Friday, July 17, 2015

Reducing Wrongful Convictions: Better Juries

The most critical means of reducing wrongful convictions is to have better juries. When you consider being summoned for jury duty, what is your reaction? Dread? Annoyance?

If so, you're part of the problem.

Now, I suspect you consider yourself to be of above average intelligence. (And if you have good enough taste to be reading this blog, it's probably true!) So look at it this way: someone is going to be on that jury. Wouldn't you rather it to be someone with half a clue? Think of all the really horribly stupid people that could be sitting in that seat instead of you.

Now look at it another way: you're the one on trial for your life. Do you really want all the intelligent, reasonable people like you to be the ones avoiding jury duty? Leaving you at the mercy of imbeciles? Probably not. Do unto others...

(Quoting Jesus, not maxim 13. Just so we're clear.)

So if you really don't think you'd do a good job, or can't afford the time, fine. But don't try to avoid jury duty just for the personal unpleasantness of it. It's just not cool.

And I'm not going to lie. Jury duty for me wasn't that fun. It wasn't the worst experience of my life, by any means, and I'm glad I did it. But dealing with the kinds of evidence involved in some crimes is not easy. If you can't handle a particular kind of case, they'll probably dismiss you. This is definitely a job, not playtime.

Now there are, of course, other factors besides personal preference that might keep you from serving on a jury. In the United States, your employer has no legal obligation to pay you while you're serving on a jury. That makes it functionally impossible for many people to serve. Spending a week on jury duty at $40 a day is a huge hit to someone who would otherwise have been working a full-time job at $15/hour. For a lot of people, that may be the difference between making rent and not. Juror pay should be at least the usual hourly rate of the juror, with some maximum cap at or above the average wage of the United States. If determining that is too complex, just pay everyone the maximum.

How much money are we talking about spending? There are something like 154,000 jury trials in the US each year. Figure 14 jurors per trial, and that the average trial lasts five days. Add in a little for all the jurors that are summoned but not selected. That means compensating juries costs the US something north of half a billion dollars a year.

I'm suggesting we increase the daily pay by a factor of, say, four, to roughly $20/hour. So we're talking about spending an extra two billion dollars a year, divided among the fifty states and the federal government. We're definitely in the realm of fiscal possibility; that's less than the cost of invading and occupying Iraq for one day. And we actually get something for this!

Other costs need to be accounted for. Jurors may have other non-job obligations, like child or elder care. Assistance should be provided for that as well.

In theory your employer can't fire you for jury duty, either, but that only matters if you can prove that was the reason in a court of law. Good luck proving that! Unfortunately I don't have a good idea for correcting that without throwing out the entire concept of at-will employment. That would have huge ramifications beyond the jury system, so we're just not going to talk about that right now.

We also need to spend some resources educating people as to what jury duty actually involves. (Maybe a blog post...) A lot of people dread it for no defined reason at all. Many have never been summoned. Schools should focus some time on this. One interesting thought might be to show informational videos on the subject at the DMV. After all, you're going to be in that line for three hours. Captive audience!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Reducing Wrongful Convictions: Better Public Defense


The Bill of Rights guarantees you a right to a lawyer when you're on trial, even if you can't afford one. Unfortunately, the lawyers provided by the state are often less than effective. Most public defenders have more work than they canhandle, and are underpaid on top of it. I'm sure many do a fine job even so, but you can't reasonably expect first-class work in those circumstances. The public defender system should be improved, with more pay, more attorneys, and reduced workloads.

Worried about cost? Most states already provide specialized appeal attorneys to death row inmates, and those attorneys often find errors in the original defense lawyer's work. The state ends up with a worst-case scenario: all the cost of a death penalty trial, and no execution (assuming the execution itself to be of value, which we've shown it's not).

Why not save all those man-years of prison resources, not to mention possible lawsuits for false imprisonment, not to mention the moral cost of stealing years of someone's life? States should provide better defense attorneys during the trial phase! Yes, it will cost more on the front end, but we get a better, more trustworthy system of justice out of it.

