Monday, August 13, 2007

Dissecting Jose Carranza and the Immigration Angle

Jose Carranza is charged with three murders in Newark, New Jersey and several newspapers are reporting that he is not in the United States legally. Whenever you have limited space, you need to choose your words carefully. What led the journalists who looked over Jose Carranza to dissect him according to his immigration status? Is that the best way to dissect him?

It makes sense for journalists to describe someone in a way that helps everyone understand more about what happened. For example, if the suspect was the neighbor of one of the victims, or had a dispute with them in the past, that would be very interesting information -- it would help us understand the possibility that a killing was a horrific end to a long-running feud. It certainly would not excuse the crime, but it would help us understand. Same if it turns out the suspect was the spouse or ex-boyfriend of one of the victims.

It also makes sense to offer descriptions that help us understand. Does it help to emphasize whether the suspect is right-handed? What his race is? Whether he violated the civil laws on paying income taxes? Whether he violated civil laws on immigration status? Whether he has numerous parking tickets or DWI charges? Whether he watches violent films? Whether he plays violent video games? Whether he plays Dungeons and Dragons?

It probably makes sense to stress the characteristics that actually have some relationship to being more likely to commit crimes. For example, if you point out that a suspect is right-handed, but right-handed people commit crimes at a lower rate than left-handed people, then what is the point of mentioning he's right-handed?

It's disappointing, then, for journalists to point out that Jose Carranza is an immigrant when studies frequently show that immigrants commit crimes at a much lower rate than people born in the United States. Why point out whether the suspect is an immigrant?

Are there any studies that show whether people who fail to pay their income taxes are more likely to commit other crimes? Until those studies are done, why don't journalists emphasize whether suspects have paid their income taxes fully and accurately over the past few years? Wouldn't cheating on taxes in theory lead to worse crimes? Could we have stopped the criminals who ran Enron into the ground if the IRS and police had been strictly enforcing the income tax laws?

If you don't dissect criminal suspects wisely, you could end up with such farcical suggestions as locking up all white men just because Timothy McVeigh is a white man and the mastermind of the Oklahoma City bombing.


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