Friday, March 31, 2006

fruits of justice

prison labor made an unlikely appearance in a times report on the immigration debates. u.s. representative dana rohrabacher* opposes any sort of guest worker program. mr. rohrabacher dismissed the arguments of president bush and business leaders about the nation's low-wage labor shortage:

"Let the prisoners pick the fruits," Mr. Rohrabacher said. "We can do it without bringing in millions of foreigners."

as the orange county republican is well aware, there are plenty of prisoners in california. while there are few no-brainers on the complex immigration issue, reprising the convict-lease system is unlikely to solve california's problems. if nothing else, we'd need a five-fold increase in incarceration to replace the labor of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. and, of course, collective amnesia about the abuses of prison labor in this country and elsewhere.

*judging by his age, voting record on defense appropriations, and the greenish beret in the picture, i expected to find a duke cunningham-like record of distinguished military service in mr. rohrabacher's bio. nah, turns out he's a tough-talking, no-nonsense surfer, with a master's degree from usc in american studies.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

and the winners are ... john braithwaite and friedrich lösel

john braithwaite of the australian national university and friedrich lösel of cambridge have been awarded the 2006 stockholm prize in criminology. they share the award for their "achievements in developing theory and evidence on the prevention of repeat offending."

i believe the prize is one million swedish krona (currently, about $127,000), which i'm sure the winners will put to good use. while both are quite deserving, i'm especially happy to see john braithwaite recognized for his important work on reintegration, restorative justice, and regulation of corporate misconduct.

since graduate school, i've seen john braithwaite as a model on many fronts. let me begin to count the ways...

1. he has impressive range as a criminologist, writing on a great diversity of topics, from regulating nursing homes to conceptions of justice in japanese and maori culture to the relation between social class and crime.

2. dr. braithwaite is a public criminologist who seems equally at home speaking to and writing for sociologists, corporate board members, delinquent kids, government officials, and the good folks running tiny non-profit restorative justice programs. many practitioners know and practice braithwaite's ideas every day.

3. he makes strong and consistent contributions to empirical criminology but also makes big conceptual breakthroughs. his bifurcation of labeling ideas into stigmatizing and reintegrative shaming, for example, and his republican theory of criminal justice (with philosopher philip pettit) have proven immensely useful for scholars and practitioners.

4. he is an optimist who unapologetically devotes his efforts to making the world a better place. his writing has a what's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding? vibe to it, with a consistent concern for the good and a sincere effort to reduce social harm.

5. in every setting in which we've interacted, dr. braithwaite presents himself with humility, grace, and good humor.

on the latter point, i had the good fortune to write a scholarly exchange with professor braithwaite as a 3rd-year grad student. my very first publication was "Reintegrating Braithwaite: Shame and Consensus in Criminological Theory" in Law and Social Inquiry. i was actually even snarkier back then (can this be possible?), and not far removed from my creative writing courses. i asked whether his new integrated theory of crime, shame, and reintegration adequately reconciled the competing assumptions of its constituent models. i was absolutely horrified to learn from howie erlanger that professor braithwaite was writing a reply -- in fact, i remember being horrified to think he might actually read my piece. fortunately, his "Pride in Criminological Dissensus" was even-handed and supportive. i then wrote a brief rejoinder ("Beyond Calvin and Hobbes: Rationality and Exchange in a Theory of Moralizing Shaming").

this exchange proved important in getting my career started, so i'm forever indebted to john braithwaite. he wrote an inspiring and provocative book and he didn't crush me like a bug when i critiqued it. while i was struggling to publish anything as an assistant professor, i could always joke: "yeah, but i'm freakin' huge in australia."

though some aspects of the stockholm prize have kicked up controversy in criminology circles, the committee has surely identified very deserving winners in its first year.

    tuesdays with al

    i'm tentatively scheduled to discuss locked out on al franken's air america show at 12:30 this tuesday.

    i say tentatively scheduled because it is not uncommon to bump the pencil-necked profs from such shows when a big news story breaks. in politics, a lot can happen over a weekend.

    i'm excited about the interview, which should be more engaging than other appearances. mr. franken is erudite and progressive, but he doesn't affect the frowny-faced earnestness of other lefty journalists. he is a plenty tough ex-wrestler, but he doesn't affect the wannabe tough-guy act of right-wing talkradio.

    because mr. franken loves to riff, anything can happen. i won't know until halfway through the interview whether i'm playing lead or rhythm guitar, but i'll show up ready to play.

