Out of court

Monday, May 24, 2010

What causes crime rates to go up or down?

Crime statistics show that both violent and property crimes dropped from 2008 to 2009, despite higher unemployment and a sinking economy. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/us/25crime.html?hp This is contrary to what many people believe. In the last year or so, friends and acquaintances would constantly ask me if my business was picking up due to the recession. The short answer is no..

Obviously with crime rates dropping, 'business' would be slower. But even more so, prosecution rates are dropping not only due to the dip in crime but also because state and local governments are cutting back on police, prosecutor and court budgets. My 'business' is far more dependent on prosecution rates than on crime rates. With the cuts in state and local budgets, another effect is felt: more lawyers without work. And when more lawyers are not employed by others, that means there are more of them competing to defend the shrinking pie of cases prosecuted..

But the bigger question is why are crime rates dropping in a recession? You'd think more unemployed people would mean more theft, robbery and other economic crimes plus more frustration, and perhaps more violent crime as well. Yet crime statistics from the 20th century show that the Prohibition era of the 1920's was far more violent than the Depression in the 30's. Experts do not have many well accepted theories on what causes crime rates to rise and fall. Some scholars have suggested such theories as: greater numbers of immigrants, who tend to keep a low profile; as opposed to this, others assert more illegal immigration increases crime rates; public housing policy dispersing the poor may decrease rates; legalized abortion (so fewer unwanted children are born) may decrease; the crack epidemic in the 1980's was thought to increase crime ; and changes in age distribution--e.g., the baby boom in the late 60's and 70's and the boomlet in the late 80's and 90's effect rates of crime..

The age distribution theory is probably the one most accepted. That is, crime rates tend to flow with the number of young males at a given time; the higher the proportion of young men in the population, the higher the crime rates since young men are by and large the biggest group of offenders. In fact, there is no strong statistical correlation between stricter law enforcement and longer sentences and the rise and fall of crime rates. See: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200808/when-crime-rates-go-down-recidivism-rates-go This just serves to show that politicians who emphasize 'law and order' as an issue may be just blowing smoke..

One interesting theory on why crimes rates might decline during a recession is it pulls families together, and this cohesion inhibits crime. More young people may move back home and are less influenced by their impulsive peers as well. There is also less economic activity in a recession so there is less interaction and opportunity for crime. Ironically, crime rates went up during the prosperity of the 1960's and one theory is that with rising wealth, the havenots and the people left out are more bitter and turn to crime. In contrast, when everyone's boat is sinking with the economic tide, there is more empathy, less jealousy and hence less crime. Of course none of this has been proven..

Finally, there are theories that smarter, better policing may reduce crime rates. For example, declining crime rates in New York City and Los Angeles are often ascribed to increases in the number of police on the streets, better computers for tracking crime, making precinct commanders accountable for managing crime in their districts, and an aggressive policy of searching people on the streets for guns. To be sure, the latter policy may deter crime, but makes it harder to obtain convictions if the Fourth Amendment is violated. Like many other factors, these claims of improved policing are unproven. Another possibility is that the increased use of very long 3 strikes sentences and federal mandatory sentences have cut back on the recdivist population. But that would not necessarily explain the drop from 2008-2009..

At this point, there is no final answer on what causes crime rates to go up or down..

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What is Cruel and Unusual?

Recently the U.S. Supreme Court found that a life without parole sentence for a 17 year old who was found guilty of two very violent robberies was a cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment. The question: what constitutes 'cruel and unusual punishment?' has been answered by the Supreme Court this way: "courts must look beyond historical conceptions to the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." In other words, an acceptable punishment in one era (death penalty for rape) might become cruel and unusual in another era..

100 years ago, the Court said "that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to the offense." 20 years ago the Court upheld a life without parole sentence for possessing a large quantity of cocaine and narrowed this by finding that 'cruel and unusual' "forbids only extreme sentences that are 'grossly disproportionate' to the crime." And just 7 years ago, the Court upheld a sentence of 25 years to life for the theft of a few golf clubs under California's three-strikes scheme. However, parole was still possible there..

