Monday, October 31, 2005

iowa court upholds mass restoration of felon voting rights

from the des moines register and a district court in muscatine has upheld iowa governor tom vilsack's executive order restoring voting rights to all former felons in that state. as i wrote in august, the order raises some interesting legal questions. shelly schaefer and i are presenting a paper framed around some of them in a department workshop november 29:
Chris Uggen and Shelly Schaefer “Voting and the Civic Reintegration of Former Prisoners”

When Iowa governor Tom Vilsack restored voting rights to all former felons in that state this July Fourth, he noted that “research shows that ex-offenders who vote are less likely to re-offend.” The National Review countered that “the problem with Vilsack’s claim is that there is absolutely no research to support it. Not one longitudinal study exists showing the effects of the restoration of voting rights on crime rates or recidivism.” We undertook such a study this summer, by matching criminal records with voting records. We conceptualize voting as a form of “civic reintegration,” analogous to the work and family ties that are well-established in life course criminology. For our 1990 Minnesota release cohort, we find that approximately 20 percent of the former felons registered to vote. Our event history analysis shows that felons who voted in the previous biennial election have a far lower risk of recidivism than non-voting felons, and that this effect holds net of age, race, gender, and criminal history. The talk will discuss the strengths and limitations of our data and covariate adjustment approach for making causal inferences, the implications of felon enfranchisement for public safety, and the viability of weaving former felons back into the citizenry as stakeholders.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

illegal voting

i wrote last month about a minneapolis woman who was charged with illegal voting because she cast a ballot while still on probation. other prosecutors are getting into the act as well. according to a milwaukee journal-sentinel story by reed epstein:

"A 24-year-old woman with a felony drug conviction in Dane County voted illegally in the 2004 presidential election, according to a complaint filed Friday in Waukesha County Circuit Court. Elizabeth A. Mitchell-Frazier of Waukesha faces one count of voting illegally and one count of falsifying her voter registration. The two felony charges carry a combined maximum penalty of 3 1/2 years in prison and up to $11,000 in fines. ...According to the criminal complaint, Mitchell-Frazier was told that after her conviction, in March 2004 in Dane County, she would lose her voting rights until the end of her sentence, which was three years of probation and drug and alcohol treatment. On election day, Mitchell-Frazier filled out a voter registration card and voted at Prairie Elementary School, the complaint says. It states she listed a valid Wisconsin driver's license on her voter registration application. But Mitchell-Frazier told investigators she thought the Dane County conviction was a misdemeanor..."

as i noted before, i'm astounded that we've made the simple act of voting a felony-level offense and that prosecutors are pursuing such cases so vigorously. ms. mitchell-frazier didn't vote twice or sell her vote or rig voting machines or turn legal voters away at the polls or destroy the votes of others. she merely showed up at the local elementary school and cast a ballot. i doubt that any judge will give her 3.5 years of prison time for this, but the fact that she could is incredible. if i drink a fifth of jack daniels before hitting rush-hour traffic today and get into a bloody fistfight after rear-ending a school bus, there's no way i'd be charged with a felony or even threatened with anything worse than a few weeks in the workhouse (no, i don't know this from personal experience). I'd be interested to know: (a) how many people have been prosecuted for illegal voting solely by virtue of their felon status and (b) what sort of sentences they have received. Has anyone actually done time for voting?

why criminologists should study rulemaking as well as rulebreaking

is law a narrowly crafted expression of societal consensus? or is it a product of group conflict and a tool for advantaged groups to maintain a dominant position? the answer depends on the law, of course, but criminologists too often accept the criminal code uncritically. once we scratch the surface of many laws, we find that they emerged from conflicts over race, class, religion and other social cleavages.

i told my deviance class that, by most definitions, rosa parks was a deviant in 1955 and a hero in 2005. she was arrested fifty years ago because she defied a law requiring blacks to yield their bus seats to whites, which set off the montgomery, alabama boycott. reprinted the text of the city ordinance defied by ms. parks.

Every person operating a bus line in the city shall provide equal but separate accommodations for white people and negroes on his buses, by requiring the employees in charge thereof to assign passengers seats on the vehicles under their charge in such manner as to separate the white people from the negroes, where there are both white and negroes on the same car; provided, however, that negro nurses having in charge white children or sick or infirm white persons, may be assigned seats among white people

i think i can make a pretty good case that this law emerged from conflict. the u.s. supreme court declared the ordinance unconstitutional in 1956, in violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the fourteenth amendment. not everyone remembers that ms. parks was actually sitting in the black section of the bus. the driver "invited" her to move when a white man could not find a seat up front in the white section. her refusal brought her a disorderly conduct conviction and fine of $14. it seems strange that whites, so vigilant in policing segregation, would be comfortable sitting in the black section when convenient. segregation no doubt brings on all sorts of strangenesses.

