Are Nonprofits that Employ People with Criminal Records Good or Bad? It Depends on Your Perspective

You’re probably familiar with the image at the top. Created by Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin, the face/vase illusion tests the modularity of perception: you can see the vase, or you can see the two faces, but you can’t see both.

I thought about this when I read Jonathan Ireland’s hard-hitting critique of the nonprofit industry. I recommend that you read it in its entirety – it heavily features San Francisco, and exposes some deep ugliness in the management of nonprofits presumably designed to help the homeless, which actually do anything but. Ireland’s examples illuminate his key point, which is that the reliance of progressives and socialists on dysfunctional, corrupt nonprofits is the exact opposite of being “progressive” or “socialist”:

Contrary to the conservative assumption that high taxes are an inherent evil, people are often fine with higher taxes provided that the taxes are utilized to improve local living standards. What is taking place in America’s most performatively socialist urban areas is that taxes are constantly raised in order to fund public services, resulting in some of the most heavily taxed populations in the country. But this tax revenue is then squandered on private contracts to unaccountable nonprofit organizations whose activities do little to rectify the problems they are nominally being funded to address.

In other words: instead of increasing state capacity to improve quality of life (e.g., pick up trash), ensure public safety in downtown areas, and solve large-scale social problems–after all, we want government spending in these areas–progressive cities have been delegating these areas to nonprofits, which are plagued by financial malfeasance, cynical posturing that often goes against the interest of the populations they are supposed to benefit, and just plain old incompetence. Ireland’s leading example is TODCO, whose corruption is truly breathtaking. I’ve been around do-gooder organizations for the last 25 years, and some of the ones with the noblest goals and most sanctimonious agendas are the shittiest in terms of administration, financial management and responsibility, and actual accomplishments in the field (not to mention all the horrendous infighting that makes hardworking, solid people flee them in horror and swear they’ll never work for one again).

But I’m not sure I’m buying wholesale Ireland’s critique of nonprofits employing people with criminal histories. Titling this section of his review “Crime, Inc.,” he addresses several cities that employ formerly incarcerated folks as “violence interrupters” or mentors. Notably, he does not mention Urban Alchemy, but rather similar programs in Seattle and Chicago. Here is Ireland’s critique:

[N]one of these people could draw a government paycheck unless it was laundered through a nonprofit. A police department could never hire a convicted felon with long-term ties to street gangs, but a private nonprofit has looser standards regarding who is allowed access to public funds. This not only squanders money on people who are not capable of performing the roles they’re assigned, but is an active threat to public safety in circumstances where the state uses convict-staffed nonprofits for duties that ought to be reserved for the police.

I think Ireland confounds two issues that are best kept distinct. Insofar as his critique is that the municipality would not directly hire people who have served a long prison sentence, the obvious answer is, yes, that’s exactly the point! One of Ireland’s concerns is that nonprofits employ people lack the skills for doing the work they are hired to do, and I suspect he is seeing only one aspect of the face/vase illusion. The material question is, what are useful skills for crime prevention work? You see, the logic of programs like Urban Alchemy is that, living lives saturated with danger and violence, people acquire special skills that help them sniff trouble before it begins and prevent it through subtle, nonviolent means, such as positioning themselves between a young woman crossing the street and a man about to mug or assault her. If the state or municipality cannot bring themselves to value these skills in the job market, of course private providers have to step in and employ them. Whether or not the proof’s in the pudding is another matter, and this is where, again, we’re dealing with two incompatible views of reality. One view measures public safety in arrests and busts for things that have already happened. Another measures public safety in terms of the intangible sense of safety that people experience walking down the street and having nothing bad happen to them. I’m not a neutral commenter here; my sympathy for Urban Alchemy comes from my, ahem, <groan> lived experience </groan> working in the Tenderloin. I can’t quantify this, put a number on it, or twist it into a nice graphic that would fit in a quarterly performance review, but I can tell you that the entire energy around my workplace shifted when the practitioners started opening doors for us, cleaning areas that used to be repellent, and watching out for folks. The difference between street corners with and without practitioners is palpable. Maybe at some point we hit a saturation effect and the impact of seeing someone with a green vest in the corner will dissipate. I worry that the proliferation of these companies could get us there, but my subjective assessment is that we’re not there yet.

(Also, there’s the underlying assumption that the scrutiny of the public sector helps prevent scandalous mismanagement of the kind that nonprofits are notorious for. But if the private-versus-public-prisons debate is anything to go by, the private sector has not cornered the market on scandalous mismanagement. The entire COVID-19 disaster in CA prisons was 100% brought to you courtesy of the public sector, and funded by $10 billion of your tax money per annum. And the few people who tried to do something were federal employees working for the Receivership and upstanding citizens volunteering or working in nonprofits, not state employees running the prisons.)

