Thursday, May 28, 2009

Questionable solution

An interesting editorial by the Lincoln Journal Star on Sunday caught my eye, “Look at the cost of petty prosecution." The editors lament the cost of prosecuting misdemeanor crimes:

“John Wesley Hall, president of the trial lawyers’ organization, told the National Law Journal, ‘It’s a huge waste of money when you think of the huge fundamental costs that go along with misdemeanor prosecutions — the prosecution’s time, the judge’s time and jail incarceration time — these are mostly hidden costs.’ The group’s report recommends revising misdemeanor crimes into infractions that carry penalties such as fines or community service.”

The editorial notes that in some jurisdictions local prosecutors have stopped charging misdemeanors due to budget cuts.

If misdemeanors aren’t prosecuted, what shall become of the drunk drivers, sex offenders who invite teenage runaways to crash at their pad, thieves who break into cars to steal purses, those who shoplift cigarettes, commit third degree domestic assault, abuse their children, smash rear view mirrors for sport, continue to drive after their license is suspended, stalk their ex-girlfriends, use fake police badges to impress women at the bar, window peek, expose their genitals in department stores, climb the fence to defecate in the public pool for a few laughs, dump their old roofing material in Wilderness Park, change their oil by draining it into the gutter, etc., etc., etc..

Fines and community service are the answer, suggests the Journal Star. I’m not as optimistic about that as the editors. While removing the possiblity of a jail sentence from misdemeanors means that defendants would not receive the services of public defenders, I think it would be wise to consider the implications of dropping the possiblity of jail, and punishing such offenses exclusively with fines and community service.

What do you suppose the chances are of this guy ever paying his fines really is? And what will we do about the thousands upon thousands of misdemeanor defendant’s who don’t show up to their court appearance, ignore their ticket, and default on the time payment plan for their fine? If jail’s off the table, it’s more-or-less the honor system for misdemeanants. And do you really want this fellow doing community service, even if he could organize himself enough to show up at the appointed place and time?

About 15 years ago, New York City’s police chief (now the L.A. chief) Bill Bratton, made a startling discovery: if you pay attention to the small stuff, you can reduce the more serious stuff. At LPD, this revelation was meant with a collective “Duh.” Hard to believe something so basic sells books. As previously noted in the Chief’s Corner, we make a large number of misdemeanor arrests here in Lincoln. The editorial quotes Lancaster County Public Defender Dennis Keefe:

“Keefe noted last year that the city misdemeanor docket was ‘out of control,’ logging a 56 percent increase in the number of misdemeanors in the past five years.”

Around 99% of the City misdemeanor docket would be composed of arrests by the Lincoln Police Department. Somehow, I thought that was our job. I most definitely think it has contributed to our low rate of serious violent crime, and to our general quality of life.

I don’t completely disagree with the conclusion reached by Mr. Keefe and the editors. I’m all in favor of reducing costs with things like tightly supervised house arrest and electronic monitoring, and I’ve been pleased with the work of Lancaster County Community Corrections, which oversees these programs that have significantly the reduced jail population in Lincoln, and saved a bunch of money. I'm also in favor of diverting first time offenders, or offering them probation for most of those first misdemeanor convictions--sometimes even for a second or third.

But the editorial fails to acknowledge the fact that probation and fines are already the typical sentence for City ordinance misdemeanors. Jail is rarely in the mix unless the judicial admonitions, probation, and fines have not worked in previous cases. I’m just not sure more fines or community services is really much of a solution for many of our regular customers or for the kinds of offenders that are being sentenced to jail for municipal ordinance vioaltions.


Anonymous said...

I had a conversation with a police chief in a nearby town one evening after both of us attended a city council meeting. One of the topics of the meeting was about enforcement of a local ordinance. The chief's opinion was that he was fine with enforcing laws if they would just go to court with them. He added that the police department could save the town a ton of money if they really did just sit around and eat doughnuts since forensics and prosecution cost so much.

I guess the point of this story is that you can pay now or pay later. As a citizen I would prefer to pay for the small stuff than let things go on to become drug rings, car theft rings, etc. Talk about penny wise and pound foolish.

ARRRRG!!!! said...

I have the perfect solution.

Anonymous said...

There's a reason why some refer to that shabby excuse for a newspaper as the "Stinkin' Urinal-Jar", and the relevant editorial just reinforces the nickname.

I'm a true believer in "broken windows" mindset, and it works like a charm. I'm also against cite & release for most offenses, mainly anything violent, destructive, or larcenous. Career criminals are proven serial recidivists, and the best way to keep them from re-offending is to keep them incarcerated for as long as you can, but to do that, you need a lot of jail space. I won't complain if my taxes go up to pay for bigger correctional facilities with more cells, but I will complain if my taxes go up to pay for Transient Heaven boondoggle parks with graffiti-magnet walls (aka Center Park or whatever they call it).

Steve said...

I wrote a comment to the LJS article. There was nothing in it to violate their policy governing acceptable comments. It was written specifically with their policies in mind. However, as usual,if it criticizes their story in any way, or is contrary to the editors' opinions, they seldom print the comments. I think the chief is much more willing to allow comments, even those critical or in disagreement with him, than the so called newspaper here in Lincoln.

