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The Year in Review, Looney Tune Version

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The notorious Brennan Center published, in the Huffington Post, a "Year in Review" piece about criminal justice "reform" in 2015.  As excerpted on SL&P, it starts as follows:

April: A significant number of candidates running for President contributed essays to a book on criminal justice reform, entitled Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice.  New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker wrote, "The last time a Clinton and a Bush ran for president, the country was awash in crime and the two parties were competing to show who could be tougher on murderers, rapists and drug dealers.  But more than two decades later, declared and presumed candidates for president are competing over how to reverse what they see as the policy excesses of the 1990s and the mass incarceration that has followed."

With the streets still smoldering in Baltimore, Hillary Clinton gives a speech declaring, "It's time to end the era of mass incarceration." 

July: Former President Bill Clinton concedes that the 1994 Crime Bill, which imposed harsh sentences for many crimes and provided incentive funding to states to build more prison beds, "made the problem worse."...


I'll stop there and reflect on how this might be written by an organization more concerned with crime victims than with criminals.

Here goes:


April: A significant number of candidates running for President contributed essays to a book on criminal justice reform, entitled Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice.  New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker wrote, "The last time a Clinton and a Bush ran for president, the country was awash in crime and the two parties were competing to show who could be tougher on murderers, rapists and drug dealers.  But more than two decades later, declared and presumed candidates for president are competing over how to reverse what they correctly see as the policy successes of the 1990s and the mass crime reduction that has followed."

With the streets still smoldering in Baltimore, Hillary Clinton gives a speech declaring, "It's time to end the era of less crime and start going back to the policies that gave us more." 

July: Former President Bill Clinton boasts that the 1994 Crime Bill, which imposed harsh sentences for many crimes and provided incentive funding to states to build more prison beds, "made the problem that the huge majority of our people care about  --  rampant crime  --  much better."...


There's a part of me that hopes Congress is deluded enough to repeat the disastrous mistakes of the past by easing up on drug pushers in the middle of a heroin epidemic.  It would be, in a way, satisfying to watch the election night fate of those pushing this legislation (and that's not even considering that pro-trafficker "reform" is already disfavored among the public by 2-1).

But I can't do it.  There is too much at stake for the country for me to adopt a wise guy attitude just to be able to say "I told you so."

Libertarians are correct that the government doesn't get a lot right.  To reverse one of the very few policies that succeeded would be enough to give the Looney Tune Congress a bad name.

12 Comments

Bill, I am still hoping and waiting for some more details on the survey you keep citing to assert the public is against drug sentencing reform 2-1. Is there any chance you or anyone else will be able to provide these detail, or should I just give up seeking more information and transparency as I had to with my repeated requests to NAAUSA for more on its surveys of federal prosecutors.

Please know I am not asserting these surveys are biases, I just want to know a lot more about them so I can better understand what they show. You and Kent and others here do a very good and important job of showcasing notable biases in other sources often widely cited by other. I am eager just to know more about the sources, Bill, that you make a habit of regularly citing.

Here is more information, in addition to the cross tabs I furnished (with admittedly lousy formatting) originally.

The study was conducted November 19-22, 2015 by ORC International using their Telephone CARAVAN® Omnibus. It was conducted using two probability samples: randomly selected landline telephone numbers and randomly selected mobile (cell) telephone numbers. The combined sample consists of 1,008 adults 18 years of age and older (504 men and 504 women) living in the continental United States. Of the 1,008 interviews, 508 were from the landline sample and 500 from the cell phone sample. The margin of error for the sample of 1,008 is +/- 3.09% at the 95% confidence level.


Opinion Research Corporation's website has a ‘News’ page to highlight some of the work they have done. It links to work that has been released by clients and/or picked up by media organizations (this includes online sources as well as traditional media). ORC maintains the right to determine whether or not to link to a news mention. ORC's site, however, tends to be on matters of general commercial interest. Thus, to my knowledge, it has not published this poll on its website (not being of commercial interest). You are welcome to contact ORC yourself to verify what I have said here, or to seek any other information you want.

P.S. I doubt you're interested merely in "understanding" the poll. Instead, I think you're more interested in impeaching it, because its results are poison to the sentencing reform movement.

The mystery is that you're at all surprised by the results. As I've been saying, sentencing reform is largely an inside-the-Beltway, interest group-driven, billionaire-funded enterprise. But for those not inside that particular bubble (i.e., almost everybody), it can hardly come as a shock that, by 58-30, the public does not think we have too many traffickers in prison for too long, and instead thinks MORE should be done to keep them off the streets.

The only thing that surprised me about the poll was that it wasn't more lopsided. I was expecting 3-1 or 4-1, not just 2-1.

Bill, what interests me is understanding the exact question asked about drug traffickers and surrounding questions. I would guess that most folks would like to see more done to keep drug dealers off the streets BUT that does not mean folks would like to see prison sentences for drug dealers should be longer. Having more cops walking the beat in certain neighborhoods may serve that end more effectively and at a lower cost. In addition, legalizing marijuana can take some drug dealers off the street and put them behind counters.

