John Pfaff Profile picture
Professor @FordhamLawNYC. Contributing editor @theappeal. Prisons & criminal justice quant. I'm not contrarian–the data is. Author of Locked In, now available.
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30 Jul
@amazingprizzini Yeah, law school flunked out v v few. And most grad schools don't have the same failure rate.

The legend (true? false? dunno) is that first year grad classes used to be "open": anyone could sit in. But only a few would be allowed to pass the exams to be "admitted," for Yr2.
@amazingprizzini So the department developed a culture of large-scale failure. And once the first-year stopped being that way, the culture persisted.

When I was a first year, the rumor was they wanted 30 second year students, but consistently had abt 40 taking the first-yr exams...
@amazingprizzini ... with 30 admits and 10 retakes. So, we thought, if they could just get than number down to 30, they could pass basically everyone, like most schools did.

A few years later, they got it to 30... and passed abt 20. It was just A Thing, apparently.
Read 3 tweets
30 Jul
An essential post on the toxic culture that permeates economics.

My first year of grad school remains the single most emotionally destructive and exhausting year I've experienced... even worse than the one where one of my newborn twins had 5+ critical surgeries.
And I am a straight white guy. So I had every single advantage, and it still was emotionally abusive in a way that still sticks with me, over 20 years later.

I'd say I can't imagine what it was like for the Black students in my entering cohort, but... yeah. There weren't any.
But I do remember one overarching act of cruelty, which reflects how little the department valued grad student lives.

One classmate of mine was an older guy. Already had a PhD in Philosophy. Wrote some paper on econ, sent it to a prof at Chicago. They liked it, but....
Read 12 tweets
17 Jul
Feel like we’ll be hearing a lot abt crime in NYC in the weeks ahead, so:

1. Don’t forget: NYPD makes its data public, and quickly. You can verify claims yourself here: www1.nyc.gov/site/nypd/stat…

2. Be wary of cherry-picking. Some things rise, others fall. The Narrative adapts.
Right now, shootings are up, but rape, assault and robbery are down. So we hear a lot abt shootings. Flip that, and we’d have discussions of robberies.

3. Only the upticks seem to trigger discussions of reforms. I’ve seen nothing asking if, say, reforms cut assaults. Note that.
4. NYC isn’t the only place w reforms, and it isn’t the only place w protests. Be wary of cherry-picking cities, too.

5. Related, crime in cities won’t always move the same way. If someone discusses “rises of X in cities A, B, and C,” need to also know if X fell in D, E.
Read 5 tweets
8 Jul
As "defunding the police" continues to pick up steam, I think it may be helpful to appreciate the relatively minor role formal enforcement actually plays, and thus why investing in alternatives makes so much sense.

Start here: ~50% of violence, 65% of prop crime NEVER REPORTED.
Next: of those crimes that do get reported, about 30% to 40% of violent crimes, 15% of property crimes yield an arrest.

So we are at 20% of viol victims see an arrest, 5% of prop crimes see an arrest.

Only a fraction of crimes enter the system at all.
Now, to be clear, clearance rates (like 911 calls) are not a complete picture of police efficacy.

Officers standing at the corner, walking the beat, etc., may prevent all sorts of crimes without needing make an arrest. In fact, that's likely their most effective impact.
Read 9 tweets
2 Jul
I see that #EpsteinDidntKillHimself is trending again, given the arrest of Ghislane Maxwell.

So it bears repeating: he probably did, in fact, commit suicide.
As @Popehat pointed out a while back, our prisons are brutal inhumane and inhuman places where the sort of indifference needed for Epstein to commit suicide is routine: theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…

In the notoriously understaffed MCC, Epstein’s jail, that risk just goes up.
We have this strange belief that the our prisons and jails are tough but ultimately mostly functional places.

They are not.



It is, of course, possible that Epstein was murdered. But it remains the less-likely explanation.
Read 4 tweets
8 Jun
In case you wonder why other officers didn't try to keep Chauvin from killing Floyd, this is part of it:

A Buffalo officer intervened in a similar case... and got punched by the first officer, charged with obstruction, and then fired without her pension.

vice.com/en_us/article/…
And re-upping this one. Officer DOESN'T shoot a man in distress, gets fired for endangering the others officers who killed that man immediately upon arriving.

The man had an unloaded gun, which the first office felt was the case.



It's not bad apples.
Read 2 tweets
16 Apr
This.

Prior to #COVID19, we released ~1,700 ppl from prisons every DAY, and ~275,000 (!!) ppl every DAY from county jails.

The paltry releases under COVID prison furloughs and jail reductions are mere drops in the rivers of people flowing in and out of penal instititions.
Given the 625,000 releases from prison and 10,000,000 releases from jails--and given the trauma ppl experience in prison and jails and our inadequate re-entry policies--it will ALWAYS be possible to find a striking salient case of reoffending to hype up.
This is, ofc, the bread and butter of tough-on-crime politicians, law enforcement officials, and the media who support them (hi, @nypost).

