Friday, September 30, 2005
multiracial victimization part deux
i don't know the literature well, but i'm interested in the social construction of racial and ethnic identity for personal as well as scholarly reasons. people immediately peg me as swedish or norwegian (especially outside of minnesota) because of my physical appearance, and this is generally the way i self-identify. but i certainly grew up knowing that my background was at least somewhat more diverse (e.g., cree (nêhiyawêwin) indian, italian, irish...). if people who self-identify as biracial or multiracial are more likely to be victimized net of age and everything else, this doesn't bode well for the american mosaic. am i really less likely to be beaten or assaulted because i look like i'm from one and only one racial background? i'm not advocating a melting pot or assimilation model, but i can't help thinking we'd be better off if more than .9 percent of us (the figure in the ncvs) self-identified as "2 or more races."
on a much, much, lighter note, erik's response got me thinking about another kind of diversity -- the ability to claim "2 or more methods." since erik is best known for his qualitative comparative work, his sharp quantoid contribution helps make a case that i preach to grad students early on -- that there's no such thing as pure "qualitative" or "quantitative" researchers anymore. i probably look like a quant in the same way that i look like a norwegian and i emphasize quant tools in my work. still, few of the top sociologists i know advocate a "purebreed" approach to methods these days. here's a cheeky take on the advantages and disadvantages of [sociological] purebreeds and mutts, adapted from the "pet library:"
Take two [sociologists], one a [methodological] purebred and one a mixed breed. Which one is more beautiful, smarter, a better companion? It's often a matter of personal opinion as there are those who believe that purebreds are the only choice while others steadfastly stand by the mutt. One of the most appealing features of the purebred is that they have rather predictable [scholarly] characteristics. You more or less know what you're going to get when it comes to appearance and size. They also have a fairly predictable temperament so you can get a pretty good idea of what your [sociologist's] disposition will be. And, of course, if you want to professionally breed or show your [sociologist], a pedigree is your only option.
[Methodological] purebreds are more prone to [career] problems, many of which are often due to overbreeding. It's very important when considering a purebred that you find a reputable and proven [graduate program]. Many purebreds also come with working behaviors that may not fit your ideal of the perfect [sociologist]. Behaviors like digging holes, chasing after things or nipping, which have been bred into certain [epistemologies] for centuries, often prove difficult to change. And, of course, purebreds can be very costly, running anywhere from several hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars.
Now for the mixed breeds. One of the most obvious downsides of the mixed breed is that you can't predict what a [new ph.d.] will look like or what size it will be as an adult. However, there are those who actually find this to be a positive, enjoying the surprise of realizing what their mixes grow up to look like. Along the same lines, mixed breeds are less predictable than purebreds when it comes to temperament. However, mixed breeds tend toward the moderate, with their temperaments often proving to be less extreme than those of purebreds. You're less likely to have a [sociologist] who's "very" energetic or "very" demanding or "very" stubborn, with [epistemologically]-based characteristics that often prove difficult to change, and more likely to have a [sociologist] that can adjust to a greater variety of situations. With a greater [methodological] diversity, mixed breeds are less likely to suffer conditions that affect certain purebreds as a result of inbreeding. They also tend to be a lot less expensive, usually costing around $25 to $75 at most [graduate programs]. Furthermore, by opting for a mixed breed, certainly one from the [non-elite departments], you may just be saving a life.
Thursday, September 29, 2005
crime and elective office
DURHAM -- Of the 17 candidates on the primary ballot for mayor and City Council in Durham, at least eight have been convicted of criminal charges.
The chairman of the Durham County Republican Party moved on Tuesday to withdraw GOP support from mayoral candidate Vincent Brown, whose extensive criminal record was the subject of an article in Sunday's editions of The News & Observer. The story recounted Brown's felony convictions for forgery and larceny, as well as a stretch served in state prison. Brown vehemently denied that he has ever been arrested...
in many places, a felony conviction formally disqualifies one from holding office, but this story went on to discuss the arrest records of the candidates. and they found plenty -- embezzlement, speeding, lots of bad checks, weapons offenses, petty theft, abortion protesting, failure to pay child support, and others. this one might be the saddest and the strangest:
In light of Brown's rap sheet, every candidate in attendance was asked before a crowd of about 75 people if they had ever been arrested on a criminal charge or had been to jail.
