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Why Does Gun Control Work in Europe?

As a reminder, from Wikipedia: “The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred on December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, United States, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children between six and seven years old, and six adult staff members. Lanza committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. The incident remains the deadliest mass shooting at either a primary or secondary school in U.S. history. The shooting prompted renewed debate about gun control in the United States, including proposals to make the background-check system universal and for new federal and state gun legislation banning the sale and manufacture of certain types of semi-automatic firearms and magazines with capacity for more than ten rounds of ammunition.

Although Congress passed no new federal laws, several of the strongest gun-control states did pass new ones. This is what prompted Professor James Jacobs and Zoe Fuhr to ask what could be achieved by the passage of New York’s 2013 SAFE (Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement) Act, which, according to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, is  “the toughest gun control law in the nation.” The book traces—in a very lively way—how the SAFE Act was drafted, passed, and signed in thirty days without any compromises. It then analyzes what each of the dozen of the Act’s initiatives achieved. These initiatives include universal background checks, tighter bans on assault weapons and ammunition feeders (magazines), mandatory reporting requirements for mental health professionals who encounter patients who present substantial risks of violence, gun license forfeiture for persons subject to domestic violence restraining orders, license renewal every five years, and numerous criminal offense and sentence enhancements for regulatory violations and gun crimes.

But the authors’ case study concludes that not much, if anything, has been achieved because the SAFE Act has not been effectively implemented and its provisions are easy to evade. The authors warn that gun control laws, like most laws, are not self-executing. Jacobs and Fuhr write: “Gun control proposals are usually promoted as if they are self-executing and self-enforcing,” but they are not. (P. 3). The New York legislature failed to provide more than token funding to implement and enforce the law. And there is no state level agency responsible for implementing and enforcing the law. In exposing the chasm between law on the books and law in action, this “gun control book” makes an excellent contribution to  “sociology of law,” putting the reader in the mind of Murray Edelman and Stuart Scheingold.

Jacobs and Fuhr’s book provides a fascinating example of how gun control laws function to attract and energize political support. In effect, the SAFE Act is best understood as a “symbolic law,” not as a serious crime control initiative. As Franklin Zimring explains, in his Foreword to The Toughest Gun Control Law in the Nation, gun control laws are passed in blue (liberal Democrat) states, whereas red (conservative Republican) states pass laws reinforcing the rights of gun owners. Thus, where gun controls are easy to pass, they are often operationally redundant or marginal.

The Toughest Gun Control Law in the Nation led me to question why Europeans, such as myself, so easily believe that U.S. gun violence could be cured by passing more laws. In Spain, a would-be gun purchaser must obtain a license for a gun from the Guardia Civil. That involves stating a particular need, such as hunting, police work, or protection of self and property. The law is almost the same in New York, especially New York City. A New York City resident needs a license to possess a firearm and must pass a background check to purchase a firearm from a federally licensed dealer. And licensing authorities in both jurisdictions rarely approve applications. Few licenses are issued in Spain or New York City. But these regulatory controls can easily be avoided by purchasing a gun from a private party on the secondary market or on the black market. It is easy for a non-licensee to acquire a gun in New York. Maybe this is not so easy in Spain. If that is so, what accounts for this difference? How are European gun control laws effective in keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous persons? Probably the stringency of gun controls, and different cultures, explain the difference of the estimate of civilian firearms between Europe and the U.S.

In sum, The Toughest Gun Control Law in The Nation raises many challenging questions about the regulation of weapons and, more generally, about the promise and limits of law. Professor Jacobs’s and Fuhr’s research is a forerunner and raises relevant comparative research questions—When is gun control effective? What is the relation of guns with crimes? How active is the black market?—that European criminologists could find extremely important to research.

Cite as: Elena Larrauri, Why Does Gun Control Work in Europe?, JOTWELL (March 6, 2020) (reviewing James B. Jacobs & Zoe Fuhr, The Toughest Gun Control Law in The Nation: The Unfulfilled Promise of New York's SAFE Act (2019)),

Do Abolitionism and Constitutionalism Mix?

Dorothy Roberts, Abolition Constitutionalism, 133 Harv. L. Rev. 1 (2019).

Dorothy Roberts’s Abolition Constitutionalism is a monumental achievement and certain to become required reading on prison abolition. With little hesitation in calling the U.S. prison state an extension of slavery, the article is thoroughly and unapologetically abolitionist. It eschews criminal justice reform to “improve” the system in favor of “nonreformist reforms—those measures that reduce the power of an oppressive system.” It makes the case that “new abolitionists”1 should instrumentally utilize constitutional arguments in their efforts to eliminate imprisonment. This radical article is the foreword to the Harvard Law Review’s 2018 Supreme Court Term issue. Yes, that Harvard Law Review. Yes, this Supreme Court.

Abolition Constitutionalism will doubtlessly have wide readership within the academy. I hope that it will also be widely read by nonacademics. Roberts writes accessibly and beautifully, and as evidenced by her meticulous citations, she has encyclopedic knowledge of the racial history of policing and punishment, the modern American prison abolition movement, and the Supreme Court jurisprudence on the reconstruction amendments. But, at 120 pages, the article is an undertaking for those unaccustomed to law reviews. Here, I offer a truncated overview in the hope of sparking even greater readership. I will pepper the overview with my impressions and analyze Roberts’s conclusion that “instrumental” constitutionalism is helpful to abolitionism.

The article begins with the most frequently asked question about prison abolitionism: What is it?2 Roberts traces new abolitionism to a 1998 Critical Resistance conference at Berkeley and adopts its concept of a “long-term political vision” toward ending the “prison industrial complex.” She outlines three main tenets of abolitionism: “First, today’s carceral punishment system can be traced back to slavery and the racial capitalist regime it relied on and sustained. Second, the expanding criminal punishment system functions to oppress black people and other politically marginalized groups in order to maintain a racial capitalist regime. Third, we can imagine and build a more humane and democratic society that no longer relies on caging people to meet human needs and solve social problems.”

Roberts’ historical analysis makes a compelling case that the American prison state was born of the desire to repress formerly enslaved persons—and all blacks—and has served its purpose well. Less clear is why this ignoble history necessitates jettisoning policing and punishment altogether, rather than reforming, and in some places strengthening, them. Roberts herself notes that “criminal law treats prisons as essential to prevent or redress crimes committed by economically and racially marginalized people but unnecessary to address even greater social harms inflicted by the wealthy and powerful.” A stark example is that, “after Emancipation, white southerners began ritualistically kidnapping and killing black people” with impunity. Current capital punishment studies demonstrate this legacy of impunity, as those who kill black victims are far less likely than those who kill whites to receive capital punishment. Why not make the system better for “marginalized people” while using it instrumentally to get at “the wealthy and powerful?”

Abolitionists’ answer lies in a distinction between instrumental and institutional analyses of the criminal apparatus. Indeed, I have previously queried why progressives respond to discrimination against black victims in capital punishment by calling for less punishment (abolition) rather than executing more killers-of-blacks, while at the same time, they respond to a perceived bias against female homicide victims by calling for more punishment (eliminating provocation and elevating manslaughters to murders). The answer, I asserted, is the tendency to view death sentencing as an inherently racist institution but prison sentencing as something that can be used instrumentally against privileged bad actors (woman-killers, racist cops). New abolitionists regard not just capital punishment but the entire criminal (in)justice system as an endemically pernicious, irredeemable institution. As Roberts puts it, “Efforts to fix the criminal punishment system to make it fairer or more inclusive are inadequate or even harmful because the system’s repressive outcomes don’t result from any systemic malfunction…. Therefore, reforms that correct problems perceived as aberrational flaws in the system only help to legitimize and strengthen its operation. Indeed, reforming prisons results in more prisons.”