    Wednesday, March 29, 2006

    don't be smug, egghead: minnesota probationer voting bill

    senate file 1752, which would restore the vote to felony probationers in minnesota, passed out of committee and will now be heard by the full senate. it has a long way to go, but the bill is alive for the moment. plus, i learned a good public criminology lesson.

    people responded well to my testimony, i think, though the crime prevention and public safety committee seemed less sympathetic to this bill than did the elections committee. the crime folks appeared to frame it as aiding "criminals," whereas the elections folks framed it as aiding "voters" or "democracy." a couple highlights:

    1. i sat in stunned silence when a senator asked whether the bill would restore voting rights to someone convicted of treason who is not sent to prison. as of now, exactly zero of the state's 40,107 felony probationers are serving treason sentences. to my knowledge, there has not been a treason case in minnesota for at least 50 years. moreover, i can't imagine, say, zacharias moussaoui, being sentenced to straight probation rather than prison. i just stared blankly and let senator hottinger and tom johnson (of the council on crime and justice) field that one.

    2. a senator more sympathetic to the bill was concerned about probationers convicted of sex crimes and other violent offenses. the most common offenses for minnesota felony probationers involve drugs and theft (see pp. 32-33), but all major crime categories are represented. within any category, of course, probationers are convicted of less serious offenses than those who are sent to prison. aside from special consideration of voting offenses and election fraud, i dislike the idea of linking voting rights to the type of offense committed.

    floor testimony comes only from the senators themselves rather than folks like me, so my senate testifying is over. right now, i'm trying to update my report on felon disenfranchisement in minnesota and the racial impact of the proposed change. if i can finish in time, i'll try to get someone to read it. i'm not sure what's up in the house at this point, but representative keith ellison will likely bring something forward. i promised i'd send him a book yesterday, so hopefully i'll have some updated minnesota numbers for him soon as well.

    oh yeah, here's the public criminology lesson i learned yesterday: don't be smug, egghead.

    i felt a little exasperated and know-it-allish when the topic turned to treasonists on probation. as a professor, i often get to dictate the terms of the debate and "rule" on what constitutes a big problem or a little problem. while magnitude counts for a lot in social science, it doesn't mean beans in law and politics (or in the culture?). i didn't know how to respond without lecturing or somehow talking down to the committee -- defining the extent and nature of probation, detailing the sorts of offenses for which minnesotans receive probation, distinguishing it from parole and prison, etc.

    when discussion turned to sex offenders, i wanted desperately to remind the committee that we weren't talking about releasing treasonists and sex offenders from prisons, we were talking about voting. moreover, the bill would only let them vote after a judge decided they were safe to live in the community in the first place. i'm pretty sure that such "reminders" would have been counterproductive, so i'm glad i shut up. [aside: after hearing this discussion, i'm even more convinced by the findings in our harris poll -- efforts to restore voting rights for current prisoners will meet with much greater public and legislative resistance.]

    in any case, i fought the urge to speak in a smug or dismissive or snarky way. otherwise, it would have undermined all of the social science information that i presented. i'll try to remember to respond earnestly to questions and to be well-prepared to speak outside of the narrow issue at hand. and, to wipe that smug little professorial smirk off my face...

    Tuesday, March 28, 2006

    mo' felon voting testimony

    i'm scheduled to testify on felon voting again at 3 today in the minnesota senate, this time for the crime prevention and public safety committee.

    the bill (s.f. 1752) is near the top of the agenda, but things can and do get moved around. i'll bring the 936,518-page book manuscript that i'm currently reviewing, though i will likely be too caught up in discussion of the other bills to get any work done.

    i'm excited and honored to testify, but need to give myself a pep talk to overcome the perceived opportunity costs -- missing a good talk in the department and pushing aside other work and pressing deadlines. let's see...

    at least i'll be able to bring some fresh information back to my delinquency and deviance classes next year. there is always room for new examples in teaching moral entrepreneurs and rule creators. these courses already take up the sociological implications of many of the bills -- dna evidence, inmate health care, sex offender notification, drunk driving, and chemical dependency treatment.

    these experiences should also help my research and writing. i'm giving a plenary presentation in a session titled “Can Criminology Strengthen Democratic Institutions?” in november. i was planning to focus mostly on the public criminology aspects of the felon voting issue -- the johnson v. bush case, op-eds, and information sharing. the legislative experiences will really add some depth if i can get a few notes from the sessions. whether things go very well or things go very badly for me today, it will only help the presentation in november.

    cool, now i'm good to go. nothing peps one up better than a nice research opportunity.

