Category: May 2010

“Locking Teens Away”

Myth or Reality?

Juvenile offenders cannot receive a sentence of life in prison.

In the recent case of Graham v. Florida the Supreme Court barred juveniles from receiving life sentences. However, despite the barrage of media coverage of the case, the ruling obscured the fact that the ban on life sentences only applies to non-homicide cases. Kids who kill can still be put away for life even if they are emotionally immature or mentally unstable.  Take for example the recent conviction and sentencing of John Odgren  in Massachusetts. On January 19, 2007, a then 16 year old John Odgren followed James Alenson, a young boy he had never met, into the bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, drew out a long knife and stabbed him to death. Because he was16 at the time, Massachusetts law required that Odgren be tried as an adult and he was charged with first degree murder.  Odgren’s attorney defended him by suggesting that he was delusional and psychotic at the time of the murder:  “Why did a geeky, uncoordinated, awkward 16-year-old who had never been in any trouble with the law suddenly and without provocation ferociously stab to death a 15-year-old classmate who he did not even know?”  He further told the jury: “The illnesses that John Odgren suffers from made him lose touch with reality”.    Odgren has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety and possibly bipolar disorder, and also suffers from Asperger syndrome, a form of autism whose symptoms include significant difficulties in social interaction, repetitive patterns of behavior and interests, physical clumsiness and atypical use of language.  The prosecution did not deny that Odgren had a history of mental illness but his condition was not serious enough to be considered legal insanity; he was not delusional and knew that his actions were a crime. The jury heard that Odgren had a history of secretly bringing knives to school and enjoying violent novels, as if he were carefully planning the “perfect murder’’. After two weeks of testimony, the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder a conviction that carries a mandatory life sentence without parole.

The Odgren case shows that juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison even if they suffer from serious mental disturbance short of insanity. The Court has ruled that it is illegal to sentence teens to death because of their immaturity and to life in prison for non-capital crimes presumably for the same reason. Yet age is not a bar for a life sentence if the crime committed is murder.

Writing Assignment

In an essay address the issue of whether a minor’s immaturity, lack of judgment and risk taking should affect their treatment. Is it fair to an innocent victim like James Alenson to excuse or shorten the punishment of his teenage killer because he was “immature”?

Source:  Patricia Wen, “Odgren sentenced to life in prison, No parole option for teen killer; Lawyer brands ruling ‘barbaric’,” Boston Globe, May 1, 2010

Myth or Reality?

Unattractive defendants get convicted more often than attractive defendants.

By many accounts, beautiful people are more successful. Research has revealed that they get better jobs, earn more, are promoted faster, and so on. Is there any reason to believe the benefits of beauty are limited to careers and finances? According to a soon-to-be-published Behavioral Sciences and the Law study, the answer is no; unattractive criminal defendants are 22 percent more likely to be convicted than their attractive counterparts.

Cornell University researchers Justin Gunnell and Stephen Ceci organized student volunteers into two categories based on personality tests. The members of one group based their decisions on reason and facts; the other group had a tendency to be more emotional and give excess weight to legally irrelevant factors. Then Gunnell and Ceci presented each group with offender case studies, complete with the evidence that would have been presented, details surrounding the case, and of course the defendants’ photographs. Study participants more or less ignored looks in the serious cases and when the evidence was clear. However, when the offense was relatively minor and/or the evidence was shaky, there was a tendency to fall back on looks. When a weak case was combined with an unattractive defendant, the participants were more likely to convict. So it seems beauty pays dividends in the courtroom, too.

Writing assignment: An offender’s appearance is but one “extralegal” factor that seems to influence the likelihood of a conviction. What other extralegal factors affect sentencing? Several of these are discussed in chapter 9 of your book. Of the many extralegal factors that affect sentencing, when and why do they seem to matter? In what types of cases do they matter, and with what types of defendants?


Myth or Reality?

The television show “Law and Order” presented the “real” criminal justice system.

Law and Order” fans were devastated to learn that NBC cancelled the show on May 14, 2010 after a twenty year run (tying Gunsmoke (1955-1975) for longest running TV show).  How many of you grew up listening to that serious, unseen, disembodied voice (actually Steven Zirnkilton) intoning:

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.

Law and Order’s popularity may be tied to a faithfully followed formula: A crime is discovered (typically by two people who happen to be walking by and accidentally discover a   body), then the lead detectives arrive and one gets to make a wisecrack just before the first commercial break. An investigation takes place and after a day or two, a suspect is identified who seems guilty, but whose alibi cannot be broken. Finally, using technical evidence collection such as pulling the suspect’s “phone luds” (Who could possibly know what a “lud” is?  Just kidding, “lud” is actually an  acronym for “line usage data”) they find out that someone placed 25 calls to the victim in the last two days, leading to an arrest of the real suspect, indictment, some legal setback (i.e. evidence is thrown out on a technicality), the  ADA depressed and ready to drop the case, a command by the senior DA to quit whining, discovery of some heretofore hidden evidence, the jury trial, an impassioned closing argument by the lead DA – first Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty), followed by Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), and most recently Michael Cutter (Linus Roache),—and the verdict, which is typically, but not always, guilty as charged.  What drove the show and fueled its success was the promise that the stories were “ripped from the headlines”. The cast of criminals, witnesses and defendants were clever, educated and resourceful.  Few crimes were spontaneous, reckless or unplanned. Few criminals were poor, uneducated, drug addicted or desperate. In fact more seem to go to Hudson University than belong to a gang in my old neighborhood in the Bronx. The cops and attorneys never worried about overtime, families, pensions, promotions, working conditions, salary increases or any of the other things about which most cops seem concerned. No one minded spending all night on a case because no one, neither lawyers nor cops, seem to have had a family or any other sort of non-work obligation (e.g. the bowling league, a date). Most astonishing is that for twenty years just about every case got solved, every “perp” was identified, and most wound up in prison. And that just does not happen. So while we will all miss “Law and Order” a lot, it was in the end only entertainment, not reality.

