Monthly Archives: October 2009

Lights Out

The lights went out around 12:15 last night. Some people talk about how nice it is to relax and do nothing while the power is out, but for me, losing electrical power is like losing a limb.

When the power failure hit, I was sitting in front of the computer working on a couple of things I wanted to finish by tomorrow. I’m staring straight at the monitors, so the first sign of a problem was when things got a little dark in the periphery of my vision and something started buzzing and beeping in the computer rack.

I looked up, and the lights had gone out. The noises were coming from the UPS, which had cut in like it’s supposed to, keeping me from losing anything I was working on. Even my internet connection was still up because the cable modem and router are also protected by the UPS.

With the power out, the UPS battery was draining fast, so I had to shutdown the computers before the UPS ran out. I bought myself some time by shutting down my old computer first. I don’t do much with it, so I just clicked Shutdown, and it took care of itself. I had about 25 windows open on my main computer—including windows running inside a VMware virtual computer—so shutting it down was a much more involved process.

Once I had both computers shutting down, I grabbed my iPhone and used it as a flashlight to find my way around the house.

I was momentarily puzzled when I got to the living room. The room lights were out, as is normal at that time of night, but there was a bit of a glow, and lots things still had indicator lamps on. I had assumed the power was out, but maybe it was just my office. Had I just over-reacted to a blown circuit breaker?

Nope. The power really was out. The diffuse light in the room was coming from my wife’s laptop, which had switched over to its batteries. The other lights in the room were coming from the cable box and Tivo by the television. I have them both running off a small UPS so that a power glitch while I’m out of the house doesn’t wipe out an evening of television.

I stepped into the kitchen and grabbed a real flashlight. A glance out the window confirmed that the whole neighborhood was out.

I made my way back to the office and found the power switch on the UPS to kill the damned beeping and prevent the battery from going to the bottom of the cycle. I didn’t bother with the UPS for the Tivo.

Finally, I made my way back to my wife’s computer and put it in standbye mode to conserve its battery. Then I pulled out my iPhone and (after tweeting about the problem) set up an alarm to ring in the morning to wake me up in case the power hadn’t come back.

Almost immediately, the power came back on.

I went back into my office and started the UPS and both computers. Then I went into the living room and flipped on the lights. Nothing happened. Which makes sense, I realized, since the lights are computer-controlled from my old computer, and it probably hadn’t finished booting yet.

Once my computers were up, I thought it would make an amusing (or at least readable) blog post, so I started writing this message. About half way through, the power failed again.

So I shut down the computers again and went to sleep.

What Is Law That Thou Art Mindful?

When I was on a criminal jury a few years ago, the judge impressed on us how important our job was. He made sure we took it seriously. Which is one of the reasons this bullshit makes me so angry:

The Minnesota Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, has now ruled that Bong Water (water which had been used in a water pipe) was a “mixture” of “25 grams or more” supporting a criminal conviction for Controlled Substance crime in the first degree.  The crime is the most serious felony drug crime in Minnesota, with a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison for a first offense.

Let me make this clear: If you mix an illegal drug with an ounce of water, you can be charged with having 1 ounce of a drug mixture. Then, if you dilute the drug by adding another ounce of water, you can be charged with having a larger amount—2 ounces—of the drug mixture, even though in both cases you had the exact same amount of the actual drug.

I may not be applying the law correctly in my example, but the essence of this decision is that diluting the illegal drug with a legal substance increases the severity of the crime.

This is not an isolated example of bizarre legal thinking:

…a guy dumped his meth in the toilet.  The cops scooped the water out, weighed it, and used the weight of the toilet water as the basis for his prosecution.  Since they scooped more than 600 grams of water out of the toilet, that put him over the limit for a 1st degree felony.

The jury gave him 85 years in prison…

This is, the Court said, what the legislature intended.

This is mind-bogglingly stupid. Folks, it’s basic math and logic. I mean, we teach children how to do fractions to avoid this kind of mistake. If this is what the legislature intended, then the legislature is an ass.

(Hat tip to Jamie for both examples.)

I’ve been following the foolishness that is the War On Drugs for decades, and this is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard of. But this is not the first time I’ve heard of it. I can recall a case where the government wanted to use the weight of the container that held the drugs in calculating the sentence.

Tell me, the next time someone lectures me how important the rules of jury service are—don’t discuss the case, let the judge decide what the law is, follow the evidence, don’t visit the crime scene, don’t nullify—why (other fear of punishment for contempt) shouldn’t I tell them to go fuck themselves? If the legislature and the prosecutor and the judge can ignore something as fundamental as physical reality—hell, basic math—why should us jurors be impressed by any of their rules? Clearly, the rules don’t really matter.

The Death Penalty and Spending Wisely

I don’t blog about the death penalty very much, mostly because I don’t care about the death penalty very much. I’m not saying it’s unimportant, but I just don’t have the urge to write about it. My position on it has been pretty bland: Some crimes are so evil that the perpetrators have forfeitted their right to live, but my libertarian leanings prevent me from trusting the government to execute the right people for the right reasons.

The extremists on both sides bother me. There’s a difference between believing the death penalty produces a net benefit to society, and the lusty desire for executions that seems to animate some of its supporters. Conversely, no matter how much you disagree with the death penalty, it’s wrong-headed to hold a candlelight vigil for John Wayne Gacy.

Over at a public defender, Gideon has come out of his blogging hiatus, and he’s posted about the Death Penalty Information Center’s new report on the cost of the death penalty. It’s a mixed bag, but I think its economic theory has solidified my opinion against the death penalty.

Parts of the report don’t pass the smell test, starting with the subtitle—“Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis”—which comes across as a desperate attempt to make the death penalty relevant to the hot topic of the moment.

