The Sedition Act of 1918

On this day in 1918, the Sedition Act was passed by Congress forbidding Americans from using “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government, flag, or armed forces during the ongoing First World War. It also allowed the Postmaster General to refuse to deliver any mail that, in his discretion, fit this description.

This was actually the second act of its name and kind, with the first being passed early in the history of the republic, in 1798 (though it expired in 1801). Those convicted under the 1918 act generally received prison sentences of five to 20 years. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

How Can You Police Without Weapons?

Most Americans probably take it for granted that police officers carry guns; after all, how else could they protect and serve the public? But given the high incidence of police killings, many are wondering if armed law enforcement does more harm than good — or at the very least, if it is even necessary.

As a recent article in Quartz points out, several countries, such as Finland, Germany, and Spain, heavily restrict an officer’s ability to fire his or her weapon, while other go even further and prohibit their police from carrying guns — namely Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom.

In the case of New Zealand and the U.K., law enforcement were stripped of firearms as far back as the late 19th century, under the justification that armed police are “antithetical to the values of civil society” and undermine their “authority to protect, not to oppress, the public.” For its part, Iceland, where one third of the population owns guns, reasoned that disarming officers helps to keep the peace “by consent, rather than through the explicit threat or use of force”.

All that is fairly fascinating reasoning, but how does it work in practice?

Well for starters, most of these countries have low crime rates, and what comparatively little crime does occur is usually nonviolent. So addressing the root socioeconomic and cultural causes of crime and violence would probably go a long way towards eventually making armed law enforcement unjustifiable.

Nevertheless, violence still can and does occur in these countries, and police are trained to anticipate and respond to such incidents, up to and including using a firearm during certain situations (such as a report of an armed suspect). Therein lies the core distinction between the U.S. and nations with unarmed law enforcement:

Paul Hirschfield, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, points out that U.S. police officers are trained for an average of just 19 weeks. Compare that to police in Norway, who have three years of training before they’re fully qualified.

“If you only have 19 weeks of training, you’re going to spend those on the most essential things. Unfortunately, in the United States, it’s about what you need to defend yourself. How you’re going to avoid getting hurt”, says Hirschfield. “If you have three years, you can also learn how to protect people, how to avoid these situations from arising in the first place. It fosters a whole different orientation and culture in law enforcement.”

Police in other countries are generally trained to de-escalate hostile situations and use minimal violence in response to a threat.

In other words, the lack of weaponry basically forces officers to find nonviolent solutions to emergency situations, using violence only as an absolute last resort (and again, usually with a select unit of armed specialists deployed strictly for such a purpose). This is in line with several other studies finding that unarmed police help to deescalate situations and build mutual trust between law enforcement and the community.

Another article published in Quartz earlier this year explored this idea:

Gregory Smithsimon, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, argued in a recent article at metro politics that arming police tends to feed violent interactions in marginalized communities. “Police demand respect, civilians resent disrespect, and interactions become confrontations that escalate into mistreatment, abuse, and violence,” Smithsimon writes. Pointing to the example of St. Louis police officer Darren Wilson, Smithsimon notes that the addition of weaponry can accelerate confrontation. “Wilson could have continued on his way,” he says. “But the gun on his hip gave him the possibility to escalate with Michael Brown.”

uns aren’t just a danger in and of themselves. They enable a policing philosophy built on violence and forced compliance, rather than one founded on respect, trust and consent. That philosophy affects every police interaction, even those that don’t involve actual shooting.

“Even if disarming the police only reduced police shootings and not other police homicides, it would be a historic improvement,” Smithsimon tells Quartz. “But I suspect that taking guns out of the equation in police officers’ everyday interactions would improve police-civilian relations, like the kind that Eric Garner experienced repeatedly.” Garner sold loose cigarettes on the street in New York and was frequently hassled by police. In July 2014, he was killed when officers put him in a choke hold.


“U.S. police wearing their gun all the time has an important ideological effect,” Smithsimon tells Quartz. “It makes police feel like they are never civilians, never normal people, that they’re always cops, and that they’re never safe without a gun. I don’t think that’s the most productive frame of mind for civilians who are charged with keeping our cities safe and calm.”

So even in societies that are not as small, homogenous, and peaceful as Iceland or Norway, disarming police can ostensibly work.

However, selling this idea to both governments and the public is a whole other story. With so many millions of guns out there (both legal and illegal), and a high (though declining) rate of violent crime, the thought of policing with firearms sounds absurd — which is why no local government, let alone a state or federal institution, has ever seriously considered this approach; even the smallest and seemingly most peaceable towns employ at least a handful of armed officers.

