CRF Blog

10 Theories Explaining the Great Crime Decline

by Bill Hayes

Crime in the U.S. is down, way down. The question is why. In 10 (Not Entirely Crazy) Theories Explaining the Great Crime Decline, the Marshall Project looks at 10 explanations, which include comments from experts Frank Zimring, Richard Rosenfeld, and John Roman “on which are the most plausible.”

The lead hypothesis

This is perhaps the trendiest crime decline hypothesis in 2014, and it was the subject of an entire session of the National Academy roundtable’s work. The effect of lead on children’s brains has been well documented: Exposure to the chemical causes aggressive behavior and cognitive delays. In the wake of the 1970 Clean Air Act, lead was removed from gasoline and, increasingly, from paint.

Economist Jessica Reyes estimates that phasing out lead was responsible for 56 percent of the reduction in violent crime (although she could find no relationship between lead and property crime). Experts still disagree about how plausible it is that lead alone could have been responsible for such a massive portion of the crime drop. “It’s fair to say that our assessment of this hypothesis is ‘case not proved’ — or at least ‘not yet proved,’ ” Rosenfeld said. [more]

Against the five-paragraph essay

by Bill Hayes

In a five-paragraph essay, Fredrik deBoer argues against the five paragraph essay.

One major reason to abandon the five paragraph essay is that it leads to formulaic writing. This is unsurprising, given that the five paragraph essay is a formula. When we talk about the five paragraph essay, we are not just talking about five paragraphs. We are usually talking about an introduction that begins with a broad theme and ends with an explicit thesis statement, three body paragraphs that use topic sentences to articulate specific arguments in favor of that thesis followed by evidence, and a conclusion that restates the thesis and broadens outward. This set format does indeed provide students with a consistent, reliable system that they can use again and again. But that merely results in consistently, reliably stale, uninspired essays. This is bad enough from the perspective of the teachers who must read and grade these essays, but it is truly destructive for the students themselves. By so associating the act of writing with rules and restrictions, teachers risk dulling the inventiveness and fun that can inspire students to become lifelong writers. [more]

Is a prisoner’s beard dangerous?

by Bill Hayes

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Pepperdine law professor Michael Helfand looks at an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case and asks, Is a prisoner’s beard dangerous?

Gregory Holt … is a prison inmate, housed by the Arkansas Department of Correction. But Holt is also known by another name, Abdul Maalik Muhammad, and he is by all accounts a sincere adherent of Islam. As part of that faith commitment, he wants to grow his beard 1/2-inch long in accordance with Islamic practice.

It seems like a relatively reasonable request. But Arkansas prison officials have refused to grant it, arguing that a 1/2-inch beard would prevent them from maintaining the safety and security of the prison. The Department of Correction contends that Holt might be able to hide, for example, a SIM card or a razor in such a beard; the former could be used to order contraband and the latter to commit further violent crimes. [more]

The End of Eyewitness Testimonies

by Bill Hayes

In The End of Eyewitness Testimonies, Newsweek magazine looks at the research on eyewitness testimony and what courts are doing about it.

Memory, as experts have been trying to teach judges and jurors, does not function like an iPhone camera recording. Memories can not only be deleted; they can be altered or invented without you even realizing it, as shown in a study published last year in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, which involved 861 U.S. soldiers enrolled in a survival school. As part of training, they endured abusive interrogations. Afterward, many were shown a photo of someone who looked nothing like their interrogator, and interviewers insinuated that the person depicted was the culprit. Eighty-four percent of the soldiers misidentified their interrogators after being misled, and some also remembered weapons or telephones that never existed.

An extensive body of research with similar findings has become increasingly perplexing for the nation’s judicial systems, leading the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to release a sweeping report last month calling for an overhaul of how the courts and law enforcement deal with one of the most powerfully persuasive pieces of evidence that can sway a jury: eyewitness identification. Research has shown that leading questioning or suggestive behavior by psychiatrists, police or acquaintances, as well as accounts in the media, can result in “planting” false memories in the mind of a witness. In some cases, this can lead witnesses to believe they saw incidents that never occurred. In lawsuits recently filed against Castlewood Treatment Center in St. Louis, plaintiffs have argued that therapists used hypnosis and psychiatric drugs to recover “hidden” abuse memories that turned out to be false.

Between 60 and 80 percent of psychologists and other mental health professionals still believe therapy can retrieve repressed memories, as noted in a 2013 study in Psychological Science. Yet many scientists and mental health professionals now believe that research does not support the notion that traumatic experiences can “disappear” from one’s memory only to be recalled years later in evocative detail. Here’s the more likely scenario: Those traumatic memories were instead conjured up as false memories after leading questioning by a therapist.

