Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Conservatives 💗 'progressive' prosecutors, risk-assessment deep dive, on the limits of a punitive approach on fines, and other stories

As Grits prepares for a brief hiatus, let's clear some browser tabs and perform a quick roundup of items that merit readers' attention (or which I'd like to look at more closely once I get back):

TDCJ heat deaths magically stopped when litigation started
TDCJ says that only ten people in the prison system were diagnosed with heat stroke or heat exhaustion, or given intravenous fluids for a heat-related illness, during the recent high-temperature spate, and that no one has died of heat-related illnesses since 2012. Both those numbers seem unlikely to me. Rather, it's more probable that TDCJ just stopped labeling deaths as heat-related after litigation began in 2012. Plus, given what they're counting, when heat-related illnesses arise, TDCJ can keep inmates from being counted simply by NOT treating them with IV fluids. These low numbers don't seem credible; another reason we need independent oversight so that causes of death aren't being spun to avoid accountability.

TPPF's lingering hunger for grand-jury reform
The Texas Public Policy Foundation is ramping up to support grand-jury reform in the 86th Legislature, and published this item arguing for allowing grand-jury witnesses to be represented by counsel.

Poll: Public warming to justice reform
A new national poll demonstrates widespread support for the FIRST-STEP prison reform act, which Grits endorsed here, as well as criminal-justice reform, generally. See coverage from The Hill.

Conservatives 💗 'progressive' prosecutors
We've discussed on this blog the memo from Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner detailing what prosecutors can do to scale back mass incarceration. IMO it's one of the most important justice-reform documents in the last decade - as important for operationalizing the critique of mass incarceration as Michelle Alexander's New Jim Crow book was to popularizing it. But we haven't yet discussed the bipartisan appeal of Krasner's message. The American Conservative published an article arguing that Krasner's "objectives dovetail closely with those of conservative and libertarian justice reformers. All share a broader vision of radically reshaping a criminal justice system that is deeply unjust and out of line with American constitutional and moral values."

Deep dive into risk assessment debate in PA
Grits has expressed disagreement with liberal reformers over sweeping criticisms of risk assessment instruments based on alleged racial disparities in some models promoted by private vendors. Based on analyses I've seen, Grits argued that "the maximal harm hypothesized from risk assessments simply doesn't outweigh harms from the status quo of requiring money bail for everyone." So I was interested to see that many of those same national critics got a new risk-assessment regimen in Pennsylvania put off for six months for evaluation based on allegations of racial bias. In particular, links to all the written testimony submitted to their sentencing commission were published online, and I wanted to post the link so I can go through them later.

It's not that I couldn't be convinced that liberal opposition to risk-assessment-based bail reform isn't throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I'm just unconvinced by the arguments I've heard thus far. Too often, such critics fail to acknowledge that the alternative isn't some un-biased utopia but the even-more-biased status quo where judges sentence less harshly after lunch and harbor myriad biases that may just as harmfully infect the system, but with far less transparency than risk assessments. At least risk assessments can (and should) be adjusted and re-validated over time. Perhaps the extensive testimony out of Pennsylvania will cast more light on this emerging debate.

On the limits of a punitive approach on fines
Some of what's happening across many vectors in the justice system today is that we've reached the limits of the tools traditionally used to fight crime that now result in diminishing returns. When penalties were low, raising them perhaps created more deterrent. But once they're high, raising them more can be counter-productive. That's what you're seeing in Chicago, where a move to raise ticket amounts for vehicle-sticker violations backfired. Rather than raise millions in revenue, as projected by the city, it drove thousands of predominantly black Chicagoans into "substantial debt," and caused many "to lose their licenses, lose their cars and even declare bankruptcy," according to an investigation by ProPublica. One can't squeeze blood from a stone.