    Chair: Sen. Leo Foley
    3 p.m. Room 107 Capitol

    Agenda: S.F. 2540-McGinn: Bloodborne pathogens collection and testing procedures.
    S.F. 2380-Ranum: Child pornography offenders conditional release terms.
    S.F. 3038-Higgins: Voter challenges prohibition.
    S.F. 3039-Higgins: Elections deceptive practices prohibition.
    S.F. 3049-Hottinger: Financing statements judicial review expedited process.
    S.F. 1752-Hottinger: Convicted felons civil rights and voting eligibility restoration.
    S.F. 3252-Higgins: Voters rights modifications and registration facilitation.
    S.F. 2684-Johnson, D.E.: Corrections contracts with jail facilities with access to chemical dependency treatment programs authorization.
    S.F. 3047-Rest: Mentoring programs BCA criminal background checks request authorization.
    S.F. 3374-Ranum: DWI first degree offenses provision modification.
    S.F. 3520-Ranum: Sentencing guidelines commission recommendations adoption.
    S.F. 3517-Foley: DWI provisions modification.
    S.F. 3100-Neuville: Governor background checks authority for residence employees and appointees.
    S.F. 3101-Neuville: DNA data and specimen destruction upon acquittal of felony provision modification.
    S.F. 3102-Neuville: Criminal sexual conduct victim notification requirements provision modification.
    S.F. 2919-Foley: Criminal and juvenile justice information policy group task force modifications.
    S.F. 3170-Fishbach: Uniform fire code appeal procedures modification.
    S.F. 3051-Fishbach: Fireworks displays operator permits suspension, revocation, or refusal to renew certification appeal authority.
    S.F. 3008-Skoglund: Comprehensive incident based reporting system data access authority expansion.
    S.F. 3231-Foley: Corrections Department medical director inmate health care decisions.
    S.F. 3251-Ranum: Inmate health screening requirements.
    The committee will continue past 5:30 p.m. if necessary.

    Monday, March 27, 2006

    felon disenfranchisement on the west wing

    eszter hargittai sends word that felon disenfranchisement arose in last night's episode of the west wing. evidently the Democratic candidate's partner supports expansion of voting rights. i'd love to see how they handled the issue on primetime. not so long ago, i remember a crowded presidential debate in which none of the actual candidates seemed to have even a nodding familiarity with the issue.

    i haven't watched the west wing in years, but noticed that one of the actors is named bradley whitford. i take it this is not aerosmith's second guitarist brad whitford (poor dude, i'm sure joe perry has gotten all the play for 35 years). i wouldn't ask, but i know that the genuine little steven/miami steve van zant has morphed into silvio on the sopranos and an absolutely smokin' syndicated deejay. one can't be sure, but i'd guess that the writer of freedom -- no compromise would support the expansion of voting rights too.

    when little things mean a lot

    if you haven't experienced it, it's hard to imagine what life in prison is really like. i don't claim to be an expert on this topic by any stretch of the imagination, but in spending time with young inmates in a juvenile prison while doing research for my dissertation, i came to understand how little things can mean a lot to incarcerated populations.

    the washington state penitentiary in walla walla is now in its fourth week of lockdown. more than 1000 inmates in the main facility are being confined in their cells up to 23 hours a day, fed meals in their cells, and only allowed to shower every third day. the lockdown began on march 1st after three corrections officers suffered minor injuries in altercations with an inmate. the extended lockdown was imposed because prison administrators received reports that more attacks on corrections officers were planned.

    the cause of this unrest? a change in dining policies. according to a penitentiary spokesperson:

    Inmates are upset because they fear new dining-hall procedures may restrict the amount of food they get as well as their ability to sit where they please, Scamahorn said. Inmate workers who dish out food and those who receive it no longer can see each other, so diners can't get larger portions through intimidation or friendship, she said.

    A new wall with small slits for food trays now separates food workers from diners, and a new rail keeps those waiting for food from mingling with those who have been served.

    After they get their food, inmates are required to take a seat in a certain row of tables. In the past, they could go to any table in the dining hall.

