If the glove kinda fits, do not acquit?

So I wrote down the simplest model I could think of — a model too simple to give useful numerical cutoffs, but still a starting point — and I learned something surprising. Namely (at least in this very simple model), the harsher the prospective punishment, the laxer you should be about reasonable doubt. Or to say this another way: When the penalty is a year in jail, you should vote to convict only when the evidence is very strong. When the penalty is 50 years, you should vote to convict even when it’s pretty weak.
 
(The standard here for what you “should” do is this: When you lower your standards, you increase the chance that Mr. or Ms. Average will be convicted of a crime, and lower the chance that the same Mr. or Ms. Average will become a crime victim. The right standard is the one that balances those risks in the way that Mr. or Ms. Average finds the least distasteful.)
 
Here (I think) is what’s going on: A weak penalty has very little deterrent effect — so little that it’s not worth convicting an innocent person over. But a strong penalty can have such a large deterrent effect that it’s worth tolerating a lot of false convictions to get a few true ones.
 

Steven Landsburg lands on a counter-intuitive conclusion: you should lower your standards for conviction the harsher the punishment.

It seems as if Landsburg's model argues for convicting any number of people who surpass some lowered threshold of evidence for a crime. Several people all seem like they could have committed a crime, so convict all of them, even if only one could have committed the crime. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the implications, others can help verify Landsburg's model.

Also, how often are there N people who all seem equally guilty of a crime? I'm at a disadvantage here in not having seen Making a Murderer, but perhaps Landsburg's model here applies equally as well to that case as it does to Serial Season 1.

Let's broaden the conversation and bring in Alex Tabarrok, discussing one area in which fellow economist Gary Becker may have been wrong.

Becker isn’t here to defend himself on the particulars of that evening but you can see the idea in his great paper, Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach. In a famous section he argues that an optimal punishment system would combine a low probability of being punished with a high level of punishment if caught:
 
If the supply of offenses depended only on pf—offenders were risk neutral — a reduction in p “compensated” by an equal percentage increase in f would leave unchanged pf…
 
..an increased probability of conviction obviously absorbs public and private resources in the form of more policemen, judges, juries, and so forth. Consequently, a “compensated” reduction in this probability obviously reduces expenditures on combating crime, and, since the expected punishment is unchanged, there is no “obvious” offsetting increase in either the amount of damages or the cost of punishments. The result can easily be continuous political pressure to keep police and other expenditures relatively low and to compensate by meting out strong punishments to those convicted.
 
We have now tried that experiment and it didn’t work. Beginning in the 1980s we dramatically increased the punishment for crime in the United States but we did so more by increasing sentence length than by increasing the probability of being punished. In theory, this should have reduced crime, reduced the costs of crime control and led to fewer people in prison. In practice, crime rose and then fell mostly for reasons other than imprisonment. Most spectacularly, the experiment with greater punishment led to more spending on crime control and many more people in prison.
 
Why did the experiment fail? Longer sentences didn’t reduce crime as much as expected because criminals aren’t good at thinking about the future; criminal types have problems forecasting and they have difficulty regulating their emotions and controlling their impulses. In the heat of the moment, the threat of future punishment vanishes from the calculus of decision. Thus, rather than deterring (much) crime, longer sentences simply filled the prisons. As if that weren’t bad enough, by exposing more people to criminal peers and by making it increasingly difficult for felons to reintegrate into civil society, longer sentences increased recidivism.
 

It's a great post by Tabarrok. He does give Becker, one of my economics idols, credit.

Let’s give Becker and the rational choice theory its due. When Becker first wrote many criminologists were flat out denying that punishment deterred. As late as 1994, for example, the noted criminologist David Bayley could write:
 
The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defense against crime. This is a myth
 
Inspired by Becker, a large, credible, empirical literature–including my own work on police (and prisons)–has demonstrated that this is no myth, the police deter. Score one for rational choice theory. It’s a far cry, however, from police deter to twenty years in prison deters twice as much as ten years in prison. The rational choice theory was pushed beyond its limits and in so doing not only was punishment pushed too far we also lost sight of alternative policies that could reduce crime without the social disruption and injustice caused by mass incarceration.
 

