Wednesday, August 31, 2005

quick n' dirty online felon voting survey

When I checked the little online survey in my felon disenfranchisement page this morning, I noticed that there had been exactly 1,000 responses to my question asking whether convicted felons should be allowed to vote while in prison, on parole, on probation, or after they had completed their entire sentences. So, 1,000 being a nice round number, it seems like a good time to write up the results. With Jeff Manza, Clem Brooks, and the Harris Organization, I conducted a real national poll on the subject in 2002. Jeff and Clem designed some clever question wording experiments, splitting the sample to get clean estimates (a far superior method to the single-item approach I used on my quick n' dirty question). In the Harris poll, we were somewhat surprised to find that most people favored allowing everyone but current prisoners to vote. How do the results from this nationally representative poll compare to those from my online visitor poll?Visitors to the site were decidedly more favorable toward voting rights for all groups, but both polls revealed the same gradient of support -- strongest for ex-felons who have done their time, weakest for current prisoners, with those supervised in their communities on probation and parole falling somewhere between the two extremes. So, the public represented in the Harris poll would favor a system such as Ohio or Illinois, where only prisoners are disenfranchised. Many of the site visitors would go farther and enfranchise prisoners as well, as is currently the practice in Maine and Vermont. Neither group of respondents would prefer a stricter system such as Minnesota's or Wisconsin's, in which probationers and parolees are disenfranchised. Most conspicuously, perhaps, only 20% nationally and 8% of site visitors favored indefinite disenfranchisement of former felons as well as current felons, as is currently the case in Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Arizona, Virginia and other states (note: the map hasn't been updated to include 2005 changes in Iowa and Nebraska).

I'm of course very skeptical of such online poll results (and confess that some of those 1,000 votes came from my computer and many more came from the computers of my students). Nevertheless, I was happy to discover some degree of diversity among site visitors and the same gradient of support for the voting rights of non-incarcerated felons. I'm also grateful that about 1,000 people took the time to read the survey and vote. Thanks!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

murder of washington sex offenders

I've written at some length about the hyper-stigma that accompanies the "sex offender" label in the contemporary United States. Whenever I even hint that this stigma may hinder rather than help public safety, as in this AP story in June, I'm swamped with supportive calls and emails from sex offenders and their families and vaguely threatening or accusing mail from others. And, of course, breathless invitations to appear on cable news shows as "liberal punching bag o' the day." [Can you believe it, this guy actually thinks sex offenders have it too tough?] Now comes this story from the Seattle Times and Bellingham Herald:

BELLINGHAM — Last Friday night, a man claiming to be an FBI agent dropped in on three Level 3 sex offenders living together, supposedly to warn them of an Internet "hit list" targeting sex offenders. The man was not an FBI agent, but he may have been enforcing a hit list of his own creation. Two of the roommates were found dead early Saturday of gunshot wounds, and Bellingham police are investigating a crime that authorities say may be one of the nation's most serious cases of vigilantism aimed at sex offenders. The killings also highlight a potential problem about Washington's 1990 law requiring sex offenders to register their addresses so the public can keep track of them.

Yes, if the story checks out as reported, I guess murder qualifies as a potential problem. Given the demonization of sex offenders, I'm certain that few will shed tears over these murders. I'm also sure that the vigilante had never read the Bureau of Justice Statistics report or large research literature showing low recidivism rates of sex offenders relative to other former prisoners. Yet our FBI imposter/wannabe was well-informed on two counts: (1) he knew that "level-three sex offenders" Hank Eisses, 49, James Russell, 42, and Victor Vasquez, 68 could be found at 2825 Northwest Avenue; and, (2) he knew the specific details of their crimes -- offenses that took place in 1997, 1994, and 1991, respectively. Clearly one cannot blame the print or broadcast media, or the state department of corrections, or local law enforcement, or the state legislature for the actions of an accused vigilante. Nevertheless, the case raises troubling questions about whether the policies of each institution are best serving the public interest. To my knowledge, there is no clear evidence of less new sex offending in communities that impose greater stigma. Lacking such evidence, I fear that the moral panic exemplified by current notification procedures is a net loss for public safety.

