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In his astute and timeless book, How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff writes, “The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify.” This statement is at least as true as it was in 1954 when it was first published. Among the subjects most prone to statistical abuse: criminal justice. Our guest today on Sea Change Radio is Peter Calloway, an outspoken public defender whose Twitter thread about crime in San Francisco went a little bit viral last week. In the first half of our two-part conversation, we discuss the significance of US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is not only the first Black woman to serve on the highest court, but also the first public defender. We also talk about the role of the public defender’s office and why people tend to fall for sensationalized crime statistics.
Narrator: This is Sea Change Radio – covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
Peter Calloway: Society has decided I think for fairly obvious reasons to focus on these other crimes right we have chosen we’ve made it a choice a political choice a cultural choice to focus on certain crimes and not others right even what we define legally as crime is a is a political choice but then there’s another choice made among those things that we’ve labeled crime which are the ones that we’re going to devote law enforcement resources toward which are the ones that were going to prosecute and what are we going to ignore.
Narrator: In his astute and timeless book, How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff writes, “The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify.” This statement is at least as true as it was in 1954 when it was first published. Among the subjects most prone to statistical abuse: criminal justice. Our guest today on Sea Change Radio is Peter Calloway, an outspoken public defender whose Twitter thread about crime in San Francisco went a little bit viral last week. In the first half of our two-part conversation, we discuss the significance of US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is not only the first Black woman to serve on the highest court, but also the first public defender. We also talk about the role of the public defender’s office and why people tend to fall for sensationalized crime statistics.
Alex Wise: I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Peter Calloway. Peter is a public defender in San Francisco. Peter, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
Peter Calloway: Alex, thank you so much I’m happy to be here I guess I should note that I am speaking to you today you know in my personal capacity not as a representative of my office but again thanks for inviting me on.
Alex Wise: First why don’t you explain to our listeners what a public defender does and what motivates attorneys to become public defenders.
Peter Calloway: So, you know, a public defender is a lawyer who is appointed by the court to represent somebody who’s been accused of a crime that could conceivably result in them being jailed and who cannot afford to hire their own attorney they’ve existed you know essentially since the middle of the last century I won’t go into the origins necessarily but the main point is you know there are attorneys there are defense attorneys and among the defense attorneys or public defenders and a lot of people who choose to become public defenders are doing it. You know because they feel sort of a a connection to the sort of disenfranchised right people who have been in various ways you know harms by our society cast aside and you know sometimes due to something of a calling and that’s true for me that’s sort of what drew me to this work and in the last I’d say maybe 10 years or so. As the country has sort of began to sort of awakened to what has become known as the sort of mass incarceration or the human caging crisis I think a lot more people have been drawn to public defense as a sort of part of a you know a new civil rights movement it’s very much in line with the ideals of this country and that everybody has a right to an attorney and a trial and you’re innocent before proven guilty that’s that was not always the case in and it’s still not the case in many countries. Correct the sort of lofty principles that you know are inscribed on the marble edifices in which this sort of system is conducted say things like equal justice under law the reality on the ground of course is anything but that right so if you ask 10 public defenders their reasons for being a public defender you’ll get some of the same reasons why you have some different ones too right and some people. Are really motivated by those principles of justice and equality and fairness. And the fact that there are you know constitutional principles that are that are sort of being defended Marin in court right the right to a fair trial and the right to an attorney some people are motivated by again like some sort of civil a civil rights rationale you know. The fact that if you were a person of color particularly a black person in this country you know you’re more likely to be harmed by this system at every single step right more likely to be accused of crime more likely to be stopped by the police more likely to be searched even though you’re less likely to be found with contraband than a white person would be you’re more likely to be sentenced more harshly after being more likely to be convicted. It’s really disgraceful and the statistics are true in San Francisco as well I think there’s a fairly recent report that says I believe in the new statistic is someone who is black as is 10 times more likely to be stopped by the police despite being 3 to 5 percent of the population and our jail is more than 50 percent – it’s pretty you know pretty shocking stuff and again that extends across the country right and it’s not just about race right it’s also about poverty mental illness we cage in this country. Around 2.2m people on any given day, 500,000 or so those are people who were caged prior to being convicted of any crime usually because they can’t afford to pay some money fail to secure their release there’s another 4.5m or so on probation or parole right so where the state continues to exercise some constraint on their freedom they can often be pretty extreme in the sense that a probation officer parole officer can show up unannounced in. Search you search your home force you to take a drug test and if they don’t like what they see even if it’s what’s called a technical violation and you haven’t been accused of committing some new crime they can take you back to jail or prison. Jail or prison is so harmful that. The facts on life expectancy of people who are incarcerated are so extreme that they’ve actually reduce the overall life expectancy of the United States so get really shocking stuff this is what motivates a lot of people to become public defenders.
