Friday, June 8, 2012

"Pre-crime" and the "chronic offender" label

@SFAppeal is right in this item that it's a bit rich for writers to get excited along "pre-crime" lines about using predictive security cameras in San Francisco's Muni subway system. I had a half-jokey exchange with them about it (continuing here ... here ... and here), but this is serious stuff. 

Statue of the meatgrinder, SF city jail/courthouse.
(That is what it's a statue of, isn't it?)
So, yes, the cameras are creepy. But only incrementally so. What's more worrying is the perception of predictive cameras as new. It shows how much other "pre-crime" policing is accepted as normal because it takes the familiar form of police profiling.

If you want to worry about profiling, here's better cause for indignation: the plan, announced last month in San Francisco, to treat so-called "chronic offenders" differently from other people who get infraction citations. Here's Heather Knight's disturbingly perky writeup in the SF Chronicle.

This is a program of detaining certain people until court, in circumstances that normally would call for citation and release, because they're accused of the offense of being frequently accused of offenses.

Everyone commits infractions -- jaywalking, for example -- but not everyone gets ticketed for them.

So basically this is double punishment for being a sort of person who attracts police attention.

Worse, this is imposing jail time for failure to appear on infraction citations. An infraction is by definition a charge not punishable by jail time.

[Note added 6/10/12: I'm talking here about California law, and even here this is intended as commentary, not legal advice. Definitions of the word "infraction" may vary elsewhere.]

To be more specific, I'm told the DA's office has organized this program to label anyone with 20 or more "quality of life" bench warrants from the previous two years as a "chronic offender." The Orwellian term "quality of life" refers to crimes associated with visible poverty such as sleeping in doorways. The kind of "bench warrant" in question is for the further alleged crime -- a misdemeanor -- of failure to appear in court on infraction charges that themselves are unproven.

These infraction citations are often (not always) poorly drafted by the officers and more trouble than they're worth to prosecute to the hilt. Mainly, defendants who do appear in court on these kinds of citations have them dismissed in exchange for showing they've received social services. Or, if they have the courage to go to trial, the charges are often (not always) dismissed because the officer fails to appear.

So people are to be labeled as "chronic offenders" and held in jail for failure to do enough paperwork and showing-up to get dismissals of flimsy underlying citations that in themselves would have been unlikely to result in convictions.

We used to have laws where a person could be arrested for being the kind of person who gets arrested. They were called vagrancy laws and they have repeatedly been found to be unconstitutionally vague. This "chronic offender" wheeze is the latest of many municipal attempts at an end run.

Not that it's the worst in profiling. Not at all. Just one example. If you really want to shudder, consider the immigrant deportation meatgrinder. San Francisco advocates have managed partly to mitigate how that works locally, but not really enough.

"Pre-crime" is normal. We've had computer-aided "broken windows" policing for a generation. And we've had profiling as policing a lot longer than that, and...

Well, Philip K. Dick and George Orwell knew how policing works with usual suspects in bad neighborhoods of large cities. They just extrapolated. What people have found shocking in their science-fiction work is the suggestion that the whole population might be treated the way usual suspects usually are.

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