The second issue Ireland brings up is considerably thornier: the not-at-all-unreasonable concern that putting folks with criminal ties in charge of other people (crowd handling) and funds is a risk. He does provide some hair-raising examples of folks who continued their criminal activity, be it financial malfeasance or actual gang violence, under the sheltering umbrella of the nonprofit where they worked. Because I am well read on criminological literature (including quant stuff, not just jargon-heavy political propaganda), and because I live in the real world, I know that recidivism is always a risk, particularly in the first few months after one gets out of prison (with all the usual caveats about the concept of recidivism). A BJS study looking at state prisoners released in 2005 and following up on their records until 2014 found the following:

  • The 401,288 state prisoners released in 2005 had 1,994,000 arrests during the 9-year period, an average of 5 arrests per released prisoner. Sixty percent of these arrests occurred during years 4 through 9.
  • An estimated 68% of released prisoners were arrested within 3 years, 79% within 6 years, and 83% within 9 years.
  • Eighty-two percent of prisoners arrested during the 9-year period were arrested within the first 3 years.
  • Almost half (47%) of prisoners who did not have an arrest within 3 years of release were arrested during years 4 through 9.
  • Forty-four percent of released prisoners were arrested during the first year following release, while 24% were arrested during year-9.

There is plenty that we don’t know and can argue about, of course, such as whether the arrests reflect actual renewed criminal activity or bogus outcomes of escalated stop-and-frisk stuff that ended up being nothing, and whether the arrests reflect the lives of people who were housed and employed after they came out, or people who drifted back to crime out of necessity. But I think you’d be pretty silly, misguided, or deceptive, to argue that there are no risks of reoffending when employing people straight out of the joint. My argument, in both Yesterday’s Monsters and Fester, is that you can considerably mitigate this risk by providing early releases and employment opportunities to aging and infirm people who have already spent a long time behind bars. At least initially, this was Urban Alchemy’s employment strategy, and I would not be surprised if nonprofits employing people with an incarceration history find that they have significantly more reoffending challenges with young people. As I explained in both books (in different contexts), hooking up aging former lifers with opportunities requires a stomach for bad optics, because doing so tends to produce headlines about murderers-at-large, even though from a well-researched, robust criminological standpoint, the recidivism rate among people in their fifties who served decades in prison is remarkably low, and they constitute a very low employment risk. It’s also fair to say, I think, that any organization employing people who face temptations to reoffend on their daily beat must provide them hands-on support–decent pay, decent benefits, access to therapy, reasonable colleagues to talk to–otherwise, it’s not doing its due diligence.

Once the population of employees with criminal records increases and includes younger people with recidivism risks, the question becomes: at what point do we have enough information to argue that the nonprofit is dysfuctional, or even countereffective? I submit that Ireland falls into a trap that many of us fall into: failing to acknowledge that the world is full of both Type I and Type II errors. Briefly, a type I error, also known as a false positive, is the rejection of the null hypothesis when it is actually true. A type II error, or a false negative, is the failure to reject a null hypothesis that is actually false.

The errors that Ireland flags in his article–admittedly, horrible ones–happen when you employ a formerly incarcerated person in some crime prevention capacity, making the assumption that the person will not reoffend. The person then reoffends, garnering terrible headlines and raising the expected critique: Why are you employing criminals in your organization? The error no one observes is the one we (perhaps) make time and time again: we assume people will reoffend, and therefore do not release them or employ them or offer them opportunities, when they would actually be competent and helpful and not pose a recidivism risk. Because errors of the second type are invisible (you can’t guess whether someone would have reoffended on the job if you didn’t give them the job) you’re left with just the errors from the first kind.

The invisibility of the second type of errors stands in our way when we try to figure out whether a program like Urban Alchemy or Ceasefire or Community Passageways is effective or not. The temptation is to point at the situations in which the employees commit crime–say, assault people in the street, embezzle funds, pimp sex workers in their violence-prevention areas, etc.–and say, this program gives people a license to commit crime. Of course we should not ignore these critiques. But alongside them, we should see other things: Has the overall crime rate for the area supervised by the practitioners decreased? Do before-and-after surveys of the people who live and work in those areas show an improvement in their sense of safety walking the streets? Can we compare crime and safety in the streets when (1) neglected, (2) traditionally policed, (3) patrolled by nonprofit employees, or (4) combination of policing and nonprofit practitioners? That is the sort of essential literature that can actually answer the question whether the solutions offset the problems or vice-versa. We would all be better off if more people did this careful evaluation work, instead of writing alarmist “criminals on the loose” pieces or ignorant “dismantle the carceral whatever” pieces.

