Friday, April 29, 2011

On measuring cups, crack and jail overcrowding

The boys over at Freakonomics have posited an interesting question -- did the sale of Pyrex hurt the crack cocaine industry?

It sounds quite far-fetched, I'm certain, but it makes some sense if you look into the issue a bit more deeply. The theory goes something like this...

Pyrex is (or at least, was) a great material for handling extreme changes in temperature. You could fill a bowl with a cold substance, throw it in the microwave and boil it, all without the glass shattering. At least you could before Corning sold Pyrex in 1998. The new owners, World Kitchen, changed the manufacturing process around and now Pyrex isn't quite so good at handling extreme temperature changes.

Crack cocaine is made by melting powder cocaine in water at high temperatures then letting it cool. It wasn't a problem for the old Pyrex measuring cups -- but the new ones, not so good. Crack manufacturers had to find new vessels to cook up their brew - namely, test tubes stolen from labs.

Now we all know it's far easier to buy a Pyrex measuring cup than it is to steal test tubes. Hence, the cost of producing crack has gone up and the supply has gone down.

Pyrex is valued by cooks for its sturdiness in the kitchen, particularly its ability to withstand rapid, dramatic temperature changes that typically shatter normal glassware. It turns out that people making crack cocaine valued this quality too. The process of cooking powder cocaine into hardened crack is intense, and involves a container of water undergoing a rapid temperature change. For years, Pyrex measuring cups, manufactured by Corning, were a key component of the underground crack industry. 
But Corning sold Pyrex in 1998 to World Kitchen, which altered the makeup of the Pyrex material, making it less resistant to temperature changes and more prone to shattering. 

If you're a fan of Mythbusters you'll get a kick out of this video in which the boys at Popular Science show the different ways you can cause a Pyrex cup to explode.

The lesson is that you can never be certain of the consequences of any particular decision until somewhere down the road.

This principle plays out on a daily basis in the criminal courthouse. By not granting personal bonds for people charged with nonviolent Class B misdemeanors, the courts "force" defendants to plead guilty in order to get out of jail. These folks now have criminal records that can make it harder for them to find housing or jobs. As a result of overcrowding in the county jail we've had to spend money to build new jails and even more money to pay other counties to hold Harris County inmates awaiting trial.

Harris County could institute a "catch and release" program for minor possession cases. Instead of arresting the person and hauling them off to jail, the police could issue a citation with a promise to appear in court. Such a policy would reduce the number of people held in the county jail and would take away the pressure to plead guilty in order to get out of jail. That conviction for a possession of marijuana could prevent a student from receiving financial aid in college - putting a degree beyond their reach.

Our state legislators rarely (if ever) consider the long-term consequences of anything they do -- they are focused on the next election, to the detriment of everything else. There are days I thank my lucky stars that they are only in session for 140 every other year.

1 comment:

Gritsforbreakfast said...

FWIW, "catch and release" is the opposition's derisive term for the policy of ticketing B misdemeanors - the departments that have implemented it refer to it as "cite and summons."