How do you think the poll would come out if it asked whether voters would rather have $100 million in taxpayer resources spent on building a few more prisons or on hiring 5,000 more cops to try to reduce street drug trafficking. That is the real question at the heart of the modern sentencing reform movement: how should limited public resources be best spent to enhance public safety. I have not yet seen a clear poll posing that question effectively to voters, and I fear the poll you keep citing does not either and thus is of limited value as a true gauge of public views as to sentencing reform.

Doug --

The exact question was: "Thinking about the criminal justice system, which comes closer to your view -- that we have too many drug traffickers in prison for too long [virtually repeating Eric Holder's formulation], or that we don't do enough to keep drug traffickers off the street [NAAUSA's view]?" I think that's a fair presentation of the most basic issue. There were no surrounding questions, and thus no effort to push respondents to one side or the other.

NAAUSA sponsored that poll after my explicit suggestion that it NOT be a push poll, and I think that's what happened. It intentionally avoided FAMM's slick practice of asking about "sentencing discretion" -- a tactic designed to obscure the heart of the debate, to wit, should these trafficking sentences be SUBSTANTIVELY longer or shorter.

If Moritz College of Law wants to ask a balanced, non-loaded question like NAAUSA did, more power to it. I think ORC's contact info is publicly available.

P.S. I leave in a few hours for my winter home and won't be on the boards for a while.

Travel safe, Bill, and thanks for this additional info. I did not know until this that NAAUSA sponsored this poll. I would be eager to know how much it cost so that I could see if I have the resource in my OSU research account to do another poll which would ask the question that I think would be a helpful and important complement/follow-up to this poll with a question like:

In any effort to do more to keep drug traffickers off the street, do you think the federal government should continue to spend federal taxpayer resources on mandating that lower level drug dealers should be required to serve lengthy and expensive federal prison terms or should some resources instead be reinvested in hiring more state and local police and funding other state and local efforts to address the drug trafficking problem?

Critically, the NAAUSA question is biased in a sense by simply asking if more should be done, and that suggests that in fact people do want reforms and do not like the status quo. Yet you seem to believe the poll supports the status quo

Victims seem to be faceless to the Beltway class.They don’t know who the victims are, they know it’s not them, they see only the criminal in prison and that is all. He appears to be unfortunately locked up and they want to free him. They either can’t or refuse to think about the coarsening of society that will follow. They think none of it will affect them, so it’s not an issue for them. Unless they lose their reelection but even then they will find something else to blame.

Doug,

Wow. What a terribly biased question. There are enough judgments in there to make your head spin.

Lengthy? Expensive? Reinvested? Those are the words of a poll with a political purpose, not an academic one.

If I rephrased the question similar to the one below, you would have a conniption.

"In any effort to do more to keep drug traffickers off the street, do you think the federal government should continue to reinvest federal taxpayer resources on mandating that drug dealers should be required to serve out there legally rendered federal prison sentences or should limited resources instead be spent to hire more expensive state and local police and funding other unproven state and local efforts to address the drug trafficking problem?"

Yours is no better.

Fair point Tarls, though I would be just fine with your question as written if you just removed the word unproven from the police section or added it to the first section. In my view neither lengthy prison terms nor more police has proven to reduce drug trafficking. --- and I would be quite supportive of long prison terms if they proved effective.

Wording aside, Tarls, do you share my view that the NAAUSA sponsored poll suggests the public wants a change to the status quo rather than its preservation?

Rather than try to figure out what the poll "suggests," let's just take what it says. This seems to be the last thing you want to do.

The poll question is straightforward. It's not a push-poll (unlike FAMM's). 30% thinks we have too many drug dealers in prison for too long, and 58% thinks we're not doing enough to keep them off the streets.

Does that sound like the public wants shorter sentences?

This is not that hard.


Does that saound like the public wants to preserve only the status quo? Isn't that what you are advocating for on the hill, Bill?

More to the point, what more would you suggest be done "to keep drug traffickers off the street" since it seems 58% say we are not doing enough? I would like to see Congress legalize marijuana and spend less on prisons and more on funds for states to hire more cops to walk the beat (wearing body cams).

Good questions all.

1. No, it does not sound like the public ONLY wants to preserve the status quo.

2. I am advocating partially a preservation of our MM system, and (more frequently important) a return to mandatory guidelines as per the Booker remedial dissent.

3. The main thing I would suggest is a return to responsible parenting (see Kent's post) and the ideas of respect for other people's well-being and property. If these things succeed, we will both be happy, because we will need less, and get less, prison. In the meantime, I would spend on more prisons, more humane prisons, rehab for those who truly want to change, improved pay for defense counsel and prosecutors, and a whole bunch of other stuff that costs money (and that therefore isn't going to happen in a slow-growth economy).

4. In the world as I would have it, the feds would do less to both fund and try to control state criminal law. There would also be federal law mens rea reform which, most unfortunately, this obtuse and willful administration opposes.

Got it, though do you want the FEDERAL government to spend more and more and more on more prisons, more humane prisons, rehab for all (free of charge, I assume), and for more and better funded lawyers on both sides?

I am all for that increased spending AT the STATE level if that is what state voters say what they want and are willing to pay the taxes to cover those costs. But the Feds are already deep in debt and I want to see funding and involvement cut there. The sentencing reform effort in Congress, which you seem to oppose, seems a minor and incomplete, but still important, step in cutting back on seemingly excessive spending in this space.

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