Wednesday, June 29, 2005

midyear incarceration numbers

The Department of Justice's Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2004 arrived in my mailbox yesterday (after 10 years of professin', DOJ still addresses stuff to "graduate student Christopher Uggen"). I'd seen the report online, but always give a little more attention to the hard copies. The national incarceration rate (including jails as well as state and federal prisons), is now at 726 per 100,000 residents. This is quite high by international standards -- about 5 to 10 times higher than other nations similar to the United States (England and Wales have a rate of 141, Canada a rate of 116, Germany 96, Japan 58, and so on). Still, the social distribution of this .7% of the population is the real story:
  • A rate of 1,348 per 100,000 for males
  • A rate of 4,919 per 100,000 for African American males
  • A rate of 12,603 per 100,000 for African American males age 25-29

So, about 13% of the population in the latter age/race/gender category is currently incarcerated. A much higher proportion, of course, is under some form of criminal justice supervision. The probation numbers dwarf prison numbers and still more are supervised on parole in the communities. To these one might add former felons who have served their time -- people currently "off-paper" but with a history of criminal justice supervision. I believe that about 1/3 of the African American male population is currently or has once been under criminal justice supervision. This figure seems unbelievably high to most people, but more credible once they see the current population data.

For 25 years, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has provided high quality U.S. crime and justice data. As in other government agencies, there has been talk of "outsourcing" or downsizing the small staff at BJS. I hope that such ideas are quickly put to rest. "Quick and dirty" crime and justice data collection or, worse, subjecting such data collection to greater politicization, would seriously undermine both criminological research and the public trust.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

law of vagrancy 2005

From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Police Chief Bill McManus backed off on a plan to require panhandlers to register annually with the city and display a photo ID while they beg. Begging without a license could have resulted in arrest and misdemeanor charges.

"It certainly would be beneficial for downtown businesses and for people who are made to feel uncomfortable by panhandlers," McManus said (in a quote that seems lifted verbatim from Chambliss' crit-classic "Sociological Analysis of the Law of Vagrancy"). Chief McManus spearheaded a similar effort in Dayton, OH but neither the Minneapolis city council nor the mayor wanted to carry the flag on this one. As one might imagine, the ACLU points to constitutional problems with criminalizing begging. Restricting physically aggressive panhandling or limiting its time and place are probably constitutionally permissable, but the first amendment likely provides some protection of one's right to ask people for money.

My concern was more personal. As state support shrinks, the Minnversity is searching for new revenue streams. I'm glad I won't have to wear a laminated panhandling license around my neck at my next lunch with potential donors.

Monday, June 20, 2005

causality, voting, and recidivism

Jeremy Freese regularly offers insightful comments about social science research in his blog. Today he had an interesting post about "causal-sounding insinuations of relationships" between felon re-enfranchisement and recidivism, based on this statement from the Iowa governor:
Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa announced yesterday that he would restore voting rights for all felons who have completed their sentences, ending what advocates for voting rights had called one of the most restrictive disenfranchisement laws in the country. Mr. Vilsack, a Democrat who has been called a dark-horse presidential candidate for the 2008 election, pointed to research showing that ex-prisoners who vote are less likely to end up back in prison.

I'm not sure that's a statement of causality, but I guess that's not really the point. I confess that sometimes I slip into causal thinking even when I am careful to avoid making explicit causal inferences in my writing. I offered a (way too) long comment based on a recent law review piece with Jeff Manza.

stigma II

I wrote last month about the extreme stigma of the sex offender designation. Today I'm bracing for the backlash from an AP story by Michael Hill citing me on this point. I referred Mr. Hill to Jill Levenson, who (along with Leo Cotter) published her survey of released Florida sex offenders in an issue of Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice I guest-edited on collateral sanctions (Richard Tewksbury also has a nice piece on this subject in the same issue, using data from Kentucky). Here is Mr. Hill's lead:
Clamps are coming down on released sex offenders like never before. Laws restrict where they can go, Web sites list their names, satellites track their steps. Leery neighbors and bosses force them from their homes and jobs. The full-court press that comes after high profile cases around the nation is being done for public safety. But is it possible to push sex offenders so far to the fringes actually makes them more dangerous to society?