I don’t think Ireland’s piece falls neatly into one category or another, and I do think that his willingness to shine a light on the pervasive dysfunction of do-gooder organizations is important. I remember following, with some interest, the ugly feud between Shaun King and DeRay Mckesson, just to see how much rubbish, dysfunction, and malfeasance was at the heart of all the mudslinging. This is not the exception; it’s not uncommon. But I think that malfeasance and incompetence do not perfectly overlap with criminal history, and that’s where we should be more careful.

The Horrid, and 100% Foreseeable, Aftermath of Judge Persky’s Recall

It is the nature of character assassination scandals, and a consequence of their frequency, that after a while they are forgotten by all except the people whose lives were destroyed by them. Such was the fate of Michelle Dauber’s cruel and idiotic crusade against Judge Aaron Persky in the aftermath of the Brock Turner scandal, which swept a lot of ill-informed progressive punitives with pitchforks and led to the destruction of his judicial career (and later, the destruction of his livelihood as a tennis coach.)

For all the shrill shrieking about “privilege”, pretty much every criminal justice academic I respect in the Bay Area warned at the time that recalling judges for lenient sentencing (especially, as in this case, following the probation recommendation) would make punishment harsher and much worse for everyone–especially for people who looked and lived nothing like Brock Turner. I was one of the first signatories and vividly remember shouting this from the rooftops, as well as seeing it as part of an appalling pattern of the left eating its own with no rhyme or reason.

As everyone worth their salt predicted, the recall did have an effect on criminal punishment in Santa Clara county: it made it harsher. As my colleagues Sanford Gordon and Sidak Yntiso found:

Using disposition data from six California counties and arrest records for a subset of defendants, we find a large, discontinuous increase in sentencing severity associated with the recall campaign’s announcement. Additional tests suggest that the observed shift may be attributed to changes in judicial preferences over sentencing and not strategic adjustment by prosecutors. We also demonstrate that the heterogeneous effects of the announcement did not mitigate preexisting racial disparities. Our findings are the first to document the incentive effects of recall and suggest that targeted political campaigns may have far-reaching, unintended consequences.

Sanford C. Gordon and Sidak Yntiso, Incentive Effects of Recall Elections: Evidence from Criminal Sentencing in California Courts, The Journal of Politics 84:4 (2022), 1947-1962

In other words: the fearless, plucky lefties who led this hysterical campaign can take pride in the fact that their relentless persecution of Persky empowered and enhanced carceral repression across the board, not necessarily making a dent in prevention/accountability for sex crimes, and harming precisely the people without “privilege” that they presumably sought to protect with this destructive campaign.

Why am I revisiting this? For two reasons. First, because I don’t want us to forget that these sorts of actions have consequences. I know that many on the left are already sickened by years of ugly, disastrous infighting. As Freddie DeBoer recently wrote:

I certainly would not say that the age of canceling is over. There will be public scandals to come; people will suffer major career and social consequences because of public anger. Sometimes they’ll deserve it. And maybe this is just a lull and the same old songs will get sung again and again.

But at this stage I find it hard to deny that the sense of palpable fear so many operated under, the feeling that the prosecutors held all the cards, appears to be in terminal decline. People just aren’t afraid in the same way anymore. The mob doesn’t have the momentum. The big bad wolf has lost his teeth. I suspect this is for a few key reasons – the fact that all of that endless raging did precisely nothing to make the world more just, for one. The growing understanding that the human species is flawed by nature and that no one can match those standards, for another. But mostly, I think it’s the dynamic I’ve been predicting for a long time: you can only bang the gong so many times. Everybody’s receptors all got blown out. Outrage is a finite resource. People can’t maintain permanent offense forever. Most of us can’t, anyway. You can only tense a muscle for so long.

Thing is, while we are tiring of the phenomenon, the people whose lives and reputations were laid to waste are going to have to live with the consequences of these witch hunts for a long time. Judge Persky, I think of you and am so sorry for the horror that you went through.

The second reason is that an excellent, short documentary about the poisonous effect of the recall campaign is out, and until September you can watch The Recall: Reframed for free:

Cooperation and Disruption in True-Crime Podcasting: Your Own Backyard

As some of you know, I’m beginning to work on a new project that sits at the intersection of new media, victimology, and law enforcement. I’m interested in the true crime podcast community, especially in podcasts targeting unsolved crimes. One of the questions I’m deeply interested in is the give-and-take between official law enforcement and podcasters (whether family members of the victim or third parties), which seems to range from hostility, through begrudging acceptance, all the way to pretty warm cooperation.

