Tag: criminal justice

“Genetic Informants” and the Hunt for the Golden State Killer

Last week officers with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected Golden State Killer who allegedly committed a dozen murders, at least 50 rapes, and more than 100 burglaries in California between 1976 and 1986. Police made the arrest after uploading DeAngelo’s “discarded DNA” to one of the increasingly popular genealogy websites. Using information from the site, investigators were able to find DeAngelo’s distant relatives, thereby significantly narrowing their list of suspects. This investigatory technique is worth keeping an eye on, not least because millions of people are using DNA-based genealogical sites.

I’m one of them. I’ve signed up to 23andMe as well as MyHeritage, both of which offer DNA analysis. I did this in part because family history is a minor hobby of mine, but also because 23andMe offers interesting medical information. While both companies offer a DNA service, I’ve only used 23andMe’s because MyHeritage allows its users to upload 23andMe data. One of the features of MyHeritage is its “DNA Matching” service, which updates me when a distant relative is found thanks to automated DNA analysis.

This month alone MyHeritage has altered me to the existence of two more 3rd - 5th cousins. This DNA Matching service has identified hundreds of my distant relatives, with varying degrees of confidence. 23andMe has a similar relative-finding feature. MyHeritage and 23andMe, as well as Ancestry.com, have all denied working with law enforcement in the Golden State Killer case.

According to The New York Times, investigators sent the suspected Golden State Killer’s DNA to GEDmatch, a free genealogical service. A GEDmatch release stated that it had not been approached by law enforcement and warned customers, “If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database.”

Stash House Stings: When the Government Can Invent Crimes and Criminals

Imagine a friend approaches you with an opportunity for what he believes will be easy money: a guy he met knows where some local drug dealers store their merchandise—a great big pile of it, fifty kilos, lightly guarded. Your friend’s guy thinks it could be grabbed relatively easily and flipped for a hefty profit. The whole thing sounds sketchy to you, but cash is tight this month and stealing from drug dealers does not feel like the most morally objectionable of crimes. Perhaps not the most sophisticated sort (and having watched a bit too much TV), you soon find yourself in a van on your way to the score.

Except there was no score—it never existed—and your friend’s “guy” is actually a police officer, whose colleagues arrive and arrest you and charge you with conspiracy to traffic in a controlled substance (the mythical fifty kilos) while carrying a firearm (your friend brought one along). Never mind that the drugs you are being punished for trafficking are make-believe—as is the place from which you were to steal them—you now face fifteen years in prison for indulging a yarn spun by the government.

These are, with some simplification, the facts of United States v. Conley, handed down last week by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The Seventh Circuit felt itself bound to uphold the conviction, but not without first referring to the practice as “tawdry” and “question[ing] the wisdom and purpose of expending the level of law enforcement resources and judicial time and effort in this prosecution.” The Court of Appeals quoted from the trial judge’s opinion in the same case, who declared Conley’s fifteen-year sentence for an imaginary crime “devoid of true fairness … serv[ing] no real purpose other than to destroy any vestiges of respect in our legal system and law enforcement that this defendant and his community may have had.” The trial judge was required however to impose it due to mandatory minimum sentences set by Congress.

Poor Defendants Should Get to Choose Their Lawyers Too

Americans may take for granted that if they’re ever accused of a crime, they can choose their own attorney to represent them. The Supreme Court has ruled that Americans have a right to counsel in serious criminal cases, and nobody seriously argues that the government should make that important decision for us.  

Yet that is exactly what happens across the country when defendants are too poor to hire their own attorneys.  While other countries such as the United Kingdom have long allowed indigent defendants to choose their own lawyers, American jurisdictions historically restrict that choice to either a court-appointed lawyer or an assigned public defender. 

