Thursday, July 26, 2018

Two persistent myths that hinder #cjreform

After talking to hundreds of GOP delegates at Just Liberty's table at their state convention in San Antonio last month, Grits noticed two incredibly common misconceptions demonstrating the public is unaware of some very basic facts about the justice system.
  1. People think crime rates are high and increasing when in fact they're low and getting lower.
  2. People do not know and in some cases refuse to believe that most inmates in county jails are pretrial defendants who've not yet been convicted, as the Texas Oberver recently reported. Rather, most people imagine jails are used to punish people after they're convicted.
The Observer headline said 3 out of 4 county-jail inmates is being held pretrial. As of July 1, the percentage of pretrial defendants out of local jail populations was actually 71.4 percent, according to the Commission on Jail Standards, so that's in the ballpark.

The same data show that, contrary to popular belief, county jails aren't really used much at all for formal punishment: Only about six percent of county jail inmates on July 1st were serving out punishments for crimes in the jail (i.e., people convicted of misdemeanors and/or felonies and sentenced to county jail time). Another 10 percent or so were convicted felons waiting for transfer to the state prison system.

Grits has theories about why the public has failed to understand the amazing crime decline witnessed over the last quarter century. I believe the media barrage about violent crimes from all over the country in the modern social-media era gives an impression that terrible murders and rapes are becoming more common, when in fact, for any given person, they're less likely than ever to be victimized by crime. They're just more likely to read about crimes from somewhere else. (MORE: A commenter pointed to this story about problems with and limits of MSM crime reporting.)

I'm not sure what explains the misunderstanding about what jails are used for - maybe it's a function of how the justice system is taught in school, or of law-enforcement rhetoric (and/or lazy reporting) that conflates arrest with punishment and accusations with guilt. Or maybe it's just that facts on the ground changed. A quarter century ago, pretrial defendants made up just a third of county jail populations.

Regardless, what we found tabling at the GOP convention was that, when people understood who is actually in county jails - people accused but not convicted who are still "presumed innocent" in the eyes of the law - they were more likely to support bail reform and a host of other decarceration measures. But these persistent myths are serious obstacles to reform; people who believe them are a lot less sympathetic.


He's Innocent said...

A huge factor in this issue is that most folks have no clue there is a difference between jail and prison. To them, it's all interchangeable.

And why would they? Unless they have been justice involved, they have no reason to know. Most folks learn terminology from the media and the media too is guilty of using the wrong words.

Folks -
Prison = found guilty, run the they state, long term incarceration
Jail = mostly not yet guilty, run by the county, short term incarceration or awaiting trial.

Roy Sigfreed said...

The vast majority of defendants in county jail are felony pending or an ICE hold. Very few are in jail pretrial for a misdemeanor only. Thats what makes the federal lawsuit in Harris county so misleading.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Roy, the Dallas lawsuit includes felony defendants, so watch that one to see where the issue goes.

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps crime rates are going down because police and prosecutors are doing a good job of arresting criminals and keeping them in jail.

Kuato said...

Just yesterday read a good piece on this phenomenon. Known for years. Worse now as newspapers devastated by internet. They, and TV news, are now more easily bribed by the police industry to promote propaganda, disguised as news, to serve their agenda. As a result public perception is more out of wack with reality now than ever before. go to to read down-with-the-daily-crime-story

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@5:18, police are a) arresting fewer people than ever, and b) our prisons release nearly 70k people per year. So that's probably not it.

Thanks Kuato, added the link in the post.

State Rep. James White said...

Seems like an opportunity for a jingle

Anonymous said...

It's rarely a safe bet to choose the "government got it right" option

Ed said...

The biggest stumbling block to producing smart policy is the local 6 and 10 pm news. "If it leads it bleeds." Conservative and liberal elites agree on needed reforms but state and national lawmakers still fear being accused of being soft on crime. The voting public has to give them approval to be smart on crime policy. They actually know what ought to be done but fear voter reprisal.

Salty said...

I think another big misconception is regarding sentencing. I have found through personal experience that the poor and mentally ill are disproportionately given much heftier sentences than those with means. I'm sure that's due to lack of adequate representation. The "punishment" rarely fits the crime and people fail to realize that we could do a lot better trying to rehabilitate folks instead of punishing them. That's not to say it is always possible but what we're doing now doesn't seem to be working.