Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A quick blip on riding in the normal traffic lane

The always interesting XKCD comic did an graphic on a person's visual field.  It immediately reminded me of a fundamental reason why safe cycling experts strongly suggest riding in the primary focus points of a driver ... the center of the lane.

Experiment with the graphic below to see how much less detail and color we see outside a narrow band of the focus point.  Riding to the far right often puts the cyclist in a location where they are less likely to be cognitively recognized and actively accounted for by the driver.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Let's stop perverse motives in prison sentencing

It is commonly understood that perverse things happen in prisons but we should to be outraged when justice is twisted to further personal interests at the expense of the incarcerated but to their families, loved ones, and the greater society that needs these precious resources.  Consider the following two examples.

Louisiana has become the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the US.  Fundamentally, this is driven by "entrepreneurial" prisons owned by rural sheriffs and law enforcement receiving funds connected with prisons and the number of prisoners incarcerated in them.
If the inmate count dips, sheriffs bleed money. Their constituents lose jobs. The prison lobby ensures this does not happen by thwarting nearly every reform that could result in fewer people behind bars.
Not only are sentences shockingly high -- "a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole" -- but the likelihood of parole has dropped since Louisiana has shifted to the paradigm of entrepreneurial prisons.  See a full-sized version of the graphic with this link.

Except from the Times-Picayune graphic

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association -- the union for its prison guards -- is infamously influential in state politics and has pushed a pro-incarceration agenda for years. 
It gave over $100,000 to California’s Three Strikes initiative, Proposition 184in 1994, making it the second-largest contributor. It gave at least $75,000 to the opponents of Proposition 36, the 2000 initiative that replaced incarceration with substance abuse treatment for certain nonviolent offenders. From 1998 to 2000 it gave over $120,000 to crime victims’ groups, who present a more sympathetic face to the public in their pro-incarceration advocacy. It spent over $1 million to help defeat Proposition 66, the 2004 initiative that would have limited the crimes that triggered a life sentence under the Three Strikes law. And in 2005, it killed Gov. Schwarzenegger’s plan to “reduce the prison population by as much as 20,000, mainly through a program that diverted parole violators into rehabilitation efforts: drug programs, halfway houses and home detention.”
Why push the agenda?  CCPOA member Lt. Peters explains in the context of pushing the Three Strikes law.

You can get a job anywhere. This is a career. And with the upward mobility and rapid expansion of the department, there are opportunities for the people who are [already] correction staff, and opportunities for the general public to become correctional officers. We’ve gone from 12 institutions to 28 in 12 years, and with “Three Strikes” and the overcrowding we’re going to experience with that, we’re going to need to build at least three prisons a year for the next five years. Each one of those institutions will take approximately 1,000 employees.
Moreover, the political power wielded by the union also shelters its members from oversight and prosecution.

If for some reason fair play and justice for the incarcerated fail to get one riled, then there are several practical reasons to stop allowing self-motivated agents push for extraordinarily long sentences.  One, keeping people in prison is really... really ... really expensive.  By an estimate, a year in state prison costs more than a year at Princeton.  Mind you, this only captures the accounting costs of keeping that man or woman in prison in that a person in prison is broadly not a productive member of society.  Moreover, skills deteriorate in prison reducing a former inmates ability to be productive.  Two, if we treat non-violent offenses severely, the consequences of being caught for violent and non-violent crimes becomes relatively more similar and there is less incentive for a criminal to avoid violence.  In other words, if someone is going to say rob a store or a person, one might as well use a deadly weapon since the difference in punishment might be small.  Three, decades of research strongly suggests that increasing the likelihood of being caught and punished is a better crime deterrent than the severity of punishment.  Take for example, Honolulu's project HOPE as described here.  In short, not only are we using a lot of resources that we desperately need elsewhere -- 10.4 billion dollars by Pew's back of the envelope calculation -- we're getting lousy results with high recidivism!

We can be tough on crime, but we should be smarter on who we lower the hammer.  At the moment, we have over six million of people in prison at a higher rate per population than any other country in the world.  Moving to a strategy of greater certainty and swifter punishment rather than long sentences sounds like a really complicated and perhaps expensive strategy.  Although there are some working examples of how to move forward on the idea.  But we can continue what a handful of states have already started with the obvious step of using our dollars more wisely by tailoring our sentences to keep violent and threatening criminals off the street rather than those committing crimes which might annoy, offend, or make life a more difficult in the short run.  It's something that liberals and conservatives can support together.