When it comes to long-term recollections, most memory researchers believe modifications are constantly being made, while gaps in narrative are filled in with experiences and expectations—not the actual events. Stressful situations (especially those involving a weapon), like Yvonne’s abduction, can be particularly vexing for the memory: They can take a person’s attention away from an attacker’s face and possibly lead to a skewed or mistaken identification. [more]

When Cops Kill

by Bill Hayes

The New York Times’ Room for Debate lets various knowledgeable contributors discuss news events and other timely issues. One recent debate covered: Does Ferguson Show That Cops Who Kill Get Off Too Easily?

The anger following the announcement that a Missouri grand jury chose not to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed young man was not just set off by that one case. The F.B.I. reported 461 homicides by police officers last year, the most in two decades. Young black men are 21 times more likely to be among that number than young white men, according to ProPublica. But even when the slain are totally innocent, officers are hardly ever charged.

Does the infrequency with which police officers are held criminally liable in shootings show they are held to too low a standard, or that they face too much criticism in such cases? [more]

Revolution Redux

by Bill Hayes

In Revolution Redux for the New York Times Book Review, Joyce E. Chaplin reviews two books on the American Revolution: Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick and Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774–1776 by Richard R. Beeman.

Philbrick, the author of several books of American history, guides us beautifully through Revolutionary Boston, with the Battle of Bunker Hill as his story’s grand climax, while Beeman, who has written six books on the Revolution and the Constitution, draws all of the colonies (and Britain itself) into a chain of events that culminates in the drafting and acceptance of the Declaration of Independence; he nicely demonstrates that by 1776, the drafters and signers were old hands at that sort of thing. The stories intersect. If you read the books together, you see that the American Revolution had both local and proto-national dimensions. The Powder Alarm, a British attempt to seize colonial matériel in Cambridge, Mass., on Sept. 1, 1774, provides the drama for the fourth chapter of “Bunker Hill.” Over in the sixth chapter of “Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor,” news of the alarm arrives in Philadelphia, as the last express rider in a 70-hour relay halts his weary horse at Carpenters’ Hall, where delegates in the First Continental Congress had, one day earlier, begun their deliberations. [more]

Backgrounder on The Arab League

by Bill Hayes

Backgrounders from the Council on Foreign Relations are primers on pressing world issues, concerns, and organizations. They usually include histories, summaries, images, graphs, video, and links to additional resources.

A recent Backgrounder was on The Arab League.

Founded in March 1945, the League of Arab States (or Arab League) is a loose confederation of twenty-two Arab nations, including Palestine, whose broad mission is to improve coordination among its members on matters of common interest. The League was chartered in response to concerns about postwar colonial divisions of territory as well as strong opposition to the emergence of a Jewish state in Palestine, but it has long been criticized for disunity and poor governance. Critics also say it has traditionally been more representative of its various autocratic regimes than of Arab citizens.

The organization had the opportunity to advance social interests with the push for Palestinian statehood at the UN and the unrest in many Arab countries in 2011. Some critics see positive developments in the League’s actions in Libya, where it supported a no-fly zone and the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and in Syria, where it orchestrated a fact-finding mission to observe the conflict and called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down after months of deadly clashes with protesters. [more]

The Health of Nations

by Bill Hayes

In The Health of Nations for the New Republic, Martha C. Nussbaum reviews The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality by Angus Deaton.

Deaton is strongly, and repeatedly, critical of the idea that we can measure human well-being by GDP per capita, a standard shortcut in the development literature, and one with large political implications. (Narendra Modi, India’s recently elected prime minister, campaigned on his alleged development achievement in Gujarat: but closer inspection shows that, while Gujarat did very well on average GDP, it did much less well than Kerala and Tamil Nadu on health and education, in part because of the excellent quality of government services in those states, while Modi appears opposed to a large role for government.) Even if average GDP were the best single number to use as an index of welfare — and Deaton disputes this, making the familiar point that the profits of foreign investment are often repatriated by the investing country, so average household income would tell us more about how people are really doing — no single number is much good, given the complexity of human lives and what is worthwhile about them. Average GDP, moreover, does not include work done in the home (a point often stressed by Nancy Folbre and other feminist economists that has finally made it into the mainstream), and it does not include the value of leisure. And although there is a general correlation between GDP and some of the other good things Deaton mentions, the correlation can be disrupted. The high average GDP in the United States, for example, does not tell us about the inequalities that make for ill-fare (bad health, bad education, lack of political voice) in a distressingly large number of the nation’s inhabitants. These points are not new; they have pervaded the development literature for some time; but it is good to see them ringingly endorsed.

