Author: Corey Yung

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Why Having Accurate Crime Data Matters

In the series finale of The Wire, Cedric Daniels, who had just resigned his new appointment as the fictional Police Commissioner of Baltimore, offered this basic, somewhat profane, insight into why truth in crime data is important:

“I’ll swallow a lie when I have to; I’ve swallowed a few big ones lately. But the stat games? That lie? It’s what ruined this department; shining up shit and calling it gold so majors become colonels and mayors become governors; pretending to do police work while one generation fucking trains the next how not to do the job.”

A few years ago, there was a wonderful panel at Law & Society regarding The Wire which featured fantastic panelists and the disembodied head of David Simon, creator of the show, in the background via Skype. After listening to each of the presentations by academics, Simon offered his own view of the show and addressed what had been said. Interestingly, he said that the fundamental theme of The Wire was, similar to the quote from Daniels, was “shining shit and calling it gold.” Politicians, police, drug dealers, newspapers, and virtually everyone featured in the show played the game of taking something worth little and pretending it was something much better. And so, it shouldn’t be surprising that when police performance is judged by easily manipulated crime statistics, some police will choose the easiest path to success: gaming the numbers. And the primary way that crime numbers are kept low in many cases is to not investigate victim complaints at all (deeming them false or not creating a written record of the complaint).

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Crime Statistics and Public Expectations

Before I began work on my article, How to Lie with Rape Statistics, several local newspaper investigations turned up shocking evidence of systemic police undercounting of rape incidents in four cities across the country. In the mid-1990’s, the Philadelphia Inquirer caught the local police gaming the rape statistics sent to the FBI. The city police would regularly classify rape complaints as “investigate persons” without further inquiry. As a result, the city was able to announce lower violent crime rates based upon faulty data. In 2005, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch uncovered similar practices in St. Louis. There, the police used informal memos instead of written complaints to record allegations of rape. These memos were not counted in official crime numbers. The police even pressured victims to sign waiver forms releasing police from any obligation to further investigate their complaints. In 2009, the Times-Picayune and Baltimore Sun found large-scale rape data manipulation in New Orleans and Baltimore. The Baltimore police took advantage of the “unfounded” rule wherein police do not have to count criminal complaints deemed false. However, the department regularly used the category with little or no investigation performed. New Orleans police repeatedly downgraded offenses to crimes that were not counted in official stats.  According to the investigation, over half of New Orleans rape complaints were designated as “Signal 21″ which was a non-criminal category where rape cases went to die.

Why would police engage in such blatant fabrication of crime statistics? The simplest answer is that the unrealistic goals of the public and politicians have left police in a no-win situation. Since the early 1990’s, the country has been in the midst of The Great American Crime Decline. Violent crimes, as tracked through the Uniform Crime Reports, have decreased at record rates throughout this period. And, yet, during that time frame, every Gallup poll except one indicated that the public believed crime actually rose from the previous year. On average, the polls showed that 61% of those surveyed believed that crime had increased from the previous year, 24% believed it had decreased, and 9% thought it had stayed the same. So, even as the FBI, police, and media were reporting record declines in crime, the public actually believed the opposite. In order to meet the unrealistic expectations of the public and their elected politicians, it is little wonder that some police departments resorted to less savory techniques to be able to report a decline in crime in their jurisdictions.

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How to Lie with Rape Statistics: America’s Hidden Rape Crisis

I’m happy to announce that my new article, How to Lie with Rape Statistics: America’s Hidden Rape Crisis, is out and available for download. Normally, I post very early drafts of my scholarship on SSRN, but, because of the sensitivity of the claims made in my article, I withheld it until it was in final form.

The article concerns the nationwide practice of police undercounting rape complaints in official crime statistics creating fictional drops in official violent crime rates. For those that are fans of The Wire, the idea of police gaming published statistics is not a new one. Police departments in Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and St. Louis were caught “red-handed” by local media investigations substantially undercounting rape complaints in numbers submitted to the FBI (which are the basis for the widely-reported crime rates across the nation). My study uses a novel statistical technique to identify other cities that likely have significantly undercounted the number of reported incidents of rape. The results indicate that approximately 22% of the 210 studied police departments responsible for populations of at least 100,000 persons have substantial statistical irregularities in their rape data indicating considerable undercounting from 1995 to 2012. Notably, the number of undercounting jurisdictions has increased by over 61% during the eighteen years studied. Correcting the data to remove police undercounting by imputing data from highly correlated murder rates, the study conservatively estimates that 796,213 to 1,145,309 complaints of forcible vaginal rapes of female victims nationwide disappeared from the official records from 1995 to 2012. Further, the corrected data reveal that the study period includes fifteen to eighteen of the highest rates of rape since tracking of the data began in 1930. Instead of experiencing the widely reported “great decline” in rape, America is in the midst of a hidden rape crisis.

I’ll be posting over the next week or two about the background, methods, and conclusions of my article. I’m hopeful that the study can attract much-needed attention to the continuing difficulty of rape victims being able to find justice in the United States. However, as the truly insane experience of Adrian Schoolcraft illustrates, alleging police undercounting of crimes can cause a substantial backlash with little positive reform.

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Sex Offenders in the Farm Bill

Over the last two decades, a great deal of innovation in criminal justice has targeted sex offenders. Registration, community notification, residency restrictions, employment restrictions, post-imprisonment civil commitment, special license plates, marked driver’s licenses, and specific loitering laws are among the various collateral limits that have been discussed and implemented for sex offenders. Generally speaking, these restrictions are applied retrospectively but survive Ex Post Facto Clause challenges because the relevant laws are considered non-punitive.