Indeed, an article in The Conversation that also explores the disparity in the U.S. and European policing found that the “brutalization” process runs both ways: just as armed police may elicit fear, distrust, and hostility among the community, an armed and violent citizenry only reinforces police officers’ willingness to turn to violence.

Acquiring guns illegally in the US is not much harder. About 57% of this year’s deadly force victims to date were allegedly armed with actual, toy or replica guns. American police are primed to expect guns. The specter of gun violence may make them prone to misidentifying or magnifying threats like cellphones and screwdrivers. It may make American policing more dangerous and combat-oriented. It also fosters police cultures that emphasize bravery and aggression.

Americans armed with less-lethal weapons like knives – and even those known to be unarmed – are also more likely to be killed by police.

Less-lethal weapon holders make up only about 20% of deadly force victims in the US. Yet the rates of these deaths alone exceed total known deadly force rates in any European country.

The article also cites endemic racism, hyper-individualism, and deeply rooted resentment towards government as reasons why both government officials and the public at large seem so tolerant of and aggressive police tactics. Racism is perhaps the most commonly identified culprit, although it does not account for the fact that even white Americans are far more likely to die from police shootings than their counterparts across the Atlantic, or why deadly encounters with law enforcement are high in mostly white areas like Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Therein lies another surprising and novel culprit: the localized nature of most policing in the U.S.

Each of America’s 15,500 municipal and county departments is responsible for screening applicants, imposing discipline and training officers when a new weapon like Tasers are adopted. Some underresourced departments may perform some of these critical tasks poorly.

To make matters worse, cash-strapped local governments like Ferguson, Missouri’s may see tickets, fines, impounding fees and asset forfeitures as revenue sources and push for more involuntary police encounters.

More than a quarter of deadly force victims were killed in towns with fewer than 25,000 people despite the fact that only 17% of the US population lives in such towns.

By contrast, as a rule, towns and cities in Europe do not finance their own police forces. The municipal police that do exist are generally unarmed and lack arrest authority.

As a result, the only armed police forces that citizens routinely encounter in Europe are provincial (the counterpart to state police in the US), regional (Swiss cantons) or national.

What’s more, centralized policing makes it possible to train and judge all armed officers according to the same use-of-force guidelines. It also facilitates the rapid translation of insights about deadly force prevention into enforceable national mandates.

At this point, the Conversation article overlaps with Quartz in observing the higher standards by which most European officers operate under — Spain’s national guidelines require cops to “incrementally pursue verbal warnings, warning shots, and shots at nonvital parts of the body before resorting to deadly force” (whereas only eight U.S. states have such a requirement), while Finland and Norway “require that police obtain permission from a superior officer, whenever possible, before shooting anyone”. Centralized standards mean that every community, regardless of its size, wealth, or social and demographic makeup, ostensibly gets the same sort of treatment.

Now, none of this is to say that these other countries have spotless records of police conduct, or that the wide range of differences in culture, demographics, and socioeconomic variables don’t account for at least some of the disparities in policing methods. But that is not reason enough to disregard these case studies, or to fail to apply at least some of these policies to the many cities, counties, and states with comparable social and demographic profiles.

Moreover, the psychological and sociological data that support less violent policing is largely translatable to American society — most people, regardless of nationality, feel uncomfortable in the presence of an armed agent of the state, and any law enforcement agency subject to rigorous standards of training should subsequently be more professional and competent; it is not as if Americans are somehow immune to higher standards of performance if properly trained and educated.

What are your thoughts?

Lessons From Prisons Around The World

In a newly published book, “Incarceration Nations“, Baz Dreisinger of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice goes on a global tour of prisons to discover and compare various approach to criminal justice and rehabilitation. As a professor and activist, rather than a criminal justice expert, her book offers less in the way of data and policy analysis and more in terms of insightful, first-person accounts of the various prison systems she visited, including those in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Jamaica, Rwanda, Singapore, South Africa, and Uganda. Continue reading

Lessons From Germany About Effective Prisons

While Norway appears to be the prevailing model for how to run an effective criminal justice system, the New York Times highlights another northern European country with a promising track record — this one far larger and comparatively more diverse than its more famed Nordic example. A mere glance at the typical German prison makes it resoundingly clear that Europe’s economic and political powerhouse, a nation of nearly 88 million, takes a very different approach to incarceration and rehabilitation.

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs.

It would be scandalous to many Americans to treat prisoners so well. Everything from what they wear to the ambience of their cells suggests that German convicts have it far easier than they, or any criminal, should deserve. But the results bear out, with Germany doing far more than offering cushy and stimulating accommodations.  Continue reading

Innocents Marked For Death

Setting aside the wider debate about the ethics and efficacy of capital punishment, the New York Times editorial board highlights the disturbingly high incidence of innocent people ending up on death row in the U.S. justice system:

[F]ar too often, people end up on death row after being convicted of horrific crimes they did not commit. The lucky ones are exonerated while they are still alive — a macabre club that has grown to include 152 members since 1973.

