Why the Wall Will Fail

I had initially planned to stay as far away as I could from anything overly political, but as a criminologist, I just couldn’t in good conscience leave this one alone. Donald Trump has apparently convinced his supporters that if a wall is built between the USA and Mexico, that the crime rate in the USA will reduce. His slogan “Build a Wall and Crime Will Fall” has become almost as popular as his “Make America Great Again” catch phrase. The purpose of this post is not to verbally bash anyone, even though many would argue that Trump deserves this. But that is not the reason I created this blog. This blog is for truth, not hate. And sorry but no one can convince me that they are sometimes the same thing.

But I digress…

There are so many problems with the notion that the crime rate of an entire country can be reduced simply by building a wall that one could actually write an entire book on the topic. And I have no doubt that others with more time than myself will do exactly that. But to give a very, very brief summary.

Crime is complex. Hugely complex. The entire study of criminology has been created to examine it and criminologists are never short of material to research. It is so complex that it can never be said that one specific thing (or group) causes it. And if crime does not have one cause, then it cannot possibly have one solution. Simple logic tells us that. The assertion on which the wall is based is that the crime rate in the USA is so high is because of immigrants, illegal and otherwise. Along with Trump’s tough immigration policy, the wall is another proposal he has made to reduce the crime rate based on this allegation. The problem is, its completely false and unfounded. I will spare you all the legions of data and statistics that confirm this, however I do encourage you all to have a look for yourselves. As always, be good skeptics. Don’t just take mine (or anyone else’s) word for it. Do your own research and fact check for yourselves.

To get you started, I’d recommend a fantastic book by Kevin Wright called The Great American Crime Myth. Even though its old, published in 1985, it shows us that even way back then, most people were missing the mark when it came to perceptions about crime in the USA. Immigration does not increase crime. Violent crime is not increasing. And neither is crime in general. A more recent study by Vaughn et al (2014) actually found that immigration has reduced the crime rate in the USA; https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00127-013-0799-3 

That’s right. REDUCED. Please, please do keep reading, locate your own sources. Like I said, be good skeptics. But the take home message here is that Trump’s wall will fail. All available empirical evidence is telling us that. Worst case scenario, it will actually increase the crime rate instead of reducing it. I’m hopeful that reason will win the day and the wall does not get built. Not only will it not achieve its attempted goal, it will be a costly and time consuming symbol of ignorance and racism that will scar the landscape and create a legacy of embarrassment and shame for years to come.


Check Your Sources, People

This blog post has sort of come about by accident, meaning, I didn’t sit down to write on this today. I was fully intending to write some more about alternative therapies. But while researching this topic, I was struck by the amount of studies I found online, which at a glance, seem to support their efficacy. Then I looked a little closer…

Today’s blog post was supposed to be about acupuncture, which some of you will remember from my previous post here that acupuncture was curiously not included in the Australian government’s study on alternative therapies. No sooner had my search begun than I was hit with a slew of studies claiming to find overwhelming support for acupuncture, concluding that it was an effective treatment for everything from mild pain relief to depression. One even alleged that it could be used to help patients recover from severe strokes. I was surprised to say the least. Last time I had researched this subject, I came across extremely different results. How could this happen?

Quite easily, as it happens. The journals publishing these studies had titles like “The Journal of Alternative Medicine,” “Acupuncture in Medicine” and “Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.” First clue, these journals are biased. And that is the absolute first thing you should check when doing research; where has it come from? Recall that for years cigarette companies bankrolled and published studies that claimed smoking was perfectly safe. Follow the money, follow the motive and ask yourself, could the publisher have an agenda? In this case, the agenda was plainly obvious.

But any good researcher knows that even sources which are likely biased can have a rare moment of truth. So I gave them the benefit of the doubt and read a couple of the studies. Now I won’t bore you all with the details, suffice to say, these studies were appalling. The methodology was flawed from the outset, the variable operationalisation was and the conclusions they drew from these poorly executed pieces of research were nothing short of laughable. And I’m being kind…

My research into this topic will continue for a later blog post, but this experience reminded me of the importance of checking sources carefully so I thought I would share this all with you. The Internet is an potentially amazing source of information, but there is a lot of nonsense out there. And the worst kind of nonsense is that which attempts to mask itself as credible, by being published in a peer reviewed journal. But not all journals can be trusted, such as the examples above which have a clear agenda and are funded by the very subject on which they claim to report. The take home message here is tread carefully. Vet your sources and check their work before you include it in yours. Happy researching folks!

Sex Offender Sentencing: The surprising results of my Masters study

Sentencing of sexual offenders has long been a controversial topic, with a generally accepted view that the sentences handed down by the courts for this particular cohort are too lenient. Sentencing is largely fixed under legislation, however there are certain variables, known as aggravating or mitigating factors which can have an effect on final sentences handed down. Governments publish sentencing guidelines which outline these factors in very broad terms, while empirical studies that have examined them and the actual effects they have on sentencing seek to more clearly define and operationalise these. Such sentencing guidelines dictate that offence severity and targeting of vulnerable populations should result in harsher sentences, whilst mitigating factors such as an offender being young, employed and appearing before the courts for the first time should result in more lenient sentencing.

For my Masters study, I conducted a content analysis to test these expectations, examining data from 60 sets of adult male sex offender sentencing comments. Frequency distributions and χ2 analyses were conducted to test the expectation that contact offending (deemed more severe than non-contact offending) and offences against children would result in more severe sentences, whilst offenders who were young, employed and had no criminal history would be more likely to receive lesser punishments.

Results produced some surprising findings. Offence characteristics were found to have no relationship to the severity of the sentences handed down in these cases. The severity of the offence, age of the victim and number of victims was found to have no impact on the sentence, which appears in direct contradiction to the sentencing guidelines under the legislation. The characteristics of the offender themselves; age, criminal history and employment, were all found to have a significant relationship to the severity of the sentence they received. This finding was in line with sentencing guidelines. From these results, it can be concluded that it appears the characteristics of the offender have a far greater impact on court sentencing than the offending itself.

So essentially what I found was that no matter how severe the offending, if the offender was young (operationalised for my study as being aged under 25 at the time of the offence), employed and had no criminal history, they would receive a far more lenient sentence than their older, unemployed counterparts who presented with a history of offending. Importantly, criminal history in my study included all offending types, not just sexual offending. It would appear from these results, that sentencing guidelines are only being loosely adhered to, with the focus being on the offender and not the offending. While this is likely to cause a highly emotive reaction from the general public, sentencing in this way is actually far more likely to reduce the chances that offenders will become recidivists. Sentencing guidelines are based on empirical data which has determined which factors are most closely linked to re-offending. And guess what? None of these have anything to do with the actual offence itself. Every single one is an offender characteristic. Therefore the results of my study indicate that offenders may not be being sentenced strictly according to the sentencing guidelines in terms of what they state about the offences themselves, but they are being sentenced with future rehabilitation and reducing the risk of further offending in mind. Public outcry aside, this is an encouraging trend.