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