The point of my comment was similar to the chief's, but I took it a little farther. It seems to me that the reason the court dockets are so jammed up is because we don't put enough of these misdemeanor offenders in jail. A good stiff one-year sentence for just one of these repeat offenders might eliminate dozens of arrests for him/her that would otherwise have taken place during that same period.

Like the chief, I don't mind giving first timers a second chance. However, once they've demonstrated through second, or third offenses, that they have no respect for the law or other people, they need to do some serious time. That's the only way were going to clear up the court dockets.

Maybe, if people know they're not going to get off easy, they'll commit fewer crimes. Maybe not. It doesn't really matter because either way, crime will go down once the majority of these people are in jail.

We may need to build more jails. That's fine with me. It's money well spent as compared with some of the other bull*(&% projects the city likes to fund.

Maybe the chief should tell his officers to just quit arresting these burglars and petty thieves for a while. Then we'll see what happens when they work their way into the neighborhoods where the LJS editors and liberal reporters live.

Anonymous said...

Two Questions:

1) Any correlation between the increased numbers clogging the courts and the new number of ordinances and statutes created in the last twenty years?

2) Any correlation between the decrease in allowance of officer discretion in the last twenty years and the large increase of misdemeanor citations? (if I gotta write a report, I just as well write a ticket)

Anonymous said...

I personally am for the "tent city" type jail. Let's get one of those here!

Atticus said...

I don't want to be a complainer but I am with Steve. Several times in the last few weeks I have been compelled to write in the LJS blog following an article where posters have been unfairly critical of LPD. I have not personally attacked anyone or used language that is inappropriate, yet my posts never seem to make the cut. Comments I try to address are the ones in which someone accuses LPD of ignoring crime or not prioritizing responses appropriately. My attempts to show another side of the argument or explain the reality of police work are for naught. It's almost as if the LJS doesn't want LPD supportive comments but would rather sell their paper on the back of LPD bashing. It's quite sad given the usually open relationship LPD has had with them over the years. Thanks Chief for not being afraid to post comments that are on both sides of the issues.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Chief! Lincoln is a better place to live because LPD contacts people for the "small stuff".

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything said in that editorial. Why not instead of imprisoning offenders take a look at the crimes that are being committed and think about how they can be prevented...your answer is education, along with good social and city polices and programs to keep people off the streets causing possible "crime". By having people report for community service not only does it help to beautify and make the city a better place, but it frees up the prisons and jails, saving everyone tax money, and diverts that money towards stuff that people need like health care, and education. Recently the Netherlands announced that they are going to be closing all eight prisons in the country due to a decrease in crime over the years.

( )

The difference is over in the Netherlands while there closing prisons, decreasing their crime rate, and with a higher percent of their population happy overall. Yet in the city of Lincoln and the state of Nebraska we can't keep up with the amount of criminals because we mistakenly believe in crime deterrent. If your worried about the long run of the city then maybe we should look at changing policies. Netherlands are not the first, numerous cities and states and countries are decreasing crime through education and social programs while freeing up prisons, and making life better for the overall people that live there. The city needs to look at the underlying issues to what causes the crime and prevent that instead of using that money to build bigger and more prison to house prisoners in so they can learn new crime techniques, and waste their life away.

I am tired of hearing the Chief use the line "I thought that was our job", or "I thought that was my job to arrest people that break the law". "Practical wisdom," Aristotle told us, "is the combination of moral will and moral skill." A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims. To serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you're serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.

In other words:
"Think for yourself"
Just because something is the law doesn't mean it is the best thing for the people. Listen to your city and fellow people and their concerns and ideas. You are working for us. When slavery was legal down south and a slave ran away it was illegal in some states to not capture and return that slave to its owner and it was illegal to help that slave escape. It looks like the Chief would return that slave to its owner to be beaten or killed, and not help that slave escape from harm because "i thought that was our job" The truth is that any work that you do that involves interaction with other people is moral work. And any moral work depends upon practical wisdom.

Anonymous said...

I realize it is probably an excersize in futility, but why not write what you did here in a letter to the editor addressing their point? It would educate many on the bigger picture. One of the most frustrating things about working in the criminal justic system are these opinions from people who know very little what they are talking about.

Tom Casady said...


Methinks you judge me a little harshly. I certainly do not advocate blindly enforcing the law without intelligent, informed, compassionate discretion. On the contrary.

I think you have to be a little careful, though, about just choosing to ignore laws you don't agree with. Establish a decision-making model upon which you can base these discretionary decisions, control and constrain extremes, and I'm good.

I also wonder what they do in the Netherlands when the offender sentenced to community service does not show up at the appointed time and place. That's the point of my post: the people who end up in jail for misdemeanor city ordinance violations are those that habitually offend, and never show up for court, pay their fines, or obey the conditions of their probation.


