Patterico's Pontifications

6/14/2007

L.A. Times Conducts In-Depth Investigation of Jail Records to Answer One of the Most Critical Issues of Our Time

Filed under: Buffoons,Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 12:10 am



The pressing question of the day: did Paris Hilton got a stiffer sentence than other similarly situated people? It’s an important issue that goes to the heart of the problems facing our country and our world today. Big news stories like this demand an in-depth investigation — as only a big-city newspaper can undertake.

Luckily, your local Dog Trainer is on the job.

The Times analyzed 2 million jail releases and found 1,500 cases since July 2002 that — like Hilton’s — involved defendants who had been arrested for drunk driving and later sentenced to jail after a probation violation or driving without a license.

What was the result? Hey, they did this for eyeballs. I’m not giving it away. You’ll have to click the link above. (But I’ll give you a hint: the other day I opined that she was probably treated worse by the City Attorney and judge due to her unearned celebrity. Do you think I would bring that up again now if I had been wrong?)

Sigh. Didn’t newspapers used to conduct these kinds of investigations on things that mattered?

This post is filed under “Dog Trainer” and “Buffoons.” It feels redundant.

UPDATE: It’s morningtime and I’ve taken a closer look at the article. It’s seriously flawed. I’m going to give away the results, to make a point about this “investigation.”

The article says: “Hilton will end up serving more time than 80% of other people in similar situations.” But you’ll search the article in vain for any hint that the reporters actually looked for “similar situations” — namely, people who drove on a suspended license more than once while on probation for a DUI-type offense (in this case an alcohol-related reckless driving charge). Instead, from the wording of the sentence quoted above, they apparently compared her case to every case of a DUI probation violation for any reason — including people whose violations were minor and technical, and who were released immediately upon coming to court.

Further, it undoubtedly means something that she initially displayed a cavalier attitude in court about the violation — and the “investigation” explicitly acknowledges that this was not taken into account: “(The analysis studied only jail release data and did not take into account other factors that influence individual cases, such as the judge’s sentencing record and courtroom behavior of the defendant).”

The “investigation” thus replicates many of the usual flaws of studies done of the criminal justice system, by failing to take into account the factors that truly influence outcomes.

So while I still believe that the judge probably treated her (slightly) more harshly because of her celebrity, it’s not a slam dunk. This investigation does not establish that she was treated unfairly, when all factors are taken into account. And please note that almost 20% of people served as much time or more on probation violations (though again, we don’t know what kind), so it’s not like a sentence like this is unheard of for a probation violation for DUI or a similar offense.

By the way, the article also supports my contention that Hilton initially received more favorable treatment from Baca because of her celebrity. “Last year, the department released only three inmates on medical grounds, a spokesman said.” I wonder how many of those decisions commanded the personal attention of Lee Baca . . .

UPDATE x2: The argument that this is indeed an important story is well articulated by Deputy D.A. Tom Higgins in the article:

“In a way the people of this community owe a vote of thanks to Ms. Hilton because she’s highlighted an issue that a bunch of dead bodies didn’t,” said Tom Higgins, who runs the Los Angeles County district attorney’s criminal filings division in downtown Los Angeles.

He has a point there. I still think going through 2 million jail records was an indefensible waste of time.

UPDATE x3: Now that I read the infobox at the bottom of the story, I see that the sample of cases does include only driving on a suspended license after a DUI — meaning there is a typo in the story, which has an “or” where there should be a “for”:

The Times analyzed 2 million jail releases and found 1,500 cases since July 2002 that — like Hilton’s — involved defendants who had been arrested for drunk driving and later sentenced to jail after a probation violation for driving without a license.

It still doesn’t tell us what happened when the defendants violated probation multiple times — so it’s still not an analysis of “similar” cases and is in my view close to worthless.

UPDATE x4: I just looked at the scanned image of the paper’s front page today — and saw this article there. This is considered front-page news.

I’d satirize it, but it satirizes itself.

21 Responses to “L.A. Times Conducts In-Depth Investigation of Jail Records to Answer One of the Most Critical Issues of Our Time”

  1. I think this stat IS important. The press has manufactured this “outrage” out of whole cloth without checking any facts at all and this happens all the time. I knew, and published, the real facts a week or so ago but nobody paid attention because that is not what the animals wanted to know. Same with Man Made Global Warming, Lindsay Lohan losing her virginity, and the lies about steroids (and they really are lies if you want to check, but who cares about facts?)

    Howard Veit (4ba8d4)

  2. 1) This statistical study would be important, if the data backed the contention that someone is being imprisoned unfairly because of celebrity status.