Alex Wise: And watching the confirmation of Judge Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, it was a reminder how people like yourself if you decide to go into politics it’s a lot of these cases are going to be used against you my mother was a civil rights attorney and then as a young boy I remember asking her like how when I heard about her cases I mean how can you be defending this murderer this these terrible people and she was quite proud and had deep convictions that these people deserve the best the law could provide that they deserved a fair trial of with a competent attorney and that was her obligation and yet when you watch these confirmation hearings like that pride seems to have been eviscerated by the scare mongering tactics the tough on crime police if you will that this person defended this person so a plus B. equals C. What is so pernicious about our system that this is allowed to fester and become almost an accepted truth white why don’t people push back and expressed more anger and pride about the important role of public defenders and other lawyers who are providing an important service?
Peter Calloway: It’s an important question and you know I think that’s one of the reasons why this confirmation is significant right it’s an opportunity to have that conversation in public with a whole lot of people watching but that also makes a very important to get right you know so the people who have a platform ought to be taking a strong stand enough to have a well reasoned justification for that question how can you represent those people right I mean people who are accused of crime in this country are now and sort of have always been sort of right for sort of scorn and disdain right it’s easy to say. We should do what we can to make sure that people who didn’t who didn’t actually commit the crime don’t go to prison for it right much harder to say for it for many people that we need to make sure that even somebody who did commit harm gets a vigorous defense where their rights are. Well protected and upheld. That the state is put to its burden and not simply rubber stamped by a judge or jury you know and part of the reason for that is also to endorse this system in the way that we often do that our politicians often do really sets aside key questions that very few people are asking among policy makers and that you seen sort of emerge in recent months and years as a sort of response to the many shootings of mostly on arms and mostly people of color by police right so I’m talking about the defund movement abolition movement like what are the example questions that you’re thinking of well the reason I mention it is because we know that this is not the way to reduce harm right we know that because the literature shows that prison is criminal right it makes it more likely that somebody’s going to commit a crime we know that punishment is not the way to prevent somebody from committing a future harm right but meaningful accountability is the way to do that and do we also know that harsher penalties for crimes don’t necessarily dissuade criminals from committing those crimes we do we do yeah and again the literature is clear on that as well and the rich the reasons are somewhat obvious right I mean people who are in the position where they are committing crimes or are not sitting back in and thinking about the possible consequences in any sort of gaming out the risk of getting caught verses the possible benefit of whatever’s happening I mean we’re talking about mostly crimes of poverty and mental illness even if you look at really extreme harms right things that everybody in the society agrees we don’t want to endorse right dig a little deeper into that the life of the person who. Is committed that harm look at it. I’m confident that if you if you select any person for example who is on death row anywhere in the country and investigate their life story they’ve been themselves victims of extreme trauma and may often do suffer from diagnosed or diagnosable forms of mental illness right and again that’s not to say that that’s not to endorse the thing that the person does is to say that maybe we should be creating systems of care you know and of accountability that have been demonstrated to actually reduce the likelihood of future harm rather than just caging human beings and warehousing them in our present.
Alex Wise: This is Alex Wise and Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Peter Calloway he’s a public defender in San Francisco. So Peter, you had a thread on Twitter that I found hit the mark in a lot of ways. If you can kind of give us a brief overview of the Chesa Boudin recall and the political realities right now in San Francisco and how that relates to this thread about crime that would be terrific.