One notable example is Chris Lambert‘s excellent podcast Your Own Backyard, which is a thorough investigation of the disappearance of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart in May 1996. Lambert, who started off as an absolute stranger but established a warm collaborative relationship with the Smart family, has produced a true investigative masterpiece, chock-full of resources, first-hand testimony, circumstantial evidence examination, and intelligent inquiry into various forensic science disciplines (including human remains dogs and ground-penetrating radar). Most remarkably, Lambert’s podcast not only reawakened public interest in Smart’s disappearance, but also brought in new witnesses from the woodwork. Lambert’s dogged perseverance, intelligent analysis, and commitment to finding out the truth earned him the trust of the surrounding community and of law enforcement, and it looks like the police greatly benefitted from his work.

Throughout the entire lifespan of the case, there was only one viable suspect in Smart’s disappearance: fellow student Paul Flores, who helped an inebriated Smart get home from a party and was the last person to see her alive. Flores and his parents acted evasively and suspiciously over the years; Lambert’s investigation revealed that Flores was a predator who made women uncomfortable before Smart’s disappearance and, years after the event, a prolific rapist of multiple women. As Lambert provocatively posited in the podcast, Flores would have to be the unluckiest man alive for Smart’s disappearance to have been a coincidence.

Smart’s body was never found, but there was some evidence of human remains at Flores’ father’s house. The San Luis Obispo DA decided (thanks in great part to Lambert’s work and the evidence unearthed by the podcast) to charge Flores with murder and his father with being an accessory after the fact (to solve the confrontation problems in trials with codefendants, there were two different juries attending the same trial; I can talk more about this method, and how effective it is in solving Bruton/Gray/Cruz confrontation problems, in a future post). In March, the jury convicted Flores of the first-degree murder of Smart, and he was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison. This is a remarkable result given the passage of time and the hurdles in prosecuting no-body homicides.

I recommend listening to the whole podcast–it’s truly one of the better exemplars of this genre. One of the many things I find interesting, though, is the extent to which the existence of the podcast and its centrality to the case played a part in the criminal trial. In an effort to remain objective, Lambert, who recounts the trial in the later podcast episodes, matter-of-factly reports courtroom mentions of his own podcast without editorializing. But the defense (as a defense attorney, I gotta give kudos to Robert Sanger for what I think is undoubtedly a pretty heroic showing of professionalism with a client who is a pure, unadulterated garbage of a human being) repeatedly refers to the podcast and its encroachment on the case. Witnesses are asked about their participation in performative support for the Smarts (such as the entire investigative and prosecutorial team wearing purple, Smart’s favorite color) and about the extent to which the podcast propelled them to step forward. I’m pretty sure there will be arguments aplenty about bias and prejudice on appeal, and I worry that the podcast’s huge contribution to the investigation will seriously backfire.

Which brings me to one of my concerns about new media and law enforcement in general: Overall, I’ve been really impressed with the power of podcasts, especially their contribution to diversifying and enriching the victims’ rights movement. But is it time to have a sit-down, perhaps at CrimeCon, and set up some ethical rules, or best practices? Not everyone is Sarah Turney or Chris Lambert, not everyone does their homework in a dogged, meticulous way, and I worry that the need to come up with provocative encounters, confront suspects, dig up drama, etc., might backfire especially when podcasts finally succeed in greasing the wheels of the criminal process. Some things I think are worth considering are:

At what point should podcasters who are not themselves related to the victim reach out to the victim’s family? Is it ever okay to produce a podcast that the victim’s family does not support? What if the podcast casts suspicion on the family itself?

What kind of relationship should podcasters foster with the police? At what point should they hand evidence over to the police? Is this relationship akin to the police’s communication with traditional journalists?

Who owns footage obtained and produced by podcasters? Is there ever some sort of evidentiary privilege akin to the one granted to traditional journalists?

How much verification is required from podcasters (say, by contrast to police detectives checking alibis or triangulating evidence)?

What are the rules of engagement when reaching out to suspects? If podcasters take risks, how, and to what extent, does the police need to support and protect them–especially when law enforcement does not think that confronting the suspects is prudent?

Do podcasters have responsibility for the public chatter generated around the podcast? Wild theories, blame casting, and garden-variety shitposting that might happen, including, for example, posts that disparage the victim and/or their family?