Also, we need to update the requirements for being provided with a public defender. Even the very poor are in many cases still considered to be able to afford their own defense lawyer. That's both absurd and unamerican. Nobody should have to throw their lives and livelihoods away just to prove their own innocence!

Per the above Mother Jones article, we would need 6,900 more public defenders to get the current workload down to acceptable levels. Say we added 20,000 instead, to account for the additional cases that will be covered by allowing more people to be covered. Median salary for a public defender is around $50,000. So we're talking about spending a billion dollars a year, divided among all the states and the federal government. That's not trivial, but it's doable! For comparison, we spent that during the invasion and occupation of Iraq every eighteen hours.

If you don't have functional courts, you may as well stop pretending to be civilization. We have to stop trying to do justice on the cheap.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Patriotism

I found myself listening to cable news today. I appreciated the music, and people telling what they loved about America. I appreciated that there were many tributes to the armed forces, as there should be. But it's important to remember that ISIS and Iran and North Korea are not threats to our freedom. Al Qaeda and Iraq and Afghanistan were never threats to our freedom. Vietnam and Panama and Germany and Japan were never threats to our freedom. We've been attacked by outside forces, and Americans have been killed. American soldiers have died by the hundreds of thousands to bring freedom to others. But not since 1814 has American freedom been threatened from outside.

Our freedom is threatened from within, by those that divide us, and try to use fear and anger and lies to manipulate us.

Our freedom is threatened by a government that operates in the shadows, ignoring the will of the people and the rule of law and the rights of man.

Our freedom is threatened by those who deny the rights and humanity and American-ness of their neighbors, and who try to use force of law to punish those who do not share their personal beliefs.

Our freedom is threatened every time someone tries to shout down a dissenting opinion, instead of discussing it, and every time someone rejects a fact that doesn't fit their partisan narrative.

Our freedom is threatened by government dysfunction, by elected representatives more committed to beating the other side than to finding solutions that work, and by elections whose outcomes do not reflect the will of the people.

Our freedom is threatened by a false definition of patriotism, one that says it's unpatriotic to recognize problems and try to fix them.

Our freedom is contingent on the idea that we are, as individuals and as a country, imperfect. The framers created a more perfect union, leaving to us the job of making it more perfect still. If we reject that charge, if we decide we are good enough and that no further improvement is possible, then we surrender our freedom to those in power. Because why should we strive to be better if we're good enough already?

If you call yourself a patriot, then you must ask yourself: how can America be better for all Americans, not just the ones I happen to agree with? And how can I help make that happen?

Happy Independence Day!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Reducing Wrongful Convictions: False Guilty Pleas


Why would someone plead guilty if they're not? Plea bargaining. In a plea bargain, the state tells an accused person "You are going to jail. Just say you did it, even if that's a lie, and you won't go for as long."

A plea bargain is great if the state is dealing with a guilty person. But what if they're dealing with an innocent? Regardless of how good a job the police and district attorneys may do, they will make mistakes occasionally, and accuse the wrong person. That's why we have courts and trials in the first place! Nobody but courts should be determining guilt or innocence.

It's just a matter of incentives. If a truly innocent accused is convinced they're going to jail, they will accept a deal and plead guilty, even if they did nothing. By offering plea bargains, the state is literally threatening innocent people into putting themselves in jail.

There is no justice in this. If we want to reduce the rate of false convictions, we first have to eliminate incentives for innocent people to convict themselves. Plea bargains may save the state time and resources, but only at the cost of the integrity of the entire system. We shouldn't be pushing innocent people to convict themselves. Plea bargains should be illegal.

(Now, I admit, we're not talking about the death penalty any more. Plea bargains contribute to wrongful convictions, but not to wrongful executions. You don't get the death penalty after accepting a plea bargain! What could you have pleaded down from?)

