Income Inequality Matters

by Roger Koppl

Income inequality matters. Let me say that again so you know I meant it: Income inequality matters. This statement may be surprising coming from a self-described “Austrian” economist and a “liberal” in the good old-fashioned pro-market sense. It shouldn’t be. It should be one of our issues. The surprise should be that we pro-market types have not spoken up more on this central issue, thereby letting it become associated almost exclusively with more or less “progressive” opinion.

This indifference to income distribution is all the more mysterious because pro-market thinkers generally support a theory of politics that tells us to watch out for ways the state can be used to create unjust privileges for some at the expense of others. We should expect the distribution of income to be skewed toward the politically powerful and away from the poor and politically weak. In a representative democracy “special interests” engage in “rent seeking” to get special favors. Those special favors enrich some at the expense of others. That’s what they are meant to do! Continue reading

We should pay more attention to Radley Balko

by Roger Koppl

On June 14th, Radley Balko posted an article on Huffington Post entitled “Private Crime Labs Could Prevent Errors, Analyst Bias: Report.”  He explains some of the problems of forensic science in the US.  He suggests that “rivalrous redundancy” could improve the system and links to my 2007 Reason Foundation Report explaining how rivalrous redundancy works. 

For years, Radley has documented shocking problems in the American criminal justice system from no-knock warrants, to the snitch system, to forensic science.  He contributed to the July 2011 special issue of Reason magazine on “Criminal Injustice.”  The criminal justice system is the great fulcrum point where the power of the state meets the people.  We need to be more conscious of the problems of our criminal justice system and the risks to our liberties created by those problems.  And liberty loving scholars need to think harder about the nature of the problem and what to do about it.

Arizona law a blow to liberty

by Roger Koppl

Kris Kobach defends Arizona’s new immigration law, SB 1070, in today’s New York Times.  He says, “Presumably, the government lawyers . . . will actually read the law, something its critics don’t seem to have done.”  Well, I read the law and I do not like it.

Whenever a  law enforcement officer makes a “lawful contact” with a person, the officer must attempt to determine that person’s immigration status if he or she has “reasonable suspicion” the person is an illegal immigrant.  It is a “lawful contact” if the cops ask for a statement at the scene of an accident, for example.  Illegals now have an incentive to flee even as mere witnesses.  The local police or sheriff’s office cannot have a policy to counter this incentive lest they be sued.  The law provides that “a person” may bring suit against any “official or agency” that has a policy that “limits or restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law.”  The central provision of SB 1070 threatens to reduce the ordinary protections of the law for illegal aliens, which threatens order and security for them and everyone else. Continue reading

Epistemic monopoly is still a bad thing

by Roger Koppl

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services has been distributing my op ed with Dan Krane on “Science rules the FBI should obey.”  We discuss an example of epistemic monopoly in action, namely, the FBI’s failure so far to release anonymized data from its vast NDIS (National DNA Index System) data set.  The NDIS data set contains the genetic profiles of more than 7 million people, most of whom have been convicted of serious crimes, such as rape.  It contains information on whether the practice of forensic DNA profiling aligns with DNA facts, but that information can be extracted only if scientists are allowed to study the data.  Why isn’t the FBI playing by the usual science rules requiring openness and data sharing?  Continue reading

Who will capture forensic science?

by Roger Koppl

Friday I spoke at a conference on  Forensic Science in the 21st Century: The National Academy of Sciences Report and Beyond  The report was a humdinger.  It says,  “The bottom line is simple: In a number of forensic science disciplines, forensic science professionals have yet to establish either the validity of their approachor the accuracy of their conclusions, and the courts have been utterly ineffective in addressing this problem.”  That’s strong stuff.  The report did a good job at identifying the unscientific nature of much of forensic science.  The report neglected problems that can arise in nuclear DNA analysis, but it is still impressively hard hitting.   Continue reading

Now it’s official: forensic science is a mess

by Roger Koppl

The NAS released a much-anticipated report on forensic science last month.  The report said, “With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, however, no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”  That’s a much stronger statement than we might have expected.  The report identified several of the big problems with forensic including attachment to law enforcement.  The report advises Congress to create a new home for forensic science: the National Institute for Forensic Science (NIFS).  Basically, NIFS would take over forensic science and make sure everybody plays fair and does the right thing. 

