High Risk Offenders and Crime Fighting-Governing Magazine-DC Public Safety Radio

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Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2012/03/high-risk-offenders-and-crime-fighting-governing-magazine-dc-public-safety-radio/

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host Leonard Sipes.  Ladies and gentlemen, we are celebrating our 150th radio show.  We’re currently up to 133,000 requests per month for the radio/television blog and transcript at media.csosa.gov.  Our program today is going to be a focus on high-risk offenders with John Buntin.  He is with Governing Magazine, www.governing, G-O-V-E-R-N-I-N-G, .com.  I want to focus on three particular issues during the interview—a different way of administrating the criminal-justice system, incarceration levels must be sufficient, but the real impact of an article that he wrote is a focus on the truly high-risk offenders.  What John did was write an article called, How Game Theory is Reinventing Crime Fighting.  It is probably, in my 42 years within the criminal-justice system, one of the most readable and one of the most interesting and one of the most impactful articles I’ve ever seen and that’s out of reading tens of thousands of articles.  John Buntin, Governing Magazine, welcome to DC Public safety.

John Buntin:  Thank you for having me Len.

Len Sipes:  All right John, how game theory is reinventing crime fighting.  Give me an elevator speech as to what that means.

John Buntin:  Well, we’re at a really interesting moment.  State and local governments have, the last few years, been squeezed by falling revenues—by the recession and as state policy makers have stepped back and looked at their fiscal situation, they have realized something, which has been obvious to those best who covered the criminal-justice system for a while.  And that is that for the past decade, corrections and healthcare costs have risen dramatically.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  Twenty years ago, the state spent about $12 billion a year on corrections.  That’s now over 50 billion.  And in response, they’ve had less money to spend on things like education.  States across the country are feeling the squeeze, and they’ve starting looking, as a result, for innovative solutions—ways to incarcerate fewer people and to supervise offenders more effectively.

Len Sipes:  Now, let me go back to a premise.  In the last two years, the principal story that I’ve seen from the new services that I subscribe to is—are cutbacks within the criminal-justice  system or cutbacks in government across the board, but specifically, you know I’m only interested in the criminal-justice  systems, so I see Illinois laying off 500 state troopers.  I see dozens of stories of states closing prisons.  I see public defenders complaining bitterly that they don’t have the money to conduct business.  I see the same thing from prosecutors.  The system is being squeezed from all sides, so this becomes a philosophical discussion as well as a fiscal discussion.

John Buntin:  That’s right.  In public safety agencies, like all agencies, you know, had been squeezed in cuts, and you know, in particular, areas.  I think the court system is one that comes to mind.  The cuts have really had a very negative impact, you know, on the ability of the courts to provide justice.  You know, I think there’s also been, over the course of the past four or five years, another discussion and I think that discussion really started in Texas back in 2007.  You know, Texas, as you and your listeners know, is a state which does not shy away from punishment.

Len Sipes:  No.

John Buntin:  It has—

Len Sipes:  Fairly conservative state.

John Buntin:  —a very high incarceration rate—the highest of any big state and you know, during the ‘90s and into the [INDISCERNIBLE], you know, expanded capacity with great enthusiasm.  You know, but in 2007, as a result of an unusual, kind of, bipartisan coming together of two legislators, in particular, the legislators decided not to appropriate funding to further expand the state prison system.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.  The governor wanted to build three more prisons.

John Buntin:  The governor and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice wanted to add 14,000 beds to the system.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  Instead, the legislature decided to spend $240 million on treatment and diversion programs and there were two things that were really striking about this.  You know one is that it marked a kind of break in the partisan war over crime and going back to the ‘60s—I think 1968 was the year that crime emerged as the primary concern in voter’s mind.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  And it really sustained that position until about 1994.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  It was a very politicized issue.  You know, what happened in Texas in 2007 showed legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, that this was something they could work together with.  The other striking effect of what Texas did was, you know, their diversion—their investment and treatment worked.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  The inmate population leveled off—fell slightly.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  And demonstrated to states elsewhere that there was a way to be smarter, while still being tough.

Len Sipes:  Right, but states our doing this—I don’t think from a point of view of a philosophy.  I don’t think they’re looking at it criminologically.  I think they’re saying to themselves, we’ve gotta stop spending so much money on prison system.  Is there a better way of doing it?  And then you have groups like Pew and the Department of Justice and other organizations coming in and saying, yeah there is a better way of administrating the criminal-justice system, right?

