Four Myths About Criminal Justice

As Nick Gillespie mentioned last month, The Washington Post has hired former Reasoner Radley Balko to write about criminal justice and civil liberties. Radley's first post went up today, and in addition to introducing its author to his new audience it listed "some widespread and potentially harmful misconceptions about the criminal justice system":

NOW I CAN NUTPUNCH EVEN MORE READERS! BWA-HA-HA!• The number of dangerous defendants who "get off on a technicality" is so small, it's barely significant. Somewhere between 90 to 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved with plea bargains before ever getting to trial. Among those that do get to trial, conviction rates in most jurisdictions run at 80 percent or higher.

• Another striking misperception: The crime rate in America has been dropping dramatically since the mid-1990s. The murder rates in our largest cities are at lows we haven't seen in a half century or more. Yet Americans consistently believe crime is getting worse, not better. Last October, 64 percent of respondents told Gallup that crime was getting worse in America. Only 19 percent correctly said that it's getting better.

• Likewise, the job of police officer is getting safer. Last year saw the fewest gun-related homicides of police officers since the 19th century. Assaults on cops are dropping, too. Yet we're regularly told that policing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. In fact, you're more likely to be murdered just by living in about half of America's largest cities than you are while working as a police officer.

• Everything you know about forensics is probably wrong. Those magical machines that churn out precise and detailed information based on a half-footprint, a fiber, or a clod of dirt so that Ted Danson or David Caruso can then go on to solve the crime? They're mostly fictional. Prosecutors call this "the CSI effect," and they complain that these shows condition jurors to expect far too much from forensic analysis. On the other hand, an unscrupulous prosecutor and forensic analyst can also exploit those expectations. DNA analysis—which was developed within the scientific community—has shown us that forensic analysis—which was developed largely in the law enforcement community, and is often practiced without scientific standards like peer review and blind testing—is deeply flawed.

You can read the rest here. Congratulations to Radley, and—maybe more to the point—congratulations to the Post and its readers.

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  • Floridian||

    I'm sorry Balko, but all the facts in the world aren't going to counter act the media's constant scare stories. Seriously does 20/20 do anything but fear mongering? Also as long as people aren't facing the gallows themselves, the popular mantra is going to be "kill them all and let god sort it out."

  • kinnath||

    If it bleeds, it leads.

  • ||

    The thing is, so much of the media's bullshit is targeted towards the people who actually watch it: mostly old people. I mean, who the fuck watches 20/20 but old people? Do you think 23-year-olds are getting freaked out by scare stories on 60 Minutes or the local news, shows which they've probably never seen?

    The media beats a constant drumbeat, but so do the politicians and the police and the special interest groups. The media just conveys that message for them. These types of people and groups have a vested interest in a scared public that needs themselves to be protected. Remember Mencken's quote about hobgoblins:

    "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

  • RBS||

    Do you think 23-year-olds housewives are getting freaked out by scare stories on 60 Minutes or the local news, shows which they've probably never seen?

    Yes.

  • John||

    I have an aunt by marriage who is in her 80s and watches TV all of the time. That woman is a right out of Reason central casting. She believes every idiotic scare story put out by the media and thinks every person arrested belongs in jail. It is just scary.

  • ||

    There is certainly a type of person that eats this shit up (my grandmother, for one) and age does not help and just makes it worse. And they're the ones who have the news channels on all day. Are there young people who have the news channels on all day? No way, right? Or am I totally wrong?

  • John||

    No the demographic for all of them is people over 50. And actually it is mostly people without college education. MSNBC's audience is mostly people without a college education.

    It is an old person thing. Not every old person. My dad isn't like that. But my God some people get old and just lose all common sense.

  • RBS||

    There are plenty of housewives who watch them all day. Then they post about it on facebook or send an email blast warning all their friends.

  • SForza||

    Yeah, that happened to my grandma. Smart, social, and tough businesswoman when she was younger. Had some heart troubles in her 60s, stopped going out as much, and watched TV all the time. The more TV she watched, the more she thought the outside world was "going to hell in a hand basket."

    And it was, in many ways. Of course, it was also getting better (sometimes dramatically) in many ways, but she saw less and less of it.

  • GILMORE||

    "'It is an old person thing""

    This occurred to me during the 229th commercial for catheters, Viagra, mobility scooters, and BUY GOLD NOW shown between O'Reilly Factor segments.

