So that's where we're at. We have laws so ridiculous that they make judges feel powerless.
Everyone agrees that crime is bad ... except some criminals, we suppose. So what can we do about it? Some people believe in rehabilitation, some preach incarceration, while others support systematically murdering billionaire parents and hoping for an army of Batmen down the line. We might have made up that last one, but some of the most common crimefighting techniques in use today are so objectively terrible that they make Batseeding seem practical.
Mandatory minimums are fairly self-explanatory. If someone commits a crime, they get a guaranteed amount of jail time, regardless of the circumstances. For example, any American convicted of trafficking at least 28 grams of crack cocaine serves a minimum of five years. The idea is to deter potential criminals with the threat of tough sentences ... because we all know that criminals are purely rational people who thoroughly research all possible repercussions before studiously committing to a crime.
U.S. Sentencing Commission
But it turns out that prison time makes criminals more likely to reoffend further down the line, because prison is basically school for sociopaths. The longer you spend inside, the less you learn about how to run a Dairy Queen and the more you learn about severing toes and sending them in ransom notes. Australia found that mandatory minimums were associated with increased crime rates, because if you treat people like career criminals, that's what they become.
Mandatory minimums also ruin a judge's ability to exercise discretion. Take the case of Tonya Drake, who was offered $100 to mail a package for a stranger. She agreed because she needed the money to feed her kids (and had apparently never seen any crime show ever). The package contained crack, of course, and Tonya had technically trafficked drugs. She was sentenced to a mandatory ten years for making a dumb decision in a moment of desperation. The judge said, "This woman doesn't belong in prison for ten years for what I understand she did. That's just crazy, but there's nothing I can do about it."
So that's where we're at. We have laws so ridiculous that they make judges feel powerless.
"Second responder" programs were pioneered in the early '80s. It sounds like a snarky nickname you give to the cop who showed up late for the gunfight, but the idea is to assign a police officer and caseworker to assist victims after a report of domestic abuse. Sounds great, right? Surely abuse would stop if offenders knew that the cops might be dropping in at any moment.
But in 2001, researchers wanted to see if second responder programs were really working. They took 403 elderly people who had complained of domestic abuse and split the group in half. The first group received a home visit from a second responder, while the other group received a letter telling them where they could seek assistance. Depressing plot twist alert: The second responder households reported "significantly more incidents of physical abuse."
U.S. Dept. of Justice
The reason is as simple as it is sad. Abusive people don't like getting called out on it. Being told that you're an aggressive cockwomble is less likely to change your behavior than it is to make you a secret cockwomble ... and that's somehow worse. Because many victims of abuse are heavily reliant on their abusers for care or financial support, they can't just up and leave. They have to stay with their (now even angrier) abuser. It's like watching the cavalry arrive, only for them to give your enemy a stern talking-to and then promise to come back someday and see how this whole battle thing worked out.
The takeaway from this isn't that we should encourage victims to suck it up and keep quiet, but rather that there needs to be a greater emphasis on helping people get out of abusive households, not merely "follow up on their situation." Without that next step, second responders are nothing but Band-Aids ... possibly coated in poison.
Minority Report was based on the idea that with enough data (and some freaky psychics), you can stop crimes before they even happen. But surely that's too crazy to try in real life, right? Yes, absolutely, but when has that ever stopped humanity? Predictive policing programs have popped up all over the United States, and one of the most popular ones is COMPAS, which provides courts with "risk scores." COMPAS looks at a person's criminal history and life circumstances, and comes up with a score that reflects how likely that person is to reoffend, like a terrible real-life RPG stat. Courts use these scores to determine bail, and sometimes sentences.
Now, we're huge nerds, so of course we love statistics. The problem is that so far, predictive policing only interprets those stats like someone who doesn't know what numbers are, but is pretty sure they hate them. A ProPublica expose on COMPAS revealed that African-Americans were "45% more likely to be assigned higher risk scores than violent offenders." In one of their examples, an 18-year-old black kid who stole a scooter was assessed as a high risk to reoffend, while an adult white repeat offender with multiple armed robbery convictions was considered a low risk. The white guy ended up going back to jail, while the "high risk" kid hasn't reoffended.
Ultimately, COMPAS was no more accurate than a coin flip. But it was almost twice as likely to inaccurately label black people as high risk and whites as low risk. To be fair to its creators, COMPAS wasn't intended as a self-aware racist Twitter bot with a crazy amount of power; its bias was a product of the information fed to it. If you give a computer information full of racially charged issues and leading questions, then it's going to flag race as an issue.
This does have tangible effects. In one case, a man who stole a lawnmower made a plea deal that would send him to county jail for a year, followed by some supervision to help him sort his life out. Everyone seemed happy with the arrangement, but COMPAS declared him a high risk for future violent crime, so the judge threw out the plea and sentenced him to 18 months in a harsher state prison instead. And since we already know that longer stints in prison make people more likely to reoffend, Americans are slowly building the world's largest prison island. We're coming for that belt, Australia!
What's the best way to punish a teenager? Take away their phone? Ground them? How about making them do intense, military-style physical exercises while screaming at them? Plenty of people believe in the last option, judging by the dozens of quasi-military "correctional boot camps" found across America. Teenage boot camps operate on a mixture of intimidation and discipline, and are meant for everyone from repeat violent offenders to kids who won't stop being snarky about their dad's new girlfriend. Supposedly, they "strip [young offenders] down to bare bones and build them back up," which is a diplomatic way of saying "We'll probably kill 'em."
The stories of shocking abuse are seemingly endless. One Arizona teenager was forced to "eat mud and march in 100 degree heat," two separate teenagers died from heart attacks in South Dakota and Arizona again, one 16-year-old committed suicide in Florida, and a 14-year-old boy died after "drill instructors stuck ammonia tablets up his nose." The last example was so extreme that it prompted Governor Jeb Bush to ban boot camps in Florida. It turns out that military-style discipline only works if you also have military-style regulations and oversight, while the boot camp racket regulates itself about as well as the lemonade stand industry.
As for the survivors, a 2001 review examined the results from ten studies on juvenile boot camps, and found that "there is no general reduction in recidivism attributable to [them]." Damn, who would have thought that straight up murdering children doesn't turn them into more productive members of society?
You know teenagers -- always smoking their jazz cigarettes and dancing their forbidden dances. We need a curfew just to be able to leave the house at night without some savage 17-year-old "crunking" us. So it's a good thing many cities have one. Over two million American teenagers were arrested for breaking curfew between 1994 and 2012, probably while trying to express their emotions through dance in an empty warehouse. The problem? Curfew laws are crazy racist. In 2011, 93 percent of people detained under New Orleans' curfew laws were African American. And in Minneapolis, 56 percent of kids charged under curfew laws were African American as opposed to 17 percent white -- even through Minneapolis is a predominately white city.
Minneapolis police don't have the best reputation on this kind of thing to begin with.
Also, one analysis of 12 studies concluded that curfews actually increase crime slightly. That's because the laws rely on the faulty assumption that teenagers can only commit crime at crime o'clock, whereas if they really want to spraypaint a giant boner on the side of the school, they can just as easily do that at 6 a.m. It's impossible to put a complete stop to juvenile crime unless the curfews run all day, at which point we've become a YA dystopia and a plucky young heroine will surely overthrow the government.
Expressing your emotions through dance is a good thing. Expressing them through painting is also good.
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For more good and bad crimefighting stories, check out 5 Police Cases That Basically Solved Crimes Using Magic and 6 Corrupt Police Forces That Didn't Even Pretend to Give AF.
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