In comparison to those cases, you would think very violent robberies deserve a life without parole sentence. The distinction is that for someone under 18 it is currently rare to get a sentence that long where no homicide was committed. This reflects a societal judgment not to impose such harsh sentences on juveniles, suggesting that such a sentence is 'cruel and unusual.' Underlying this is the notion of hope: juveniles have a better chance of rehabilitating than adults. Juveniles' "actions are less likely to be evidence of "irretrievably depraved character" than are the actions of adults.."

Due to the violent and repetitive nature of the robberies, this juvenile deserves to be imprisoned for some time in order to protect society from his "escalating pattern of criminal conduct." Nonetheless, he also should get a shot down the road to show that he has matured, changed and is ready to re-enter society. Under the Court's decision, the state of Florida could still deny him release on parole the rest of his life. But at least he has a reason to change..

Since the 1980's, we have come down harder on young offenders because so many of their crimes were as bad as adult crimes. Until the late 1980's in Washington, anyone under 18 accused of any crime was entitled to a hearing to determine if the case should be sent to adult court. Now 16 and 17 year old offenders accused of murder and other serious violent offenses are automatically sent to adult court to face adult level punishments. This trend to punish juvenile offenders more and more like adults swept across the nation. Obviously states like Florida took it much further than Washington did. Yet maybe now the pendulum is swinging away from such harsh treatment of juveniles. Just as more and more courts are trying to treat drug offenders instead of incarcerate them, perhaps we will begin looking at those horrible choices of youth with more mercy..

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Death Penalty Is Wrong

Just the other day a King County jury voted to impose the death penalty on a man convicted of killing two young women and two children. It was a brutal, incomprehensible crime. No one can understand how anyone can kill children, much less have mercy for the killer. Murders with quasi-rational motives are done in anger, for money, in jealous rages, to cover up another crime, or for sex. In this particular recent case, none of these motives were apparent. According to the defendant, he was in a alcohol/drug induced blackout and came to after they were dead..

This man had no previous criminal record and from what I hear, there was no evidence he had even been violent before. He had an alcohol/drug problem and probably other mental issues but nothing extreme enough to explain this crime. It is probable he did not even know or meet the victims before, as he just moved into the neighborhood. Despite this aberration in his life, the jury determined that there was not enough mitigating evidence to raise a reasonable doubt to spare him. My belief is that if you murder children, 'death qualified' juries will impose the death penalty. (A 'death-qualified' jury is made up of people who agree they can impose the death penalty if the law and the facts support it; those opposed to the death penalty cannot serve.] For the record, the last defendant from King County, who was sentenced to death by a jury, also killed a child. He is still on death row..

On its face, this does not seem unfair or wrong. Kill an adult you can spend the rest of your life behind bars, but if you kill a child, life in prison does not seem severe enough of a response. So the death penalty serves that purpose. And yet. . . the worst killer in the history of this State--the Green River Killer--did not get the death penalty. Instead he was able to trade his knowledge of where his victims were buried to get a life sentence. In other words, that case seemed to say: 'Kill enough people, you can make a deal!" Although the people involved in making the deal with the Green River Killer might disagree and say he provided 'closure' to his victims' families, it does not deal with the essential unfairness of that result..

No other criminal terrorized a community for so long, killed so many young women and girls, and collaterally harmed so many others as the Green River Killer. If that criminal does not get the death penalty, how can it be justified for someone else who did less harm? It can't. Therein lies a major flaw with the death penalty: its inconsistency. Also, recall that none of the Wah Mee killers who murdered 13 people received the death penalty as well. In our all too human and flawed legal system, this lack of uniformity and consistency defeats any righteous defense of the ultimate penalty..

And I haven't even mentioned the death penalty cases from other states that involved innocent people! For the simple reason that our legal system can never be flawless, I cannot support the death penalty. One of the fundamental maxims of our legal system as expressed by Blackstone is that 'it is better to let 10 guilty men off than to condemn one innocent man.' As we are loathe to imprison the innocent, our governments should not be putting people to death. As Justice Blackmun, a Nixon appointee, put it: our society should not "tinker with the machinery of death." It is time to stop the death penalty..