Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What proportion of young people gets arrested?, or, 'We are the 41%'

There are some false memes in the criminal justice system about which even those who work in the field have serious misconceptions, often fundamentally misunderstanding the reality of the system they work in because of professional myopia.

A great example may be found in the recent writings of former Harris County prosecutor turned defense attorney and blogger, Murray Newman, who has a lengthy post up complaining that people who never have contact with the criminal justice system still get to vote and thus give us elected officials like his nemesis Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos, etc., etc.; if you read Murray's blog it's all familiar territory, and this post isn't meant to defend or criticize Lykos (or Murray, for that matter). But Grits feels compelled to dispute a central premise around which much of the rhetoric in that essay revolves: Writes Newman, "Let's face it, as a wise Homicide Investigator once told me, we deal with probably less than 5% of the population (if that much). The President, the Governor, or the Legislature can enact laws that affect us all, yet most citizens' involvement with the criminal justice system comes from jury duty."

Following that theme, Murray spends much of the rest of the post discussing the differing perspectives of "the 5%" and "the 95%," playing off of the Occupy Wall Street movement's "We are the 99%" meme. The "95%," in Murray's worldview, are the average citizens who never come into contact with the justice system except for jury duty. Let's leave aside the oddity of the premise that the criminals referenced by Murray's Homicide Investigator friend are more likely to have an informed opinion about who would make a good DA than Republican politicos or people who sit on jury duty. Instead, let's take a closer look at that 95% number.

There's a sense in which it's formally accurate: At any given time, about 4% of adult Texans (1 in 25, or around 3/4 million) are under direct supervision of the justice system, either in prison, jail, on probation, or on parole, according to the most recent data. But more people are charged than convicted, and many more are arrested than charged. So in a broader sense, a lot more people than that 4% have brushes with the justice system, particularly early in life. However, even Grits was surprised to see a recent study published estimating that "between 30.2% and 41.4%" of youth will be arrested before they're 23 years old (excluding arrests for minor traffic violations). That's up from 22% of the population in a cohort studied in the '60s. So it's never been 5%, but today the figure is higher than ever.

In the future, then, will the politics of criminal justice change with generational demographics? Murray's dreamworld where bad guys who break the law are just 5% of the public and "the 95%" need never really think about the justice system was never more than wishful thinking. But for a generation among whom a third or more will face arrest and prosecution, it's an almost absurdist contention.

All this to say, as today's generation of youth ages, a greater number of adults than ever will have been arrested on charges they consider either reasonable or unfair, humiliated or treated respectfully through a jail booking, faced a prosecutor who was either fair, unreasonable or somewhere on the spectrum in between, sought an attorney and found (or been assigned) a good or a bad one, and have memories of the whole experience burned into their souls. Are such folks the system's frequent flyers? No. Do they remember the cold smell of jail, the behavior of police and jailers, the treatment of other inmates, hours waiting in a cell or "on the bench," the anxiety about the strength of friendships or family ties as they waited to be bailed out? Probably, yes. That means that many aspects of the criminal justice system are not, in fact, merely theoretical for a substantial block of voters. It's a disorganized and relatively unconsidered constituency, in political circles, at least, but it's not a small one.

Are such memories front and center when people head to the polls to vote for a new DA? Perhaps not, because that's not how these races are run. Candidates in contested campaigns for judge, DA or Sheriff typically tell people to vote based on fear of some dangerous "other" (killers, sex offenders, drunk drivers, etc.). Candidates from both parties routinely ignore (or like Murray, are in denial about) the common experiences of the justice system by a legion of less serious offenders, so questions about how the average person might want to be treated never come up. The terms of mainstream political debate just won't allow it for fear of being labeled "soft on crime."

It's not inevitable, though, that that will be the case forever. Part of the change brought about by the innocence movement - and cases like the Michael Morton exoneration in Williamson County - has been that DAs and the tuff-on-crime crowd can no longer ignore the fact that the system's biggest errors are now well known to most voters, who can suddenly identify with the possibility such mistakes could happen to them or their loved ones. Similarly, the dynamics of courthouse politics may subtly but significantly shift over the years if a large proportion of today's youth grow up with personal experience as criminal defendants and, in some cases, as much empathy for people caught up in the justice system as respectful awe of prosecutors of police.

Murray's right that a majority of voters in the April GOP primary won't know much about criminal justice beyond the scope of an occasional round of jury duty or the flotsam they see on the nightly news. But he overestimates the extent to which those caught up in the justice system represent a tiny, marginal class. It's not such a small group, these days, just an incoherent one.