The problem with annual reviews in companies is not necessarily with an annual review process but with lack of immediate feedback in between those reviews. The most useful thing I learned from the 10,000 hour rule wasn't that you needed 10,000 hours to become an expert, it was that people improve with deliberate practice if feedback on their work is immediate.

For effective parenting and coaching, shorten the time between performance and feedback, and be consistent.

Crime and punishment

Longer sentences didn’t reduce crime as much as expected because criminals aren’t good at thinking about the future; criminal types have problems forecasting and they have difficulty regulating their emotions and controlling their impulses. In the heat of the moment, the threat of future punishment vanishes from the calculus of decision. Thus, rather than deterring (much) crime, longer sentences simply filled the prisons. As if that weren’t bad enough, by exposing more people to criminal peers and by making it increasingly difficult for felons to reintegrate into civil society, longer sentences increased recidivism.
 
Instead of thinking about criminals as rational actors, we should think about criminals as children. In this light, consider the “Becker approach” to parenting. Punishing children is costly so to reduce that cost, ignore a child’s bad behavior most of the time but when it’s most convenient give the kid a really good spanking or put them in time out for a very long time. Of course, this approach leads to disaster–indeed, it’s precisely this approach that leads to criminality in later life.
 
So what is the recommended parenting approach? I don’t want to get into a debate over spanking, timeouts, and reasoning but one thing all recommendations have in common is that the consequences for inappropriate behavior should be be quick, clear, and consistent. Quick responses help not just because children have “high discount rates” (better thought of as difficulty integrating their future selves into a consistent whole but “high discount rates” will do as short hand) but even more importantly because a quick response helps children to understand the relationship between behavior and consequence. Prior to Becker there was Becaaria and in Beccarian theory, people must learn to associate crime with punishment. When responses aren’t quick, children, just like scientists, have difficulty learning cause and effect. Quick is thus one way of lowering cognitive demands and making consequences clear.
 

Alex Tabarrok on what Gary Becker got wrong about crime and punishment. A great post with lots of broadly applicable wisdom.

I try to apply the same principle of quick, clear, and consistent to the feedback I provide to my teams at work. Much of white collar work, including product management, tends to have slow feedback loops. Often the time between when you come up with an idea and when it ships and elicits feedback from consumers is months. That means very little of that work falls into the category of deliberate practice. Post-mortems, if they even occur, take place long after the key decisions were made.

Some of that is unavoidable, but much of it just requires a change in habit as managers. If you have feedback to share with a team member, share it as soon as possible. Someone didn't lead a meeting as efficiently as possible? Grab them right after the meeting for a quick chat. Have a presentation ready? Practice on someone as soon as possible and gather their immediate feedback.

The higher the cadence of these practice and feedback loops, the more rapid the improvement. Not all such work can be transformed into deliberate practice, but the amount that can be is non-trivial.

For most people, delivering feedback at such a cadence does not feel comfortable or normal in a white collar work environment; it feels paternalistic, even arrogant, and it still does not come naturally to introverts like myself. Certainly many aren't ready to receive notes at such a cadence, either. Much of this may stem from underestimating the amount of rapid feedback and deliberate practice one spends time on in other crafts, like music, sports, cooking, and so on. Going to an arts school helps. I've never received as much feedback as frequently as I did in my undergraduate creative writing classes or in film school.

Bait bikes

Officer Matt Friedman fights crime with modern tools: Twitter, which he uses to publicize pictures of suspects and convicted criminals, and a GPS device, which he uses to track down stolen property.

In both cases, his lure is stolen bicycles — including the “bait bikes” that have recently been seeded throughout the city to tempt potential thieves. Equipped with GPS technology, the bicycles, which exist to be stolen, can be tracked down in real time and the thieves can be arrested. Then their photographs are posted to Twitter from the handle @SFPDBikeTheft. The bait bikes are of high value, to ensure that people caught taking them are charged with a felony.

Recently, for example, a thief took a $1,500 bicycle from outside a train stop and pedaled off into the sunset. But 30 minutes later, Officer Friedman and his team, having tracked the bike, converged on the rider at a park.