John Buntin:  There’s no doubt that finances is driving the desire to reexamine the criminal-justice system and that the way that politics—this issue has become depoliticized.  It’s also created a kind of space to talk about it in a more creative way.

Len Sipes:  And that’s the other really interesting thing because now you have conservatives and Democrats coming together, and they’re speaking from the same wave length.  They’re speaking from the—singing from the same sheet of music because they want money to build bridges, they want money to go to colleges, and they want money to go to schools, and if you keep pouring money into corrections, they don’t have that money to spend on other issues.

John Buntin:  As difficult as it is to operate an environment of cuts, you know, I really think that the criminal-justice system and some of the reforms that are playing out in the sector are a unique bright spot in American government.  It is one of the few areas where legislators, chief executives from both parties, have been able to make really meaningful changes.

Len Sipes:  Right.  And everybody is basically saying, there’s got to be a better way of doing this.  Okay, if we’re going to making all these cuts, if we’re forces to be making all these cuts, what can we do and what can we do better and from that, there’ve been an array of programs that have shown a certain level of success.

John Buntin:  There have been.  And the literature is fairly clear that, you know, certain interventions, you know, are successful.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  One of the most widespread interventions are, of course, drug courts.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  They’re cost effective.  We’re fairly clear on that.  There are now about 2500 drug courts serving over 100,000 people.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  Drug courts—they do work.  They’re also challenging to ramp up.  They’re very personnel intensive and one of the interesting things that I noticed, which prompted me to write this story, was the way in which there are some other types of interventions, which really make a virtue of scarcity—of limited resources in which sort of suggest a very effective and very different way to thinking about and responding to public-safety issues.

Len Sipes:  One of the things that I’ve noted about your article is that it takes a multi-decade approach—just not talking about recent events.  You go all the way back to the 60s; you go back to incarceration levels, you basically state that there’s a certain point where incarceration levels fell beyond a certain point; a point that they were back, I think, in 1962 before crime started skyrocketing and there’s a certain point, within the late 1990s, where we’ve reached those incarceration levels that existed back in the 1960s, but the question was, do we need to continue that?  I mean how many people do we need to lock up?  The criminal-justice system in the United States holds about 7 million people, 2 million under incarceration on any given day, a lot more than that in the jail system.  So, the question becomes, okay, if we cannot afford to sustain that level of incarceration, looking at it from the standpoint of decades and in terms of how we got there, what’s the better way of doing it?

John Buntin:  Well, our society has started to have a conversation about mass incarceration, and it’s a very overdue conversation.  In particular, there has been a great deal of completely warranted discussion about mass incarceration’s effect on the African-American community, particularly, when it comes to young African-American men.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  The statistics are truly breathtaking.  You know African-Americans make up about 15% of the population, but account for 40 to 50%—40% of the prison population.  One in nine African-American men under the age of 34 is in prison.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  The Children’s Defense Fund estimated, about a decade ago, that one in three, you know, black men born in 2001 would, you know, on current trajectory, enter the prison system.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  It’s horrifying and I think that the argument that made by, among others, David Kennedy at John Jay that we are destroying the village in order to save it, is correct. Where I am somewhat at odds with the mainstream discussion is why it’s happening.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  Probably, the most influential book and voice in this debate has been Michelle Alexander.  She is the author of, The New Jim Crow and at the risk of simplifying her book, she does make the argument that mass incarceration is—should be seen as, kind of, the next step in a long history of American impression of minorities.  I see it as something which was born of policy decisions taken for understandable reasons in the 1970s and kind of a story of unintended consequences, and you know in the 1970s the argument was made by, among others, James Q. Wilson, Gary Becker, that U.S. society had made a wrong turn.  Faced with arising crime, we were shutting prisons.  The punitiveness level, which is what academics calculated was falling, and so, in many ways, the decision to respond to a crime wave by increasing incarceration was a reasonable one.  What isn’t reasonable, what hasn’t been reasonable, is the decision to continue to increase prison capacity, you know, past the point of diminishing return.

Len Sipes:  And if you take a look at Department of Justice statistics, half of the states are—the population of their prison systems are declining, but half are increasing.