Anonymous said...

Question is how many of the 41% vote or are informed about political races? Guessing in that 41% many can't vote.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:27, In Texas, you are only excluded from voting a) after conviction of a felony and b) until the sentence is complete. Then they're eligible to vote again. Most of the 41% don't reach conviction, or have already served their sentence - it's the 4% currently under supervision (or more precisely, most but not all of that group) that's disenfranchised and who cannot vote.

Sam said...

I believe the less than 5% comes from an annual count. Since you're counting a 13 year period the percentage of arrestees increases. I also believe the percentage of arrested persons probably don't view the criminal justice system any diffently than their counterparts who were never arrested.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sam, I acknowledged that's close to the number under supervision at any given time, but counting everyone arrested, it's still more than 5%, even annually.

Moreover, I don't know why you suppose people who've had personal experience with the justice system wouldn't have more informed views than those who didn't. Don't you tend to know more about things you've had personal involvement with than things you've never experienced?

Anonymous said...

I believe that 41% number will only increase. The Texas Legislature and municipal law makers seem determined to criminalize every human behavior and empower/require law enforcement to act on such. As important as issues such as parking, smoking in certain places, operating without a seatbelt, texting/talking while driving, jaywalking, disrupting class, etc are, they should not be arrestable offenses and come with such exorbitant fines. At this rate the adults that have not had intimate dealings with the justice system will be the minority

Anonymous said...

What percentage of Texans are victims? I wonder if they might have a slightly different perspective on the efficiencies (or lack thereof) of the criminal justice system and the qualifications and policies of those who are elected.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Perhaps, 1:01, but according to crime victimization surveys, the number of victims has declined over recent years. E.g., "The rate of total violent crime victimizations declined by 13% in 2010, which was about three times the average annual decrease observed from 2001 through 2009 (4%)." Meanwhile, arrests and incarceration continue to rise.

It's also worth adding that the biggest growth sector in arrests in the last few decades, as evidenced in this chart from the Wall Street Journal, comes from drug possession, which is a crime with no immediate victim. That said, to directly answer your question, I know of no comparable cumulative number for crime victims beyond the federal surveys linked above.

An important thing to mention, though, is that there's a lot of crossover between the category of offender and victim. The victim of domestic violence tonight may be tomorrow's shoplifter, drunk driver, etc.. So we're not necessarily talking about separate categories of people, as you portray them. The world is not black and white; life is more complicated than that.

Jefe said...

While I think Murray's percentage was artificial, he probably meant something different than the number of folks touched by the criminal justice system. (That number is higher than yours, because the families of those arrested were also affected.) I think Murray was talking about an elite - those who understand technical issues like the reduction in jail population caused by refusing to prosecute trace drug cases, or the effect of morale upon prosecutors by inflexible employers. These things are probably only on the radar of five percent of voters. However, I disagree with him (and suspect you do also) that this makes their voting choices uneducated.

Sheldon tyc#47333 said...

This is an interesting article Grits and something I’ve been contemplating for a while. For example, how could a guy like Craig Watkins with all the negative publicity prior to the election get re-elected. I proposed to several of my JD buddies it’s because there are enough people who can vote that have experienced the Texas criminal justice system. On the other hand, perhaps there just weren’t enough closed minded old white men to vote for the other guy. Either way Watkins record with Innocents project type work won him the election and his issues with the status quo was a mute point.

The numbers of citizens in this state who are fed up with decades of the white moral minority inflecting its bull shit criminal justice system on the citizens of Texas in the name of a fictitious drug war may be taking its toll. The last presidential election rounded up tons of disenfranchised voters. I would postulate that over the next decade the John Bradley’s of this world are finished in Texas politics. Especially in the more educated civilized county’s of Texas.

Don’t take me wrong, I believe in the need for a criminal justice system, otherwise we humans would eat one another alive. I just don’t believe we should be subjugated to the bull shit one we have allowed our old crony legislators to build over the last few decades. A bull shit criminal justice system that’s more about targeting citizens than protecting their rights. Good Investigators, fair DA’s, and use of a humane control model for both adult and juvenile penitentiary’s will save us billions.

