Missouri Court Sentencing for Young Adults: An Alternative Solution

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Perhaps one of the most hotly contested areas of criminal justice is the treatment (some might say, justice) of young adults who are between 18 and 25 years of age for non-violent offenses. Violent offenses are, of course, a different matter entirely, since those involve the direct safety of others. For non-violent offenses for young adults, there are two predominant schools of thought here that focus on two primary outlooks on the issue: rehabilitation, and deterrence. These are both two extremes, of course, but the rehabilitation camp focuses on making the young adult a normal, functioning member of society, free from the burdens of their past, while the deterrence crowd believes that one cannot change the nature of a man and that extreme incarceration periods and the like are necessary in order to keep the young adult almost permanently attached to his or her past crimes, creating a quagmire that is difficult for them to truly escape from. Unfortunately for the young adults of Missouri, the Missouri court, six months ago, decided to implement a strategy that is more akin to the institution side of the argument. This measure dictates that young adults found guilty of non-violent crimes will have probation periods that range from five to twenty years, depending on severity and past record. This essentially means that the measure proposed by Missouri courts makes young inmates virtually unable to escape from their life of crime, even if they sorely want to. The aim here is to help look for alternative measures or ideas to take here by examining the success or failure of the Missouri courts.

The task at hand here is to determine if this solution implemented by the Missouri court is successful and, if so, the extent to which it has been successful. Of course, measuring something like this can be extremely difficult, so before the effectiveness of this relatively new policy can be judged, it is first necessary to come up with certain criteria and methods to be utilized to objectively measure the success or failure of this new policy. The first step is the organizational stage (Cresswell, 2013). Research of this caliber and quantity would be almost impossible to complete alone, so it is necessary to enlist the aid of about ten fellow researchers and form them into one cohesive group. This will not only allow for greater teamwork and organization but also lend credibility to the group as a whole since courts and the like are much more likely to allow access to a group of esteemed researchers who have a goal and purpose rather than one lone, wandering researcher. In doing so, the researchers will be able to gain access to both the Missouri court, since the group will more easily be able to acquire the necessary documents to gain access, but also the probation and parole offices where the young adults in question will be contacted due to the strong measures of the probation, which will allow researchers to gather opinions, feelings, and other subjective data about the young adults. From here, the research itself will be a double-pronged affair. One-half of the researchers will be assigned to the Missouri courts as well as other criminal justice entities in order to gather statistics and data about the courts' implementation of the measure. This data will include the cases with the specified age range and crimes that fit the criteria needed for those subjects to go into the new system. Splitting up the researchers will allow for more physical data to be collected, and most of the locations that either half of the researchers will visit does not require many of them.

The second half of the researchers will be responsible for the subjective half of the research and will have to interview young adults, their families and the like in order to gain a retrospective perspective of the issue at hand. As for the actual design of the research method, there should be some room for flexibility, but the general layout will be as simple as possible. That is to say, researchers will gather facts about the young adults’ crimes, ages, etc. from the courts across multiple time periods, especially between six months ago and the current date, while other researchers measure the young adults' feelings about the new measure and how they feel it is impacting their lives in both the short term and long term. These various studies will attempt to gauge the general feelings and perceptions of these inmates as to their criminal punishment as well as opinions about the system in general. These same researchers will also measure confidence levels and ask them how their opinions have shifted in the past six months to lend a human element to the research.

This, of course, brings with it a few ethical implications simply in terms of the rather intimate subjective research that will be required in order to evaluate this measure. There are three "dimensions" of ethics in this case: procedural ethics, which deal with issues like confidentiality and privacy rights, situational ethics, which deal with the psychological effects of research, such as if a subject discloses important personal information (such as evidence of a crime), and, most importantly, relational ethics (Ellis, 2007). These relational ethics are crucial because interviewing inmates who might have their whole lives affected by these measures instituted by the Missouri court brings with it a need for caution and care when interviewing these subjects (Ellis, 2007). This will also require the researchers to, as the article recommends, "act from [their] hearts and minds" (Ellis, 2007, p.4). This will allow researchers to gather the subjective data they need while also respecting these youths' rights and privacy, ensuring that they are only willingly giving this information.