John Buntin:  Yes.  I mean the punitiveness level of the early ‘60s, you know, was matched in about 1996.  So, by 1996, we were punishing people at the same rate we were in 1963, which is the year that Jim Wilson, kind of, famously described as the epic where everything went wrong.

Len Sipes:  Right, well, where crime just took off—I remember in criminological school once—I left the law enforcement profession, and looking at a trend line and it went up like a rocket in 1963.

John Buntin:  Yes, it’s, you know his identification of that is as a year to study is certainly correct and in addition to my work at Governing, I recently wrote a book called L.A. Noir, which is about the LAPD in this era.  It’s a biography of former LAPD chief William Parker.  And so, looking at what happened there, to my mind, it’s, you know, inescapable that there was a crime response and that the public demand that there be some public-safety response, was warranted.

Len Sipes:  Oh, it was on every—the cover of every magazine in the country, hundreds, if not thousands, of times.  The crime issue was the dominant issue in the late ‘60s and the ‘70s and the’80s.

John Buntin:  But now we’ve reached a point where, you know, even people like Professor Becker, who were influential on laying the groundwork for thinking about—for applying sort of the Chicago School of Economics to criminology, I have concluded that we’ve gone too far.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  So the question is, you know, how do we pull back, and I think—

Len Sipes:  Noting that we have no choice but to pull back at the state level because they can’t sustain the level of funding.

John Buntin:  States are fed up with sacrificing spending on things like higher education and education in general, to build prisons, particularly, when the evidence mounts that there are more effective ways to address the problems.

Len Sipes:  Okay and that’s a good place to break.  We’re halfway through the program, ‘cause I do, in the second half of the program, want to talk about those more effective ways.  We’re talking today to John Buntin.  He is with Governing Magazine, www.governing, G-O-V-E-R-N-I-N-G, .com.  John wrote, you know, an article that is being thoroughly discussed within criminal-justice circles and very few people ever have the influence that John’s article has had because it’s not only extraordinarily well written, easy to read, it goes over a multi-decade worth of research in just four or five pages and comes to some pretty interesting conclusions.  His article, How Game Theory is Reinventing Crime Fighting, again, in Governing Magazine, February of 2012, and I’ll have, in the show notes, the direct link to the article.  So John, let me go back to the—okay, so, we’ve all come collectively through osmosis to a point in the criminal-justice  system where we say we probably have a level of incarceration we need.  The states can no longer afford to really do anymore.  So, we now have a programmatic approach.  We’re now trying to figure out, within the criminological community, led by the Department of Justice, led by Pew, led by lots of organizations; we’re now coming to grips with an alternative way of conducting business.  So give me a sense of Project HOPE in Hawaii.

John Buntin:  Well, so, a lot of the tension is paid, in these discussions, to the prison system—to the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated in prisons, understandably so, but often we ignore the fact that a larger number, about 5 million people, are in community supervision.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  And one of the fascinating things about Project HOPE is the way in which, in a very cost effective way, it’s a sketch shot in approach to dealing with probation, which allows the system to address a very large number of offenders—a much larger number of offenders than a typical drug court can address, in a strikingly effective way.  It also has a really fascinating personal story.  So back in 2004, Judge Steven Alm got interested in his—in the caseload that he’d been assigned.  He’d been on the bench for about three years.  He was a very unusual—is an unusual figure.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  He was a former U.S. Attorney.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  He is an ex-boxer.  In fact, he had even fought, in his youth, at the central jail in Hawaii.

Len Sipes:  Interesting.

John Buntin:  Yes.  If you ever encounter him, ask him what episode of Hawaii Five-O he was on.  And when he looked at his docket, he asked a kind of obvious question that only a relatively new judge, who’d had a broad experience, would ask, which is you’re asking me to remand all these people to prison custody after they’ve amassed, you know, 20, 25 violations.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  Why am I only dealing with this now?

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  He said, you know, think about parenting, you know.  If you have a kid when you’re—what would happen if when your kid was acting out, you didn’t do anything?  You didn’t do anything; you ignored violation after violation, and then suddenly and arbitrarily, the hammer came down, and you inflicted an extreme punishment on the kid.

Len Sipes:  Right, right, right, right.

