State by State Crime

You can look at a state by state map of crime (“Crime In The U.S.A.“) and see the differences in crime rates and incarceration.

Crime in Texas

Most of the numbers reported are the raw numbers and do not allow for difference in population. However, the chance of being a victim for a violent crime is the number highlighted for each state and it does allow for population differences between states.


Republicans and Democrats roughly equally partisan

The Gallup poll has released some results (“Republicans Turn Against John Roberts, U.S. Supreme Court“) that suggest that Republicans and Democrats are roughly equal in how blindly partisan they are. According to Gallup’s results, Republicans turned against the Supreme Court in nearly identical numbers to Democrats embracing the Court.

If you were looking at the overall numbers you would only see that approval of the Supreme Court was the same before and after the decision on the Affordable Care Act (55%) while disapproval had gone from 40% to 45%. However, shifts on opinions on the court are evident once you look at people from each party.

Republicans and Democrats shift their opinions on the supreme court.

Republicans initially assumed that Chief Justice John Roberts was wonderful with 67% of Republicans holding a favorable opinion of him and only 4% having an unfavorable view. Now, the Chief Justice’s is viewed unfavorably by  44% of Republican and favorably by only 27%. Democrats started out more balanced on Roberts (35% favorable, 31% unfavorable), but have recently seen the light with 54% of Democrats now viewing him favorably.

Republicans have gone from their default assumption about anyone they know little about (“Any Republican must be okay”) to a new assumption based on the only court decision most of them are aware of (“Anyone who disagrees with me on health care is bad”). Neither view does John Roberts justice (pardon the pun).

Save Our Republican-Impeach Earl WarrenJohn Roberts has disappointed the base of the party that spawned him. That’s what justices do from time to time. If the founding generation wanted all of our decisions on rights based on public opinion they would have made judges subject to election and never bothered with the Bill of Rights.

I remember the signs up all over the south calling for the impeachment of Earl Warren. The Court will be dragged into the great issues of the day and sooner or later they make someone mad.

But the republic survives.

For me, the problem isn’t that John Roberts made an argument contrary to the base of his party. The problem is that other justices, President Obama, Mitt Romney, and a host of congressional leaders seem afraid to exercise leadership and try to persuade members of their party on a major issue. I may not agree with Roberts’ argument but I respect his willingness to make it.

Only time will tell whether Justice Roberts goes on to be a great leader of the court or a huge mistake. However, reaction of partisans to his vote on the health care decision tells us more about our partisan assumptions as the Chief Justice’s legal reasoning.

So, don’t take your opinion on the court’s decision too seriously. Chances are that it’s largely an echo of your partisanship.

This just in: Texans support the Death Penalty

It’s not the most exciting news you ever heard. However, a recent Texas Tribune poll found that Texans still support the use of the death penalty (“UT/TT Poll: Texans Stand Behind Death Penalty“).

Poll of support for the death penalty.

It was very interesting to me that while nearly three out of four Texans support the death penalty, a bare majority believe it has been applied fairly.

Only 51% of those questioned believed the death penalty had been fairly applied in Texas.

How serious these concerns of about fairness might be is not clear. However, Texans clearly feel a little uneasy about our legal system as it makes its most dramatic decisions.


Too many secrets at the Commission on Judicial Conduct?

The Austin-American Statesman has an important article (“Texas judges’ misdeeds often kept secret by oversight commission“) for those of us concerned about judicial ethics. The Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) has made it harder for citizens to trust the judges they elect and it is impossible for the public to judge the fairness of the CJC’s decisions when little information is released. As the Statesman reports:

While some judges may receive a relatively harsh public sanction, with details of their cases made available for public consumption, most of the reprimands meted out by the commission in a given year… are kept private, with only the rough outlines of the case made public. No identifying information about the judge or his or her jurisdiction is released, and the penalty has no real impact beyond a notation in the commission’s records and the judge’s conscience.

