Tuesday, July 31, 2007

conjugal visits and civil rights law

conjugal visits for prisoners have long been suggested as a means to preserve family bonds (with those on the outside) while providing an additional incentive for decent behavior (with those on the inside). i've yet to see a methodologically bulletproof test of their effects, but i'd characterize the research evidence on these questions as "spotty." in this area, as in others, we could use some randomized trials.

nevertheless, i'm definitely taken with the idea of prisoners earning private time with their loved ones, particularly in the weeks and months preceding release. unfortunately, such programs are rare today. in light of prison overcrowding, budget pressures, and concerns about visitors bringing s.t.d.s and contraband into prisons, only a handful of states operate conjugal visit programs today.

where such visits are offered, however, there appears to be a move to extend them beyond heterosexual marital relationships. california recently became the first state to establish overnight conjugal visits for same-sex partners. just this week, institutions in mexico city adopted a similar policy. in california, visits are only permitted for registered domestic partners who are not themselves in custody, and the domestic partnership must have been established before admission to prison. moreover, such visits are not permitted for sex offenders, condemned inmates, or those without a parole date. those with violent offenses against a minor or a family member are also ineligible.

even with such restrictions, the program helps some inmates reconnect with an important source of outside support -- and sometimes their only source of outside support. msnbc quoted one california inmate as follows:

"I got to spend 2 1/2 days one-on-one with my partner, my best friend, my confidant, my life partner. It wasn't about the sex ... You can actually just relax and get to know your partner again."

as a reentry, reintegration, and recidivism-reduction strategy, that's probably not a bad use of a weekend.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

gangs in the military

cbs news ran reports this week on gangs in the military and gangs employing military training in their criminal activities. the juxtaposition of military and street gang iconography, as in this picture of marine corporal shavon striggles at parris island, raises all sorts of disturbing and provocative questions.

in discussing gangs in the military, most will look immediately to the 125,000 recent recruits entering the service with criminal records. in making this leap, i'd suggest two cautions:

first, many of these recruits surely had some history of gang involvement, but just as surely had left ganglife behind. the best longitudinal data i've seen suggests that gang affiliations are rarely the lifelong commitments suggested in popular culture. relative to other former gang members, those that enter intensive military training might be expected to shed such affiliations especially quickly.

second, while one needn't look far to find evocative images such as gang graffiti and hand signs around military personnel, the official gang incident numbers remain quite small: 16 reports of investigation (ROI) and 44 other suspected gang incidents in 2006. in short, though i'm glad the military is vigilant on this issue, the rest of us would probably do well to keep such threats in perspective.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

the venerable southern death belt: prison mortality, 2001-2005

while prison is a bad place to live, it is an even worse place to die. if you spend much time talking with inmates, it won't be long before you hear the phrase, "i don't want to die in prison." long sentences and an aging inmate population, however, suggest that rates of prison death are likely to rise in coming years. of course, the vast majority of inmates will ultimately be released to their communities. nevertheless, the specter of dying behind bars is likely becoming more realistic.

if you want to learn more about this phenomenon, the amazingly efficient professionals at the bureau of justice statistics have developed a useful new deaths in custody site. according to bjs, there were about 15,308 deaths in state prisons from 2001-2005, with illness listed as the cause in most (12,630) of them.

the prison mortality rate ranges from 126 per 100,000 prisoners in north dakota to 410 in louisiana. after looking at the state list, i was taken by the strong geographic patterning of prison mortality. in particular, midwestern states tend to have far lower prison mortality rates than southern states.

i'm not sure to what extent this pattern can be attributed to differentials in sentencing practices, health care, or the sociodemographic characteristics of inmates, but there is strong evidence for some sort of regionalization.

the map below is based on the interquartile range for the state mortality data, with the lowest quartile (fewer than 211 deaths per 100k) shaded yellow and the highest death quartile (more than 275 deaths per 100k) shaded red.

a contiguous line of states from pennsylvania to louisiana and back up to kansas has death rates in the top quartile, whereas a clump of states in the upper midwest all show far lower death rates. this map bears some resemblance to overall incarceration patterns -- with maine and north dakota anchoring one end of the distribution and louisiana the other.