The NAS proposal to create NIFS is a much better idea than many ThinkMarkets readers might at first imagine.  You might think it’s a bad idea to create another bloated government bureaucracy centralizing authority in Washington.  But we need to remember where authority exists today and what constrains that authority.  As the NAS report notes, the current system is “fragmented.” The opposite of liberty is arbitrary authority, and in many parts of our “fragmented” system, local authorities have unchecked discretionary authority.  Reason magazine’s Radley Balko gives us a jaw-dropping example of the abuse of forensic-science authority in Mississippi.  Sadly, other examples exist.  NIFS will have problems of its own, but it should be better than such arbitrary local authority.

The report is far from perfect.  It recommends research on “observer effects” in forensic science, but fails to recommend “sequential unmasking” as a corrective.  Nor does it recognize the importance of epistemic monopoly and the need for a defense right to forensic expertise.  It makes it impossible to pretend all is well in forensic science, however, and that’s a good beginning. 

A Gem in the Folded Palm of Forensic Science

by Roger Koppl

I’ve been railing against epistemic monopolies for a while now, particularly in forensic science.  This project complements Peart and Levy’s work on experts.  (See their symposium the 2008 Eastern Economics Journal, vol. 38 starting page 103.)  I keep insisting that we need redundancy to reduce error rates.  Economists, forensic scientists, and philosophers have all pressed me for data on error rates.  How big a problem is this really?  Continue reading

Flaming torches and pitchforks

by Roger Koppl

Forensic scientist Brian Gestring laments “The Dawn of the ‘Forensic Science Provocateur’” in the latest CAC News.  That’s the newsletter of the California Association of Criminalists.  He objects to the “peripheral waves of lawyers and business professors that have . . . found a new calling, that of Forensic Science Provocateur.”  But wait, there’s more!  “Like a flock of peasants with flaming torches and pitchforks, their rhetoric abounds and obscures substace.”  

Gestring is having his rhetorical fun, but he is also engaging the so-called provocateurs.  I think many other forensic scientists, however, genuinely believe that only practicing forensic scientists have standing to “criticize” forensic science, where “criticize” tends to mean saying something they disagree with or don’t like.  Continue reading

If redundancy is good enough for the rich and famous . . .

by Roger Koppl

According to Associated Press, “Bahamas using 2 experts for Travolta son autopsy.” (HT Ed Lopez.)  Actor John Travolta’s son Jett died tragically on Friday, January 2nd, after hitting his head in a fall.  (It seems he had an illness that left him subject to seizures.)  The E! News story says, “A government official confirms to E! News that the autopsy will be conducted in Freeport by two separate pathologists to ensure accuracy of the results.” 

I approve.  Neither pathologist should have an epistemic monopoly in this case.  I especially appreciate the use of pathologists who are “separate.”  They should not work together and each should remain ignorant of the other’s conclusions. 

The principle of redundancy in forensic science and medico-legal investigation is little more than common sense.  I often talk about it in terms of breaking the forensic or epistemic monopoly of our crime labs.  I also sometimes say, “My message to the forensic science community is simple: When you going motoring, put a spare tire in your trunk.”  It looks rather as if the authorities in the Bahamas have got the basic idea of redundancy in forensic science and medico-legal investigation – at least for the rich and famous.  Shouldn’t the same principle apply to indigent defendants in the criminal courts of the United States? 

Epistemic monopoly may let the bad guys get away

by Roger Koppl

The Chicago Tribune gives us another example of the trouble with epistemic monopolies.  They uncovered a case in which the police in the Chicago area city of Harvey, Illinois ignored a DNA match in a rape case.  In two other rape cases they did not submit the rape kit for analysis. 

Madison expressed the liberal dilemma in Federalist 51: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”  We should count the risks of epistemic monopoly among the dangers poised by the police powers of the state.  Short of full anarchy, which I don’t personally accept anyway, how could we introduce epistemic competition to municipal policing?