for criminologists, such ordinances remind us yet again that the law is not a narrowly-crafted expression of consensual values. instead, many laws emerge from conflict and the naked exercise of power. moreover, laws that seem "normal" to us today will likely look out of place in a generation or two.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

parental rights of sex offenders' wives

the ny times reports* that a pennsylvania woman lost custody of her newborn son because the child's father was convicted of sex crimes. melissa wolfhawk gave birth last tuesday. although she lives separately from her husband, a schuylkill county judge stripped her of custody and sent the baby to the county's department of children and youth services. ms. wolfhawk will only get two hours of supervised visits before an october 31 hearing, but is appealing the custody decision in federal court. her husband, daishin john wolfhawk, served 10 years on a 1983 conviction of rape and sodomy of two teenage girls. according to the times:

The unusual case has raised some doubts even with groups that champion the rights of abused children. Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said he respected the right of agencies to take custody of endangered children, but said that the standard for removing a child had to be set "very high." "If somebody was convicted 20 years ago and has not reoffended, and the circumstances of the offense would not appear to make him a threat to young children, then this is troublesome," Mr. Allen said. David L. Levy, the chief executive of the Children's Rights Council, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, said, "I am not aware of any case where a 20-year-old conviction, no matter how heinous, has been used to remove a child from the care of the perpetrator and from a mother who had nothing to do with that crime." "The state may think that because they're married, the only way to make the child safe from the father is to remove him from the mother," he said. "But what about her due process and constitutional rights? If they can show a present danger, I'd be the first one to support removal, but they need to show a connection between 20 years ago and now."

the case offers another example of the hyperstigma applied to sex offenders today -- it appears to be a permanent mark that extends beyond any official sanction. but regardless of the father's fitness, this case sets a troubling precedent for mothers who have committed no crimes whatsoever. i suspect that ms. wolfhawk's best chance of getting the boy back will be to divorce mr. wolfhawk and to relocate far from him. i've never heard of a case quite like this, although sex offenders who victimize children have been deprived of parental rights while under supervision, as have parents who kill their children. so i guess there are a few questions here:

1. which crimes, if any, should affect one's rights to be a parent? all sex crimes? murder? sex crimes against children? incest? what about drug use? any felony? reckless driving?

2. for how long should such a restriction be enforced? during the sentence, for a 2-5 year waiting period beyond the sentence? for 10 years? forever?

3. should both parents be liable for the sins of the father (or, i guess, the mother)? what should melissa wolfhawk have to do to get her kid back?

*thanks to "guilty k." for the heads-up on this story.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

crime, fear, and public opinion

some comments on the last post raised the issue of fear of crime and the ucr crime rate. here are a few figures i've been playing with to track these trends. first, compare the general social survey fear of crime indicator with the ucr index offense rate and the percentgage believing that crime is the most important problem. according to the gss, the percentage of people afraid to walk in their own neighborhoods dropped from about 45 percent in 1994 to 30 percent in 2001. 1994 was the year of bill clinton's crime bill debates, so you see a big spike in the percentage naming crime as the most important problem facing the nation.

many criminologists and politicians believe that the public is more punitive today than ever before, but that's not quite true. the chart below shows responses to three standard punitiveness indicators: the perception that courts are not harsh enough, that too little money is spent combating crime, and support for the death penalty. all peaked in 1994 but have declined significantly since then.
so maybe times are changing. people seem to feel less afraid of street crime in their everyday lives today than they did a decade ago, as both police and victimization data suggest they should. although a majority still favor "tougher" crime policy, the percentage has declined significantly over the past decade. i read these trends as providing an opening for reintegrative efforts. more people seem ready to view law violators as fallible human beings who will eventually desist from crime rather than as irredeemable monsters. if so, it creates a policy opportunity to reorient correctional practices toward the clear-headed goal of maximizing public safety.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

less crime today than at any point in your lifetime?

if you are my age or younger and live in the united states, serious street crime has now fallen to the lowest levels recorded in your lifetime. according to the just-released 2004 fbi uniform crime reports, the murder rate is at a forty-year low and the overall violent crime rate is the lowest in thirty years. the ucr numbers are based on crimes known to the police, but they are really the most reliable and valid data source for homicide. ucr rates for rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, auto theft and larceny-theft were also down again this year, as were rates of property crimes such as burglary, larceny-theft, and shoplifting. for offenses other than homicide, these numbers should be considered alongside trend data in victimization and self-reported offending. in triangulating these sources, however, one generally gets an encouraging impression. the local picture is murkier, with serious crime trending upward in several important categories. nevertheless, here too the trend is decent if not encouraging -- particularly since the "murderapolis" days of 1995-1996.

so do you feel safer than you did 5 or 10 or 20 years ago? if not, why not? because 16,000 u.s. murders is still way too many murders? or, has the street crime effect on safety diminished relative to other concerns for you? do you think support for harsh anti-crime measures will diminish if the downward trend continues, or will punitiveness be cited as the reason for diminishing crime rates?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

national workshop on female offenders

although there are far more men than women in the u.s. criminal justice system, female correctional populations have risen significantly in the past decade. today women make up roughly 7 percent of prison inmates, 12 percent of jail inmates, 13 percent of parolees, and 23 percent of probationers.

