Crime and Stigma: New Research Explores the Connections

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The colonial Americans famously had their “scarlet letter” punishments, which marked and shamed the criminal. Today, the stigma of a conviction may be less vividly displayed, but it is no less real. Two interesting new criminological articles present research on the impact of this stigma.

First, an article by Jeff Bouffard and LaQuana Askew considers potential crime-reducing benefits of stigma, specifically in relation to sex offender registration and notification (SORN) laws. Such laws, adopted across the United States in the 1990s, require certain convicted sex offenders to register their residence and other information with state authorities on an ongoing basis, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The information is then made publicly available, which can greatly magnify the duration and intensity of the stigma of the conviction.

It was thought that SORN laws might reduce sexual offending in two ways: by deterring prospective offenders from committing crimes that might land them on a registry, and by alerting potential victims to the proximity of individuals who were already registered and hence possibly dangerous. However, several studies thus far have found little or no reduction in offending in the wake of the adoption of SORN legislation.  Read more »




Going Beyond Police Patrols to Problem-Solving Policing

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Doing police patrol work is hard, but it often is pretty routine. An officer drives around, waits for calls and responds to them, deals with specific incidents, and writes reports about them. “There’s a simplicity in it,” said Michael Scott, a former police officer and police chief.

But if police work is to be done in the most effective way, it needs to go beyond that routine, Scott said. It needs to aim to deal with or at least understand problems that underlie so many instances of crime, disorder, or other trouble.

That explains why Scott has become the director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, an organization which promotes exactly that problem-solving approach to police work. He is also a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. He was previously a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. Read more »




Right to Counsel: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

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A photo of the Supreme CourtAs part of its end-of-term flurry, the U.S. Supreme Court issued three notable decisions in the past week on the criminal defendant’s right to effective assistance of counsel. The results were a mixed bag.

First, the step forward: in Lee v. United States, the Court strengthened the defendant’s right to accurate legal advice in relation to plea bargaining. Lee, a South Korean who resided lawfully in the U.S. for more than three decades, faced a federal charge of possession with intent to distribute ecstasy. His attorney advised him that he would likely get a lighter sentence if he pleaded guilty, but Lee was concerned that he would be deported if convicted; deportation, not prison, seems to have been his primary concern. Lee’s lawyer assured him that he would not be deported, so Lee agreed to the guilty plea. However, the lawyer was wrong — Lee faced mandatory deportation as a result of his conviction. When Lee found out, he sought to withdraw his guilty plea on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel.

The lower courts rejected his motion. For Lee to show a violation of his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel, he was required to demonstrate both deficient performance by this attorney and prejudice. The lower courts seemed to accept that Lee’s lawyer performed poorly, but held that Lee could show no prejudice since he had no viable defense if the case had gone to trial. In other words, even with better information, Lee would have been convicted and deported anyway.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that prejudice can be established in some cases based on the lost opportunity to have a trial, without regard to the likely outcome of that trial. 

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Bill Cosby and American Popular Culture

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Bill Cosby and Keisha Knight Pullman walk together outside of the courtroom where he faced trial on charges of rape.Bill Cosby has made two distinctly different splashes in American popular culture.  He starred in “The Cosby Show” (1984-92), a sitcom that was America’s most highly rated television show for five consecutive years.  Then, his trial for sexual assault in the spring of 2017 became the most recent “trial of the century.”  Ironically, the immense success of the former prevented the latter from attracting the attention many had predicted.

As for “The Cosby Show,” it featured the Huxtables, a fictional upper middle-class African American family living in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights.  Cliff Huxtable, played by Cosby, was a jolly obstetrician, while his wife Clair Huxtable was a successful attorney.  The Huxtables has four daughters and one son, and although each episode had its tender tensions, they always dissipated by the end of the hour.  “The Cosby Show” was about a happy, loving ideal family, and Cliff Huxtable became the nation’s fantasy father.  When TV Guide ranked the 50 greatest dads in television history, the magazine named Cliff Huxtable “The All-Time Greatest Dad.”

