Immigrants in U.S. Largely Law Abiding

According to one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of its kind, immigrants in the United States are not only overwhelmingly law abiding, but their increased presence in many communities has mostly correlated with a reduction in crime. From the New York Times:

According to data from the study, a large majority of the areas have many more immigrants today than they did in 1980 and fewer violent crimes. The Marshall Project extended the study’s data up to 2016, showing that crime fell more often than it rose even as immigrant populations grew almost across the board.

In 136 metro areas, almost 70 percent of those studied, the immigrant population increased between 1980 and 2016 while crime stayed stable or fell. The number of areas where crime and immigration both increased was much lower — 54 areas, slightly more than a quarter of the total. The 10 places with the largest increases in immigrants all had lower levels of crime in 2016 than in 1980.

And yet the argument that immigrants bring crime into America has driven many of the policies enacted or proposed by the administration so far: restrictions to entry, travel and visas; heightened border enforcement; plans for a wall along the border with Mexico. This month, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against California in response to the state’s restrictions on local police to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants charged with crimes. On Tuesday, California’s Orange County signed on in support of that suit. But while the immigrant population in the county has more than doubled since 1980, overall violent crime has decreased by more than 50 percent.

There’s a similar pattern in two other places where Mr. Trump has recently feuded with local leaders: Oakland, Calif., and Lawrence, Mass. He described both cities as breeding grounds for drugs and crime brought by immigrants. But Oakland, like Orange County, has had increasing immigration and falling crime. In Lawrence, though murder and robbery rates grew, overall violent crime rates still fell by 10 percent.

In general, the study’s data suggests either that immigration has the effect of reducing average crime, or that there is simply no relationship between the two, and that the 54 areas in the study where both grew were instances of coincidence, not cause and effect. This was a consistent pattern in each decade from 1980 to 2016, with immigrant populations and crime failing to grow together.

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The Problem With How We Treat Drug Addicts

The United States is facing an opioid and heroin epidemic that is killing and harming record numbers of people; more people died of overdoses in 2014 than in any other year on record.

One of the latest and most troubling images of this problem was a widely circulated photo of a couple passed out in their car with their four year old left watching from the back city. The City of East Liverpool, Ohio saw fit to share the photo on its Facebook profile to “show the other side of this horrible drug”. Continue reading

The Murder Capitals of the World

According to a report by the Mexican NGO Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (CCSP-JP by its Spanish acronym), the majority of the world’s most murderous cities — 42 out of the top 50 — are found in Latin America. A chart by The Economist breaks down these grim results in stark visual terms.


El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, home to around 1.8 million people, has seen its murder rate double in just one year to 1,900; the small Central American country subsequently beats neighboring Honduras as the country with the world’s highest murder rate. Latin America’s largest country, Brazil, accounts for 21 of the world’s most homicide-plagues cities, up from 14 just five years ago, when the report first began.
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Factsheet on Racial Inequality in U.S. Justice System

Incarceration Trends in America 

  • From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people
  • Today, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners.
  • Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, 1 in ever y 31 adults, or 3.2 percent of the population is under some form of correctional control

Racial Disparities in Incarceration

  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
  • According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
  • One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
  • 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
  • Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).

Drug Sentencing Disparities

  • About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug
  • 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
  • African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). (Sentencing Project)

Contributing Factors

  • Inner city crime prompted by social and economic isolation
  • Crime/drug arrest rates: African Americans represent 12% of monthly drug users, but comprise 32% of persons arrested for drug possession
  • “Get tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies
  • Mandatory minimum sentencing, especially disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine possession
  • In 2002, blacks constituted more than 80% of the people sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws and served substantially more time in prison for drug offenses than did whites, despite that fact that more than 2/3 of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic
  • “Three Strikes”/habitual offender policies
  • Zero Tolerance policies as a result of perceived problems of school violence; adverse affect on black children.
  • 35% of black children grades 7-12 have been suspended or expelled at some point in their school careers compared to 20% of Hispanics and 15% of whites

Effects of Incarceration

  • Jail reduces work time of young people over the next decade by 25-30 percent when compared with arrested youths who were not incarcerated
  • Jails and prisons are recognized as settings where society’s infectious diseases are highly concentrated
  • Prison has not been proven as a rehabilitation for behavior, as two-thirds of prisoners will reoffend

Exorbitant Cost of Incarceration: Is it Worth It?