When it was his turn to answer Tuesday, Ward 1 council candidate Joe Williams said: "I don't have any skeletons in my closet."
Records show Williams was convicted in a 1986 trial for a single misdemeanor count of assault on a female. He was ordered by a judge to "pay for damages to teeth" in an amount to be determined by the clerk of court.
ouch. is this further evidence of the carceral state spreading ever outward? i'd hate to participate in such a line-up before a department election. actually, my graduate students tell me that some universities now obtain arrest reports on new faculty -- and i've read enough papers on institutional isomorphism to suspect that this could quickly become standard practice. if it doesn't indicate overcriminalization, do you think the 8 in 17 figure indicates greater criminality among politicians than others? As mark twain's pudd'nhead wilson hypothesized:
It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress. -mark twain
Monday, September 26, 2005
gosh, margy, why don't you tell us what you really think?
today's crimprof blog features an op-ed by ms. love on the new national sex offender public registry. Her main concerns are (1) the registry's data quality; and, (2) the absence of controls on its use. while some hail the registry as a "proactive and meaningful step in protecting a child's life," the former pardon attorney takes a different view -- calling it a "half-baked mean-spirited incitement to vigilante justice."
gosh, margy, why don't you tell us what you really think?
Here are some highlights of ms. love's editorial:
... [it] relies entirely upon unvetted state registries that are notoriously incomplete and inaccurate
... most of [the offenders listed] had very dated and minor convictions, and had had no adverse contact with the law for decades...their houses and offices, marked with a little red flag like they used to put on the door of a plague house in the middle ages.
... outrageous that the federal government -- the Justice Department no less -- would rush to publish a list like this without 1) taking any responsibility for the accuracy of the information on it or warning about its shortcomings; or 2) giving the public any guidance at all about how they are supposed to use it.
... the clear suggestion that all 500,000 registered sex offenders in the United States are "predators" is one of the most irresponsible I've seen come out of the Justice Department, ever.
... the Attorney General is looking into how the FBI can share its criminal history information ...the FBI’s information is almost as unreliable ... [leading to] the same categorical discrimination
... The Justice Department should be trying to address the important privacy and due process issues raised, rather than leading the charge to stir up a public witch-hunt.
... The people most hurt by it are those who are already down and are easy to victimize.
... There are labor organizations and advocacy groups working on the important privacy and due process issues raised by these initiatives, and Human Rights Watch has written a letter to the Attorney General expressing concern about the Sex Offender Registry. Where are the lawyers?
i have not investigated the registry (beyond looking up my neighborhood), but i am troubled by ms. love's report and opinion on its use. but this is a call-to-arms for lawyers -- where are the sociologists and criminologists? i'm afraid it would be a pretty lonely crusade (that might land one in prison if certain movies are to be believed). i'm revising a piece with jeff manza and melissa thompson on ex-felons as a caste-like status group. it seems far-fetched until you see such registries in action and consider their easy extension beyond sex offenders. are sex offenders so different from, say, murderers that we wouldn't create a more comprehensive registry? it could easily encompass anyone convicted (or arrested -- the private search firms use arrest data) on felonies (why not misdemeanors, as long as we have the data?) as an adult (aww heck, why should the juvenile court hoard all those records down in the basement?). the notion of a permanent stain or stigma seems ever more plausible to me in an age of free-and-easy information.
paradoxically, we now have the technology to apply a permanent mark at the very historical moment that life-course criminology establishes that everybody desists from crime. so, at the risk of oversimplifying, here's how i see the mismatch: there are social, political, and (most importantly, in my view) technological pressures toward treating criminality as a fixed characteristic of individuals, even as the science paints a picture of malleability and movement away from crime in adulthood. such pressures will clearly frustrate reintegrative efforts, but unlike ms. love i don't see a way out of the dilemma -- justice department database or not, the information systems genie seems to be out of the bottle. i think the better long-term plan might be for sociologists and criminologists to attempt to provide an unflinching, evidence-based assessment of risk across different offense groups and the relative costs and benefits of stigmatization and reintegration.