In 2010, the Cato Institute published a study, Reforming Indigent Defense, which proposed a client choice model where poor persons accused of crimes would be able to choose their own attorney to represent them in court. If the accused opted for the public defender, he could make that choice, but if he wanted to explore other options, he could do that also.  The Texas Indigent Defense Commission became aware of the Cato report and decided to give it a try with a pilot program in Comal County, near San Antonio. The program went into operation in 2015.  

Today, the Justice Management Institute released an evaluation based on two years of data from the Comal Client Choice program.  The report, called The Power of Choice: The Implications of a System Where Indigent Defendants Choose Their Own Counsel, suggests that the program is working as well or better than the old system across a variety of metrics.  

The JMI study looks at four factors to assess the viability of the Comal program:

  • Does the model impact the quality of representation?  
  • Does the model produce a higher level of satisfaction and procedural justice?
  • Does the model impact case outcomes?
  • What is the impact of the model on overall cost and efficiency?

The study compares the results of Client Choice participants with the representations of defendants who chose to use the pre-existing court-appointment system.

While some aspects of representation were the same for both groups (for instance, client assessments of how hard their lawyers worked were not statistically distinguishable), participants in the Client Choice program were able to meet with their lawyers more quickly, had a stronger sense of fairness, and were more likely to either plead to lesser charges or exercise their right to trial than their peers.  The report also finds that the Client Choice program did not increase costs in the system.

Perhaps as important as any objective metric, a majority of defendants who were offered the ability to choose their own attorney opted to do so, suggesting that giving indigent defendants some agency in their choice of representation has a value in itself.  Freedom of choice matters to people.  

In too many jurisdictions, indigent criminal defense is in a state of crisis. Texas is in the vanguard with its Client Choice program. Hopefully these promising results will encourage more jurisdictions to consider injecting choice and market principles into their indigent defense systems.

 

77% Say On-Duty Police Shouldn’t Swear at People

Nearly 20% of Americans report a police officer having used profanity with them. Yet, an overwhelming majority—77%—of Americans say police should be prohibited from using profanity or swearing at citizens while on the job. Twenty-three percent (23%) say police ought to be allowed to swear at citizens while on duty, according to a newly released Cato Institute/YouGov survey.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Opposition to police profanity reaches rare bi-partisan consensus—77% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans agree that police shouldn’t swear at people. Americans of virtually every demographic group identified strongly oppose allowing police use such language, including 77% of whites, 82% of blacks, and 72% of Latinos.

Why might police profanity matter? First, police image matters, and profanity could make police appear unprofessional, undisciplined, or “lacking self-control” as one research subject put it. Research experiments have shown that police using profanity are perceived as less fair and impartial. Further, police using profanity at the same time as using physical force with a person may cause people to view the force as excessive.  Given that personal encounters with police may be the strongest driver of attitudes toward law enforcement, one bad experience with police profanity may significantly harm a person’s willingness to trust and cooperate with police.

Second, some have argued that officers using profanity can “set someone off” and unnecessarily escalate confrontations with people leading to more force being used than was otherwise needed. Third, some contend police using such language can harm officers during court proceedings by appearing less sympathetic in front of the judge and jury.

79% Want Police Misconduct Investigated by Independent Agencies

In most jurisdictions, local police departments typically conduct internal investigations of police officer shooting and misconduct complaints.[1] However, 79% of Americans would prefer that an “outside law enforcement agency take over the investigation” when an officer is suspected of criminal wrongdoing. Alternatively, 21% favor police departments conducting internal investigations of their own officers.

The proposal to have outside investigations of misconduct, rather than internal department investigations, enjoys broad public support. Overwhelming majorities across demographics and partisan groups, including majorities of blacks (82%), whites (81%), Hispanics (66%), Republicans (76%), independents (77%), and Democrats (83%), all favor outside investigations and prosecutions of officers accused of misconduct.

Find the full public opinion report here. 

For public opinion analysis sign up here to receive Cato’s upcoming digest of Public Opinion Insights and public opinion studies.