a conference devoted to women in the system, the 11th national workshop on adult & juvenile female offenders, takes place today through wednesday at the marriott hotel in bloomington, mn. an informative ap story on the conference emphasizes some of the minnesota programs for mothers in prison and their children.

when i interviewed minnesota prisoners about their political life a few years ago, i started by doing ten interviews in a women's prison, then moved on to a men's facility. my impression was that the first interviews were much "easier" -- more women than men seemed to have developed a vocabulary for talking about things such as civic participation and their past and future roles in the community. so, i got a little spoiled as an interviewer. the men were immediately on top of issues such as individual rights, liberties, and voting but seemed to have given less thought to communitarian issues.

i didn't draw any big generalizations from a handful of interviews and this didn't become a theme in the books or articles from the project. still, it made me think about something i heard from a warden at a women's prison long ago but didn't believe at the time. she said, "female prisoners aren't anything like male prisoners -- they are a lot more like women in the community." consistent with the conference and the mission of the apfo, the warden was deeply skeptical of a "just add women and mix" approach to correctional programming.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

european court of human rights on felon voting

from the sentencing project: the european court of human rights ruled today that denying voting rights to prisoners in the UK violates the european convention on human rights. the court held that “any limitations on the right to vote had to be imposed in pursuit of a legitimate aim and be proportionate” and that “any departure from the principle of universal suffrage risked undermining the democratic validity of the legislature.”

i don't know enough about the court's powers or jurisdiction to understand the full implications of this decision (i'm hoping that a great legal mind will step up to set me straight), but here is how the guardian describes the decision:

Laws setting out who can and cannot take part in elections are to be rewritten after the European court of human rights today ruled in favour of giving British prisoners the right to vote ... Britain is among 13 signatories to the human rights convention who prevent prisoners from voting, according to a government survey ... The court - on a majority ruling of 12-5 - said an article in the convention guaranteeing the "free expression of the opinion of the people in choosing a legislature" was not absolute but in a 21st century democracy the presumption should be in favour of inclusion ... The court was set up in 1950 to hear citizens' complaints under the human rights convention and is independent of the European Union.

debates over the voting status of prisoners -- in the UK, australia, and south africa, among other nations -- really draw the restrictiveness of u.s. laws into sharp relief. prisoners are now disenfranchised in 48 of the 50 states (maine and vermont are the only exceptions) and policy debates generally focus on whether non-incarcerated felons (probationers and parolees) and former felons (who have completed their sentences) should be permitted to vote.

Saturday, October 1, 2005

dna giveth but it sure don't taketh away

pspunk alerted me to a short article describing how some states are addressing the "problem" of prisoners being exonerated by dna evidence. as clayton neuman wrote this week in time magazine:

Justice, it seems, has an expiration date. Luis Diaz last month became one of a handful of Florida prisoners--and one of 99 nationwide--exonerated by DNA testing since 2000. But the 2001 statute that helped set him free after he spent 26 years in jail for rapes he did not commit is set to expire next week. After Oct. 1, when prisoners can no longer petition Florida courts for post-conviction DNA testing, their only hope will be to ask prosecutors (the people who put them in jail in the first place) to reopen their case. Prisoners in Ohio face a similar deadline at the end of the month. "It is quintessentially un-American for the very people who may have caused this kind of miscarriage of justice to be the people who decide whether DNA testing occurs," says Jenny Greenberg of the Florida Innocence Initiative.

Worse still, the four-year window in Florida that required the preservation of evidence for older cases--which may have predated reliable DNA testing--is also closing. And unlike California, which last year passed a law ensuring the preservation of evidence throughout an inmate's incarceration, Florida Governor Jeb Bush last month mandated that law-enforcement agencies need give only a 90-day notice before destroying evidence, which isn't much time given the low literacy rates among inmates and how hard prison protocol makes it for them to reach a lawyer. Six states have yet to address the issue of requiring the preservation of DNA evidence. And new hurdles could arise at the congressional level, where a bill threatens to restrict many prisoners from filing one last-ditch petition in federal court. All these moves are designed to keep courts from getting deluged with DNA-related requests by thwarting new technology with red tape.

if i read this correctly, it means that states are starting to destroy the dna evidence used to convict prisoners at one end, and then not allowing them to petition to have themselves tested at the other. i'm all for keeping our busy courts from "getting deluged with dna-related requests," but i find the asymmetry in power a bit troubling here. dna evidence is an invaluable tool for police and prosecutors, but shouldn't it also be available for the wrongly convicted? i'm sure that there are many "frivolous" requests for testing, since guilty as well as innocent prisoners have an interest in something (anything!) to "rule themselves out" as suspects. still, it seems only a slight exaggeration to see this trend as inverting justice blackstone's adage: better to imprison 10 innocent people than to let one guilty person go free.