Thursday, August 31, 2006

ol' doc wheelock

on august 18, darren wheelock successfully defended his diss: Jury of One's 'Peers:' Felon Jury Exclusion, Racial Threat, and Racial Inequality in United States Criminal Courts. that's darren in the afterglow of his defense, flanked by me and co-advisor doug "stephanopoulos" hartmann.

it is a cool project, with a careful legal analysis and event history models of the passage of felon jury exclusions, as well as an elegant county-level analysis of their impact on the expected number of african americans per jury. darren just started his new job as an assistant professor at marquette university, so he'll be spinning the diss into publication gold for the next few years.

in this business, it doesn't get much better than seeing one's advisees pop up on the faculty roster of fine institutions. congrats, darren.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

sunday section gave us a mention

roger clegg name-checked my research with jeff manza in sunday's pro-disenfranchisement wall street journal editorial. countless writers oppose the practice, but mr. clegg is perhaps the most articulate among the few proponents of felon voting bans. the full piece is subscription-only, but here's the relevant passage:

...So why is there an effort to give criminals the right to vote? Partly there's a sincere if mistaken belief that can be summed up as: "When a person has paid his debt to society, it is unfair and counterproductive to treat him as a second-class citizen." But much of the momentum comes from a feeling that, because a disproportionate number of felons are black, the laws are racist.

Finally, this issue has a partisan tinge. Most politicians' instincts tell them that these potential voters are likely Democrats, and they're probably right. Profs. Christopher Uggen of Northwestern and Jeff Manza of the University of Minnesota have concluded that, had felons been enfranchised, Al Gore would have been elected in 2000, and the Democrats would have controlled the Senate from the mid-1980s down to the present decade.

In any event, the arguments favoring voting rights for felons don't wash. Serving time may pay a debt to society in some sense, but it's not the end of the story: Felons can't possess firearms or serve on juries, and we don't let them hold certain jobs. The "debt to society" argument is something of a red herring, moreover, as leaders of the movement to enfranchise felons believe that they should have the vote while they're still paying the debt. Marc Mauer of the ACLU's Sentencing Project, for example, has acknowledged that "people in prison should have the right to vote."

The racial issue is also a red herring. Certainly the disenfranchisement laws do have a disproportionate impact on some racial groups, because there are always going to be more individuals in some groups that commit crimes than in others. That doesn't make the laws racist -- just as they are not sexist simply because more men than women commit crimes.

Today's laws restricting or prohibiting felons from voting have their roots in ancient Greece and Rome , came to the American colonies from Britain , were adopted without any racist intent, and are not applied discriminatorily.

you can probably guess that i took issue with a few of the statements. i was surprised to learn i'd been traded to northwestern (presumably for professor manza), but i'd heard most of mr. clegg's other arguments before. after some discussion with neema trivedi of the brennan center, i decided to send a brief letter to the editor. it seems kind of pathetic to blog a letter that may never be printed, but i felt that someone should at least take issue with the "adopted without any racist intent" statement. in some states, at least, i think there is good evidence of racist intent. here's the letter:

To the Editor:

Roger Clegg’s editorial (“Franchise Protection,” Aug. 26) asserts that U.S. felony disenfranchisement laws “were adopted without any racist intent.” This is a misleading account of the origins of America’s unusually restrictive felon voting laws.

Mr. Clegg correctly cites the ancient roots of disenfranchisement, but fails to note that many American laws were purposely enacted to dilute the voting strength of newly freed slaves.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, between 1865 and 1900, 19 states adopted or amended felony disenfranchisement laws. Alabama, for instance, added new disqualifying crimes that legislators thought African-Americans were more likely to commit. Along with poll taxes and literacy tests, such laws became mechanisms to “establish white supremacy” and avert the “menace of negro domination.”

