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Junk Science and Felon Disenfranchisement

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Last week, I noted the posts by Sasha Volokh on studies of faith-based prisons and the selection bias problem.  Volokh explains selection bias in more detail, but in a nutshell a comparison of outcomes between a "treatment" group and a "control" group tells us nothing if the groups are selected in a way that makes one group more likely to achieve the outcome for a reason other than the treatment.  Any claim that a difference in outcomes shows the effectiveness of the treatment is junk science.

Now exactly this kind of junk, indeed an extreme example of this kind of junk, has been cited by none other than the Attorney General of the United States on the subject of felon disenfranchisement.  He has been called out on this by none other than the previous Attorney General of the United States in this op-ed in the WSJ (subscription).
Mr. Holder said in his speech on February 11:

On the contrary: there is evidence to suggest that former prisoners whose voting rights are restored are significantly less likely to return to the criminal justice system.  As your report further notes, a study recently conducted by a parole commission in Florida found that, while the overall three-year recidivism rate stood at roughly 33 percent, the rate among those who were re-enfranchised after they'd served their time was just a third of that. 

Unfortunately, the re-enfranchisement policy that contributed to this stunning result has been inexplicably and unwisely rolled back since that study was completed.

No ambiguity here.  Both the context and the word "contributed" make it unmistakably clear that Mr. Holder is claiming a direct causation between reenfranchisement and reduced recidivism rates and claiming the study in question as evidence of that.

Mr. Mukasey knows better:

The U.S. attorney general told us that statistics can be read to show that felon disenfranchisement laws actually promote recidivism....

The statistical argument derives from a recent study in Florida that showed a lower recidivism rate for felons whose right to vote had been restored than for those whose right hadn't. However, there is more going on here.

Florida has had, and indeed has broadened, a system that requires felons to go through an application process before their voting rights are restored. Obviously, those who are motivated to navigate such a process self-select as a group less likely to repeat their crimes. Suggesting that the automatic restoration of voting rights to all felons would lower recidivism is rather like suggesting that we can raise the incomes of all college students if we automatically grant them a college degree--because statistics show that people with college degrees have higher incomes than those without them.

The Florida reenfranchisement process categorized released felons by the seriousness of their offense.  It then further required an application and review process.  The process, the criteria, and the motivation to undertake the process are all obviously related to the outcome.  Less serious offenders are more likely to go straight.  Those who would be approved after applying are more likely to go straight.  Those who care enough about civic matters to go through the process are more likely to go straight.

The treatment and control groups are radically different in their likelihood of reoffending, and they are selected by both the system and themselves to be different.

If someone were writing a textbook on study methodology and wanted an example of a claim that was bogus due to selection bias, it would be difficult to do better than this one.  Yet the nation's chief law enforcement officer makes this blatant, bogus, junk-science assertion.  If he had asked anyone at all with any knowledge at all in the field, he would know it was bogus.

Did he ask and know it was bogus, or did he just go ahead and make the claim without the most elementary checking?  In New York Times v. Sullivan terms, is this a knowing falsehood or reckless disregard of the truth?  It is deception of the public either way and beneath the dignity of the office.

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