Thanks to the wonderful Texas criminal justice blog, Grits for Breakfast, I found out that the farm bill just signed into law by President Obama includes a provision denying food stamps to certain sex offenders. The provision was inserted by Senator Vitter (who ironically might be a “sex offender” who wasn’t prosecuted for hiring prostitutes) and applies to child molesters and those who commit violent sexual assaults. Notably, there are already bans on drug offenders participating in the program because there is a fear that they might trade food stamps for drugs. For sex offenders, however, it is difficult to think of any non-punitive justification for denying food stamps to sex offenders convicted before enactment of the current law. Even though the courts have bent over backwards to find various restrictions on sex offenders constitutional, it is hard to fathom a theory that would allow the Vitter amendment to be constitutionally applied to those with pre-existing convictions for sex crimes.

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Justice Scalia Has Gone too Far this Time

Justice Scalia has always been a lightning rod prone to inflammatory states. When Justice Scalia wrote that the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas would result in laws against masturbation (which did not actually exist) being found unconstitutional, some wondered if he had lost his grip on reality. And when he rewrote the history of the exclusionary rule by contending that “[s]uppression of evidence, however, has always been our last resort, not our first impulse,” many thought he was reading a different set of cases than the rest of us. His separate opinion in Arizona v. United States discovering inherent state sovereignty beyond constitutional guarantees while injecting Obama’s immigration policy statement made after oral argument in the case certainly raised a few eyebrows. Many thought he was a little over the top in stating that: “The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state…” The list could go on.

But this time Justice Scalia has gone too far. He has crossed a line that cannot be uncrossed. In a public forum, he stated that Chicago-style pizza is not “pizza” at all joining  Jon Stewart in the unjust and unwarranted attack on one of the greatest foods on Earth.

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US News Rankings – The Biggest Loser

Imagine if the input-based approach used by US News was applied to the TV show The Biggest Loser. Currently, contestants win the show if they lose the largest percentage of their body weight. The input (original weight) is controlled for by using a percentage decline in weight instead of focusing on actual final weight or actual pounds lost. A system like US News uses would not control for the original weight and would simply use the final weight, regardless of starting weight, as part of the metric of success. Even worse, the US News system would give bonus points in some form to people that started out lighter. In other words, a 120 lbs person who gains 20 lbs. would beat a 350 lbs. person who loses 150 lbs. in the bizarro-US-News-version of The Biggest Loser. In our world of law schools, deans do far better by attracting high-score students who ultimately don’t make good lawyers than low-score students who have better long-term success in the marketplace.

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US News Rankings – Negative Incentives of Input Focus

The focus on inputs by the US News Rankings creates a pernicious rat race where resources are over-allocated to getting students with the scores needed to maintain or improve a school’s median scores. In a down market, as exists today, such competition is often fierce and scholarship dollars are overwhelmingly given to students with high scores regardless of need. Further, a rankings-focused Dean will spend more on attracting students than on educating them (assuming the money would otherwise have gone to classroom instruction in some form). A one-point drop in LSAT median can be due to a single above-median LSAT student making a last minute decision to not attend law school. And that single-point drop could cause a US News rankings decline and dean firing. Instead of pursuing well-rounded, diverse, and interesting entering classes, deans must fight tooth-and-nail, allocating personnel and financial resources, to meet arbitrary statistical benchmarks that are essentially products of the previous years’ ranking.

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US News Rankings – A Different Role for Inputs

Instead of our current world where higher LSAT/GPA numbers lead to more choices, I want to consider a hypothetical admissions model where students are randomly assigned to schools and forced to attend the schools selected for them. In such a world, LSAT/GPA scores would be relatively equal across all schools (in comparison to the present distribution). In formulating a rankings system from a student perspective, we would only care about what the schools do to improve the relatively equal incoming student quality (measured by job placement or other output variables).

Still, particularly for smaller schools, there would be some statistical variation in incoming LSAT/GPA scores and we would seek to control for those differences in assessing the output variables such as job placement. An ideal rankings system would discount success that could be attributed to incoming student quality and vice versa for schools with lower incoming scores. So, in a world where variations between incoming classes are small and unlikely to have substantial effects on the overall rankings, a good statistician would still like to control for the expected variation in class quality. But, strangely, in a world where the variations in entering class quality are very large, US News not only doesn’t control for entering class quality, it actually adds it to its overall formula in a prominent manner. This makes little sense if the goal is truly to measure law school quality (however it is defined) and aid students in their decision-making.

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US News Rankings – Focus on Inputs

In my discussion that the US News Law School Rankings create negative incentives for law schools, I want to start by examining the misplaced emphasis of the components of the rankings. One of the oddities of the US News rankings is that the quality of incoming students (as measured by median GPA and LSAT) factors so prominently in how schools are ranked. The two factors account for 22.5% of a school’s overall ranking. Yet, what exactly do we expect to learn from the median GPA and LSAT scores? First, those two factors tell us, in aggregate, how the last entering class perceived the relative value of each law school. Students with the highest LSAT/GPA numbers typically have the greatest number of choices in terms of schools and scholarships. As a result, the GPA/LSAT scores are highly correlated with the previous year ranking. And, thus, the previous year ranking largely predicts the subsequent year ranking. Second, the numbers give us a crude sense of the quality of the student body before receiving law school education. Such considerations offer guidance to potential employers, but we might ask why those factors are important in any ranking system seeking to assess law school quality from a student perspective.

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RIP, Taz

Professor Andrew Taslitz (Taz) passed away yesterday after a battle with cancer. The loss to the criminal justice community and many of us personally is immeasurable. From even before I joined the legal academy, he was incredibly kind and generous with me. He has always been and will be continue to be an amazing inspiration. He was truly one the most caring, thoughtful, and wonderful people that I have ever met. It is a tragedy that he was taken from us too soon.