 The Cato Institute/YouGov national survey of 2000 adults was conducted June 6–22, 2016 using a sample drawn  from YouGov’s online panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. YouGov uses a method  called sample matching, and restrictions are put in place to ensure that only the people selected and contacted by  YouGov are allowed to participate. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is +/-3.19 percentage points.  The full report can be found here, toplines results can be found here, full methodological details can be found here.

 


[1] USCCR, “Revisiting Who Is Guarding the Guardians? A Report on Police Practices and Civil Rights in America,” U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, November 2000, http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/guard/main.htm.

Americans Want Police to Prioritize Fighting Violent, Property Crime, but Few Prioritize Drug War

Although Americans are divided in their perceptions of how police do their jobs, majorities across demographic and partisan groups agree on what law enforcement’s top priorities ought to be.

A newly released Cato Institute/YouGov survey of 2,000 Americans finds that when people are asked to select their top three priorities for the police they choose the following:

  1. Investigating violent crime like murder, assaults, and domestic violence (78%)
  2. Protecting individuals from violent crime (64%)
  3. Investigating property crime and robbery (58%)

Notably, only 30% think police should make enforcing drug laws a top three priority. Some may find these results surprising, given that police made more arrests for drug abuse violations (1.6 million) than they did for violent crimes (498,666) in 2014. The estimated number of violent crimes committed that year was 1.2 million.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Nineteen percent (19%) say police should make enforcing traffic laws a top priority. In other words, Americans de-prioritize the task leading to the most common interaction individuals have with the police—receiving a traffic ticket.[1]

Another 18% think police should prioritize going beyond traditional law enforcement responsibilities by “providing guidance and social services to troubled young adults.” And another 12% say police enforcing public nuisance laws is most important. 

Black, white, and Hispanic Americans, Democrats and Republicans prioritize the same top three tasks for law enforcement. However, groups differ in their intensity of support. African Americans and Hispanics (45%) and Democrats (51%) are less likely than white Americans (63%) and Republicans (63%) to prioritize the police investigating property crime and robbery. (Although this difference largely dissipates among individuals above the median income.) African Americans, Latinos, and Democrats (27%) are about twice as likely as whites (15%) and three times as likely as Republicans (9%) to say the police should prioritize “providing guidance and social services to troubled young adults.”

No racial group is more likely to prioritize the police enforcing drug laws—30% of whites, Hispanics, and blacks each say it should be a top priority. Even partisans generally de-prioritize fighting the drug war. Thirty-five percent (35%) of Republicans and 27% of Democrats say it should be a top three priority.

Despite these modest differences, Americans across partisanship and demographics agree that the police should prioritize fighting violent and property crime and protecting people from being victims of violence. 

For public opinion analysis sign up here to receive Cato’s upcoming digest of Public Opinion Insights and public opinion studies.

The Cato Institute/YouGov national survey of 2,000 adults was conducted June 6–22, 2016 using a sample drawn from YouGov’s online panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. YouGov uses a method called sample matching, and restrictions are put in place to ensure that only the people selected and contacted by YouGov are allowed to participate. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is +/-3.19 percentage points. The full report can be found here, topline results can be found here, and full methodological details can be found here.


[1] Christine Eith and Matthew R. Durose, Contacts between Police and the Public, 2008, edited by Bureau of Justice Statistics (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2011), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpp08.pdf.

Black Republicans and White Republicans Disagree About Bias in the Justice System

Survey data shows that black Republicans and Hispanic Republicans are far less likely than white Republicans to believe the nation’s criminal justice system is impartial.

I was able to combine two surveys conducted by the Cato Institute that included the same question on impartiality in the justice system to obtain a much larger sample size.[1] This offers an opportunity to take a look at how Republicans who are black, white, and Hispanic think about the justice system. Why do this? Essentially this “controls for” or accounts for the effect of political values when looking at how different racial/ethnic groups evaluate bias in the justice system.

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