Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

Is Ray Kelly a Complete Idiot?

Monday, August 19th, 2013

As we all know, Judge Scheindlin ruled that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program was unconstitutional. This should have come as no surprise.

Our Fourth Amendment law forbids a police officer from stopping you without first having reasonable suspicion to believe that you are up to no good. Police officers were stopping people without any reason to believe they might be up to anything. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

Once you’ve been stopped, Fourth Amendment law forbids a police officer from frisking you without first having reasonable suspicion to believe that you are armed and dangerous. Police officers were frisking people without any reason to believe they might be armed. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

It is also unconstitutional for the government to single people out for this kind of treatment based on their race. Police officers were stopping and frisking Black and Hispanic people almost exclusively. On purpose. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

These were not the random errors of wayward officers, but institutionalized behavior directed and commanded by the police department. It was a program. That the NYPD has been given an injunction to knock it off should surprise nobody.

And yet Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has done nothing but act shocked and offended ever since.

Kelly made the rounds of TV news shows yesterday, angrily asserting Judge Scheindlin doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and claiming that this ruling is going to make violent crime go up. He argued firmly that the stop-and-frisk program is just good policing. It works. It’s effective. And now the NYPD can’t do it any more. It works. It’s effective. And so they should be allowed to keep doing it.

He firmly believes that, just because something is effective, the police should be allowed to do it.

This is the same guy who’s gunning for Secretary of Homeland Security. You thought you were living in a cyberpunk dystopia now? Just you wait until someone like him is in charge.


Forget whether he’s even correct that this is an effective policing strategy. (I already told you why it isn’t.) Let’s just, for the sake of argument, presume that stop-and-frisk actually worked to keep crime down.

That doesn’t mean the government should be allowed to do it. Effective does not mean constitutional.

The government is a mighty thing, with overwhelming power and force at its disposal. But one of the most beautiful things about America is that our government is constrained. It cannot use its might against you unless the Constitution says it can. There are plenty of things it might like to do, but it isn’t allowed to. (People being people, government folks will try to bend the rules or skirt them or even ignore them. Hoping nobody will notice, hoping nobody will say anything, hoping they’ll get away with it. Very often even believing they’re doing nothing wrong, and believing that in fact they’re doing the right thing. Still, the fact remains that they’re no allowed to do it.)

Of course there is a tradeoff. There’s always a tradeoff. If we gave the government unlimited power to snoop into our homes and search our persons, they would certainly catch a lot more criminals. If we took away the exclusionary rule and rules of evidence, they’d convict more of them, too. Ignore innocents wrongly convicted — let’s presume that the police would be inhumanly perfect about all this. It is a certainty that, without that pesky Bill of Rights, more wrongdoers would get punished, and more severely.

But we have decided that a lot of things are more important than catching and punishing criminals. Privacy is more important. Free will is more important. Fair hearings are more important. We as a society are willing to accept a certain level of crime — even violent and horrific crime — as a consequence of protecting these rights.

And so the government is forbidden from violating those rights, no matter how effective such a violation might be.

Kelly does not get this.

This is not rocket science. This is not obscure ivory-tower theory. This is a basic core principle every rookie police officer should know. Is Ray Kelly a complete idiot, here?


Kelly defends targeting Blacks and Hispanics because statistically, they commit a disproportionate amount of the crime in this city. And statistically, they do. But that doesn’t justify stopping individuals just because they happen to have been born into those groups.

Just as “effective” does not mean “constitutional,” the statistics of a general population don’t give you reason to stop that particular individual over there. His being Black does not give you reasonable suspicion. You need reasonable suspicion to believe that this guy is up to something. Ours is a system of individual justice. You need a reason to suspect this particular person, not a belief about people like him in general.

Again, this is stuff you learn your first week at the Police Academy. It’s pretty basic.

If the statistics showed that people of Italian descent committed a disproportionate amount of bribery, or that Jewish people committed a disproportionate number of frauds, would that give the police reason to target Italian or Jewish people just because of their heritage? Of course not. It would be as absurd as it would be abhorrent.

And yet that’s essentially what Kelly’s saying about the racial discrimination.

Does he not see how blatantly wrong this is?

Is he a complete idiot?


You sort of have to hope he is.

Because if he’s not an idiot, then he knows exactly what he’s saying. He knows exactly why he’s wrong. Not just intellectually wrong, but morally wrong and contrary to everything this country stands for. And he’s still saying it. Hoping to convince you he’s right. Hoping you’ll let him continue to have those powers.

Pray he’s only an idiot.

On the DEA’s Special Operations Division

Monday, August 5th, 2013

It should be clear by now that I’m no apologist for governmental overreach or law enforcement abuses. But after the news broke this morning about the DEA’s Special Operations Division, and everyone has been freaking out about yet another erosion of the Fourth Amendment, I feel like I ought to tone it down just a little bit. I have a little inside info here, because back in my days as a narcotics prosecutor, I dealt with them. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to divulge anything I shouldn’t.)

A lot of international drug trafficking takes place outside our borders, so the idea was to take advantage of intelligence data to make the drug war more effective. You just can’t use the intelligence  data in court. So SOD was formed as a way to make the information known, without compromising criminal investigations.

As reported, what the SOD does is get evidence from sources that can never see the light of day in court — usually from intelligence services here and abroad. Wiretaps conducted without regard to Title III because they’re not intended for criminal prosecution, top secret sources, and the like. If something comes up about some big drug trafficking — not at all uncommon to hear about in the intelligence world — then the SOD hears about it. Then they clue in law enforcement. It’s up to law enforcement to figure out how to gather the evidence legally. SOD’s involvement and its tips are rarely shared with prosecutors, and almost never with the defense or the courts.

So there’s a lot of understandable brouhaha that Obama’s eroding our privacy, the Fourth Amendment has been eroded even further, it’s unfair to the defense, this country’s going to hell in a handbasket, etc. People are concerned that law enforcement is “laundering” its evidence so it can use stuff that should have been inadmissible, and lying to everyone to cover it up.

First of all, this didn’t start on Obama’s watch. It got started under Clinton, back in ’94. And its existence has been fairly common knowledge in criminal law circles ever since. It’s even been reported on before.

Second of all, the whole “evidence laundering” thing isn’t quite accurate.

When I was dealing with them, back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, we in my office only half-jokingly called them “the dark side.” It was well understood that you couldn’t build a case off of their information. We’d never know where their information came from, for one thing. Without a source to put on the stand, the information couldn’t even be a brick in the wall of any case we wanted to construct.

