When Paris Hilton was languishing in jail reading her Bible, the Los Angeles Times set out to determine if her sentence was consistent with the punishments meted out to offenders in similar circumstances. To that end, the paper reviewed 2 million cases, found 1,500 that resembled Hilton's and concluded that in fact she was sentenced more harshly than most.
The research undertaken by the Times is the type of methodical and comprehensive approach needed for the development of sound public policy, but it appears this empirical work will only be done when the rich and famous stumble into the clutches of the criminal justice industrial complex.
This data deficiency struck me last month when alleged Versace Crew gang member Nicholas Ebanks was acquitted of attempted murder.
Justice W. Brian Trafford of the Ontario Superior Court excluded all the incriminating evidence obtained through a wiretap investigation because the police showed a "reckless disregard for the truth' when they applied for the tap. Their application was riddled with misleading inaccuracies and speculative opinions asserted as proven facts.
I often wonder how many other prosecutions of serious offences fall apart because public officials fail to respect the constitutional and procedural requirements for investigation. The sad truth is that no one really knows, because no one is keeping track.
For whatever reason, government officials and independent researchers rarely conduct empirical research into the daily operation of the criminal justice system.
So no one really knows how many gun-charge offenders commit crimes when released on bail or how many traffic fatalities are caused by street racing or whether minimum sentences actually deter crime.
Everyone has an opinion about these issues, but they're rarely supported by sound empirical research and are a poor basis for the development of social and public policy.
For the past two decades, for example, most criminal justice reforms have been motivated by the widely held belief that our courts are too lenient, prison sentences too short and prisons like country clubs. Just because most people think this way does not make it true, and it's a shame that we've allowed this unfounded belief to dominate our vision of criminal justice reform.
To make matters worse, when empirical data is available, public officials, journalists, academics and even social scientists often manipulate the numbers to give the impression that their opinions are really documented fact.
For example, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente made the claim last week that the increased potency of contemporary pot has made the substance far more dangerous than the hippie pot of the 60s.
Her column is strewn with hyperbole and colourful language like "scourge," "haunted" and "devastating."
But her provocative rhetoric hides the fact that there is no pharmacological support for her assertion that higher-potency pot has increased potential to harm.
In her zeal to demonize the "new' marijuana, she has also failed to note that the testing protocols for assessing THC have dramatically changed in the past 10 years, such that all testing in the 60s and 70s grossly underestimated the potency of hippie pot.
The abject failure to conduct systematic research into the opinions and assumptions that animate our criminal justice policy has also allowed the police to become the consummate masters of manipulating data of questionable statistical validity.
Last week, the Toronto Police Services went door to door to deliver a glossy brochure summarizing its 2006 annual report.
Clearly, the report is intended to demonstrate the force's crime-fighting successes. So in bold print we find this claim: "Down: Shooting deaths by 44 per cent, shooting occurrences by 15 per cent and shooting victims by 14 per cent.'
If our city is becoming safer due to the efforts of the police, then I'll be the first in line to congratulate the force, but I thought the police were telling us the streets are becoming more lawless and dangerous, and this is why we need tougher laws and more police power.
Without comprehensive empirical research, you can take the limited data out there and make it support whatever side of the debate you wish to take.
I think there may be a solution. Taking inspiration from the Paris Hilton case, I propose this: if we truly want an informed, empirical assessment of the daily operation of Canadian criminal justice, we should consider incarcerating more celebrities.