    A stricter tier-by-tier release to the dining hall also prevents inmates in one tier of cells from mixing with those in another, Scamahorn said.

    it may seem like a small thing to those on the outside, but dining privileges mean a lot in prison. they mean so much, in fact, that the institution known as concrete mama is currently in its longest lockdown in more than 25 years.

    on a much lighter note, the oregon department of corrections now offers inmates video games as incentives for good behavior. as the oregonian reports, prisoners may earn the right to purchase a $35 plug-and-play video game system preloaded with 50 games after 18 months of good behavior. such incentives have taken on new importance now that 40 percent of oregon's inmates are serving mandatory sentences and cannot earn time off their sentences with good behavior.

    like many other states, oregon has crowded prisons with few options for education or recreation. the dreamgear 50-in-1 video game is in great demand. such incentives seem to be showing promise. the oregonian reports that in the past three years, "misconduct reports, assaults on staff and inmate fights have declined slightly, even as the state's prison population continued to grow from nearly 12,000 to more than 13,000. What's more, when prisons began offering incentives in 2003, only about 20 percent of inmates had 18 months of clean conduct. Now, about 35 percent are at that level."

    little things mean a lot to those doing time in prison. whatever your thoughts about the purposes of punishment, it seems clear that offering even minor privileges and small incentives to inmates makes prisons safer places for those working and living with the walls.

    Saturday, March 25, 2006

    ehate, elove, and public criminology

    i've been getting lots of research-related correspondence lately and have fallen way behind in answering it. hate mail messages are hard to ignore, though. i don't get much real jackie robinson-style hate mail, such as that shown at left. dislikemail better describes most of my stuff. still, i'm led to ask: will internet-age attempts at public sociology and public criminology engender ever-greater hate mail?

    sometimes friends forward me stuff they encounter in the blogosphere. this week i got word of something posted on a local CraigsList with the subject line: "Most Rapists Vote DEMOCRAT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!." it gets much uglier thereafter. i'll spare you the details, but this one was a clumsy political statement rather than a personal attack.

    nevertheless, folks are also upping the ante on personal attacks. in particular, some have made sure to tell me they know where i live by referencing my home address, my family, my car, and other personal details. my friends and colleagues are getting more of this sort of thing too. have you gotten any lately?

    i don't hear much talk about hate mail in discussions of public sociology, but it seems like an inevitable byproduct of the enterprise. often the mail references controversial statements or stories. for example, i got some very colorful email following my appearance in an associated press story viewed as sympathetic to sex offenders. just as often, however, the ehate stems from statements that could hardly be considered controversial (e.g., "the likelihood of recidivism declines sharply with age").

    i haven't saved this stuff, but i think i'll start archiving it. i'd share it online, but it is usually crude -- not crude in an interesting or revealing way, just crude. i'm not shocked to be called a race-traitor, for example, but such phrases are usually preceded by a string of unimaginative obscenities that i'd rather not repeat. it would sort of defeat the purpose to edit or censor the hate mail and then post it, right?

    of course, sometimes people write or say very nice things (love mail?) that leave the academic feeling a little sheepish or shamefaced. i've been called a "distinguished political scientist," for example, and was once introduced as a "civil rights leader from minneapolis." to make matters worse, there were actual civil rights leaders in the audience that day.

    i know that the number of people who read this blog is pretty small, but i'm still shocked that i've never seen any hate mail or personal attacks show up as comments -- not one! this seems impressive since anyone can leave an anonymous message. so far, the only comments i've deleted have been advertisements (hey, you've got a cool blog. get cheap viagra here!). when people disagree with posts, they have always -- without exception -- commented in a constructive and civil way. so far, so good...

    Thursday, March 23, 2006

    federal lawsuit over financial aid for drug offenders

    does it seem strange that students convicted of rape remain eligible for federal financial aid but students convicted of misdemeanor drug possession are ineligible? under the "drug provision" of the higher education act, about 200,000 people convicted of drug crimes have been denied educational grants, loans, and work-study opportunities since 2000. drug crimes are the only offenses that trigger this sort of automatic exclusion.

    the times reports on a class-action complaint filed by the aclu and student groups against the u.s. department of education. of course, the act only affects low- and middle-income students who would otherwise be eligible for financial aid. african americans are hit hardest. although most surveys find only small black/white differences in drug use, african americans are significantly overrepresented among those convicted of drug crimes.

    in predicting recidivism, it is difficult to sort selection effects from education effects. nevertheless, higher education appears to provide an important pathway out of crime for many people. one could certainly argue that it makes sense to place criminal offenders behind non-offenders in the financial aid queue. that said, the selective exclusion of drug offenses seems to make little sense.

    my delinquency students know from our class surveys that some of their classmates have committed serious crimes. when they form small groups to complete assignments, the thought that they may be working with admitted violent offenders sometimes causes concern. yet none of these students would give a second thought to working with kraig selken, a plaintiff in this case. he lost financial aid for misdemeanor marijuana possession -- a crime to which over seventy percent of my students have confessed.

