Tuesday, June 14, 2016

On the limits of Politifact, crime wave hype, police pension politics, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends which merit Grits readers attention even if they haven't made it into independent posts:

Fact: Harris County a major driver of mass incarceration
Grits can't stand Politifact. As I've often said, the only labels they apply which have any validity are "True" or "Pants on Fire." Anything in between is a judgment call that they generally get wrong, usually thanks to a level of pedantry that contributes scarce little to real-world discussions. Take, for example, their fact check, "Sen. Ellis overstates county's incarceration rate." In essence, they're so busy fact checking they ignore the truth. Ellis accused Harris County of "having one of the highest jailing and incarceration rates in the United States and the world," comparing Harris to other large urban jurisdictions. Politifact found that "false" because Harris ranked only 138 among Texas counties for local incarceration rates in the county jail. But comparing Harris to essentially empty, rural jurisdictions like Kenedy County, as writer Fauzeya Rahman ridiculously does in the article, hardly withstands the laugh-test. Grits replied thusly in the comments: "Texas is the global epicenter of mass incarceration. The US has most prisoners of any nation, TX has most of any state, and Harris Co. is the biggest driver, by far, of state incarceration trends. Comparing [Harris] to Kenedy Co. is a silly red herring. It's only meaningful to compare them to the big ones, as [Ellis staffer David] Edmonson said quite forthrightly in his original email. Nitpick all you want, but as a practical matter, Ellis was right and this column was pretty worthless."

Ed. note: Not long after I posted this, Politifact took the post down. Maybe they're reconsidering their conclusion.

Williamson County picks crappy DAs
Williamson County leaders are suing to oust District Attorney Jana Duty before she formally leaves office next January. I understand they're upset, but they weren't even that anxious to run John Bradley out of town. They already beat her in the election; she's on her way out. I'm not sure I see the strategic benefit of this particular ploy compared to waiting till the end of the year for her to be gone. The new guy has a big job in front of him to restore credibility to the office. Its reputation and legacy has been pretty awful for quite a long time now.

County confronts overincarceration costs
Wichita County is choosing to renovate its aging jail facilities instead of build new ones, and may hire a consulting firm to assess the situation. but nobody yet locally is talking about addressing the underlying problem: Excessive pretrial detention and an above-average incarceration rate compared to the rest of the state.

Crime wave hype subsiding as data rolls in
Is anyone surprised that the hype over a violent crime wave in Dallas is already subsiding? Looking at a tiny sliver of data, the Dallas News (shilling for local police unions) blasted DPD Chief David Brown earlier this year for a supposed 75% spike in murders. Now that more data is in, the year-to-date number is 40% more than 2015, but there's a decent chance by the end of the year any increase will appear relatively modest, in the scheme of things. The truth is that crime has declined so low that any increase may appear large. In fact, increases will always sound larger than declines. E.g., if murders declined from 300 to 100 in a year, that'd be a 66% decrease. If the next year they bumped back up to 300, that'd be a 200% increase, even though the delta both years was the same. That's what's happening in Dallas. Crime is so low, and has been declining for so long, that reporters apparently have no context to provide for even a modest upward blip, which until much more time passes is the only valid way one can describe the News' supposed "violent crime wave" in Dallas.

Pay attention to police pensions
Grits has not paid enough attention over the years to police pension issues, but they're a mess. Lisa Falkenbeg offered telling commentary on the situation in Houston. Eventually, they're going to have to move from defined benefit plans to defined contribution like nearly everyone else in America, and when they do the unions are going to throw an epic hissy fit. CORRECTION: A commenter points out Falkenberg was talking about municpal pensions, not police. Grits regrets the error.

Metadata and the third-party doctrine
Flagging this academic paper on metadata and the third-party doctrine for my own reading later. Need to bone up before taking another stab in 2017 at convincing to get the Lege to require a warrant for cell-phone location data.

The conservative case for federal sentencing reform
Federal sentencing reform appears increasingly unlikely this year, but here's the conservative case for going ahead and pushing it through.


Anonymous said...

Crime wave hype? Let's all continue to deny all those people being murdered in Chicago.

marc said...

Grits, I hate to tell ya, but that Falkenberg piece is about the Houston Municipal pension, not the police or firefighter pension funds. That fund is the worst run of the three and was chronically underfunded, even in the years prior to 2008.

Anonymous said...

Kind of funny reading about over-incarceration and seeing Grits comment "crime has been declining for so long" in the same post. :)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@7:29, Dallas ain't Chicago by a long shot.

Thanks Marc.

@ 5:22, don't know what you think is funny. You think we need to lock up the same number of people every year as we did when crime was four times as high?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, you're probably right, Grits. There's no logic to the idea that low crime rates might have anything to do with all the bad people already being locked up. Nah...So we can probably stop being vigilant for a decade or two and go back to all of those "touchy feely" correctional and criminological ideas regarding "rehabilitation" and "understanding criminals" that were so prevalent in the 70's, 80's and 90's when crime rates were so low before... Wait?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's a compelling logic if you never scratch below the surface, 12:48. But in the real world, people don't stay in prison forever. In fact, we now release FAR more people from prison every year (>70k annually in Texas) than were locked up en toto 25 years ago (~40k in 1990).