While the show rarely addressed race directly, it was what the show left unsaid that was important.  Cosby and the show’s producers consciously set out to “recode blackness.”  They turned stereotypes upside-down by presenting a tightly-knit African American family that was affluent, had friends and neighbors of different races, and was headed by a married couple, with each member belonging to a learned profession.  In the midst of the Reagan-Bush years, Americans took to the portrayal, and it, if only for a moment, obfuscated the nation’s shoddy racist inequality.

When twenty-five years later in time two dozen women claimed Cosby had drugged, sexually assaulted, and raped them, America was shocked.  When Cosby went on trial in the spring of 2017 for sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, many thought the public would be obsessed with the proceedings.  Coverage of the trial seemed likely to equal that for celebrities such as O.J. Simpson in 1994 and Michael Jackson in 2005.  Trials of the rich and famous, after all, have been pop cultural delights since the days of the penny dailies in the early nineteenth century. Read more »




Supreme Court Dodges Long-Running Dispute Over Defendant’s Right to Psychiatric Expert

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A photo of the Supreme CourtThree decades ago, in Ake v. Oklahoma, the Supreme Court held that indigent criminal defendants have a constitutional right of access to a psychiatric expert in some cases. More specifically, the Court stated, “[W]hen a defendant demonstrates to the trial judge that his sanity at the time of the offense is to be a significant factor at trial, the State must, at a minimum, assure the defendant access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” 470 U.S. 68, 83 (1985).

This seemingly straightforward holding has spawned a number of long-running disputes in the lower courts. Among the more important lingering questions is this: May a state satisfy its obligation under Ake by supplying the defendant with access to a neutral expert who is equally available to both sides, or must the state engage an expert who will truly serve as a member of the defense team? Of course, a wealthy defendant would almost always be well-advised to hire his own expert, rather than merely relying on a neutral, but Ake does not necessarily guarantee that poor defendants will have all of the advantages of their rich counterparts.

With the lower courts split on this question, the Supreme Court finally seemed poised to provide a definitive answer this term in McWilliams v. DunnHowever, when the Court issued its McWilliams decision earlier this week, the justices actually ruled in the defendant’s favor on quite narrow, case-specific grounds, leaving the big question about the acceptability of a neutral expert unanswered.

Whenever the Court gets around to answering the question — and, given the way that matters were resolved this week, McWilliams itself could well provide the vehicle on a return trip to the Court — the justices will confront a difficult issue that touches more generally on the role of experts in an adversarial system of justice, and even on the very nature of scientific knowledge.

Our ideal for science is objective knowledge. We hope that scientists will develop analytical methods that will invariably yield the same conclusion as to the same subject, regardless of who is doing the analysis.

If tests for mental illness are “scientific” in this sense, then there seems little unfairness in limiting the defendant to a neutral psychiatrist. The only way in which having an expert on the defense team might change the outcome would be if the defendant’s “hired gun” were dishonest or incompetent — and there surely cannot be a constitutional right to mislead the jury with bad science.

Thus, the claim that the defendant should have his own expert seems implicitly grounded in a belief — accurate, I should think — that psychiatric diagnosis does not always fit that ideal of wholly objective and indisputable conclusions. In the American legal tradition, of course, we look to adversarial process to determine the truth when there are two conflicting, but both still plausible, versions of reality available. Thus, if reasonable psychiatrists could differ over a defendant’s diagnosis, it seems natural to fall back on adversarial process and give each side an opportunity to make the best case possible for its version of reality, including with its own expert witness. We are accustomed to think that the truth will emerge from such an adversarial clash.

And, yet, there is something disquieting about this picture. When we ask a jury to choose between two competing stories about what a defendant did, we count on the jury to use its common sense and life experience to decide which version of reality is more plausible. But, when the question instead relates to what was going on in the defendant’s head, it is not so clear that common sense and life experience are up to the challenge. After all, the essence of the defendant’s claim is that his brain was not working in a way that is familiar to most lay people in their day-to-day lives. The very reason we bring experts to bear to try to deal with the issue makes lay jurors seem unqualified to pick between the two different versions of reality being presented.