But important to note something about this effort to weaponize the "Willie Horton Effect": we have NO real evidence if it actually matters.
Read 5 tweets
22 Mar
As faculty debate this, just wanted to share my thoughts on why I think mandatory P/F is the right response to this crisis.

Basically, if we unpack the “grades allow students to prove they can excel under stress” argument, it quickly becomes clear that... they won’t. At all.
What grades will reflect is that some students:

1. Are wealthy enough to live alone, as libraries close and we are crammed together more. In NYC, this is huge.

2. Don’t have kids now out of school. Even if both parents are home, this disadvantages women.
3. Don’t have to care for ailing parents, or other siblings as parents self-isolate.

4. Don’t have underlying conditions that induce stress.

5. Have parents with the resources to look after themselves, and to stay (relatively) safe.
Read 11 tweets
23 Jan
1. There’s a stat Michelle Alexander cites in her recent New Yorker interview that isn’t correct, and it is important to see why.

She claims that 5% of all arrests are for violence, and drugs is the biggest engine of arrests.

Here’s why that’s not right, and why it matters:
2. She’s right that arrests for SERIOUS violence are about 5% of all arrests, at least in 2018: 520K out of 10M.

Drugs, meanwhile, come to 1.6M out of 10M.

BUT.

Look right below “violence.” Other assaults? 1.06M.

So violence = 1.58M, drugs = 1.65M.
3. Moreover, if you view gun cases as essentially violent crimes, then violence comes to 1.75M.

If you think of DUIs as a form of potential but unrealized violence (after all, if the driver injured or killed someone, it would be “violent”), it comes to nearly 3M.
Read 13 tweets
9 Jan
This is probably one of the best discussions of crime stats and analysis I've read in a long time, maybe ever--academic or popular.

• Confusing and contradictory data
• All sorts of spurious correlations
• Critical spillover effects to measure
• It's... so hard to parse
We really don't talk abt how these data issues matter. Change from the UCR to NCVS, and entire results just... disappear.

But papers never engage in this debate. Just trot out the UCR, add a footnote abt its weaknesses, and then... act like it's just fine. (I've done it too.)
I mean, we talk all the time about how the "crime boom" from the 1960s to the 1980s helped fuel mass incarceration and the politics of punishment.

But did crime boom? Or did it collapse?

In the 1960s and 1970s, the UCR and NCVS seem to be looking at two different countries.
Read 6 tweets
7 Jan
It’s really is really hard to say!

It’s a strange way of trying to limit false positives that has taken on nearly sacred value.

And its intellectual history is a mess. Like: All research is built around this 5% level... which RA Fisher just plucked from thin air.
Basically, it’s a lifetime false-positive batting average. If you strictly hold to the 5% level, then in cases where you could make a false positive claim (there is no relationship, but you think there could be), you’ll falsely find an effect ~5% of the time.

That’s it!
It doesn’t say anything about this specific paper you’re reading.

It doesn’t say anything about how often you make false negative errors (when there IS an effect, but you say “nah”).

And that’s before you get to the flagrant corruption that shows how little we get it:
Read 8 tweets
2 Jan
Wild thread. Progressive DA (yeah, yeah, CA) in Fairfax VA tries to drop marijuana possession cases, judge refuses to let him.

Eventually Descano’s office succeeded, but required some work to do it.

DAs matter, but judges are often going to be the next hurdle.
VA also an interesting case, bc despite its constitution being written by same overrated Founding Father who helped write the Fed one, it only has 2 branches of govt:

Judges in VA are appointed, retained and promoted by the lege. So strong incentive to resist blanket resistance.
Read 2 tweets
29 Dec 19
After every mass shooting, tough-on-crime types lecture that “this is not the time for politics.”

But apparently the day after the awful stabbings in Monsey IS the right to rant against bail reform.

This is the politics of mass incarceration.

ALSO:
It has ALWAYS been ILLEGAL in NY to use bail to detain someone bc of risk of dangerousness. Was before the current reforms, still will be after.

Why? Because of the PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE.

It’s a bedrock principle—even if one never actually honored, ever—of our CJ system.
What the reform law does it make it harder for judges and prosecutors to break the law.

And they do so openly. Darcel Clark, a former state judge and now the Bronx DA, proudly stated at a media-attended public event at Fordham that she took dangerousness into account as a judge.
Read 5 tweets
21 Dec 19
1. Honest question: have any high-profile pundits, policy makers, or (sigh) “influencers” provided a nuanced take on Bevins? Or linked the Bevins coverage to Cuomo’s dismal pardoning practices or the recent PA parole board fiasco?

Because it matters.
2. The public as a whole is profoundly misinformed about prisons.

They think abt 50% of all ppl are in for drugs. It’s 15%.

55% are in for violence. Those serving long terms (where parole/commutations matter most)? Over 95% in for SERIOUS violence.
3. As a result, even liberals are unwilling to rethink how we punish violence.

As the screaming over Bevins, and silence over PA Board of Pardons, makes clear.