The last sentence hints at a controversy in abolitionist theorizing. Abolitionists generally applaud efforts to dial back policing, lower sentences, and release prisoners. There is less consensus on “reform”—whether abolitionists can, for example, support New York’s plans to close Rikers Island and open several smaller more “humane” prisons or Texas’s plan to build a new prison ostensibly tailored to women’s (and mothers’) needs. Roberts does not, and need not, fully resolve such controversies. She seeks to show that constitutionalism can be of instrumental use to the abolitionist in the consensus effort to shrink the penal state.

Now, abolitionists critique the instrumental use of criminalization because such serves to legitimate an institution that should be dismantled. Couldn’t the same critique apply to constitutionalism? The constitutional legal apparatus was also forged in the fires of American slavery, and constitutional law has often served as an enemy of, or alternatively a poisoned gift to, racial justice advocates. Roberts faces head on the argument that “constitutional change within formal legal processes occurs only to maintain the look of legitimacy,” such that “the very project of abolition constitutionalism could be antiabolitionist.” Indeed, she lays out a detailed bill of particulars against constitutionalism as a viable path toward racial justice and eradicating the prison industrial complex, which includes the state action doctrine, standing, colorblindness, Adarand and reverse discrimination, McCleskey v. Kemp, Utah v. Streiff, and the list goes on.

What then redeems the institution of constitutional law enough for it to be used by abolitionists instrumentally? Roberts finds promise in two sources. The first is the Antebellum-era Republican’s radical argument that the text of the original constitution forbid human bondage of any sort, even if the Framers intended differently. She hopes that courts will adopt interpretations, like that of Randy Barnett, that this radical abolitionist view is embodied by Fourteenth Amendment, despite widespread “revisionist history.” The second source of hope is Justice Sotamayor, and more specifically, her dissents in cases like Streiff that draw a straight line between Jim Crow and modern policing. “Suppose,” Roberts muses, “a majority of Justices not only ruled in line with Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting opinions in Heien, Strieff, Husted, and Perez, but also applied this reasoning to other claims of constitutional violations in policing, surveillance, sentencing, and prison conditions? Such a series of Supreme Court decisions would deliver a tremendous blow to the prison industrial complex.”

But I do not suppose that will happen any more than I suppose that the fact that a Chicago officer gave a homeless man the boots off his feet last June portends a redemptive future of policing. I fear that constitutionalism will less likely take a Sotamayor-dissent turn than become an even more formidable opponent of prison abolitionism. In turn, the effort to “hold courts and legislators accountable to an abolitionist reading” of the constitution may be so much tilting at windmills. Worse, I worry about strengthening an institution that may be on the verge of Adarand-ing all kinds of constitutional rights—amplifying religious liberty rights to give cover to discrimination and reproductive oppression, minting new rights to life and property that interfere with states’ prerogatives on abortion and depolicing. In more paranoid moments, I worry about the return of Lochner as states make serious efforts to tackle wealth inequality. Perhaps abolitionists’ focus should be on building momentum outside the courts and insulating abolitionist programs from constitutional interference.

In the end, I may not see great promise in constitutional law as an instrument of prison abolition, but Roberts’s article has deeply enriched my understanding of both abolitionism and constitutionalism.

  1. This is quite distinct from “new abolitionism” as it is used in some feminist circles to mean activists who regard pornography and prostitution as “modern day slavery” and advocate for strengthening carceral interventions in those realms.
  2. I have seen this question weaponized: If the abolitionist cannot answer it in a simple, practical, yet all-encompassing manner, then abolitionism is too “vague” to take seriously. Of course, the same is not said of “law and economics,” “feminism,” and “originalism.”
Cite as: Aya Gruber, Do Abolitionism and Constitutionalism Mix?, JOTWELL (February 11, 2020) (reviewing Dorothy Roberts, Abolition Constitutionalism, 133 Harv. L. Rev. 1 (2019)),

Against Punitive Approaches to Animal Protection

In the United States, we often rely on criminalization as a way (sometimes the only way) of communicating social value. We purport to communicate the value of those who are harmed or injured by criminalizing the conduct that harmed them and prosecuting those who engage in that conduct. In recent years, scholars who study the criminal legal system have raised questions about this carceral approach to communicating social value. These critics have argued that harsh, punitive approaches to social problems frequently fail to solve those problems, even as they reliably replicate old patterns of injustice and generate a host of unintended consequences. The criminal legal system may also produce carceral “solutions” at odds with the actual wishes of the individuals harmed by the criminalized conduct.

In Beyond Cages: Animal Law and Criminal Punishment, Justin Marceau applies this critique to the carceral turn within the animal protection movement. Marceau uses the term “animal protection movement” as an “imperfect shorthand” for the “disparate groups and philosophies” that make up a “multifaceted” movement. He notes that leaders of the movement “have made clear that carceral animal law policies are a critical strategic priority.” (P. 2.) He then proceeds to explore, in a systematic way, the accumulation of thirty years of “carceral animal law policies” in mainstream animal protection efforts.

The laundry list of carceral policies catalogued in the third chapter of Marceau’s book will be immediately familiar to anyone who studies today’s criminal legal system. Movement actors have engaged in a widespread push for felony provisions on animal cruelty, often relying on imperfect scientific evidence (roundly critiqued by Marceau in Chapter Six) of a link between violence toward animals and violence toward humans. They have advocated for much tougher sentences for animal abuse crimes. They have pushed for the creation of registries of individuals convicted of animal cruelty. They have argued in favor of laws that provide animals with a dedicated advocate in the criminal process—an advocate who always argues, alongside the prosecutor, for the harsher criminal punishment of the accused. They have filed amicus briefs supporting the treatment of animal abuse as an “aggravated felony” in immigration proceedings—a designation that ensures mandatory deportation and a lifetime bar on return. They have provided significant financial and professional assistance not only to prosecutors’ offices in individual cases, but to organizations like the American Association of Prosecutors and the National District Attorneys Association. Perhaps somewhat exceptionally, they have actually funded prosecutors’ positions to ensure the presence of dedicated public actors committed to prosecuting animal abuse felonies. They have also provided extensive assistance to police officers investigating animal cruelty.

As Marceau makes clear, the movement has paid a price for its pursuit of more punitive animal protections. Along the way, advocates for these changes to the law have done what supporters of tough criminal law enforcement often do: they have argued for restrictive interpretations of constitutional and common law rights protections. They have called for strict liability approaches to animal abuse that disregard the accused’s lack of intent to harm. They have advocated for the stacking of criminal charges to leverage longer sentences in plea agreements. They have pushed for trying as adults some children accused of animal cruelty. They have argued successfully, in an Oregon Supreme Court case, that a blood draw from a dog fails to qualify as a Fourth Amendment search of the owner’s property. In that case, the blood served as evidence of the owner’s failure to adequately feed her dog, but as Marceau notes, far from affirming the dog’s status as distinct from inanimate property, this holding allows for searches of nonhuman animals in the absence of any oversight from a magistrate, which enhances “the power of the Prosecuting State, not the animals.” (P. 47.)