  • About $70 billion dollars are spent on corrections yearly
  • Prisons and jails consume a growing portion of the nearly $200 billion we spend annually on public safety

Source: NAACP

Throwing Away The Key

A recent article in The Economist has highlighted the moral bankruptcy of mandatory minimum sentencing in the United States.

[Over 3,200 people are] serving sentences of life without parole for non-violent crimes, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Around 79% of them were convicted of drug crimes. These include: having an unweighable amount of cocaine in a shirt pocket, selling $10-worth of crack to a police informant and mailing small amounts of LSD to fellow Grateful Dead fans. Property crimes that earned offenders a permanent home in prison include shoplifting three belts, breaking into an empty liquor store and possessing stolen wrenches.

A hefty 83% of such sentences were mandatory. That is, a state or federal law barred the judge from exercising any discretion (or indeed, common sense).

Furthermore, this reflects another endemic problem with the justice system: institutional racism.

Racial disparities among non-violent whole-lifers exceed even those of the prison system itself. Among federal prisoners, blacks are 20 times more likely to receive such sentences: they are 65% of the national total, compared with 18% for whites and 15% for Latinos. In some states, the numbers are yet more skewed: blacks are 91% of non-violent life-without-parole prisoners in Louisiana, 79% in Mississippi and 68% in South Carolina.

In addition to the ethical problems, there are serious practical ones as well (which are all the more palpable given the strain that public finances are facing).

The ACLU estimates that life-without-parole sentences for [nonviolent] offenders add $1.8 billion to the cost of incarcerating those to whom they apply. Jennifer Turner, who wrote the ACLU’s study, says that the number of life-without-parole sentences (including those for violent crimes) is growing faster than life-with-a-chance-of-parole. In the past 20 years, it has quadrupled, even as violent crime has declined.

Long sentences have not made drugs harder to buy or Americans less likely to take them. Evidence that they reduce crime is skimpy; the vast sums spent on them would surely reduce crime more if spent instead on detective work, drug treatment and rehabilitation.

Then of course there is the horrific human consequences.

The cost to prisoners and their families, meanwhile, is impossible to calculate. “I’ve lost my son. I’ll never have grandchildren with him. He’ll never see the outside world,” says Ms Borg. She adds: “I can’t sleep. I can’t function. I’m 87 pounds. I look like a walking skeleton.”

While this is just a small fraction of America’s 2.3 million prisoners — many of whom are facing harsh sentences for minor drug offences — it should go without saying that every human life counts. Every single one of those people are losing their entire lives over small infractions and senseless technicalities. It is completely unjustifiable, whether from an ethical, economic, or practical point of view.


A Detailed Report of US Mass Shootings From 1982 to 2013

This sobering Google spreadsheet provides a record of all mass and spree shootings that have occurred in the US over the last 30 years. Aside from the usual stats — such as the name of the perpetrator, location, number of fatalities — it also includes a summary of the crime, any known motive of the killer, and whether or not they had a confirmed history of mental illness.

It’s well-sourced and updated five minutes, having unfortunately grown quite a bit over the last couple of years (coinciding with other reports that have found a decline in mass shootings despite an overall drop in crime). Needless to say, it’s a somber read, and an awful reminder of the unusually high incidence of gun massacres in this country — reasons that will be explored for another day. 

Reflections on Yet Another Senseless Tragedy

I see that many others on Facebook, Tumblr, WordPress,  and other social media are discussing the recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. There is not much I can add that hasn’t already been expressed. No one, especially a child, wakes up in the morning expecting that day to be their last. This sort of thing may explain why fear and mistrust are so high in this country. For many people, it only takes a few incidents like these over the years to really chip away at one’s trust towards humanity.

I grow weary of this horrific cycle: innocent people are senselessly killed, we become saddened and outraged for days as the media focuses almost exclusively on the tragedy, and then things return to normal until the pattern repeats again. I understand horrific events like this will always happen, and that gun massacres are hardly unique to the US. But this horror still seems far too frequent for such a developed country. I’m starting to wonder if it has anything to do with the high level of social dysfunction in our society, combined with one of the lowest rates of mental health services in the industrialized world. Whatever the case may be, I wish there was clear solution.