Writing Assignment:

Since Law and Order re-runs are on TV about 6 hours a week, watch a couple and then using your knowledge of the criminal justice system, point out where the show’s content departs from reality. And giving it their due, point out where the script is faithful to the law (and order).

Myth or Reality?

Policing is the most deadly profession.

Whenever a police officer is killed in the line of duty, it captures the headlines. This prompts many to believe that policing is an especially deadly line of work. Unfortunately, and as you probably know by now, the news media don’t often tell the whole story. Newscasts give the impression that random crimes of violence are the norm, but we know that most crimes are not of the violent variety. We also know that victims and offenders frequently know one another. The news also makes it seem like juvenile crime is on the rise, that criminals are getting more violent, and so on. A hard look at the data usually reveals a different kind of reality. The same can be said of occupational fatalities.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics collects data on work-related injuries and fatalities. As of 2008, the most recent year for which complete data are available, the deadliest profession was fishing! The fatality injury rate for fishers and related fishing workers was 128.2 per 100,000. This means that approximately 129 out of every 100,000 workers in that industry died in 2008. It would seem that the Discovery Channel’s popular program, Deadliest Cast, is aptly named! Next, from most to least deadly are: Logging workers (119.7 per 100,000), aircraft pilots/flight engineers (73.2 per 100,000), structural iron and steel workers (46.5 per 100,000), farmers/ranchers (40.3 per 100,000), refuse and recyclable material collectors (35.5 per 100,000), roofers (34.4 per 100,000), electrical power line installers/repairers (29.8 per 100,000), driver/sales workers and truck drivers (24 per 100,000), and taxi drivers/chauffeurs (19.3 per 100,000). Note what profession is absent from this “top ten” list? That’s right, police officers. Their 2008 work-related fatality rate was 16 per 100,000, nearly one eighth that of fishing workers.

Writing Assignment: Policing may not be the deadliest profession, but many police officers are injured each year. Where does policing fit in relation to other professions when looking at injuries instead of fatalities? Find answers at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website, which can be accessed here:

There were 526 workplace homicides during 2008. In how many of those were police officers victims? Read about law enforcement officers killed and assaulted at this link on the FBI’s website: (accessed May 10, 2010).

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, (accessed May 10, 2010).

Myth or Reality?

There is not much that can be done to help an inmate improve his or her chances of success upon re-entering society.

More than half of all inmates return to prison soon after their release and some people believe that nothing can be done to help them succeed. Not true. The Boston Reentry Initiative (BRI) seems to do just that. The BRI is a partnership between the Sheriff’s Department, the Boston Police Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office that aims at providing an inter-agency support system for inmates both before and after their release from the House of Correction, the facility that houses incarcerated misdemeanants in the Boston area. The BRI team targets a group of younger male inmates (18 to 32) who are considered to be high risk for failure. In the first few months of incarceration, a BRI official meets with the client and discusses issues that may affect a successful transition back into the community.  Within 45 days of their initial booking into the House of Correction, selected inmates are given two messages: First, the law enforcement community is aware of the offenders’ past criminal activity and is prepared to act quickly and decisively should the offender resume those activities upon release. Second, there are significant resources – employment, housing, educational and other support services – available to aid their transition back into community life. Every inmate is assigned a mentor from a faith-based organization or community service provider who assists them in implementing the discharge plan they receive upon release.

They are enrolled in education, substance abuse, and other institutional programs that are customized to address their individual needs. The returning prisoners are encouraged to continue to work with their caseworkers, mentors, and social service providers during their reentry periods.

A recent evaluation of the BRI by Anthony Braga and his associates found that relative to a comparison group of inmates, BRI participants were found to have 30 percent lower rates of recidivism.   This program shows that if prison re-entry is to be dealt with in an effective manner, it will take the cooperation of a variety of treatment and law enforcement agencies working together in an integrated fashion with a common goal.

Writing Assignment: During a period of economic uncertainty, where a great many people are out of work, should hard to come by resources be spent on convicted criminals? What are the economic benefits of helping former criminals “go straight”?

Source: Anthony. Braga, Anne Piehl, and David Hureau, “Controlling Violent Offenders Released to the Community: An Evaluation of the Boston Reentry Initiative”
Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 46 (2009): 411-436