This issue has been studied to death. Increased incarceration accounted for a quarter to a third of crime decline in the '90s, with those benefits reduced in the aughts from diminishing returns. At this point, some of those same researchers think incarcerating ever-more low-risk offenders is actually criminogenic (i.e., it causes more crime). And in the medium to long run, it harms the economy by reducing earning potential.

Only you suggested we stop being vigilant. Nor do I find it necessary to better "understand criminals" to set policy. What's more important is to understand the vested interests of the bureaucracy and its self-sustaining priorities. So when in the aughts crime declined, arrests remained stagnant, but convictions continued to rise, for example, we understand that prosecutors were changing policies in ways they considered to their benefit in order to seek more convictions per arrest for lower-level offenses. That helped keep the prisons full, but those aren't the defendants people are afraid of and there are many low-risk, parole eligible inmates who would pose little risk if released.

The prison population could be quite a bit smaller than it is without any negative impact on public safety.

Anonymous said...

Grits, all three Houston city pensions have trouble because the city has not made the needed payments in most of the last 20 years. Changing to a defined contribution model would not save them if the city continued to under fund them as well. It isn't the type of pension that causes the problem, it is the lack of willingness to fund them properly but consider that almost all municipalities have defined benefit pensions and those properly funded do just fine. Major cuts in such compensation could easily lead to further lowering in qualifications that lead to the kind of abuses you document so well.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"isn't the type of pension that causes the problem, it is the lack of willingness to fund "

These are related. Defined contribution is less expensive than defined benefits. Everybody else in the economy went to 401ks, and that's the best fix for police pensions, too.

ZB said...

Re: police pensions. Your bias is showing. Are defined contributions better for everyone, or just police officers? In fact, 401k's were originally intended to supplement retirement benefits, not replace them. Arguing to replace pensions with 401's is a Republican "solution" that goes along with privatizing social security. This solves two major Republican "problems": one, it reduces taxpayer contributions to retirement plans, thereby cutting public budgets and cutting taxes, and two, it moves money out of the hands of public fund managers, which apparently doesn't line Republican pockets enough, and into the hands of the financial products sector - which, unsurprisingly, is currently fighting the effort to be regulated as fiduciaries. Eliminating public-sector pensions in the name of "reform" is essentially a Republic tactic to hurt public-sector unions (which tend to support Democrats) whose ultimate effect is to continue to hollow out the middle class. Now, police officers in particular tend to vote more Republican than other unions, and thus they've been last on the chopping block. But have no doubt, they're still coming for them.

There are a number of underfunded pension systems in the country, but the funding problems vary as to cause; poor short-run market performance being one significant cause - of course Republicans argue to throw the baby out with the bathwater in order to "balance budgets" and save "taxpayers." In the meantime, the rest of the middle class, stripped of pension benefits, labors to squirrel away enough money to "retire" some day.

While Houston's municipal pension does need adjustments, pensions like police and fire are actually in pretty good shape - the police pension is funded to the tune of 80%, fire about 90% Were the city to catch up on $700M in deferred payments, it would be to the tune of 90%. The police pension board agreed to broad concessions back in 2004/2005 to raise contribution rates and reduce benefits. Unfortunately, it also agreed to allow the City to continue to defer payments, which only increased the city's debt burden. The fire pension refused to accept deferrals, and what do you know, is in terrific shape; of course, the city fathers can't stand it and continue to sue every which way in order to try to gain some leverage. Fire could stand to make some common-sense reforms (eliminating spiking by not counting overtime in the final figure), but they're still in the best condition of all three pensions - and that's before any "reform" has taken place.

I presume that your axe-grinding has to do with not being able to stand cops, so anything that's bad for cops must be good for you and vice-versa. But you might want to take a minute to pause and thoughtfully consider what the privatization of Americans' retirement plans and planning has wrought. The solution to the hollowing out of the middle class isn't to cut anyone else down in some kind of exercise in "equaling." The solution is to figure out ways to raise people back up - perhaps by creating a private, portable pension system (akin to what the Dutch have).

Anonymous said...

Private pensions are so well off that the federal pension guarantee fund they pay into is scheduled to become broke per recent news articles, everyone admitting it for years. So no, defined benefit versus defined contribution makes no difference if the organization is unwilling to pay the yearly ARC as defined by contracts. The belief that 401k's were a safer bet is shallow thinking since there is nothing forcing a city, county, or state to make the payments for them any more than for the traditional kind of pension, many of the best companies certainly still offering a defined benefit over contribution even now. For the record, the cost of the plan is based on the level of benefits, not the type, the problem most Houston municipal employees having is that employees do not contribute anything for their lower benefit, their system more of a supplement to the social security they were allowed to keep when fire and police were removed from the federal program.

And ZB, keep in mind that while I largely agree with many of your points, HFD's form of "spiking" based on overtime is really not what most believe the term means. A fireman working a 40 year career will pay a significant amount of every overtime dollar he makes for that entire time, only receiving a pension boost based on three years worth of contributions. To qualify as spiking, it would have to be a much shorter time frame for the benefit to accumulate, such as their police buddies had put in place for a couple of years, not paying on the rest of their career for the boost. If averaged out, that portion of their pension would not be a big factor, even their modified DROP increased after the other two city pensions were drastically cut. Scott and friends want better police but are unwilling to pay the going rate for them, let us see how additional cuts work in coming years when all the other cities across the country are paying better.