I recently learned about TED Talks. In short, these are presentations by people who have “ideas worth spreading”. If interested, you can learn more about TED Talks at TED.com.
Anne Milgram, the former New Jersey Attorney General, gave a TED Talk where she discusses what she calls “moneyballing criminal justice”. In brief, Ms. Milgram wants to focus more efforts upon collecting statistical data surrounding arrests, convictions, and other aspects of the criminal justice process, and use it to make better decisions concerning basic issues, including whether to release or incarcerate someone after they have been arrested for a particular offense. Ms. Milgram notes correctly that many judges rely upon instinct and experience when making this important decision, and that such decisions are therefore based upon subjective reasoning and are frequently incorrect. She wants to develop a universal risk assessment tool that State and Federal judges can use to guide their decision making as to the “release or incarcerate” decision, which is one of the first major issues addressed in any criminal matter. She likens her efforts to those used by baseball teams that selected good players using statistical analysis, as opposed to the purely subjective observations and instincts of scouts.
Many of Ms. Milgram’s observations are absolutely correct. First, the only surprise relating to the fact that we spend $75 Billion annually on criminal justice is that the number seems small. I always thought it was much larger. Prisons and jails in this country are an industry unto themselves. Next, our recidivism rate is obscenely high, leading to the obvious conclusion that a lot of this money is wasted. Indeed, it often seems that the only thing we accomplish by the end of the case is to temporarily disable a defendant from having another encounter with the system. We seem to focus more on “processing” defendants through the system, with no eye on long-term solutions to the problems associated with criminal conduct. Additionally, Ms. Milgram notes correctly that there is astonishingly little helpful statistical data describing the operations of our system. Interestingly, she failed to note that there is a federal agency called the Bureau of Justice Statistics that collects statistical data concerning various criminal justice issues. However, the manner in which BJS identifies the subjects concerning which it will collect and analyze data has always been a mystery to me. Further, many of the reports available on the BJS website are dated to the point where they are probably no longer valid. Moreover, even if the material is helpful, I don’t know too many judges who make a habit of reading statistical reports from the BJS website. Continue reading