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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Can We Justify How Criminal Justice Authority is Allocated Across Jurisdictions?

Blogging, young kids, and flu season: apparently only two of the three can co-exist at one time, at least in my house. Anyway, in my last post, I asserted that the decentralized nature of our criminal justice system has played a major role in driving up prison populations. In this post, before looking at the problems with decentralization, I wanted to think about whether we can justify such a system, and ask whether the problematic decentralization seen in criminal law is prevalent elsewhere as well.

As an economist, the strongest justification I can see for federalism1 relates to externalities. At least as a starting point, issues should be dealt with by the smallest jurisdiction that completely contains the problem. Obviously, there are clear counterarguments—economies of scale, coordination problems, etc., etc.—against having too many levels of government. But since here I’m basically looking at city, county, and state governments, it seems like a reasonable place to start.

The division of labor we see is basically this: local communities such as cities are responsible for enforcement, counties are in charge of bringing cases and incarcerating misdemeanants, and the state is responsible for incarcerating felons and, via the state criminal code, defining the basic substantive and punitive rules.

Yet what is striking is how remarkably local and concentrated crime is.

Nearly half of all crime in the United States takes place in just 75 counties (see the codebook here)—or just over 2% of the 3,143 counties in the country. Within these counties, crime is concentrated in the urban areas. And within these urban areas, crime is heavily concentrated at the block-by-block level. One study of Seattle, for example, revealed that over a fourteen year period, over 50% of all crime took place in just 4% to 5% of city blocks each year, and 100% of crime each year took place in just about half of all city blocks; over 22% of all city blocks never experienced a crime during the whole sample period. Similar results have been found in other cities as well.

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 11.02.22 AM

Yet even the idea of “good” and “bad” neighborhoods understates the concentration of crime. As David Weisburd explains elsewhere:

In what are generally seen as good parts of town there are often streets with strong crime concentrations, and in what are often defined as bad neighborhoods, many places are relatively free of crime.

In fact, so concentrated is crime that Lawrence Sherman has argued that we should think more about “wheredunit” than “whodunit”: tell me that a mugging happened, and I am better able to guess where it happened than who did it.

Furthermore, not only is crime quite local, it seems to be fairly immobile: evidence suggests that for most crimes displacement is not a major concern. Weisburd and others have shown that even within a high-crime neighborhood, concentrated enforcement at a particular crime hot-spot does not appear to displace crime to other, nearby blocks. The hotspot is a hotspot for a reason: there is something about that block—its architecture, its lack of light, etc., etc.—that makes if favorable for, or even encourages, criminal conduct.

Of course, some crimes are more displaceable than others. The low-level drug dealer may not move a few neighborhoods over to sell more drugs, but cartels will reroute their distribution networks through entire new countries if need be. (This perhaps suggests why we see many regional drug enforcement task forces.) And the fact that a majority of violent crime victims know their attackers suggest that much violent crime is localized, while something like terrorism is perhaps much more likely to respond to changing enforcement patterns.2

But, in general, crime is a fairly local, stable (if destabilizing) problem.

Given this, it is hard to immediately justify the way in which we have allocated responsibility for criminal justice issues. Why should county officials decide which offenses deserve prosecutorial attention? Why should state officials decide what crimes deserve longer punishments—and should we even want such one-size-fits-all sanctions? Should crimes in Utica face the same sanctions as those in New York City? (Or is this a defense of plea bargaining, which allows local officials to craft local sanctions from state-level starting points?)

Even California, the one state to seriously rethink this allocation of powers via its Realignment program, does not seem to address these questions well. Realignment will require counties to incarcerate “triple-nons”—non-violent, non-serious, non-sex-offense-registered offenders—in county jails, even for long terms. But what exactly is the relationship between severity and externalities? I can see traces of complicated arguments that could provide some support, but nothing like a slam-dunk.3

There may be some normative arguments for our current system, but these do not feel all that appealing either. Maybe we think it would be offensive if Utica set a much lower punishment for, say, domestic abuse than New York City. But we let the various states set different punishments for such crime, so what is the difference between Utica/NYC and New York/New Jersey?

And it is hard to see a real efficiency argument, either. Perhaps criminal codes are expensive and difficult to write. But then why not have the state write the code and allow local communities to adopt and amend as they see fit, at least for those offenses that seem least displaceable?

But this is an issue that I have not given as much thought to as others, so I would love to hear about justifications that I’m missing. And I’m curious: how big a problem is misdesigned federalism (again, at the local-state level) in other areas of law? Is this a big concern in, say, environmental law (where the externalities seem more obvious and pervasive to me) or labor law? I’d love to hear from people who study other areas of law about whether similar concerns arise there, or if criminal law has a uniquely poorly allocated division of responsibility.

 

1I’ll use “federalism” here because it is easy. Given the central role of states in criminal justice policy, “statism” is probably more accurate, but more confusing as well. So the “federal” divides I’m looking at here are city/county and county/state far more than state/federal.

2For a cynical take on this, see Robert Wright’s 2002 column about the need for the US to keep its allies close in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks: the less our allies are associated with us, the more likely terrorist retaliations will be concentrated on US targets. His title says it all: “Friends as Flak Jackets.”

3And there could be a serious problem here. As David Ball’s work has shown, Californian counties differ greatly in their innate “punitiveness” towards all offenders, violent and otherwise. And as I’ve shown here, the incarceration of violent offenders has been the majority cause of prison growth. So Realignment appears to fail to realign costs and benefits for the very offender class most responsible for rising incarceration rates.

Posted by John Pfaff on June 19, 2013 at 03:24 PM in Criminal Law, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

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Thanks for the interesting post. First, I want to apologize for my lack of charts or any nice visuals at all! In my small corner of the criminal world, juvenile justice primarily in NYC, I see vast differences in the crime picture, and needs and resources of the juvenile delinquent population. The fact that juvenile justice is ultimately governed at a state level (office of children and family services) has been a huge problem for NYC, where most of the crime has been committed and most of the youth who commit it live. Historically, most have been sent upstate to juvie prisons (I'll call them what they really are despite jj terminology). This created real conflicts between upstate and legislators and juvenile justice administrators trying to rightsize the system or keep kids closer to their families, as legislators voted to preclude closing facilities because of jobs. This led to ridiculous scenarios where some facilities were being kept open with a staff of 20+ and 1 or 2 kids in them--at taxpayer expense.
Finally, OCFS' reform minded head, Gladys Carrion has been successful in shutting down some facilities and moving NYC offenders to facilities "closer to home" (a new initiative started this year). Now NY has been named one of 8 states that significantly reduced youth incarceration and detention rates, after having been one of the worst states in 2000--the drop from 2000 to 2010 was 40%. (see http://modelsforchange.net/publications/462 for the recently released publication). I think a significant factor in this was getting over the upstate/downstate conflicted interests.

Posted by: Cynthia Godsoe | Jun 20, 2013 11:23:35 AM

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