And to be fair, the SOD folks themselves were very clear in their instructions: Their information was not to be used as evidence. It was only to help us figure out what we were looking at in an investigation, and let us know about other things we might want to be looking for. It was all along the lines of “how you gather your evidence is up to you, but you ought to know that this Carlos guy you’re looking at is part of a much larger organization, and his role is… and their shipment chain appears to have nodes here, here, and here… and your subject Gilberto over here is looking for a new local dealer.”

So what would you do? You’d realize Carlos wasn’t the top of the food chain, and start looking at your evidence in a different way, maybe change the focus of your investigation. And you’d pay more attention to traffic going to certain places. And you’d try to get an undercover introduced to Gilberto as his new dealer. You weren’t being spoon-fed evidence, but being clued in on where to look for it and what it might mean.

The Reuters article everyone’s citing quotes former DEA agent Finn Selander as saying “It’s just like laundering money — you work it backwards to make it clean,” in reference to a practice called “parallel construction.” He makes it sound like law enforcement obtained its trial evidence illegally, and then went back and tried to think up a way to make it look admissible. That would indeed be cause for much concern. And you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that’s something police do on a daily basis.

But that’s not what “parallel construction” means. It means “dammit, I have this evidence that I cannot use. Is there another way to go get this evidence that is lawful? Why yes there is! Let me go do that now.”

So let’s say you know that a blue van with Florida plates XXX-XXXX will be going up I-95 this weekend, loaded with heroin in a variety of clever traps. But you can’t just pull it over because you can’t introduce that information in court for whatever reason. Instead, you follow it in a series of unmarked cars, until it makes a moving violation. Which is very likely to happen, no matter how careful the driver is (it’s practically impossible to travel very far without committing some moving violation or other). You now have a lawful basis to pull the van over. And a dog sniff doesn’t even count as a Fourth Amendment search, so out comes the convenient K-9. And tada! Instant lawful search and seizure, and the original reason why you were following him is not only unnecessary but irrelevant.

It doesn’t matter if the original reason you wanted to pull the van over came from the dark side or from an anonymous tip or from a hunch. It’s a legal stop, and the original reason doesn’t matter. This is a very common scenario in day-to-day law enforcement, and isn’t specific to the SOD.

Or think of this equally very common scenario: Someone inside an organization has given you probable cause to go up on a wire and to arrest a lot of people. But you don’t want that person’s identity to ever come out, or even raise any suspicion that there was ever an inside informant. So you get that guy to introduce an undercover. Who maybe introduces yet another undercover. And you only use information that the undercovers themselves develop to build your probable cause and build your case. The original informant’s identity need never be disclosed.

Those examples are parallel construction. It’s not about going back and laundering your evidence. It’s about going forward to gather it lawfully this time.

I’m not saying the dark side isn’t cause for concern. Law enforcement and intelligence are supposed to be two entirely different things. We have given the government amazing intelligence-gathering powers on the understanding that it won’t be used against our own citizens, and won’t be used for law enforcement. A very good argument can be made that the SOD program subverts that super-important limitation on government power.

But it’s harder to argue that it violates the Fourth Amendment or gets evidence in court that should have been inadmissible.

If you’re gonna complain about it, at least complain for the right reason.

No, that’s not what the Fifth Circuit said.

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

The internet is abuzz over yesterday’s Fifth Circuit decision on cell-site data. And hardly anyone seems to know what they’re talking about, as usual.

It’s to be expected when sources like Wired say “cops can track cellphones without warrants, appeals court rules.” Which is not what the court ruled at all. After all, you can’t expect tech zines to be accurate on the law. And it’s to be expected when tons of people get all upset on sites like Reddit, because they only saw the inaccurate headlines and are now freaking out about something that never happened. But when the usually responsible New York Times jumps in with “warrantless cellphone tracking is upheld,” it might be time to get concerned.

Yes, there is a lot of concern these days with government access of our data. A lot of that concern is legitimate, and a lot is misplaced, but the fact that the conversation is even happening is a wonderful thing. Except the conversation is downright counterproductive when nobody knows what they’re talking about. And such lazy (or deceitful?) reporting isn’t doing anyone any good.

Here’s what the court said, in a nutshell:

1) The government wanted to get historical data of cell sites that were used by certain phones. Not real-time data. Not tracking.

2) Existing law says this is allowed when the government can provide specific and articulable facts that make it reasonable to conclude that the data will be relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.

3) The government did exactly that.

4) The lower court screwed up, and applied the rule for getting real-time data. The lower court needs to do it over again. Period.

All the court did was apply existing law, correctly.

What the ACLU and EFF and others wanted, however, was for the court to break new ground, and create a new legal standard. I am in favor of such things — a court’s not going to do that unless you ask, and I encourage making such arguments at every meaningful opportunity. But this court said it wasn’t going to touch that issue with a ten foot pole. (It did suggest going to Congress, to change the law. Congress passed the statute that enables such requests of phone companies, and right now the statute simply tracks existing Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. But the statute could always impose greater burdens on the government than are required by the Fourth Amendment. The Constitution is a floor, not a ceiling, after all. So why not lobby Congress to amend the relevant statute?)

Or they could, you know, take it up with the Supreme Court and ask them to change their mind on what’s reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The problem, of course, is that the existing rule fits neatly within the general principles of how the Fourth Amendment works.

Basically, the Fourth Amendment comes into play when the government intrudes on something that you would reasonably expect to be private. They’re allowed to do it when they have a warrant based on probable cause to believe they’ll find evidence of a crime or catch a criminal. And they’re also allowed to do it without a warrant if it’s reasonable to let the government do so — when your privacy interests are outweighed by some other concern like public safety.

So the first issue is whether historical cell-site data is something you would reasonably expect to be private. The ACLU and EFF and others say it is. The government says it isn’t. And existing law says that it isn’t. This is the new ground that the court was being asked to break.

Cell site data is not something that you create. The government isn’t going into your phone or your computer to access the data. It’s not yours. Instead, it is a record kept by your phone company. They create the data, and they retain the data.

Cell site data does not contain the contents of your communications. What you’re saying and texting and emailing and posting are not being accessed. It only says what cell tower your phone was using at the time. Which can give a general idea of where your phone was at the time.

Historical cell site data does not tell the government where your phone is right now. It’s not a tracking device. It’s not real time. It just lists the towers your phone was using back then.

This cell site data is created by the business, not by you. And it’s about a transaction which that business engaged in. It’s not just about you. It’s a record of its interaction with your phone. It’s nothing more or less than a routine business record, of the business’s own activity, kept in the ordinary and regular course of business. It’s not about you.

And the government did not compel the business to collect that data.

So when the government goes to the business and says “give us those business records,” it is not so much your privacy that’s being invaded as it is the business’s privacy. The act of getting the data, the act itself, does not require any intrusion into your own privacy. They’re not going into your phone or home or computer to get it.

And the data itself is not something that’s yours to claim as your own private information. You didn’t create it, you didn’t keep it.

But the law does recognize that you do have some expectation of privacy here. Just not anywhere near as much as if you were the one who created or kept the data. So the government has to make some showing that it’s actually relevant to an actual criminal investigation. They just don’t have to show there’s probable cause to believe they’ll get evidence of a crime. It’s a similar standard as for getting a pen register — real-time data of the numbers you’re calling, without overhearing the contents of the communications.

Also, stepping away from your interests for a moment: We don’t want law enforcement* just randomly poking through records for no reason, hoping to chance on evidence of a crime — the Fourth Amendment hates it when that happens. It’s not about your privacy, but everyone’s. So they can’t demand records in bulk. They have to be records of a specific phone, that they have specific reason to believe will be useful. It’s arguable that this consideration is even more important than your privacy interests, when it comes to setting the standard the government has to meet.

In the end, the law just isn’t on the ACLU & EFF’s side right now. They need to change the law, if they want the government to have to jump through the probable cause hoop here. They made a game effort of asking the Fifth Circuit to take the plunge, but the Circuit punted (I love mixing metaphors, don’t you judge me). They can lobby Congress to increase the government’s burden, and whip up public support for it (which is entirely possible), or they can try to get the Supreme Court to reinterpret the Fourth Amendment here (yeah, good luck with that).

But this decision broke no new ground. It did not give law enforcement new powers. It did not undermine the Fourth Amendment.

Please, if you’re going to get up in arms about it, do so for the right reasons. Not because you didn’t understand what happened in the first place. And don’t misrepresent what happened to try to foment misinformed popular outcry.

I’m looking at you, New York Times.

*Not the same as national security or intelligence, by the way, but that’s a whole nother discussion.

Ray Kelly on Stop-and-Frisk: You saved HOW many lives?

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

NYC’s Police Commissioner Ray Kelly wrote a piece for today’s WSJ titled “The NYPD: Guilty of Saving 7,383 Lives” and subtitled “Accusations of racial profiling ignore the fact that violent crime overwhelmingly occurs in minority neighborhoods.” In it, he makes a great case for the fact that his cherished stop-and-frisk program is not effective policing, and may in fact lead to more crime.

That’s not his intent, of course. His purpose is to defend the NYPD’s much-maligned stop-and-frisk program (and also its surveillance of political dissidents). He doesn’t succeed. In fact, he does a great job of discrediting himself right off the bat. Which is a shame, because he makes it too easy to roll your eyes at him, and that would be a mistake. This stuff demands serious discussion.

He starts off with a burst of illogic and bad math, to wit:

(A) During the 11 years Bloomberg’s been mayor, unspecified tens of thousands of weapons have been seized by the police;
(B) During those same 11 years, there were 7,383 fewer murders than in the preceding 11 years [though he cites 13,212 and 5,849 as the figures, so the actual difference would be 7,363];
(C) The NYPD has saved 7,383 lives.

Uh huh. Right.

Well, he IS right that crime is way down. A careful statistician might even observe that crime in this city is way WAY down. And this is a good thing.

But to what extent is it a result of the police seizing all those weapons? (And how many weapons did they seize in the 11 years before Bloomberg? He doesn’t say.) In fact, to what extent is the drop in crime the result of policing policies at all? Most research I’ve read seems to support demographic shifts and maturing community attitudes as its primary causes.

Kelly makes this “we saved lives” point in order to justify the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program. He makes other arguments, too. Taken together, his arguments all boil down to “it works, therefore it’s justified.”

No. Wrong.

Just because something works, that doesn’t make it right. Or even legal. Just think of the atrocities the State could commit if mere effectiveness was all the justification it needed. Better yet, don’t think of them. I don’t want to give you nightmares.

But put that aside for now. Is he even right to claim that it’s working, in the first place?


It is silly to deny that good policing can affect crime rates. When the police are effective — when criminals stand a good chance of being caught and punished — then that effectiveness serves as a deterrent. People who otherwise might have committed a crime are more likely to think twice about it.

Then again, we are talking about violent crime, here. How much violent crime is even capable of being deterred? Most assaults and murders are unplanned, spur-of-the-emotions stuff. The odds of being caught and punished aren’t exactly being weighed. Even an effective police force will have an iffy deterrent effect there, at best.

But that’s not what stop-and-frisk is about. And it’s not really about getting weapons off the streets, either.

Stop-and-frisk is about making the risky people take their risky behavior somewhere else.

The NYPD is doing it because they think it will work. That it has worked. That it is working.

And they are wrong.


First things first: It is (more…)

Confused about the outcome

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

You’re not the only one to ask, that’s for sure.  The short answer is this:

  1. The prosecution had the burden to remove all reasonable doubt from the jury’s minds — both that Zimmerman had committed every element of the crimes charged, and that he had not acted in self-defense.
  2. This was a very difficult case for them to prove.  Their evidence was iffy and called for a lot of speculation.  Their arguments were easily shot down by the defense.  And the defense view of the case was fairly consistent with the evidence.  At the end of the day, there was plenty of room for doubt about a lot of important things.
  3. With all that doubt, the jurors found that the state had not met its burden, which meant that they had to say “not guilty.”

Different people are confused and upset about this for different reasons.

Some are confused about what the evidence was, how the law applied to it, and where all the reasonable doubt came from.  I can try to go over all that with illustrations later, if you like. (I don’t mind, it’d be fun.)

Others are confused because they think the jury’s job was to decide what really happened, rather than to decide whether the state had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  The jury’s verdict doesn’t mean “George Zimmerman is innocent” or “George Zimmerman was justified to shoot in self-defense.”  All it means is “the prosecution did not prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt” and “the prosecution did not prove it wasn’t self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Also, in cases like this, a lot of people take sides without knowing (or even caring) what the actual evidence was, or how the law applies to it.

Instead, a lot of people take sides, for and against, because they want to further some sort of political agenda.  There is a narrative they want the case to tell, regardless of what the facts really were.  It’s all about their cause, not the case.  So of course they get upset when the jury’s verdict doesn’t fit their narrative.

And a lot of other people take sides because they get the sense that one or the other is the “right” side to be on.  Sort of a knee-jerk, follow-the-crowd sort of thing.  They may not really know what was going on, but they feel that they are on the side of good and justice.  So of course they get upset when the jury’s verdict isn’t what the crowd had led them to expect.

Yes, juries can and do come back with bizarre verdicts that make you wonder how many brain cells they had between them.  But this just isn’t one of those cases.  The jury’s verdict was not at all unsurprising, given what came out during the trial.  It would be very easy for people of ordinary judgment to believe that the government came nowhere near proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Zimmerman may or may not have committed the crime with which he was charged.  But that jury had good reason to come back with a “not guilty” verdict after that trial.


You wanna hear something shocking?  I don’t think the prosecutors really (more…)

On this latest Miranda thing…

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

So after catching one of the guys thought to have committed the Boston Marathon bombing (and a string of violent acts thereafter), the government said they weren’t going to read him his rights. Not just yet. Invoking the “public safety exception” to the Miranda rule, they said they wanted a chance to find out who he was working with, where other bombs might be, etc., before telling him he’s allowed to clam up.

Predictably, a lot of people were upset about this. But why?

Yes, it was wrong of the administration to say that. But not for the reasons everyone’s saying. Not because it’s further eroding our rights (it’s not), but because it’s just stupid.

It conflates intelligence with evidence — stupid. It misses the whole point of Miranda — stupid. It defeats the purpose of intel — stupid. And pisses off those who love the Constitution — stupid.

And of course, it’s nothing new.

About three years ago, the Obama administration made it DOJ policy to permit “unwarned interrogation” not only in situations involving immediate public safety (“where’s the bomb?”), but also cases where cops believe getting intel outweighs your right to remain silent.

The 2010 memorandum states:

There may be exceptional cases in which, although all relevant public safety questions have been asked, agents nonetheless conclude that continued unwarned interrogation is necessary to collect valuable and timely intelligence not related to any immediate threat, and that the government’s interest in obtaining this intelligence outweighs the disadvantages of proceeding with unwarned interrogation. [4] In these instances, agents should seek SAC approval to proceed with unwarned interrogation after the public safety questioning is concluded. Whenever feasible, the SAC will consult with FBI-HQ (including OGC) and Department of Justice attorneys before granting approval. Presentment of an arrestee may not be delayed simply to continue the interrogation, unless the defendant has timely waived prompt presentment.

On top of that, the Obama administration wanted Congress to specifically pass legislation allowing longer interrogations before Miranda need be invoked. (A brilliant writer blogged about that memo a couple of years ago, concluding that it was “An Unnecessary Rule.”)

The administration is just trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Miranda does not prevent them from gathering intelligence. The Fifth Amendment does not prevent them from gathering intelligence. They can interrogate people all they want, in any way they want, and the Constitution doesn’t say jack about it. But if they force you to incriminate yourself against your own will, they’re just not allowed to use those statements against you to prove your guilt in a criminal proceeding. That doesn’t mean they can’t force you to incriminate yourself, and it doesn’t mean they can’t use those statements for other purposes.

But the government wants to be able to do both. It wants to be able to override your free will, force you to condemn yourself, and use your words both to prevent future attacks (laudable) and to convict you so the State can punish you (contemptible).

Their saying this out loud is idiotic, because everyone sees how contemptible it is, and the government looks even more like an enemy of the public, rather than its protector. And of course giving a heads-up to the real bad guys about what we’ll be doing. (And announcing it in a specific case, as they did this week, just lets everyone in the bomber’s organization know that we’re learning everything that guy could tell us. Stupid. You never want the enemy to know how much you know.)

But it’s also stupid because it misses the ENTIRE POINT of Miranda.

Sorry to break this to you, but Miranda isn’t about protecting your rights. It never was.

Miranda is about giving the police a free pass. It always has been.

The Fifth Amendment is there to make sure we don’t have another Star Chamber. We don’t want the government using its power to override your free will, and make you confess to a crime so it can punish you. Lots of confessions are purely voluntary. In fact, most probably are. But sometimes the government has to force it out of you, and we don’t want that to happen.

But it’s hard for courts to tell voluntary confessions from involuntary ones. They have to look at facts and assess things on a case-by-case basis. That’s hard. And it’s hard for police to know if they’re crossing the line, when the line is different for every individual. So the Miranda rule creates an easy line that applies to everyone:

Say the magic words, and the law presumes that the confession was voluntary.

See how easy that was? Not hard. Easy.

All a cop has to do is recite the Miranda litany as they’re taking a suspect into custody, and BAM! they get to interrogate all they want, and everything the guy says can be used in evidence at his trial.

It is hard to imagine a more pro-law-enforcement rule. In one stroke, Miranda dispensed with actual voluntariness, and replaced it with “as a matter of law” pretend voluntariness.

And yet law enforcement — even our nation’s top officials, who went to law school and everything — astoundingly persist in thinking Miranda is bad for them. They think that, if you mirandize someone, they’ll shut up, and you’ll lose all that delicious intel and lovely evidence. (NYPD officers are actually trained NOT to mirandize people on arrest, for this very reason. Yeah, TV ain’t real life.)

But here’s the kicker: People don’t clam up when they’ve been read their rights. The people who clam up remain silent regardless of whether they’ve been mirandized or not. In fact, there is evidence that people are MORE likely to talk once they’ve been read their rights. They don’t know what those rights mean, but they know they’ve got them, and TV has conditioned them to expect the magic words. So when they hear them, they relax. All is well. Their rights are being acknowledged. And they start blabbing.

So not only do the magic words let you use all those statements, compelled or not, but they actually get the statements flowing.

So wanting to hold off on saying them is just stupid. Counterproductive. Idiotic.

So there’s lots of reasons to dislike what the government is saying in this case. But eroding our rights just isn’t one of them.

You lost those rights in 1966.

Drawing the Line

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Everyone knows that drunk drivers cause deadly car accidents. This is because alcohol impairs one’s ability to drive safely. So it is against the law to drive under the influence of alcohol.

Everyone knows that texting while driving causes deadly car accidents. This is because texting distracts your attention from driving safely. So it is against the law to text while driving.

Everyone knows that speeding causes deadly car accidents. This is because going faster than conditions and one’s ability permit make you unsafe. So it is against the law to speed.

And now West Virginia is looking to outlaw driving while wearing Google Glass. Because presumably having the internet in your heads-up display would distract your attention from driving safely.

Of course, these laws are all trying to prevent people from driving unsafely. So why not, instead of a whole jumble of laws dealing with specific causes of unsafe driving (and having to be written to deal with new, unforeseen causes), why not have a single law punishing… you know… unsafe driving?

Because these particular causes of unsafe driving are worse than any other? If you say so. But even then, they could just be grounds for enhanced penalties for violating the basic law. No need for separate laws.

The actual reason is that “unsafe driving” is a very subjective concept. It’s really an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing, not readily reduced to formulas. Different people have different abilities, physiologies, training, etc., so one person could drive safely with distractions/speeds/alcohol intake that would make another person a deadly menace. If all you’ve got is a cop who can testify that “this person was driving unsafely because of X Y Z,” when it’s not necessarily so that X Y or Z equal “dangerous, then you’re not going to get a lot of convictions.

And so we draw a line. Forget individual variations — as a matter of law, if you do X, Y or Z while driving, you are automatically a menace, and that’s that. The police officer doesn’t have to make a judgment call about whether you were actually unsafe. All he has to do is determine whether you did X Y or Z.  It’s so much easier to prove that you had crossed the line, than to prove that you were actually being unsafe.

Of course, this is overbroad and unjust. Because where we draw the line is arbitrary. Someone driving 70 is no more dangerous than someone going the limit of 65, but that’s where we drew the line.

Where we draw the line depends. For speeding, it’s sort of a lowest-common-denominator kind of thing: We pick a speed that, for this road, most drivers should be able to manage safely. And by “most drivers” we mean “poor drivers.” Because as a society we’ve decided that we’d rather make it easier to get a license, and we’re willing to accept a certain number of traffic fatalities per year in exchange for letting more people drive. So sure, there are plenty of people who could manage it safely at a higher speed, but they’re going to have to obey the same line drawn for everyone else.

For alcohol, it’s more a lobbying kind of thing: Victims and families of victims of drunk driving are understandably upset that people are committing reckless homicides and being treated like it was just oopsie an accident. So they lobby lawmakers to make driving with any alcohol in your bloodstream a crime. And over the years, the amount of alcohol required gets smaller and smaller, because who wants to lobby for the alternative? Who wants to be the guy pushing to make the law go easier on those killers? And so the arbitrary line keeps ratcheting down because nothing is there to prevent it.

For things like texting, it’s more of a zero-tolerance thing: We can’t ever know which text or other distraction is the one you could do safely or the one that would cause a pileup on I-70. So we just outlaw all of them. (If we were intellectually honest, we’d simply outlaw driving while distracted, which is the actual problem. But that would fill the jails with moms who were yelling at kids, people driving while furious after an argument, girls putting on makeup on the way to work, truckers eating tacos, and the like. And we don’t want to do that, do we?)

It’s not just traffic laws — the law is filled with examples of “bright line” rules. All are arbitrary. Some try to strike a balance, some are purely political, and some are unthinking zero-tolerance rules. But the lines have been drawn. And that’s the important thing.

The important thing is that the line is drawn somewhere. Because it’s not about justice. And it’s not about safety.

It’s about not having to make subjective decisions.

And now you know.

Understanding the law

Friday, March 8th, 2013

A lot of the law is extremely formulaic. True, human intelligence is required to spot issues, devise strategies, and (most importantly) persuade decisionmakers. But in its actual application, the law is often little more than a series of IF-THEN decisions. A computer could be programmed to do it. This is just as true of corporate taxation as of advanced constitutional law. A law student could outline those courses with nothing more than a flowchart and do okay on the exam.

Knowing the formula is important. It’s specialized knowledge that you usually have to go to law school to get. But it’s only knowledge. It’s not understanding.

It’s like baking a cake. If you know the recipe, you can go step by step through the process and get a decent cake on the other side. If you don’t know the recipe, you’re likely to wind up with a big mess. But knowing a recipe that works isn’t the same as knowing why it works. It’s not going to help you if your ingredients suddenly change, or something new is added into the mix, or you have to use an oven with a very different temperature. In that case, if you want to make a cake, you’re going to have to understand the chemistry of what’s going on, the effect that the ingredients and how they are combined and the heat and the time have on the final result.

Knowledge is the what. Understanding is the why.

Most students can demonstrate their knowledge on an exam, and they’re lumped together in the curve. It’s the rare students who demonstrate their understanding who get the outlier As, however.

In fact, there are professors out there who will announce to the class that the final exam is going to cover things that never came up in class. Topics that were never discussed. Issues that aren’t in any of the books. The students will have to say, based on their understanding of why the law is the way it is, what the answer in that unfamiliar area ought to be.

These are awesome professors. If you ever get one, cherish the experience. Because you’ve lucked into someone who teaches the why, as well as the what. And you are going to be so much better equipped to deal with the law as it changes.

The law does change. Whatever field you practice in, the law is going to change during your career. If you know where the law is coming from, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. And more importantly, whichever way it goes, you’ll get why. You’ll understand it better. You’ll be able to use it better, advise your clients better, persuade a court better.

So how does get this understanding?

What you’re looking for is policy. An underlying philosophy or purpose that explains the statutes and cases. What were the lawmakers and judges trying to do? What was the point of view that drove how they did it?

You’d think this would be easy — just look at the legislative record to see all the arguments for and against, the court opinions spelling out in excruciating detail precisely where they were coming from.

But if you try doing that, you’ll soon learn it’s not easy at all. The stated reasons for statutes, regulations and caselaw are inconsistent as hell. They’re all over the map. And what’s more, people are only human. The reasons we give for our actions are rarely the same as our true, unstated motives. We may not even be fully aware ourselves of the actual policies we’re acting on — most of the time because we haven’t reflected enough to actually know what they are, and so they remain unconscious, subliminal. And our brains are wonderfully adept at justifying after the fact.

So it’s a puzzle. The narrators are not telling you the truth. They’re not lying to you, but they’re not telling you the truth. The trick is to pick out the clues from what they say, from the situations they’re reacting to, from the problems they’re trying to solve, and from (most importantly) what they actually do. It takes a fair amount of insight into one’s fellow human beings to solve this puzzle.

And this is what sets apart the merely adequate law professor from the superstar. The adequate professor makes sure you understand what the various disparate laws happen to be. The superstar gives you an insight that explains them all (or most of them, anyway).

Which way would you prefer to learn them all?

Now, there are lots of ways to explain what’s going on. How do you know which theories are best?

As with any other field of study, the simplest theory that explains the most data is best.

So for example, you might have a ton of cases that seem to be all over the place, if you just take the judges at their word. They seem to be espousing a given principle, but their decisions keep pushing the law in a different direction. That tells you that the real reason isn’t the one they’re saying. Maybe it’s emotion. Maybe it’s a desire for a certain outcome no matter what. Maybe it’s just pandering to a perceived public opinion. Maybe it’s just a backroom deal.

And those surface reasons give you a clue to the unspoken philosophy behind them. In a criminal case where the court is performing some impressive legal gymnastics, it could simply be that the desire to punish this guy is more important than any protections the law might have given him. (That’s the opposite of the rule of law, by the way. A good example of saying one thing but doing another.)

You can also watch as repeated reliance on the spoken, but incorrect, principles leads to bizarre outcomes. The exclusionary rule is a good example, where the courts keep saying it’s about deterring the police from violating your rights, when in reality it does nothing of the sort. The rule is intended not to make the police think twice but instead to ensure that violations of your rights don’t get used against you. And you can see how repeated insistence on its deterrent purpose erodes the rule — because in situation after situation the court recognizes that there is no significant deterrent effect, and so says exclusion wouldn’t matter here.

This kind of thing goes on in almost every field of the law.

The trick to understanding is actually formulaic: 1) Look at the facts and the outcome; 2) Look at the stated justifications; 3) Note any disconnects; 4) Apply your own understanding of human nature, various philosophies, history, culture, etc., determine likely explanations for the disconnects; 5) Select the explanation that explains the most data with the least complexity.

Go on, try it!

Deterrence has nothing to do with it.

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Interesting concurring opinion by Posner the other day in U.S. v. Craig. Basically, the defendant pled to four counts of creating child porn — which he created in an awful and horrifying way. He could have gotten 30 years for each count, but the judge gave him 50 (30 on one count, 20 on the other three). The defendant appealed the sentence. But it was within the Guidelines, and so was presumptively reasonable. And the judge didn’t ignore any mitigating factors. So the appeal was meritless and denied. A shocking sentence for a shocking crime, but hardly a shocking decision.

True to form, however, Posner went out of his way to make an economic evaluation of the sentence. What was it good for? Did tacking on the extra 20 years make any sense? Posner says no, and argues that judges need to take such things into account in the future when imposing sentences.

He engages in a straightforward cost-benefit analysis. The cost to society? $30K a year now, more than double that as the prisoner grows old and requires medical care. Plus the lost productivity of the man being incarcerated. The benefit? For that he looks to the purposes of punishment. But not all of them.

He only considers (more…)

Answering Your Most Burning Questions

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Google analytics is a great tool. Among other things, it shows the search engine queries people use to find this blog. Which is a good way of figuring out who its audience is, and what they need to know.

The queries aren’t as entertaining as they are over at Popehat, but then again neither is this blog.

Nor are they all that varied. In fact, just looking at the top 2000 searches so far this month, almost every single one is a variation on a few basic themes. These are the questions people apparently want answered right now. So I’ll address them briefly — very briefly — here.

1. Should I become a lawyer? / Do I have what it takes to be a lawyer?

To answer questions like these, you first have to understand what lawyers do. Once you know that, it should be (more…)

On Overcriminalization: There’s nothing new under the sun

Monday, June 11th, 2012

As we’ve mentioned perhaps a dozen times by now, we do this illustrated guide to law in our rare moments of free time. (Latest post on self-defense law is here.) We make every effort to avoid citing case names or statutes in that guide, because they’re almost never necessary for an understanding of the actual concepts. We also try not to waste time on what the law used to be. It’s common for those who popularize specialized fields of knowledge to tell the story of how a given field has evolved, devoting the bulk of their writing to what people once thought, before getting to how things are right now — and we hate that. Cut to the chase, already!

But the next installment’s going to be about the sources of criminal law, and it would be sort of disingenuous to simply cut to the chase there (“elected officials pass statutes and ordinances, and agencies adopt regulations, now move along” — that’s not really the whole story, is it?). In this particular case, it seems necessary to at least summarize a history of how English and American criminal laws all came about. Because that history is still a big source of the criminal laws we deal with now — occasionally in weird ways.

It’s a fascinating history, and we’re barely going to touch on any of it in our comic. But the surprising thing is how rarely anyone has touched on it at all. The history of criminal procedures is extremely well-documented (and byzantine in its complexity); but if any of you are History majors looking for a topic for your senior thesis or a dissertation, we might just mention that the history of the laws defining crimes is far from exhausted, hint hint.

There are two or three halfway-intelligible histories out there, written during various centuries, and each author makes the same complaint that they’re writing in a vacuum. Each, however, refers heavily to Sir William Blackstone. So we were re-reading bits of his Of Public Wrongs this morning over our coffee (thank you Google Books!) when a thought started nagging in the back of our brain.

It was hard to pin down the idea, but then we had it: Overcriminalization. For a while now, people who pay attention to the law have complained that there are too many crimes, with irrationally high penalties, and that this leads not only to injustice but to the law itself losing its legitimacy. Lately, this idea has begun to gain traction among political types as well. People are starting to realize that, as we’ve written several times before, the problems come from a number of sources: vindictive laws being passed without much forethought in response to notorious one-off cases; progressive politicians outlawing more and more offensive behaviors; reactionary politicians ratcheting up the punishments for everything; and perhaps most insidious of all, unelected bureaucrats imposing criminal penalties on countless (and as yet uncounted) regulatory infractions. It’s so bad that nobody knows for sure what’s a crime and what isn’t, and especially in the federal system the penalties can far outweigh the severity of a given offense.

Why did reading Blackstone bring this to mind? Because apart from merely commenting on the state of the law in the mid-1700s, Blackstone was arguing for reform. He wanted a law that was more utilitarian, more deterrent than retaliatory, more enlightened — and above all, more simplified. He complained that the criminal law as it stood in his time was a tangle of writs and statutes, with new offenses being created all the time without anyone knowing about it. All the different sources of penal laws, and all the previously unknown offenses, were “a snare for the unwary.” The law had ratcheted up over the preceding centuries, so that the number of capital offenses was enormous, and severe punishments were prescribed for the pettiest offenses. All this led to judges refusing to impose the prescribed penalties, while at the same time leading to a growing contempt for criminal laws in general.

Yup, sure sounded familiar. Overcriminalization is something that just seems to … happen… in mature systems. In Blackstone’s time, it happened because of a rapidly-growing administrative role of government, because of officials trying to look tough on crime, because of vindictive one-off laws, because of not thinking things through, and because of simple intertia. Yup, totally familiar.

Still, whenever people start talking about overcriminalization, they don’t start throwing around old Blackstone quotes. Instead, they usually come out with an aphorism they ascribe to Tacitus: “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government.” Which is unfortunate because (1) that phrasing implies a meaning that Tacitus did not intend; and (2) what the old boy really was saying was so much more apposite.

What was Tacitus saying in his Annals, Book III part 27? He’s talking about how the laws were getting out of hand in Ancient Rome:

Pulso Tarquinio adversum patrum factiones multa populus paravit tuendae libertatis et firmandae concordiae, creatique decemviri et accitis quae usquam egregia compositae duodecim tabulae, finis aequi iuris. nam secutae leges etsi aliquando in maleficos ex delicto, saepius tamen dissensione ordinum et apiscendi inlicitos honores aut pellendi claros viros aliaque ob prava per vim latae sunt. hinc Gracchi et Saturnini turbatores plebis nec minor largitor nomine senatus Drusus; corrupti spe aut inlusi per intercessionem socii. ac ne bello quidem Italico, mox civili omissum quin multa et diversa sciscerentur, donec L. Sulla dictator abolitis vel conversis prioribus, cum plura addidisset, otium eius rei haud in longum paravit, statim turbidis Lepidi rogationibus neque multo post tribunis reddita licentia quoquo vellent populum agitandi. iamque non modo in commune sed in singulos homines latae quaestiones, et corruptissima re publica plurimae leges.

Which my antique Church & Brodribb translation has as:

After Tarquin’s expulsion, the people, to check cabals among the Senators, devised many safeguards for freedom and for the establishment of unity. Decemvirs were appointed; everything specially admirable elsewhere was adopted, and the Twelve Tables drawn up, the last specimen of equitable legislation. For subsequent enactments, though occasionally directed against evildoers for some crime, were oftener carried by violence amid class dissensions, with a view to obtain honours not as yet conceded, or to banish distinguished citizens, or for other base ends. Hence the Gracchi and Saturnini, those popular agitators, and Drusus too, as flagrant a corrupter in the Senate’s name; hence, the bribing of our allies by alluring promises and the cheating them by tribunes vetoes. Even the Italian and then the Civil war did not pass without the enactment of many conflicting laws, till Lucius Sulla, the Dictator, by the repeal or alteration of past legislation and by many additions, gave us a brief lull in this process, to be instantly followed by the seditious proposals of Lepidus, and soon afterwards by the tribunes recovering their license to excite the people just as they chose. And now bills were passed, not only for national objects but for individual cases, and laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt.

So he wasn’t saying “the more corrupt the government happens to be, the more laws there will be.” He was saying “there were ups and downs, but generally there was a strong correlation between how many criminal laws we had and how broken our government was at the time.” (The word “corrupt” having the older more general meaning of “debased, decayed, changed in bad ways” — the way we’d say “a corrupted hard drive” today — in addition to the more specific modern meaning of “venal, self-serving, bribe-taking etc.”)

And what Tacitus was saying in general was the same thing that Blackstone was saying: there were too many criminal laws, often conflicting, created not for the general need but in order to curry favor with the people, to react to one-off cases, etc. etc.

Yup, sure sounds familiar. Just like old Ecclesiastes said, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” (Or didn’t one of the Epicureans say that first? Or was it one of the older Vedas?)


Blackstone actually gives us some hope. For his proposed reforms actually were taken to heart — in the new United States, of all places. As the new states were formed, and began creating their laws practically from scratch, they were ideally suited to put these new progressive ideas in place. There was no hidebound tradition to adhere to, no entrenched bureaucracy to upend. Blackstone called for a stripped-down, principled criminal law, and American legal thinkers tried to make it so. Crime was (for the first time in history, really,) identified as an offense against the State, and not the more personal kind of moral offense or private conflict. Lawmakers and judges began to try to explicitly think through different levels of intent and culpability — not as thoroughly as would be done in the mid-20th Century, but still in significant ways. Deterrence replaced retaliation as the driving force of enlightened thought on punishment. These were not frontier hicks making the laws, but educated progressive thinkers well aware that they were creating something new, and trying to get it right the first time.

We don’t have a new nation to start from scratch again, but at least there is precedent for reform. England came around, too — if a bit more gradually. (We probably don’t want another Sulla, though.)

It’s happened before, it could happen again. There’s nothing new under the sun!




Better Criminal Lawyering through Smart Risk-Taking

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Judgment is the criminal lawyer’s stock-in-trade. The ability to assess the risks of a situation, and choose the better course of action, is the value that lawyers bring to the criminal justice system. It doesn’t matter if they’re defense attorneys negotiating a deal or fighting it out at trial, or if they’re prosecutors deciding whether and what to charge — their value is their judgment. The better the judgment, the better the lawyer.

It’s therefore critical that criminal lawyers have some understanding of how and why people take risks. In advising a client inclined to take a bad risk, the lawyer can’t really change that perception without knowing what’s causing it. And such an understanding also helps one spot one’s own inclinations to error before it’s too late.

This is not common sense. (In fact, common sense is usually the enemy here.) It’s insight. The ability to see how people act, and realize — aha! — why.

Fortunately for the rest of us, there are amazingly smart people out there who do that all day. When you find one with real insights about why people take the risks they do, you’re probably gonna want to listen.

That’s why we’re taking a moment to point you to Danny Kahneman (that’s his picture up there).

Who is Danny Kahneman, you ask. You’re not alone. If you’re not an economist, you can be forgiven for not knowing he won the Nobel Prize for basically inventing the field of Behavioral Economics. If you’re not a psychologist, you can be forgiven for not knowing he’s considered “one of the most influential psychologists in history, and certainly the most important psychologist alive today.” If you’re not a foreign-policy wonk, you can be forgiven for not knowing of his significant ideas on the evaluation of risks in wartime. He’s one of the most insightful and relevant people nobody’s ever heard of.