Of course, plea bargains exist to save the state money. So we get back to the same question we asked about the death penalty: what is the dollar value of not incarcerating an innocent person? Compare that against the dollars saved by not going to trial at all. I don't have numbers in this case, but I'm betting it doesn't work out in the plea bargain's favor.

At least, once any value at all is placed on the innocent.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Reducing Wrongful Convictions


The details of implementation are the difference between the death penalty working financially and not. So what if we imagined different details? Can we come up with a better system overall? And if we do, where does that leave the death penalty?

One serious problem with our present system is the high rate of false convictions. This doesn't just apply to capital cases; it needs to be fixed across all cases. The system already admits there's a problem, and tries to ameliorate it by providing appeal attorneys to those on death row. But doing that only for death row inmates, and only after years in prison, is treating a symptom, and treating it poorly at that. We need to keep innocents from being convicted in the first place, of any crime!

So what are the causes of wrongful convictions? I am clearly not a lawyer, but from my naive perspective, I see two ways someone gets convicted: pleading guilty, or being found guilty. I'll talk about both in upcoming posts.

Monday, June 22, 2015

2016 Presidential Candidates: Republicans, Part 1

The way our system is set up, electoral votes in most states are winner-take-all. That essentially disenfranchises most voters in the general election; most states' outcome is a foregone conclusion, meaning your vote doesn't matter. Tennessee's electoral votes will all go to the Republican candidate, so why bother voting for President?

The primaries are a different issue. Your vote there matters much more. The problem, of course, is that there are just so many candidates to get familiar with. The below is my attempt to summarize major public statements and headlines regarding the various declared candidates, with links to relevant news articles. Each name links to the Politifact fact-check of that candidate, and their overall record for truth or lies.

We'll start with the Republicans, because they're just so much more interesting lately. There are so many I'm going to have to break them up into multiple posts. I'm going to do the declared candidates first, in alphabetical order by last name, then cover the likely prospective candidates. I am not covering Jack Fellure or Mark Everson. There's virtually zero information about them.

Note that many of these points may seem like negatives, against the candidates. That is not by design. It is likely a consequence of most headlines about candidates in general being negative. I have, however, injected some commentary. I try to roast all candidates equally. Also note that some candidates have many more points than others. This is also not by design; some simply have fewer headlines about them to choose from.


Jeb Bush
Former governor of Florida, brother of W Bush, son of HW Bush.
Ben Carson
Ted Cruz
  • Opposes net neutrality while loudly demonstrating his ignorance on what it actually is, calling it "Obamacare for the internet"
    • "It would put the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices." Everything about that sentence is wrong!
  • Claims global warming isn't happening
  • Thinks emergency care is cheaper than preventive care
  • Missed 10% of votes the Senate held during his time in office
  • Opposes disaster aid from federal government to the states... except his own
  • Supports unlimited campaign contributions
    •  Because it would make things more fair, you see!
  • Shut down the government because his party lost an election, and doesn't regret it
    • Oh, and led protests of the government shutdown 
  • Said that the recent court decisions on gay marriage and Obamacare are "some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation's history"
    •  Aside from, you know, literally thousands of others... get some perspective, man
  • Wants to subject the Supreme Court to retention elections because he doesn't like their decisions 
    • Don't like the way the system works? Break the system.
  • Completely fails to understand how Christians can be opposed to actions of the state of Israel
  • And while it's not about Cruz personally, his father has some very strange pseudo-Christian views of his son being a fulfillment of some made-up end-times prophecy...
Carly Fiorina
  • Completely failed to run HP
  • Opposes net neutrality
  • Lies about corporate tax rates
    • US corporate tax rates are nominally high, but the actual collection rate (i.e. the number that matters) are quite low because of so many loopholes
Lindsey Graham
  • Is willing to raise taxes under some circumstances
    • Of course, his idea of raising taxes is very limited, but it's better than the usual "revenue isn't the problem" lie
  • Seems to have at least some support for environmental issues, if only to bow to political reality and not because he actually believes in them
  • Wants to eliminate habeas corpus, doesn't think imprisoned people should need to be proven guilty
  • Rejects his own party's multiple reports on the Benghazi attacks
  • He said that Obama is not a Socialist, he's a good man!
    • Of course, he also says he's extremely liberal, which you can only say if you have no idea what extreme liberals would actually do...
  • Says you can't govern based on anger, wants to govern based on realism instead
  • Has a completely awful record on foreign policy matters
Mike Huckabee