Saturday, September 24, 2005
voting crimes "lack the same gravity as a homicide"
Court documents indicate that in July, when authorities interviewed Linda Gilbert about the matter, she admitted to voting even though she knew she had lost her right to do so. Klobuchar said her office usually handles 15 to 20 election crime cases -- involving ineligible voters or people voting more than once -- each year after a major election cycle.
ms. gilbert, the current first lady of long lake, minnesota, must be very honest to admit that she knew she had lost the right to vote and voted anyway. still, it seems hard to believe that a thief who did 60 days in the workhouse is now going to catch a new felony for voting -- in her husband's election. here's the kicker, though:Such crimes lack the same gravity as a homicide, Klobuchar said, but they still need to be prosecuted. "We have to protect the integrity of our elections."
i'm wondering about that "lack the same gravity as a homicide" quote. is it a joke? nowhere in the story is it mentioned that felony probationers can vote in 19 states or that the minnesota legislature considered enfranchising probationers and parolees this spring (i drafted a short report on the impact of this change in march). minnesota makes heavy use of probation and light use of incarceration, so ms. gilbert and thousands of others would have been able to vote without risking a felony conviction. under the proposal the total disenfranchised would have shrunk from an estimated 55,551 to 13,825, or from about 1.5 percent to about 0.4 percent of the voting-age population (and from about 12 percent to 3.5 percent of the African American voting age population).
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
what was the bellingham murderer thinking?
"[s]hould we post the letter itself online? Most who had read it said yes. Here's why: Reading the handwritten letter was a different experience from reading the story. It was methodical. The penmanship doesn't change. Mullen thought out the message just as he said he had thought out the crime. If you are concerned, scared or just fascinated, you want to understand what he had to say. ... "Certainly no one in his right mind would agree with vigilante justice," Carter said, "but people are very frustrated about how society deals with sexual predators." He added, "the overarching sentiment (from readers) has been one of people agreeing with Mullen's sentiments, if not his methods."
is there a real danger that publicizing mullen's motivations will lead people to agree with his sentiments or inspire other vigilantes? as "p.s. punk" predicted in a comment to my earlier post, mullen spins a tale of righteous slaughter and wishes to make himself a martyr. he claims that he went to "interview" the three former sex offenders living at the house, checked their IDs to confirm identification, and let one of them go after he "showed remorse or guilt." he claims that the two he killed "blammed [sic] their victims — they showed NO remorse."
such statements show how easily a vigilante assumes the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. i'm most interested in how his comments reveal the dark side of community notification. here's what the confessed killer said on the subject:
"the State of Washington, like many states now lists sexual deviants on the Net. And on most of these sites it shares with us what sexual crimes these men have been caught for, and most are so sick you wonder how they can be free ... In closing, we cannot tell the public so-and-so is 'likely' going to hurt another child, and here is his address then expect us to sit back and wait to see what child is next"
mullen clearly blames the victims for their deaths, but he also implicates institutions that make the information public (i'm sure he'll be pointing other fingers elsewhere as we get closer to his trial). i'm working on a project now coding the information provided by each state on sex offenders and other felons. reading through the individual case records that some states post, one cannot help but see them as "sick" monsters. one sees a bad picture, a horrific description of a crime, and an address. even if the acts are decades old, there is typically little countervailing information that would help us understand their current circumstances or the extent to which they pose a threat to public safety today.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
individual rights and mass incarceration
The politics of crime is widely seen as punitive, racist, and inattentive to the interests of criminal suspects and defendants. Constitutional law is widely seen as a (partial) remedy for those ills. But the cure may be causing the disease. At the margin, constitutional law pushes legislative attention - and budget dollars - away from policing and criminal adjudication and toward punishment. The law also widens the gap between the cost of investigating and prosecuting poor defendants and the cost of pursuing rich ones. Overcriminalization, overpunishment, discriminatory policing and prosecution, overfunding of prison construction and underfunding of everything else - these familiar political problems are more the consequences of constitutional regulation than justifications for it.