Nor does Deaton succumb to the lure of the once-again fashionable idea that we can measure welfare by “happiness,” defined as moment-to-moment feeling. (“Once again” because the similar view of Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century, soon aptly criticized by his student John Stuart Mill, has now been revived with great éclat by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, though without attention to Mill’s critique.) Feelings are important, says Deaton, but they are not reliable indicators of how people are really faring, because people adapt to hard conditions and to some extent tailor their satisfactions to what they think they can achieve — the phenomenon known in the economic literature as “adaptive preferences.” Moreover, Deaton adds, some valuable pursuits, such as love and the struggle for justice, require risk and effort, and may be accompanied at times by pain. Happiness, he concludes, is “a poor measure of overall wellbeing.” If we are to pay attention to survey data, he wisely suggests, we ought to prefer “life evaluation” surveys, which at least allow people to ponder many parts of their lives. But the important conclusion to draw, he says, is that there is no single measure of this complex notion, and “no magic question that provides a touchstone for judging well-being.”

This is a very important part of the book, except that it is not really a part: I have distilled these ideas from remarks scattered in many places. For the most part, the book’s analysis returns repeatedly to an emphasis on health and income, and the other dimensions of well-being, such as education and political participation, though often mentioned, are never analyzed. Deaton’s main concern is to study the complex relationship between income and health, and the rest is left as a set of pencil strokes to be filled in by someone else. [more]

Artificial sweeteners

by David De La Torre

In Saccharin solution?, The Economist reports on the latest study on artificial sweeteners and how it conflicts with previous studies.

Several previous studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners might affect intestinal bacteria. But the Nature paper, whose lead authors are Eran Elinav and Eran Segal, of the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Israel, is the most robust yet. Like much biomedical research, the initial work was done in mice. Three groups of rodents were given water containing aspartame, sucralose or saccharin, three common commercial sugar substitutes. Three control groups were given plain water or water laced with glucose or sucrose — sugars from which the body can extract energy.

After a week, Dr Elinav and Dr Segal gave their animals a hefty dose of glucose and measured how well they processed it (inability to do so properly is a risk factor for obesity, and is characteristic of diabetes). [more]

The Military Takes on Climate Change Deniers

by Bill Hayes

In The Military Takes on Climate Change Deniers, Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the Pentagon is planning on addressing climate change.

The idea that climate change poses serious risks to U.S. national security, long contested in conservative circles, is now an integral part of Pentagon planning. On Oct. 13, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made it official with the release of the Pentagon’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, a 16-page document that lays out the effects of extreme weather events and rising temperatures on military training, operations, acquisitions, and infrastructure. Two previous editions, issued in 2012 and 2013, treated climate change as a future threat, but this year’s cast it as a reality that must be dealt with quickly. “Climate change will affect the Department of Defense’s ability to defend the Nation and poses immediate risks,” the document begins. [more]

Maximillian Potter’s 6 favorite books

by Bill Hayes

In The Week’s Book List, author Maximillian Potter lists his 6 favorite books that take readers to unfamiliar lands:

My Ántonia by Willa Cather …. I’ve read this book at least a dozen times, and every time I fall in love with Black Hawk, Nebraska, and Antonia “Tony” Shimerda. To borrow Cather’s words, I see the town, like Tony herself, “in the full vigor of her personality, battered, but not diminished.” [more]

A compelling primer on Simón Bolivar

by Bill Hayes

In A compelling primer on Simón Bolivar, the Los Angeles Times reviews the new movie The Liberator.

The Venezuelan filmmaker’s biopic of the revolutionary Bolívar opens with this eloquent primer:

“Simón Bolívar fought over 100 battles against the Spanish Empire in South America. He rode over 70,000 miles on horseback. His military campaigns covered twice the territory of Alexander the Great. His army never conquered — it liberated.”

Simple enough for audiences who know nothing about Bolívar, poetic enough for those who grew up reading about El Libertador in school books. It’s a tricky line to walk, but Arvelo manages to do it over and over in this compelling and lush Spanish-language film. [more]

For a free classroom lesson titled “Simon Bolivar: Thinker, Liberator, Reformer,” go to our Bill of Rights in Action Archive. The lesson is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

Charlie Rose pays tribute to Mike Nichols

by Bill Hayes

Showing clips from his appearances, Charlie Rose honors writer and director Mike Nichols (1931–2014).

Why Kids Sext

by Bill Hayes

In Why Kids Sext for the Atlantic, Hannah Rosin looks at what kids think about sexting and what parents and authorities should do about it.