As it happens, a lot of his insights are directly relevant to the practice of criminal law. Trying to decide the likely outcome of that trial? You’re probably (more…)

Making Drug Enforcement Work

Friday, March 2nd, 2012


Tomorrow’s issue of the Economist has a brief piece on some new drug policing in Virginia: “Cleaning Up the Hood: Focusing on drug markets rather than users means less crime.” The article is on DMI, or Drug-Market Intervention, a law-enforcement strategy that has been spreading around the country since it was first introduced in North Carolina about eight years ago.

DMI is a combination of community involvement and police commitment that focuses on street dealers. The community is encouraged to report dealers. Police then notify the dealers that they know who they are, but promise not to arrest them if they take part in an intervention. The dealers are confronted with community leaders who show them what their dealing is doing to the community — and who promise to help them change their ways if they’re willing. The dealers are given a second chance. Meanwhile, the police increase their presence in the area, and those caught dealing now get locked up. Quick police response and community involvement increases people’s willingness to report dealers, and a cycle begins.

Law enforcement has long known that you don’t eliminate a drug problem by going after demand — addicts and users are too numerous, and no matter how many you lock up they just keep coming. Meanwhile, street dealers continue to operate, destroying the safety and livability of the community. The addicts they attract, the nastiness they inflict, the violence they commit, and the fear they instill all combine in ruinous ways, engendering more crime and blight.

Buyers are easy to arrest, though, and if a police force is going to be judged by its arrest numbers rather than actual results (as politicians are wont to do), then there is a strong temptation to arrest the users. Not only does this do nothing to stop the dealing problem, the users are typically charged with modest possession offenses that put them right back out to buy again.

Drug courts and similar diversion programs do actually work wonders with helping users break their drug habits and overcome the life-skill deficits that often led to them. But those programs are typically reserved for those charged with crimes to begin with, many times only those charged with felony possession, and of those only the defendants who are likely to succeed in the program to begin with. They’re great, but they don’t solve the underlying problem.

These DMI initiatives recognize that, like so much else in society, it is (more…)

Is Open File Discovery a Cure for Brady Violations?

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Prompted by a tweet from Scott Greenfield this morning, we read a short editorial the New York Times did a couple of days ago, arguing that federal and state prosecutors should adopt open-file discovery policies, in order to limit Brady violations and promote justice. We’d missed it the first time around, because … well, because we never bother to read NYT editorials.

This one is decent enough, so far as it goes. The Times points out that it’s up to the prosecutor to decide whether something is material enough to disclose under Brady, and so defendants very often don’t learn of facts that might have been favorable to them. With full disclosure, perhaps fewer defendants who are over-charged or improperly charged would plead guilty, and perhaps fewer wrongful convictions might result.

Yeah, but …

Here’s the thing: “Open file” policies are rarely that. Prosecutors’ offices with open file policies rarely (if ever) make their complete file available to the defense. More often “open file” just means they comply with their existing discovery obligations without putting up too much of a fight.

Prosecutors in general are unwilling to engage in true open file discovery, and for reasons that are anything but nefarious. It would be like playing high-stakes poker in a game where you and only you have to show all of your cards, all of the time. Unless you have four aces and a joker every hand, that’s a losing strategy. Defendants will be able to see all the weaknesses of the evidence with plenty of time to exploit them. People who “should have been” convicted will go free.

In practice, prosecutors only show their hand if it’s going to make the defendant fold. Or to the extent that it will persuade the defendant to fold. Show the ace, but don’t bother showing the 2, 6, 7 and jack.

Of course, it’s a misplaced concern to worry that people who “should have been convicted” will go free. If the evidence does not establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then it doesn’t matter whether they did it or not, they don’t deserve to be convicted. It’s not even correct to think of whether they deserve to be convicted — the concern is whether the State is entitled to punish them. If the government’s evidence, all of it, is too weak to convict, then the State doesn’t get to punish. (What the defendant deserves only enters into it when asking how much punishment to inflict.)

The proper concern is whether (more…)

When Incarceration Shot Up and Crime Plummeted

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

The January 30 issue of the New Yorker has an intriguing article by Adam Gopnik, “The Caging of America: Why do we lock up so many people?” Perhaps we’ve grown a bit cynical, but we expected yet another inane media whine about increasing rates of imprisonment “despite” fewer crimes being committed. We were surprised to find a thoughtful — at times insightful — look not only at the reality of American incarceration, but also at what causes crime to go up and down. It’s rare enough for a news or magazine writer to do even that much. To his credit, Gopnik goes one further, making a creditable attempt at objectivity — dismissing, debunking and blaming both the right and the left — though his apparent left-ish leanings still come through from time to time.


Gopnik’s main points are these:

Incarceration is happening on an unprecedented scale in our history. It’s been growing ever faster since the 1970s. Its ubiquity and brutality have become accepted parts of the culture. Northern and Southern thinkers have come up with different explanations and solutions. Northern thinkers like William J. Stuntz see prison as a place for rehabilitation, and the injustices as the result of our system’s reliance on procedural correctness rather than individual justice, from the Bill of Rights through the present day — a problem to be solved by letting common sense and compassion be the focus on a case-by-case basis. Southern thinkers like Michelle Alexander see prison instead as a means of retribution, and the injustices of the system are part of its design to trap and control young black men.

As incarceration rates more than tripled between 1980 and 2010, the crime rate itself went down. “The more bad guys there are in prison, it appears, the less crime there has been in the streets.” The huge growth in imprisonment, and the policies that led to it (such as harsher drug laws, zero-tolerance policies, restricted sentencing discretion, etc.) were a reaction to the big-city crime wave of the 1960s ad 1970s — a crime wave that owed its existence to liberal policies that had crossed the line from mercy to abdication. Meanwhile, research began to reveal that rehabilitation doesn’t work, and bad guys weren’t getting better, and so all you could do was lock them up to keep them off the streets.

Starting in the 1990s, crime rates began to drop — by 40% nationwide, and 80% in New York City. Demographic shifts don’t account for it. Neither do broken-window policing, keeping the really bad guys behind bars, welfare reform, or other right-wing explanations. The left’s insistence that crime comes from poverty, discrimination and social injustice didn’t work, either, as none of those things changed enough to account for the drop in crime. The economy didn’t have an effect.

What did have an effect in New York City, however, was (more…)