Proponents of carceral animal protection have also advocated for restrictive interpretations of the First Amendment. Marceau uses the example of U.S. v. Stevens, which involved a law that criminalized knowingly creating, selling, or possessing any “depiction of animal cruelty.” The Supreme Court found the provision overbroad and likely to cover instances of protective speech. Many movement actors decried the decision, maintaining that prosecutors would surely not apply the law in cases involving protective speech. In Marceau’s view, this places the movement “on the wrong side of history,” putting too much faith in the government’s ability to weigh the costs and benefits of speech fairly, and “arguing for a limitation on speech rights even in the face of some of the movement’s greatest allies—media advocacy groups, civil rights lawyer, and free speech experts.” (P. 75.)

Marceau observes that some participants in the animal protection movement are disadvantaged by the broader movement’s alliance with law enforcement. “The very prosecutors and justice system that is reified by the animal protection movement when it seeks to incarcerate animal abuse will treat a foie gras investigator or a journalist exposing factory farm abuse as criminals or terrorists.” (P. 48.) For instance, advocates of animal protection might oppose the Ag-Gag and other laws that facilitate the prosecutions of reporters and investigators who uncover animal abuse on factory farms. However, those advocates have been far less vocal in working against such laws than they have been in advocating for enhancing the punitive capacity of the state against certain kinds of animal abusers.

Marceau also notes that mainstream animal protection organizations have generally moved away from advocacy on behalf of radical activists charged with crimes such as trespassing as an of act of civil disobedience in service of animal protection. Marceau posits that many movement actors have concluded that they are more likely to be viewed sympathetically if they align themselves with, rather than against, the prosecuting state. In Marceau’s biting words, this means that the animal protection movement “is no longer on the sidelines of criminal law; it has chosen a side, and it is not the side of civil liberties or social change.” (P. 72.)

Marceau argues that this choice has weakened the practical and moral power of the animal protection movement in important ways. First, it has pushed movement actors to settle upon a narrow and non-transformative understanding of what constitutes animal abuse. Marceau surveys state animal cruelty laws and finds that, in states where advocates fought successfully for felony animal abuse provisions, they also supported state legislatures’ exemptions of agricultural cruelty from criminal animal abuse provisions. In seeking the “win” of felony animal abuse provisions, advocates agreed to laws that leave unprotected the vast majority of domesticated animals.

Second, the carceral turn of the animal protection movement has divided that movement from potentially powerful allies. For example, Marceau observes that animal protection could be furthered through workplace safety and health regulations that protect both humans and nonhuman animals in agricultural work. Such efforts could align the animal protection movement with other environmental, racial, and immigrant justice movements. Instead, the animal protection movement has pushed for felony provisions that give corporate agricultural interests a general pass for their abuses of agricultural workers and animals  while “working with immigration officials in a variety of capacities in order to facilitate the deportation of persons who have a conviction relating to animal abuse.” (P. 84.)

More broadly, Marceau argues that the decision to embrace carceral animal protection puts the movement at odds with advocates for racial justice who generally seek to constrain, not enhance, the powerful carceral state that is devastating communities of color. As Marceau explains in Chapter Five, rather than aligning themselves with other movements that support shared values of non-violence, dignity, and the protection of vulnerable populations, the animal protection movement is working at cross purposes with those movements.

In making this case, Marceau draws heavily on the work of legal scholars and critical theorists who have diagnosed and criticized the racial bias of the criminal legal system. Their work will be very familiar to readers of this page: Michelle Alexander, Paul Butler, Jack Chin, James Forman, Aya Gruber, Randall Kennedy, Charles Lawrence, Dorothy E. Roberts, Alice Ristroph, and the like. He also draws from Angela P. Harris’s work. Harris has written trenchantly about problems of racial injustice in the criminal legal system, of course. But fifteen years ago, she also analyzed the problems created by an animal rights movement insensitive to racial justice concerns. In one article, she asked Should People of Color Support Animal Rights?—a question that she answered affirmatively, but with caveats. Harris also offered an important articulation of how that movement could and should be more attentive to racial justice concerns. With the benefit of fifteen more years of evidence, Marceau’s work affirms and builds on Harris’s analysis.

Marceau marries the insights of these legal scholars with those of scholars and activists working on issues of animal protection outside of the legal field. Voices from within that movement have raised concerns about the ways that the movement unnecessarily isolates and ignores the needs and perspectives of historically marginalized communities. Marceau incorporates the insights of scholars and activists who might be less familiar to many readers of this page (and certainly were to me), including Julia Feliz Brueck, Michelle R. Loyd-Paige, and A. Breeze Harper, whose anthology Sistah Vegan receives sustained attention throughout Marceau’s book.

Marceau is frank about the limited options that animal protection movement actors often face. He acknowledges that when it comes to enhancing animal protection, the choice usually offered by policy makers and courts has been carceral strategies or nothing at all. Confronted with this (non)choice, advocates have embraced carceral strategies. Marceau’s critique, however, highlights how important it is for all social movements that value freedom and nonviolence to avoid entanglement with the criminal legal system in their quests for social change.

Cite as: Jennifer Chacón, Against Punitive Approaches to Animal Protection, JOTWELL (January 29, 2020) (reviewing Justin Marceau, Beyond Cages: Animal Law and Criminal Punishment (2019)),

The Long Tail of Eugenics

The search for the precursors to contemporary mass incarceration in the U.S. has become one of the great legal, historical, and sociological debates of our times. Many of us have focused on two particular arcs of penal history in tracing the genealogy of mass incarceration. One is associated with the birth of the penitentiary and the police in the first third of the 19th century in the context of emerging capitalism (both slavery and free labor in the U.S.). From this perspective, mass incarceration has always been a part of the DNA of America’s form of racial capitalism. The other locates the genesis much closer to our own time in the political and economic crises of the late 20th century associated with the neoliberal transformation of the U.S. economy.

Laura Appleman’s article, Deviancy, Dependency and Disability, makes a convincing case for adding a third arc of history: one that focuses on the eugenic period of the early and mid 20th century as a crucial precursor for mass incarceration and that offers a comprehensive treatment of the eugenic influence on criminal justice policy and what she calls its “long tail.” Eugenics refers specifically to efforts to improve society by regulating births, but it also applies to a much broader range of policies influenced by core beliefs that many of the worst social problems facing America could be solved by segregating, sterilizing, or even eliminating the physically, mentally, and morally disabled. Appleman’s article builds on recent work of historians which has underscored the radical nature of America’s embrace of eugenic thinking and its enduring significance in fields like immigration, drug and alcohol policy, and criminal statistics.

The influence of eugenics on criminal justice was direct and indirect. Directly, eugenics served alongside positivist criminology as a scientific anchor of the so-called “Progressive” era expansions of the carceral state through juvenile justice, probation, and other individualizing mechanisms that determined penal severity by individual traits, especially race. Thus, the punishment of crime became a mechanism for achieving a negative eugenic goal of segregating the dangerous. These mechanisms became important sources of hyper punishment, especially of young Black men, during the build up of mass incarceration. Ironically, we still think of them as oriented toward helping people leave the carceral state, and many contemporary reform ideas are perhaps dangerously lodged there.

Perhaps even more important, and less noted, is the indirect influence that Laura Appleman points to. During this period, pre-existing asylums for people suffering mental illnesses (which had existed since the early 19th century) were greatly expanded and overcrowded with people classified mostly as “feebleminded” (an imprecise term for those considered intellectually disabled). In the eyes of eugenicists, the feebleminded were not simply intellectually limited (itself a dubious proposition given then contemporary measurement standards) but doubly dangerous in their criminality and their promiscuity. Since their traits were understood to be inheritable, the physical segregation of the feebleminded provided a double benefit against crime and other problems. Thus, in the first years of the 20th century, there were more than 10 times as many individuals held in institutions for the mentally ill and disabled as were incarcerated in federal and state prisons. 

