Archive for February, 2010


Myth or Reality?

Sex offenders who do their time are released into the community.

While many incarcerated sex offenders are released at the end of their prison terms, some are immediately subjected to a second term of confinement in a treatment facility. Why? Several states have enacted laws that permit officials to indefinitely confine presumably dangerous sex offenders, even after they have been convicted, sentenced to prison, and released. For example, a Kansas law permits additional incarceration of a sex offender if the state proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the offender is “likely to engage in predatory acts of violence.” The Supreme Court, in Kansas v. Hendricks, decided that since Kansas’ law was treatment-oriented (rather than punishment-oriented) it did not violate the Fifth Amendment’s double jeopardy prohibition.

Lawmakers in Minnesota are currently debating whether to allow a $90 million expansion of their civil commitment program. Since its creation 20 years ago, the program has put 551 men and one woman in confinement after their sentences ended. And that number is on the rise, making Minnesota the state with the most civilly committed sex offenders.

States are expanding their civil commitment laws, too. Drug addicts have been subjected to civil commitment, as have people (including juveniles) with mental disorders. This may seem like sound criminal justice policy, and perhaps it is, but it is at least mildly controversial to confine someone twice for the same offense. What’s more, it is expensive. States have to spend more on civilly-committed offenders than prison inmates to ease critics’ concerns that the treatment facilities are simply prisons in disguise.

Writing Assignment: Find out if your state has a civil commitment law. Read the statute and determine which kinds of offenders are subjected to it and what procedures are used to confine them. If your state does not have a civil commitment law, find a nearby state that has one and make the same determinations.



Myth or Reality?

The crime rate is in decline.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) program, long considered the source of official crime data and trends, relies on reports from over 17,000 police departments around the United States. According to the UCR, crime rates have been in steep decline for the past decade despite a flagging economy and high unemployment. Now a recent study of more than a hundred retired New York Police Department captains and higher-ranking officers has put the accuracy of these data under scrutiny. According to a survey conducted by crime experts John Eterno and Eli Silverman, these former police commanders were under intense pressure to reduce crime. In order to placate hard-charging commissioners such as William Bratton, some local commanders manipulated crime statistics so it would appear that their efforts at crime control have been successful. How did they cheat? One method was to check eBay and other Web sites in order to find prices for items that had been reported stolen that were actually lower than the value provided by the crime victim. They would then use the lower values to reduce felony grand larcenies, crimes that are in the UCR, to misdemeanor petit larcenies that go unrecorded. Some commanders reported sending officers to crime scenes to persuade victims not to file complaints or alter crimes so they did not have to be reported to the FBI. For example, an attempted burglary must be reported but an illegal trespass is not.  While it is possible that the New York police administrators were under more pressure to reduce crime than their counterparts around the country, the fact that members of the largest police department in the U.S. may have fudged UCR data suggests that the decade-long crime drop may be more of a function of police reporting than an actual reduction in crime. How is it possible to reduce crime during a time of economic crisis, make believe it never happened?

Writing Assignment:  The police commanders in NY may have fudged the crime data because they were under pressure to bring the crime rate down. Write an essay discussing why police and other groups and/or individuals might benefit if they could prove that crime rates have actually been increasing.

Myth or Reality?

A State Can Legalize Marijuana

Some 700,000 Californians have signed an initiative to get the “Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010” on the November ballot.  If it becomes law, the Act would allow people 21 years old or older to “possess, cultivate, or transport marijuana for personal use.” Other states have either legalized medical marijuana or tried to enact their own laws that make the drug legal in one form or another. None have succeeded. Why?

Marijuana is illegal under federal law. It is a Schedule I drug (meaning that marijuana is viewed has being highly addictive and having no medical value) under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. Section 811). And since federal law supersedes state law via the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, it would be illegal for a state to legalize marijuana—for any reason.

Former President Bush used this as justification for having federal law enforcement agencies raid medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the country during the latter part of his term. The Obama administration announced in October 2009 that it would not arrest medical marijuana users who obeyed state laws. Importantly, though, California’s initiative is not limited to medical marijuana. It calls for legalization across the board. This runs flatly contrary to federal law.

Proponents of California’s initiative cite the age-old revenue generation argument in favor of legalization. They claim that California, which is by several measures the most cash-strapped state in the union, could benefit enormously from the taxation of marijuana. If the initiative becomes law, California may profit handsomely from legalization if the Obama administration retains its “hands off” stance, but nothing says a Republican won’t get elected in 2012, or even that the current administration could change its tune at some point down the road. For marijuana to become truly “legal,” federal law needs to change first.

Writing Assignment: Identify another area in which a state has attempted to legalize conduct that is illegal under federal law. What were the consequences of its efforts?