I am now hearing arguments that teachers should be allowed to carry firearms while in school. A similar case was made with regard to college students and professors following the Virginia Tech massacre. I understand the temptation of this argument, but it raises significant problems.

First of all, I can’t imagine that many instructors (or parents and students) would feel comfortable with a firearm present while teaching children. Even with safety measures in place, it is still risky, and a sense of uneasiness would likely remain. Moreover, many teachers may not be qualified or inclined to learn how to use a gun.

But even if we assign armed guards or police officers instead (which would likely be expensive), I have to wonder: what effect would such a pervasive siege mentality have on our society? Do we really want to live in a world where everyone sees the need to be armed all the time, everywhere they go, in order to feel safe? What impact does that have on one’s psyche or sense of trust? No other developed society in the world has a comparable problem.

In any case, the data reveal that the picture is rather mixed. For example, in most cases, the killer did in fact obtain the gun legally. Yet at the same time, strict gun laws haven’t always translated into fewer gun crimes, even though more guns in general tend to correlate with more gun crime. It’s also clear that unequal societies – those with high rates of poverty and social dysfunction – tend to be more violent overall as well. The complexity of the issue means it’ll take a multidimensional and systemic approach to resolve – which is probably why we’ve yet to even seriously discuss this problem.

I’ll end this with a prescient quote attributed to Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers), which has been making the rounds since yesterday’s school shooting.

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

While it may be apocryphal, the point of this statement still applies: almost every tragedy, including this one, has had its heroes. It may not seem like much consolation, but we must grasp onto whatever good we could find in the world. That’s something I’ve had to keep in mind time and again, given the years I’ve spent studying war, current events, genocide, and the like.

If there can be any consolation in this horrific tragedy, it is in the tremendous outpouring of love, solidarity, and empathy being expressed by millions of people around the country (and the world). Just about everyone I know has shared their sadness and condolences for the victims. It is reassuring that many of us haven’t become so hard-hearted after all that we’ve seen over the years. While this massacre – among other things – represents the worst of human nature, the sincere heartfelt responses reflect the best. It doesn’t make up for the suffering, but it helps keep my bouts of cynicism and misanthropy at bay. Let’s not lose our love and concern for each other as a species. That’s partly what makes things like this more common.

How the Justice System Extorts the Poor

It’s already well-established that minorities, especially blacks and Hispanics, fare disproportionately worse in the criminal justice system than whites: they are more likely to be searched by the police, incarcerated, and to receive harsher punishments. But the justice system also has a class problem: those on the lower end of the socioeconomic strata, regardless of race or ethnicity, are more likely to be victimized as well.

While it’s well-known that having more money gives one an edge in legal matters (for example, being able to afford the best lawyers around), there are many other insidious and lesser-known ways that poor people lose out in the justice system. Indeed, they’re not only lacking an advantage: they’re being directly preyed upon. As The Nation reports:

Lenders, including major credit companies as well as payday lenders, have taken over the traditional role of the street-corner loan shark, charging the poor insanely high rates of interest. When supplemented with late fees (themselves subject to interest), the resulting effective interest rate can be as high as 600 percent a year, which is perfectly legal in many states.

It’s not just the private sector that’s preying on the poor. Local governments are discovering that they can partially make up for declining tax revenues through fines, fees and other costs imposed on indigent defendants, often for crimes no more dastardly than driving with a suspended license. And if that seems like an inefficient way to make money, given the high cost of locking people up, a growing number of jurisdictions have taken to charging defendants for their court costs and even the price of occupying a jail cell.

The poster case for government persecution of the down-and-out would have to be Edwina Nowlin, a homeless Michigan woman who was jailed in 2009 for failing to pay $104 a month to cover the room-and-board charges for her 16-year-old son’s incarceration. When she received a back paycheck, she thought it would allow her to pay for her son’s jail stay. Instead, it was confiscated and applied to the cost of her own incarceration.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, as our government is in on the racket as well:

At the local level though, government is increasingly opting to join in the looting. In 2009, a year into the Great Recession, I first started hearing complaints from community organizers about ever more aggressive levels of law enforcement in low-income areas. Flick a cigarette butt and get arrested for littering; empty your pockets for an officer conducting a stop-and-frisk operation and get cuffed for a few flakes of marijuana. Each of these offenses can result, at a minimum, in a three-figure fine.