In short, mass eugenic incarceration of the disabled in the early 20th century established the basic commitment to using institutions of confinement to achieve the eugenic aim of reducing crime and social problems in American society in a manner unrestrained by traditional legal concerns with legality and culpability. While eugenics as a social policy was discredited, its influence on criminal justice thinking was never redressed. When America entered a new phase of punitive expansion in the late 1970s, prison became the dominant custodial response to an institutionalized understanding of the criminal threat that extended well beyond the boundaries of legal guilt. As I read Appleman’s argument, this is not a claim of simple transcarceration (the people once warehoused in asylums are now in prison) but that an unbroken link to eugenic thinking in our criminal justice policies keeps social policies and institutions fixated on incapacitating those othered by physical or mental difference, disability, queerness, or racialization.

In the second part of her article, Appleman connects this earlier history to the better known modern history of deinstitutionalization and the failure of community care initiatives after the Supreme Court’s due process decisions of the 1970s accelerated the closing of public mental hospitals. While many appreciate the relevance of deinstitutionalization to modern mass incarceration, few connect it to the earlier embrace of eugenics. It is not an accident that our criminal justice system selects for disability; it is the very mark of its eugenic origins. Meanwhile, this highly vulnerable population has been packed into overcrowded prisons that seem almost organizationally incapable of delivering adequate care.

Harder to understand, but crucial to disabling this complex, is why, lacking the powerful but now largely abandoned scientific theories of eugenics regarding the centrality of inheritable traits (an argument that has never entirely gone away but is now marginal), this eugenic merging of disability and crime has been able to stay coherent. Is it largely the way the various organs of the carceral state reproduce the priorities, if not the specific propositional claims, of eugenics (focus on minorities, substance abusers, etc.)? What role is the law itself playing in holding this ensemble together? Hopefully, these questions will be taken up by scholars focusing on the middle of the 20th century.

Laura Appleman provides us with some hopeful directions for thinking about how to combat the role of this long tail of eugenics. One important implication is the centrality of disabilities to the construction of the carceral state and the historical pattern of excluding and incarcerating  people living with disabilities rather than facilitating integration. Asserting the rights of the disabled provides one way to battle for better prisons. Appleman also argues that screening out people with disabilities—at the earliest stages of the criminal process—would avoid a great deal of cruelty while enabling large savings on projected prison health care costs. Diversion programs are certainly necessary, but if the long tail of eugenics is also the framing together of crime and disability into a spiral of causation that exaggerates the danger of each (and the severity of the repressive response), then it may not be sufficient. We may need to go beyond diversion to build common strategies of decarceration across different institutions.

Appleman suggests appreciating the growing convergence between prisons and nursing homes. Prisons are becoming nursing homes for an aging prison population, as a growing number of people living outside prisons with severe physical disabilities join the very old in the nation’s growing body of nursing homes; a new kind of mass incarceration. (P. 458.) Rejecting and uprooting the long tail of eugenics, and its ensemble of stigmatized subjects and exclusionary practices, might require a commitment to abandoning segregation as a goal altogether, whether in criminal justice or in health care delivery.

Cite as: Jonathan Simon, The Long Tail of Eugenics, JOTWELL (November 5, 2019) (reviewing Laura I. Appleman, Deviancy, Dependency, and Disability: The Forgotten History of Eugenics and Mass Incarceration, 68 Duke L. J. 417 (2018)),

An Anti-Democratic Mix of Secrecy, Unaccountability, Technology, and Surveillance

Andrea Roth, “Spit and Acquit”: Prosecutors as Surveillance Entrepreneurs, 107 Cal. L. Rev. 405 (2019).

If you were asked to design a DNA database to help solve crimes in a democratic society, what features would you include?  Legislative debate about the desirability of such a database would be a start. Whether such a DNA database would be justified by a cost-benefit analysis, with all potentially affected constituents having had a voice in the process might be another consideration. Appropriations for this hypothetical database might be conditioned on regulations intended to safeguard against abuse, to protect civil liberties, and to avoid scientific errors. And the mass collection of DNA presumably would not continue without clear evidence of its public safety benefits.

The District Attorney in Orange County, California has maintained its own DNA database since 2007. And it exhibits none of these features, as Andrea Roth’s article demonstrates. While there has been some journalistic and scholarly attention to the Orange County District Attorney’s (OCDA) database, Professor Roth’s work is the first to rely upon original field research, including court observations, public records disclosures, and interviews with all kinds of people familiar with the program, including affected defendants. The piece is remarkable and fascinating, both in its particulars, and what it can tell us about the dangers of other programs that may bear resemblances to it.

First, something on the specifics. For more than a decade, a local prosecutor’s office in California has offered those accused of low level offenses a deal: give us your DNA in exchange for a plea to lesser charges or a dismissal of charges entirely.  Many defendants agree to what appears to be a standard practice in the county, and the result is that the OCDA now holds the DNA of 150,000 peoplepermanently. No legislature has authorized it. And it is paid for largely by private funds (including the seventy-five dollars defendants fork over for processing their own samples).

Like the nation’s linked network of databases known as “CODIS,” the OCDA database also contains DNA profiles for criminal investigation purposes. But the similarities end there. As Roth explains, the OCDA database is the largest non-legislatively created DNA database in the country. Opaque prosecutorial decision-making led it its construction, drives its growth, and helps maintain an operation “largely in the shadows.” (P. 448.)

Roth aptly describes the creation and maintenance of the OCDA database as the work of “surveillance entrepreneurs.” These local prosecutors have been allowed to engage in a vast experiment of genetic surveillance that extends beyond their typical expertise or powers. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that a legislature would be able to justify such a program like the OCDA DNA database: populated largely with low-risk offenders, heavily reliant on private fees, likely influenced by private interests, and amassed without any clear sense of public safety benefit.

In this way, we can draw connections between Roth’s concerns and those highlighted by other criminal justice scholars about how technological advances, private interests, and the withering of traditional accountability mechanisms are raising alarms in areas ranging from bail determinations, street policing, and criminal defense. Surveillance entrepreneurs, as we learn in this important piece, represent one more threat to democratic values in a rapidly changing justice system.

Cite as: Elizabeth Joh, An Anti-Democratic Mix of Secrecy, Unaccountability, Technology, and Surveillance, JOTWELL (October 8, 2019) (reviewing Andrea Roth, “Spit and Acquit”: Prosecutors as Surveillance Entrepreneurs, 107 Cal. L. Rev. 405 (2019)),

The Punishment and Treatment is the Process

Wendy Bach, Prosecuting Poverty, Criminalizing Care, 60 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 809 (2019).

In The Punishment is the Process, Malcolm Feeley famously documented that in New Haven, Connecticut’s low-level criminal courts, pretrial detention, and its impact on work and family responsibilities, drove plea bargains. In Prosecuting Poverty, Criminalizing Care, Professor Wendy Bach demonstrates that, in Eastern Tennessee’s low-level problem solving court, the threat of pretrial detention may drive access to opioid treatment through “diversion” into drug courts.