note that these statistics do not consider executions. had these been added to the prison death numbers, there would be even stronger evidence of a southern death belt. or, more positively, of a life belt elsewhere. only twelve states are without a death penalty on the books, but eight of these (north dakota, iowa, rhode island, hawaii, minnesota, alaska, wisconsin, and maine) fall into the lowest quartile for prison death rates. of the six states with the lowest prison death rate, none have a death penalty.

the above pattern of results suggests to me that executions and life sentences are complements rather than substitutes. states that categorically refuse to kill prisoners are less likely, rather than more likely, to let them die in prison.

Friday, July 27, 2007

writing from prison

from realcostofprisons.org/writing:

"The Right to Vote for Convicted Felons" By David Hinman, #0025374, Anamosa State Penitentiary, Post Office Box 10, Anamosa, Iowa 52205-0010. Also see Whittling Away the Time, an article about a wood carving of Anamosa State Penitentiary.
"Justice Works! When its principles are not compromised", A Letter to the Governor by Michael Braae, 270679 W.C.C. AT 105 IMU P.O. Box 900 Shelton, WA 98584
"Indemnification of Prison Guards" By DJ Taylor, #179983 Northern Supermax, P.O. Box 665, Somers, CT 06071.
Letter from Kenneth Keel: Challenging "Three Strikes" Under Human Rights Treaty: International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Concerned USA Citizen's Support To End Life Imprisonment of Nonviolent Offenders Under California's 'Three Strikes' Law, February, 2007
Letter from F. DeAndre Howard, February, 2007. Contact the author at Reg. #07757-089, Federal Correctional Institution, P.O. Box 5000, Pekin, IL 61555-5000
"Comprehensive Incarcerated Person Reform, Rehabilitation and Reentry Act" and Letter. Please feel free to contact the author with your thoughts and comments: Sheldon N. Messer 00A3204, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, 354 Hunter Street, Ossining, New York 10562
"Anatomy of a Prison Riot" by R.M., November 2006
"Waiting to Die - The American Prison Experience" by R. M., November 2006
"A Call for the Abolition of Prisons" by Tiyo Attallah Salah El
"Prisoner Suicides: The Danger of Manufacturing Hopelessness" by Ed Bowser

from the PEN prison writing program:

Doing Time by Steven Bulleit First Prize, Poetry
Sunday evening Mom and Dad unwind on the couch,/ her full black hair lays against Dad’s shoulder./The iconic stopwatch fills the screen, the second hand/sweeps north, folding its final ticks into silence. [More]
"Feeling(s) Cheated" by J.E. Wantz First Prize, Nonfiction/Essay
From 1995 to 2005 I was on Paxil, a medication that, ostensibly, was to help me in the areas of depression and obsessive compulsive thinking. As I look back on the role that this medication has played in my life for the last 10 years I begin to wonder. [More]
Just Another Death by Christina MacNaughton First Place, Memoir
I sit on my bunk as the minutes tick by. The count should have cleared over half an hour ago. Something’s up. In a place where timing and routine and schedule are the axis upon which the world revolves, remaining locked for so long past the standard count time sends Morse code through the heart of every inmate. [More]
Confessions of a Jack-Off Artist" by Clifford Barnes First Prize, Fiction
I like cocaine. No, I love it. It can be pure or stepped on with Inositol, B.C. Powder, or Equal. I’ll cook it up, draw it into the rig, and shoot it. I love bumpin’ coke because I get a feeling like when I was twelve and skeeted for the first time, except the rush is ten-times more intense and lasts about fifteen to twenty minutes.[More]

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

after the offense

american public media's the story offers an extensive profile of local guy tom coles and the sex offenders he has invited into his home. heather h. tipped me off to after the offense, a story about swimming upstream against stigma and a man's enduring belief in redemption.