And the number of possible criminal offenses leading to jail and/or fines has been multiplying recklessly. All across the country—from California and Texas to Pennsylvania—counties and municipalities have been toughening laws against truancy and ratcheting up enforcement, sometimes going so far as to handcuff children found on the streets during school hours. In New York City, it’s now a crime to put your feet up on a subway seat, even if the rest of the car is empty, and a South Carolina woman spent six days in jail when she was unable to pay a $480 fine for the crime of having a “messy yard.” Some cities—most recently, Houston and Philadelphia—have made it a crime to share food with indigent people in public places.

Being poor itself is not yet a crime, but in at least a third of the states, being in debt can now land you in jail. If a creditor like a landlord or credit card company has a court summons issued for you and you fail to show up on your appointed court date, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. And it is easy enough to miss a court summons, which may have been delivered to the wrong address or, in the case of some bottom-feeding bill collectors, simply tossed in the garbage—a practice so common that the industry even has a term for it: “sewer service.” In a sequence that National Public Radio reports is “increasingly common,” a person is stopped for some minor traffic offense—having a noisy muffler, say, or broken brake light—at which point the officer discovers the warrant and the unwitting offender is whisked off to jail.

If you can stomach it, read the rest of the article. It’s hard to believe that the very arbitrator of justice we rely on to enforce law and order in this is often a criminal enterprise itself. If the enforces of justice are unjust…then what?

What is Proper Justice for the “Unintentionally” Evil?

As I’ve argued here before, few people willingly choose to be immoral. An evil nature is often the product of evil forces, such as childhood abuse, abject poverty, social oppression, psychological illness, and so on.

It’s no coincidence that the overwhelming majority of the world’s tyrants, murderers, and criminals had traumatic or otherwise troubled upbringings; even those evil individuals that endured no such experiences often display signs of some sort of mental illness (although poorer folks would have a harder time identifying these issues, let alone receiving the proper care).

It is for this reason that I am often conflicted about the extent to which we can assign blame for the evil actions of certain individuals. Certainly, I’m every bit as disgusted and shocked by the immorality of criminals as anyone else, and like the rest of society, I believe lawbreakers – especially the dangerous kind – should of course face justice and imprisonment.

But this doesn’t mean I view such people as unequivocally bad; that is to say, I don’t see them as evil for the sake of evil, but as evil due to forces beyond their control. Arguably, had these factors not been present in their lives (namely in their formative years as children), they would’ve turned out different. They wouldn’t be criminals. It’s hard to say of course, but it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw given what we know about the early lives of evil men.

A case in point is the recent news about Cristian Fernandez, which was the trigger of these thoughts. This thirteen year-old boy was recently charged as an adult for the brutal murder of his two year-old brother, as well as the sexual molestation of his five year-old brother. It should go without saying that no well-adjusted child would do something so heinous without explanation. Indeed, were you to read about this boy’s life while unaware of his crimes, you’d feel tremendous pity for him. As HuffPo reports:

Fernandez was born in Miami in 1999 to Biannela Susana, who was 12. The 25-year-old father received 10 years’ probation for sexually assaulting her.

Two years later, both mother and son went to foster care after authorities in South Florida found the toddler, filthy and naked, walking in the street at 4 a.m. near the motel where his grandmother did drugs.

In 2007, when Fernandez was 8, the Department of Children and Families investigated a report that he was sexually molested by an older cousin. Officials said other troubling incidents were reported, including claims that he he killed a kitten, simulated sex with classmates and masturbated at school.

In October 2010, Fernandez and his mother were living in Hialeah, a Miami suburb, with his mother’s new husband. Fernandez suffered an eye injury so bad that school officials sent him to the hospital where he was examined for retinal damage. Fernandez told officers that his stepfather had punched him. When officers went to the family’s apartment, they found the stepfather dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Soon, the family moved north to Jacksonville and Fernandez enrolled in middle school, getting straight A’s. They settled in a bland, beige public housing complex.

A few months later on March 14, 2011, deputies were called to the apartment: Fernandez’ baby brother, 2-year-old David, had died at a local hospital. The medical examiner determined that the toddler had a fractured skull, bruising to his left eye and a bleeding brain.