This brings up what could possibly be the greatest roadblock in the successful completion of the research: gathering and presenting the data in a manner that is free of bias and the implication of any sort of leaning toward one stance or another before the data is gathered. This is a problem that is relatively common for research subjects that involve crimes or other situations where empathy with the subjects is possible (De Vries et al., 2007). This also may lead to what is commonly known as FFP, or falsification, fabrication, or plagiarism, in favor of these subjects (De Vries et al., 2007). To counteract this, the interviews will be anonymous, with the subjects and researchers unable to see one another, yet still able to communicate clearly. This will help to eliminate bias as well as prevent any sort of emotional attachment or reaction.

Research group A will head to the Missouri courtroom and investigate the statistics behind sentencing of young adults, including age, length of sentence as related to the crime, and the rate of repeat offenses. To do this, they will communicate as clearly and as much as possible with the courts to make their intentions crystal-clear. Furthermore, they will obtain far more information than they would probably ever need, but the purpose of this research is to assess the success of the measure and doing so requires as much data as possible from whatever sources are available. This could be problematic, however, as there is a general distrust of the judicial system that could remove credibility from the study. This is especially true for Missouri, where their system of electing judicial officials, known as the Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan, has caused plenty of headaches and distrust toward their political system (Daugherty, 1997). Again, the key to keeping this from affecting the research is to reiterate that the data obtained from these courts is just that: data, and entirely objective data, at that. It might help to lend credence to the research for the researchers to obtain signed documents guaranteeing the accuracy of these documents, simply for posterity's sake.

Research team B will be responsible for accessing the probation and parole offices during required visits and interviewing the subjects themselves. Presenting themselves as organized researchers with a clear purpose will allow them access to the facility relatively easily. Once inside, the researchers should split into groups of two or three and interview as many of the subjects that fit the age and crime criterion for the study as possible. In terms of first meeting the subjects, the researchers must be careful because of the natural apprehension that students (not just inmates) have toward researchers (Cohen and Morrison, 2013). In order to extract the subjective data, they need from the subjects, the researchers must also utilize psychological interview techniques, which should allow the young adults to "open up" to the researchers. One of the most popular techniques for this is simply known as "role-play" and involves the researchers showing the subjects hypothetical examples about their lives and their consequences, and then showing how they, the researchers would react to the same scenario (Cohen and Morrison, 2013). These are qualitative methods and are used to measure rough feelings and perceptions of the inmates about their general situation via informal means.

The research questions themselves that the researchers will ask must be succinct and to the point. The subjects should not feel as if they are on trial for their actions, but are merely having their opinions and feelings measured, which is all that is really happening to them. However, the researchers are also responsible for measuring their feelings and opinions about both the recent change in how they have been sentenced, as well as how they feel it compares to Missouri's previous sentencing system for young adults. The first question to be asked should be "How do you feel this new probation system affects your freedom?" From here, other questions would be asked based on the responses to previous questions. One of these questions might be something like, "What are your general feelings about Missouri's new probation system?" From here, the researcher should expand upon details given by the subject. For example, if the subject reveals that they felt the probation system limits their freedom for the rest of their lives, the researcher should simply ask them why they feel that way. The researchers should also utilize proven interview techniques, such as relating how the interviewee's answers will further both of their causes, giving them a measure of self-interest in the questions (Latham et al., 1980). Another common technique is to ask the exact same questions to different subjects, allowing there to be a clear, objective criterion for which the young adults may respond (Latham et al., 1980).

The research questions should also examine alternative solutions to the indefinite probationary period that is currently being used by the Missouri courts. For example, researchers could ask the offenders how they feel about a shorter, yet more in-depth, period of probation that would require them to check in with the courts much more frequently. This would allow for the researchers to not just examine the issue at hand entirely, but also come up with practical solutions that are fully endorsed by the young adults, who still deserve to be heard, even if they have committed admittedly small crimes. Lastly, the researchers should be careful not to use tools like tests on the subjects, who might be intimidated and are not as effective for measuring what the researchers want, which is feelings and opinions on these issues. The idea here is to capture the human side of the issue, which means being subjective and only capturing feelings and opinions on the issue. The facts will be gathered by the first research team in the courthouse. Gathering this data in a purely subjective environment represents one of the biggest obstacles to conducting this research because the young adults will want their side of the story to be heard, and will readily supply both feelings and opinions, but also, likely, their own facts when these facts are simply not what the researchers are looking for.