This guy was governor of Arkansas, ran for President, and now has a Fox News show. He has basically made a living speaking in public for most of my life, so he has more positions than I can possibly cover here. I summarize him thus: America is, was, and should become a Christian nation, wherein his particular version of Christian beliefs are given force of law. This version of Christian beliefs include:
  • Christian education in public schools, including young-earth creationism
  • Support of Israel removing Palestinians from Palestine
  • Banning all non-thereputic abortions, including pregnancies from rape
  • Banning gay marriage or adoption
  • Amending the Constitution to these ends
He's surprisingly sane on some other issues, and kinda nuts on others. Here's a survey of some things that caught my attention, but like all the candidates, I hope you'll read more:
  • Says school shootings happen because God has been removed from schools
    • ...despite the fact that church shootings are far more common...
    • ...and which god is he worshiping, that can be removed from schools? 'Cause mine can't be...
  • Thinks only women who can't control their libido need birth control
  • Thinks we're moving towards the criminalization of Christianity
    • Called the Obama administration "openly hostile toward the Christian faith"
  • Arranged parole for a rapist who raped and murdered again
  • Rejects the principle of judicial review
  • Supports a 30% federal sales tax
    • Cut taxes on the rich, raise taxes on the poor...
  • Says that vaccines don't cause autism! Yay reality!
    • Isn't it sad that I have to point out that he's sane about this?
  • Doesn't understand how the ACA handles pre-existing conditions
  • Wants to vastly increase the size of the American military
    • How is this to be funded? Unclear.
    • But he supports peaceful options with Iran
  • Told people to not enlist in the military until an overtly Christianity-enforcing President is in place
    • Never mind that the last time we had one of those, our military ended up with thousands of dead and tens of thousands of wounded...
George Pataki

And here we find the opposite of Huckabee. For a man who's been in the public spotlight for nearly twenty years, he has relatively few headline-making position statements on major national issues, and most of them are over a decade old. He talks the usual small-government talk, but he's at least somewhat out of step with the typical Republican positions on abortion, the environment, and gun control, which gives me hope he can think independently. I have no reason to think this man is either incompetent or insane.
  • Worked to repeal the ACA
  • Opposes a national sales tax (as of 2000)
Rand Paul

Friday, June 19, 2015

Death Penalty Analysis: Summary

We've looked at four main arguments for the death penalty. Given the wrongful conviction rate is, and will remain, non-zero, argument from justice will always fail. Given the low rate of escape, especially escape with further murders committed, argument from public safety fails. Argument from deterrence is functionally impossible to prove either way. Argument from cost works in theory, but doesn't in practice, because of how our system is set up to minimize wrongful executions.

Should we remove those safeguards? Execute more innocent people to save money?

I imagine most of you will say 'no'. I'll propose one last thought experiment instead: suppose we make all trials for either death penalty or life in prison have the same procedural safeguards. I would argue that that is a good idea; after all, sentencing someone to life in prison is no less taking their life than sentencing someone to die is. Shouldn't they be equally protected? And now the death penalty may actually be cheaper, like in the naive estimate.

But we just made the whole justice system cost-prohibitive; there are a lot more life-in-prison trials than there are death penalty trials. Can society afford to spent tens of billions of dollars on those increased costs? Once again we're putting a price on justice for the innocent. No matter which way you frame it, no matter whether you're talking about death or life, we're always forced to ask the question: what is the dollar value of saving an innocent life?