Who needs that new-fangled DNA anyway?

by Roger Koppl

It seems some police and prosecutors do not view DNA evidence as friendly to their cause.  I’ve come across two cases in which the police won’t use available DNA evidence.  Earlier I blogged about Baltimore, where the police were ignoring DNA evidence.  Now the Chicago Tribune reports, that in Lake County, Illinois, “authorities have sometimes pressed for convictions even when the DNA doesn’t match a suspect.”  The story recounts several episodes, including two in which the child victims “were found with semen in their bodies, and in both cases DNA tests revealed genetic profiles that do not match the defendants’ DNA.”  In one of those cases the authorities claimed the semen could have been picked up when the child played in the woods at spot known for romantic encounters. Continue reading

CSI: Detroit

by Roger Koppl

CSI: Detroit is looking a bit less glamorous than its TV cousins.  The Detroit Free Press reports that an audit of the Detroit Crime Lab was ordered when an outside expert discovered errors in the police forensics.  The audit reveals shocking deficiencies.  The forensics monopoly of the Detroit police was broken when one Detroit defense attorney, Marvin Barnett, introduced a little competition by hiring David Balash, a retired Michigan State Police firearms expert, to examine the prosecution’s firearms forensics.

In September the Michigan State Police released its preliminary audit.  They found a false positive error rate in ballistics of almost 10%.   The report notes that “the DPD firearms unit analyzes 1,800 cases per year,” which implies about 180 false convictions per year on bogus firearms evidence alone.  Continue reading

See “How to Improve Forensic Science” Live on the Internet

by Roger Koppl

On December 4th BrightTalk is running a “Forensic Science and Law Summit.”  I’ll be giving a talk at 1:15 p.m. Eastern time.  I’ll be using the slides from my presentation to the National Academy of Sciences committee on “Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community.”  It’s free and you can type in questions in real time as I present.  I will discuss a suite of reforms that would break the fornsic science monopoly.

I don’t expect to discuss the fingerprint scandal in Los Angeles in my BrightTalk presentation.  But I would like to talk about it here.  In October of this year an internal audit revealed problems with fingerprint identifications in Los Angeles.  The report, says the LATimes, “highlighted two cases in which criminal defendants had charges against them dropped after problems with the fingerprint analysis were exposed.”  These two were cases that were caught in time to avoid a false conviction. 

How many cases are we really talking about?  Continue reading

Truth-challenged police forensics in Baltimore

by Roger Koppl

Most people think DNA evidence is bulletproof.  Molecular biologist and forensic scientist Dan Krane has very nice presentation on some of the problems that can arise in this area.  When the biological sample is mixed, degraded, or small, the evidence can be ambiguous, which allows subjective judgment to enter.  Recent events in Baltimore point to another problem that has nothing to do with such ambiguity.

On September 27th, the Baltimore Sun reported, “In at least nine homicide, sex assault and burglary cases, Baltimore police detectives instructed crime lab technicians not to follow up on convicted criminals’ DNA found on evidence at crime scenes because they determined it was not relevant to their investigations.”  The police have a plausible explanation.  “Police spokesman Sterling Clifford played down the significance of the discovery, saying detectives routinely make judgment calls on evidence.”  Moreover, says Clifford, “Very often those crime scenes are enormous, sometimes covering entire city blocks.”  Continue reading

Truth-Market Failure

by Roger Koppl

 

 

A friend of mine is a public defender in the Midwest.  These days she is working on a murder case.  The county medical examiner (ME) testified for the prosecution in the case.  The defense called in an ME from a neighboring county to testify for the defense.  The two MEs have opposite opinions in the trial.   To an academic, it’s normal for two experts to disagree.  But to a prosecutor it can seem outrageous that someone on “his team” would testify for the defense, even if in a different jurisiction. 

 

 

The district attorney (DA) in the county where the defense ME works fired off an email protesting “the testimony of you or a member of your office as a defense expert in a prosecution being conducted by one of my colleagues.”  Notice that this objection is not coming from the prosecutor in the case.  It comes from the prosecutor in the county where the defense ME works.  One of his MEs has the gall to go and testify for the defense in a nearby jurisdiction.  Unthinkable! Continue reading