These questions and studies all help to guide the researchers toward the goal of measuring the effectiveness of the extended probation measure by helping to show the human, emotional side of the issue. One way or another, prisoner perceptions of the measure, i.e. the ones on the receiving end of the measure, so to speak, are a telling indicator of the general effectiveness of the measure. However, a truly comprehensive analysis will require much more in-depth research as mere court documents and offenders' opinions will not be enough to gain a truly retrospective view of the success of the measure. To do this, the researchers must examine an entirely new segment: voters. Voters are what keep judges and courts in business, ultimately, because they choose who to elect, and their opinions are of utmost importance to those who wish to remain in office. These voters will help to serve as an emotional counterpoint for the inmates' perception questions, allowing for a fair gathering of every side of the issue. Voters are, arguably, just as important to the issue as the inmates. This is especially true for Missouri, which, relatively recently, has undergone a transformation to favor entirely non-partisan voting for its judicial system (Stith and Root, 2009). This means that the opinions and inclinations of whether the new measure is working to the voters' satisfaction are even more important to the judges and officials of the Missouri court, meaning that interviewing these voters is even more crucial a step for the researchers. In addition to that, the researchers will also gather data related to the success of the measure such as the rates of reciprocation of crimes in those who were released under the new probation measure, compared to their reciprocation rates before the new measure was instituted. The design of the study is built around gauging and understanding the effectiveness of the extended probationary period.

This research process poses a rather obvious ethical dilemma that is unrelated to the research itself. This dilemma is simply that these researchers are meddling in affairs that are not their own. Many believe that the affairs of the courts and its offenders should be left alone and out of the field of science. However, these young adults are still human beings, and this research will serve several purposes, perhaps greater than the fate of even the young adults themselves. Although it might not seem like it, the fields of both science and criminal justice are inexorably linked because oftentimes, offenders find themselves at the center of whether or not they should receive the latest medical and scientific advances, and utilizing scientific resources in gauging their opinions on potentially unfair practices could constitute grounds for outrage (MacQueen and Buehler, 2004). However, as far as ethics in science are concerned, these offenders should be treated as if they are human beings. Treating them as anything less would be reiterating the claim that offenders are somehow less than human, as these young adults are entitled to the same public benefits as the rest of the United States (MacQueen and Buehler, 2004). Essentially, the best course of action for the researchers in team B to undertake is to remove the issue of ethics from their minds entirely and focus purely on the task at hand. Doing so will allow them to focus clearly on simply acquiring the necessary opinions, without regard for turning the project into a full-blown ethics showdown.

Once the information-gathering stages have been performed, the next important step in this research process is analyzing the documents that have been gathered as well as the interview questions. To do this, the researchers must reconvene and examine the objective data and draw conclusions from that data, then do the same for the interviews research team B performed. Variables are measured by utilizing the data found in court documents and, if necessary, extrapolating that data with national standards to determine if a specific facet of the Missouri courts is effective than average. It is crucial to keep the data separate for now. For example, the researchers would examine the crime rates for young adults aged 18 to 25 from both six months ago and upwards, to gain a perspective of how effective the Missouri court's measure has been in reducing crime rates. They should also extract data such as how often repeat offenders were arrested and re-incarcerated, severity of crimes committed, and recovery rates of subjects who were recently released on this new probation system.

As for the subjective data, it should be interpreted as if it were objective data. That is to say, the responses that the subjects give should be analyzed for commonalities and themes that are prominently displayed. For instance, researchers might find a general feeling of hopelessness among the subjects that they will continue to be monitored by the Missouri courts for years and possibly decades after committing a relatively minor crime. Analyzing these statements and feelings will allow the researchers to gain a perspective for generally how the subjects feel about the measure and will even be able to make basic predictions for if these offenders are more or less inclined to commit future crimes because of this measure. These researchers must also utilize what are known as "nominal scales" in order to gain a retrospective of the feelings of these subjects (Fink, 1995). A nominal scale allows the researchers to measure non-numerical data in a numerical way, such as determining, in "yes" or "no" format, if the offenders are satisfied with this new probationary policy (Fink, 1995). These "yes" and "no" questions function merely as a supplement to the open-ended questions and allow the researchers to obtain more objective answers from the inmates. These binary questions allow for the collection of objective answers that, while they do not directly measure effectiveness, function as a litmus test of sorts to give a general idea of how those most affected by the changes feel about them (Fink, 1995). After carefully analyzing the data, the researchers should look for any major trends among the data, such as a large number of female offenders complaining about a loss of freedom, or those who have been incarcerated for a greater length of time being more open to the increased probation. This qualitative coding will examine the hard facts found within the court documents to give this section of the research a solid factual foundation. Once the hard data has been analyzed, it will be compared to the more subjective data. This will allow the researchers to draw solid conclusions by combining the findings of both the subjective and objective data. For example, offenders who have been incarcerated for more than one year might feel more strongly about abolishing the new probation measure than those who have been incarcerated for less than one year or not at all. However, it is important for the researchers to ensure they are not taking any leaps in logic, so to speak. Every conclusion that is drawn from the findings should be logged extensively so that a casual observer of these findings would be able to determine how the researchers arrived at each conclusion easily.