“You should have seen his face — he thought he was in the clear,” said Officer Friedman, 41, who carries a .40-caliber Sig Sauer semiautomatic and an iPhone 5, which he used that day to take a picture of the severed bike lock. He then posted an image on Twitter with the message: Thank You 4 Taking Our Bait Bike.
 

I hadn't heard of this new tactic before. As someone who had three bikes stolen while an undergrad, my instinct is to embrace any and all measures to fight bike crime, including the public shaming. As noted in the article, the University of Wisconsin, Madison saw a 40% drop in reported bike thefts the first year they rolled out a bait bike program.

However, the social cost here is fuzzier. As educator Zeynep Tufekci writes:

If you are still fuming at the memory of a bike being stolen (I am, even now) and wondering why these thieves should not get charged with felonies, ponder for a moment. [Added: an add other minor or major infractions for the next example: it’s not a perfect example.] Have you ever rolled through a stop sign? Have you failed to perfectly stop, ever? Rolling through stop signs puts people’s lives at risk and is done just as intentionally as stealing a bike. It’s more dangerous and destructive than stealing a bike. [Though it’s been pointed out by people who understand the laws better than I do that our criminal code does not view that as the same kind of intention as bike stealing. I don’t claim to be making a legal argument, but just trying to push our imagination politically.]

Sure, there is a cost to bike theft, and it is a problem. But there is also cost to rendering large numbers of people unemployable through felony convictions.

Now imagine a city in which areas in which tech workers lives were equipped with cameras that caught everyone who ever rolled through a stop sign. You got a felony charge, since the evidence was indisputable. You lost your job, and could never work in the same sector again. You can’t vote either. Maybe you have probation. Your life is ruined, forever, and fairly irrecoverably.
 

Officer Friedman, mentioned in the excerpt above, responded to charges of the program being a form of entrapment by noting that bait bikes

...are not simply left out unlocked for opportunistic types. (Unlike SFPD's reality TV-ready Bait Car program that was quickly halted a few years back.) They are locked up and then swiped by thieves with the tools to do so and the know-how to unload them. Like this recidivist on the street with an angle grinder, or these guys running a chop shop on 13th Street, or a notorious bike thieves in the East Bay.
 

If my bike were recovered through such a program, I'd just be happy to get it back. Having the thief charged with a felony would be unnecessarily harsh.

Perhaps technology will offer alternative solutions in the future. The cost of small tracking devices is coming down. Many crowdfunding projects are for little tracking tags or gizmos that you can attach to or put in your valuables to be able to detect their location on your phone. The problem is that most operate on Bluetooth and have limited range and battery life, but perhaps those problems can be overcome. In that world, theft might be less prevalent because of the increased difficulty of hiding the object.

One might argue that a bike thief could come up with electronic countermeasures to combat tracking devices, but most bike thieves are looking to unload bikes as soon as possible and not seeking to maximize their cash return on each component or the entire bike itself. The cost of countermeasures might not be worth the investment given the low cash return on each stolen bike.

Is violence really down in the U.S.?

Perhaps to the public at large, it effectively has. However... 

...the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con. Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.

Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.

From 1980 to 2007, the number of prisoners held in the United States quadrupled to 2.3 million, with an additional 5 million on probation or parole. What Ayn Rand once called the “freest, noblest country in the history of the world” is now the most incarcerated, and the second-most incarcerated country in history, just barely edged out by Stalin’s Soviet Union. We’re used to hearing about the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots; we’re less accustomed to contemplating a more fundamental gap: the abyss that separates the fortunate majority, who control their own bodies, from the luckless minority, whose bodies are controlled, and defiled, by the state.

A bit more, emphasis mine.

In January, prodded in part by outrage over a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, the Justice Department finally released an estimate of the prevalence of sexual abuse in penitentiaries. The reliance on filed complaints appeared to understate the problem. For 2008, for example, the government had previously tallied 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse. After asking around, and performing some calculations, the Justice Department came up with a new number: 216,000. That’s 216,000 victims, not instances. These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year. The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.

Here's the kicker: 

America’s prison system is a moral catastrophe. The eerie sense of security that prevails on the streets of lower Manhattan obscures, and depends upon, a system of state-sponsored suffering as vicious and widespread as any in human history.

