Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Further follow up on crime and punishment

Comes now the question: what can be done about racial disparities in law enforcement. As I have said, there are multiple decision points and decision makers: police, prosecutors, judges and juries. However, since something like 80% of cases are plea bargained (probably effectively more if you count dismissals and diversion) judges and juries come in for only a minority of cases. Plea bargaining seems to be where most of the action is.

So maybe the answer is to eliminate plea bargaining and have every case go to trial. Seems easy, right? Well, before we get to plausibility, would that eliminate disparities? Judges will still decide whether to let cases go to trial at all, or dismiss them; and can also decide to reduce charges. But again, this is much more likely for people who can afford substantial time of good lawyers. Public defenders are far too overburdened to have much success at this stage, and you are also assuming that no judges harbor any bias. Then you have to assume that the public defenders of poor people can be just as effective at trial as the well-paid defenders of affluent people. Finally, you have to assume as well that jurors do not harbor any bias. None of these assumptions is in the least plausible.


But let's pretend they are. Eliminating plea bargaining would mean we need five times as many courtrooms; five times as many judges; five times as many court officers; five times as many court reporters; five times as many prosecutors; five times as many defenders; five times as many jurors; and parking spaces for all of them. It would also mean that people would spend far more time in pre-trial detention -- well, poor people specifically -- I don't know by what ratio exactly but the jail population might easily triple. And the jails are overcrowded already. I don't know that having every case go to trial would necessarily result in longer average sentences -- in fact some people would be acquitted who would otherwise have taken a plea. But that's a gamble as well.

So, would the taxpayers agree to this? According to the Urban Institute, per capita expenditures on the courts range from about $100 to more than $200 per year, depending on the state; so this would be asking taxpayers to kick in $400 to $800 per year each -- that's per capita mind you, so it includes children and retired people and people who don't work, so the actual amount paid per worker would be at least twice that. That's only after we'd constructed hundreds of new courthouses. In Connecticut we'd have to build 120 of them, so that would cost several billion dollars. We'd also have to build several new jails. I'm not even going to try to estimate the cost of that.

So this doesn't seem like a very likely proposal. What can we do instead? Most of the criminal justice population -- I've seen estimates as high as 80% -- have some sort of behavioral health problem, that is substance use disorder or mental illness. In fact, since we closed the psychiatric hospitals, jail and prison has turned out to be the alternative for a lot of people. They generally also have limited formal education and very poor prospects in the job market. But they'll almost all get out of jail after a while. 

So what we need to do instead is stop treating substance use disorders and mental illness as crimes. What most people need is not incarceration, but treatment, housing, and education. That would actually be a lot cheaper than jail, and a lot more effective at reducing crime.


Alexander Dumbass said...

It might be over simplistic to say that drugs and those that get caught with them are harmless because of the complicated relationship to other crimes.

There's some evidence that the same people that sell and do drugs are involved in crimes against persons and also crimes against property. It would not be out of the question to think that incarcerating drug criminals would lower the overall crime rate in other areas such as prostitution, theft, robbery. burglary, assault, etc.

Cervantes said...

Well yes, but that's largely because the drugs are illegal. Alcohol was the major driver of organized crime during prohibition. What business do you think Al Capone was in? Illicit drugs are very expensive and hard to get, which is why people engage in prostitution and robbery. Because there is no legal enforcement of contracts in the illicit drug trade, violence occurs among rival dealer organizations. And incarcerating people is feckless because they'll be out after a while, and if they've been incarcerated, they'll have even less hope of straightening out their lives. Diversion programs send people to substance abuse treatment and other social services instead of jail. And they work. This is a longer story than I want to get into in a comment, but the basic point is that treating this as a criminal rather than a health problem is the source of most of the harm it does.

mojrim said...

Pawnshops take "not obviously stolen" items at about 10% of market value. If your daily bump costs $50, you must steal $500 worth of goods per day to cover it, to say nothing of food, etc... because being addicted to an illegal substance generally closes off other revenue streams. Thus, the fact of them being illegal drives crime among the users.

More broadly, there is no measurable correlation between incarceration rates and public safety. While some individuals (e.g. Anders Breivik) pose a clear threat, the same does not hold true across populations. The US has the world's highest incarceration rate coupled with its highest rate of violent crime. In fact, no program of criminal justice had the slightest effect on the violent crime wave of 1965-2005.

Chucky Peirce said...

However, expanding on the first proposal could send the crime rate to zero. Just put everybody in jail.

Don Quixote said...

Now that would be a crime!

mojrim said...

Is that you, Judge Dredd?