Problem-solving courts, including drug courts, are one of the fundamental innovations in criminal justice over the past quarter of a century. These courts purport to change the behavior of offenders by providing intensive supervision and treatment for non-violent offenders whose offending derives from particular social, medical, or psychological causes. Their distinctive approach depends upon the claim that the criminal justice system must respond to the problem of drug addiction, as well as their non-custodial, inter-disciplinary, team-oriented and court-centered model of continuous judicial monitoring.

One reason for the popularity of problem-solving courts is that they provide an opportunity for the criminal justice system to monitor the provision of drug treatment services both directly and intensively. These courts thus enable a sentencing judge to retain control over the process of recovery, rather than simply receiving periodic reports from defense counsel or probation services. The promise of direct supervision and control has proved especially attractive for dealing with drug addicts, who frequently relapse, cycle through courtrooms, and clog up dockets, but who often present a low risk of harm to others.

If the features of problem-solving courts are, by now, relatively familiar, the politics of problem-solving justice remains somewhat opaque. There has been little research discussing the interaction between the substantive criminal law and problem-solving courts. It is at this point that Professor Bach’s research steps in to fill the void, with a study that is both theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich.

The problem-solving model of intensive supervision, Professor Bach reveals, has proven particularly attractive for Tennessee lawmakers seeking to provide some fix for the opioid crisis. In particular, Tennessee prosecutors identified as particularly troubling the number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, suffering withdrawal symptoms from drugs prenatally ingested by their mothers. Professor Bach persuasively reveals that a major justification for a new law targeting drug addicted pregnant women for criminal prosecution for the crime of fetal assault upon the birth of their children was the availability of problem-solving courts as a core justification for the law. The legislature created the crime of fetal assault to require treatment, but through the criminal justice system rather than an alternative to it.

Professor Bach’s article breaks new ground in the problem-solving paradigm. It builds on prior work showing that the problem-solving courts do not divert from the criminal justice system, or really seek to ameliorate the impact of the criminal justice system. Instead, she suggests that the courts have gone along with generating a new criminal law—or at least operate in the same justificatory space as those criminal laws.

Her study of the Tennessee fetal assault statute shows that problem-solving justice does not simply preserve existing sanctions but is compatible with creating new substantive crimes. Bach’s study fits with the actions of those problem-solving judges who challenged California Propositions 36 and 47 or Ohio Issue 1 (which sought to decriminalize drug possession) as undermining the power of these courts to impose jail time as a form of therapeutic sanction. In California and Ohio, problem-solving judges sought to maintain the penal status quo, rather than accede to new limits on drug criminalization. In Tennessee, problem-solving courts went along with legislators who sought to expand the criminal justice system. Rather than simply fighting a negative or rearguard action to prevent changes in the law (and in the law of sanctions at that), Tennessee problem-solving justice embrace the positive creation of new, substantive criminal law to drive new clients into their courts. Whilst this is not the whole story that Professor Bach tells, it is a novel and important insight.

The politics of problem-solving punishment and criminalization is shocking, but not surprising. Shocking, because the rhetoric of problem-solving justice presents itself as an oppositional alternative to mass incarceration. Not surprising because, soon after the creation of drug courts, judges and academics pointed to their “net-widening” effect: they increased, rather than decreased, contacts with the criminal justice system. Professor Bach has identified a special and insidious type of net-widening: creating new offenses with drug courts in mind.

I believe that the problem-solving court intervention produces an important psychological and political effect for the officials that staff these courts. The intensive, persistent judicial supervision of offenders enables the judge (and other officials) to treat isolated, individualized, episodic successes as representative of systemic criminal justice reform. These isolated successes mask systemic injustice in the way the state uses the criminal justice system to target and control specific communities. One way they do so is by viewing addiction treatment as the business of criminal supervision, with the threat of punishment regarded as a necessary tool of treatment success.

By emphasizing criminality as caused by individualized, micro-social behavioral problems, the court, and in particular, the judge, addresses herself to the rehabilitation of discrete offenders, one at a time. This atomistic approach gives disproportionate attention to the success of individualized offenders, rather than the operation of the program as a whole. The judge becomes dependent upon the individualized, personal success of the offenders appearing before her to mask her participation in a systemically unjust criminal justice system. The success of discrete participants enables the judge to redirect the concept of evidence-based outcomes from the program or the group, to the success individual clients.

Some of that injustice is revealed through the problem-solving courts’ attitudes towards punishment and criminalization as an alternative to medical treatment. Given the limited provision of opioid treatment through the public healthcare system, the Tennessee criminal justice system has colonized the provision of treatment by its ability to prioritize the criminal justice route to accessing limited sources of opioid care. Punishment provides access to scarce treatment resources. On the other hand, state reporting requirements place pregnant women at-risk of criminal charges. Seeking treatment for drug addiction renders poor, rural, pregnant women vulnerable to punishment.

Crucially, Professor Bach demonstrates that punishment and treatment are not alternative modes of intervention, but are strongly linked in the minds of lawmakers and prosecutors. In the new regime of punishment-and-treatment, punishment is internal to treatment. Punishment is the form that treatment takes when treatment is conceived of as behavior-modification for irresponsible mothers. The goal is a form of “responsibilization” (to use a term coined by criminologist David Garland) in which the offender not only alters her behavior, but is made responsible for effecting that change by being held personally accountable for it. Punishment becomes the method of prodding the vulnerable addict to change her ways. Stripped of its negative consequences, punishment-and-treatment becomes a necessary boon to judges and lawmakers seeking to “help” and “treat” addicted individuals.

There are plenty of other interesting insights in Professor Bach’s article, not least in her linking of criminal justice, healthcare, and social services; or in her recognition that the criminal justice system uses indigent, addicted women to pay for its services in deeply problematic ways. Indeed, her research fits within some of the recent work done on the ways poor women are targeted for criminalization by police and prosecutors based on their gender. For anyone wishing to understand the insidious world of problem-solving justice, her article is essential reading.

Cite as: Eric J. Miller, The Punishment and Treatment is the Process, JOTWELL (September 18, 2019) (reviewing Wendy Bach, Prosecuting Poverty, Criminalizing Care, 60 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 809 (2019)),

Is E-Carceration a Problem? Confronting the Shortcomings of Technological Criminal Justice Reforms

Chaz Arnett, From Decarceration to E-Carceration, 41 Cardozo L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN.

Almost six months ago, best-selling author and legal scholar Michelle Alexander wrote for the New York Times in reference to electronic monitoring devices used in the criminal process: If the goal is to end mass incarceration and mass criminalization, digital prisons are not the answer. But why not? States are increasingly considering alternatives to incarceration, including electronic monitoring, as a means to reduce the economic and social pressures of the phenomenon of mass incarceration. The notable and bipartisan First Step Act passed by Congress in December 2018 encourages further use of electronic monitoring devices in the federal system. Why not embrace this ever-improving technology to reduce the deleterious effects of this phenomenon? Indeed, many Americans believe electronic monitoring can and should be a part of the solution.

Chaz Arnett’s powerful article, From Decarceration to E-Carceration, forthcoming in the Cardozo Law Review, argues to the contrary. He asserts that the expansion of electronic monitoring devices in community corrections threatens to entrench the most deleterious effects of mass incarceration – its operation as a mechanism of social stratification and racialized marginalization–without reducing the expanding footprint of the carceral state. Because his novel contribution reframes how we engage with the introduction of technologies as criminal justice reform, this is a must-read piece for those interested in resolving the problems of mass incarceration in the United States.