Oh, I thought about that, but this is good a forum, too, and I'm not really trying to take issue with the editorial entirely. I think I just see the phenomenon differently from my perspective as a career police officer. I see the chronic repeats, scofflaws, and those that would never pay a fine, respond to a citation at the appointed time, or show up to paint park benches or mow medians.


1) I doubt it. There just aren't that many "new" laws that result in a significant increase in arrests. As an example, Lincoln's smoking ordinance has resulted in only a handful of citations annually. On the State side, a new law like "strangulation" just replaces what would previously been an assault arrest. I just can't think of any "new" laws that would have added large numbers of arrests and citations.

2) I also don't know, but I worry about this one. I don't want it to be the case that there is less discretion, and our policies on discretion in arrest have really not changed:

"Except when the arrest is pursuant to an arrest warrant, officers may employ alternatives to arrest in misdemeanor and infraction cases to resolve incidents when: the action does not conflict with law or
with other General Orders governing specific types of incidents, and; the victim (if any) does not object to the alternate disposition, or the incident is a minor offense by a juvenile under the age of 16. Such alternatives may include: referral to another agency or service provider; mediation with the persons involved; admittance of intoxicated persons to Cornhusker Place for detoxification or protective custody; warning and release. In electing to cite and release, lodge, or employ an alternative to arrest, officers will consider the circumstances of the case and base their decision, insofar as possible, upon objective criteria, not upon their perception of the offender's attitude or other extraneous factors. Officers will exercise this discretion in an equitable and nondiscriminatory fashion."
Nonethless, I see examples of cases where I wouldn't ever have made and arrest or issued a citation, but the investigating officer did. I wonder to myself sometimes if he or she just doesn't have my perspective, or if he or she is worried that they will somehow be second-guessed to death for not making a misdemeanor arrest. If it's the later, I am concerned. This is an issue that we (meaning supervisors and managers) need to be careful about. Everything we do telegraphs a message, and we want the message to be that we trust your good judgement in minor crimes. This doesn't mean that you have carte blanche, or that a supervisor will never review and occasionally overrule a descretionary decision: but that shoud be rare. If we are doing our job of training and mentoring well, we're helping to develop good discretionary decision making skills, and sound judgement. I had several supervisors who certainly helped me hone my decision making skills.

Anonymous said...

Chief, we need the law and order generation back. When we were raising our kids, we had neighborhood elders willing to help discipline all the disobeyers no excuses. Not one of these little rascals has gone to prison.
But of course the elders knew the rules too.

Anonymous said...

To Steve

Prisons are nothing more than day care centers. Recently, people arrested have stated they would rather be in jail than in the community. A cell is better than living in the community for some people. Jails are a joke. Take away the goodies (cable tv, internet ...) and no one will want to be there. Make them do some work like breaking big rocks into little rocks and they will be too tired for anything else.

JIM J said...

May 28, 2009 6:03 PM
Proves that the internet can be a scary place to be.

Anonymous said...

To 3:45

I am one of the first to believe in compassion for mistakes, but come to my neighborhoods - it will calm your bleeding heart.

Grown men WILL litterally steal from children (or worse) if given the chance. They see it as a game to cause mayhem and out-wit the law.

Anything of value is broken, destroyed, or stolen - often out of spite, envy, lack of respect, or to support a habit. Drug use, addictions, and poor family environments blur any person's moral compass.

Many persons are not afraid of the police, know the judicial system is a joke, and have personally seen several challenge law enforcement directly to their face to catch them if they are able!

NOT enforcing the rules on the books or building more jails would only result in complete lawlessness and anarchy.

You seem to be completely unaware of the WAR between the law and the lawless. The outcome at stake: protecting the innocent and defenseless citizens.

I can appreciate your opinion and wish the world was that simple, but take your rose colored glasses off and take a walk in my neighborhoods - at ANY time of the day.

Anonymous said...

If the LJS published the rulings of the judges/court, it would be a totally different picture. How many times have all court dates been cancelled because ONE judge wanted to go on vacation?

Steve said...

To Anonymous 6:03 pm:

I couldn't agree more. Put them to work while they're doing their time and let them pay their own way so to speak. However, even if we leave jails the way you seem to think they are now, I'd rather the criminals are in there than roaming my streets. If they like being there, then we're all happy. When you get right down to it, if we're not going to make them work, we may as well expand the use of our new lethal injection method of execution.

Anonymous said...

What about the idea of changing a M.I.P. ticket from a misdemeanor to a civil citation. In Iowa if a young person were to get a M.I.P. they would just be fined and have to pay a fee and not have to worry about going through the court process. According to an earlier post (Helpful Trend) it showed that the number of misdemeanor arrests for M.I.P. is increasing in Lincoln, and I know the chief likes to crack down on underage drinking, would he be interested in removing the misdemeanor charge and changing it to a civil citation but increase that fee? This would free up the courts while still enforcing the law. The increase in fee would make up for the lesser charge. Comments?

Tom Casady said...


Personally, I have no problem with MIP being an infraction, punishable by a fine only for the first and second offense. You still have your right to a day in court on an infraction, though. Interestingly, possession of marijuana (less than one ounce) is an infraction in Nebraska, so it's less serious than MIP.