Monday, September 25, 2006

why put that amendment first?

san francisco chronicle writers mark fainaru-wada and lance williams face up to 18 months of federal prison time, pending appeal, for refusing to identify the source of leaked grand jury testimony in a steroid investigation involving barry bonds.

18 months is a pretty long sentence (even in comparison to the clunky lead sentence written above). under the current minnesota guidelines, someone with minimal criminal history would get 18 months or less for crimes such as simple robbery, residential burglary, theft greater than $2500, forgery, and sale of controlled substances.

as a former journalist wannabe, i'm officially spooked. et tu, sports page? this is supposed to be the "toy department," not the trenches of modern journalism. it seems that any writers could find themselves neck-deep in such cases, with the possible exception of bridge columnists and sudoku contributors. as for this investigation, here are some of the major players:
  1. barry bonds, the expanding man.
  2. victor conte, who admitted distributing steroids to athletes and laundering the proceeds (sentenced to 4 months in prison and 2 years of court supervision for illegal drug distribution).
  3. greg anderson, mr. bonds' trainer, who has already done 3 months after pleading guilty to dealing steroids and laundering money, plus 15 days for refusing to answer a previous grand jury's questions.
  4. mark fainaru-wada and lance williams, the reporters who are refusing to name names.
  5. judith miller, former new york times reporter who did 3 months last year, after refusing to identify sources in a cia leak investigation.
who do you think will ultimately do the most time as a result of the balco investigation? who, if anyone, do you think should do the most time?

republican arlen specter has sponsored senate bill s. 2831 - “the free flow of information act of 2006”, a "shield" law that might offer some protection for journalists in such situations -- except for those seditious bridge columnists, that is.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

sociology v. deviance

i just gave a sociology of deviance lecture about how deviance casts a wider conceptual net than crime (parenthetically arguing that sociologists should really make better use of their intellectual jurisdiction over the former area). whereas criminology is generally concerned with explaining violations of the criminal code, deviance engages a much broader landscape of norm violation. for example, my studies of sexual harassment, civil rights violations, and alcohol use probably fit better under a deviance umbrella than the crim umbrella i use in other work.

sometimes acts shock the collective conscience and arrests are made, but there's simply no prohibition on the behavior in the criminal code. such was the case in cassville, wisconsin this month, when three sad young men attempted to exhume a woman's corpse for sexual purposes. there are all sorts of what were they thinking? details to this act, such as the strange image of the trio stopping at a dodgeville wal-mart to buy condoms before they began digging. fortunately, they were apprehended before they broke into the burial vault.

we all know that such behavior is wrong on many levels, but most states do not explicitly prohibit necrophilia in the criminal code. the wisconsin youth were instead charged with attempted third-degree misdemeanor theft and attempted third-degree sexual assault. the sexual assault charges didn't stick, since the law was not written to cover such behaviors. they remain subject to charges of criminal damage to property and attempt to break into a burial vault, but neither of these carry sanctions commensurate with the shock and outrage expressed by the community.

as you might guess -- particularly in an election year -- a moral entrepreneur has stepped in to rectify this situation. state senate majority leader dale schultz of richland center has pledged to criminalize necrophilia in wisconsin. i imagine that the senator, who helped bring brett favre day to the state last year, will probably face even less resistance on this one. i sure wouldn't oppose such a law -- i just hope they never need to use it.

Friday, September 15, 2006

mediocre sleep-inducing homogenized pablum v. background music for the slavery of daily drudgery

alex long has written a fun working paper on uses and misuses of popular music lyrics in legal writing. as is my custom, i skipped immediately to the data. i worked up a li'l spreadsheet with the most cited artists in both law journals and legal opinions.

the list is a familiar but disappointing catalog of self-consciously respectable boomer-friendly aging or dead white males: dylan, beatles, springsteen, simon, et alia. professor long himself cites the stooges' raw power, but this stuff hasn't made it into legal scholarship. he even drops a li'l lester on us in the footnotes:

[I]t’s harder than hangnails to … even have a little moronic fun these days without
some codifying crypto-academic … swooping down to rape your stance and leave you shivering fish-naked in the cultural welfare line. So I wouldn’t blame you for hating me for this article at all.

i don't hate you, dude. in fact, i've gotta love a lawprof who can go deep on lester bangs. still, this leaves me with two questions:

first, would the sociology list look any edgier? i doubt it. nirvana, rage, james brown, or marvin gaye might pop up -- and i know i've seen gang of four in more than one context -- but i'd wager the soc list would pretty much replicate the lawlist. personally, i tried to cite social distortion in contexts once ("a broken nose, a broken heart, an empty bottle of gin" in a review of laub and sampson), but it was excised before it hit the newstands. so it goes.