Electronic monitoring is emerging as a staple intervention at various points in criminal justice administration, including juvenile justice, adult pretrial detention, and adult post-conviction punishment. Electronic monitoring is not new; states have used radio frequency monitoring for decades as a part of community corrections. However, recent advances in technological infrastructure in society along with growing momentum for criminal justice reform more broadly make the devices appealing for state and local criminal justice administrators to use as an alternative to incarceration. After decades of increasing reliance on incarceration, these devices appear a key component of “decarceration” efforts meant to decrease reliance on prisons and local jails.

Arnett’s article lays out the shortcomings of current debates about electronic monitoring in correctional systems across the United States. From a legal perspective, electronic monitoring currently evades critical constitutional and legal frameworks that limit the state’s ability to control its constituents. Arnett highlights how courts struggle to respond to issues raised by use of electronic monitoring devices through the Fourth Amendment, juvenile law and policy, and adult corrections laws. Though not the first to identify such issues, his broad overview is unique in its emphasis on states’ jurisprudence. It highlights that electronic monitoring devices do not easily fit within existing legal frameworks.

From a policy perspective, Arnett suggests that ongoing debates fail to fully grasp the implications of electronic monitoring as well. Three key justifications bolster device expansion: the promise of successful reentry, the promise of cost savings, and the promise of increased public safety. Arnett complicates each of these benefits. While there are studies suggesting that electronic monitoring is more effective in reducing recidivism and increasing public safety, numerous studies suggest no impact as well. Moreover, claims of cost savings overlook how embracing these devices passes burdensome costs to the most marginalized and economically strapped defendants and their families. Finally, electronic monitoring may prevent an individual’s ability to reintegrate into society in the long term. Though defendants are released into the community, use of an electronic monitoring device is often accompanied by onerous conditions that may promote a cycle of surveillance and incarceration. As example, he notes common geographic restrictions that prevent those on electronic monitoring from gaining access to employment or connecting with family or other support networks. In short, the policy benefits of electronic monitoring as correctional reform are far more ambivalent than current debates acknowledge.

Arnett’s article truly sings when he explains how this technological reform may deepen social stratification endemic to the phenomenon of mass incarceration. He illuminates how electronic monitoring is a form of surveillance and surveillance operates as a mechanism of social stratification. It encourages those who are most marginalized from society to persistently avoid public resources like school, health services, and transportation. Unfortunately, lack of access to such resources operates as a barrier to reintegration and long-term disentanglement from the criminal justice system. That surveillance’s harm is most concentrated on marginalized communities ensures that this technological reform will likely exacerbate the carceral state’s racialized effect, too. From a perspective that places reintegration and rehabilitation as central to reform efforts, electronic monitoring may have an opposite effect that at best leaves mass incarceration untouched, and at worst expands its reach.

To be sure, electronic monitoring is not the only cog in this apparent shift toward “e-carceration.” Technological interventions are popular components of many criminal justice reforms at the moment. But technological interventions can distract from deeper structural problems that have as much to do with the expansion of the carceral state as growth in prisons. Worse still, as I have explained elsewhere, it can redefine what we think is right or wrong about mass incarceration all together. To the extent that Arnett engages with electronic monitoring as a solution rather than a problem, his intervention does not go far enough. In particular, his call for more transparency in the adoption of electronic monitoring devices feels unnecessarily pragmatic. It is not clear that empowering people to cope with adoption of the devices democratically can resolve the ambivalent impact devices present sociologically. Arnett is on surer ground when he encourages investment in job training and reentry services in lieu of investment in electronic monitoring devices.

Still, Arnett’s socio-legal critique is a much-needed addition to the literature on technologically-driven criminal justice reforms. By emphasizing how electronic monitoring debates can overlook a bigger picture in criminal justice, Arnett’s article embraces a refreshing approach to this reform. Along the way, he invites any reader to think twice about adopting electronic monitoring as part of a solution to phenomenon of mass incarceration. While there is no “one way” to resolve the dilemmas of mass incarceration, the routes we choose will shape society more broadly. In this sense Arnett’s article illuminates how e-carceration poses a separate question from reducing reliance on incarceration worthy of independent consideration and critique.

Cite as: Jessica M. Eaglin, Is E-Carceration a Problem? Confronting the Shortcomings of Technological Criminal Justice Reforms, JOTWELL (August 2, 2019) (reviewing Chaz Arnett, From Decarceration to E-Carceration, 41 Cardozo L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN),

Not Your Scalia’s Textualism

Jeffrey Bellin, Fourth Amendment Textualism, __ Mich. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN.

In Fourth Amendment Textualism, Professor Bellin tackles an age-old question: what is a search? His article takes a deep dive into the text of the Fourth Amendment, how the Supreme Court has interpreted it, and how he would like the Court to return back to the original meaning.

While this paper brings forward a thought-provoking analysis of the Fourth Amendment, it also has the ability to teach the reader about current search and seizure jurisprudence. The article provides students of the constitution familiarity with what a search is and how the Supreme Court has arrived at its current thinking, while at the same time, opening up a slight rift in the common and unshakeable understanding of that familiar terrain.

Bellin’s main contention is that the reasonable expectation of privacy test created in Katz is far too attenuated from the text of the Fourth Amendment and carries too much indeterminacy. This test requires a person to have both an actual and reasonable expectation of privacy in the thing searched. Bellin also attempts to nip in the bud the newly created “trespassory” test from Jones and Jardines. He describes this trespass analysis as in its “infancy” and more “as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, the Katz test [.]” (P. 10 n.49.)

He argues that it is time for interpreters of this Amendment to come back to a simpler understanding and proposes a new test for courts to determine if a search occurred. This textualist interpretation would replace Katz, trespassory searches, third party doctrine, and standing. His test is basically two steps: was there an actual search and was the search of the individual’s person, house, paper, or effect. While this test at first blush appears to follow Justice Scalia’s thinking, in actuality Professor Bellin seems to have combined both textualism and legal realism (i.e., Posner).

In order for a person to have standing in an unlawful search, they must have had both an actual expectation of privacy (subjective) and a reasonable expectation of privacy (objective). This new test, according to the author, was a radical departure from previous understandings of the Fourth Amendment, which generally hinged around the actual words in the amendment and particularly focused on the term “search.” The author believes that this test is “abstracting to a principle underlying the Fourth Amendment (privacy) and then applying that principle rather than the amendment’s text.” (P. 23.) He further argues that the Katz test and its reasonable expectation of privacy requirement is a circular argument because the “privacy we can reasonably expect depends on the privacy the Supreme Court tells us we have.” (P. 24.)

So what is one to do about this allegedly circular reasoning and ambiguous test? The author proposes a simple two (or three?) step process of simplifying what a search is. First, while he appreciates the pre-Katz era for focusing on actual searches and not privacy, he makes it known that those cases never succinctly defined what a search actually was. This could be beneficial because now the author is able to not only define it carte blanch, but also mold it with our technological advances in mind. Essentially, the author believes a search is an examination of an object or space in an attempt to uncover information. His definition is comprehensive yet straightforward. In this paper he parses through these key words – to provide the reader a clear guide as to what a search is. (P. 30.)

The second step is critical. It is not enough that the government committed a search – it is what they searched that matters. Professor Bellin states that the Fourth Amendment is only triggered if “the item searched can fairly be characterized as a person, house, paper or effect. This reflects the text and history of the Fourth Amendment.” (P. 34.) Each of these “things” are defined both by their history and also in a modern view. The author makes an important distinction that “[t]he terms ‘persons, houses, papers, and effects’ are listed in the Fourth Amendment as potential objects of searches: things the police might search. These terms are not search outcomes: things police might find.” (P. 35.) This second step focuses on the actual thing searched and determines if it belonged to the person.