This question seems absolutely fundamental to the scientific study of prisoner reentry and the policy move toward restorative justice. When, if ever, does social control begin to compromise rather than enhance public safety? Todd Clear and others are asking this more generally about the impact of incarceration on communities. But "sex offender" is the ideal type here -- rivaling "terrorist," "nazi," "serial killer," or "satanist" as the most stigmatized designation in contemporary American society. Both the Levenson and Cotter piece and the Tewksbury article find that sex offenders report job losses, housing problems, and threats of harassment today. Criminal justice policy toward them is clearly based on "stigmatizing" rather than "reintegrative" shaming, to adopt John Braithwaite's distinction. Of course, there are some compelling reasons for identifying and supervising this group closely. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, those convicted of sex offenses do seem to persist later in life than other sorts of criminals. Nevertheless, their 3-year rearrest rate (43% overall, 5% for new sex crimes) is lower than those convicted of other sorts of crime (68% overall, 1% for new sex crimes). So, while the flatter age profile and potential severity of their crimes may justify greater scrutiny, most of the people convicted of sex crimes do not appear to be irredeemable or "life-course persistent" offenders (at least as measured by arrest).

In my view, the application and management of stigma should be getting much more attention from sociologists. I've argued before that if any Durkheims were in grad school today, they might be gathering dissertation data at sex offender community notification meetings (observing distinctions between the normal and pathological, the sacred and profane, the exercise of collective conscience, and the effervescence of crowds). If I were advising a modern-day Durkheim, however, I might try to talk her out of such potential career suicide (steering her to a safer diss topic, such as Suicide!). Whenever an article like this appears, I always get some emails from supporters (thanking me for my "courage"), detractors (asking me how I'd feel if my family were victimized or questioning my motivations), and broadcast media (inviting me to take an indefensible position in a public debate). The issue is clearly a lightning rod, in need of some good sociological scholarship that could help guide policy, or at least help us understand our current practices.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Iowa re-enfranchises ex-felons

The Des Moines Register reports that Iowa will no longer disenfranchise former felons beyond the completion of their sentences, effective July 4. Unlike Nebraska, Iowa didn't mess around with a 2-year waiting period. Nor did it exclude particular categories of felons, as states such as Maryland have done. The article cites a figure of 50,000, but I believe that about 98,000 Iowans will be enfranchised in time for the next election.

Friday, June 17, 2005

3-year-old criminals and the false positive problem

According to Worldnet Daily (via Ann Althouse),
"A leaked 250-page report on proposed crime-fighting strategies, drawn up on instructions of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, recommends training nursery workers to target children as young as 3 years of age as potential criminals... if the[y] exhibit bullying behavior in nursery school or if there is a history of criminality in the immediate family."
This is a classic example of the "false positive" problem. Yes, looking backward, most of the people in prison today had some early history of antisocial behavior. But there is strong evidence from life course criminology that most antisocial children do not become serious criminals as adults (see, e.g., Gove 1985). Worse still, identifying and treating kids at 3 could worsen their prospects by labeling and isolating them from "normals." Although the report proposed "soft" measures such as education (presumably versus hard measures involving institutionalization), how hard would you fight to keep your kid out of the special class for 3-year old bullies? How long would you want the designation to remain on their school records?

Monday, June 13, 2005

decline in family (and nonfamily) violent (and nonviolent) crime

The Department of Justice recently ran a press release noting "the rate of family violence fell by more than one-half between 1993 and 2002, from an estimated 5.4 victims to 2.1 victims per 1,000 U.S. residents 12 years old and older." But violence overall is declining as well, as are property crimes.

The report and the rates cited above are all based on high quality data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (the 1993 start date is important because the NCVS had a major redesign in '93 that clearly affected reporting of family violence).