stultz's basic argument is that constitutional law creates political "taxes" and "subsidies" that make some kinds of crime control cheap and others more costly. for example, the supreme court aggressively regulates policing and trial procedure, but generally leaves the substantive criminal code and sentencing to the politicians -- where they go hog wild expanding the number of laws and raising sentence length. he also argues that prison budgets get a "constitutional subsidy" whereas local police and courts must ante up a "constitutional tax." here's a taste of the argument:
Earl Warren and his colleagues did little to expand due process and even less to guarantee “the equal protection of the laws.” Instead, they used the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to ratchet up regulation of state and local criminal processes. That choice had three perverse consequences. First, it made the constitutional law of criminal justice primarily about criminal procedure. Second, it focused the law’s attention on trial procedure, not on the discretionary processes that actually dispose of most cases.196 Third, the Warren Court’s Bill of Rights-based regulation used constitutional law to protect majoritarian values, not countermajoritarian ones (pp. 47-48).
well, then! stuntz makes clear that he is no proponent of business-as-usual mass incarceration, but he makes a fascinating counter-intuitive proposition: could gideon's trumpet, earl warren, and the aclu have actually increased the levels and inequalities of punishment in the past generation? or is this simply piling on -- another game of "pin the blame upon the liberal?" [realizing, of course, that civil libertarians come in conservative flavors as well]. i'm skeptical of stuntz's claims, but intrigued by the causal chain he hypothesizes.
Monday, September 19, 2005
suit alleges prison rapes ignored by officials
Beginning in September 2000, Roderick Johnson was housed at the James A. Allred Unit in Iowa Park, Texas where prison gangs bought and sold him as a sexual slave, raping, abusing, and degrading him nearly every day for 18 months. Johnson filed numerous complaints with prison officials and appeared before the unit's classification committee seven separate times asking to be transferred to safekeeping, protective custody, or another prison, but each time they refused...Instead of protecting Johnson, the ACLU complaint charges, the committee members taunted him and called him a “dirty tramp,” and one said, “There’s no reason why Black punks can’t fight if they don’t want to fuck.”The suit alleges denial of equal protection based on race and sexual orientation and that administrators could have protected Johnson without compromising "legitimate correctional needs." Although the latter issue might seem paradoxical (how could stopping rape compromise security or legitimate penological objectives?), it is a common defense in prisoners' rights cases. The ACLU shows numerous pages of Johnson's handwritten complaints to officials, such as:
The extent of sexual abuse and rape in prisons is often debated by criminologists and reliable data on the subject have historically been hard to find. In the past five years, however, prison rape has received increasing attention and documentation, with a 2005 bureau of justice statistics study, 2001 and 2003 human rights watch reports, and the prison rape elimination act of 2003. A call for accountability from prison officials seems like a basic step, but complaints from inmates such as Johnson have historically been dismissed as self-serving (the prisoner is "working the system") or exaggerated ("prison is supposed to be hard") and still fall on deaf ears in some prison systems. The Johnson complaint cites Farmer v. Brennen, a 1994 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that "prison officials violate prisoners’ Eighth Amendment right not to be sexually assaulted when, with conscious disregard of a substantial risk that a prisoner will be raped, they fail to take reasonable measures to abate that risk."
It isn't just prison officials, either. People who would never joke about rape outside prisons casually laugh off the idea of prison rape (e.g., when a white-collar offender is sentenced). Either they minimize the harm (as was the case with "marital rape" and "date rape" until recently) or they see inmates as "other" -- so dehumanized that they do not suffer the way the rest of us would. The stigma of a criminal record is part of the reason for such "deliberate indifference" on the part of officials and the public, but an inmate's race, gender, and sexual orientation also appear to play a role in the societal reaction to complaints.