i'd probably edit the hour-long segment for classroom use, but i could imagine using it in concert with a sex offender recidivism study and a classroom discussion of politics and policy choices.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

california prison overcrowding

in response to lawsuits documenting inadequate services for physical and mental health in california prisons, federal judges have ordered creation of a three-judge panel, charged with reducing overcrowding in that state. i'm guessing that the three judges won't be operating out of the triple-bunk setup shown at left, in vacaville's solano prison gymnasium.

according to bjs sources, california is now home to 175,000 state prisoners, far more than any other state and only about 15,000 inmates fewer than the entire federal system. that said, the state's incarceration rate of 476 per 100,000 is still below the national average of 497. nevertheless, the system is expanding rapidly, growing by 8,583 inmates from midyear 2005 to midyear 2006. moreover, california has a higher than average rate of parolees and it returns these parolees to prison at a much higher than average rate, often for technical violations. though governor schwarzenegger just signed a $7.7 billion prison construction bill, it will be tough (and, some say, impossible) for the state to build its way out of these problems.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

you shoulda heard those knocked-out jailbirds sing

in this clip, inmates of the provincial detention and rehabilitation center in cebu, philippines challenge three beliefs held by many criminologists:

1. that criminals have little capacity for organized action.

2. that people on the inside are fundamentally and constitutionally different from people on the outside.

3. that the king's jailhouse rock video is not a faithful representation of contemporary prison life.

(moral) panic in needle park

this is the story of a short-lived moral panic and the challenges of leadership positions in law enforcement. earlier this month, the police chief in the peaceful college town of northfield, minnesota, called a press conference to alert the media to an emerging heroin epidemic.

according to media accounts, he estimated that up to 250 heroin users in and around northfield high were feeding habits of up to $800 per day -- and that this group was responsible for a major spike in the local crime rate.

some were called to action, others scoffed, and some of us just scratched our heads. i never doubted that some kids in northfield had tried heroin, but the claims seemed overblown. since 1999, heroin use has declined significantly among high school students. according to the 2006 monitoring the future data, only about 1.4 percent of 12th graders had even tried the drug and only .8 percent had ever done so intravenously.

yes, heroin can be found an hour north in minneapolis and, i suppose, the drug may have found its way to some carleton or st. olaf dorm room, but $800 per day? that's a mother-superior-sized habit. also, the picture painted at the meeting -- of the town's high-achieving valedictorians stealing everything that wasn't nailed down -- just smacked of hyperbole. frankly, in the absence of some corroborating evidence from schools, hospitals, or treatment centers, such claims called to mind reefer madness or, worse, j. peterman.*

now, just a couple weeks later, the good people of northfield and the town's feral youth have questioned the chief's evidence and his claims. and the chief, in turn, has taken an indefinite leave of absence. i don't write to ridicule the chief, because i don't doubt his motives. this didn't strike me as a cynical search for a scapegoat to explain the rise in property crime; nor did it strike me as intentionally hyping a story to garner resources for the department. i just think the chief saw a problem and reacted strongly. who knows? he might be proven right after all. at least the town is having better-informed drug policy discussions.

in my view, this case illustrates the value of asking "where's your data?" before taking big policy steps regarding crime and drug use. as soon as the evidentiary base was examined in northfield, the system seemed to self-correct and the moral panic was averted.

*That's right Elaine. white lotus, yam-yam, shanghai sally...I too once fell under the spell of opium. It was 1979. I was travelling the Yangtzee in search of a Mongolian horsehair vest...

Thursday, July 19, 2007


here's a clever criminology riff on pharmaceutical ads.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

sentencing project report on racial disparity

updated: 7/19

the sentencing project sent word today of their new report, Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity. taking data from their tables, i graphed the state ratios of black-to-white incarceration shown below (note: this figure was revised 9/19 to correct a mislabeled state):

the disparity seems to be lowest in hawaii, though -- let's be clear about this -- a ratio of 1.9 still means that african americans are almost twice as likely as whites to be incarcerated in that state. southern states also have relatively low disproportionality ratios, partly due to their higher-than-average incarceration of whites. things are most disparate in iowa, vermont, new jersey, connecticut, wisconsin, and the dakotas, with african americans getting locked up at a rate 10 times that of whites. there is no state in which african american incarceration rates are anywhere near parity with white rates.