An example that he highlights is that public surveillance cameras are not a search of a person because they have not searched that person but rather have searched the public area and located them. On the other hand, using an infrared camera to look for illicit objects would be a search of that person. The more difficult to interpret term is “effects.” But again, the author uses both the Framer’s understanding of that word (personal objects during that time) with a modern twist (computers, cell phones). Thus effects are all movable, personal property. What are not effects? Intangible objects such as cell phone signals.

The one area where the author and current Fourth Amendment law seem to agree is the third-party doctrine and standing; the author agrees with the Court’s conclusion that these are personal rights. However, they diverge in the analysis. In current Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, a person has standing if they have that reasonable expectation of privacy. This analysis is derived from Katz. On the other hand, the textualist believes that standing comes from the actual words of the Amendment, specifically the phrase the “right of the people to be secure in their…” Under the textualist analysis, the court need not focus on whether or not the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the thing searched, but rather was the thing searched his person, paper, house or effect? While this seems to present a clear and straightforward question for a court, it begs the question, how does a court determine if that thing is the person’s? Does the court ask if that person had a reasonable expectation of privacy?

The textualist would also apply this reasoning to Carpenter. In this case, the Court narrowly held that a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data transmitted to a third party (cell phone carrier) and thus a warrant is needed to search that information. However, under a textualist perspective, the reasoning would be different – yes there was a search, and yes these were papers, but unfortunately for the defendant, these were not his papers and thus no standing is granted to him. The author seems to make the distinction between information and papers. Carpenter’s cell phone was data (information) within the carrier’s papers, so it was not protected. However, if a court were to consider his cell phone data not as information but more concretely as “papers” then it would have been protected even though a third party possessed those papers. (A question that will surely be begged: what is the difference between a text message and other cell phone data?)

Thus, the third party doctrine of any Fourth Amendment analysis should not focus on a reasonable expectation of privacy by the person, but solely on whether or not the object/thing was “theirs.”

The paper also goes through several examples to illustrate how a textualist interpretation would apply to modern day scenarios. The author acknowledges that these are only a limited number of examples, as well as that there is never going to be an easy, all-encompassing interpretation of the Fourth Amendment that foresees every situation that could arise.

When a reader hears the word textualism, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia quickly comes to mind. However, this textualist idea seems to be influenced in part by Judge Richard Posner – look to the text, follow the original meaning, yet provide for flexibility and practicality. Whether you agree or disagree with the new test that Professor Bellin puts forward, this paper provides the reader with a strong understanding of where our current Fourth Amendment jurisprudence stands. It is also evident that the reasonable expectation of privacy test created in Katz is likely on life support. A quick perusal of the dissenting opinions in Carpenter illustrate some justice’s disdain and dissatisfaction with the test and their desire to follow a textualist approach. A flip in the Court might finally pull the plug.

Cite as: Daniel Coble, Not Your Scalia’s Textualism, JOTWELL (July 9, 2019) (reviewing Jeffrey Bellin, Fourth Amendment Textualism, __ Mich. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN),

The Next Steps in Criminal Justice Reform

A number of books and articles have taken aim at America’s mass incarceration debacle. Smart Decarceration, a multi-author edited volume, assumes that the tide has turned. As the editors point out in the first chapter, several states have begun depopulating their prisons, eliminating mandatory minima, and creating more alternatives to prison, a movement sometimes dubbed “Smart Sentencing.” Smart Decarceration is about the sequel. Authored by academics with degrees in criminology, sociology, history, public health and social work, as well as by leaders in community organization, practicing lawyers, pastors, and formerly incarcerated individuals, this book is devoted to picturing what optimal decarceration should look like.

The diverse perspectives provided in Smart Decarceration ensure a nuanced, multi-disciplinary treatment of that issue. But there is also an overriding agenda, perhaps best summarized by Kathryn Bocanegra in her chapter, when she states that “exclusively focusing on reducing prison populations without considering the sustainability of such an effort is potentially dangerous.” (P. 115.)

The first step in realizing a sustainable decarceration movement is to carry out prison population reduction in a meaningful, politically feasible fashion. Nazgol Ghandnoosh notes that while the decarceration trend in the United States began in 2010, “the pace of contraction has been slow: a total decline of 3% by 2014”; she concludes that, at that rate, it will take until 2101 for the prison population to return to its 1980 level. (P. 139.) She proposes an upper limit of 20 years on all sentences, and a professionalized parole process that focuses on risk assessment. In support of this regime, Ghandnoosh states, “[L]ong sentences have little deterrent effect and keep many people imprisoned after they pose little risk to public safety. They not only waste the lives and damage the spirts of the people serving these sentences, they also impede public investments in effective crime prevention, drug treatment, and other rehabilitative programs that promote healthier and safer communities.” (P. 153.)

These themes are echoed by several other authors. Ernest Drucker calls for a public health approach to decarceration. Borrowing from the prevention model of health care, he discusses primary, secondary and tertiary means of reducing entry into jails and prisons, ensuring that incarceration does not exacerbate recidivism, and pursuing environmental and other changes that minimize incentives for ex-prisoners to reoffend. Two other chapters, each by multiple authors, recommend that the decisions about entry and release should be aided by actuarial-based risk assessment and risk management tools, if steps are taken to enhance their accuracy and transparency, and if they are used primarily as a mechanism for decreasing sentences and fitting rehabilitation programs to the individual needs of the offender. These types of changes can assuage public fears that shortened prison terms will unleash hordes of dangerous criminals, at the same time they provide offenders with the best opportunity to succeed.

Several other chapters focus on re-entry, which arguably is the single most important decarceration issue, given the huge numbers of offenders who are released (about 600,000 per year, P. 103). The editors, along with Annie Grier, point out in one of their chapters the obvious disconnect between the desire to ensure that released prisoners make a smooth transition into civilian life and the huge number of civil disabilities they face, including ineligibility for housing, food stamps, student loans, professional licensure, certain forms of employment and voting and parental rights. As they note, “addressing criminogenic needs entails increasing access to many life domains, including education, employment, housing, and social life; however, civil disability policies actually exclude access to many of these same domains.” (P. 167.)

Other chapters describe innovative programs for ex-offenders, most of which take advantage of currently under-leveraged resources in the community, ranging from colleges, universities and local businesses to church-, family- and systems-oriented interventions. Particularly noteworthy here is the chapter by two prosecutors, John Chisholm and Jeffrey Altenburg, which describes a host of initiatives in Milwaukee that rely heavily on data and that involve early intervention programs, community prosecution units, community justice councils, “Intelligence Led Prosecution” (focused on high risk offenders), and reinvestment projects. The fact that prosecutors can get on board with these types of efforts makes one cautiously optimistic about the decarceration movement.

Perhaps most distinctive about the book is the inclusion of chapters from formerly incarcerated individuals.  Ronald Simpson-Bey, who spent 27 years in prison, asserts that “Those closest to the problems are closest to the solutions.” (P. 55.) His chapter and that of Glenn Martin, another ex-prisoner, detail the impediments they faced after release. But the primary focus of both chapters is to push for heavy involvement of such individuals in leadership positions, not only with respect to the design and implementation of re-entry programs and release-decision-making practices, but also in the manner in which police and prosecutors carry out their roles.

