punishment for statistical correlations

Earlier this year a Cornell student was arrested for savagely beating and pouring a bleach mixture on a dog that he was ostensibly taking care of for his friend. He was just sentenced to six-months for felony animal abuse. The story got a lot of press and discussion around here. We are in Ithaca, after all: home of the country’s only No Kill, Open Admission animal shelter (‘no kill’, I learned recently, is compatible with euthanizing animals — the subtleties of the English language escape me) and home of the vegetarian icon, Moosewood Restaurant. Anyway, it was kind of interesting following the story and seeing what sort of ridiculous things might be said, both by those apparently attribute more rights to animals than to humans and those who apparently would think nothing wrong with idly torturing animals.

But another interesting thing showed up in the story today about the sentencing. Apparently the prosecuting attorney thinks that the guy deserves a stiff sentence because there is ‘a statistical correlation between people who are violent toward animals and people who are violent toward humans’.

Umm, okay, I don’t dispute the correlation, but how is that relevant? There is also a statistical correlation between being poor and committing crimes. Does that mean that poor people should get harsher sentences? There is also a statistical correlation between committing one crime and committing more crimes. Does that mean that we should sentence first-time offenders not only for the crime they’ve actually committed but also for the correlation?

I thought it was a basic principle in Western judicial traditions that you can only punish people for crimes that they have in fact already committed and not for ones that they may or are likely to commit (i.e., regardless how many statistical indicators suggest that you are likely to become a criminal, you can’t be punished until you actually commit a crime). So a question for those of you who know something about law: Am I missing something here?


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One Response to punishment for statistical correlations

  1. Heidi says:

    Well, in fairness to the author, this comment seems to be directed toward the law itself (not the sentencing). Earlier in the article, the author notes that the Defense team suggested the law was unconstitutionally vague.

    I’m conjecturing about what probably happened, but here’s sort of how I imagine the story playing out (and I think it fits pretty well with the flow of the facts in the Ithaca Journal story):

    It sounds like the attorneys were trading comments with the press about whether the statute was constitutional when they met with the press to inform them of the plea agreement. The defense team probably reiterated that the prosecutors probably wouldn’t win because the law was unconstitutional, the press asked the prosecuting attorney about it, and the prosecuting attorney said that you can’t really argue about whether it’s constitutional or not, because they took a plea bargain rather than try the issue in court. After that, it sounds like the prosecuting attorney was asked about whether he thought the law was unconstitutional and the Prosecutor commented about the correlation between crimes.

    He seems to be suggesting that the law would pass the due process rational basis test (law is upheld if the law is rationally related to any legitimate state interest), which really has nothing to do with whether the law is unconstitutionally vague (that’s a notice issue under due process).

    Anyway… those are my thoughts. My guess is that they charged him under a really old statute in the first place, until they could get the grand jury indictment. The original comment on the law being unconstitutionally vague probably had more to do with that initially, and afterward just ended up being sleazy defense lawyer-speak for “technically my client still isn’t guilty, even though he took the plea bargain and he’s going to jail.”


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