the report also computes ratios for hispanics versus non-hispanic whites, though i suspect that data quality varies considerably among the states on this indicator. nevertheless, i graphed these data as well:

comparing the two charts, the first thing i notice is the difference in scale on the y-axes: from 1.9 to 19 for the african american-to-white chart and from .4 to 6.6 on the hispanic-to-white chart. only connecticut, massachusetts, and pennsylvania had hispanic-to-white ratios of greater than 5. moreover, two states reached parity -- a ratio of 1.0 -- and five states had ratios indicating lower incarceration among hispanics than among non-hispanic whites: georgia, alaska, florida, arkansas, west virginia, louisiana, and hawaii. again, such ratios should probably be interpreted with a bit more caution than those presented in the first figure, since ethnicity is inconsistently reported in the criminal justice system.

the state-to-state differences are instructive and sobering, especially for northerners who might be smug or complacent about racial inequality. criminal punishment represents one area in which racial disparity appears far worse in the north than in the south, with mostly-white states such as connecticut leading the way in racial inequality. still, the overall disparities remain the big story: nationally, african american incarceration rates are 5.6 times as high as white rates, while hispanic rates are 1.8 times those of non-hispanic whites.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

will you visit me on sunday?

listening to sirius 63 on a roadtrip, i learned that loretta lynn is re-releasing this classic prison song. the original was a fine duet with conway twitty, but the new version features a strong marty stuart performance. she's singing here with teddy wilburn, who is neither conway twitty nor marty stuart. the sentiment is pretty hoky, but i love how this love song humanizes the prison experience -- there, but for the grace of god...

the first rule of fight camp is that everybody talks about fight camp

the local press are abuzz over derek boogaard's saskatchwan summer "fight camp." mr. boogaard is the designated enforcer of the minnesota wild, our professional hockey team.

fighting is clearly the camp's focus and mr. boogaard's most marketable professional asset. as the blood-spattered t-shirts make clear, this is not your typical skills camp with a little demo discussing fighting as a necessary evil. this is a fight camp.

i'm most interested in the parents of the 12-18 year-olds in attendance. real hockey moms and dads truck their kids to rinks and camps year round, but savvy parents are probably sending their budding rocket richards and dominik haseks to stickhandling camp or goalie camp. so, who sends their kids to fight camp? a few hypotheses:

1. parents who give in to their kids might reluctantly sign off on fight camp. i can certainly envision some young lads making the camp a real priority and working and/or whining hard to attend. this seems the most likely scenario to me.

2. parents who can only afford fifty bucks might send their kids to fight camp. they get a chance to interact with a famous and/or infamous hockey player but needn't break the bank to do so.

3. parents who think their boys should be doing a bit more masculinity might send their kids to fight camp. if the little nipper has a nice hockey skill set but shrinks from the violence, the parents might see mr. boogaard's camp as an efficient karate-kidlike corrective.

4. parents who think their boys should discipline their violence might send their kids to fight camp. if the young palooka has shown a propensity for wanton violence, a fight camp might be seen as just the thing to discipline or attenuate it before the authorities step into the picture.

i could spin off a few hypotheses on family structure (frustrated hockey dad or single mom?) and social class (emasculated middle-class or working-class focal concern?), but i'd need to know more about hockey and fighting to do so effectively.

a few more questions: do you think attendees are likely to get into more fights next season relative to last season? would participating in a one-day $50 fight camp have any effect on behavior on or off the ice? do teammates view attendance positively or negatively? i imagine that my lad would ridicule any teammates who thought they needed summer school remediation in this area. i know that he'd ridicule any parents who thought that such a camp could toughen up their kids.

good hennepin county research job

Job Title: Planning Analyst, Senior
Closing Date: 7/19/07 5:00 PM

Salary: $41,976 - $63,900 annually
Job Type: Full-time
Location: Downtown Minneapolis