  • Floridian||

    There is certainly a type of person that eats this shit up (my grandmother, for one) and age does not help and just makes it worse. And they're the ones who have the news channels on all day. Are there young people who have the news channels on all day? No way, right? Or am I totally wrong?

    I don't think young people watch it but their parents do and they warn their kids about the dangers of the world every time they leave the house or when they call to check up on them in college.

  • RBS||

    Every so often I get a call from my mom that starts with "I just saw something on Good Morning America..."

  • Floridian||

    John|1.8.14 @ 11:52AM|#

    I have an aunt by marriage who is in her 80s and watches TV all of the time. That woman is a right out of Reason central casting. She believes every idiotic scare story put out by the media and thinks every person arrested belongs in jail. It is just scary.

    Well if they weren't guilty why did the police arrest them?

    My mother-in-law's exact words

  • ||

    This is one of the most pervasive and horrible attitudes that perpetuates this shit. It makes me cringe every time I hear it.

  • ||

    And all you have to do is hand them a fucking Agatha Christie novel, or Law and Order episode, or whatever, for an illustration of how it can happen.

  • ||

    I thought all old women had read every Agatha Christie novel already and seen every Law & Order episode. I know my grandmother did.

  • ||

    Yeah, that's why I don't really get it. It's so fucking obvious, even in a way they should get.

  • Floridian||

    My wife has to remind me not to get in it with her folks every time we visit. Luckily her siblings are apolitical so I talk to them mostly. Mostly.

  • ||

    My dog training mentor is in his 80's. He was bragging about how he calledthe cops on some teens that were smoking in a parking lot across the street from his house. I asked if the kids were keeping him up or disturbing his peace. Nope. Just thought those whippersnappers needed a good lessson.

    I told him to just let them have their fricken fun, for crying out loud.

  • John||

    Part of that is gun control. If I am in my 80s and can't own a gun, I am probably pretty paranoid about teenagers, since I likely have no change in any sort of physical confrontation. If I own a gun, then I am a lot less concerned about teenagers hanging out looking for trouble in my neighborhood.

  • ||

    He's fairly big on guns, though not sure if he currently owns one.

  • ||

    Plus we're talking about Great Falls, VA. Those kids are super-wealthy whities sneaking out of their McMansions and parking in the elementary school lot. Not Latin Kings or Bloods. Just go into the the Starbucks in the shopping center there and you'll see what kind of kids I'm talking about.

  • John||

    Honestly, the little bastards probably did deserve to have the cops called. You didn't say it was Great Falls.

  • dantheserene||

    Virginia is Shall Issue for CHPs, and one of the better states on guns overall. If he wants one he probably has at least one. Even in Fairfax County.

  • ||

    There's always a segment of little shits who think it's amusing to call the cops on their neighbors for the slightest perceived infraction (or even annoyance). They are fucking scum.

  • John||

    Yeah. It is appalling. It is a total shirk of your civic duty. If you think someone is causing a problem, go out and tell them to knock it off. If they tell you to go fuck yourself and they really are doing something illegal then by all mean call the cops. But don't call the cops on someone without first at least giving them a chance to explain themselves.

  • GILMORE||

    +1 quiet kegger

  • Doctor Whom||

    I grew up in a neighborhood full of such people. I couldn't move out fast enough.

  • SForza||

    Every neighborhood has at least one.

  • GILMORE||

    ""Kaptious Kristen|1.8.14 @ 12:02PM|#

    My dog training mentor ...

    AND THE FIRST-TIME-EVER-USED-BEGINNING-OF-SENTENCE-AWARD GOES TO...

  • Bee Tagger||

    AND THE FIRST-TIME-EVER-USED-BEGINNING-OF-SENTENCE-AWARD GOES TO...

    I think she's going to have to turn right around and give that award back you!

  • Sunmonocle Backwards Tophat||

    The old people on my street whine about how kids don't play outside and just sit indoors and play video games. Then they complain about the kids roaming the neighbor on their bikes. Of course, they don't see those same kids playing touch football at the park, but there's only so much you can see spying out your bay window. My neighborhood's crime rate is less than a third the national average, but the neighborhood is still going to hell, apparently.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Wrong, Epi.

    Lots and lots of kids watch lots and lots of TV. I was shocked when I heard my nieces and nephews talk glowingly about CSI. And those awful court shows.

    The only thing old people watch more than younger people is the local news.

  • kinnath||

    Good to see Radley out there doing God's work in some of America's toughest neighborhoods.

  • RBS||

    I follow him on twitter. It's brutal out there.

