Sunday, August 25, 2013

Burglar Gets 15 Years in Federal Prison for Possessing Shotgun Shells

We've all heard of criminals getting off on a technicality, but what about getting a long prison term for a technicality? That’s what happened to Edward Young, 43 years old, a convicted burglar who tried to reform himself. When Young was released from state prison in 1996 (where he served time for burglary charges), Young told his grandmother that he would turn his life around. He married, went to work, and with his wife raised 4 children in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

As reported in the New York Times (and more critically in, Young’s life took a sharply downward turn beginning in 2011. Young’s troubles came from a combination of virtuous and immoral behavior. On the virtuous side, Young helped a neighbor widow dispose of her husband’s belongings. Young kept the widow’s chest of drawers at his place. In this chest of drawers were seven shotgun shells. Young put them away so his children couldn't find them. He claims not to have known that it is illegal for convicted felons to possess ammunition.

About the same time as his helping the neighbor widow, Young regressed to his previous criminal behavior. He allegedly stole tools, tires, and weightlifting equipment from vehicles and a business warehouse. He brought his son with him one time during a crime spree. This behavior brought the police to his house to conduct a search, during which they found the shotgun shells.

Young confessed to the burglaries and faced a few years in state prison, with the possibility of parole and probation, which seems a reasonable punishment for the crime. The possession of the shotgun shells, however, allowed the U.S. Attorney to prosecute Young under the “Armed Career Criminal Act”. His 20-year-old burglary convictions counted against him, something that is unique to this law. Young never used a firearm in any of the crimes he was convicted of, and although possessing shotgun shells, he had no gun. Nevertheless, Young got 15 years for possessing the shotgun shells, which is the minimum sentence under the federal law. This sentence allows for no possibility of parole, and no discretion in sentencing. The judge, sympathizing with Young, compared the situation to a Charles Dickens novel.

The federal government will spend $415,000 over 15 years to incarcerate Young. His children, ages 6 to 16, will grow up without a father. Is this in society’s best interest? High incarceration rates have reduced the crime rate, but this comes at a high cost. In 1978, the United States had 307,000 inmates in state and federal prisons. In 2012, the number had quintupled to 1.57 million. 1 in 100 adults are now in prison or jail nationwide. The average cost to incarcerate someone in state and federal prison is about $30,000 per year. Multiplied by 1.57 million, this amounts to $47 billion per year.

Beside money, another societal cost is children growing up without fathers. Due to disability, Young was a stay-at-home father for his four young children. Now his children will have to be raised by their mother alone. Single parenting is a societal concern that causes an elevated risk of children’s experiencing cognitive, emotional, and social problems. The number of children living in single parent households has nearly doubled in the last 50 years. One in three children are now raised without a father. Not all children raised by a single parent have problems, but children are more likely to have problems compared to children raised by two parents. Boys in particular are more likely to have conduct and academic problems if their father is absent.

There are many reasons why more children today are raised by single parents. One common reason is that the father abandons the child. This can happen to married or unmarried parents. The mother may not want to marry the father for some reason, or if they are married, she may want to divorce. Many fathers are unemployed or employed in menial jobs, not making them attractive candidates for marriage. Some fathers are alcoholics or drug addicts, and may be violent and abusive.

In the case of Edward Young, these reasons aren't relevant. He got married, had 4 children with his wife, was involved in the children’s upbringing, and both he and his wife wanted to stay married and raise the children together. In this case, the government removed Young from his family and will incarcerate him for 15 years, for having shotgun shells with no shotgun. Young was not a perfect father. He had a history of burglaries when he was younger, and was a convicted felon. More importantly, he recently resumed criminal behavior, and involved his son. At age 43, and a father of 4, it’s unlikely but possible that Young would become a habitual criminal. Most criminals are young people. Young men are more impulsive and prone to criminal behavior than middle aged or older men. I think that a conviction and sentence of one or two years in prison would be enough of a deterrent to make him avoid any further misdeeds.

We need to rethink mandatory sentencing and mass incarceration. Mandatory sentencing usually kicks in when someone has a long history of criminal behavior. The problem is that longer sentencing for older men makes no sense, since older men are less likely to commit crimes. Mandatory sentencing and mass incarceration are expensive in terms of monetary and societal costs. They are a major cause of family breakdown, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Mass incarceration is one reason why so many American children are raised by single parents. The incarceration rate is 1% in the U.S., and much higher in low-income neighborhoods. Many states have moved away from mass incarceration, including New York and Texas. It’s time for the federal government to rethink laws like the Armed Career Criminal Act and restore common sense and the public interest to sentencing.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Get the Kids to Bed on Time

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, a new study of sleep habits in children found that children with regular bedtimes performed better on cognitive tests than children with inconsistent bedtimes. Boys and girls with regular bedtime at age 3 performed better on cognitive tests given at age 7 than children with non-regular bedtimes. Cognitive tests included tests of reading, math, and spatial skills. The mother reported whether the child went to bed on time or not. The mother also reported the time the child went to bed on a weeknight (while school was in session). Over 11,000 children participated in the study.

