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Fee-for-punishment policing

The Economist interviews Radley Balko on the problems with the American criminal justice system:

At every step in the process, the incentive is toward putting people in jail. And there's almost no penalty at all for state actors who overstep their authority. Police departments, for example, get federal anti-drug grants based in large part on how many people they arrest on drug charges. After the botched drug raid in Atlanta a few years ago in which a raiding police team shot and killed an innocent 92-year-old woman, we learned in subsequent investigations that officers had monthly quotas for drug arrests and drug seizures. Ed Burns, the former Baltimore cop and co-creator of the magnificent HBO show "The Wire," talks about this quite a bit.

It's also true of forensics. If a crime-lab technician reports to the local DA, there's always going to be some pressure — subtle or overt — to tell the prosecutor what he wants to hear.

But the incentive problems are most apparent with prosecutors. Prosecutors get no credit for cases they decide not to bring, either because of a lack of evidence or because pressing charges wouldn't be in the interest of justice. They're only rewarded for winning convictions. That's what gets them promoted, or reelected, or gives them the elevated profile to run for higher office. Every incentive points toward winning convictions. And particularly with prosecutors, there's really no penalty at all for going too far to get a guilty verdict. One real disservice the Duke lacrosse case did for the criminal-justice system is it put in the public consciousness the idea that bad actors like Mike Nifong are regularly disciplined for misconduct. In truth, that case was really exceptional.

The whole interview is worth reading, and left me hoping Balko will write a longer book on the subject.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 1, 2009; 12:48 PM ET
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The biggest problem is it's standard procedure for the DA to throw the book at you to get a plea deal. They don't want to go to court, so they use extortion instead. The other big problem is the punishment continues long after you've served your time. A criminal record, particularly a felony convinction, essentially disqualifies you for life from most office work. That's 47 million Americans operating under a huge glass ceiling. A total waste.

Posted by: bmull | December 1, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

"They're only rewarded for winning convictions."

The paactical effect of this incentive structure is to encourage prosecutors to dump weak cases and only pursue those that present the strongest evidence. Which is as it should be.

Posted by: tomtildrum | December 1, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

"The paactical effect of this incentive structure is to encourage prosecutors to dump weak cases and only pursue those that present the strongest evidence."

I would think the effect would be to pursue every case, because you never know which one will pan out, whether it's weak or not.

Posted by: dpurp | December 1, 2009 10:20 PM | Report abuse

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