Friday, June 10, 2005

the crime drop continues

I've been teaching juvenile delinquency and criminology since the mid-1990s. Each year, I show my classes how the crime rate has generally declined as measured by household victimization or crimes known to the police. At the end of each term, however, I always get a few papers that lead off by citing "alarming increases" in crime/homicide/violence. The FBI's preliminary numbers for 2004 again show a drop of 1.7% for property crime and 1.8% for violent crime nationally since 2003. For the past 10 years, the news has been great with regard to trend, though crime levels remain unacceptably high in many communities.

Some criminologists have been predicting a crime surge, but I see room for further reductions -- particularly if graduation rates and labor markets improve. I guess a better way to put it is that I haven't been convinced that the pessimistic predictions are justified by much more than regression to the apparent "mean" established in the worst of the bad old days. It is very tough to make crime projections over the long-term, since the effects of things like age structure, economic performance, and incarceration seem to vary quite a bit over time (that is, I think a model predicting crime in the 1960s wouldn't do so well in explaining 1990s trends). In any case, I now warn my classes that I will completely freak out if they cite "alarming" increases without indicating precisely what has increased and when it began to rise.

race and punishment

Minnesota has long had some of the greatest racial disparities in punishment in the nation, with African American incarceration rates over 10 times those of white rates for several years. In fact, whites have represented a minority of prisoners in a state that is 87% white overall. Today's Star-Tribune reports that white prisoners are now back in the majority in Minnesota prisons: 59% of MN prisoners are white today. This is due in large part to a deluge of white methamphetamine cases (only about 1 in 20 meth prisoners is non-white) and longer sentences for sex offenders, who also tend to be white.

Minnesota has historically had a very low incarceration rate, but is experiencing rapid (though not California-style) expansion the past few years. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are now calling for reform, early release, and other programs that would reduce the economic and social costs of incarceration. Now connect the dots: "The surest way to get sentencing reform is to over-incarcerate white people," said Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis..."All of a sudden, folks want to talk about redemption." When I read Ellison's quote, I was reminded of Naomi Murakawa's excellent work on mandatory minimum sentences. The last time that the number of mandatory minimums was actually reduced came in the Nixon administration -- when white college kids were sent away for long prison terms for drug offenses.

Monday, June 6, 2005

morcheeba for milton

In Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court today struck a major blow against medical marijuana use. According to a recent Forbes article, however, 500 economists just signed off on a letter and report advocating marijuana legalization. Notables include Milton Friedman and faculty at many of the top-ranked econ departments. Friedman's support shouldn't be that surprising, given that he's always advocated straight free-market/invisible-hand economics. The cost/benefit analysis in the report seems a bit thin to me (heroic assumptions, sparse data), but the upshot is about a $10 billion net projection annually:
  • savings of $7.7 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition, most of it at the state and local level
  • tax revenue of $2.4 billion annually (or $6.2 billion if we tax pot at the same rate as alcohol and tobacco).

The $10 billion figure could be reasonable if the model accounts for all the "large" effects and if the ceteris paribus assumption (that nothing else changes) actually holds. The toughest thing to model, in my opinion, is whether (and to what extent) legalizing and taxing marijuana would increase use (or decrease it, I guess, depending on tax rates!). If use rates are unaffected, no problem. If use changes by 5% or 10%, then the analysis gets complicated. It would have to put a number on the costs (or benefits?) to long-term health, increased Doritos sales, and myriad other factors that are tough to identify, let alone measure. Lifetime marijuana prevalence rates for high school seniors have fallen since 1997 to about 46% in the 2004 Monitoring the Future data series. I don't hear many people making the "gateway drug" argument these days, but I'm sure that (socially) conservative critics will raise the spectre of increased cocaine, meth, and heroin as well. Though supported by the pro-reform Marijuana Policy Project, I think this study probably understates the costs of the drug war. In addition to the impossible position of those prescribed medical marijuana who remain subject to prosecution, a detailed analysis would need to estimate the intergenerational costs of incarceration to families and communities. It seems as though a pilot experiment (or quasi-experimental comparison of laws across states and time) would help provide some additional traction here. What would Friedman say about banning Sudafed?