What are the considerations that govern the way in which the story is told? For example, is it ethical to refrain from disclosing certain incidents/developments out of artistic concerns, or to make the narrative more dramatic and engaging? And what about the tone of reportage? Some of these podcasts (emphatically, NOT Lambert’s or Turney’s) have a humorous, flippant tone–is that something that should be frowned upon, especially if the victims’ families are not on board?

I’m interested to hear from you what other concerns/thoughts you have about these podcasts. And let’s keep tabs on the appellate process in the Flores case.

Comment: I’m still in Israel by my dad’s bedside – I write just to have a placeholder for ideas that pop in my head during my morning run before I head to the hospital every day. Please, no cumbersome professional requests during this trying time for me and my family.

An All-Male Jury for a Groper and the G2i Problem

The Gemara relates: Rav bar Sherevya had a trial pending before Rav Pappa. Rav Pappa seated him and also seated his litigant counterpart, who was an am ha’aretz (a simple man, not a rabbi). An agent of the court came and kicked and stood the am ha’aretz on his feet to show deference to the Torah scholars there, and Rav Pappa did not say to him: Sit. The Gemara asks: How did Rav Pappa act in that manner by not instructing the am ha’aretz to sit again? But aren’t the claims of the am ha’aretz suppressed by Rav Pappa’s perceived preferential treatment of Rav bar Sherevya? The Gemara responds: Rav Pappa said to himself that the litigant will not perceive bias, as he says: The judge seated me; it is the agent of the court who is displeased with me and compelled me to stand.

Shevuot 30b

Understandable outrage is brewing among many folks around me: At a San Francisco trial of a man accused of stalking and groping women, all the jurors are male. How could this happen? And is it lawful? Let’s go over some terminology:

  • Population: everyone who lives in the county.
  • Sampling frame: the group of people from which one can draw a sample. For our purposes, the folks whom the law deems eligible to serve on juries in the county.
  • Venire: Everyone who received summons to appear for jury selection (the selection process itself is called “voir dire.”)
  • Panel: The people who are eventually seated on a particular jury.

The constitution requires that the jury be drawn from a “fair cross-section” of the population: in other words, that the jury pool–the overall sampling frame from which people are summoned for the venire–be reflective of the population. If some recognizable minority group is systematically disqualified from serving, the selection method is unconstitutional. In the landmark case Taylor v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court invalidated a jury selection scheme by which women were not summoned at all to the jury pool unless they explicitly chose to opt in. Similarly, schemes like Texas’ “key man” system, where there’s some official who gets to pick and choose who’s on the jury (and thus, for example, underrepresents Mexican-Americans) have been invalidated.

Having a sufficiently diverse jury pool, however, does not guarantee the empaneling of a diverse jury. Consider the following example: you have 100 pebbles, 50 of which are gray and 50 of which are purple.

The statistical odds of drawing a purple pebble are 0.5, which means that, in a random selection of 12 pebbles, the stats predict you have great odds of having a mix of gray and purple pebbles. But you can easily imagine many random drawings that will only include gray pebbles.

This is exactly what happened here, except for an important fact: the twelve jury members were not drawn at random. Annie Vainshtein and Nora Mishanec reported for the Chron:

During jury selection, some women said they could not impartially weigh the evidence that would be presented at trial due to personal experiences with sexual assault or harassment, or negative feelings toward Hobbs’ attorney, which prompted Superior Court Judge Harry Dorfman to dismiss them.

Others from the pool were unable to serve on the jury for different reasons; one woman said she had booked an upcoming cruise. Several jurors, one of whom was male, were dismissed after expressing opinions including that “sexual predators” should be segregated from society, and even face the death penalty. 

By the end of jury selection, the only woman selected was an alternate juror, who will hear all of the evidence but vote on the verdict only if needed.

Here’s the thing: robust social science research tells us that, when looking at groups of people in the aggregate, people’s life experiences and worldviews, which are often a function of their demographics, impact how they will assess evidence and judge a case. Which is why, even without resorting to the services of expensive trial consultants, prosecutors assume that people of color will be favorable to the defense, and defense attorneys assume that white men will be more punitive. The name of the game in voir dire then becomes getting rid of as many people whom you suspect will be unfavorable to your side. The problem is that, even though we can make these generalizations regarding groups, we have a deep social distaste about making them regarding individuals: people generally recoil from being told that they must think a certain way because of who they are, even though in the aggregate we know such statements to be true. This is why one can’t mount a for-cause challenge for disqualifying a woman, any woman, from the trial of an alleged stalker/groper just on the basis of her sex/gender. In science, it’s known as the group-to-individual (G2i) problem, and it affects various areas of legal decisionmaking.