    Monday, March 20, 2006

    mn senate elections committee

    i testified at the minnesota senate elections committee today. the "voting rights for felons" bill passed and will be sent on to the full senate. of course, it must also find favor in the house and in the governor's office to become law. nevertheless, today was a good start for proponents of reenfranchisement.

    here are a few scattered observations:

    1. a social scientist cannot really present research at such hearings. the legislators want a reasonable summary of descriptive information and basic findings. i'm pretty comfortable in such settings, but i had to reconsider and amend my presentation style to make an impact. asa-style or asc-style would not have been very convincing.

    2. the initial version of the bill would have restored rights to both parolees (who have been in prison) and probationers (who are conditionally released in lieu of prison). senator john hottinger, the bill's sponsor, likely felt that a probation-only bill would have better prospects and amended it accordingly. because minnesota makes great use of probation and sparing use of parole, the amended version would restore voting rights to the great majority of convicted felons in minnesota -- approximately 40,000.

    3. i waited about three hours and fifteen minutes before the bill was discussed. this helped me learn the procedural norms and behavioral expectations (though, given the delay, i wished i would have eaten lunch beforehand). for example, i learned to direct my remarks and responses to "mr. chair and committee members." the rules were not much different than those i've encountered at faculty meetings. as in faculty meetings, i also learned that it was most effective to keep things brief and to make eye contact with the voters.

    4. the testimony on other bills reminded me of the critical importance of basic "social facts" sociology. lawmakers are often hungry for simple descriptive information. even when they are not hungry, they still attempt to deal with the best evidence that is available to them.

    5. elections law is a hot area in 2006. there wasn't an empty chair and many spoke passionately about the right to vote from a great variety of perspectives. the bills addressed issues such as voter intimidation and dirty tricks, the voting rights act of 1965, accessibility for the hearing-impaired and those with other disabilities, free speech rights to display campaign signs in apartment windows, and rules for lobbyists and open meetings.

    6. lobbyists wear more fashionable and expensive clothing than state senators. all males wore ties and jackets and i would have felt out of place if i hadn't.

    7. many people duck in and out of the hearings, often whispering to visitors or senators during the testimony on a bill. at one point, lawmakers left the room and hammered out some wording that built consensus on a bill.

    8. i was astounded at the recitation of "dirty tricks" used in recent elections to restrict participation. i heard evidence that literature was distributed giving erroneous election dates, that people were threatened with "10 years in jail" if they attempted to vote when they or another family member had been in trouble with the law, that voters were systematically "challenged" simply because they had not replied to certified mail sent by political parties, and other systematic abuses of the system. not surprisingly given the history of voting rights in this country, african american speakers were most passionate and convincing. they argued that such tricks have occurred and that we need to take action to prevent them from occurring in minnesota. whites and others seemed almost agnostic about it.

    9. i'm glad i live in a democracy and i feel privileged to be able to participate in some small way in the legislative process. some have compared lawmaking with sausagemaking, but i'm a true believer in the process. plus, i actually like chorizo sausage.

    10. two former students were involved in the proceedings. i felt ancient when one told me that she took my class "10 years ago" but happy to hear that i "hadn't changed much."

    fyi, the picture comes from an alumni magazine thing i did two or three years ago. the photographer fussed over it pretty good -- lights and generators and assistants -- so i'll probably use it until i retire. as a st. paul kid, of course, it is kind of cool to be photographed on the state capitol. the books i'm holding are a con law reader (taken from don downs' poli sci class at the wizversity) and keyssar's terrific right to vote.

    Sunday, March 19, 2006

    modern love and collateral consequences

    my favorite feature of the new york times is the "modern love" column which runs on sundays. it offers a new, thoughtful essay--from a wide range of perspectives--every week, chronicling the challenges, exhilaration, and lessons learned from, well, modern love.

    this week’s essay was written by asha bandele, a woman who fell in love with and married a prison inmate.

    part of me cringed when i read her opening paragraphs. she describes meeting her husband, rashid, "five years earlier, when I was 23, a college student teaching poetry to prisoners." the two of them formed a bond over poetry and the possibilities for transformation. as she writes: "Over the course of a year and many discussions about changing ourselves and our world, we fell in love. With Rashid there was this breadth of dialogue I hadn't experienced before. Our conversations — unspeakably honest — were for me life-saving."

    while i fully respect true connection between two souls, i also hate to see prison administrators given more evidence that young women--or any women--who come into jails/prisons/youth facilities are likely to fall in love with charismatic inmates. i faced some of these biases and concerns myself when conducting ethnographic research with adolescent males in a juvenile correctional facility. i resented the staff members' suspicions, but i also understood the reason for them every time i heard a new horror story of female employees or volunteers who got too close to inmates and violated the rules by smuggling in contraband or trying to smuggle out the objects of their affection. it happens and good programs can suffer.

    at the same time, i really appreciate ms. bandele's honest and painful rendering of her story. she writes eloquently of the difficulties of trying to live a "normal" life with a husband behind bars, dealing with unplanned pregnancies. she had a daughter, nisa, and essentially raised her as a single parent, punctuated with visits to prison to see her father. the pressures were enormous and the costs tremendously high; as ms bandele explains:

    I lost pieces of myself I'm only now trying to reclaim.