From here, researchers should take the analysis of this data one step farther and create what is known as a "student's t-test" of data (Brown, 1967). This t-test would allow for the examination of two vastly different types of data, such as the subjective and objective data, and the discovery of similarities between them (Brown, 1967). An example of this type of model might be a simple location test to determine whether a value stated in the hypothesis matches up with the actual, objective data that was collected (Brown, 1967). Visual models are also extremely important for presenting findings because they allow the absolute basics of research to be examined quickly and efficiently by those who might not have the time to read through the entire findings of the research, such as an authority figure, like a judge (Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002). It is important for the researchers' findings to be as clear as possible, so that the conclusions that the researchers draw may be shared by others. It goes without saying that the researchers will also have to convert decidedly subjective data, such as opinions, and put them into an objective form, such as the hierarchical linear model described earlier.

Lastly, the researchers must draw their final conclusions and present them to the public. This is perhaps the most precarious step because a large portion of the public, whatever the results of the study found, will be displeased with the findings. The researchers, upon presenting their findings, should clearly reiterate that these findings are based on objective data and opinions gleaned from both the voters and offenders themselves. The actual method that the research will be released is via scientific journals, which will publish the results in both print and online for public viewing. This will ensure that the results of the study are dispersed to the public as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, the researchers must also keep in mind their target audience whilst preparing their research and, especially, when publishing it, as one of the first rules of conducting research is to be mindful of the audience (Cresswell, 2013). This means that many important people will be examining and scrutinizing these findings, especially regarding whether to continue supporting the extended probation period. The findings will also be examined by fellow researchers in the field in order to determine what further research, if any, needs to be conducted on this subject (Cresswell, 2013).

The act of conducting research on such a tumultuous and wide-reaching topic brings with it several implications for both sides of this argument. Young adults who are forced into many years of probation must have every possible outlet of research performed in order to determine if the courts' measure was truly a sound idea or not. If it turns out to not have been a sound measure, these offenders will be owed some form of reparations for exposing them to potential decades of probation and potentially ruining their lives. However, if this measure turns out to be massively successful, then surely other states will examine Missouri's methods and determine if they should adopt similar measures for their own young offenders. If the measure turns out to only be marginally successful, then the prevailing argument will likely be that the decades of probation are not worth the meager benefits that they bring, and the strain put on the lives of these young offenders. Whatever the case, the results of this research will have grand effects and implications, and it is for this reason that the research must be as thorough and in-depth as possible.

References

Brown, L. (1967). The conditional level of Student's t-test. The Annals of Mathematical Statistics, 1068-1071.

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2013). Research Methods in Education. New York: Routledge.

Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches (pp. 18-25). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Daugherty, J. A. (1997). The Missouri non-partisan court plan: A dinosaur on the edge of extinction or a survivor in a changing socio-legal environment. Missouri Law Review, 62, 315-343.

De Vries, R., Anderson, M. S., & Martinson, B. C. (2006). Normal misbehavior: Scientists talk about the ethics of research. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics: JERHRE, 1(1), 43-50.

Ellis, C. (2007). Telling secrets, revealing lives: Relational ethics in research with intimate others. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(1), 3-29.

Fink, A. (1995). How to analyze survey data. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Latham, G. P., Saari, L. M., Pursell, E. D., & Campion, M. A. (1980). The situational interview. Journal of Applied Psychology, 65(4), 422-427.

MacQueen, K. M., & Buehler, J. W. (2004). Ethics, practice, and research in public health. American Journal of Public Health, 94(6), 928-931.

Stith, L. D., & Root, J. (2009). Missouri nonpartisan court plan: The least political method of selecting high quality judges. Missouri Law Review, 74, 711-750.