Department: Strategic Initiatives & Community Engagement

Saturday, July 14, 2007

times op-ed on juvenile justice

the ny times offered a strong op-ed on juvenile justice this week. in my juvenile delinquency class, i discuss the 1974 juvenile justice and delinquency prevention act, which should have removed juveniles from adult jails. unfortunately, the practice of housing kids in adult facilities has continued unabated, with predictable and disturbing results.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

2006 i.s.i. journal citation rankings for criminology n' penology

org theory reports this week on the new isi web of knowledge journal impact ratings for sociology, so i thought i'd check out the updated criminology and penology rankings. as the figure indicates, criminology once again ranks at the top of the list, with an impact factor of 2.1. this means that, on average, criminology articles published in the past two years were cited a little more than two times in 2006, relative to about 1.3 citations per quant crim article and one citation per justice quarterly article.

the ratings shift around from year to year, since a "hit" hundred-citation article in, say, policing would rocket that journal up the charts. this year, i'm a bit surprised by the high ranking of sexual abuse: a journal of research and treatment, but see few other surprises on the list. in my opinion, good articles appear in every one of these journals, though the top-ranked journals might be more consistent in publishing high-quality articles from stem to stern in every volume.

how should you consider such measures in assessing journal quality? i'd advise a multi-method approach. the best and most thoughtful discussion i've seen on ranking journal quality comes from the auburn university library. i'll paraphrase liberally:

1. Citation Analysis
A high number of citations generally indicates a high level of quality. Cited reference searching enables you to find articles from journals that have cited a book, a patent or another article. Through a cited reference search, you can discover how a known idea or innovation has been confirmed, applied, improved, extended or corrected...
Citation Analysis Debate

Impact Factor
Impact factor is based on the number of times that articles in a journal are cited in the two years following the year of publication...
High impact factor or highly cited journals are considered more prestigious and important. JCR Fact Sheet Impact Factor Debate

Prestige and Reputation of the Journal
The prestige and reputation of the association, society, or organization publishing a journal can be a determining factor. Theoretically, the most prestigious scholarly associations such as APA, IEEE, etc. publish the best, most important, research in the field and therefore their journals have more prestige and weight than others...

In-Depth Knowledge of the field and Journals in the field
...Few people have knowledge of, and familiarity with all scholarly journals in a discipline ...However, among sub-disciplines, it becomes more possible to possess in-depth familiarity with the journals. If someone does truly possess this knowledge, their opinion, of which are the “best” journals in a discipline is worth a great deal in assessment.

Acceptance/Rejection Rate of the Journal
...Low acceptance rate, high rejection rate journals are considered the best and most prestigious journals. ...Many journals and societies have web pages that give publication data and style requirements and often includes acceptance/rejection rates. The paper copy of the journal occasionally includes this data and will always provide current contact information.
Periodical Guide

Indexing Services covering the Journal
Whether a journal is indexed in the major indexing/abstracting service in the field is another criteria that can be used to assess the worth and quality of a journal.

7. Total Circulation of the Journal
...High readership and circulation could be markers of a journal's quality and/or popularity. Circulation numbers can be often be found in Ulrich's International Periodicals Directory or might be obtained from the journal publisher's website.

the white-collar execution of zheng xiaoyu

zheng xiaoyu has been executed. the former head of china's food and drug safety agency had been convicted of accepting bribes from pharmaceutical companies this may.

leftist criminologists often rail against the light sentences given to white-collar criminals in the united states, particularly when measured against the lengthy prison time served by those convicted of street crimes. this sort of disproportionality case is most convincing with respect to drug convictions and property crimes. it doesn't take a marxist to notice that poor people who steal $2,000 worth of property sometimes do longer (and harder) time than executives who steal $2,000,000 emptying a pension fund.

i suppose that a few criminologists will read zheng xiaoyu's execution as evidence that an appropriate consideration of social harm has been given its due weight at sentencing. more cynically, of course, most of us will interpret this execution as signaling that scapegoats will be found and crucified whenever big-time market interests are threatened -- in china, as elsewhere.

