National Crime Statistics Are “Deeply Flawed”: Live from IRE



Each year journalists from around the world gather at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference. The Crime Report’s Julia Dahl reports live from Baltimore on the panels sponsored by the Criminal Justice Journalists.

4:40 p.m.

The day's final panel, Can Repeat Criminals be Stopped, focused on parole and probation.

“Although we talk a lot about the prison population being at two million plus, there are more than five million people on probation or parole at any given time,” said Ted Gest. “So the general theme is, how do you manage these people?”

Joe Neff, a reporter for North Carolina's Raleigh News & Observer, discussed the series of stories his paper did in the wake of the murder of Eve Carson, who had been student body president at UNC, Chapel Hill.

“It turned out that the two people who were charged with the crime were on probation,” said Neff. “Their cases were handled terribly, so the Department of Corrections tried to get out in front of the issue, saying that, yes, these two had basically had no supervision at all, but that these were just two cases out of 117,000. That these were anomalies.”

Neff's paper asked, is that true? Or were these cases more representative?

“We found that there were major failings in the probation system. People – even those on intensive supervision – would go a year or more without seeing a probation officer.”

Neff and his colleagues discovered a huge vacancy rate in the probation office, as well as a sorely outdated (pre-Windows) computer system. They also identified numerous instances of warrants being obtained on probationers but never filed. In some cases, the probationer went on to commit murder. Despite these issues, according to Neff, the probation office never went to the legislature to ask for more funding.

“If you think the system's bad in North Carolina, all you have to do is drive south to South Carolina,” said Doug Pardue of the Charleston Post and Courier, which published a series about South Carolina's “broken” parole and probation system in August 2008.

“We went to our morgue and looked up about 25 cases and we had our story like that,” said Pardue. “The criminal justice in our state, it's basically a sinking ship…the system is broken at every single turn.”

Pardue said that when they finished their story, state legislators promised more funding for the parole and probation systems, but then “the recession hit, and today the same probation officers that had 170 cases each, now have 240.”

According to Judy Sachwald, former parole and probation director in Maryland, the American Probation and Parole Association recommends a caseload of 1-50 for moderate to high-risk offenders.

Sachwald said that the National Institute of Justice is currently studying proper probation caseload size and that their report – which she said “will provide a target for policy makers to aim for” – should be out in late fall.

12:30 p.m.

Panel two, The Flaws in Forensic Science, unpacked the recent, scathing report by the National Academy of Sciences which called the nation’s forensic science system “badly fragmented.”

Penn State’s Robert Shaler, who was on the committee that prepared the NAS report, pointed to several aspects of the report that he hadn’t seen reported in the media, including the fact that forensic testing may or may not be conducted by scientists, and that opinions given in court were based on experience and training that may be shallow and incomplete. He also pointed to the report’s finding that many forensic experts testify without making statements about the probabilities involved.

The Baltimore Sun’s Melissa Harris picked up on Shaler’s point, discussing the ongoing case of the murder of Kenneth Harris, a former Baltimore city councilman. “The whole case is based on DNA,” said Harris. “They get on TV and say that the suspects’ DNA is all over the crime scene” but, in the case of one suspect, “the chance that the DNA could be someone else’s is 1 in 164.”

Shaler puzzled over the fact that, despite the report’s recommendation that a National Institute of Forensic Sciences (separate from the Department of Justice) be created, the majority of forensic scientists — as well as the International Association of Chiefs of Police — do not support the creation of such an institute. “Why don’t they want it?” he asked. “Somebody should be looking into that.”

“Forensic science is not a law enforcement tool,” said Shaler, who believes crime labs should be separate from police departments. “It’s a criminal justice tool.”

Patrick Kent, of the Forensics Division of the Maryland Public Defenders office, says that the national forensics community has taken a “cynical but pragmatic route” saying they agree with the report, “but are they going to change anything? No. The report is damning, the report is scary, but nothing is going to change unless there is more [media] reporting.”

He continued: “Call any lab in the country and ask them if they agree with the report. They do. Then ask if they’ve adopted one single recommendation. Ask them. They have not.”

“Science is about doing research with objective standards, none of which exist in [forensic] communities,” said Kent. “It's sad we needed an entire commission to say you need to get your ducks in a row before you come into the courtroom.”

Thomas Mauriello, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and a federal forensic investigator, ended the session by handing the power to the reporters in the room: “We can't forget that the jury's education, knowledge and training comes from you. Forty percent of the science on CSI doesn’t even exist. The only thing they understand about forensics comes from what they read in the paper and what they see on TV.”

11:15 a.m.

The first panel of the day, Understanding Crime Statistics, focused on the problems with data included in the Uniform Crime Report, Supplemental Homicide Report, and other national crime measurements.

Moderator Ted Gest reported that on June 1 the FBI released preliminary UCR figures for 2008 but that “those crime figures are very incomplete. Really, it's a report of crimes that were brought to the attention of local law enforcement – that's a huge caveat. Some local law enforcement doesn't even report them to the FBI.”

Michael Rand, chief of victimization statistics at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, discussed the limits of the UCR, saying that “only half of all violent crimes are reported to the police” and that the survey does not break down crime by city or state, though he said the bureau is currently redesigning the survey to reflect more local statistics.

James Lynch of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice also lamented BJS’s lack of local data but said “efforts are underway to bridge that gap.” He said that a National Academy of Sciences Committee will be releasing a report which looks closely at BJS and other national crime statistics in three weeks. Lynch recommended reporters look at the National Incident Based Reporting Program, which he said is more detailed and easier to use than UCR. He also said that while BJS gets complaints from reporters what they need is “push back” telling the agency what journalists would like to see.

Brant Houston agreed that BJS data is “deeply flawed.” He asked Rand, “How flawed is the Supplemental Homicide Report?” After a short pause, Rand answered, “It’s incomplete.”

Gest then alluded to the recent revelation that the Detroit Police Department had failed to report more than a hundred homicides, saying, “What’s a couple hundred murders between friends?”

Mark Fazlollah of The Philadelphia Inquirer pointed to a series his paper did looking at the falsification of crime statistics in Philadelphia, which led to revelations of similar mis-reporting in Atlanta, Baltimore and New York. “The phony stats were known for many years,” said Fazlollah. “Aggravated assaults were easily changed to simple assaults…Precinct commanders used to joke about this, but behind those statistics are real victims.”

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