John Buntin:  It wouldn’t work very well; it’s not a good way to parent, and your kid would feel like they were being mistreated.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  And that is basically what he argued that the criminal-justice system was doing.  So he came up with a different approach, which was guided by, you know, a couple of simple precepts.  You know one was that punishment should be swift and certain, but not necessarily severe.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John:  So, you fail your drug test, you miss your appointment, you know, you’re gonna go into jail, not for two years, for two weekends perhaps.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John:  If you have a job, well, then you’ll serve your jail time on the weekends.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  And because he had been a U.S. Attorney, he was able to call in some favors, for instance, appealing to the U.S. Marshals to make warrant enforcement a priority for his court.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  In other words, to make good his threat.

Len Sipes:  They track the guy down and put him in jail.

John Buntin:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  For a positive drug test.

John Buntin:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  And they did it over and over and over again until they stopped pulling positive drug tests.

John Buntin:  Well, you know two things happened that were interesting.  One was he decided instead of just having a drug test every now and again, everyone in my court is going to call an 800 number every morning and that 800 number will tell you whether you have to come in for a drug test that very day.

Len Sipes:  Interesting.

John Buntin:  And if you were called in, you were tested on the spot, results were generated on the spot, and if you failed, you can even go into custody on the spot.

Len Sipes: That day?

John Buntin:  That day.

Len Sipes:  That day.

John Buntin:  And it was a rather shocking innovation and one of the things that resulted from this was a dramatic falloff in positive drug tests.

Len Sipes:  Well, a dramatic falloff in positive drug tests, a dramatic falloff in the behavior that sends people to prison, and startling, in terms of recidivism rates with recidivism as defined by new arrest or new incarcerations, that dropped dramatically as well.

John Buntin:  It did yes.  I mean the drug test positive falloff rate was in the vicinity of 80%.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  Recidivism dropped around 50%.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  And there’s another component of the HOPE experience that’s really fascinating, and it was this—once you demonstrated that the threat, if you will, was credible, you didn’t have to enforce it very frequently.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  And most people quickly got the message this was real and as a result you didn’t have to expend a lot of organizational capacity enforcing.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  And that has allowed him to you know expand the number of people supervised.

Len Sipes:  And so, basically what we have here is a set of circumstances where literally, over time—literally, over time, thousands of individuals who were headed back to the prison system didn’t go back to the prison system.  You have literally thousands of crimes, over time now considering the length of the program, of people who did not come back into contact with the criminal-justice system.  I know not all crimes are reported, so that’s a very iffy proposition, but we certainly know and can speculate that there were a lot of crimes that were not committed because they stopped drugs, and they also got themselves involved in treatment.

John Buntin:  And what connects to the wonderful world of game theory, is the way in which Hawaii, or at least Judge Alms caseload, moved from an unsatisfactory equilibrium with a lot of frequent offenders, to a very virtuous equilibrium where you didn’t have to do much enforcement, you didn’t have much offense.  And you know that’s something that we’ve seen, you know, not only in programs like HOPE, but in other parts of the criminal-justice world.  You know, particularly with some of the operations, cease-fire-style drug market interventions.

Len Sipes:  Right and that’s the other thing I wanted to bring up.  David Kennedy and a variety of others, including ourselves here at Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, what we have tried to do is to focus on the bad actors.  And here it gets by—and one of the things with Project HOPE—these were high-risk offenders.  These were not low-risk offenders.

John Buntin:  Yes, these were high-risk offenders, and you know, Judge Alm in recent months, years, has said something very interesting as well.  I believe that he is currently in the process of bringing a drug court, you know, into his caseload as well.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  And in effect, he is—one of the striking results has been that a surprisingly large number of people in his system are able to stop using without undergoing the type of expensive drug treatment that, you know, drug courts typically provide in an earlier stage.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  So, Judge Alm has sought to sort of used the drug court in the more intensive treatment for that subset of offenders, you know, who he believes is actually quite a small subset who really don’t respond to these swift, but certain, sanctions.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.  [PH] Vrand, a long time ago, basically said that many offenders take vacations from drugs.  I mean, we have this sense that drugs are, you know, the—you cannot kick drugs.  And offenders stop using drugs all the time, so.  And drugs are heavily correlated with the amount of criminal activity that you do, but get back to David Kennedy because one of the things that Kennedy seemed to be—have done, and others throughout the years, is to say, you know, one of the things that we should be doing is focusing on, again, the high-risk  offender.  Not everybody within the criminal-justice system, but the really bad actors and going after them, correct?