The CJC defends it secrecy based on worries that judges could be subjected to political attacks based on false claims. However, we allow our governor and other elected officials to face such attacks. We need a pretty good reason to protect our elected judges from similar scrutiny.

There might be some point in protecting judges to protect the image of state courts from the ravages of politics. However, we turned our courts into political offices when we decided to elect them in partisan elections and protecting judges from political attacks also protects them from the kind of scrutiny needed to make elected officials accountable. Rules that say we can only get good news about elected officials are contrary to democracy.

The CJC’s fourteen employees hardly seem like enough staffing to investigate the 1,200 complaints they  receive every year. The  commission is headed by thirteen unpaid commissioners who serve six-year terms. Six commissioners are judges chosen by the Texas Supreme Court, two are lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Texas, while the remaining five are ordinary citizens appointed by the governor.

The limited staffing and the secrecy behind CJC investigations are fundamentally at odds with the very public and very political nature of our judicial elections. The laws of Texas and CJC rules seem more concerned about protecting the reputation of judges than serving  the needs of the judicial election system we rely on to choose them.

Does the death penalty work?

Cover Deterrence and the Death PenaltyA committee of the National Research Council has completed a review of the evidence on the deterrent value of the death penalty and concluded that current studies do not provide much evidence that the death penalty affects homicide rates.

You can read the press release summarizing the findings or take a look at the full report online.

The committee’s conclusions (from the full report):

The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide. Consequently, claims that research demonstrates that capital punishment decreases or increases the homicide rate by a specified amount or has no effect on the homicide rate should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment.

Those findings are not going to excite a lot of people. As the committee points out, the existing research has produced conflicting results and the debate has often spawned more political fighting than informed debate.

The study will probably produce two interesting responses:

Why [use the death penalty]?

Some people will ask why we utilize such a drastic and irreversible form of punishment when we are not sure of its impact.

Why not [use the death penalty]?

Others will ask why worry about the deterrent value of the death penalty since it can serve justice in other ways and the society has the right to retribution.


So… what’s wrong with the existing studies?

The report cites two problems with the existing research on the death penalty:

(1) It does not look at the “differential deterrent effect of execution in comparison with the deterrent effect of other  available or commonly used penalties.” That is, does the prospect of being executed discourage potential criminals beyond other possible punishments dished out in the state? We don’t know if crime is deterred by the existence of capital punishment or the kind of generally tough-on-crime mentality that will manifest itself in punishment other than the death penalty.

(2) We don’t know how criminals think about the death penalty or how they weigh such punishment in their decision to commit a crime. Most of us generally assume that the government promising to kill killers makes society’s intentions pretty clear. However, I have to admit that I know nothing of the state of mind behind a murder and projecting my rationality onto someone who is doing something I consider unimaginable is silly.

The problem of looking at how potential murders assess risk is complicated by the fact that only 15% of people sentenced to death have actually been executed. That means that a death sentence isn’t always a death sentence. Knowing that the state might not follow through on the intention to execute people may undermine the deterrent value of capital punishment. To compute the odds that they will be executed potential murder would have to calculate the probability that they would get caught/convicted/sentenced and then multiply that by the likelihood that the state will follow through on an execution.

Unfortunately, this study seems to pretty accurately reflect our real understanding of the death penalty and left with more uncertainty about its impact than we’re comfortable with.

Challenges to Judicial Elections

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson has been making the case for moving away from electing state judges for years and he’s seen enthusiasm for the idea shift from party to party as the parties see their majorities rise and fade. The Texas Tribune has a story (“In Texas, a Never-Ending Battle Over Judicial Elections“) that makes brings together some of the arguments for making the change.

Why do Texans allow the partisans campaigns that they dislike control the justice system they need to trust?

Courts of Inquiry

The “Texplainer” at the Texas Tribune has a story explaining what a “Court of Inquiry” is. As the story points out, these courts have been involved in some very visible cases involved accusations of wrongful conviction.