Susana, then 25, admitted to investigators that she had left Fernandez, David and her other children home alone. When she returned, she said she found David unconscious. She waited eight-and-a-half hours before taking him to the hospital and searched “unconsciousness” online and texted friends during that time.

Susana also revealed that two weeks before David’s death, Fernandez had broken the toddler’s leg while wrestling.

Susana was charged with aggravated manslaughter; the medical examiner said David might have survived if she had taken him to the hospital sooner for the head injury. She pleaded guilty in March and could get 30 years.

Fernandez, who had first been questioned as a witness, was soon charged with first-degree murder. The other felony charge was filed after his 5-year-old half-brother told a psychiatrist that Fernandez had sexually assaulted him.

The boy has talked openly to investigators and therapists about his life; the gritty details are captured in various court documents.

“Christian denied any plans or intent to kill his brother,” one doctor wrote. “He seemed rather defensive about discussing what triggered his anger. He talked about having a `flashback’ of the abuse by his stepfather as the motive for this offense … Christian was rather detached emotionally while discussing the incident.”

Based on psychological evaluations, prosecutors say that Fernandez poses a significant risk of violence. That’s why he is being detained pre-trial and why they charged him with two first-degree felonies.

I sometimes ask myself if I would’ve turned out any differently had I endured similar circusmtances in life. Obviously, not everyone who suffers through such trauma turns out to be a bad person; conversely, not everyone who is raised in a happy and healthy family end up a good one either. But it’s clear that one’s genes, environment, and social influences have some sort of bearing on your personality and health. It’s hard to imagine that young Fernandez would’ve ended up the exact same way had it not be for such horrific circumstances shaping his life. Indeed, that’s something that legal officials are grappling with too.

Based on psychological evaluations, prosecutors say that Fernandez poses a significant risk of violence. That’s why he is being detained pre-trial and why they charged him with two first-degree felonies.

Yet difficult questions remain for Judge Mallory Cooper: Should a child so young spend his life in prison? Does Fernandez understand his crimes, and can he comprehend the complex legal issues surrounding his case?

In August, Cooper ruled that police interrogations of Fernandez in the murder and sexual assault cases are not admissible, because the boy couldn’t knowledgeably waive his rights to remain silent and consult an attorney. Prosecutors are appealing.

The defense wants the charges dismissed, saying the U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning sentences of life without parole for juveniles makes it impossible for them to advise Fernandez since the Florida Legislature has not changed state law. Prosecutors say they never said they would seek a mandatory life sentence – they say the old Florida law that called for a 25-year-to-life sentence could apply.

Mitch Stone, a Jacksonville defense attorney who is familiar with the case, said Corey and her prosecutors are in a tough position.

“I know they’re good people and good lawyers,” he said. “But if a resolution short of trial doesn’t occur, this case is on a collision course to sending Cristian Fernandez to life in prison. That’s why this is one of those very difficult cases. It’s hard to understand what the appropriate measure is.”

Should child criminals with this sort of background be locked away from society for good? Or should they face a shorter sentence that includes rehabilitation? Would it be to late to “fix” people like Fernandez? Consider the similar case of death-row inmate Terrance Williams, another murderer who was horrifically victimized in his youth.

In fact, behind the image of Williams as a model student athlete was a childhood marred by horrific physical and sexual abuse that began from the time Williams was just 6 years old. Relentlessly beaten by his mother (herself a victim of abuse) and his alcoholic stepfather and gang-raped at a juvenile detention center when he was 16, by the time Williams killed Norwood he was regularly cutting himself, abusing drugs and alcohol, and had endured more than a decade of abuse.

Both the man’s victims were former abusers who no doubt pushed him further over the edge. This doesn’t justify murdering them in cold blood, but it should make us wonder if such cases merit special consideration. Do the traumatizing and mentally scarring experiences of people like Fernandez and Williams mitigate their resoonsibility? What would be an appropriate course of action that would be both fair and practical for the sake of public safety?

The Tragic Case of the Throwaway Children

The Nation reports on a little-known and disturbing aspect of our bloated, inefficient justice system: the plight of juvenile criminals who are charged as a adults and left to rot in prison for the rest of their lives. If I had the time, I’d add my own commentary, but I think this excellently written article speaks for itself.