Category Archives: the law at every level

Federal funding for state and local public defenders- some historical context

The Nation recently published this article calling on Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to support increased federal funding to shore up state and local public defenders. This idea is not new. Indigent defense advocates have made similar proposals for decades, and the American Bar Association has been advocating for a federally funded Center for Defense Services since the 1970s (most recently with this 2013 resolution). With criminal justice reform on the political radar screen and the nation’s public defender offices entering their sixth decade of nearly permanent crisis, perhaps the time is right to revive discussion of federal funding for local public defenders. In this post I provide some historical context about past discussions of this issue.  Continue reading Federal funding for state and local public defenders- some historical context

Some thoughts on criminal justice in the news- federal mens rea reform, Bernie Sanders on prisons

After the jump, a few quick thoughts on two recent items of discussion in the criminal justice news/commentary/punditry realm–1) federal mens rea reform, and 2) Bernie Sanders’s promise to reduce the U.S. prison population. Continue reading Some thoughts on criminal justice in the news- federal mens rea reform, Bernie Sanders on prisons

Detail fixation

The first episode of the hit podcast Serial began with a bit in which host Sarah Koenig asked a few teenagers to try to remember what they had done on a random day six weeks before. None of them could do so with any degree of certainty, except for one kid who happened to know it had been the day of a state test. The immediate point of the exercise was to suggest how difficult it would have been for the teenagers caught up in the 1999 murder case at the heart of Serial to have answered police officers’ questions six weeks after the events in question. But, by extension, I also took the exercise to function as a warning signal about how much more unlikely it would be that anyone could remember what exactly they were doing on a particular day when they were teenagers 15 years ago.

I thought that opening was a promising sign that the podcast would take a sophisticated approach to memory. As highlighted in a recent NYT op-ed, many of our “common sense” beliefs about memory don’t square with what scientists know about how and what people remember. For one thing, people tend to think their recollections are true if they’re really confident they’re true. Maybe, but it’s complicated. When tested in a lab, for “true” memories, “greater confidence was associated with greater accuracy.” But “for false memories, higher confidence was associated with lower accuracy.” The problem, of course, is that, outside of a lab, there’s often no way to know which category your memory falls into, in which case your confidence isn’t a reliable guide. People also tend to insist that their recollections of highly emotional or traumatic events — where were you when Kennedy was shot, or the towers fell, etc. — are fixed in lacquer. Not necessarily: “Studies find that even our ‘flashbulb memories’ of emotionally charged events can be distorted and inaccurate, but we cling to them with the greatest of confidence.”  Continue reading Detail fixation

Some thoughts on Goffman’s On the Run

After initially receiving mostly adulatory press (which it continues to receive, including a Malcolm Gladwell essay in the current New Yorker), the sociologist Alice Goffman’s urban ethnography On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City has started also to receive more negative attention. At the New York Times, Alex Kotlowitz raised some tentative ethical concerns in an otherwise positive notice; at Slate, Dwayne Betts sharply critiqued the book’s simplifications, in his view, of urban communities, while also wondering about the evidentiary support for some of its empirical claims; and most recently, at The New Inquiry, Christina Sharpe has called into question the morality of the entire project, positioning it within the history of “a sociological tradition that subjects black life to scholarly scrutiny” and, more specifically, within West Philadelphia’s “long and contentious history” with the University of Pennsylvania. (Goffman began researching the project as a Penn undergrad.)

I read the book earlier this summer and thought it might be useful to round up some of the marginal notes I made into a blog post (some of which I think I also discussed or referenced on Twitter while I was reading, although certainly not comprehensively). I should say that I found the early press around the book off-putting, insofar as the media lavishly praised Goffman for having the audacity to spend a few years in a neighborhood that plenty of people just, well, live in, and insofar as this coverage trafficked in the shock appeal of a young white woman living among black men, which is to say, trafficked in any number of longstanding white supremacist tropes, whether intentionally or otherwise. Still, those were issues with the coverage, not the book itself, and given the attention it’s received, and given that my academic focus encompasses criminal justice and policing, I figured it was something I should read, whatever I ended up making of it.  Continue reading Some thoughts on Goffman’s On the Run

Some links & quick thoughts on today’s California death penalty ruling

Federal district judge Cormac Carney ruled today that California’s death penalty, as carried out (or more accurately, as not carried out), violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. You can read Judge Carney’s ruling here. (Update: Here’s a thorough overview from the SF Chronicle‘s excellent legal reporter, Bob Egelko.)

Some links, context, and quick thoughts:

Continue reading Some links & quick thoughts on today’s California death penalty ruling

Our Invisible, Very Important State Constitutions

[insert here the usual, “this was written quickly” disclaimer]

Today, a California trial court judge issued a tentative opinion declaring that California’s particular K-12 teacher tenure statutes violate particular provisions of the California state constitution. The opinion won’t be final for 30 days and thereafter will be appealed to both an intermediate appellate court and presumably the state supreme court. Also, even were some version of the ruling to stand, the California legislature can always try to amend the tenure statutes to comport with its requirements (as education historian Ethan Hutt noted on Twitter). So, an end to tenure in California? Not necessarily, and certainly not yet! But certainly an interesting case to continue watching.

Meanwhile, here is how CNN reported the opinion. First there’s this just entirely inaccurate teaser on its homepage:

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Then there’s the actual article, which begins: “A California judge ruled as unconstitutional Tuesday the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff laws.” Maybe I missed it, but I do not see one place in the entire CNN article where it so much as indicates to the reader, much less clarifies, that the ruling (as almost always with cases involving a right to K-12 education) is rooted in the California state constitution, not the federal Constitution, much less what specific provisions of the California state constitution. Continue reading Our Invisible, Very Important State Constitutions