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February 15, 2007

Around the blogosphere

Lots of new interesting sentencing posts at some classic locales:

Also, I just found a relatively new blog, Extra Credit, by Georgetown law prof James Forman Jr., which has a few strong posts on race and criminal justice.  I was particularly interested in the questions Forman raised in this post (which I have been asking for a long time):

February 15, 2007 at 05:05 PM | Permalink


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Given that the vast majority of the victims of black criminals are black, one wonders whether the incarceration of black criminals is a civil rights issue for law abiding black citizens. Obviously, the black experience is different, but isn't just a little presumptuous to think that law-abiding black citizens want to release black criminals?

With respect to conservatives, I think that the professor misapprehends conservative viewpoints. Most conservatives think that government should perform the functions that only it can perform in an effective manner. The criminal justice system is one such function. And while conservatives may not like the expenditures and some may disagree with the allocation of scarce prison beds, few conservatives disagree with the idea that violent criminals need to be removed from society.

Also, a large incarceration rate helps elect the GOP . . . . not too many Republicans in the can.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 15, 2007 7:48:45 PM

I do not agree that the criminal justice system performs in an effective manner. It is a confederacy of agencies that are glued together by the offenders they all have to process with no possibility of general oversight or coordination (nobody tells a judge when to jump or how high). At the operational level it does function but if one element of the system becomes overloaded there is no way for the other independently funded elements to provide resources to solve the common problem.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 15, 2007 11:31:07 PM

Doug's last question highlights the fact that the word "conservative" means many different thing.

A fiscal conservative might very well be inclined to weigh the costs and benefits of incarceration. However, fiscal conservatives do not control the modern Republican Party.

A law-and-order conservative would say precisely what Federalist said above: punishing wrongdoers is one of those necessary functions that only government can perform; and no amount of money is too much to spend, if it means keeping dangerous people off the streets.

All elected conservatives, of whatever stripe, are to some extent political pragmatists. They all realize that tough sentencing laws resonate with the electorate. In most districts, any candidate who argues for fairer (i.e., lower) sentences presents a juicy target for the opponent.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Feb 16, 2007 8:30:20 AM

Prison are an alternative to capital and corporal punishment but many people who do not know the history of prisons think they were created by conservatives. The English Quaker Elisabeth Fry who was a leader in reforming the criminal justice system understood that dangerous persons had to be incarcerated to protect society.

I think the issue today is parole. The Board of Parole can make errors of the first and second kind; 1) parole someone who then commits a new crime and 2) keep someone in prison longer than is necessary. Mandatory minimum sentences were supposed to reduce the number of errors of the first kind at the cost of increasing the number of errors of the second kind. What has happened is that both types of errors have increased as the size of the prison population has increased the number being paroled has also increased.

The only realistic way to reduce errors of the first kind is to address all of the factors that are responsible for recidivism and find ways to reduce their effects.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 16, 2007 9:27:13 AM

Parole is not an exact science. If the parole board releases 100 people who go on to lead productive lives, and 1 person who goes on to commit a grisly murder, it's the grisly murder that makes news.

At the federal level, of course, there is no parole, for precisely that reason.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Feb 16, 2007 11:28:02 AM

When parole is eliminated (which also eliminates the risk assessment done by the BOP) there is an increase in the average length of confinement and a large increase in prison population. Most governments that eliminate parole have to make adjustments in order to avoid a massive increase in the cost of incarceration. Often this is done by increasing the good time reduction in length of sentence. This is worse than parole because there is no risk assessment and after prison supervision.

The sentencing and parole processes get fouled up because of episodes of legislative hysteria brought on by public outrage over a heinous crime or a horrific accident. If the crime was committed by parolee or the accident caused by a repeat OWI offender the parole system may be eliminated.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 16, 2007 12:05:45 PM

Blacks are over-incarcerated because of institutional racism. As federalist said, "not too many Republicans in the can."

Posted by: rothmatisseko | Feb 16, 2007 1:10:44 PM


Blacks are over-represented in the prison population because, as a whole, blacks are more likely to engage in criminal activity (Even MLK Jr. acknowledged this fact), and I would argue that black criminals, since they are concentrated in urban areas, which often tend to be more liberal, may get lenience in many cases, e.g., the people who assaulted Reginald Denny.

But as I have noted, since criminal behavior tends to be intra-racial, kindness to black criminals can be cruelty to law-abiding black people. Indifference to cases of black-on-blck crime was one of the complaints against apartheid in South Africa.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 16, 2007 2:18:31 PM

The racial and ethnic distribution in prison is the result of at least a three step process; 1) are Blacks more likely to be arrested than Asians, Hispanics, Indians and Whites?, 2) are they more likely to be detained in jail instead of being released after initial appearance? and 3) are they more likely to be sent to prison on a new court commitment, probation suspension or parole revocation? My conclusion is that the answer is yes to all three questions.

I have access to intake data for a few jails in Iowa plus what information I can extract from jail web pages so I am not able to verify my suspicion that most of the enhancement of the Black prison population has occurred at the time of arrest. I also think the decision to detain in jail also contributes to the enhancement. The decision to detain in jail can also strongly bias the decision toward committing the offender to prison.

Police take an interest in persons who are responsible for complaints from the neighborhood, persons they have frequent contact with and persons on probation and parole and these persons are the most likely to be arrested. If you have a neighborhood with a high proportion of parolees and they are more likely to be arrested then you will have a neighborhood with a high return rate. This is an example of positive feedback which can result in large enhancements of returnees in prison.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 17, 2007 9:41:03 AM

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