Thursday, May 24, 2018

On recidivism, abolitionism, diversion, zoning, and other criminal-justice stories

Here are a few odds and ends that merit Grits readers' attention while mine is focused elsewhere:

Pam Colloff kicks ass
Pam Colloff's journalism pretty much defines excellence. All her stuff these days is (very) long form, so we don't get much of it. But when they come out, they demonstrate that Colloff is at the very top of her game, not to mention her profession. Read her latest from ProPublica/New York Times magazine.

Houston uses zoning to restrict offender services
Empower Texans first raised the alarm about the City of Houston using zoning to reduce access to halfway houses and reentry services within the city limits, and now In Justice Today has followed up with a more detailed explication. Bad form, this. The Legislature should consider eliminating cities' ability to restrict these locations. In the world of NIMBYism vs. public safety, public officials should take safety every time.

Praise ignores TX missteps on overdose policy
The Beaumont Enterprise says Texas is "finally getting it right" regarding opiod overdoses, but that's a dubious claim. The reference is to Attorney General Ken Paxton joining a lawsuit against opiod manufacturers. But Gov. Greg Abbott in 2015 vetoed life saving "Good Samaritan" legislation that would have encouraged people to call 911 when someone overdoses by protecting them against criminal charges. Moreover, the main thing needed to combat addiction is treatment, and the state's stalwart refusal to expand the Medicaid program has done more harm to addicts than any civil suit will protect them. That's giving General Paxton and other Texas state officials way too much credit.

McSpadden removed from capital case because of idiotic race comments
Grits criticized Judge Michael McSpadden's comments about defendants receiving advice from Black Lives Matter the day after they the first appeared in the press, and now his reactionary views have gotten him removed from a death penalty case to avoid the appearance of bias. Serves him right.

Bite me, Daubert
Bite mark evidence is junk science, but it's still being admitted as evidence in American courtrooms.

Most returning prisoners can't avoid arrest
A new Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis of recidivism data from 30 states found that, 83 percent of offender released in 2005 were arrested at least once over the next nine years. Of the 44 percent arrested "during the first year following release, nearly 9 in 10 (89%) were arrested again during the next 8 years." Fewer than one in five made it nine years without being arrested again. That said, one can be arrested for anything - in Texas, police can arrest motorists for Class C misdemeanor traffic offenses. So it'd be more helpful if the report included a) data on convictions and reincarceration and b) breakouts by offense type. What little we get of the latter indicates that only a fraction of arrests were for serious violent crimes.

Prosecutor elections the newest site for reform work
This Marshall Project story is correct that, in a very short period of time, prosecutor elections have become an important, contested site from criminal-justice reformers. Even when reform advocates lose - as happened in the Dallas Democratic primary - their participation shifts the conversation more squarely on reform topics that otherwise get little attention.

Considering abolitionism
Grits has never completely rejected the positions of prison abolitionists so much as I have avoided them - to me, we're a long way from when that conversation is ripe, certainly here in Texas. In a world where Lone-Star-State reformers have tried and failed for more than a decade just to reduce drug-possession penalties from a felony to a misdemeanor, such theoretical suggestions that we incarcerate no one have to me seemed premature. Why discuss whether people who commit violence should be incarcerated when the Legislature remains unconvinced that drug addicts shouldn't be caged? We struggle to win the "fewer prisons" argument, much less the "no prisons" argument. A couple of recent editorial offerings, however, at the Guardian and the Washington Post, challenge us to begin thinking with a post-prison mentality now. From the Post, "In the United States, 70 percent of our criminal sanctions consist of incarceration. That’s why it’s all we can think of. But a world that operates without an extensive reliance on prison is not a utopia; it is only a plane ride away. In Germany, incarceration is used for 6 percent of sanctions; in the Netherlands, it’s 10 percent, according to a 2013 Vera Institute report comparing our criminal-justice system with theirs."