Peter Calloway: Sure well I’ll start with the with the recall of Chesa Boudin so he’s elected in 2019 took office in 2020 he was a former public defender…
Alex Wise: He is elected to the district attorney, right?
Peter Calloway: I’m sorry yes he’s elected district attorney so he’s the chief prosecutor for the city and county of San Francisco. He had previously worked as a public defender he was sort of a pioneer of the effort in California to end the use of money bail where. Person is held prior to trial in jail for no reason other than the fact that they are poor and can’t afford to pay some money so he’s elected to it to DA on a very progressive platform right promising to end the use of money bail and reduce pretrial incarceration promising to do things to minimize the impact that incarceration has on children for example using a diversion program for parents where instead of going to jail parents can do some robust programming designed to get at the root causes of why they might have committed some harm. And then ultimately the case is resolved that way efforts at reducing the racial bias in our system for example eliminating or not prosecuting cases where police racially profile somebody and that’s the only reason for the contact not prosecuting juveniles as adults and on and on along with a number of sort of affirmative sort of uses of the tools of the office in ways that hadn’t really been done before so going after the manufacturers of these ghost guns for example that are untraceable and can be purchased by anybody on the internet going after employers for things like wage theft we don’t talk about it much but wage theft in dollar amount dwarfs the total amount of all of what the police call property crime combined right all burglaries and robberies and thefts from Walgreens and things of that sort but society has decided I think for fairly obvious reasons to focus on these other crimes right we have chosen we’ve made it a choice a political choice a cultural choice to focus on certain crimes and not others right even what we define legally is crime is a is a political choice but then there’s another choice made among those things that we’ve labeled crime which are the ones that we’re going to devote law enforcement resources toward which are the ones that were going to prosecute and what are we going to ignore.
Alex Wise: And speaking of these biases, we’ve had decades and decades or centuries of looking the other way at what is now called white collar crime or anti-trust legislation wait staff things from a top down crime system where we have created our own sets of bias sees that people who are at the lower end of the socio economic system those are the criminals they’re easy marks for our sub conscious and so things like you mentioned the staff didn’t Walgreens there was like a thing that went viral of some guy just went through a Walgreens on a bike and got picked up on the camera where you just basically was just shoplifting willy-nilly and rode out and this was used as an example of “See, San Francisco is a crime infested hell hole!” and it was used by the Trump administration other right wingers as does this is what liberal policies mean is that no one is safe and it’s chaos and anarchy.
Peter Calloway: Yeah I have a friend named Alec Karakatsanis who wrote a book called “Usual cruelty,” and he goes through a number of examples in that book 1 of 11 of the ones I like a lot as he talks about that it’s illegal in most places for people to play craps on the sidewalk right to gamble with dice but it’s not illegal for hedge funds to gamble on the price of wheat right or financial institutions to gamble with people’s mortgages you know causing literally financial systems to collapse with essentially no consequence I I think it’s true that there wasn’t even a single criminal prosecution to emerge from that the ’08-09 financial crisis so yes we focus on specific things and some of that. It makes some sense you can understand the sort of visceral reaction to something like that Walgreens video it suggests that there’s this sort of free for all in San Francisco I get that. Word of what I was trying to do by writing about this in part of why I’m grateful to have been invited onto your show is to talk about this idea that the media chooses what it’s going to put on the front page right the media chooses what videos it’s going to circulate and show and by and large they make choices that perpetuate these sorts of biases that we’re talking about there’s sort of a feedback loop there right if politicians are hearing from their constituents among the foremost concerns are things like petty theft by mostly people who are. Deeply poor and stealing to survive whether those concerns are driven by media by not the politicians are perhaps going to be responsive to that right and if the media instead give a better picture of the harms that are produced by our society right I think it’s tens of thousands of. A passing year at least that are caused by air pollution for example than politicians would at least be more likely to have different priorities right and we could perhaps begin to address the fact that according to this new IPCC report I think we’ve got about 3 years until it’s basically all over. And just circling back to the petty theft point right I’m a I’m a public defender I’ve never seen any evidence that anyone of my cases of a faith that is part of an organized retail theft operation. Right instead I I see people who are taking shoes and then putting those shoes on their feet because they didn’t have shoes
Alex Wise: Yeah these are not premeditated crimes generally – it’s not “Ocean’s 11”-type of premeditation where they have maps and wingmen and how Hollywood likes to glamorize a jewelry theft, let’s say.