There does seem a dilemma here. If we use only a single, nominally neutral expert, then the jury may be left with a sense in some cases that the science is more certain and one-sided than it really is. On the other hand, if we arm each side with its own expert, then we implicitly ask the jury to perform a task for which it is ill-equipped — adjudicating the scientific quality of competing expert opinions. There may be ways of alleviating the concerns — e.g., through use of a neutral panel of experts — but such approaches tend to raise cost and other practical difficulties.

Perhaps the conundrum helps to explain why the Court has not seemed anxious to resolve the big question that was posed by McWilliams.




Race and Risk Assessment

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Risk-assessment has become all the rage in American criminal justice. In jurisdictions across the country, criminal-justice officials are utilizing increasingly sophisticated risk-assessment tools, which can be used to predict a given offender’s likelihood to reoffend based on his criminal history and a number of other variables. These predictive evaluations can be brought to bear at several important decisional points in the criminal process: pretrial release, diversion into treatment, sentencing, and others.

Although risk assessment has been widely applauded for its potential to support increased efficiency in the use of scarce criminal-justice resources, a recurring criticism has been that leading risk-assessment tools have built-in racial biases. A particular concern has been the heavy reliance on criminal history; to the extent that criminal history reflects biased actions by police or others in the past, then predictions based on that history may tend to overestimate the relative risk posed by minority defendants. Thus, for instance, a black defendant and a white defendant whose actual risk levels are identical could potentially receive quite different risk scores, leading to quite different bail or sentencing decisions.

Such concerns find some support in the empirical research.

A new study, however, reaches more reassuring conclusions, at least with respect to one risk-assessment tool used in federal court.  Read more »




Dark Clouds on the Horizon for Graham v. Florida?

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A photo of the Supreme CourtIn 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that a juvenile sentenced to life in prison for a nonhomicide crime must be given “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” But what makes a release opportunity “meaningful”? The Court’s decision yesterday in Virginia v. LeBlanc suggests that the threshold may not be as high as some hoped.

LeBlanc was convicted of committing a rape when he was 16 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of conventional parole. On the face of it, this would seem a clear violation of Graham. However, in federal habeas proceedings, the state argued that LeBlanc would eventually have his “meaningful opportunity” through a geriatric release program, which permits the release of some inmates who are age sixty or older.

Since many other states also have geriatric release programs, the issue presented by LeBlanc has important, national ramifications for the strength of the Eighth Amendment right recognized in Graham.

A district judge and then a panel of the Fourth Circuit held in LeBlanc’s favor. The Fourth Circuit noted the highly discretionary nature of geriatric release under Virginia law, which effectively permits the releasing authority to disregard an applicant’s “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” contrary to Graham. 841 F.3d 256, 269 (4th Cir. 2016).

Yet, the Supreme Court reversed yesterday in a brief per curiam opinion.   Read more »




Violence Prevention Initiatives: The Difficulty of Building on Early Success

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Project Safe Neighborhoods has been among the highest-profile and best-funded national violence prevention initiatives of the past two decades, involving allocations of about $1 billion to U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country. Evaluations to date have generally been positive, but a new study of the PSN experience in Chicago highlights the challenges of building on early success.

The researchers, Ben Grunwald and Andrew Papachristos, attempted a rigorous, beat-level analysis of the impact of PSN on troubled neighborhoods in the Windy City, which had a distinctive approach to PSN that seemed quite effective at first. Read more »




Panelists Say New Assessment Tool Makes Pre-Trial Release Decisions “Smarter”

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One of the most important decisions a judge or court commissioner makes in handling criminal cases is whether the defendant should be kept in jail or released while awaiting an outcome. A person’s constitutional rights and the community’s need for safety need to be weighed.

At an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Wednesday, Maxine White, chief judge of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, summarized the obligation of judges and commissioners when making those decisions: “To do everything possible to get it right.”