Say it ain't so!
This new academic article on asset forfeiture suggests that, "Law enforcement agencies may be targeting the crimes that present the opportunity to raise revenue for their departments rather than the most serious public safety threats."

Evaluating prosecutor diversion programs
Here's one for the reading pile: A NIJ analysis of prosecutor-led diversion programs.


Anonymous said...

re: Bite me, Daubert

Does it seem believable that in the early 1980s that not a single scientist spoke out about the unscientific and invalid science behind bite mark analysis? Where was the opposition? How is it that it took more than 20 years before any kind of proper vetting was done? Where were the scientists that knew is was a sham? No doubt...fired, ostracized, blacklisted.

I mean, I realize that Defense Attorneys and Prosecutors are dumb, but is there no accountability for being dumb?

If I sold an elixir as a "cure-all" to someone, and that someone dies because they ingested it, am I not accountable for their death?

But...Hey, I was told before I sold it that it was a "cure all" and had no ill side effects, let alone capable of killing someone. So my actions are defensible. Whoever gave me the information should be blamed! I'm not accountable. It's not my fault (even though I got paid for delivering false unscientific testimony.)

It's time for forensic experts to "tell the WHOLE truth" and not just the parts that get them paid. The unflattering parts also better be disclosed. You better be ready to testify to the extraordinarily high error rates.

They should each also be insured, like doctors -- malpractice insurance. They want to testify, they better be insured. Because you will get sued for your stupidity.

xenonman said...

The polygraph is also a tool of junk science. Yet, it continues to be used routinely by law enforcement on suspects, those on probation/parole, and those on sex offender registries

Anonymous said...

Grits did a post on Leonard vs Texas which circuitously made polygraphs admissible where a therapist makes a subjective judgement to discharge a client for failing polygraphs because in his industry polygraph testing is a regularly used tool.

Daubert doesn't seem to apply to a Therapists gut feeling

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...


As a lab analyst in a crime lab, if you wanted to maintain a career, you had to believe what you were told by your Superiors...even if it was unsubstantiated garbage. If you were told that the accreditation auditors had seen the protocols and okeyed them, that is what you would have to testify to...even though you knew the auditor had not vetted the protocols. The crime lab was "accredited" and that is all the jury needed to know. To sustain employment, you had to pass along b.s. as if it were credible and as if the science was validated.

Many scientists knew (know) that the forensic "science" they peddle is next to worthless, but they have to make a buck somehow.

Anonymous said...

@7:32 -

What an odd comment. It doesn't sound like you have much experience either in working in a forensic laboratory, or in testifying to work performed by a forensic laboratory.

Anonymous said...

@7:32 anon--

8:56 here.

I do have experience working in a crime lab. Do you want to know how many times my scientific questions have been addressed as "we're accredited, so your concerns are unwarranted"?

Have you ever witnessed a lab analyst testify on behalf of an absent analyst and declare that lab protocols were followed by the absentee when you know they were not? How does the testifying witness know lab protocols were followed? How is it proved?

Have you ever read an audit report? Have you ever wondered why a systemic lab violation in an audit report wasn't discovered or reported years earlier?

Have you ever seen a lab analyst disregard basic safety practices because they saw the Supervisor disregarding basic safety practices? Monkey See, Monkey Do.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission has in the past couple of years (finally) addressed the inadequacies of lab accreditation. But the joke is on you (and the public) because accreditation in crime labs has been a farce since conception, and the crime lab commissioners knew this but didn't want to acknowledge it.

You couldn't possibly know the WHOLE truth without being there.

Anonymous said...

@4:09 -

I have observed forensic scientists from all different areas testify on many, many occasions over the years. I would say that even the greenest - those with experience barely beyond successfully completing a training program - exhibit more depth of knowledge about accreditation and laboratory practices than you do in your comments. Which is why I have inferred that your level of experience in these matters must be very limited, indeed. By the fact that you avoided contradicting my inference - by stating your years of experience, or the number of times you have testified, or the areas in which you testified - I am taking that to mean that I am correct in my inference.