John Buntin:  Correct, I mean one of the—one of, I think, David Kennedy’s insights has been that in most cities, people talk about problems like gang violence or talk about problems like drug markets, but that when you convene the players, the agencies who are trying to address the problem, and you ask let’s drill down to the individual level, you know, typically a fairly small subset of people are responsible for the most violence.  And, you know, Kennedy, you know, first originally in Boston, back in the early ‘90s, came onto the scene of, you know, a preexisting, kind of, intervention and the Boston Police Department, Court Probation, The Department of Youth Services, you know, a kind of group had already come together and was working across agency to deliver a message to certain violent offenders that if they persisted in doing violent things, they’d get a lot of attention.  Unwelcome attention.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  And Kennedy, to his great credit, recognized that there’s something very interesting happening here.  I mean most academics will tell you that criminals are not highly rationale.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  Crime doesn’t pay well.  We know that, you know, contrary to public perception, drug dealing, for most people, you know, is basically a minimum-wage job.

Len Sipes:  I’ve never seen such poverty in my life then in a drug dealer’s home, yet every television show I see, shows just the opposite.

John Buntin:  And so the notion that, you know, gangbangers, who, as we know, police frequently refer to as knuckleheads, will respond in a rational fashion, was a little bit of a stretch.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  But, you know, in Boston, David tried it.  You know the first element was concentration, which he described as focusing on the high-risk people.  You know, David and his group added to that something interesting, which was a direct message.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.

John Buntin:  You know, that was probably best illustrated in High Point North Carolina, which had a very robust open-air drug market in the African-American west end.  The police did traditional police work.  They got all the information they needed to, you know, round up a group of the biggest dealers.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  But instead of arresting them and seeing them replaced by their understudies, they called them in, and they delivered a message saying, we know what you’re doing, we have these binders, we’re ready to prosecute, but instead we’d like to suggest something else.  You shut down the drug market.

Len Sipes:  Right.

John Buntin:  And, you know, identifying exactly who the actors were communicating a clear threat, was very effective.  You know it shut down High Point, and in Boston, at least for a while, you know, it shut down the kind of epidemic levels of youth violence that were making news throughout—

Len Sipes:  And the threat was that in either one instance within the article that an offender had a bullet in the pocket, which is a felon in possession of a bullet, which is prohibited, and he goes to prison for 15 years.

John Buntin:  Kennedy brought in the U.S. Attorney, which is very supportive, and they decided to make an example of one gangbanger, so yes, he was found with a bullet, and he’s—

Len Sipes:  And that influenced everybody else.

John Buntin:  Federal time was a powerful threat.

Len Sipes:  So in essence, we have to wrap up.  We’re really about a minute and a half left before I have to close.  What the article says, looking at it from a multi-decade point of view, looking at a variety of philosophies, a variety of points of view, it says principally what?

John Buntin:  The article says that we should concentrate our resources on the worst offenders.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm.  We should bear in mind that the world is dynamic, and we should think about how we can tip criminal activity from a bad cycle, which we’re all familiar with.  The cycle of reoffending, the cycle of recidivism, the cycle of, you know, failed probation visits.  A third of prison—of the prisoners going into the prison systems are there because of probation violations, and we should think about ways to create virtuous circles.  And then if we communicate our expectations clearly and carry through on those on our message, you know we can see some really startling changes in behavior.  We can move to a virtuous equilibrium, which doesn’t require a great deal of resources to maintain.  And very importantly, we can also create a sense of fairness.  The system seems fair because while I’ve talked a lot about deterrence, that sense of fairness is also very important and a lot of the most interesting work now in criminology I think is occurring around those issues of fairness and legitimacy.

Len Sipes:  We’re approaching the criminal-justice system with surgeon’s tools instead of a sledge hammer.

John Buntin:  Exactly, yes.

Len Sipes:  All right.  Ladies and gentlemen, our guest today has been—it’s been a pleasure interviewing you John and reading your article.  John Buntin, Governing Magazine, www.governing.com, he wrote, what I consider to be a groundbreaking article, How Game Theory is Reinventing Crime Fighting.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety.  We really do appreciate all the cards, letters, e-mails, phone calls suggesting new programs, comments, criticisms.  If you have suggestions for new shows, we would love to hear ‘em and we want everybody to have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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