    2) However, I believe that the data does not demonstrate this:

    First, if her “23 days” is at the 80th percentile of “similar offenses,” then that proves nothing. After all, by definition 20% of defendants serve at least at the 80th percentile, and that fact cannot prove any unfairness, unless one defines any variation in sentencing within the category to be unfair.

    Second, the data category of “similar offenses” does not well match Hilton’s circumstance. It consists of “those sentenced to jail for driving with a suspended license in violation of DUI probation.” I believe that Hilton was stopped twice for driving with a suspended license.

    DWPittelli (2e1b8e)

  3. Funny, DW, I just got through writing an update that says exactly what you just said. I swear I didn’t see your comment first.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  4. There are two, seperate issues here:

    1) How often do judges give 45 days on a probation violation similar to Hilton’s?

    2) How much real time do people serving 45 days in county jail on misdemeanors really get from the Sheriff?

    In each case, I am willing to bet that Hilton got more than the average. Keep in mind, judges set the sentence and the Sheriff undercuts due to overcrowding (as ordered by the federal court).

    I guess it all comes back to the courts afterall? Maybe it is the Board of Supervisors that should build more jails and provice more deputies to staff them.

    Alta Bob (dc1bae)

  5. So while I still believe that the judge probably treated her (slightly) more harshly because of her celebrity, it’s not a slam dunk. This investigation does not establish that she was treated unfairly, when all factors are taken into account.

    I think that’s true to the extent that her celebrity gave her the notion that she was above the process. I don’t think the judge was looking so much at her celebrity as he was at the fact that she was thumbing her nose at him. They tend not to like that and I think his intent was to knock her off her high horse and see that she realized who the boss is.

    I’m thinking that his message has probably gotten through.

    Pablo (99243e)

  6. I believe that Hilton was stopped twice for driving with a suspended license.

    She also failed to enroll in a mandatory alcohol education program, which makes 3 strikes. There was also a third stop in which she was let go, so that’s 4. As the judge said:

    “I can’t believe that either attorney did not tell her that the suspension had been upheld,” the judge said. “She wanted to disregard everything that was said and continue to drive no matter what.”

    Pablo (99243e)

  7. she was caught driving on a suspended license twice. most courts don’t like that, and comparisons with single-violators are inapposite.

    all the pundits have missed the central, burning issue in people v. hilton. she wasn’t allowed to wax or moisturize in jail, which suggested to me that her pubes were growing back. do you know what it’s like for a woman of refinement to have unwanted hair growing on her slippery sawmill? it’s like somebody coming in and planting grass seed on your pool table.

    assistant devil's advocate (785204)

  8. I must disagree — such a detailed review of jail records is a project few institutions outside of a major newspaper would have the resources or desire to do. And it needs to be done from time to time.

    Bradley J. Fikes (1c6fc4)

  9. “I still think going through 2 million jail records was an indefensible waste of time.”

    The article said the records were electronically searched. Is that really all that hard?

    James B. Shearer (fc887e)

  10. Patrick–
    If you asked most people in LA “If someone is sentenced to LA County Jail for 45 days, how long are they actually in jail?”, pre-Hilton, they would have thought the answer was something rather more than “3-5 days.”

    The outrage over Hilton’s release should be viewed as an outrage over a broken system that “no one” knew was broken. Rather than rail about the idiocy of tabloids and their celebrities, why not take the meaningful subject and post about it.

    As in “Why is an LA County Jail sentence such a joke, and what can be done about it?”

    Kevin Murphy (0b2493)

  11. I second Fikes.

    Give the Times credit for actually doing some research – it has flaws, but it contained useful data. How many other Paris Hilton articles contain useful data?

    Let’s get the Times to post the database online. It should all be public information – including names and addresses.

    TomHynes (aab663)

  12. Once again I second Mr. Murphy.
    Add to that that in this particular case my own answer to the burning question of “Did Paris Hilton get treated more harshly because of her celebrity?” is–no. I honestly don’t think so, given the circumstances Patterico and others pointed out. But while she may have received a worse sentence by virtue of her fame, she certainly HAS gotten unbelievably better treatment in jail due to her fame too. That’s the real scandal here, and for instance I still can’t believe that Ms. Hilton’s parents warrant the kind of “special” passes during visitation, etc. that they’ve plainly gotten. Whatever supposed hell Hilton’s going through in county lockup, why does it warrant her visitors being treated like they’re at the Penisula or a private club?
    All of the information about the Sheriff’s actions and those of his too-nervous staff in this case is infuriating. Really, it should result in some shakeups, head rolls or at least some serious scrutiny.
    Why ARE things so poorly run in Los Angeles, anyway?

    jpl (e52c22)

  13. In addition, even if Ms. Hilton is serving more time than some others caught twice driving with a DUI-suspended license, I think her wealth could fairly and properly be taken into account to some extent. That is, a working class defendant might receive lenience for either of these reasons which do not apply to Ms. Hilton:

    1) He was driving to or from work, which work he really needed to attend to prevent going broke, homeless, etc. And he could not afford a limo.