  • From the Tundra||

    Doesn't get a lot of love, does he?

  • RBS||

    I imagine some of them literally foaming at the mouth while furiously misspelling every word.

  • BiMonSciFiCon||

    He's just a tool of the Kochs, Mark Ames told me so.

  • ||

    He must be part crocodile with skin that thick.

  • R C Dean||

    Last year saw the fewest gun-related homicides of police officers since the 19th century.

    Is that gross numbers? What's the rate per 1,00 cops? Per 1,000 "civilians"?

  • ||

    It's gross, making it even more significant.

  • kinnath||

    The most dramatic number in the report may be the 33 officers killed by gunfire, the lowest number since 1887, when the country's population was more than four times smaller than it is today.

  • Zeb||

    But they told me there was a war on cops going on. I'm confused.

  • Invisible Finger||

    What kind of shit-for-brains editor lets "four times smaller" get through?

  • Konima||

    Are you arguing this, or are you genuinely interested in the specifics?

  • R C Dean||

    I'm genuinely interested. While the gross number is incredible, I expect the rate(s) are even more incredible. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the rate of officers killed by gunfire is the lowest its ever been in our history.

  • Zeb||

    Hard to see how it wouldn't be the lowest. Unless a lot of cops got shot in the earlier 19th century. I'm pretty sure that the number of police has only increased since then.

  • R C Dean||

    Prosecutors call this "the CSI effect," and they complain that these shows condition jurors to expect far too much from forensic analysis.

    I've heard defense lawyers say just the opposite: that these shows condition jurors to accept forensic evidence as irrefutable and definitive.

  • ||

    I'm not seeing how those are opposite statements.

  • Konima||

    Needs more reading comprehension?

  • robc||

    Had it been in place, OJ would have been found guilty. But jurors didnt understand/trust DNA evidence at the time.

  • Zeb||

    And I don't think that they had nearly the certainty that they do now in identifying an individual by DNA in 1995 or whenever it was.

  • kinnath||

    The DNA testing was rock solid against OJ. Most of the blood evidence showed mixes of both victims and/or OJ which makes it difficult to be definitive. But two out of the dozens of samples that were presented two were especially dangerous (now I am struggling to remember exactly what the were). From recollection, a sock at OJs house had a blood sample from the wife and only the wife (probability of false ID less than one in ten or a hundred thousand) and something at the scene had OJs blood and only OJs blood (again probability of false ID less than one in ten or a hundred thousand). So probability that both of these two items where false positives would be less than one in a billion or one in ten billion.

    There were only two rational explanations: OJ was framed or OJ did it. We all know what the jury decided.

  • Zeb||

    Yeah, I guess that would be good enough, even though it is much better now.
    I made a special point of not paying much attention to the OJ thing. I was trying to avoid knowing the verdict for as long as possible, but some jerk announced it to me about a minute after.

  • ||

    I was in class in college, and some guy busts in and yells "OJ found innocent!" A good portion of the class cheered, though it was probably around 50% (and it broke down pretty heavily by race, unfortunately). This was just a few minutes after the verdict. I couldn't have cared less, but any disruption to a boring genetics lecture is fine with me.

  • Killaz||

    I got fired from a job that morning, decided I could use some advice from a friend who worked at UNC-G. She wanted to watch the verdict, so we waled from her office to the student union. When it was rendered, the black students exploded with, 'NG! NG! NG!' It was like being in the middle of a spontaneous riot.

  • Invisible Finger||

    The problem with DNA evidence is that planting it seems pretty easy. Unless I'm physically there when it's collected and with it every step of the way through it's transport and analysis, the corruption of the evidence seems so certain that I would never take the state's word for any DNA evidence.

    Two DNA strands match. So what?

  • Rich||

    What about "the Perry Mason effect"?

    "Perhaps *this* will refresh your memory."

  • Bee Tagger||

    What about the Columbo effect? Where the lawyer goes to leave the court room but then pauses just as he's walking out and says to the person on the stand, "one more thing."

  • kinnath||

    I think the current expectation from juries is that:

    1) forensic evidence is irrefutable and definitive.

    2) every case should have irrefutable and definitive forensic evidence.

    Works both for and against the defense.

  • R C Dean||

    Interesting. I suspect that's it.

  • RBS||

    I've been on both sides and that's exactly it.

  • John||

    That is it Kinnath.