either way, i doubt that this execution will do much to purge the diethylene glycol from your counterfeit colgate or the melamine from your cat food.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

a probable cause standard for in-car surveillance systems

nate chapnick of edmunds.com offers a nice piece on surveillance systems and in-car cameras that allow parents to monitor their teen drivers. one firm will track your car's sudden movements, record the data on a website, and assign your kid a "risk score."

i once scoffed at such surveillance measures. then i thought about the two teenagers in my house hurtling down the road in three-thousand pounds of steel.

the data tell us that when teenagers die, they are likely to die behind the wheel. the centers for disease control report that "motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, accounting for 36% of all deaths in this age group" and that "the risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than among any other age group .... per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash."

though i understand these risks, i'm too much of a small-l libertarian to monitor my kids electronically. i've decided to adopt a probable cause standard for implementing such surveillance. that means that i won't hassle with such stuff unless and until i have information sufficient to warrant a prudent person's belief that tor or esperanza had been delinquent or that evidence of delinquency or contraband would be found in a search.

but that doesn't mean that i won't take steps short of full-on surveillance, such as implementing curfews, based on a less-stringent reasonable suspicion standard. if i judge that a reasonable parent in my circumstances could reasonably believe that tor or esperanza has been, is, or is about to be, engaged in delinquent activity, i will strike down upon them with great rulemaking and furious anger. plus, i'll take the keys.

come to think of it, my kids don't really need to drive at all. if they broach the probable cause standard and behave so irresponsibly that i feel the need to purchase an in-car surveillance system, i'll just hold the keys until they can afford to buy it for me. that'll teach 'em.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

responsiveness to noble and ignoble appeals

australia has a reputation for producing particularly nasty anti-speeding public service announcements. newsweek's kendall hill reports on a new campaign with a lighter touch:

When you first read the slogan, SPEEDING: NO ONE THINKS BIG OF YOU, you might think it was a reminder that people think poorly of those who break the law. Think again. This new road-safety campaign, launched in Australia last week, is aimed a bit more below the belt—by suggesting those men who speed have small penises. In the television and cinema advertisements, young "hoons"—Aussie-speak for speeding or reckless drivers—are mocked by unimpressed women who wave their little fingers at the drivers in a parody of their manhood.

nice. my reading of the literature leaves me a bit skeptical that any PSAs could alter long-term behavior, especially among hoons. yes, crack cocaine use dropped when kids learned that it wasn't cool, but they didn't need a television ad to convey the message. still, i'm intrigued by comparisons between appeals to our nobler impulses and appeals to rationality or superficiality. the latter seem to hit us where we really live, especially when supported by good science. messages showing how smoking gives you wrinkles or shrinks your manhood might thus be more effective than messages about, say, the deleterious effects of secondary smoke on your loved ones.

watching both ads, i can't help but think about an experiment comparing changes in driving behavior among dudes exposed to pinkie-wagging and dudes exposed to bloody bodies in the ditch. two questions: (1) which approach, if any, would be more effective in the short- and longer-terms? and, (2) is there a functional equivalent to pinkie-wagging that would deter all those female speeders racing past me?

Monday, July 2, 2007

getting soft or getting smart?

via the sentencing project and talkleft:

in the democratic forum broadcast on pbs last thursday, the 1,756 democratic candidates for president addressed the issue of crime and punishment. watching the video and reading the transcript, one gets the sense that the bloom is officially off the mandatory minimum rose.

aside from eliminating the disparity in crack/powder cocaine sentencing, however, the candidates were a bit light on concrete reforms. breaking news: not one candidate called for greater racial disparity in justice or expansion of the death penalty for expired license plate tabs.

hmmm. what happened to the clinton/gore kill 'em all crime rhetoric of the nineties? is it getting just a little bit safer for democrats to be just a little bit softer on crime? i'll be fascinated to hear the republican response.

in not-unrelated news, the times endorsed the second chance act today, to "provide grants, guidance and assistance to states and localities that are developing programs to reintegrate former inmates into their communities."