Even years before their scheduled release, both male and female prisoners have told me they feared "the internet" and public availability of information about them. Rest assured that the Bellingham murder story will quickly make the rounds of every TV room and sex offender unit in state penitentiaries. It is not a story of deterrence that will keep them from future crime. It is not a story of redemption or martyrdom that will give them strength as they work through the tough times. It is instead a story of the hysterical vigilante lying in wait, a story that embodies their fears about life after prison and their dim prospects for ever becoming a normal citizen in a community. And it makes them wonder why the hell they should go to treatment.

Monday, August 29, 2005

ny times editorial on felon disenfranchisement

The New York Times today calls for an end to the practice of disenfranchising former felons after they have completed their sentences, drawing attention to successful reenfranchisement efforts in Iowa and Nebraska. In the latter state, a strong bipartisan legislative coalition decisively overrode a governor's veto. The piece notes that the United States is virtually alone among industrialized nations in restricting the rights of former felons in many states, as well as the racialized history of these laws:
Like so much of what ails America, laws that strip felons of the right to vote are rooted in race. The South enacted these restrictions during the late 19th and early 20th century as part of a sweeping effort to limit black political power. This ugly legacy is painfully evident in statistics showing that black people account for about 40 percent of disenfranchisement cases and only about 12 percent of the population.

I wrote about the racial origins of U.S. felon disenfranchisement with Angie Behrens and Jeff Manza in a recent empirical study and a brief review piece. In my opinion, race continues to be important in efforts to both disenfranchise and to reenfranchise felons. In fact, Jeff and I argue that the reenfranchisement movement today gains its greatest moral authority from the civil rights movement. Attending meetings around the country on the issue, I can see that the leaders are those who have done time fighting for civil rights rather than the professors or liberal foundation folks. I think it is easy to paint activists as jumping on the issue as part of a crude grab for likely Democratic votes. But the civil rights and church leaders (many of whom have been around since before the Voting Rights Act) provide a pure and powerful reminder that the right to vote goes well beyond narrow partisan concerns. Often a small legislative caucus or church-centered group needs to "carry the flag." In Nebraska, for example, the Holy Family Catholic Church of Omaha helped organize and build momentum on the issue. In Connecticut, a Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus helped convince a split legislature and a Republican governor to permit probationers to vote. In short, a "color-blind" reform effort can come off as thin or self-serving. Instead, the racist history of the laws, the problem of contemporary black vote dilution, and the long struggle for civil rights more generally provides a strong moral backbone for reform efforts.

Friday, August 26, 2005

demotion at bureau of justice statistics

The New York Times reported yesterday that "The Bush administration is replacing the director of a small but critical branch of the Justice Department, months after he complained that senior political officials at the department were seeking to play down newly compiled data on the aggressive police treatment of black and Hispanic drivers." Lawrence Greenfeld's demotion at the Bureau of Justice Statistics is the latest in a series of actions which, many criminologists contend, threaten the integrity of the nation's knowledge base on crime and justice. I certainly couldn't do my work without unbiased data on crime rates and incarceration, or unvarnished reports of funded research. I literally visit the BJS site every day and I'm continually astounded at the timeliness and quality of the work produced and compiled by this small agency. And I'm clearly not alone. Judging from the flurry of emails and calls I've gotten about this demotion, I wouldn't be surprised to see some high-profile op/eds and special sessions devoted to the issue at meetings. Fortunately, the large-scale study of police/citizen relations remains available for all to see. Click here for the "uncut and unrated" BJS report by Matthew R. Durose, Erica L. Schmitt, and Patrick A. Langan.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

life course / race course

Fall is transition time for academics, especially those in departments emphasizing life course sociology. In addition to career transitions, I've also passed some formal and informal milestones in one of my favorite leisure activities. Last year I formally gained "masters" status at races, a designation based solely upon one's date of birth rather than any accomplishment. Presumably this makes me eligible for fabulous prizes, but I haven't brought home any trophies or hardware yet, "masters" or otherwise. A glorious diversity of ages and body types assemble at every local 5k or marathon, from the elite skinnybutt racers to back-of-the-pack clydesdales like me. After 10 years of such events, I've noticed that my runnin' buddies don't slow down much over time: we started slow, we're still slow, and we couldn't get appreciably slower without running backwards, which would seem to require more effort than we're willing to put into it. In general, however, most older runners are wily veterans, compensating for physical declines by running smarter races than the kids.