Over the years, parties have tried to skirt this problem by using peremptory challenges to get rid of demographics they suspected of being unfavorable to them; the advantage of this strategy was that peremptories didn’t require an explanation. But the Batson doctrine allows the opposite party to challenge such use of peremptory challenges when they reveal a pattern of discrimination against a suspect racial or gendered group. It used to be the case that all the prosecution had to do was provide a race neutral explanation for their challenges (which, admittedly, would be difficult if there was evidence to refute this.) Now, California’s new peremptory challenge laws, enacted through AB 3070, make it a lot more difficult to get away with this sort of thing, because the prosecution’s explanation has to be reasonable, and it also cannot correlate with a seemingly race-neutral explanation that strongly correlates with race, gender, or any other suspect category.

But this is not what happened here! The women were dismissed using for-cause challenges because they directly opined that they would not be able to impartially weigh the evidence. This I find dubious (though not impossible) and it leaves me with serious discomfort. To drive home the problem, consider the following analogy: assume a white police officer is on trial for shooting and killing an unarmed black man. Imagine that, at jury selection, every single black prospective juror says that they would not be able to impartially weigh the evidence and, consequently, we end up with an all-white jury. Does this pass the “fair cross section” test? Yes–there were people of various races in the jury pool. Does this pass the Batson test? Sure! No peremptory challenges were used; everyone who was struck was struck for cause. Are you comfortable with the outcome?

How could this have been fixed? First, I think that prospective jurors can and should trust their ability to make good decisions with the life experience that they have. Like 50% of the people on the planet, I have been sexually harassed, catcalled, groped, pestered for sex, and other fine experiences. Does that mean I would not be able to seriously consider the possibility that a person who did this to others was severely mentally ill, or that there was an eyewitness identification problem? I worry that the emphasis we put on group identity in contemporary discourse has locked people into beliefs that they are immutable members of whatever demographic they belong to and there’s nothing more to them, and that is impoverishing and disappointing. Second, I think the onus here was on the prosecution to ask the prospective jurors questions that would probe the extent of the bias. For example, I think a fair question would have been, “would your experience with harassment lead you to find someone guilty even if there was defense evidence that the police got the wrong person, or even if there was persuasive psychiatric evidence that the defendant didn’t know what he was doing?”

If such a stunning number of women find themselves unable to fairly adjudicate a sexual harassment case, then the root of the problem here is not the jury selection process itself. It is the fact that harassment experiences in public space are so common and far more malignant than people think. In her book License to Harass, my colleague Laura Beth Nielsen exposes the unbearable lightness of offensive speech in public space and the many insidious ways in which it affects people’s everyday lives and decisions. It turns out that even behaviors that might not be a big deal on a one-off basis can add up to the point that people are so fed up with them that they don’t feel they can be objective on a jury.

If that’s what happened here, it’s a damn shame. Because the irony is that the very fact that there are many other people like this guy (who maybe just yell obscenities, rather than grope, and thus completely escape public censure) is what makes it impossible to adjudicate this guy by a true jury of his peers, which should include women.

Series Review: Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer

Netflix’s new docuseries about the hunt for Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, comes to our computer screens at an interesting cultural moment, in which national and state responses to heinous crimes are in flux. As the bicameral Democratic legislature of the Biden administration prepares to get rid of the federal death penalty, the Trump administration finishes its four-year tour of gratuitous cruelty with gratuitous executions happening at the eleventh hour with the blessing of SCOTUS and to the horror of the court’s progressive minority; several people have observed the irony of lethal injections happening at the federal level just as death row people here in CA get the first injection of the COVID vaccine. This throwback to bloodthirstier decades comes as a majority of Americans, for the first time since the sixties, now support life imprisonment over the death penalty. Half the states retain the death penalty and half (growing since the recession) have abolished it or placed moratoria upon its use; if Virginia moves forward with abolition, not only will it be the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment, but also a majority of states will have abolished/sunset the death penalty. Here in California, more people have died on death row from COVID-19 under Gov. Newsom’s moratorium than we have executed since the return of the death penalty in 1978. Ramirez himself–the subject of the new docuseries–was the 85th person to die on California’s death row of natural causes in 2013. And just recently, Joseph DeAngelo, whose horrific crimes as the Golden State Killer are eerily similar to Ramirez’s, was sentenced to life imprisonment, raising the fair question–if not him, then who?

