid schizophrenia to death row. Her response to these harrowing mitigating circumstances has not been to exercise restraint, but rather to accuse each of these defendants of simply faking his symptoms. The Arizona Supreme Court has found misconduct in three of her cases, labeling her behavior as “inappropriate,” “very troubling,” and “entirely unprofessional.”

It’s bad enough that when it comes to executing people are peer nations are Saudi Arabia and Yemen, but the worst part is just how flawed and arbitrary our system of executions (like the rest of American criminal justice) can be.

Opportunity is not zero sum

I’m pretty sure I at least included a link in quick hits to the really important new research on the impact of neighborhood on the economic opportunity/mobility for poor kids.  Here’s a nice summary.  Wonkblog’s Emily Badger makes the very important point that having more poor kids in their neighborhood does not negatively impact the rich kids.  Honestly, lived experience suggests you wouldn’t think so, but this is a really important point politically as a lot of people are clearly afraid that having more poor people around will be bad for them and their kids.

I especially like that Badger uses Fairfax County, VA (where I was born and raised, in Springfield, to be precise), as an example of a county that gets this right:

We also now know that poor children might have better odds if they moved — especially at a young age — to places with more economic mobility (Fairfax County, Va.; Bergen County, N.J.; Seattle)…

A boy from wealthy parents (who earn in the 75th percentile nationally) is also much better off growing up in Fairfax County than if he grew up somewhere in average America. If he spends his entire childhood there, Chetty and Hendren estimate, he stands to earn nearly 17 percent more at age 26 than he would had he grown up in, say, Warren County, Kentucky.

Effectively, Fairfax County is a good place to grow up for both rich and poor kids.[emphases mine]  And this is an important, little-noticed takeaway in this big study with a lot of other bold-faced findings.

“Places that generate better outcomes for kids in low-income families do not on average generate worse outcomes for kids in high-income families,” Chetty says.

This matters because it suggests that helping poor kids won’t harm rich kids. And one common obstacle to anti-poverty programs is the fear that it will. We often worry that high-achieving children will be worse off if we put struggling, lower-income kids in their classrooms. We worry that good schools can’t survive greater racial and economic diversity. We fret that “nice” neighborhoods won’t be all that nice any more if they have poor families living there, too.

This fear treats opportunity as zero-sum — if we try to create more of it for poor kids, we have to yank some away from wealthier ones.

This is good news indeed.  Of course, as someone who until quite recently co-owned two homes (inheritance) in Fairfax County, I can say it is not the easiest place for poor people to afford to live.  But if they can they should.  And we need to figure out what policies help make this happen that are holding back poor kids in other places.

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