All posts by Benton

Last Week Tonight on Criminal Justice

John Oliver has been on a role this summer addressing criminal justice issues on his HBO show Last Week Tonight. Below, check out his recent segments  on the bail system, mandatory minimums, and under-funding of public defenders. Also, he had excellent pieces last season on mass incarceration and the death penalty. See them all after the jump. Read Full Post…

Shelterforce Interview with HUD Secretary

There is a great interview up this week on Shelterforce with HUD Secretary  Julián Castro.

I think the parts of the interview that dive into some of the details about the solutions for low-income housing problems, and the different levels of government seeking to address those problems, is particularly interesting. As I wrote last year, one beauty of our system of government is that it “invites a chorus of actors, [and] rewards strategy and diligence.”

Miriam Axel-Lute: You mentioned different places have different things going on, different markets, and we want people to have access not only to new areas of opportunity, but we don’t want them to be priced out of places where they live now that are improving. There are a number of places, including New Orleans, as you mentioned, where many people are being priced out of the neighborhoods that they have lived in for a long time. In markets like that, what can HUD do to help people keep their homes?

Julián Castro: We need to focus on creating as much stock of affordable housing as possible. That’s why, for instance, we’ve joined with Treasury in suggesting in the past that we look at enhancing the Low Income Housing Tax Credit by up to 50 percent by allowing states to substitute unused tax credit capacity from other types of tax credits and use that instead for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit so that we can create more affordable housing opportunities out there. That’s one thing.

Another thing are traditional investments, like the HOME funds. As you all probably know, the Senate has proposed cutting HOME by 93 percent. We’re going to fight that. We can use our traditional dollars, like CDBG and HOME, as well as creative ways to spur more affordable housing, and then work with communities to adopt ordinances that provide more affordable housing opportunities.

Minneapolis, for instance, just revised an ordinance so they don’t require as much parking set aside. They already had done this in the downtown area, but outside of the downtown area they relaxed the parking set-aside requirement, which will help drive down the cost of development and make affordable housing a little bit more possible.

We’ve got to attack it from all angles. Obviously there are nonprofits, as well, that are doing good work out there, and we’re willing to partner up with anybody to meet the need, because it doesn’t matter if you’re in New Orleans or Portland or Chicago or here in D.C. The one common thing is there’s a rental affordability crisis out there. And we’re determined to use all the tools that we have and collaborate with local communities to use their tools to create more housing.

Miriam Axel-Lute: One of those tools that’s gaining a lot of interest in many parts of the country is permanently affordable housing, such as community land trusts, inclusionary programs with long-term deed restrictions, other programs that really ensure that the affordability in any unit lasts for a long time, which is a more fiscally responsible use of public money than having to keep putting it in over and over. How can and will HUD support these forms of housing?

Julián Castro: That’s a great question. What I like about that model is, of course, that it maintains affordability for a long period of time. We see challenges, for instance, with the sunsetting of some affordability arrangements. We look forward to being supporting of communities that are coming up with creative ways to maintain affordability.

One of the ways that we’ve done this recently is through RAD 2 [Rental Assistance Demonstration 2], which is helping units out there that otherwise would sunset in terms of their affordability, to stay affordable. And we’ll continue to work with local communities to come up with creative ways to maintain affordable units and create more.

The whole interview is worth checking out.


White Population Increases in Detroit for First Time in 65 Years


Louis Aguilar and Christine MacDonald at the Detroit News report today that “Detroit’s white population up after decades of decline.” The reporters explain their analysis:

Detroit’s white population rose by nearly 8,000 residents last year, the first significant increase since 1950, according to a Detroit News analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

The data, made public Wednesday, mark the first time census numbers have validated the perception that whites are returning to a city that is overwhelmingly black and one where the overall population continues to shrink.

But the article is careful to point out concerns:

[S]ome long-time Detroiters say recently arrived whites and new businesses are often wrongly portrayed as saviors of the city, and that so far, the comeback is wildly uneven.


The heavy focus on bringing residents to certain neighborhoods, potentially at the expense of others, has left some feeling that neighborhoods filled with longtime black Detroiters are being ignored.

“You are creating lopsided communities,” said Yusef Shakur, a community organizer with the group Restoring the Neighborhood back to the Hood. “You are putting all your wealth in Midtown, downtown … Woodbridge.”

The top commentator on the article, Chris Terry, makes another interesting, though anecdotal, observation:

[A]lmost none of these new urban pioneers have children. I have professional friends living downtown, Midtown and Corktown. All are well into the age of family formation, yet none have kids. Doesn’t seem like a trend that portends sustainable change if Detroit can only attract people making these choices. I pass no judgment on the choice, but the long-term question about this ought be asked.

h/t Deadline Detroit

Extradition Hearing Set for Kim Dotcom

Kim Dotcom crowd

I’ve written about the criminal case against Kim Dotcom and his company Megaupload before. It is the first big instance of criminal copyright enforcement in the United States and raises a whole host of fascinating legal issues for both intellectual property and criminal law. Since the charges were filed back in 2012, Dotcom has been fighting extradition from New Zealand.