As a rapidly aging hipster doofus, I know that ageist remarks quickly come back to haunt me (Oh, the silly things I said in grad school!). Still, it really bugs me to be beaten out in every race by some old guy clomping along, wheezing heavily, listing to one side, sweating profusely through a worn Bjorn Borg headband and diaphenous "lucky" race-T from '78, and throwing off a powerful smell of onions and Old Spice. The mature female runners are pretty much indistinguishable from these guys except for a slight difference in size and aroma. I'll take off feeling strong and purposeful, but the old masters hold their pace, passing me when I slow for water or tie my shoes. In the end, they kick my butt and I have to force a congratulatory smile as they stagger past me at the finish line.

So, here's my precise life course location in August, 2005. I'm chugging along at a race in White Bear Lake, MN. About five miles in, I hear the wheezing, feel the uneven footfalls around me, and, yes, smell the ol' onionspicesweat. I have a quick look around to see who it is this time. Hmmm ... nobody there. Then I notice that the fresh-faced runners nearby are giving me an unusually wide berth and crinkling their little noses as they pass. Aha! I've become that guy! My shirt only dates to the '96 Lake Monona 20k and the cologne is Old Hugo Boss rather than Old Old Spice, but I've definitely joined the brotherhood. It feels a little like getting tenure, so I'm o.k. with it. I suppose I could probably upgrade the wardrobe and lay off the White Castles the night before race day, but I know it would just prolong the inevitable. More than any formal masters designation, this sort of informal deference and nose-crinkling derogation clearly marks my happy (happy, I tell you!) transition from neophyte runner to full-blown crustihood. Now when I pass somebody at the twin cities marathon this october -- and I will pass somebody -- I'll also be passing along the shame and frustration that the wily veterans instilled in me over the past decade. I can't believe that dude is faster than me...

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

johnson v. bush petition

The Brennan Center for Justice recently filed a petition for certiorari before the U.S. Supreme Court in Johnson v. Bush, a challenge to Florida's felon disenfranchisement law. As an expert on this case, I wrote a lengthy report on felon voting restrictions, the size and social distribution of the plaintiff class, and the operation of Florida's clemency system. An intriguing "What Would Roberts Do" post is online at Rick Hasen's election law blog. Full details on the Johnson case are available from the Brennan Center. Its lead plaintiff, Thomas Johnson, is also featured in Laurel Greenberg's fascinating Florida election documentary Trouble in Paradise.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

feminist criminology

From the crimprof blog: The American Society of Criminology Division on Women and Crime announces a new journal with Sage, titled Feminist Criminology. Judging by the strong editorial board and the division's backing, it will no doubt attract some great scholarship. The division has been a big part of ASC since the mid-1980s, with a large membership, a quarterly newsletter, and coveted awards (including a student paper competition (deadline 9/15)). Anyone interested in Feminist Criminology can sign up for free online access to volume 1 .

Sunday, August 14, 2005

stockholm prize in criminology

The big news at the closing of the World Criminology Congress was the Swedish Minister of Justice's announcement of a new international award. The Stockholm Prize in Criminology will be awarded for outstanding achievements in criminological research or for the application of research results by practitioners for the reduction of crime and the advancement of human rights. I know that big awards can sometimes be divisive but I see this as a terrific development for the social scientific study of crime.

Each time I hear the Nobel announcements, I think an award for sociology or the study of social life more generally is long overdue. Seeing James Heckman awarded a Nobel Prize in economics for "development of theory and methods for analyzing selective samples" or Toni Morrison awarded a literature prize for her "visionary force and poetic import" makes me think of the contributions of sociologists worthy of similar recognition. So, who would you nominate for the new criminology prize? Or, for a (yet to be developed) sociology prize?