Against this backdrop, the choice to focus now on Ramirez and his heinous crimes is a curious one, and the series does not offer a lot in the sense of narrative or cinematic innovation to justify the subject. The story is told from the perspective of two intelligent and sympathetic LAPD detectives–then-newcomer Gil Carrillo and veteran Frank Salerno–and several retired crime scene technicians, who in four episodes follow through the trail of horrific murders. The still shots from the various murder scenes are enhanced through cinematography that somewhat brings them to life and accompanied by chilling music. Thankfully, at least the victims themselves–both those deceased and those who survived–are portrayed with restraint and respect, and on occasion (albeit not always, which struck me as somewhat distasteful) their relatives comment on their lives, evoking sympathy and humanity. These graceful interview scenes lift the series from a sequence of excessive gore, and I wish there were more of them.

As to Ramirez himself, the show does not delve much into his own mind beyond short, clichéd quotes about the “inherent evil in all human kind” and “Satan [as] a stabilizing presence” displayed between scenes. Having read and watched a lot of the Manson literary and cinematic canon, I think a deliberate choice was made here not to glorify Ramirez in a similar way. At some point, one of the detectives even said that they considered whether Ramirez was a Manson copycat, which strengthens my belief that this approach was carefully considered. The choice not to follow the legacy of Mansonist efforts to delve into the minds of heinous murderers a-la Dahmer, only recently continued with Aquarius and Mindhunter, means the focus of the show is mostly on the police investigation.

But even here, the show’s coverage of the LAPD’s eponymous “hunt” offers some contradictions. Carrillo and Salerno are sympathetic, interesting interviewees; Carrillo’s background is explored in depth, including his early prescient conclusion that seemingly unrelated crimes were perpetrated by the same person. He attributes this insight to a class he had taken, in which Robert Morneau referred to “a deviancy that says, ‘I like to see the frightened look on your face.'” Rather than digging into the motivation, this illuminated Carrillo’s crime scene analyses and explained why the murders were perpetrate in a particular way (i.e., why the killer had waited for the victims to see him, rather than kill them from behind or in their cars.) But at the same time, we get glimpses into what appears to be epic incompetence in interagency collaboration. A golden opportunity to zone in on the killer through a distinctive sneaker shoeprint was wasted, even though only one pair of black sneakers of that brand had been shipped to Los Angeles. Similarly, the opportunity to fingerprint a car that the suspect had touched in the course of a traffic stop was squandered. And amazingly, a clever trap at Ramirez’s dentist’s office did not function. Eventually, Ramirez was caught not by police officers, who allowed him to walk before them unnoticed after his appearance was already well known, but by alert members of the public. The focus on Carrillo and Salerno’s solid crime scene investigation draws attention from the sad conclusion that, had the LAPD had their act together and collaborated, Ramirez would have been caught earlier and lives would have been saved. Having studied the Manson murders in detail, it seems that little was learned since the fiascos of the Tate-LaBianca investigations, which were also characterized by department siloing and insularity (Bugliosi is full of braggadocio about his own heroic role in the case and very eager to throw blame onto the LAPD, but at least in that instance the objective facts seem to support his perspective.)

Even as the focus on audacity, deductive work, and targeted legwork draws attention away from omissions and organizational hurdles, Night Stalker is a reminder of what good policing should be. It is poignant to watch an investigation in the 1980s, with 1980s technology, as the FBI pieces together last week’s insurrection at the Capitol and attempts to track down the perpetrators, a job much easier than Carrillo and Salerno’s because of the plethora of social media evidence and the availability of facial recognition technology. It is also poignant to think about the most recent example of excellence in policing: Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman’s clever, creative, and courageous act of baiting and tricking the mob away from the unguarded door behind which the legislators hid, armed only with a nightstick and facing dozens of angry insurrectionists yelling racial epithets at him. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t think the problem is too little or two much policing; it’s the wrong kind of policing altogether, which relies on crude, humiliating, and ineffective methods like stop-and-frisk at the direct expense of the classic crime solving work features in the Night Stalker. Give me a police force full of Eugene Goodmans, Gil Carrillos, and Frank Salernos, and I’ll be a happy camper. If the show reminds us (and the FBI, and the LAPD) that good policing is valuable and scarce, then it has been a worthwhile endeavor.

Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is available on Netflix.

Ending Lifetime Registration of Sex Offenders–A Courageous and Sensible Idea

Yesterday’s L.A. Times reports:

“SB 384 proposes thoughtful and balanced reforms that allow prosecutors and law enforcement to focus their resources on tracking sex offenders who pose a real risk to public safety, rather than burying officers in paperwork that has little public benefit,” said Ali Bay, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey sought the change because the current registry has grown to a difficult-to-manage 105,000 people, which reduces its value to law enforcement trying to solve sex crimes by checking those on the list.

