Wednesday, December 16, 2009

That way on purpose

This is a widely-published flowchart illustrating the criminal justice system, from the commission of a crime, through all the steps of investigation, arrest, prosecution, trial, sentencing, and corrections. It was originally published in 1967 by the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, but has been updated since then. This flowchart has been reprinted in scores of criminal justice textbooks over the past 40 years. You can download your own copy, suitable for framing, from the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The flowchart resembles the instructions for assembling my granddaughter's doll house, the components of which are spread out right now on my ping pong table. How do they make those tiny shingles? The instructions seem to have been translated from Sanskrit into Middle French, before eventually landing in English. It would be easier to build a TV from a box of parts, and I've got one more week to make this look like a house!

The complexity of the justice system, however, frustrates me even more. From time to time here in the Chief's Corner I have whined about its inefficiency. It seems at times that it is just broken: bad actors get sweet plea deals, repeat offenders get light sentences, chronic criminals do not face increasingly severe penalties, well-known career criminals receive early release, and so forth.

I had a bit of a revelation yesterday during my second City Stat meeting with Mayor Beutler, when one of the citizens on the advisory panel considering our performance on the goal Livable Neighborhoods asked me a question. She was inquiring about the apparent failure of law enforcement and codes enforcement to abate nuisances in certain chronic cases when it suddenly struck me: we are hitching our trailer to the wrong truck if we are depending on arrest, prosecution, and criminal court sentences to solve such social ills. The process is slow, cumbersome, and uncoordinated. It is a barge, not a speedboat.

My sudden thought was this: it is that way on purpose. The Anglo-American justice system was never designed to be efficient. In fact, just the reverse: it is intentionally inefficient. We have a non-system where police, prosecutors, and courts are all separate entities without common management setting goals. It's not a crew that pulls in synchronous rhythm. We cherish principles such as "innocent until proven guilty," and "proof beyond a reasonable doubt." We have intentionally limited the power of police, prosecutors and courts in our statutes, laws, and Constitution.

That's as American as apple pie. This country was founded in the frustration of its citizens with despotic government. We abhor tyranny and anything that smacks of it. We are willing to let several criminals go free rather than to wrongly convict one. We have sought to limit and control the awesome power exercised by police, prosecutors, and courts in order to prevent its abuse and to protect principals that are dear to us.

In short, we have decided, as Americans, to control the power of government by creating and maintaining a justice system that is a Rube Goldberg contraption, rather than a well-oiled machine. Frustrated though I may be from time to time, I will try to remind myself that there the goal of the criminal justice system is to produce justice and to protect the public, without subverting the tenets of freedom. Sometimes that will inevitably conflict with what might seem to me to be sensible, efficient, and productive.


ARRRRG!!!! said...

I use this flow chart at parties.

JIM J said...

This is the same contraption that put two boarder patrol agents in prison for defending against a person they thought had a gun. The military has a contraption that prosecutes the solders who are fighting in war. A war with an enemy you can not see. The rules of engagement, like in Afghanistan, are of a complex contraption which make winning the war impossible.
In todays world, up is down, down is up. If under britches did not have a hole in the front, that would get messed up too. Thats all.

Anonymous said...

Q.Complex? How is snow pushed into the street complex? How is touching in a bar complex?

A. The complex of the two issues is both situations WASTE tax money. Pushing snow into the street is no more dangerous than being touched by a topless dancer.
My parents never touched when naked and I turned out just fine.

Anonymous said...

You could have said that if the voters would steadily pressure thei relected officials to build surplus cell space, which would make it unnecessary to plea-deal, under-sentence, and early-release violent and larcenous criminals, then the voters wouldn't see as many wrist-slaps, probation, short/CC sentences, and early releases. No cell space = no incarceration = out on the street to victimize others.

It's cheaper in the long run, and a whole lot safer, to lock predators up as soon as we can, and for as long as we can. True, they can prey on other inmates (and, unfortunately, correctional officers), but the vast portion of the populace would be insulated from those so incarcerated. Plus, a good hard hit from the CJ system the first time is far more likely to deter subsequent offenses than is a gradual and incremental ratcheting up of penalties.

Anonymous said...

You have a Ping Pong Table?
Must be nice living the high life.

Thanks for all you do LPD!

Tom Casady said...


I inadvertently deleted your comment, but I retrieved it from my email and re-posted it. If I missed anything in the cut and-paste operation, forgive me.

I agree with you that the lack of jail and prison space contributes to the problems I see with early release of risky offenders and short sentences for those who should be getting more time.

Here's the problem: we're already running one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, it seems to me that we have a lot of people who ought to be in jail that are not, and we don't seem to be willing to pay the cost for what we have now. Google "prison closing" and you'll find lots of stories like this from all over the country.

I suppose part of my conclusion is this: if you can do something that prevents criminality, it's going to be more effective and affordable, and less obnoxious to our national sensibilities. A lifetime of police work inclines me towards the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key viewpoint, but it appears that is not the consensus of our fellow citizens. Even some of the most conservative voices are blanching at the US incarceration rate and it's cost.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what percentage of the budget for the Department of Corrections is spent by their legal department? Spending $40,000 or more to keep ONE inmate locked up for a year? Where is all of that money going?

If those costs could be reduced plea bargaining would be reduced.
Gun Nut

Anonymous said...

"If I missed anything in the cut and-paste operation, forgive me."