“When I started as a judge 25 years ago, the ‘getting it right’ was all in Maxine’s head and Maxine’s gut,” White said. “Since that time, we’ve gotten smarter.”

The tool that is being used now as a key to getting smarter was the focus of the program in the newly-named Lubar Center (previously the Appellate Courtroom) at Eckstein Hall as White, L’85, along with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and Wisconsin First Assistant State Defender Tom Reed, described a scoring system that is being used in Milwaukee County and almost 30 other jurisdictions around the United States to better inform decisions on releasing or incarcerating those awaiting outcomes of criminal complaints.   Read more »




Insights on Judiciary and Tech Industry Highlight New Marquette Lawyer Magazine

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Marquette Lawyer Summer 2017 CoverTwo pairs may not be the most powerful hand in poker, but they are definitely a winning combination for the Summer 2017 edition of Marquette Lawyer, the Marquette Law School magazine.

One pair in the magazine focuses on how long U.S. Supreme Court Justices should serve and, more broadly, how to assure confidence in the judiciary. Judge Albert Diaz of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit focused on this in the E. Harold Hallows Lecture he delivered at Marquette Law School in 2016. The magazine offers a lightly edited text of the lecture by Diaz, including his advocacy of ideas he presumes that few of his fellow judges would support. Paired with the text is a comment from Diaz’s colleague on the Fourth Circuit, Judge James Wynn, L’79. An interview and profile of Wynn accompany his comment. The Diaz text may be read by clicking here and the Wynn comment (and interview) here.

The other pair in the magazine offers provocative insights from two people who play leading roles in the tech world. Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer of Microsoft, made two appearances at Marquette Law School on November 15, 2016, delivering the Helen Wilson Nies Lecture on Intellectual Property and participating in an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program. A selection of his thoughts may be found by clicking here.

Ted Ullyot is currently a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a leading venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, and he was formerly general counsel for Facebook—indeed, the lawyer who led the company in the process of going public. An edited version of Ullyot’s remarks at the Law School in a Helen Wilson Nies Lecture in April 2016 may be found by clicking hereRead more »




1 in 7 U.S. Prisoners Now in for Life

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According to a new report by the Sentencing Project, there are now 206,268 life-sentenced prisoners in the United States, amounting to one in every seven inmates. As a result of a long-term national crime decline and years of effort in many states to divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison, the nation’s overall incarcerated population has been slowly dropping in recent years. However, the number of life-sentenced inmates has continued its seemingly inexorable increase.

The Sentencing Project has helpfully tracked life-sentence trends in a series of reports since 2004, but the new publication includes a valuable addition to the data: those inmates who do not formally have a life sentence, but whose prison terms are so long that they may be fairly characterized as life sentences anyway. The Sentencing Project defines these “virtual life” sentences as those involving prison terms of at least fifty years. Given an average age at arrest of thirty for violent offenders, and a life expectancy of forty-eight more years for American males of that age, the fifty-year cutoff seems reasonable. Using this criterion, the Sentencing Project counted 44,311 inmates with virtual life sentences (included in the 206,268 figure noted above).

Most of the life-sentenced inmates are at least theoretically parole-eligible.  Read more »




The Curious Nature of Expunged Offenses

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Roughly six years ago the Wisconsin Legislature amended the expunction statute to permit certain felonies to be expunged. At the same time, the Legislature also permitted expunction for older offenders. Previously, defendants had to be under 21 to secure the benefits of expunction. Under the newly revised statute, defendants under 25 could now have certain crimes removed from their record.

Since the expunction statute was altered, Wisconsin law has been in disarray when it comes to analyzing the framework of expunction. For decades, judges had always “reserved” a defendant’s right to seek expunction. This was logical – judges naturally wanted to see how a defendant would do on probation before making the final decision. But the Court of Appeals, in an unfortunate ruling, found that the expunction statute barred such an approach. Now, judges have to do their best to analyze the proverbial “crystal ball,” making the decision to confer expunction at the time of sentencing, as opposed to making the decision after two or three years of probation. Read more »