Because the registry is public, it also punishes people who have not committed new crimes for decades, including some who engaged in consensual sex, bill supporters argued.

This is an excellent idea. Before you get all riled up, read the actual text:

This bill would, commencing January 1, 2021, instead establish 3 tiers of registration based on specified criteria, for periods of at least 10 years, at least 20 years, and life, respectively, for a conviction of specified sex offenses, and 5 years and 10 years for tiers one and two, respectively, for an adjudication as a ward of the juvenile court for specified sex offenses, as specified. The bill would allow the Department of Justice to place a person in a tier-to-be-determined category for a maximum period of 24 months if his or her appropriate tier designation cannot be immediately ascertained. The bill would, commencing July 1, 2021, establish procedures for termination from the sex offender registry for a registered sex offender who is a tier one or tier two offender and who completes his or her mandated minimum registration period under specified conditions. The bill would require the offender to file a petition at the expiration of his or her minimum registration period and would authorize the district attorney to request a hearing on the petition if the petitioner has not fulfilled the requirement of successful tier completion, as specified. The bill would establish procedures for a person required to register as a tier three offender based solely on his or her risk level to petition the court for termination from the registry after 20 years from release of custody, if certain criteria are met. The bill would also, commencing January 1, 2022, revise the criteria for exclusion from the Internet Web site.

In her book Sex Fiends, Perverts, and Pedophiles, Chrysanthi Leon of the University of Delaware discusses the changes in our approach toward sex offenders. As she lucidly explains, we used to be able to differentiate between different types of sex offenders and find compassion and pragmatism in our approach toward their punishment and rehabilitation. But with the sex panics of the 1980s, we started blurring lines and seeing all sex offenders as just one category, identifying all of them with the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes. This was a big mistake. Sex offenders, as Tamara Lave reminds us, have a remarkably low rate of recidivism, and the effort to warn the public from them would be better spent on narrow categories of sex criminals that actually recidivate. This bill is a step forward toward more careful classification.

But there’s something else here that is important.

The impetus for the new bill is that the sex offender list has grown so long that it has become difficult to manage. Local authorities spend a lot of time processing paperwork, and time means money. Again, as I discuss in Cheap on Crime, the practicalities of punishment become so cumbersome that we’re taking a step in the right direction. Indeed, any deterrent effect the list has becomes diluted once everyone is on the list for everything, as J.J. Prescott and Jonah Rockoff remind us here.

In sight of the federal disaster that is the Trump/Sessions gratuitous, senseless cruelty enforcement mechanism, it’s nice to see California once again making a reasonable decision.

A Solution in Search of a Problem? More Sex Offender Legislation Dies in Committee

CA Assemblyman Paul Cook‘s legislative proposal – the newest version of sex offender legislation – died in committee. The novelty? Forbidding registered sex offenders whose offense included a child under 16 to sell ice cream. As is often the case with this sort of bill, it is presented as prompted by a particular incident, reported on Cook’s website, where “the Megan’s Law database revealed that a local ice cream truck driver was a registered sex offender”.

Senator Mark Leno‘s questioning at the Standing Committee on Public Safety addressed the necessity of this new venture.

Current law says a registered sex offender whose offense involved a child under 16 cannot work “directly and in an unaccompanied setting with minor children on more than an incidental and occasional basis.”

“Where is the weakness in that statute that … you believe we’re going to have registered sex offenders selling ice cream to our children?” Leno asked Cook Monday during a committee hearing. “I don’t think there’s any problem with the current statute.”

But Cook said that leaves some ambiguity because an ice cream vendor isn’t working with children in the same way as a day care worker.

“Are you working with kids, or are you selling ice cream?” he said. “If you’re working with kids, then prevailing law applies. But if you’re selling ice cream, you’re selling ice cream to everybody.”

Cook said the issue is particularly important because children are attracted to ice cream trucks and tend to trust those who operate them.

Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, who voted for the bill, said an ice cream vendor can build a relationship with a child that can later lead to exploitation or an attack.

. . .

Leno called Cook’s bill “a solution in search of a problem.”

In response to Leno’s question whether there were actual examples of sex offenders operating the trucks, Cook mentioned the case that allegedly inspired the bill, but Riverside County Sheriff’s officials denied having heard of the situation. Read more at The Sun.

It should probably be mentioned that a similar law was being considered in Iowa last year. Follow this one up to its probable doom at the CA legislation website.