The rest remain locked up for life in closet-size cells. Some die there of natural causes; in at least two documented cases, inmates who were almost certainly innocent were put to death.

How many more innocent people have met the same fate, or are awaiting it? That may never be known. But over the past 42 years, someone on death row has been exonerated, on average, every three months. According to one study, at least 4 percent of all death-row inmates in the United States have been wrongfully convicted. That is far more than often enough to conclude that the death penalty — besides being cruel, immoral, and ineffective at reducing crime — is so riddled with error that no civilized nation should tolerate its use.

Innocent people get convicted for many reasons, including bad lawyering, mistaken identifications and false confessions made under duress. But as advances in DNA analysis have accelerated the pace of exonerations, it has also become clear that prosecutorial misconduct is at the heart of an alarming number of these cases.

In the past year alone, nine people who had been sentenced to death were released — and in all but one case, prosecutors’ wrongdoing played a key role.

The all-too-common mind-set to win at all costs has facilitated the executions of people like Cameron Todd Willingham or Carlos DeLuna, whose convictions have been convincingly debunked in recent years. And that mind-set led to the wrongful conviction of people like Mr. Hinton, Mr. Ford and Henry Lee McCollum, who was exonerated last year after spending three decades on North Carolina’s death row.

Sam Harris’s Book on Free Will

Neuroscientist and arch-rationalist Sam Harris has shared some reflections about free will on his blog, introducing his short and digestible tract on the subject, eponymously titled Free Will (which I plan on purchasing and reviewing here at some point). Harris raises some though-provoking implications about whether we truly are independent agents in our own lives:

The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment—most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.

Not only would the consequences be grave enough to merit resistance, but the very idea that free will doesn’t exist strikes a visceral cord with most people. Who wants to accept that they’re not really in control of their own lives? Who wants to imagine a world where good and evil are, to some degree or another, products of circumstance, genetics, and other deterministic factors? Such a society would be incomprehensible to us.

Free agency just seems intuitive, and as Harris rightly notes, everything we know and do is built around the assumption that free will exists: our relationships, legal systems, personal feelings, and so on. Society itself is formed around the notion that we are autonomous individuals comprising a greater collective network. How would civilization look if we accepted that none of us is truly self-governing to begin with?

Harris goes on to describe the gruesome details of the infamous Petit family murders that took place in Connecticut four years ago. This graphic and heart-wrenching anecdote seems to be out context, until you realize its significance with respect to free will:

Upon hearing about crimes of this kind, most of us naturally feel that men like Hayes and Komisarjevsky [the perpetrators] should be held morally responsible for their actions. Had we been close to the Petit family, many of us would feel entirely justified in killing these monsters with our own hands. Do we care that Hayes has since shown signs of remorse and has attempted suicide? Not really. What about the fact that Komisarjevsky was repeatedly raped as a child? According to his journals, for as long as he can remember, he has known that he was “different” from other people, psychologically damaged, and capable of great coldness. He also claims to have been stunned by his own behavior in the Petit home: He was a career burglar, not a murderer, and he had not consciously intended to kill anyone. Such details might begin to give us pause.

Whether criminals like Hayes and Komisarjevsky can be trusted to honestly report their feelings and intentions is not the point: Whatever their conscious motives, these men cannot know why they are as they are. Nor can we account for why we are not like them. As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky’s shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this. The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive.

Of course, if we learned that both these men had been suffering from brain tumors that explained their violent behavior, our moral intuitions would shift dramatically. But a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.

How can we make sense of our lives, and hold people accountable for their choices, given the unconscious origins of our conscious minds?

Our approach to justice and morality would be very different if most evil acts resulted from an accident of birth: the environment we’re born into, the genes we inherit, and various biological vagaries in our brain chemistry or hormones. Needless to say, the implications here would probably merit the most resistance.

How many of us could look at criminals like these and convince ourselves that their heinous actions are ultimately not their fault? How many of us could accept that if we were in their place atom for atom, experience for experience, we’d be no different – that we too would be monsters, were it not for sheer luck? Again, not only is it objectionable to imagine that individual responsibility doesn’t exist, but inconceivable.

Still, however absurd it may seem, these are questions and considerations worth pondering. As we continue to advance our understanding of neurology, genetics, psychology, and human nature in general, we may soon have to treat this debate as a matter of practicality than philosophy.