This week, Cyrus Farivar at Ars Technica reported the following:

Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom and his co-defendants have lost their bid to have their extradition hearing delayed yet again, the Court of Appeal of New Zealand ruled on Monday.

As of now, the hearing is set for September 21, 2015—the tenth time this hearing has been scheduled.

And this time, any additional extensions could make quite a difference:

Should the extradition hearing be delayed beyond September 21, it may run up against when German-born Kim Dotcom becomes eligible for New Zealand citizenship on November 29, 2015.

To read more about the Megaupload case, check out this blog’s coverage, or Ars Technica’s.

Early Disney Animation Was Local Political Cartoon

Did you know that, before Snow White and Mickey, even before Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney worked on a series of short animations called Newman Laugh-O-Grams?

The last of these, a 1922 short called “Kansas City’s spring clean-up,” shows a line of uniformed policemen entering a station only to be fired and kicked out. His idea, as captured in Timothy Susanin’s book Walt Before Mickey: Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928, “was to do a sort of animated cartoon commentary on local topics for the Kansas City screen.” That included “a reorganization of the Kansas City police department to eliminate political patronage from the ranks.”

You can see the rest of the Laugh-O-Grams here:

Disney’s early adventure into cartoons with a political message calls to my mind Richard H. Minear’s excellent book Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel. There, Minear assembled a vibrant collection of Dr. Seuss‘s political cartoons addressing Nazism and World War II. You can view a collection of these cartoons here.

Like Disney, Seuss’s political cartooning was over-shadowed by his other art that, on its face, targeted children.

New Analysis of Big-City Crime Statistics

Scare Headlines Exaggerated The U.S. Crime Wave.” Or so argues an article published Friday at FiveThirtyEight—the data-heavy news outlet founded by political-prediction wunderkind Nate Silver.

In the article, Carl Bialik describes the results of examining the 2015 homicide data for 59 of the 60 biggest cities. He observes that, although there has been an overall increase of 16% in big-city homicides this year, “the picture varies a lot by city: Homicides are up 76 percent in Milwaukee, but down 43 percent in Boston. They’re also down in 19 other cities.” Moreover, the increase “doesn’t come close to reversing the long-term decline in homicides.”

Bialik goes on to explain that homicide rates regularly fluctuate, so we shouldn’t assume—as many media outlets have suggested—that a one-year murder spike in some big cities means a crime wave is afoot.

It was interesting to see the way this affects on-the-ground police work:

[Milwaukee police Chief Edward] Flynn is frustrated with the data disconnect faced by big-city police departments. Many of them employ data analysts and track their stats in real time — Flynn has 16 analysts, up from zero when he took over the department in 2008, and he rattled off his city’s crime stats from memory. Yet he and his peers must rely on informal exchanges and potentially skewed media reports to find out what crime trends those in other big departments are seeing.

Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, added the following:

You look at economic data, at labor data, at all kinds of data the government collects that is immediately available. …. We don’t have anything like that in policing.

The article thus ends with a call for local governments to share more crime data with each other, but also an acknowledgement of the difficulties of doing so. Seems like a worthy objective.

In the meantime, the words of the Avett Brothers:

If I get murdered in the city
Don’t go revenging in my name
One person dead from such is plenty
No need to go get locked away

Which states have the most federal immigration crimes per unauthorized immigrant?

The following map shows an estimated percentage of federal immigration cases per unauthorized immigrant for each state. It uses research from the Pew Research Center on estimated state unauthorized immigrant populations in 2012, and data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission for federal immigration offenses that same year. Untitled

I excluded five states—Maine, the Dakotas, Vermont, and Montana—because Pew could only determine that the unauthorized immigrant population in those states was less than 5,000, and the imprecision at those low value threw off the calculations.

Some interesting things to note: New Mexico had the highest level of federal prosecutions per unauthorized immigrant. The state’s 2012 unauthorized immigrant population was estimated at 70,000, and there were 2,097 federal immigration cases, for a rough estimate of nearly 3% of the unauthorized immigrants being prosecuted. In contrast, federal officials in New Jersey, which had a 2012 authorized immigrant population of around 525,000, prosecuted only 45 immigration cases that year (not even .01%). The average percentage was .24.

The “why” for these statistics is not cut and dry. It could be that immigration officials conduct more aggressive enforcement in some states. Or that federal prosecutors prosecute more of the offense brought to them. Or that there is some reason unauthorized immigrants are staying under the radar in certain places.

Here is a link to download an excel file with the statistics.

Data Behind NYT Editorial Criticizing Sex Offender Banishment

This week, the New York Times published an editorial criticizing blanket residency restrictions for sex offenders. The article relies mostly on court decisions, but also cites two statistical analyses  that are interesting to explore more in-depth.