The study found that children’s bedtimes became more regular as they got older. 19.5% of 3-year-old children didn't have a regular bedtime. This dropped to 9.1% of 5-year-old children, and 8.2% of 7-year-old children not having a regular bedtime. Children who were more socially disadvantaged tended to have less regular and later bedtimes. The study controlled for confounding factors that could influence test performance, including mother’s age, birth order, family income, parental education, parental employment, discipline strategies, hours spent watching TV, whether the child has a TV in the bedroom, and whether the mother drank or smoked during pregnancy.

With one exception, early or late bedtime didn't significantly affect children’s test scores, after other factors were taken into account. Late bedtime at age 7 reduced girls’ reading scores. The paper didn't present results on the association between test scores and specific early or late bedtime ranges at ages 3 or 5.

After controlling for the various factors affecting cognitive test performance, not having a regular bedtime at age 7 was associated with lower test scores for girls, but not for boys. For both girls and boys, non-regular bedtimes at age 3 were associated with lower test scores at age 7. The size of the association is small (the authors quantify the size of the association in the Discussion section, but as I mention in the next paragraph I question their methodology). Non-regular bedtimes at age 5 were associated with lower reading scores in girls, and math scores in boys. Girls, but not boys, who never had regular bedtimes at ages 3, 5, and 7 had significantly lower test scores at age 7. Somewhat surprisingly, boys who didn't have regular bedtimes at any 2 of the 3 ages had lower test scores, but boys who didn't have regular bedtimes at all 3 ages did not have significantly lower test scores.

It must be remembered that this is only one study, and replication is required before scientific acceptance of the link between stable bedtime and cognitive test scores. The study used the mother’s self report about whether her child went to bed at a regular time. This is both prone to recall errors, and also is inherently subjective. What exactly is a “regular time”? One mother may say that a regular time is +/- 15 minutes from a target bedtime. Another mother may say that a regular time is +/- 30 minutes from a target bedtime. I had problems with the table presentation of the results. Regression beta coefficients were presented along with confidence intervals, but statistically significant results were presented along with nonsignificant results, and there were no indicators separating significant from nonsignificant. There was no overall R^2 reported. I also had issues with the statistical inferences. A regression beta value for a binary variable like non-regular bedtime can’t be translated into the usual interpretation of beta: 1 SD of change in independent variable corresponds to (beta) SD change in dependent variable, but that’s apparently what the authors did. (How did the reviewers and editors miss this?) In the Discussion section of the paper, the authors report on the size of the associations in terms of standard deviations of test scores. I’m assuming that they are using the beta scores to determine this (the numbers they quote match the beta scores). If they are, then the association sizes in terms of standard deviations of test scores that the authors report in the Discussion Section are incorrect.

Assuming the link between stable early childhood bedtimes and cognitive test scores holds, it’s interesting to relate this to my hypothesis about ideal bedtime that I report in my human magnetoreception research paper. I've found that I have an ideal bedtime that varies according to where I am located, and whether or not daylight saving time is in effect. In the summer in Salt Lake City, UT, my ideal bedtime is about 11:35 p.m. I feel best both when my bedtime is stable, and when it is close to ideal. I’m assuming that sometime in my childhood my ideal bedtime was “set”. I grew up in Northern New Jersey. My ideal bedtime there is about 10:35 p.m. when daylight saving time is in effect. Did I consistently go to bed around 10:35 p.m. when I was a young child?

Another important thing to consider is the effect of daylight saving time. I have found that there is a 2 hour ideal bedtime difference when the time changes. (The explanation for this is rather complicated and I won’t go into this here). Ideal bedtime in Northern New Jersey is 8:35 p.m. during standard time, and 10:35 p.m. during daylight saving time. Perhaps I went to bed around 8:30 p.m. as a young child (more realistic than 10:30 p.m.). This 2 hour difference affects the meaning of “stable bedtime”. A child who goes to bed at 10 p.m. in the summer and 8 p.m. in the winter has a stable bedtime with reference to the natural environment. A child who goes to bed at 8 p.m. year round has an unstable bedtime—he goes to bed 2 hours earlier with reference to the natural environment when daylight saving time goes into effect. Studies such as this one don’t take this daylight saving time factor into account.

It’s possible that stable early childhood bedtimes can affect future mental health, as it can affect IQ. Perhaps unstable early childhood bedtimes can lead to sleep or mood disorders later in life. What about unstable early childhood environments (e.g. frequently moving)? What about the magnetic characteristics of the child’s bedroom (e.g. compass orientation of bed, and artificial magnetic fields in the sleeping environment)? These are the kinds of questions that researchers should be asking as they explore different and previously unknown environmental effects on child development.