Peter Calloway: But yeah that is not what we’ve got here we we’ve got something radically different and so I wrote about this issue generally and the trigger was an article I read in The Washington Post in which the author Scott Wilson wasn’t that was that that’s his name yes he wrote about the Tenderloin right and for listeners around the country want your explain what the Tenderloin is sorry yeah the Tenderloin is a neighborhood in San Francisco I think it’s what 10 by 12 blocks maybe yet it’s N. and it’s right next to Union Square right and as I can see it in the twin in the threat right it’s the epicenter of the city’s homelessness and drug crises it’s a place I ate I am almost every single day it’s a place I walk through to get to work it’s a place where up until somewhat recently you know open air drug use had been essentially tolerated by police which of course drove open air drug use from other areas in the city into the Tenderloin you know it’s got a long and storied history there seems to be this perception that things have gotten so much worse in the last couple of years and keep the people who are trying to recall chase a blue gene and district attorney are are pointing to this neighborhood and saying look what he did right.
Alex Wise: This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to San Francisco public defender Peter Calloway. Anybody who’s been to the Tenderloin in the last 30 years can vouch for the fact that this is been a long time suffering neighborhood of the city there’s just a lot of poverty there historically right?
Peter Calloway: And it’s also though a place of of great beauty and joy right I think people reacted to this thread and I know we’ll get more into that and in a moment some of them really viciously including doing things like trying to find my home address and posted online and thankfully they’ve they failed but really vicious sort of attacks but then a lot of like more or less good faith critiques like are you really trying to deny that there are things that need fixing in the Tenderloin and I I don’t think that my article or might thread rather could be reading good faith to conclude that I’m denying that there are issues. There are clearly issues but again I think if people would spend time in this neighborhood and I suspect that the people who are reacting this way you know who are sort of condemning me for suggesting that actually according to the data crime is not out of control in the Tenderloin is actually lower than it was before the pandemic yes let let’s run through that data real quickly if you can sure you know the article I was responding to it said that crime in the Tenderloin has jumped by double digit percentages. Jumped in percentages in from 2021 to 2022 or 2020 to 2000 is it’s all during this pandemic which is definition only an out liar period yes so there’s that issue too right but even on its own terms right even setting aside the sort of baseline it was you know deeply misleading in that it’s correct that these crimes as measured by SFPD increased by double digit percentages but that’s sort of jumped out to me so I went and looked at the data which is publicly available a massive PT’s crime dashboard. And I learned that the double digit percentage increases were 10 percent and 27 I think percent but the actual number increases were 1 and 6. Right so homicides had increased from 10 to 11. And rape had increased from 22 to 28 it’s such a small sample size that it’s really hard to use percentages in this as a indicator of a of a trend. Yeah well I think that when you say when you say that something jump by double digit percentages that person is probably not going to assume that it jumped by one incident. And so that seems like a very deliberate choice to portray it as a double digit percentage increase in an article where or in a paragraph where you’re sort of allowing the mayor to justify her decision to deploy more police to this neighborhood to essentially commit more harm against poor people and people of color so I then proceeded to run the numbers on crime in the city overall. And I used 2019 I learned that city wide from 2019 to 2021 homicides did increase by 36 percent but the actual number increase was 15 right now that is not to suggest that 15 additional homicides doesn’t matter it’s not to suggest that the impact of those events on the people who are involved right though the family members of the victims the communities you know the ripple effects can be severe my dad’s father was murdered when he was 15 years old they never found the person who did it and it changed the course of my dad’s life right the people think that if you if you have conversations like this that you somehow don’t care about the harms produced by crime.
Alex Wise: Be sure to tune in next week to Sea Change Radio for the second half of my discussion with San Francisco public defender Peter Calloway.
Narrator: You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio – our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Eddie Harris, Ella Fitzgerald and Judas Priest. Check out our website at SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.