    2) He did not understand his legal obligations, a claim made credible for him because he could not afford a proper lawyer, and was either of sub-average intelligence or had a limited comprehension of English.

    On the other hand, Ms. Hilton’s lawyers could present evidence that celebrities in general, or even white-collar people in general, receive super-lenient treatment all the time, and that her treatment relative to them is almost certainly because of her sleazy or low-class public persona. If, say, it could be shown that Republican actors who perform in family moves are routinely let loose after multiple DUIs, then perhaps Ms. Hilton has a First Amendment case to make that she is being punished for her public “speach.”

    DWPittelli (2e1b8e)

  14. Kevin Murphy,

    The early release policy apparently had nothing to do with her early release, which was done for medical reasons, like only 3 other people last year.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  15. For those praising this investigation: given that it doesn’t compare apples to apples and is therefore useless, it is not only a huge waste of time, but a misleading huge waste of time.

    But make no mistake: it will treated as the authoritative analysis on whether she got an excessive sentence.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  16. It would be more helpful if the LA Times would assign someone to ferret out what length/kind of sentences multiple offenders received. The data might show the average offender received harsher sentences than Ms. Hilton, but since that doesn’t fit the narrative I doubt we will see that story any time soon.

    DRJ (2d5e62)

  17. Why stop there? I think we need a 50-state analysis of sentences across the country.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  18. I agree with you to this extent: if they do an analysis at all, it should be thorough and helpful and not half-assed and misleading.

    But my greater point is that they should not waste their time with such utter nonsense.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  19. Patterico, I understand your point and I generally agree.

    I may be taking this too seriously but I don’t see the benefit of doing a 50-state analysis unless it concerns federal charges. The citizens and legislatures of the various states may react in different ways to offenses and that’s fine with me as long as each state’s laws are applied consistently.

    I also agree that this particular story/study wasn’t helpful but, having said that, I don’t have a problem with newspapers engaging in seemingly foolish exercises. On rare occasion, interesting insight comes from something that initially seems foolish. More frequently, foolish opinions reveal how illogical the source is. There’s value to both.

    DRJ (2d5e62)

  20. I, for one, am very interested in issues of quality (re: consistency) of the justice system. Seems to me to be a lot wrong with it. Doesn’t seem like wasted time or effort to me.

    I don’t think that the analysis of the LA Times will be the end of it. The Sheriff has a report to prepare and I would think that he has statisticians in his “operations staff” looking into it as part of his report.

    Whether or not something more definitive can be said depends on what information has been recorded (saved). Bear in mind that the LA Times put this together in short order. There are ways to address the valid points you make depending on the extent of the information available (e.g., who was the judge that handed down the sentence, etc …).

    Just for example, if the sentencing judge is recorded, a telling statistic would be the number of 1st time DUI offenders who violated probation (more than once), appeared before judge Sauer and had stipulations of no house arrest scribbled on their commitment order. How much time did they actually serve? Yes, maybe there isn’t another one with same # and type of probation violations. Then again, maybe there is. He’s been doing mostly DUIs for a number of years as I understand it.

    Do you really think that multiple violations of probation would be extremely rare in the 1500 cases? If you are a DUI offender on probation & are caught driving on a suspended license I’d say it is a good bet that you haven’t enrolled in your alcohol education class. At that point it stands to reason that few would sign up and go to class since they know that they are heading back to court anyway.

    A potential flaw in the analysis that strikes me is that it doesn’t say whether or not all of the 1500 cases are 1st time DUI offenders or not. I’d suspect a big difference if you violate probation on a 2nd DUI vs. a 1st DUI. Conduct and/or remorse in court is most surely not recorded but I would think (and hope) that has little effect vis a vis a 1st DUI provided the person maintains a civil posture (i.e., no cussing at the judge or pissing on the floor).

    john (c8ca6b)

  21. >>I’d suspect a big difference if you violate probation on a 2nd DUI vs. a 1st DUI.

    oops … stike that … there is no probation on 2nd DUI

    john (c8ca6b)


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