First, the article relies on a 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics Report entitled “Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics.” The report is by Howard N. Snyder, of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. It drew conclusions from six years (1991 to 1996) of law enforcement master files from the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS)—”an incident-based reporting system used by law enforcement agencies in the United States for collecting and reporting data on crimes.” The report emphasizes that sexual abuse against children is usually not committed by strangers:

Sixty percent of all sexual assault offenders were classified by law enforcement as acquaintances of the victim. Just 14% of offenders were strangers to their victims. Strangers were a greater proportion of the offenders of adult victims (27%) than juvenile victims (7%). The youngest juveniles were least likely to have an offender who was a stranger. Just 3% of the offenders in the sexual assaults of children under age 6 were strangers, compared with 5% of the offenders of youth ages 6 through 12, and 10% of offenders of juveniles ages 12 through 17.

The Times also cites a 2013 article by a group of social workers (lead author Jill Levenson) for the Criminal Justice Policy Review entitled “Where for Art Thou? Transient Sex Offenders and Residence Restrictions.” That study found the following:

Significantly higher proportions of transient sex offenders were found in counties with a larger number of local-level restrictions, vast territory covered by these laws, wide-distance buffer zones, higher population density, and expensive housing costs. Sex offenders were more likely than the general population to become homeless. Transients were more likely than non-transients to have a history of registry violation. Few transients absconded, but when they did, they were more likely to abscond from registration than probation. When implementing sex offender management policies, lawmakers should consider transience as an unintended negative consequence.

Of course, there have been many other editorials on this issue, and in-depth investigative journalism. Particularly, this 2009 NPR piece, about sex offenders banished to living under a bridge, springs to mind.

Five Tips for Plea Negotiations

Training for Bargaining,” a new draft article by Jenny Roberts and Ronald Wright, of American University, persuasively argues that “[a]lthough public defenders may be dealt a weak hand in many cases, training focused on negotiation skills could help them get the best results from those cards.” I took away five tips from the article:

1. Stay positive. As Roberts and Wright note, research shows that “fostering a positive mood in a negotiation through tone can make the parties more creative and more likely to use negotiation strategies that seek to meet both parties’ interests.”

2. Prepare with peers and supervisors. Roberts and Wright hammer the point that many defense attorneys put much more effort into preparing for trial than for plea negotiations, even though pleas are the more common outcome. They suggest running negotiation strategy by peers or bosses, or even “mooting” negotiations.

3. Research the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA.  On this point, Roberts and Wright emphasize the three-step approach described in the popular book, Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In“brainstorming a list of actions to be taken if there is no agreement; converting the most promising into tangible alternative; and selecting the best alternative.” In particular, Roberts and Wright argue that defenders should spend more time at step two by doing more factual research about the case before negotiating. They quote an earlier, empirical study of plea negotiations by Marty Lieberman as finding that “[d]efense attorneys who interviewed prosecution witnesses and conducted extensive fact investigations would, . . . in a great majority of cases, improve the bargaining position of their clients involved in plea negotiations.” This is, perhaps, the most resource intensive recommendation.

4. Remember anchoring and make the first offer when possible. “Anchoring or focalism is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the ‘anchor’) when making decisions. ” See Anchoring, Wikipedia. Thus, the best negotiators try to set the tone in their favor by being the first to set a value, and making that valuation as favorable as possible. Roberts and Wright concede that defenders are often not in a good position to make the first move, since the prosecutor has charging discretion. Nonetheless, it’s worth keeping this concept in mind.

5. Keep data on past plea negotiations. Roberts and Wright point out that it is hard to evaluate the “going rate” for a situation if—as is common—there is little data maintained regarding plea bargaining. They suggest that offices “might collect data about offers on particular offenses from particular prosecutors to defendants with similar criminal histories.”

h/t Doug Berman @ Sentencing Law and Policy

Prison User Reviews

Wired has an interesting article out this morning entitled “How Inmates and Loved Ones Review Jails on Yelp.” The article explains:

User-review sites have become an unlikely destination for raw, informative accounts of Americans’ everyday interactions with the criminal justice system.

One of the Wayne County Jail’s divisions, the Andrew C. Baird Detention Facility (Division I), for example, has 2.5 stars on Yelp. That’s with three reviews. Some jail reviews, as noted by Wired, are actually pretty informative. Athena K. writes about Baird:

This is one of three adult jails in the area. Wayne County operates the largest jail system in the State of Michigan. In addition to Baird, there is the Old Wayne County Jail and the William Dickerson Detention Facility.

This jail is newer and in some ways, cleaner, than others. But it has many of the problems that are prevelent in other urban jails. As a social worker I occassionally visit detention facilities and, frankly, I’ve seen better. The process for visits is very chaotic and traumatizing to both the inmates and the family members. Staff are rude to visitors, professionals (like myself) who are entering the facility on business, and even to each other.

She even included a picture.

The facility also has 9 reviews, and 2.9 stars, on Google. Those reviews are much less informative.

Another Wayne County Jail division, the William Dickerson Detention Facility, doesn’t appear to be reviewed on Yelp, but has 7 reviews, and 2.9 stars, on Google. These reviews are also less informative and more in the variety of “this place sucks.”

Cook County Jail, which this blog has covered before, has an impressive 53 reviews on Google. But still only 2.9 stars. It has 11 reviews and around 2.5 stars on Yelp. As with the Detroit jails, Cook County Jail’s reviews on Yelp are actually fairly informative and well written.

UPDATE: The Marshall Project also has an article on this topic this morning.