The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: US

Adult or child

Criminal Law is a touchy area of law. It’s the part that makes the news and appears in drama —watchers of the BBC’s newest legal drama, Silk, will have noticed that she is still to handle a breach of contract case.

It’s the part of law that regular people have the most opinion about and that’s not always a good thing.

The Guardian today reports that a 12-year-old boy in the US is accused of the murder of his parents. The particular facts are typically nasty (two victims shot dead with two survivors: one stabbed and also shot and the other slashed) but the unusual question of law is how he should be tried: as an adult or a child.

He’s twelve. It really should be very easy to work this one out. The question is a bizarre legal fiction that I’ve never understood — it turns out you can define people, inherently counterfactually, as older than they actually are so that you can do things to them.

The problem (however it is presented) is the difference in sanction that the legal system gives to the two groups. Adult criminals get harsher penalties than child criminals and as a species we don’t particularly like to see criminals facing reduced penalties — you only have to look at the persistent calls for hanging to brought back to the UK to see that. Of course at this point in the process we don’t even know if he did it yet so it’s not appropriate to measure his cell anyway.

However there is no benefit in drawing a distinction between children and adults in the legal system if we get to choose to bend reality and choose which one they are. Prosecutorial discretion should not stretch that far. The reality is that the accused in this case is twelve years old. He’s a kid and there’s nothing we can do to change that.

What more is there to decide?

H/T: The Guardian



Obsolete technology lives on

I spotted an article from the 17 July 2009 on the Times website on places where you might not expect obsolete technology to have held on.

For example, says the article, the NYPD spent $432,900 on typewriter maintenance last year (and nearly $1 million the year before).  They use typewriters to fill out forms – for seized property mainly – and for backup in case a catastrophe takes the digital side of the force off-line.

I completely agree with this idea, it’s a very good one.  I’ve got into the habit of often filling out forms on my typewriter because it’s capable of black capitals and it’s neater than I could previously manage.  I also typewrite the addresses on my postal envelopes.

Other technologies in the list include tapes (audio cassettes) which are used in prisons in the US because CDs are often banned because they make such effective weapons if shattered.  The story reports that cassette sales to inmates is one of the few growth areas in a physical media music industry that is in decline.

Another example is the telegram – something I admire as an event more than as a means of communication, just imagine if the Queen sent you a text on your 100th birthday?  This one is very interesting from a legal perspective because in the USA if you send a telegram with some juicy piece of intellectual property to anyone, even yourself, you can use the date and time on the telegram as evidence in a copyright trial.  This is a good stop gap measure while you are waiting for any formal copyright processes to be completed.  It is also a useful means of extremely quick recorded message delivery, useful for contractual purposes.

One final point for me microfiche.  I think microfiche is one of those products that are fun until you have to use it. I quite like, now and again, reading the newspapers from historical events and these are now generally only available on microfiche simply because of the size savings.  That sort of interesting and different way to spend an afternoon in the library would very quickly lose its charm if I needed the information, and particularly if I needed it quickly.  Keyword search may not be perfect but you’d miss it if it was gone.

I think that technology is only obsolete when it is no longer useful to you.  Typewriters, audio cassettes and microfiche are all perfectly effective at what they do, they were replaced because the alternatives had benefits but that doesn’t mean they stopped working at the same time.

No fly list – a cost/benefit analysis

Marcus Holmes has done a fascinating piece of economic research for the United States no-fly list. He uses a very effective US Government cost/benefit model for the project to see if the tangible costs can compare to the intangible and tangible benefits. While it is very easy to find the results of the list breaking in real life online it is very much harder to find an accurate breakdown of the costs involved in this huge project.

It turns out that this is a deliberate difficulty because the cost of the no-fly list is literally classified material and therefore it was only possible for Holmes while compiling his break down to ask sources inside the project who could not tell him any more than the barest details before coming into the realm of classified secrets. Area-51 is classified, the US Army budget has to survive with its only protection from prying eyes being the fact that it is long and a bit dry. Why is this level of secrecy required? Holmes suggests this could be to leave the terrorists guessing about the exact state of intelligence that the West has. The author sadly admits that, on examining the administration’s record on other national security projects, that this is unusual behaviour. The administration never the less claims that the list does work and is helping to prevent several  dangerous people from flying every week. Quietly.

While the law in this field is difficult, in flux and highly specialised the economics is not — although it is skillfully applied by the author and while the article is long I heartily encourage readers to give it a careful look — and is highly accessible to even my introductory level of economics. Through the use of publicly available data and some logical and carefully decided estimations he comes to the conclusion that the list has a burn rate of $100 million/year. This is vast but not a problem if it serves the taxpayer more than this in a combination of tangible (money saved) and intangible (life saved, attacks averted) benefits and it is this part of the analysis which is most important. To bring the focus on a topic closer to home — the problem is not that the Scottish Parliament building cost a large amount of money, the problem was that people thought it cost more than was reasonable for the benefits it would pro-vide when it was completed.

While law matters to the world as a whole, another pillar is economics — the tool to describe the world in highly objective and quantified terms — while leaving law to be its occasionally enigmatic, discretionary and most importantly human, self.