    I started smoking again. I spent too many nights drinking wine and crying. There were times when pain threatened to define the whole of me. And no, no, I couldn't hold my marriage together.

    CARING for Rashid and Nisa at the same time was more than I could bear: the weekly treks through metal detectors, the parts of my spirit that always got snagged by the razor wire. I still take Nisa to see her father, but staying romantically entangled with Rashid, when I most feel his absence, was too painful.

    i think ms. bandele has offered a vivid personal look into what criminologists call the "collateral consequences" of incarceration. it is all too clear that incarceration deeply affects family members as well as inmates in ways we are still struggling to understand. i appreciate that ms. bandele chose "modern love" as her forum, because i'm sure criminologists are only a tiny portion of the readers of that column. hopefully, her essay will bring some larger public attention to this important and timely topic.

    *illustration by David Chelsea, New York Times

    Friday, March 17, 2006

    felon voting bill up monday in minnesota senate

    i got word today that a reenfranchisement bill will be discussed monday in the minnesota senate.

    my understanding is that the proposal would extend voting rights to all non-incarcerated felons, including those serving probation and parole sentences. prisoners, however, would remain disenfranchised.

    the last time such a bill came up for discussion, i did a rough memo using 2003 data on the likely effects. by my count, at least three-fourths of the disenfranchised felons in the state would regain the right to vote. it would reduce the african american disenfranchisement rate from about 12 percent of the voting age population to less than 4 percent and the rate of non-african american disenfranchisement from about 1 percent to about 0.3 percent. i'll need to update these numbers for 2004 (2005 won't be available yet), but the basic patterns should hold.

    only a few minutes are allotted for discussion on monday, but here are some particulars:

    On Monday, March 20, 2006 at 3 p.m. the following bills are in the Senate Election Committee in Room 107 of Capitol.

    S.F. 1752-Hottinger: Restoring the right to vote for certain convicted felons (allows ex-felons to vote when they get out of confinement);
    S.F. 2743-Pariseau: Criteria for voting systems;
    S.F. 3038-Higgins: Prohibiting voter challenges based on mailings by parties;
    S.F. 3039-Higgins: Prohibiting deceptive practices regarding election time, place, etc.
    S.F. 3040-Higgins: Re-authorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965

    Wednesday, March 15, 2006

    sampson op-ed on civilizing effects of immigration

    rob sampson has a fascinating op-ed on immigration and crime in the times this week. sampson argues that increasing immigration in the 1990s may have had something to do with declining crime rates.

    this is a provocative argument, but plausible so long as the baseline homicide rate of u.s.-born citizens exceeds the average homicide rate of the new immigrants.

    such an effect is perhaps easier to see with a gender example. imagine that 75 percent of the new immigrants were women and, of course, that women commit fewer homicides than men. the incoming low-homicide group would pull down the overall rate in the larger population.

    as long as the newcomers are less violent than the society they enter, immigration will similarly push down homicide rates. on this dimension at least, our newcomers appear to have had a civilizing influence on american life.

    as for the author, i cannot think of a finer american sociologist than robert j. sampson. his status as a card-carrying criminologist might color my perceptions, but his record speaks for itself -- and humbles the rest of us. surely he has helped me over the years and it is in my interest to speak well of him. nevertheless, i think i can look at sampson's oeuvre critically and objectively because we think about social life in very different ways. in any case, the fact that he is writing op-eds bodes well for public sociologies and criminologies.