As soon as teenagers got cameraphones, they began using them to send nude selfies to one another, without thinking or caring that a naked picture of a minor, unleashed into the world, can set off explosions. And while adults send naked pictures too, of course, the speed with which teens have incorporated the practice into their mating rituals has taken society by surprise. I’d heard about the Louisa County sexting scandal in the news. It seemed like a good case study — the place is traditional but not isolated; it has annual beauty queens and football pageantry on a Friday Night Lights scale, and also many residents who work in Richmond, the state capital. I spent several weeks in and around the county this spring and summer talking to kids, parents, police officers, and lawmakers, trying to understand how officials sort through such a mess of a case. Maybe more important, I wanted to understand how teens themselves think about sexting — why they send naked pictures and what they hope to get in return; how much or how little sexting has to do with actual sex. My hope was to help figure out how parents and communities should respond. Because so often in sexting cases that go public, we adults inadvertently step into the role of Freddy Krueger, making teenage nightmares come true: We focus on all the wrong things; we overreact. Sometimes we create an even bigger disaster.

When I asked the kids from Louisa County High School, which has about 1,450 students, how many people they knew who had sexted, a lot of them answered “everyone.” (Throughout this article, I will use sexting to mean the transmission of provocative selfies you wouldn’t want your mother to see — not words, but pictures.) A few of the 30 or so kids I talked with said 80 percent or 60 percent, and no one said fewer than half. Kids, however, are known to exaggerate. Surveys on sexting have found pretty consistently that among kids in their upper teens, about a third have sexted, making the practice neither “universal” nor “vanishingly rare,” as Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University, writes, but common enough in a teenager’s life to be familiar. A recent study of seven public high schools in East Texas, for example, found that 28 percent of sophomores and juniors had sent a naked picture of themselves by text or e-mail, and 31 percent had asked someone to send one.

The general public was first forced to contemplate teen sexting in 2009, when a scandal in rural Pennsylvania’s Tunkhannock Area High School, similar to the school in Louisa County, made national news. By that point, the great majority of teens had cellphones — 71 percent, almost the same percentage as adults. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and had just conducted the first public survey on sexting among teens and young adults, showing that, much to parents’ chagrin, the practice was fairly common. In the Pennsylvania case, the local district attorney threatened to bring child-pornography charges against girls who showed up in the pictures, which was widely considered overkill. It “makes as much sense as charging a kid who brings a squirt gun to school with possession of an unlicensed firearm,” wrote a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Lawmakers around the country began searching for a better alternative.

“I really don’t like the word sexting,” says Michael Harmony, the commander of the southern-Virginia branch of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which covers Louisa County. The term he makes his investigators use is self-production, which is law-enforcement-speak for when minors produce pictures of themselves that qualify as child porn. But changing the term doesn’t clarify much. Whether you call it self-production or sexting, it comes in too many forms to pin down. Harmony has dealt with a 13-year-old who posted her naked picture on and had grown men show up at her house. He’s investigated a 17-year-old boy who blackmailed a girl into sending him naked pictures, and another boy who threatened to send out the naked pictures a girl had given him if she didn’t have sex with him. Lately, though, Harmony’s office has been flooded with cases like the one in Louisa County, generating bins filled with cellphones that his investigators have to go through one by one.

Since 2009, state legislatures have tried to help guide law enforcement by passing laws specifically addressing sexting. At least 20 states have passed such laws, most of which establish a series of relatively light penalties. In Florida, for example, a minor who is guilty of transmitting or distributing a nude photograph or video must pay a fine, complete community service, or attend a class on sexting. A second offense is a misdemeanor and a third is a felony. Where they’ve been passed, the new laws have helpfully taken ordinary teen sexting out of the realm of child pornography and provided prosecutors with a gentler alternative. But they have also created deeper cultural confusion, by codifying into law the idea that any kind of sexting between minors is a crime. For the most part, the laws do not concern themselves with whether a sext was voluntarily shared between two people who had been dating for a year or was sent under pressure: a sext is a sext. So as it stands now, in most states it is perfectly legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex. But if they take pictures, it’s a matter for the police.

Five years after the sexting scandal in Pennsylvania, cases still arise that betray shockingly little clarity about who should count as the perpetrator and who the victim. [more]

The Life of Napoleon

by David De La Torre

In Flawed sparkler, The Economist reviews Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts.

IS ANOTHER long life of Napoleon really necessary? On three counts, the answer given by Andrew Roberts’s impressive book is an emphatic yes.

The most important is that this is the first single-volume general biography to make full use of the treasure trove of Napoleon’s 33,000-odd letters, which began being published in Paris only in 2004. Second, Mr Roberts, who has previously written on Napoleon and Wellington, is a masterly analyst of the French emperor’s many battles. Third, his book is beautifully written and a pleasure to read. [more]