  • John||

    It depends. The biggest problem is that there is a whole range of junk science that the FBI invented in the last 30 years that should have never passed the Kumoh Tire test and been admitted in the first place. Juries see some guy in a lab coat talking about worthless crap like matching fibers and think it carries the same weight as matching DNA.

    I honestly am not sure what the hell Balko is talking about with regards to DAs. I guess perhaps DAs are bitching that juries just discount the evidence once the defense explains how it doesn't magically solve the case.

  • kinnath||

    I read somewhere that DAs stated that most convictions are based upon circumstantial evidence and that the CSI effect leads juries to discount circumstantial evidence and expect some lab geek to show up with irrefutable proof that the defendant did it.

  • John||

    I blame that on TV and movies. One of the biggest lies told on TV is that circumstantial evidence is weak or unworthy proof. In reality it is often the best proof. DNA tests are only as good as the quality control of the lab and the flat foot collecting it at the crime scene. Eye witness testimony, if it identifies a stranger to the witness is well on worthless. But circumstantial evidence is often iron clad and eliminates any reasonable explanation other than guilt. But understanding that requires rational thought and making logical connections, and that it often beyond some people.

  • kinnath||

    DNA tests maybe a dozen markers out of the hundreds or thousands that make us unique.

    So DNA can absolutely exclude someone that does not match a sample.

    But a perfect match only means that the defendant could be the person. Almost no one understands this.

    As one forensic expert explained during a visit to my college. "I can prove that only 4 people in the LA basin could have DNA that matches the evidence at the crime scene. It's the defense attorney's responsibility to explain to the jury why it's wasn't the defendant and must have been one of the other three unknown people that match the evidence."

  • John||

    I am fully aware that DNA is very persuasive if it matches. But the match only means something if the lab isn't corrupt and lying and if the police properly collected the evidence at the crime scene without contaminating it with the defendants' DNA.

    In a perfect world DNA would be 100% or damn close proof the person was there. In our world, not so much.

    Beyond that, at best it proves the persons body fluid or whatever was in a place. It does nothing to explain how it got there.

  • kinnath||

    Sorry, we seem to be talking crosswise. I wasn't trying to contradict you.

  • John||

    No. My fault. I didn't read your comment properly. Sorry Kinnath.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Best to have all sorts of evidence, direct and circumstantial, but I agree--eyewitness testimony often sucks. It's good for stuff like ten people totally unconnected to the victim and the defendant see the defendant shoot the victim, but not for a lot of other crimes.

  • John||

    People put too much weight into eye witness testimony.

  • robc||

    There is a reason that the ancient Israelites required 2-3 eye witnesses for a conviction.

    If I was on a jury, I would absolutely refuse to convict if the only evidence was ONE eye witness.

  • John||

    Depends. If they eye witness knew the person and was credible, I would convict. The problem is identifying strangers. Unless you are some kind of savant, you are just not going to remember who you saw.

  • robc||

    Yeah, can see that. I was thinking in terms of typical eye witness picking someone out of a lineup or describing to an artist or whatever.

  • kinnath||

    I remember a TV show that was following a class of new police through training. In one of the class room sessions, a masked man walked in and shot the teacher then fled. Afterwards, all the student police were interviewed to find out what happen. They couldn't get two matching stories from a room full of student police.

  • kinnath||

    Note, this was a training exercise and the teacher was not actually shot.

  • db||

    Isn't it great how thousands of years ago, nomadic tribes figured this out and found a way of dealing with it, and we ignore the lesson?

  • robc||

    They even wrote down the rule and passed it on to us so we wouldnt have to figure it out from scratch.

  • John||

    But that was a long time ago Rob and that stuff is really hard to understand and they were a bunch of racist white men anyway.

  • Andrew S.||

    Hm. Now that Radley's no longer at HuffPo, maybe the comments will be easier to rea....

    davidmizner wrote:
    10:36 AM EST
    Excellent stuff!
    And it'll be even more excellent if you don't promote any of your wackjob libertarian economic ideas.

    Goddammit.

  • John||

    Juts because the government can't properly do a core function like criminal justice doesn't in any way imply that it can't manage every single are of our lives sans our gay sex and abortion habits.

  • Acosmist||

    Except they want government to manage gay marriage.

  • John||

    But that is just granting permission. They don't want management, they want endorsement.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Well they're gonna GET management whether they want it or not.

  • NoVAHockey||

    i'm got the same handle over there. should be fun.

  • Zeb||

    What about his good and well reasoned libertarian economic ideas?