You got the whole thing. Here's one problem (and I'll use some arbitrary numbers here) - when a criminal is convicted of four armed robberies, they shouldn't be sent up for CC sentences and kicked loose on early release ("good time") after just six months (class II felony, 1-50 years), they should be sent up for 50 years - minimum - with time tacked on every time they violate a prison regulation or rule.

By the way, the CSM was a "conservative pub when we were young adults, but it hasn't been for many, many years.

Anonymous said...

I think the solution is to have people take exams before having children. Too many irresponsible people have too many kids. Bad parenting produces children who are bad parents. Sure, there are exceptions but look at the people getting contacts and many of them have started their police contacts as child abuse victims.
It's not always the case but it seems responsible people tend to to raise responsible kids.
How to stop them from having them is another story.

Anonymous said...

Do you think we really decided to screw it up so badly, or it just happened?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know how it became my responsibility to finance the raising and education of other people's children, just because they won't do it themselves. Back when there was less use of pre-school and "early education", as well as far fewer single-parent "families", there was much less juvenile delinquency. Maybe if governments stopped subsidizing bad behavior, we'd have a lot less of it.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking that a tent city for criminals this time of year could deter crime....Seriously, the social ills of our society developed incrementally over generations. Unfortunately, the decline is accellerating, and there is not a lot being done to stop it. in fact, we are implementing social programs that will make people less responsible for themselves, and more reliant on the rest of us.So, we need to focus on things we can control in the system. Sentencing guidlines for repeat offenders, while imperfect, would be a good place to start. If a weapon is used, double the consequences. No plea bargains allowed in certain types of crime. Just a few thoughts, and only a starting point, not a solution.


Steve said...

I've got a place we could keep a few criminals if your jail is too full! It's fenced, and they can eat all the dog poo they can find under the snow.

Anonymous said...

Great post Chief, I love reading about the inner thoughts of a police chief and this article was brilliant.

"The Anglo-American justice system was never designed to be efficient. In fact, just the reverse: it is intentionally inefficient"

I am surprised that it has took you as Chief to come to the conclusion that the justice system was never designed to be efficient, I would like to add however that it was not done intentionally, it was done to protect and preserve freedom for years to come. There is a reason for the checks and balances, and the bureaucracy of the court system though it has been clogged over the years and things have changed the basic principle still stands.

"We cherish principles such as "innocent until proven guilty," and "proof beyond a reasonable doubt." We have intentionally limited the power of police, prosecutors and courts in our statutes, laws, and Constitution."

You write about this as it is a bad thing. This is one of the greatest and most beautiful things about our country is the freedom; freedom from fear that you can be picked up and held as guilty and have to prove your innocence, freedom from oppressive and sketchy cops and other people in power.

There is a reason why system is set up the way it is. I am glad that at the end you realized that freedom is the thing that we as American citizens hold most dear and even though "Sometimes that will inevitably conflict with what might seem to me to be sensible, efficient, and productive" to you personally it could very well be the exact opposite from someone else.

Judging from the comments posted already I see that some of your readers must have not read your conclusion.

Trevor Brass said...

We may have greater safeguards, but they don't seem to be all that stringent. The land of the free has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Yet other nations with weaker protections have much lower rates.

What would you rather have? Safeguards and high incarceration or less of a safety net and lower incarceration? Hmmm...

Anonymous said...

all these people calling for maximum sentences, 50 to life, etc. better hope that their kids don't ever commit a crime or do something stupid while under the influence because i guarantee you they would be the first one asking for probation or early release

Anonymous said...

The land of the free has the highest rate of incarceration due to prosecution of non violent offenders, 3 strike laws, and the war on drugs. If you look at any figures or charts the amount of incarcerated persons rises exponentially around the 80's when the war on drugs began. Not only would less jail space be needed, taxes would be lower and the money that would be saved could go towards more beneficial programs or resources to build the community. This is one of the main reasons why the United States federal government is pushing bills through congress the current justice system and looking into the flaws that it has. China would be the only other country that would have a higher incarceration rate...but they seem to execute more people at a faster rate, so they don't have to pay for them in prison, which seems to fit what a lot of commenters would like to see in the US, but would you rather live in China? Maybe some would? Maybe the old conservative saying applies in this case..."If you don't like it then leave"...go to China if you don't enjoy or appreciate the freedoms here.

Eric said...

Don't forget the complexities of sex offender registration. In many aspects, post-correctional control (off-paper) of sex offenders are more involving than normal parole, and even incarceration. This is especially pertinent as the number of sex offenders whom are now going to show up on the registry is going to triple after January first with the new state requirements attempting to align itself with the AWA (pending the current court cases).

I'm curious as to how the department will handle the extra attention that will be given to the newly-exposed registrants, as well as the neighborhoods of such registrants. From our experience in similar registration tightening laws in other parts of the country, the media will generally find about 3 or 4 such offenders; most of them will lose their jobs and or residences, and then a call for residency restrictions will ensue, probably within 4 to 6 months, and most likely will be enacted by the end of the year (2010).

However, judging from your blog, and your own track record, I believe you will have far less of a problem than some other areas of the country we monitor, and will in fact probably have a better grasp on notifying the neighborhoods on which offenders actually pose the real threats. By DOJ statistics, registered sex offenders who have been crime free (not just sex offense free, but all felony crimes) for over ten years have less than a .2 percent chance of committing another sex offense.

But it would be interesting to see you add the sex offender registration protocols to the chart, and calculate those resources that, by and large, do not prevent child molestations or abusse as a whole.

Tom Casady said...


I intend to write a blog post or two about the impact of LB285 soon.