Sunday, September 18, 2005
troubletown, katrina, and felon disenfranchisement
*thanks for the heads-up, dad.
Thursday, September 15, 2005
ex-felon voter registration in nebraska
Getting the word out is a real problem. Even in Minnesota, where ex-felons can vote, I found that few of those I interviewed knew whether or when they'd become eligible. A Minneapolis man on probation told me how he went to the polls with his family and tried to vote, but was turned away as ineligible. If there's even a chance of this happening in view of one's friends and neighbors, who would even try? In some states, one must also pay off all outstanding financial obligations to the state (e.g., fines, court fees) before regaining eligibility, adding a further disincentive.
Jeff and I have some proposals for improving information and access for newly eligible voters exiting the justice system, but special efforts are required to reach those released years ago. That said, names of releasees are publicly available by cohort and there's little to stop an organization from obtaining a list of names and birthdates, looking up current addresses or phone numbers with peoplesearch engines, and doing some direct outreach.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
zoinks! perceived deviance and looking like a pot dealer
Is this a common experience? It brought to mind my first days at college, when two instructors asked me for drugs (one of them calling me at home). Just to be absolutely clear, I was not, nor have I ever been, a pot dealer. I was really spooked both times. My reaction was probably a "lite" version of what women feel when solicited for prostitution when pushing a stroller on their way to the grocery store -- fear, anger, then confusion (what could you possibly have been thinking?). Today, drug convictions can make one permanently ineligible for student financial aid in addition to serious jail or prison time. Of course, marijuana is common on campus (the prevalence rate was 76% in one of my recent upper division classes) and it wasn't as though they asked me to be a hit man. Still, the incidents told me I was sending the wrong signals -- I wanted an "A" and a letter of recommendation, not a mandatory minimum sentence. I never discussed drugs and certainly didn't carry any signs of substance use other than bloodshot eyes from studying too late and concert t-shirts. At 18, I could have been arrested for impersonating a musician but never a drug dealer. At the time, I was trying to make friends and present myself as a bright-eyed, creative, and hardworking young hipster -- I talked excitedly and goofed around in class, visiting every TA and prof in their office hours.
In retrospect, they probably didn't approach me (or my student) because we gave off "dealer vibes" or showed signs of drug use. Instead, they probably just thought we'd be safe to ask. That is, the instructors figured I was "cool" and they could trust me not to report them as potheads to their departments or university administration. Plus, they didn't ask whether I could sell them pot, but instead asked whether I knew where to get some. So it's a network thing: instructors sized me up as nonconforming and trustworthy, and thought that my social networks might include people (or people who knew people) who might be in the business. Crudely put,
P(asked) = f(style cues, interpersonal trust, perceived networks)
Bruce Jacobs has some fascinating work on the "perceptual shorthand" and cues used by street dealers and undercover officers. Here's a partial abstract from a 1996 piece on undercover high school officers (e.g., Johnny Depp in Jump Street) in Soc. Quarterly (37: 391-412):
...Officers must move from new student to peer to drug purchaser without any informant assistance and with severe time constraints. Three specific techniques are used to trigger this process: class clowning, retreatism, and troublemaking. Each is a variation on the single theme of rebellion...these techniques generate interpersonal familiarity from a distance by creating reputations that drug dealers identify with and vest legitimacy in. Reputation substitutes for introductions informants could otherwise give, establishes a pretransaction comfort zone, and lays the interpersonal groundwork officers need before they can solicit drugs. Officers' behavior is conceptualized through the notion of a cognitive bridge, a hybrid of interactionist and microstructural principles. ...
Now that's interesting. In my early college days, I was inadvertently sending the same signals that undercover narcotics officers use to gain trust -- establishing a comfort zone by clowning in a mildly rebellious way and hanging out with instructors. I still try to lay an "interpersonal groundwork" with people, but fortunately (in the drug-free workplace of today) nobody asks me to help them score weed. If they did, I'd panic -- I wouldn't even tell them about students who look like pot dealers. The last time I was approached as anything other than a professor was last year, when a Nashville boot salesman asked "are you an entertainer, son?" Now that's what I was after all along. Too bad he probably asks it of all the tourists and conventioneers...