The last chapter, written by the editors and Samuel Taylor and Annie Grier, helpfully summarizes many of the key points. Smart Decarceration is a rich resource for those who want to think through the next steps in criminal justice reform.

Cite as: Christopher Slobogin, The Next Steps in Criminal Justice Reform, JOTWELL (June 10, 2019) (reviewing Matthew W. Epperson & Carrie Pettus-Davis, Smart Decarceration: Achieving Criminal Justice Transformation in the 21st Century (2017)),

The Power of Police Unions

  • Stephen Rushin, Police Disciplinary Appeals, 167 U. Pa. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN.
  • Dhammika Dharmapala, Richard H. McAdams, and John Rappaport, Collective Bargaining and Police Misconduct, available at SSRN.

While riding with officers, conducting interviews and coding policies for my forthcoming book, Camera Power: Proof, Policing, Privacy and Audiovisual Big Data, I was struck by the influence of police unions—or lack of a strong union—in shaping body camera recording policies and limits on using the video to evaluate and discipline officers. Delving into the literature on police unions, I was impressed to read the work of prolific professors using innovative methods to systematically collect and analyze data on the influence of police unions. I would like to spotlight two recent important empirical studies on police unions.

Analyzing a large dataset of police union contracts, Stephen Rushin’s latest article illuminates how collectively bargained protections in the police disciplinary appeals process can impede efforts to address potentially problematic officers. The findings are particularly disturbing and compelling when read in conjunction with an important new study by Dhammika Dharmapala, Richard H. McAdams and John Rappaport. This dream team of interdisciplinary scholars offers the first quasi-experimental evidence that conferring collective bargaining rights on sheriffs’ deputies is associated with about a 45% increase in violent incidents.

The son of a police leader, Rushin is often at the forefront of cutting-edge empirical questions in policing. For example, do heightened scrutiny and criticism of cops and their departments lead to de-policing—a cutback in the vigor of officers in combatting crime? Rushin has examined the question using U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations as proxies for heightened public scrutiny and Justice Department settlements as proxies for heightened external regulation of departments. He applied difference-in-difference regression analyses comparing the impact of DOJ investigation and regulation on crime rates compared to control jurisdictions that did not fall under DOJ scrutiny. Check out the article for his findings. Rushin also has analyzed a dataset of 178 police union contracts and illuminated common provisions arising from collective bargaining that can frustrate police accountability efforts. This empirical strategy complements other important work on police unions applying legal analysis and case studies, such as this excellent 2017 article by Catherine L. Fisk and L. Song Richardson.

Rushin’s latest project, Police Disciplinary Appeals, draws on an even larger dataset of 656 police union contracts to reveal how the often-extensive process police officers have to appeal disciplinary sanctions can stymie police accountability. Through compelling narratives, the article illustrates how attempts to dismiss problem officers are blocked and sanctions reduced in lengthy appeals—even when smoking-gun evidence of egregious misconduct is caught on video. Rushin is able to shed light in an area often overlooked because of his impressive data collection strategy. He amassed his large dataset of police union contracts between 2014 and 2017 through open record requests as well as searches of publicly available documents. I have been impressed by the ingenuity and persistence of JD-PhD-trained law professors like Rushin and Jordan Blair Woods, author of the excellent new article Policing, Danger Narratives, and Routine Traffic Stops, in accumulating large datasets using public records requests to offer fresh insights on policing.

Like another prolific scholar, Kate Levine, whose superb new article Discipline and Policing, was featured last month here, Rushin’s work also is valuable in illuminating the internal procedures and regulations of police departments. The article begins with an informative overview of labor and employment protections for police officers coming from (1) police union contracts, (2) law enforcement officer bills of rights, and (3) civil service laws. Rushin then explains how he generated and coded his large original dataset of police union contracts covering municipal police departments in 42 states that authorize police unionization.

Rushin found that the strong majority of these 656 contracts have a similar disciplinary appeals process. Around 73% provide for appeal to an arbitrator or comparable procedure and nearly 70% provide that an arbitrator or comparable third party makes a final binding decision. About 54% of the contracts give officers or unions the power to select that arbitrator. About 70% of the jurisdictions give these arbitrators extensive review power, including the ability to revisit disciplinary matters with little or no deference to the decisions made by supervisors, civilian review boards or politically accountable officials. Together, Rushin’s findings reveal that “arbitrators are the true adjudicators of internal discipline in the majority of police departments” in the study’s extensive dataset. Rushin observes that the police union contracts setting forth these protections are typically negotiated outside of public view or participation. He proposes reforms that would give the public more oversight power and democratic actors more of a role in the disciplinary appeals process.

Rushin’s wide-angle lens view of how police union contract provisions can pose potential hurdles to police accountability is illuminating. For a scientist, the arguments also raise hypotheses that call out for testing via an innovative research design. Dharmapala, McAdams and Rappaport’s new quasi-experimental study rises to the challenge, offering important and disturbing evidence of an association between conferral of collective bargaining rights and an increase in violent incidents in Florida sheriff’s offices.

An innovation of the trio’s study is exploitation of a change in law—a 2003 Florida Supreme Court case Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Ass’n v. Williams that gave Florida sheriffs’ deputies the right to engage in collective bargaining. Collective bargaining proceeded in such earnest that 76% of sheriffs’ deputies in Florida spread in 28 offices were under a collective bargaining agreement by 2008. In contrast, Florida police officers had collective bargaining rights much earlier, beginning in 1968. Because of the contrast, the researchers could examine violent-incident complaints before and after the conferral of collective bargaining rights on sheriffs in 2003 using a difference-in-difference approach. Changes in trends in violent incidents in the treatment group of Florida sheriff’s offices receiving collective bargaining rights could be compared to trends in violent incidents in the control group of Florida police departments unaffected by this legal change (the treatment). This approach allows us to focus on changes attributable to the intervention of conferring collective bargaining rights and control for other factors occurring in the state that might have affected rates of violent incidents.

The investigators found that before Williams the treatment (sheriffs) and control (police) groups had similar parallel trends, an important assumption that must be met for the difference-in-differences approach. After Williams, the number of incidents of violent misconduct rose in the treatment group but not the control group. Moreover, the increase in violent incidents appeared to be sustained more than a decade after Williams (2011-2016 compared to 2003-2010). Interestingly, violent incident also rose in sheriff’s offices that did not enter into collective bargaining agreements (to a smaller magnitude and with borderline statistical significance).

The findings are particularly intriguing because Florida has a statutory Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights containing numerous protections for officers, and also is a right-to-work state that allows employees to decline to join unions. Both factors would be expected to dilute the impact of conferring collective bargaining rights because officers already have a baseline of protections and because it is harder to fully unionize a workforce in right-to-work states. Yet the investigators’ findings regarding an increase in violent incidents were of noteworthy magnitude as well as statistical significance. The investigators are collecting Florida collective bargaining agreements to analyze how provisions go above the protections in the statutory Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. Here their envisioned analytical strategies intersect with those pursued by Rushin, showing how both empirical approaches are complementary and enrich our knowledge of these important issues.

Cite as: Mary Fan, The Power of Police Unions, JOTWELL (May 3, 2019) (reviewing Stephen Rushin, Police Disciplinary Appeals, 167 U. Pa. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN. Dhammika Dharmapala, Richard H. McAdams, and John Rappaport, Collective Bargaining and Police Misconduct, available at SSRN. ),