    Monday, March 13, 2006

    new eyes

    like many minnesotans, i traveled south for spring break. i'm writing from canada, after speaking today at the university of toronto centre of criminology.

    it was my first presentation of the felon voting book outside the united states. until i was putting slides together with an eye to my canadian hosts, i hadn't realized just what a peculiarly american story we were telling. some tell me that canada and minnesota aren't terribly different on most dimensions. still, after a quick two-hour flight, the history of felon voting restrictions in the states looks strange and twisty indeed. i guess that's why we subtitled it "felon disenfranchisement and american democracy."

    i've long known, of course, that the u.s. has the strictest felon voting laws and the highest rate of criminal punishment in the world. but the story also requires reference to racial conflict and the civil war, low american rates of political participation, and the generally punitive attitudes of americans on crime. even the american conception of felony takes in a broad range of behaviors (e.g., some forms of drug possession and theft) that may not be considered serious offenses in other nations.

    i'm still working to get my head around international variation in felon voting restrictions, but by any measure the united states really stands alone on this issue. we wrote about this, of course, but it is another matter to try to explain it. proust wrote that traveling is not about "seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." after thinking about felon voting for almost nine years, i figured i'd have to travel a bit farther to gain a new frame of reference.

    Friday, March 10, 2006

    workin' for cca

    corrections corporation of america bills itself as prison privatization at its best. would you invest in an incarceration company? should your university?

    the yale daily news reports that their graduate employees and students organization is calling for the university to divest from cca. you might recall campus divestment protests over holdings in south africa and other nations. for example, all companies doing business in sudan were recently dropped from yale's portfolio. although cca lobbies to increase prison sentences, however, the university argues that cca's work does not constitute the sort of "grave social injury" that would trigger divestment.

    i haven't invested in private prisons. i suppose that i might if i believed that they were incarcerating more effectively or more humanely than the state. yale student daniel pozen makes the case that, relative to nonprofit and public management, private for-profit prisons underperform on recidivism. to date, i don't think we have a definitive recidivism study on this topic. still, i don't see much evidence here for greater effectiveness.

    the second question to ask is whether you or your university is actually making any money on cca. probably not. as an investment, cca has been losing ground to broad indexes such as the s&p500 for the past five years.

    Sunday, March 5, 2006

    playing god

    for some months now i've been disturbed by the issue of states using civil commitment to lock up sex offenders after they have served their prison sentences. chris posted on this a couple of months ago, showing how we have clearly dehumanized and demonized sex offenders in this country. how else to explain the fact that these individuals can do their time, pay their debt to society, and then still potentially be locked up for the rest of their lives? states like new york and washington have opened or are in the process of building new "perv prisons" at great expense and very little public outcry.

    new york is currently planning to build a facility that will house 500 civilly committed sex offenders who have served their prison sentences. such civil commitments have been upheld by the us supreme court. in 2002, the nation's top court ruled that people who were "unable to control their dangerousness" and were likely to commit another sex crime could be legally civilly committed.

    in washington state, a study by independent researchers showed that felony-level sex offenders had a recidivism rate of 2.7 percent — lower than the rate of repeat arrests for felony-level drug violations and several other categories of crime. the tacoma news tribune reports the following statistics:

    About 5 percent of treated sex offenders commit another sex crime, studies show. That figure is about 7 percent for those who didn’t receive treatment. About 8 percent commit new crimes that are nonsexual and nonviolent. About 3 percent commit new crimes that are violent but not of a sexual nature. About 77 percent have no new offenses at all.

    yet, still, the moral panic is driving punitive new laws and there is no end in sight. in washington state alone nearly 50 sex offender bills were introduced in the last legislative session. washington's policy is to indefinitely incarcerate offenders after their prison sentences until they have successfully completed "deviancy treatment." in at least one case, an individual has been civilly committed--with the supreme court's blessing--for over a decade after completing his prison term.

    as chris wrote about in the post mentioned earlier, minnesota has taken this issue even further and defined some individuals as "sexually dangerous" and civilly committed them without their ever having committed a sex offense.

    while sex offenders are the target of the day, i worry that such trampling of individual rights may be a slippery slope...what will be next? when we allow states to play god and incarcerate people based on their potential for predatory crime, the state may ultimately become more frightening than any individual offender.

    roadside refuse as leading delinquency indicators

    every spring when the minnesota snow melts, all manner of items surface on the roadside. as a running criminologist, i like to observe changes in the quantity and type of items discarded by young people. in spring i run a big loop around shoreview (west to arden hills, north up lexington to lino lakes, east on county road j to north oaks, south on hodson to vadnais heights, and back west to shoreview). along all of these roads i find the detritus of recent delinquency, though most of it is quickly cleaned up each spring.

    suburban high school kids don't have much private space, so they tend to do stuff in cars and then throw said stuff out of cars quickly thereafter. i'm therefore thinking about compiling an index of leading delinquency indicators that will use winter trash to predict summer delinquency.

