Should Parents Get Sentencing Discounts? Our Third Freaky Post

By STEPHEN J. DUBNER

(Dan Markel) Yesterday afternoon, Ethan, Jennifer Collins and I had our third post up on the NYT’s Freakonomics Blog, following our two earlier posts  about our book Privilege or Punish. I’ve reprinted the post after the jump. Feel free to weigh in with comments here or there.

We have recently featured two guest posts (here and here) by the authors of a new book called Privilege or Punish: Criminal Justice and the Challenge of Family Ties. The authors are Ethan Leib, who is is a scholar-in-residence at Columbia Law School, and an associate professor of law at the University of California-Hastings College of the Law; Dan Markel, the D’Alemberte Professor of Law at the Florida State University in Tallahassee; andJennifer Collins, a professor of law at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Leib and Markel usually blog at Prawfs.com. Markel has offered to send interested parties a free PDF of their new book upon request. This is their penultimate post.

Should Parents Who Offend Receive Sentencing Discounts?

A Guest Post

By Jennifer Collins, Ethan J. Leib, and Dan Markel

Many states expressly tell judges to calibrate a sentence based, in part, on one’s family ties and responsibilities in sentencing offenders. Thus, offenders who are parents to minors or caregivers to spouses or elderly parents may, depending on the jurisdiction, be in a position to receive a sharp discount from the punishment they might otherwise receive. Not only does this pattern of sentencing discounts facilitate ad hoc disparities between offenders who are otherwise similarly situated across cases, but it also hastens to create inequalities between persons involved in the very same offense. Even in the generally more restrictive federal context, courts have found ways to extend discounts to offenders deemed to have extraordinary “family ties and responsibilities.”

Our view is that sentencing discounts for offenders with family ties require scrutiny and, in some cases, re-tailoring, and in other cases, rejection.

A person who commits a crime can reasonably foresee that, if prosecuted and punished, his punishment will affect not only himself but also his family. Extending a discount to an offender for a reason unrelated to his crime constitutes an undeserved windfall. In addition, giving benefits to defendants with family ties in the currency of sentencing discounts will also, on the margin, incentivize this class of defendants to seek out greater criminal opportunities, or they will be recruited or pressed into action by others.

Still, incarcerating a defendant with significant family responsibilities unquestionably imposes tremendous costs on innocent family members, and those costs are most severe when the defendant is an irreplaceable caregiver to vulnerable family members. Therefore, although we advance the unusual position — taken primarily and unpopularly by the federal government’s sentencing guidelines — that, ordinarily, a defendant’s family ties and responsibilities should not serve as a basis for a lighter sentence, we are sensitive to the serious arguments made by proponents of sentencing departures for those with significant and irreplaceable care-giving responsibilities. These arguments merit attention and amplification.

What About the Children?

Contacting a Detroit Criminal Lawyer – DetroitCriminalLawyer.org – is one of the first steps you must take if you or a loved one has been arrested, whether it is for a misdemeanor or felony.  A criminal record can wreak havoc in your life, whether you have been only arrested or convicted.

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Crime Decline Conundrum

(Jonathan Simon) With aviation terrorism and a still lackluster employment market dominating year end headlines, the one piece of good news appears to be a fairly widespread decline in homicides in major cities. New York, as trumpeted in yesterday’s NYtimes (read Al Baker’sreporting) had a year with fewer homicides than any year since 1963 (essentially before the modern crime wave was evident). San Francisco also reported a record drop (read Jaxon Van Derbenken’s article in the SFChron) to as low as the city has seen since 1961 (take that New York), and after a series of rather violent years in the middle of this decade. Chicago and LA have also reported declines this year. Providence, was one of the few cities reporting a homicide “spike,” with the addition of two dead this week in a drug raid that also left three police officers wounded (read W. Zachary Malinowski’s reporting in the Providence Journal). This is good news in a year with little of it. 

The journalistic lead is that this is happening despite a severe recession (the man bites dog angle). Whatever the intuitive appeal to the notion that bad times generate crime, few criminologists believe it is a clean relationship. In many respects, times are always bad in those communities that experience the highest levels of crimes like homicide, aggravated assault, and robbery. This, not surprisingly, does not stop police chiefs and mayors from claiming credit (at least if they’ve been on the job for more than six months) whatever the hazard that their policies might be blamed when crime begins its inexorable return (like most gambles, it probably makes sense in the short term context of political survival). But even criminologists, this one included, are not immune from believing that, combined with the substantial crime declines of the 1990s, and the relative stability of crime through most of this decade, this end of decade crime decline could mark a longer term shift away from the pattern of high levels of gun violence concentrated in cities that has defined urban life for the much of the past forty years. What would drive such change? Here is a New Year’s speculation list of the top three “positive” factors underlying declines in urban domestic violence

May they all continue in 2010!

1. Bottoming out of the de-industrialization of American cities that began in 1946 and continued through the 1980s. Even if new economic engines of prosperity have not exactly re-emerged in many cities, the process of losing existing assets has run its course. 

2. Demographic diversification of urban neighborhoods through immigration and in-migration of suburbanites fleeing unsustainable lifestyles.

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