Civil Liberties

Four Myths About Criminal Justice

Radley Balko makes his debut at The Washington Post.


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":


• 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.