All from a fascinating essay by Christopher Glazek, one well worth reading all the way through.  My quotes may make it seem very one-sided, and Glazek's view on the issue is clear, but the statistics make the tradeoffs clear, so where you fall on the issue is not a given. It's worth making the costs transparent, as in cases like Abu Ghraib, so we understand how we purchase our way of life.

Ken Brennan, PI

Mark Bowden wrote of real life private investigator Ken Brennan in Vanity Fair in December of 2010. The story was titled "The Case of the Vanishing Blonde":

After a woman living in a hotel in Florida was raped, viciously beaten, and left for dead near the Everglades in 2005, the police investigation quickly went cold. But when the victim sued the Airport Regency, the hotel’s private detective, Ken Brennan, became obsessed with the case: how had the 21-year-old blonde disappeared from her room, unseen by security cameras? The author follows Brennan’s trail as the P.I. worked a chilling hunch that would lead him to other states, other crimes, and a man nobody else suspected.

Now Bowden has written about Brennan again in "The Body in Room 348":

The hotel was just off the cloverleaf outside Beaumont. His company rented him a room in the “cabana,” a three-story wing that wrapped around a small swimming pool framed by potted palms.

That Wednesday night, watching his movie, Greg got an e-mail from his wife, Susie, shortly after seven. Susie was using a computer program to file for a tax extension. After she reported her progress he wrote back, “You’re doin’ good, babe.”

At some point during the loud, computer-generated showdown at the end of the film, amid all the fake violence, Greg was struck from nowhere with a very real and shattering blow. A blow so violent it would blind a man with pain. He managed to get off the bed and move toward the door before he fell, legs splayed and face-first.

He was probably dead by the time his face hit the green rug.

This is some amazing detective work, and it happened in real life. How long before we have a new TV show based on the exploits of Brennan? These are far more compelling stories than the "mysteries of the week" scripts of so many forensic TV shows.

Now that the United States has the world’s highest reported rate of incarceration, many criminologists are contemplating another strategy. What if America reverted to the penal policies of the 1980s? What if the prison population shrank drastically? What if money now spent guarding cellblocks was instead used for policing the streets?

In short, what would happen if the rest of the country followed New York City’s example?

As the American prison population has doubled in the past two decades, the city has been a remarkable exception to the trend: the number of its residents in prison has shrunk. Its incarceration rate, once high by national standards, has plunged well below the United States average and has hit another new low, as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced recently. And crime in the city has fallen by more than 75 percent, almost twice as much as in the rest of the country.

Whatever has made New York the safest big city in America, that feat has certainly not been accomplished by locking up more criminals.

From a NYTimes article studying New York City's success in both shrinking its prison population and lowering crime. As criminologist Lawrence Sherman notes in the article, the U.S. is the only country he knows of that spends more on incarceration than police. America now has a fifth of the world's prisoners.

One specific policing strategy that has yielded fruits is hot-spot policing, or focusing less on individual criminals but instead on areas where they tend to work.

“Crime doesn’t move as easily we thought it did,” Mr. Gajewski said. “If I’m a robber, I want to be in a familiar, easily accessible place with certain characteristics. I need targets to rob, but I don’t want people in the neighborhood watching me or challenging me. Maybe I work near a bus stop where there are vacant buildings or empty lots. If the police start focusing there, I can’t just move to the next block and find the same conditions.”

I wish San Francisco would spend more on police. For a few months, I worked at an office in SOMA that required me to walk through some of its sketchier blocks, and even as a man I didn't feel comfortable walking home late at night. Even during the daytime I'd sometimes encounter some crazy, scary characters, from an old bearded man who would curse me out for no reason to a gaunt, pale woman who often smoked a crack pipe and who could've passed for an extra on American Horror Story: Asylum.

Just in the past year, five of my friends have had their car windows smashed in and items stolen from their car while parked on the streets of San Francisco. Small sample size, sure, but I felt safer in Manhattan than I do in San Francisco. It honestly feels like San Francisco has just decided to let parts of the Tenderloin be our Hamsterdam.

We need to create more jobs anyhow, I'd be willing to take lower incarceration to free funds to hire more police.