Police Get Good Marks, From Citizens of All Races

November 2nd, 2013

Last week, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission announced that it would conduct its first survey of citizen satisfaction with the police.  The results should provide us with helpful new ways to evaluate the Milwaukee Police Department’s performance and identify areas in need of improvement.

Unfortunately, media coverage provides a very distorted picture of police-citizen interactions.  What makes the news, of course, is when officers become violent or exhibit extreme callousness.  When video is available of such incidents, as is increasingly common, the vivid images may be repeated endlessly on TV or circulate virally on social media.  Viewers may be left with the impression that such incidents are the norm.  However, the vast majority of police-citizen interactions occur without anything newsworthy happening.  Among other things, the Commission’s new survey should give us a much better sense of what happens in the more routine interactions and how those interactions affect public perceptions of the police.

Although this sort of survey data has not been available for Milwaukee specifically, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics did conduct a national survey in 2011 regarding police-citizens interactions.  The results, released in two reports earlier this fall, indicate a remarkably high level of citizen satisfaction, even among the minority groups who seem to bear the brunt of the high-profile incidents of police misconduct.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Thoughts on the Holder Address: Two Cheers for the New Paradigm

October 20th, 2013

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a widely noted address to the American Bar Association that seemed to promise significant changes in federal prosecutorial policies.  I wrote these reactions for the Federal Sentencing Reporter.

Following decades in which the U.S. Department of Justice has consistently advocated for a rigid and harsh legalism in criminal justice policy—in which DOJ, in the name of abstract principles of national uniformity, has willfully disregarded the devastating impact of its charging, plea-bargaining, and sentencing practices on real-life human beings—Attorney General Holder’s ABA address seems a breath of fresh air. He calls for a more flexible federal criminal justice system, in which prosecutorial charging priorities are more specifically tailored to meet local needs, in which sentencing is more individualized to the offender and prosecutors sometimes forego mandatory minimum sentences, and in which individual U.S. Attorney Offices experiment with new diversion programs as an alternative to conventional case-processing. Holder believes—correctly, I think—that a more flexible and pragmatic system can achieve better public-safety results at a lesser cost than a system in which preserving the integrity of the federal sentencing guidelines is the overriding value.

Through Holder’s address, DOJ offers its most prominent and unequivocal endorsement yet of an emerging new criminal justice paradigm.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Alternatives to Incarceration: The Importance of Local Collaboration and Leadership

October 6th, 2013

Last week, the Audit Services Division of the Milwaukee County Office of the Comptroller released a helpful new report, “Electronic Monitoring can Achieve Substantive Savings for Milwaukee County, but Only if Pursued on a Large Scale with Satisfactory Compliance.”  Although the voluminous report particularly focuses on electronic monitoring, it also provides a wealth of background information about the recent history of our local jail, House of Correction, and alternatives to incarceration.  The report documents a rich array of new or recently reinvigorated programs that are intended to divert defendants from the jail or House of Correction, either at the pretrial stage or post-adjudication.  The report also notes widespread support for these initiatives among nearly all major stakeholders in the County’s criminal justice system, with the most significant exception being Sheriff David Clarke.

Media coverage centered on the report’s finding that home detention and electronic monitoring of larger numbers of offenders might save the County more than $2.5 million in costs at the House of Correction.  The Office of the Sheriff responded to this finding in a characteristically derisive fashion, particularly criticizing the House’s current leadership for placing drunk drivers on electronic monitoring.

Although the war of words among County officials makes good copy, I think the real story in the report is the extensive and innovative collaboration that has been occurring for the past half-dozen years between court officials, elected leaders, prosecutors, public defenders, and various other stakeholders in order to address Milwaukee’s chronic jail overcrowding and to develop cost-effective alternatives to incarceration.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Thoughts on Imprisonment in Wisconsin: Past, Present, and Future

September 22nd, 2013

Public Opinion

  • Wisconsin voters do not favor indiscriminate harshness in the treatment of criminal offenders, but rather believe that the costs and benefits of imprisonment should be carefully weighed in each case.  In the July 2013 Marquette Law School Poll,[1] a clear majority of Wisconsin voters (55.3%) expressed support for the idea that “prisons are a government spending program, and just like any other government program, they should be put to the cost-benefit test. States should analyze their prison populations and figure out if there are offenders in expensive prison cells who can be safely and effectively supervised in the community at a lower cost.”[2]
  • An overwhelming majority of Wisconsin voters (85%) agree that “criminals who have genuinely turned their lives around deserve a second chance.”[3]
  • An overwhelming majority of Wisconsin voters (86%) say that they “feel safe walking alone at night” in their neighborhoods.”[4]  Although fear and outrage have sometimes dominated public discussion of criminal justice policies, Wisconsin is ready for a more balanced conversation that considers what policies will deliver the greatest benefits to the state at the least cost over the long run.

Imprisonment and Crime Trends

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Criminology of “Oliver Twist”

September 8th, 2013

Let’s face it.  The protagonist of “Oliver Twist” just isn’t a very interesting character.  Things start out promisingly enough with his famous request, “Please, sir, I want some more.”  And who can resist applauding when he gives the boorish Noah Claypole a well-deserved thrashing?  But we’re then forced to endure nearly 400 pages of Oliver as an insufferable milquetoast, passively cast here and there to suit the needs of Dickens’ laughably improbable plot, weeping copiously on cue to amplify the author’s sentimental excesses.

No, Oliver himself gives us no good reason to continue to read past page 50.  It’s the villains who really carry the show.  Mr. and Mrs. Bumble, of course, supply some darkly memorable comic relief, and they are villains of a sort.  Venal and hypocritical public servants, we might think of them as the forebears of some of today’s white-collar criminals.  (Mr. Bumble is also the source of a perennially favorite statement about the law; upon being informed that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction,” Bumble sputters helplessly, “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass–a idiot.” (402))

But the real scene-stealers are the criminals of a more conventional sort.  Is there any doubt that Fagin is the most memorable and richly realized character in the book, with the murderous Bill Sikes not far behind?   Read the rest of this entry »

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Milwaukee Arrests, Part IV: Racial Disparity Story Similar in Chicago, Sort Of

August 25th, 2013

In the first post in this series, I explored the persistent racial disparities in Milwaukee arrests.  How does Chicago compare?  In a nutshell, the overall disparity rates are remarkably similar in Milwaukee and Chicago, but the War on Drugs drives the disparities to a much greater extent in the Windy City than here.

Let’s start by taking a look at black and white arrest rates in Chicago since 2000:

Chicago Arrests

As is apparent, arrest rates have been coming down for both races, but white rates remain well below black.

Here is what has been happening in Milwaukee during the same time period:   Read the rest of this entry »

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Eighth Amendment Protections for Adults — Revised

August 20th, 2013

A much-revised version of my forthcoming Eighth Amendment article is now available on SSRN.  In the article, I consider whether adults might benefit from the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama, which imposed new limitations on the ability of states to sentence juveniles to life without parole.  The new version reaches the same bottom-line conclusions (guardedly optimistic), but includes additional support for some of the arguments.  Also, I’ve completely reorganized the first half to make the analysis clearer.

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New US DOJ “Smart on Crime” Policy

August 14th, 2013

AG Holder’s remarks to the ABA earlier this week, announcing new DOJ initiatives, are here.  The related “Smart on Crime” report is here.  Press coverage of the Holder speech focused on the announcement that federal prosecutors would no longer seek to have “draconian” mandatory minimums imposed on low-level drug offenders, but there are other interesting aspects to the new policy, including expanded compassionate release for federal prisoners and a new focus on reentry and collateral consequences.

It seems to me that just about everything here could have been said, and should have been said, two decades ago by AG Reno.  Still, better late than never . . . .

Ironic that this federal backing away from mandatory minimums occurs the very same week we see a push in Wisconsin for new mandatory minimums at the state level.

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Earned Release From Prison: Judges Not Necessarily the Best Deciders

August 12th, 2013

In 2009, Wisconsin expanded release opportunities for prisoners and established a new Earned Release Review Commission to handle the petitions.  But, just two years later, the legislature reversed course, largely repealing the 2009 reforms and abolishing the ERRC. The 2011 revisions effectively returned authority over “early” release to judges. Critics of the ERRC, an appointed body, maintained that it was more appropriate to give release authority to elected judges.

However, last month’s Marquette Law School Poll indicates that Wisconsin voters would actually prefer to put early release into the hands of a statewide commission of experts rather than the original sentencing judge.

Among the 713 randomly selected Wisconsin voters who participated, a 52% majority stated that release decisions should be made by a commission of experts, as opposed to only about 31% who favored judges. An additional 13% stated that both options were equally good. The Poll’s margin of error was 3.7%.

We asked several questions to try to identify more specifically the perceived strengths and weaknesses of both options.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Criminal Justice: Some Reflections on the Basics

August 5th, 2013

The criminal-justice system exists to minimize the extent to which individuals perform certain acts.  There are many different tools available for society to discourage disfavored behaviors, some of which involve the use of law and legal institutions.  One such law-based tool is the criminal sanction.  It is not the only one.  There are also various forms of civil and administrative liability, as well as subsidies and other types of incentives—behavior modification mechanisms can include both carrots and sticks.  Among the sticks, the criminal sanction is normally regarded as the most forceful tool available, as well as the tool most worrisome for its tendency to produce devastating collateral damage.

It is sometimes said that the criminal-justice system exists to do other things like reinforce or clarify important moral norms; build social cohesion; identify, incapacitate, and treat individuals with dangerously antisocial tendencies; right the moral balance when it has been upset; vindicate (or perhaps more ambitiously bringing healing to) victims; or simply do justice.  Each such formulation has a certain amount of truth to it, but each presents considerable danger if it is viewed in isolation as THE overriding purpose of the criminal-justice system.

One important danger is this: in a liberal, democratic society, it is imperative that the equal worth of all individuals be respected, and that there be a wide scope of individual autonomy, particularly in such matters as conscience, private moral choice, lifestyle, and political dissent.   Read the rest of this entry »

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