Category Archives: crime

Last Week Tonight on Criminal Justice

John Oliver has been on a roll 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…

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

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.

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.

Interactive Tool for Criminal Justice Reform: The Prison Population Forecaster

Check out this interesting new feature produced by the Urban Institute to showcase the potential effect of different types of reforms for decreasing mass incarceration. The Urban Institute explains:

The tool currently uses data from 15 states, representing nearly 40 percent of the national prison population, to forecast population trends and project the impact of changes on rates of admission or lengths of stay in prison.

Using the tool, we can see that in some states, limiting prison admissions to only new crimes and diverting parole and probation revocations will substantially reduce the number of people behind bars. Other states can stem prison growth by tackling how they address drug and property offenses. Still others may discover that modest reductions in time served for violent offenses are necessary.

As promoting this feature in the New York Times, “When President Obama, the Koch Brothers, the American Civil Liberties Union and Newt Gingrich all agree on an issue, you know that something important may be happening.”



Excellent Profile of Cook County Jail as Mental Health Facility

There is an excellent article about Cook County Jail in the Atlantic this week entitled “America’s Largest Mental Hospital Is a Jail.” The article hits on some of the same points I made in this post from 2012 on the propriety of incarceration versus electronic monitoring for pretrial detainees, especially when nonviolent.

A few fascinating facts from the article:

  • Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart recently appointed a clinical psychologist as the executive director of the jail.  She “is currently the only mental health professional in charge of a major jail in the United States.”
  • “A study in 1990 found that 1 in 15 prisoners at Cook County Jail had some form of mental illness. Today, a conservative estimate is 1 in 3.”
  • The article calls the jail’s processing system “unusual, and possibly unique”: “After the normal post-bail intake procedure is complete, inmates file through a series of concrete cubicles staffed by a battalion of employees from the Cook County Health and Hospitals System. About 600 of the county hospital system’s 6,000 employees work at Cook County Jail. If the inmate is eligible, county officials can sign up him or her for CountyCare, a health insurance program for low-income Cook County residents created through the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid. The assembly-line layout allows the county to process about 200 applications a day. Over 10,000 inmates have signed up so far.”

The costs of criminal justice

Cook County Juvenile Detention Facility and Court
One of Cook County’s Detention Facilities
A recent article in the Southtown Star estimates that it cost Will County (on the Southside of Chicago) nearly $600,000 to obtain the high-profile murder convictions of Drew Peterson and Christopher Vaugh. Some of the charges were for evidence that wasn’t even used: since 2009, the county paid $75 per month for a storage locker to house the tub from Peterson’s former wife’s home, and the tub wasn’t even used in the prosecution.

But other expenses did contribute to the trial. For example, the county paid nearly $100,000 to TrialGraphix, which according to its website specializes “jury consulting, graphic design, presentation technologies, and trial preparation solutions.” According to the Southtown article, the company was paid “to modernize the state’s attorney’s office’s ability to present evidence in court.” Still, the State paid this firm nearly two times the cost of a year’s salary for a new state prosecutor.

Other top expenses included a private investigative service ($86,974), forensic medical consultants ($30,000), a bloodstain pattern analyst ($27,326), and firearms expert Noedel Scientific ($21,907).

All of these businesses have been created solely to service the criminal justice system; an unsurprising result given the need for specialized skills in this area, but one that doesn’t help rebut the perception that the justice system is profit driven.

Of course, most of that perception comes from our prison industrial complex. The United States imprisons more people per 100,000 people than any other country in the world. And this imprisonment is expensive. Federal Judge Richard Posner recently explained these costs, especially in regard to older prisoners, in a concurrence in United States v. Craig:

Federal imprisonment is expensive to the government; the average expense of maintaining a federal prisoner for a year is between $25,000 and $30,000, and the expense rises steeply with the prisoner’s age because the medical component of a prisoner’s expense will rise with his age, especially if he is still alive in his 70s (not to mention his 80s or 90s). It has been estimated that an elderly prisoner costs the prison system between $60,000 and $70,000 a year.

That is not a net social cost, because if free these elderly prisoners would in all likelihood receive Medicare and maybe Medicaid benefits to cover their medical expenses. But if freed before they became elderly, and employed, they would have contributed to the Medicare and Medicaid programs through payroll taxes — which is a reminder of an additional social cost of imprisonment: the loss of whatever income the prisoner might lawfully have earned had he been free, income reflecting his contribution to society through lawful employment.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Here’s a New Republic article where Judge Posner discusses some possibilities. But I do think that it is important that more Americans realize these costs, which are often (perhaps rightly?) brushed aside in the name of justice. At the very least, it’s something local officials should consider when embarking on high-profile murder cases.

Interactive Map of Chicago Crime, Ward by Ward

As a follow up to yesterday’s post about the SimCity zoning map of Chicago, I’d like to point out that the map is a collection of interactive apps developed by Open City based largely on information from Chicago’s data portal. A couple of other apps by this project that I think are really interesting are the Crime in Chicago app, which lets you compare crime ward by ward, and breaks down the most frequent crime and even the time of day it was committed, and the How’s Business app,  which gives a snapshot view of economic indicators pulled from various sources. These are the types of innovative apps that show the powerful potential for open data.

Statistics on Crime in Chicago Wards

Federal crime in Chicago versus southern Illinois

I thought it would be interesting to look at the different type of criminal cases in the federal Northern District of Illinois versus the Southern District of Illinois. (There is also the Central District of Illinois, which I am not going to discuss.) Obviously, the Northern District includes more than just Chicago, but the city makes the District much more city oriented than the Southern District. I checked out the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s sourcebook on federal sentencing statistics for 2010 and looked at the total cases by category for these two districts (these include cases which went to sentencing, not just those where charges were brought).

Here’s the Northern District’s stats by primary offense:

Here’s the Southern District’s:

Here are a couple of thoughts. Read Full Post…