February 2009 Archives

February 27, 2009

Latinos Have a Growth Spurt -- in Prison

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I was recently astounded to learn, from a study by the respected Pew Research Center, that in 2007 Latinos accounted for about 40% of people convicted of federal crimes.  As a result, nearly 1/3 of all federal prisoners in 2007 were Latino.  During the period between 1991 and 2007, the number of Latinos convicted of federal crimes increased from just under 8,000 to nearly 30,000.

Have Latinos suddenly become more lawless?  Not at all.  Nearly half of the Latinos convicted of federal crimes in 2007 were convicted of immigration offenses.  Thus, what the dramatic increases really reflect are a far greater number of illegal immigrants -- and greater enforcement of immigration laws.

We often hear claims, many of them specious, that Latinos are a drain on community and economic resources.  But I've never heard people who call for greater enforcement of immigration laws talk about the costs of finding, prosecuting, defending, and housing so many Latino inmates in prison.  How many violent offenders remain free because law enforcement resources are diverted to enforcement of immigration laws?  The huge increase in Latino prisoners is just another sign that our country's immigration policies are in drastic need of repair.

February 18, 2009

Update: Crime Labs Remain Under the Microscope

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After a lengthy study, the National Academy of Sciences has called for a thorough overhaul of the nation's crime labs. (To read the Academy's news release, visit their website.)

The report described a sort of "sliding scale" of forensic reliability. The most reliable types of lab tests are "objective" and are based on biological or chemical analysis. DNA analysis is at the top of the scale; its results are consistently reliable. (Unfortunately, what the report does not say is that many DNA labs are so backlogged that statutes of limitations often expire before testing can be carried out.)

Reliability problems crop up when crime lab analysis rests on "subjective" factors.  Fingerprint, bitemark, toolmark, and similar experts perform their work through subjective interpretation of their samples -- largely in the absence of national standards and protocols.  In many cases, the basic principles and techniques underlying a field of forensic expertise have never been formally studied or established.  Moreover, the labs that carry out the tests often work for police and prosecutors (raising issues of impartiality), and their operations are often haphazard with uncertain quality control.

The report may impel judges to take their "gate-keeping" role more seriously. Instead of allowing forensic experts to testify because "we've always allowed these kinds of experts to testify," judges may require prosecutors to demonstrate that a field of expertise has been subjected to analysis and has been shown to be reliable.

Apart from what happens in court, the report may also encourage all levels of government to invest in our nation's crime labs.  As matters stand now, it's hard to be confident that forensic test results are reliably identifying the guilty and freeing the innocent.

February 12, 2009

Juvenile Court, Adult Corruption

Greed and corruption seem to be the only recent growth industries in the U.S. economy. The latest example involves two Pennsylvania juvenile court judges named Ciavarella and Conahan who allegedly demanded and received kickbacks in exchange for imprisoning youths in facilities run by private corporations.

The judges allegedly raked in $2.6 million without even having to go to all the hassle of operating a Ponzi scheme.  The more youths that Ciavarella and Conahan sent to the private prisons -- and the longer the terms of their imprisonment -- the more government money the prison operators made and the more they'd return to the judges as kickbacks.  Not surprisingly, even kids with clean records who committed the most minor of infractions often found themselves locked up.

Since juveniles charged with crimes have a right to counsel (see In re Gault, U.S. Sup. Court, 1967), you'd think that Ciavarella and Conahan would have been quickly found out. On the other hand, juvenile court proceedings are closed to the public, and perhaps the judges figured out how to dispose of cases as quickly as cattle auctioneers sell off livestock. Whatever means they used, they apparently managed to keep the kickbacks coming for 3 years.

Ciavarella and Conahan have been removed from the bench and have been charged with crimes.  If they are convicted, too bad they won't be sentenced by a judge with a financial incentive to give them the longest possible prison terms.

February 11, 2009

Manslaughter Charges for Poisoned Peanut King?

Peanut Corp. of America owner Stewart Parnell apparently sent email messages urging workers at this plant to ship peanut products laced with salmonella bacteria. So far, 9 people have died and hundreds of others have become ill as a result of eating the company's tainted peanuts.  Confronted with his own messages at a Congressional hearing on Feb. 11, 2009, Parnell declined to answer or even to apologize, and instead invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege not to incriminate himself.

If the government has evidence that Parnell (and perhaps other company officials) ordered the shipment of tainted peanuts, they should go to jail. They should be charged with "involuntary manslaughter". Involuntary manslaughter involves reckless disregard of a substantial risk that results in a person's death. That's precisely what we have here -- Parnell knew or should have known that people who eat salmonella-filled peanuts can not only become ill, they might die.

Over the last few years, we've seen a steady parade of criminally rapacious company executives willing to sacrifice their companies' and workers' futures in order to line their offshore bank accounts. Apparently, Parnell and Peanut Corp. of America have gone even further and sacrificed their customers' lives.  If that's what happened, they should be charged with manslaughter. I wonder if their prison meals will include peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?

February 5, 2009

Crime Labs Under the Microscope

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Forensic specialists in crime labs match fingerprints, perform DNA analysis, link bullets to weapons, and perform other essential functions of scientific police work. Their accuracy and efficiency is vital to the effectiveness of our criminal justice system. If they screw up, innocent people are convicted and guilty people go free.

Sometime this month, the National Academy of Sciences will release a report blasting the quality of forensic testing in U.S. crime labs. Technicians, many among them employed by police departments, are often poorly-trained and exaggerate the accuracy of tests when defending their results in court. Moreover, the lack of standards for training technicians and carrying out forensic tests means that labs can differ greatly in quality. It's not a pretty picture, and clearly it conflicts with the glorious images of forensic scientists as shown in popular TV shows.

The forthcoming report's attack on the quality of crime labs is the Academy's broadest call yet for reform. A few years ago, a previous report knocked the pins out from under a testing technique known as "bullet lead test analysis". The FBI at one time claimed that each box of bullets had a unique chemical "signature" and that it could use these signatures to determine whether a particular bullet came from a particular box of bullets. Hundreds of people were convicted partly on the basis of such forensic evidence before the Academy demonstrated that the testing method was invalid.

Any reforms that the latest report calls for will undoubtedly be costly to implement and will not be accomplished overnight. As for the present, you can bet that the report will stimulate criminal defense attorneys to more vigorously attack the accuracy of forensic test results with this new ammunition.