Over the past few days, criminal law reform has become a darling of discussion, with the Senate Judiciary Committee approving its bipartisan compromise, the prosecutors and head cops responsible for over-incarceration forming a cool club to pretend they’re going to save us from it, and a panel discussion with the President of the United States explaining how we’re going to fix everything, provided no cop gets a paper cut in the process.
Never has there been a bigger dog and pony show of empty rhetoric so carefully orchestrated to pacify public concerns by feeding them a heaping, steaming pile of bullshit. Sure, there will be some tiny changes, where the low hanging fruit is plucked so our law enforcement heroes can prove how much they care, and pat themselves on the back for being so reform-y that they’ll sprain something.
As anticipated, there is no front page story in today’s New York Times about how everything changed at 100 Centre Street yesterday, now that New York’s heroes of reform have changed everything. Of course, that could be attributed to President Obama, who explained that it will take a long time, baby steps really, to make changes while making sure public safety isn’t compromised.
Will the public be appeased by this Broadway spectacular? The answer lies somewhere between the public’s ability to recognize when they’re being played for fools, fed insipid vagaries, meaningless words couched in the rhetoric of “reasonableness,” and the next dead black body.
There are forces, however, contributing to the mass confusion over mass incarceration, that need to be recognized. And the worst part of it is that these forces are promoted by media that should, in a better world, be illuminating problems rather than obfuscating them.
Not to sound like more of a broken record than ever, but when the New York Times lets someone hop atop their huge soapbox, it would behoove them to make sure their pitch wasn’t ridiculously clueless. And yet, an op-ed appears today, on top of that steaming pile, by Stanford Business School professor, Lawrence Wein, and Cornell lecturer, Mericcan Usta, that is so strikingly clueless as make the mind boggle.
The op-ed focuses on Los Angeles jails, due to the mandated reduction in the prison population and use of local jails for warehousing low-level felons. The crux of the argument is that split sentences of imprisonment and supervision are a viable way to reduce the numbers of people in jail without sacrificing public safety. Hardly a new idea to anyone with a clue about the system. But they present the obvious with the most astoundingly misguided trade-off imaginable.
Judicial and correctional systems can reduce their jail populations to manageable levels either by offering pretrial release to defendants, hoping they appear in court and don’t flee, or by offering split sentencing, in which sentences for low-level felonies, like shoplifting something worth more than $950 and check forgery, are split between jail time and mandatory supervision.
Yes, they just conflated pretrial detention, those guys they “hope” will appear and not flee, with convicted felons. And came out on the side of denying bail to the presumptively innocent because, well, they hate Kalief Browder.
Our analysis of data from the Los Angeles County jail system, which is the world’s largest, suggests that split sentencing is much more effective than pretrial release at making the best of the trade-off between the size of the jail population and public safety.
Split sentencing exposes the public to the recidivism risk of one day for every saved jail day; e.g., if a low-level felon receives one year of mandatory supervision, then we risk 365 days of having a felon on the street in exchange for a reduction of 365 jail days (which represents a $40,000 cost savings).
In contrast, a person charged with a low-level felony waits 53 days on average from arraignment to case disposition if he or she is held in custody, but waits 191 days if awarded pretrial release. Why the difference? For understandable reasons, the courts give higher priority in their trial dockets to defendants under pretrial custody than the defendants on pretrial release.
That’s what it apparently looks like to people without the slightest clue what they’re talking about, but why should that prevent them from using the Times’ megaphone from shouting insanity to the masses?
While it’s true that courts give higher priority to “in cases” than out, that’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the difference in disposition time. It’s a nice assumption, provided you have absolutely no idea what actually happens, but it’s completely wrong. Wein might have taken a clue from the number of cases that go to trial, upon which it might have dawned on him that moving a case to trial has nothing to do with anything.
But the obvious answer is that people detained cop pleas to get out rather than fight their charges. Take the plea today and you walk out of the courtroom. Challenge the charges and you will spend the next year or more in a cell, before conviction. Great choice, which is why people released have a huge advantage.
This, of course, is so utterly basic to anyone paying even a little attention that it was barely worth the space here to mention it. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it. Except the guys who get some of the most valuable real estate in the media world. And the poor mopes who read their tripe.
Was this a set-up, another act in the Kabuki Theater of criminal justice reform? Probably not. Hanlon’s Razor and all. But over the next few days, weeks, months, we can anticipate being deluged with reformist ideas and rhetoric, and unduly optimistic voices that once challenged the faults in the system will report glowingly about the great reforms being accomplished, the heart-warming words of our political and law-enforcement leaders, who have heard our cries and responded with bold initiatives that will change everything.
Full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.