second, i've always wanted to drop the pistols' pretty vacant into a title but never quite found the proper setting. which great song titles are just sitting there, crying out for a hunk-a hunk-a burnin' sociological research?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

minnversity political science student sarah walker and artist/advocate mark hayden have started the employ ex-offenders project. their goals are the following:

to make visible the often invisible discriminatory practices of denying employment to individuals with criminal records, to reduce the class and race based stigma of criminality and to challenge the popular media discourse that demonizes individuals with criminal records and individuals making the transition from prison to civil society.

if you would like to support their work, you can order a $12 t-shirt like this one. former offenders are also invited to submit their own photos for use in the campaign. you can contact sarah or mark at for other ways to get involved in this grassroots effort.

criminal victimization, 2005

new national crime victimization survey data show relative stability in violent crime rates, after significant declines over the previous decade. according to criminal victimization 2005, both personal (violent) and property crime rates have been halved between 1993 and 2005.

i quickly scanned the new bjs report for some bad news. well, i found an uptick in firearm violence from 1.4 to 1.9 per 1,000 between 2004 and 2005, but this is still way down from the rate of 5.9 per 1,000 in 1993. the picture for robbery is similar -- a significant increase over the previous year, but at levels far below those of the mid-1990s. similarly, i could discern few scary negative trends when looking at subgroup patterns (e.g., breaking the data down by race, gender, class, urban residence, and region).

robbery and firearm violence could be ugly harbingers, of course, but the overall picture is one of short-term stability and long-term decline in criminal victimization. while such national trends obscure lots of local variation -- i'd wager that victimization is up in many parts of my fair cities -- the high-quality ncvs data are giving us no indication that aggregate crime rates are spiraling out of control.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

voting requirements

the great legal mind wrote with an update on minnesota voting requirements. like many jurisdictions, my home state publishes a voting FAQ.

sometimes folks are skeptical when i argue that the rules are unclear or needlessly complicated. when i do so, i'm referring to passages such as this one:

Q: Who is eligible to vote?
A: You may vote if you are:

  1. at least 18 years of age [no problem here]
  2. a US citizen [check]
  3. a Minnesota resident for at least 20 days before the election [shouldn't be hard to figure out]
  4. not a convicted felon without your civil rights [hmmm. what if had been convicted but did my time?]
  5. not under guardianship of the person where you have not retained the right to vote [huh? HUH?]
  6. not legally incompetent [well, technically i'm not legally incompetent]

my research draws my attention to criterion #4, since i think such statements give former felons the erroneous impression that they cannot vote even after they are released from (probation, parole, or prison) supervision. but #5 is just bizarre. i get the sense that this rule was first translated into japanese, then into norwegian, then rewritten as english. before you vote in november, be sure to ask yourself whether you are "not under guardianship of the person where you have not retained the right to vote." and remember -- if you misinterpret the rules and vote illegally, you've just committed a felony.

Saturday, September 2, 2006

say a prayer

i'm reprinting a comment that arrived today in response to an older post. i can't begin to feel the writer's frustration, but i've heard his story again and again and again and again. by my count, there are about 11.7 million former felons -- people no longer under any correctional supervision -- in circulation in the united states today. they often have a very tough time finding work:

To Other Convicted Felons,
I am at the end of my rope. I have a non-violent, class D Felony for Burglary that was committed 2 yrs ago. I have a College Degree in Marketing Mgmt. & great work experience. I have endorsements from Probation for successfully meeting the terms & conditions of probation.
I applied to Owens-Corning for a job in Construction Sales & I lied about my Felony. I passed all of their requirements (phone & interview screenings, drug test, online psychological test) and beat out 2 other candidates for consideration. They sent me to Toledo, OH for 1 week of training. I truly believed that they would do the background check first. When they didn't, I thought maybe God heard my prayers. Upon my first day of work, the Boss says a background check revealed my record. I pleaded with him to give me a shot as that was an isolated incident. I told him that the guy he nterviewed & liked was the guy that I am.
All to no avail. I left humiliated & ashamed. I see no worthwhile job opportunities & am contemplating suicide. Please don't say this is crazy, I already know that. I just can't face the future with this amount of Hopelessness. Please say a prayer for me, I just can't deal with this.

does it help or hurt to know that others have walked the same hard road? with nowhere to hide from their records, i know that many beat their heads against the wall for years (and years and years and years), often working their way up from the very bottom and sometimes getting stuck along the way.

i happened to meet yesterday with some folks on the council on crime and justice about a new research project on employment and criminal records. in time, it might provide some policy guidance on employment and criminal records, but this research doesn't offer any help or solace today. at best, it will nail down some social facts on the issue that legislators can consider or ignore.

i've never done hard time, but i know i've done worse than a class-D burglary. i'm not usually a praying man, but i just gave it a try. i'm also inspired to keep working on reentry and reintegration issues, as both a researcher and a private citizen. godspeed on your journey, man.