  • GILMORE||

    I actually can't find comments at all on his posts

  • Dave Krueger||

    Hopefully he'll regain some of the following he lost when he went to HuffPo. HuffPo's comment moderation policy is terrible.

  • nipplemancer||

    Balko's biggest flub was shutting down TheAgitator.com when he went to HuffPo.

  • BuSab Agent||

    Agreed

  • nipplemancer||

    I also enjoyed your guest posting when he was on vacation a few years back Dave.

  • Rich||

    Re: the alt text --

    Does any regular know when Radley first got tagged with the "nut punch" moniker?

  • ||

    I thought it was over at the old Agitator (I commented there long before I moved over here). Could be wrong.

  • Rich||

    Thanks, K. I suspect you are correct.

  • ||

    I don't recall that, but that was a long fucking time ago and I'm old.

    (Jeebus, I still remember when Radley first freaked out over flame wars in his comments and shut them down. He eventually back-tracked, but the original dialog spirit got lost. To this day I still think he over-reacted.)

  • ||

    I think I remember that. I think I was part of that, but maybe I'm misremembering. But yeah, after a certain point, Radley's slightly heavy-handed policing of his comments (which he was utterly within his rights to do as he wished) made them less interesting. His comments went from a smaller H&R to a sanitized smaller H&R.

  • Zeb||

    It did tone down after that, but it was nice to have a less mean and angry alternative to H&R sometimes. I can certainly see why you might not want giant flamewars on your blog. And as long as there is no moderation waiting period, dialog can happen.

  • John||

    I could be wrong Kristen, but I think you were the one who first used that term. I don't know why I think that. But I do.

  • ||

    Definitely not me. I think I said "box punch" to equalize things, but I definitely didn't invent the nutpunch meme.

  • ||

    Ha yes I do remember you saying "box punch."

  • From the Tundra||

    Great name for a cocktail...

  • Pelosi's Rabbit||

    Only available one week per month.

  • robc||

    Earliest I can find from google is Dec 2010, but Im sure it predates that.

  • db||

    One of the best uses of the "nut punch" meme was when some commenter or editor here said something like: "Balko just used my nuts for a speed bag" or similar. Anyone remember this or have a link?

  • ||

    It's nice that Bezos lets his new goon write some articles when he's not out breaking legs, you know? I wish my boss was that accomodating.

  • John||

    Most people pay their Amazon bills. And Balko has cleaned up most of the crews who were using fake credit cards. They mostly rob Barnes and Noble and leave Amazon alone out of professional courtesy and respect.

  • db||

    Congratulations to Radley, and—maybe more to the point—congratulations to the Post and its readers.

    The Balko cannnot be contained. Whenever he has punched all the nuts that can be punched in an area, he moves on to new publications, ever in search of tender cojones to pummel.

  • Wind Rider||

    Klein on the way out, Balko on the way in. Hm, second look at the WP? Go Bezos.

  • GILMORE||

    Really?

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAGHAHAHAH
    AHAHAAHAHAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA...

    (hacking cough)

    Oh, mercy.

  • Sigivald||

    Likewise, the job of police officer is getting safer. Last year saw the fewest gun-related homicides of police officers since the 19th century. Assaults on cops are dropping, too. Yet we're regularly told that policing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. In fact, you're more likely to be murdered just by living in about half of America's largest cities than you are while working as a police officer.

    While the point (that being a cop is not Super Dangerous) is well taken, it should be noted that none of the things mentioned (lowering historical rate, and danger from "living in a large city") falsify the claim that being a cop is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.

    A comparison of other jobs with a higher fatality rate is what it will take to do that.

    (And we might, for terms of the mental import of the danger, adjust for the deliberate nature of many police fatalities vs. accidents; being a logger or farmer is quite dangerous, per the data I've found, but very few of those deaths are murders...)

  • Sigivald||

    And to the data, the first data I found suggested that Cop/Sheriff was #10 in the list.

    "One of the most dangerous" might be satisfied by "top 10", plausibly.

  • Azathoth!!||

    DNA analysis—which was developed within the scientific community—has shown us that forensic analysis—which was developed largely in the law enforcement community, and is often practiced without scientific standards like peer review and blind testing—is deeply flawed.

    Funny how it's not 'deeply flawed' when it's exonerating death row inmates, no?

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    DNA analysis—which was developed within the scientific community—has shown us that forensic analysis—which was developed largely in the law enforcement community, and is often practiced without scientific standards like peer review and blind testing—is deeply flawed.

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