Monday, September 12, 2005
physical size, violence, and culpability
Does a large person have an even greater responsibility to avoid violence than a small person? Does an athlete have a greater responsibility than a non-athlete? I think so. As the parent of a son who approaches Williams' size, I've always taken the position that he should be held to a higher standard. Well, I'm not actually that noble. I've told him that he will be held to a higher standard. There are both humanitarian reasons for him to avoid violence -- he could really hurt somebody -- and labeling effects that will make violence an especially poor choice for him. I've always wanted to study the relationship between physical size and punishment severity -- my working hypothesis is that big kids tend to be waived into adult court and they tend to get tougher, more secure placements, all else equal. I can also hypothesize some race*size interactions and gender*size interactions that might be interesting to test.
Any aggressive move made by a burly 6'4" man (or mannish boy) looks and feels a lot different than someone 5'10" making the same move. Simply standing up quickly attracts a lot of attention in the former case but few would notice in the latter. Child A (lg.) once lamented that child B (sm.) never gets into trouble for her own violent behavior "because she's supposedly harmless," and I guess A has a point. But it is different -- a bigger person can generally do a lot more damage. So, in any serious fight, he'll be the first attacked and likely the first arrested. That said, I've been stoked about him playing football because it gives him a safe place to cut loose and (finally!) throw his body around with abandon. I always loved going full-tilt in contact sports, and I was really a pretty awful football player. Still, I liked the idea of testing physical limits and think I learned something from the experience, especially as an adolescent. Reading about football players and domestic violence obviously tempers this excitement, even if such violence turns out to be less common among athletes than non-athletes (frankly, I don't know the literature on this question, but I suspect that a number of good statistical controls would be needed to make a valid comparison).
I guess the danger is spillover -- if football somehow supports a culture of off-field macho/violent behavior then the risks outweigh the benefits. Plus, I'd wager that sociology professors tend to be some of the least physically aggressive people on the planet, so it seems especially deviant to celebrate violence in any form -- no matter how contained or institutionalized. Whenever I read something like the Williams story I want to start yelling at my son ("DON'T YOU EVER...), but he didn't do anything wrong. It is almost an involuntary reaction -- I see the story and start sputtering, until I'm quickly dispatched with a snarky comment (e.g., "yeah, dad, that's exactly what I was planning to do today before you read me that article"). So, I'll try to explain this one to him when I can be cooler about it. He's heard it all a hundred times before and he has a nice arsenal of conflict resolution skills -- he says things like "I'm too mad to talk to you right now, so I'm going to come back when I'm calmed down" (heaven knows, he didn't get that from me). Still, I just can't ignore something like the Kevin Williams story -- especially when Williams is playing the same position and when others seem all-too-eager to look the other way on what they'd euphemistically call "off-field problems."
Maybe there's a way to put a positive spin on it. Alan Page (#88 above) was a defensive tackle too. He was one of the most dominating and aggressive football players in history -- the first defensive MVP in national football league history. Now he's the first African American Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court (and, of course, a fine distance runner). I suspect that Justice Page didn't simply morph from being a fierce and aggressive young man into a thoughtful and reflective middle-aged jurist, but that he carried both capacities within himself throughout both careers. Perhaps he just knew where to draw the lines.
Wednesday, September 7, 2005
oh my - wwjd/wwjk
Rev. Bill Shanks, pastor of New Covenant Fellowship of New Orleans, also sees God's mercy in the aftermath of Katrina... Shanks says the hurricane has wiped out much of the rampant sin common to the city. The pastor explains that for years he has warned people that unless Christians in New Orleans took a strong stand against such things as local abortion clinics, the yearly Mardi Gras celebrations, and the annual event known as "Southern Decadence" -- an annual six-day "gay pride" event scheduled to be hosted by the city this week -- God's judgment would be felt. “New Orleans now is abortion free. New Orleans now is Mardi Gras free. New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence and the sodomites, the witchcraft workers, false religion -- it's free of all of those things now," Shanks says. "God simply, I believe, in His mercy purged all of that stuff out of there -- and now we're going to start over again."
