House arrest

Like many people, I lead a hectic life: a demanding day job, another job as an author, a busy family. Some days I spend all my time running from the office to the kids’ schools to the office to the store to the bank to the store to the grocer to my house to the schools…. You get the drill. So perhaps it’s understandable if I occasionally have brief fantasies about having some wonderful excuse not to leave the house.

Like house arrest, maybe?

House arrest is an alternative to detention (jail or prison). It may be used while a suspect is awaiting trial or after he is convicted, as an alternative to locking him up. It’s generally used when the person is low risk and when incarceration might be difficult due to health concerns, family issues, or financial situations. In addition to making the person’s life easier than incarceration might, house arrest can have fewer bad effects on his family. It’s also cheaper than incarceration and helps reduce prison overcrowding.

When a person is placed under house arrest, he’s forbidden from leaving his home. There will usually be some exceptions, however. He is often allowed to go to work, medical appointments, religious services, and the like.

A person placed under house arrest is usually required to check in regularly with a probation officer. He’s also subject to having the probation officer make announced visits to his home. Technology has improved the ability to monitor people under house arrest. In previous years, probation officers might check in by calling the residence to ensure the person was home. But today the person might wear ankle bracelets with GPS tracking. Or they may be required to call in periodically via cell phone; the probation officer can track the location of the call.

I think if I were placed on house arrest, I’d probably go stir crazy after a short time. Still, it would be far better than sitting in jail.

Change of scenery

Detective Jim Hamilton picked up his coffee and took another sip. He needed to get back to work—he had a long list of witnesses to interview—but outside, the wind roared and the snow was beginning to pile up. “I’m sick of winter,” he aid.

His partner, Detective Maria Soto, shrugged. “It’s only January, dude. You’ve got a lot of winter left to go.”

“No, I mean I’m sick of it in general, not just for this year.”

“Minneapolis. Comes with the territory.”

He sighed. “Yeah. You know what? I think I’m gonna move. They’re hiring in Phoenix and Honolulu and LA. No—San Diego. I’m gonna get a job with the SDPD.”

When a police officer moves from one department to another, it’s called a lateral transfer. Unfortunately for Jim, it’s not an easy thing.

To begin with, the officer is going to lose all seniority. It’s probably taken Jim years to work up to detective, but if he leaves Minneapolis, he’s going to be ranked with brand-new rookies. That alone might be enough to dissuade him, but he’s also going to have to start fresh with a brand-new retirement system.

In addition, training requirements for police vary across jurisdictions. While some places might hire him as is, others could require additional training or certification. Some, like California, will make him go through the entire police academy process again (although many police departments may be willing to pay his salary while he’s doing so).

The difficulty of lateral transfers is one thing that distinguishes the US police structure from most other countries. The majority of countries do most of their policing at the federal level, and it’s relatively easy for employees to transfer. The same is true of employees of American federal agencies such as the FBI and the ATF. But the vast majority of American police officers work for local agencies, and they will usually find it hard to move. Looks like poor Jim’s going to have to tough it out until retirement.

Plot bunny: olde tyme forensics

Usually I focus these posts on the criminal justice system in the modern US. But today I’m veering from that a bit to give you a plot bunny. This one might come in handy if you’re writing a historical or spec fic.

We generally think of forensics—the use of science to help solve crimes—as a modern phenomenon. Certainly, in recent years we’ve made much wider and more frequent use of forensics, and science has made huge advancements. But even hundreds of years ago, science was occasionally used in criminal cases.

As far as I can tell, the earliest documented example of this was a Chinese judge named Song Ci, who was born in the late 12th century. He wrote a textbook called Washing Away of Wrongs. Among other things, his book described an early use of forensic entomology, or the use of insects as crime evidence.

Your book’s setting might not allow for state-of-the-art DNA analysis or spectroscopic analysis of paint samples. But even if your book is set in a pre-industrialized locale, you could take inspiration from Song Ci and make use of some scientific detection methods.

You’re out: three strikes

Jamie looked resignedly at his public defender. “Fine. Fine. Yeah, I stole that crap from Walmart. Big deal. I’ll plead guilty, the judge’ll give me probation, and I can get on with my life. Right?”

But his lawyer shook her head. “You don’t understand. The DA’s charging this one as burglary. A felony.”

“So? I do a stint in jail.”

“Prison. And more than a stint.”

He frowned at her. “For stealing movies from Walmart?”

“Remember those two convictions you had for assault with a deadly weapon?”

“Those were over twenty years ago! I was a stupid kid. But I did my time, and I haven’t touched a gun or anything since.”

“I know.” The lawyer sighed. “But you have two violent felony convictions. You’re looking at 25 to life.”

Poor Jamie has just found himself on the wrong end of a three-strikes law.

Several jurisdictions have passed these laws; most were enacted in the mid 90s, in the midst of the push to get tough on crime. They’re also known as habitual offender laws—or, more familiarly, the Bitch (as in, poor Jamie just got Bitched). The purpose of these laws was to increase penalties for repeat offenders.

The laws vary across jurisdiction, but they generally increase penalties severely for third offenses. And by severely, we could be talking life sentences. In order to qualify, the offender must have been convicted of his third (or greater) felony. In some cases the first two felonies might need to be for violent offenses, but the third one need not. In California, for instance, someone like Jamie could face life for a fairly minor third felony.

Another interesting facet about three-strikes laws is that in some cases—like California—the first two strikes can be for certain violent offenses that were prosecuted by juvenile courts. That takes a lot of people by  surprise.

Incidentally, there’s no real indication that these laws reduce crime. But they could make an interesting plot point.