    based on yesterday's run, i'd say that beer is down and liquor is way up. there were lots of cheap plastic whiskey bottles along the road -- mostly pints, but i did see what looked like an empty fifth of tanqueray on the north oaks side. i didn't see any sudafed boxes or other methaphernalia this year, but two years ago i found a heavy concentration near a large apartment complex. similarly, i only saw a couple reddi-wip (or similar) cans, suggesting that the kids are huffing less propellant than they had 5 or 10 years ago. maybe high school test scores will be up too!

    more distressingly, kids are putting loud pipes on their trucks and cars again and yelling unintelligible things out the window to unsuspecting strangers. at least no drivers have trained a red laser dot on this runner recently. this spooked me a bit on a night run several years ago. i don't see much graffiti in shoreview, but someone had rearranged the letters on a church sign on hodson road -- worshippers were greeted sunday morning with a message that featured "69" quite prominently.

    as a parent, i don't know whether to feel more worried or less worried when i see condoms along the road. i'm seeing fewer lately, but don't know whether this indicates greater abstinence or risktaking. perhaps it could be the former, since i haven't seen any discarded underwear along the road for some time. i still find lots of mysterious single shoes, of course.
    if my leading indicators have any predictive power, the liquor bottles lead me to expect more alcohol poisoning and d.u.i. arrests this summer. on the upside, the decline in sudafed boxes is probably good news. one of my favorite local runners actually carries a trash bag along much of this route. i applaud his civic-mindedness, but will have to get up earlier to ensure that he doesn't contaminate my data.

    i'm actually thinking about making such systematic data collection a paper or project option in my deviance and delinquency classes. what conclusions might students draw from the detritus of delinquency in their towns and neighborhoods? it would have some secondary environmental benefits, of course, and many of my students would know exactly where to look.

    Friday, March 3, 2006

    between hard covers

    oxford is releasing locked out next week, so i've been checking amazon and barnes & noble. after some years of work and some years when we really should have been working, i guess it has finally arrived. i say "i guess" because i haven't actually seen a copy and won't believe it until i do.

    the minnversity is doing a press release on monday, so i'm gearing up for interviews. my all-time A#1 favorite question was about "why i think charles manson should get to decide the next president." if anything similarly interesting happens, i'll blog about it -- either as self-promotion or as damage-control.

    the good folks at the sentencing project emailed a flyer on their distribution list today (thanks much, marc), so i've gotten some warm congratulatory-type wishes from friends. the best note, however, told me of the book's actual theme song! and look, it's an infectious rocker to boot! here's a wmp snippet of crowded house's locked out. jeff and i explore different themes than the brothers finn, but perhaps we can emulate their "carefully crafted songs, meticulous eye for lyrical detail, and gift for melody."

    Thursday, March 2, 2006

    strict obedience as law violation

    crimprofs links to a video that might be useful in teaching sociology of law or deviance. what would happen if four cars spread themselves across all four lanes of a major highway driving at exactly the speed limit? well, some college kids in atlanta undertook a little experiment on the dangers of strict obedience.

    or maybe not. according to the museum of hoaxes write-up, this sort of thing was actually anticipated by georgia lawmakers:

    code 40-6-40, section D: No two vehicles shall impede the normal flow of traffic by traveling side by side at the same time while in adjacent lanes, provided that this Code section shall not be construed to prevent vehicles traveling side by side in adjacent lanes because of congested traffic conditions.

    so, they weren't actually obeying the law. i'm all for social experimentation and merry prankstering, but ... after watching the five minute video, i had the urge to box their impudent little ears. i guess that's probably just my inner dad emerging. despite the dangers, i can't help wondering about manipulating one more experimental condition: what do you think would have happened if atlanta's black college students had pulled this stunt?

    indignities for women only

    after last week's excellent piece on the seemingly unreasonable fines and debts that states impose on felons sparked discussion, adam liptak has another thought provoking article in today's new york times on the shackling of pregnant inmates while they are giving birth. this particular practice is a vivid example of why the "add women and stir" approach of many state corrections agencies just doesn't work.

    while my former home state of washington is shameful in denying felons the right to vote while they struggle to work off their debts for years after their release, i can be a little more proud of the fact that the washington department of corrections is one of the very few state agencies to enact policy that strictly forbids the shackling of pregnant inmates.

    feminist criminologists have been sharing their concern over such practices for years, but it often seemed as though only other feminist criminologists were really listening. liptak suggests that, "In most cases...women are shackled because prison rules are unthinkingly exported to a hospital setting." hopefully liptak's article will bring this issue to a larger audience and encourage thoughtful discussion and debate on the shackling of female inmates during labor and delivery.