We have convinced ourselves we can solve this easily. We cannot.
Read 6 tweets
3 Dec 19
As banks divest from private prisons (which hold ~8% of all ppl in prison), my understanding is that they seem quite interested in underwriting, say, the bond issue that NYC’s new ~$10B jail plan requires.

Publics are where the real money is.

vox.com/policy-and-pol…
Is this paragraph about the private prison firm’s new D1A PR push, or public CO unions and DOC officials?

Every problem w the privates exists in the publics, just at vaster scale.

And our focus on privates actively distracts ppl from this point.
Do you know what else is a multi-billion dollar industry that doesn’t have the best interest of those in prison at its heart?

The public prisons, which hold 92% of all people in prison.

Who, again, are effectively hiding behind the outrage over privates.
Read 5 tweets
30 Nov 19
Yesterday it was NPR engaging in Horton journalism, today it is Reuter’s.

No reference to how often these sorts of parole failure happen, no mention that the attack was thwarted by someone on release from a murder charge.

Pure Horton.

We have to do better than this.
For those unfamiliar w Willie Horton journalism: it’s the practice of discussing any one parole/etc. failure without giving any context about how representative it is.

Horton’s famous failure got tons of media attention. Ignored was his program’s > 99% (!!) success rate.
So “Horton journalism” is shorthand for the practice of fearmongering off any one salient anecdotal failure to attack entire programs.

Politically, it is why politicians say they are afraid to take risks, although the actual *electoral* risk of Horton journalism is unknown.
Read 4 tweets
18 Nov 19
Sigh. No.

Marijuana has played a big role in mass punishment, yes. And perhaps as a gateway charge to more-serious criminal justice contact (tho the data here is really unclear).

But only about ONE percent of ppl in prison are there for MJ; only 15% for any drug.
Now, sometimes I get favorably cited by the anti-legalization crowd for making this point. That’s not my point.

We should legalize and regulate weed.

But undoing mass incarceration means changing how we think about violence.

And we’ve made it a zero-sum game.
Because people think a majority of ppl in prison are there for drugs (bc pols keep saying things like this), they are unwilling—in a very bipartisan way—to confront how we punish violence.

We think there’s an easy solution. There is not.
Read 7 tweets
11 Nov 19
1. This speech from the other day by Asst US Attorney Jeffrey Rosen, attacking reform-oriented district attorneys, is simply STAGGERING in its dishonesty, even by Trumpian standards.

Which means they are scared. Tough-on-crime is scared.

justice.gov/opa/speech/dep…
2. “Stunning increases” in violent crime.

Yes, murder jumped by 20%—because it was already so LOW. And it jumped from historic lows to near-historic lows, and is now heading back to… historic lows.
3. Rosen engages in some flagrant obfuscation. He states that targeting violence keeps us safe (debatable, and will come back to this), then attacks DAs who propose categorical denials as making us less safe.

But NONE has proposed categorial declines for violence.
Read 11 tweets
27 Oct 19
I could go thru the numbers—Feds hold only 10% of ppl in prison, only 8% of ppl in prison are in privates, canceling contracts would free no one—but those are minor points, really.

This big point?

PUBLIC PRISON ARE PROFITING TOO. And hold 92% of all ppl behind bars.
We spend $3B on private prisons, but $50B in publics. And 2/3 of that $50B is wages. That’s about $35B. Ten times private revenue, 100 TIMES private profit.

And that is what matters. Here’s why:
Why do we fear privates? Bc we say, correctly, that the profit motive gives them an incentive to lobby for tougher laws.

That’s exactly what a $35B wage bill does for the publics, but in far bigger ways (besides the 10-to-100-fold difference in size):
Read 9 tweets
2 Oct 19
Banks are still lining up to help NYC issue the bonds it needs to build its proposed new jails.

Perhaps if the privates go under ppl will turn their attention to how the publics are funded, but I’m not optimistic.

Like LWOP replacing the death penalty.

forbes.com/sites/morgansi…
Also, if GEO and CoreCivic go under fast, what happens to the people in their facilities?

States already struggle to keep their public prisons staffed, so likely can’t just staff up the once-private buildings.

So cram more ppl into already-stretched publics, making them worse?
I know the long run goal is “less capacity = fewer ppl locked up,” and given that privates may to some degree cherry-pick lower-risk ppl maybe private closures will lead to some immediate paroles.

But fear this could lead to an ugly transition path.
Read 3 tweets
30 Sep 19
🚨 The 2018 Uniform Crime Reports are finally up🚨

1. In what will surely be a blow to the Trump admin’s messaging, the 2018 UCR is out and… except for rape, all violent crime is down:

Murder: -6%
Robbery: -12%
Agg Assault: -0.3%

Rape: +3%

ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u…
2. All property crimes are down as well, but they have basically been falling all along.

Burglary: -12%
Larceny/theft: -6%
Auto theft: -3%
3. Obviously the biggest immediate question is how the rape data in the UCR compares to the NCVS, which showed that huge jump in 2018.

UCR: rape is +3%.

In NCVS, *reported* sexual assault (a BROADER definition) is +16%
Read 20 tweets