Another dubious feature of the report is a survey of police chiefs that seems to reach some surprising conclusions:

  • When asked to name one area as “most important for reducing violent crime,” greater use of the death penalty ranked last among the police chiefs, with only 1% listing it as the best way to reduce violence…
  • The death penalty was considered the least efficient use of taxpayers’ money…

These results aren’t as impressive as they may seem at first glance. It’s too easy to game the results through a careful choice of alternative items.

For example, if I wanted to argue for eliminating the exclusionary rule for evidence in a criminal trial, it would be great for my side if criminal defense attorneys said it was unimportant. No problem. Just ask them a question like this:

When it comes to giving defendants a fair trial, which of the following features of our justice system is most important:

  • The presumption of innocence.
  • The right to trial by an impartial jury.
  • The protection against double jeopardy.
  • The right to confront witnesses.
  • The exclusionary rule. 

I think there’s a pretty good chance that if you asked a thousand criminal defense attorneys that question, the exclusionary rule would be at the bottom of their rankings. Then I could put out a report boldly claiming that “defense attorneys rate the exclusionary rule as the least important requirement for a fair trial.”

(If they didn’t rate it the way I wanted, I could just change the questions and try again.)

On the other hand, when you ignore the hyperbole and fake(ish) survey, the report makes an interesting economic case, starting with the estimated cost of a death sentence:

The high costs to the state per execution reflect the following reality: For a single death penalty trial, the state may pay $1 million more than for a non-death penalty trial. But only one in every three capital trials may result in a death sentence, so the true cost of that death sentence is $3 million. Further down the road, only one in ten of the death sentences handed down may result in an execution. Hence, the cost to the state to reach that one execution is $30 million.

That’s a lot to pay to execute somebody, and it may be worse than that:

In 2008, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice released an exhaustive report on the state’s capital punishment system… The report found that the state was spending $137 million per year on the death penalty… Since the number of executions in California has averaged less than one every two years since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, the cost for each execution is over $250 million.

So is an execution worth $30 million? Or $250 million?

That depends, of course, on what the benefits of an execution are. Death penalty blawger Tom McKenna has referred to evidence that each execution has a deterrent effect that results in 18 fewer murders for every execution. (I think he’s talking about Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? Acts, Omissions, and Life-Life Tradeoffs by Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, which gets the figure of 18 from Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect? New Evidence from Postmoratorium Panel Data by Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Paul H. Rubin and Joanna M. Shepherd.) This figure is highly controversial, but for the sake of discussion, let’s accept it.

That leads us to the next question in our quest to determine the value of an execution: How much is a human life worth? It’s easy to say that human life is priceless, but as economists have shown, that’s not how we behave.

Economists have sifted through large data sets to uncover how people make decisions that affect their own mortality. How much will people spend on a safer car to reduce their chance of dying in an accident by 1% over the life of the car? How much more do you have to pay people to take dangerous jobs? How much more do houses cost in safe neighborhoods?

These studies typically show that people value their own lives at between three and ten million dollars. I’ve heard a number of economists use a value of $8 million per life, so that’s what I’m going to use.

Finally, we can plug in all the numbers. According to the paper, executing someone could cost around $30 million dollars. Add to this the value of the executed criminal’s life (he counts too) and an execution has a cost to society of $38 million. On the other hand, the 18 lives saved are worth $144 million. Therefore, under our assumptions, the death penalty provides a net benefit to society of $106 million per execution.

That’s great for the death penalty, but only if it’s true. For example, the benefit goes away completely if we use the alternate cost estimate obtained in California. In that case, the $144 million value of the averted murder victims pales in comparison to the $258 million cost of the execution.

There’s also the problem that these studies are difficult to perform and not terribly robust. The Death Penalty Information Center’s report refers to a summary paper (Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate by John J Donohue and Justin Wolfers) which argues for an interpretation of the data that finds no significant deterrent effect. For one thing, all of the benefits seem to be concentrated in Texas. Drop that one state from the data, and executions have no significant effect on the murder rate. Or keep Texas and simply weight the data by population, and again the benefits vanish.

(If this data is meaningful, it tends to confirm some criminologists’ opinions that that the deterrent effect does not emerge until you start to execute a lot of people. Killing one or two criminals a year just won’t get people’s attention. Not enough to rise above the noise.)

Basic economic theory says that people respond to incentives, and that’s pretty much what we find whenever we study human behavior, so I’m confident that executions must have some deterrent effect. But if we believe Donohue and Wolfers, then it seems unlikely the effect is very large. I’ve heard of other studies which conclude that each execution only deters 3 murders. That’s $24 million worth of human lives saved at a cost of $38 million—almost $13 million each—which is a poor bargain. And the true deterrent factor could be much smaller.

Understand that I’m not saying we shouldn’t spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to save lives. What I’m saying is that resources are scarce (economic crisis or not), so if we decide to spend money saving lives, we should be careful to spend it in a way that will save the most lives possible, which probably isn’t on executions.

In California, for example, the death penalty costs $137 million per year, but with one execution every other year, even using the highest estimates of the deterrence effect, they are preventing only 9 deaths per year. I’m having trouble finding figures, but that sounds like enough to hire hundreds of additional police officers, firefighters, and EMTs, or to cover the unreimbursed operating costs of maybe a dozen Level I trama centers (it depends on the patient mix), or to fund better infection control protocols in the state’s hospitals.

There are dozens of things that might change the benefit-cost calculation for executions, and I can’t possibly consider them all here, but if saving lives is the reason for executing criminals, I think there are better ways to spend our money.

Scattershot 2009-10-16

Random shots around the web: