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February 16, 2007

The Pew Index Strategy

[Posted by Ron Wright]

Doug is away for a few days. He'll be checking in now and then from the road, but while he's away I'll be feeding the dogs, watering the plants, musing once or twice on the SLP Blog ...

Recent SLP posts (here and here) have touched on the recent past work of the Pew Charitable Trusts. I want to highlight the future work of the Pew Public Safety Performance Project -- looking up to the front Pew, rather than looking behind to the back Pew (sorry, I'm just trying to invoke Doug's spirit of fun here).  As you can see from this description of the project, Pew's emphasis is on promoting effective sentencing practices for states, without looking directly at the federal system.

The distinctive Pew technique for promoting good practices is to create a "report card" or an "index" to offer state officials an accessible way to compare their efforts to what happens in other states. They sort through features of state systems, reduce them to a single number or score, and compare states. Pew already uses this technique in areas such as higher education.

It's an interesting affirmation of democracy, isn't it? While it is tempting to call for the "politicians" to leave sentencing questions to the experts, the Pew strategy instead is to make expertise more populist. The report cards, to be sure, simplify some things and therefore distort to some degree. But if the rankings are done well, they focus policymakers on relevant measures and take advantage of a natural competitive spirit.

So here's my question for the large and informed readership of the SLP Blog: What data points about a state sentencing system might be (1) measurable with comparable numbers across many state systems, and (2) tell us something worthwhile about the systems, something worth ranking and changing? 

February 16, 2007 at 05:28 PM | Permalink


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"The report cards, to be sure, simplify some things and therefore distort to some degree."

Oversimplification is not by any means the only source of distortion in a "report card" approach. The criteria graded may reflect value judgments that large portions of the population disagree with. They may reflect factors beyond the control of the state authorities, i.e., a state facing more difficult challenges may be graded lower than one with lighter challenges. Yet when rankings come out, these problems tend to be glossed over, and it's a day of bad press for whoever comes out at the bottom of the rankings.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 16, 2007 6:10:15 PM

I think one great thing to look at is whether the state has mandated cooperation with federal authorities in dealing with deportable alien felons. Alien felons are responsible for a ton of crime and having a systematic way of getting them off the streets (i.e., sentenced to a long stretch in a federal pen) would go a long way to preventing further victimization. A cop on the beat, if he knows that a particular guy has been deported (particularly for a crime) should be able to arrest him on the spot. How many crimes in California would be prevented if cops could do this? Moreover, any state that, after an alien criminal serves his time, releases that alien criminal instead of turning him over to the feds, should be hit. (This, unfortunately, happens.)

And although this is a bit off topic, given that the focus is on the states, any violent criminal deported from the US who comes back should go to jail for the rest of his or her life. We asked them nicely to leave--they did not, we therefore have a right to guarantee that they will never ever walk our streets again.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 16, 2007 7:11:48 PM

The best way to "reduce crime and recidivism" is for it never to start. Study after study finds that the most serious offenders had a rotten childhoods. Even John Douglas, hardly a bleeding heart liberal, found this true over and over again in his criminal profiling projects. It is lazy and selfish for politicians to ignore this for the immediate gratification of the vote. We treat dogs better before they can get a dog license.

So in comparison to dollars spent on prisons, how much is spent per child on doctor and dental visits before they start school? Sex abuse is a fraction of all child abuse, and we could never build enough prisons to house all child abusers. Only from the public health perspective, and only with dollars to back it up, can we ever make a dent in the crime rate. It will never be perfect, of course, but getting our priorities straight would at least be a start. If we don't want to do what it takes, we should quit whining about crime and quit pretending we care about victims.

Posted by: George | Feb 16, 2007 9:09:26 PM

The time it takes for a prison population to double if no prisoners are released and the time it would take for the prison population to fall to half if no new prisoners were admitted. For Iowa prisons the doubling time is about 18 months and the equivalent to a half-life is about 3 years. I have no idea if these are abnormal or typical times because they are the only data points available.

Most people are surprised that both times are so short. The first time is easy to determine if you know the average admission rate and to compute the second you need a snapshot of the prison population where the admit date and tentative time of release are known for all or most inmates.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 16, 2007 9:43:13 PM

George, it's pretty presumptuous to suggest that just because someone doesn't see eye-to-eye with you on crime prevention that they don't care about victims or preventing crime. Having known two murder victims (and two murderers, btw, who did not have "horrible upbringings"), I find your statement deeply offensive.

Your ideas, quite frankly, smack of collectivist ideology (i.e., creating the ideal [Soviet] man) and a rejection of free will. But where has massive state involvement in the upbringing of children worked? In places where we have greater state involvement, we seem to have more problems. Your argument about more money seems like every other leftist siren song--if we'd just spend more money . . . . . of course, this doesn't work, as a bureaucracy simply cannot act as effectively as individual actors making individual choices about rearing children (this is why planned economies don't work--no one or group of people is smart enough to make the myriad decisions needed for an economy to work well) and it cannot work, as the people who pay the bills eventually will simply tire of devoting more and more of their paycheck to the public weal. (Our society makes the idea of a bunch of productive people acting as potlach-giving big men unrealistic.)

There really is no excuse for most criminal behavior. None. And while we can disagree about allocation of prison beds to types of crime or the percentage of folks in any given jurisdiction that should be incarcerated or alternative sentences, one basic fact remains, violent, and especially repeated, violent offenders need to go bye-bye. When violent offenders are released, there is a price to be paid in blood, and a steep one at that.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 17, 2007 12:14:22 AM

And under your policy, federalist, there will be a never ending supply of those to say bye-bye to, and you, or someone else, can volunteer to be the executioner, which may be the real goal anyway. The executioner inclined always need someone to execute. John Douglas does not excuse any crime, but he does recognize the common denominator. Funny you call such a respected ex FBI agent part of the "leftist siren song" that "smacks of collectivist ideology." You couldn't be more wrong.

As to "deeply offensive," once again you imply you have some kind of monopoly on suffering. You don't. But here's the truth. Of late it's become apparent there is something perverse, if not sadistic, about wanting to severely punish everyone we can for the extreme crimes of the few. It's time to start talking about that. It's time to recognize how twisted it is, not to mention unjust. It's time to talk about how prison guard unions and others are using victims for political gain. As Justice Kennedy said, it's sick.

Posted by: George | Feb 17, 2007 1:55:47 AM

George, you state that people who don't agree with you don't care about victims or reducing crime. That's garbage. You're right, I don't, and would never, claim to have a monopoly on suffering. But having a monopoly on suffering is not a prerequisite to being offended by your implication that people who do not agree with you don't care about victims. Thus, you attack a straw man.

Moreover, you are the one making the argument that we need to spend more money (i.e., increase state involvement with child-raising) in order to combat crime (from your post, it is impossible to tell what Douglas' views are to remedy the problem). Well, guess what, that is a familiar refrain--all we need to do is spend more money and whatever social ill (here, parents that don't raise their kids right) will be magically solved. And state involvement to make sure that every kiddo is raised properly is collectivist, as a practical matter.

In any event, I agree with you that prison unions may have a deleterious effect on policy, and that their role should be discussed. I agree with you that we should strive to make sure that we are best utilizing the prison beds that we have. But where we part company is that I focus on public safety, and i am not willing to roll the dice with the lives of totally innocent people by getting softer on violent crime.

You've seen my posts. I am not that hardcore to incarcerate drug users and non-violent criminals (although sophisticated, repeated identity theives should get life), but I see cases like Channon Christian, where violent criminals who have long violent histories wind up, in the worst way imaginable, victimize completely innocent people. And that is a scenario that has been played out again and again and again because naive people feel the need to be enlightened. We have learned this lesson--do we really need to learn it again so that you can congratulate yourself.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 17, 2007 3:06:12 AM

The entire right-wing hypocrisy is a blatant lie. It is false that if we "throw enough money" at the prison system "closure" is enough to provide justice. Even the concept of "closure" is false and the all-mighty state cannot deliver it. Even if it could, it is too late because the damage is done. More fundamentally, the concept of "born criminals" was manufactured as an attack on liberalism, and we are paying the price for that lie. While it may be true some are more disposed towards crime, environment is an important factor and we neglect that fact at our own peril.

Once again you wield Channon Christian as your favorite weapon, as if any "liberal" preventative ideas, anything other than prison for as many as possible, amounts to kissing Christian's ass. That is a false straw man and also a blatant lie. Find one serious argument anywhere that claims the Christians of the world should be set free to prey again. It doesn't exist.

Read this story and and tell me you wouldn't have "thrown some money" at the problem before it got to that, either in taxes or to some nonprofit community program. You're already "throwing money at it" by paying for their incarceration. This was undoubtedly only the last chapter in a long and painful story of abuse and neglect, and maybe not even the last chapter since she will now have to deal with foster care and its potential dangers, and how much does that cost? Incarceration of the animals will not provide "closure" and will not heal her. The problem is, there isn't any system in place to catch the abuse, neglect and malnourishment before it is too late. So we rely on prisons instead, and there is a good chance this girl could become a drug addict or alcoholic and a future prison statistic. She may suffer some mandatory sentence herself. The crackdown on crack cocaine didn't help her either.

So go ahead and spend billions and billions and billions a year on prisons if you want, but spend an equal amount on mandatory medical checkups for children by those well trained in child abuse and neglect. Catch it, whenever possible, before mandatory prison is required for anyone. Every six months might be best, but if you are too much of a tightwad for that, maybe once a year. If you're afraid of government, fine, make it nonprofit, I don't care. How it is implemented makes no difference. Prison isn't magically solving anything, and health care for children, abuse or not, is good for society as a whole. If nothing else, it would indicate we care about their well-being as much as we care about prisons. That should be common sense to any sane and healthy society.

Ben Franklin's old adage is true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Posted by: George | Feb 17, 2007 3:32:02 PM

Channon Christian and her boyfriend were victims of an absolutely unpseakable crime. Their tormentors had lengthy violent criminal histories. Why were they out on the streets?

Posted by: | Feb 17, 2007 11:48:15 PM

I got the names confused and thought you were referring to the killer you (federalist) mentioned before. This is the first I've heard of this case and it's terrible. If only they could have run down the prints faster. Maybe they could have got there before she was killed. They will get the death penalty if convicted, and if not for the wrongly convicted, I'd switch views on the death penalty (again) after reading about this, but should carjacking and aggravated robbery (Davidson) and third-degree attempted robbery (Cobbins) require LWOP? Is that your point? While I'd agree that 5 years for carjacking and aggravated robbery is not enough, we don't know the details. Maybe it was plea for 5 or get nothing at trial because the prosecution didn't have a case, and we can't give every felon LWOP.

Other than the faux pas with the name, which I'd edit for clarity if possible by replacing "Channon Christian" with a known murderer, I stand by the rest of my argument above. This doesn't change that view.

Posted by: George | Feb 18, 2007 2:58:25 AM

The Pew report shows a plot showing both crime rate and incarceration rate versus time. The data shown is for the entire country which is very difficult to interpret. What would be more useful are plots of crime rate and incarceration rate for individual states by type of crime. The BJS data shows that incarcerations for violent crime are increasing and those for property are decreasing and those for drug crimes have leveled off.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 18, 2007 8:35:27 AM

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