On the other hand some say our bull shit criminal justice system is going to get worse. There is simply too much money to be made by the white moral minority incarcerating citizens in the land of the free and home of the brave. Some will point out how easy it was for our legislators to divert funding from education to pay for incarceration, the public school to prison pipeline, and how parole is nothing more than a setup for a person to fail upon release. I hope this is not the case, but following the money trail is scary evidence to such claims. Like my ancestors would say, always have enough jewelry to bribe the border guards in case the government decides to round up and exterminate its citizens.

I will be flying an old bandana in support of the good citizens of Williamson county in their fight against judicial impurities.

Sam said...

I looked at the latest referral numbers on the TJPC web site and the annual juvenile referral rate is about 2.5%. That is pretty close to all the kids arrested in Texas in one year. Maybe if you added first time offenders who are kept by local P.D.'s you could bump it up a bit. People don't need to get confused thinking 41% of our young people are arrested each year.

As far as your comments, Grits, on knowledge of the Criminal Justice System. I believe you are conflating that with our sense of justice. I assume that is very similiar across the board. You certainly aren't arguing that arrested people have a more refined sense of justice than non-arrested?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sam, that was Murray's contention on knowledge of the justice system; in the post I said I'd "leave aside" the unlikely and controversial assumptions that you raise, and will do so again here. It's a view I did not express and which is tangential to my point.

Also, nowhere did I say those arrested have "a more refined sense of justice," only that everyone carries their life experiences with them, including into the ballot box, good and bad.

Finally, nobody claimed 41% would be arrested in a year, so you're debating a complete straw man on that front. We're looking at the question of whether it's true that no more than 5% of the voting public has had greater involvement in the justice system than serving jury duty, which was Murray's contention. I believe, and these data to me confirm, that many people's experiences are more diverse, negative, and personal than that.

Anonymous said...

First let me say I have worked in criminal justice for nearly 20 years.

I DO NOT think every person (or even MOST people) who get arrested are horrible, evil people. Some of of them are people who were hurt early in life, didn't have good examples, find themselves in a difficult situation, suffer from mental illness, or have substance abuse issues (or multiple issues).

Some of them ARE evil and should never see the light of day.

I never forget the power that we have. It is huge - and if we stop respecting that, we should really get another job.

I also am a mother of three boys and grew up with five brothers.

I know what stupid, impulsive decisions teen boys can make. The difference - when I was a kid, they just got in trouble with the school or their parents. NOW, they get arrested.

I believe the 41%. I have personally known several kids who have been arrested - children of good friends - families who live in middle class neighborhoods and people you would probably like. Their parents were all horrified and the kids were traumatized. I found myself asking if that was necessary - and these are for things my own brothers did "back in the day."

Shame doesn't change behavior. Shame makes it worse. Many people are shamed when they are arrested (either by family members, friends, co-workers, or by personnel in our system).

That won't help them make their lives better.

I do my job because I want to help people. Even if I am part of the prosecution of a defendant, I hope that she or he gets some way to change their lives.

And - I have worked with many, many victims who also have criminal records. Difficult to separate sometimes.

Anonymous said...

"People caught up in the justice system." They didn't do anything, the system just caught them up.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:21, let's take DWI, for example. Only 44% of those arrested were convicted in 2009. When a majority of people charged with a crime can't be convicted for lack of proof, there are indeed many people "caught up" in the justice system who "didn't do anything." Many, many arrests don't lead to convictions. You may believe they were all guilty anyway, but that's an emotional assessment, not a rational one.

Anonymous said...

To me, it seems that given we have so few homicides, the detective was probably correct; he deals with a small portion of the public. Murray's assertion from there is not so far removed either since as a prosecutor and now a defense attorney, he probably wouldn't deal with any of the small offenses (class C) that almost assuredly cover the majority of the study's cases.

Since juvenile records are sealed when someone becomes an adult, it should have no impact on jobs, voting, or other matters; an applicant for a job need not disclose the information (and the applications I've seen exclude offenses under 18; a friend's son filling them out just the other day).

I doubt those that "didn't do anything" so often find themselves in police custody. I'm sure it's true some of the time but using DWI's as an example, a dismissed case doesn't say any such thing. It says there were technical faults with the case, be it a faulty reading, a cop on vacation unable to testify, a missing videotape, or all kinds of things where the prosecutor felt they shouldn't waste resources moving forward. While the person is innocent unless convicted, it doesn't mean they were not part of the problem (driving poorly, smelling of booze, crashing into a guard rail without anyone to witness it, etc) so saying they all "didn't do anything" yet found themselves in trouble is questionable no matter how possible.