Am I correct to assume that Rev. Shanks' statements would be considered deviant and negatively sanctioned in most churches? They seem to be cited approvingly in Agape Press. I'm aware there is an old (testament) tradition supporting some variant of them, but I'm surprised to see a local pastor make such points. I thought the "Who Would Jesus Kill" bumperstickers were cheap religion bashing, but Rev. Shanks seems to have some clear answers to this question. I'll use the quote in class tomorrow, but only alongside a humanitarian statement from a religious leader to balance the presentation. Here's one from Catholic Relief Services:
Tuesday, September 6, 2005
safer in prison? death rates declining
Who dies in prison? Suicides tend to be white, male, and very young or older inmates. Homicide victims tend to be white or Hispanic males. Perhaps the most intriguing finding is that homicide rates are significantly lower in prison and jail than among the general population. When Mumola standardizes the rates to match the age, race, and gender composition of inmates, the pattern is even stronger: "the resident population had a homicide rate (35 per 100,000) nearly 9 times the rate of homicide in State prisons (4) and nearly 11 times higher than the rate in jails (3).
I'm still trying to get my head around this paradoxical finding. Are we really less likely to be murdered in prison than on the street? Here are four hypotheses, and four "yeah buts." (1) Is it a stark indictment of our ultraviolent society? Yeah, but violence has been trending downward since the early 1990s, and the 2002 homicide rate is identical to the 1966 rate; (2) Is it proof of the improved safety of our correctional facilities? Yeah, but prisons and jails clearly remain very dangerous and unhealthy places; (3) Is it evidence of the greater efficacy of the panopticon's formal social control over the street's informal controls? Yeah, but the streets upon which most of the general population walk are aready quite safe; (4) Is it a reflection of the not-so-great-as-one-might-think differences between the general population and the inmate population? Yeah, but a good portion of inmates have, after all, committed homicide and other violent crimes. My guess is that there's some truth in each hypothesis, and in the labeling or reporting artifact explanation as well. Nevertheless, I find myself convinced that, to some extent, prisons and jails are becoming safer. I'll have to adjust the hyperbole in my lecture about prisons being "crucibles of intimidation and violence" until I see evidence of deeper flaws in this analysis.
Saturday, September 3, 2005
civic reintegration in a disaster zone
As with other institutions, the criminal justice system is stretched to the breaking point. In New Orleans, pending criminal case files remain submerged, police officers are resigning and worse, and about 5,000 inmates were herded onto a half-submerged freeway ramp for days. In some jurisdictions, non-violent prisoners have simply been released en masse.
Aside from the desperate conditions in jails and prisons, however, many inmates are eager to load supplies and sandbags for another reason: they know that they can do nothing for their families in this time of crisis. They can't even write a check to the Red Cross. So, many cherish the opportunity to make some positive contribution to others. Tellingly, it is often the inmate elite and trustees who first step up to offer whatever help they can give (and, of course, to get outside for a few hours). In my view, stepping up as a citizen and as a positive force in one's community offers one pathway toward reintegration and away from crime. Some inmates are likely cheering the looters as they watch things break down on television, but many others will be searching desperately for ways to lend a hand. I am certain their work will be needed (and hope it will be valued) in the months of rebuilding to come.
Thursday, September 1, 2005
katrina, police, and social control
I do not point this out as a hindsight critique or an insensitive shot at the many good officers working around the clock in New Orleans. It is just disheartening for a criminologist to watch other cities laying off officers or stretching their forces to the breaking point while law enforcement is so overwhelmed in New Orleans. Is it unreasonable to think that such cutbacks will put public safety at risk elsewhere in coming years? Or to think that we might make a more rational allocation of our existing public safety dollars?