This legacy of racial discrimination continues to sap the political strength of African American communities. Nationwide, nearly 40 percent of those disenfranchised due to a felony conviction are African American. In 14 states, more than one in ten African Americans has lost the right to vote.

There are thus good reasons for the emergence of felon disenfranchisement as a national civil rights issue. For felons as for other U.S. citizens, race is no “red herring” when it comes to the right to vote.

UPDATE: the journal published this letter on september 2, ("The Disenfranchised of History ... and Now, p. A9).

Sunday, August 20, 2006

the indefensible position: koren robinson is a rational actor

as i was walkin' in memphis last week, minnesota vikings wide receiver koren robinson was apparently careening up highway 169 to the team's mankato training camp. his speed was estimated as 120 miles per hour and he blew a .09 on the breathalyzer when the law finally caught up with him. the police report suggests that mr. robinson outran the locals in his bmw 7-series. since they knew he just had to be a viking, though, they phoned ahead for friendly officers from three other jurisdictions to greet the fleet receiver upon his arrival in mankato. on this night, he was running fast, drunk, and out of control into at least triple coverage.

mr. robinson's criminal complaint charges him with one count of felony fleeing police, two counts of fourth-degree driving while impaired, and one count each of reckless driving, careless driving, and driving with a suspended license. all this has led to much hand-wringing and speculation about why a tipsy pro football player with a $12.7 million contract on the table would put so much at risk. i don't see any big mystery here that a simple beccarian choice model couldn't explain.

i'm usually quick to wag a finger at the pampered athlete's sense of entitlement, but this one actually makes sense to me as a criminologist. relapse is all too common for those with real substance use issues, so it is pretty easy to understand why he took a drink or three. this is a man with such a serious recent habit that he showed up with booze on his breath to serve a one-day gift sentence last year in seattle.

why did mr. robinson speed through st. peter? he was racing to make an 11 pm curfew implemented by his major dad-like new coach, brad childress. why did mr. robinson run? once he saw those red lights a-flashing, he knew he'd get at least a year's suspension as a repeat violator of the league's substance abuse policy, leaving some large money on the table. he was also at serious risk of becoming owner zygi wilf's sacrificial scapegoat, as the latter waged a public relations battle to obtain a new stadium at taxpayer expense. plus, if he's anything like me, he worried a lot about screwing up in public after all the feel-good stories had been written, letting down those friends who had gone out on a limb for him.

to be sure, mr. robinson is responsible for making all five of his terrible decisions on tuesday night:

1. drink
2. bust curfew
3. drive
4. speed
5. flee

that said, i'll make the indefensible assertion that the punishments are partly responsible for the crimes. mr. robinson's choice set was socially determined by increasingly strict rules and laws governing drinking and driving, as well as his own prior choices and behavior. i'd therefore argue that at least the last four decisions were partially influenced by the severity of the sanctions attached to the preceding bad decision. that is, the severity of a curfew violation likely had something to do with his speed that night; the severity of being sanctioned for drunk driving likely had something to do with his decision to flee.

more indefensibly (less defensibly?), i might even argue that a zero tolerance, get-tough set of rules increased the threat to public safety on tuesday (recognizing, of course, that such rules might also have successfully deterred dozens of other wild-eyed vikings from taking to the road that night). to take a far more serious example, there is some evidence that twenty-five year mandatories for drug crimes may have had something to do with the death of innocent witnesses in several cases in recent years. perhaps surprisingly, big-time dealers can be quite risk-averse.

drunk driving is pretty serious too, of course. nevertheless, as "recovering drunk" uberwriter patrick reusse suggests, mr. robinson's "official .09 blood alcohol reading made him easily the least drunk among the dozens of vikings arrested on similar charges." any longstanding vikes fan would concede mr. reusse's point that a .09 would have qualified mr. robinson for designated driver status back in the franchise's tommy kramer/keith millard dui era. and those dudes rarely got tickets, much less felony charges.

yes, mr. robinson screwed up in a major way by putting other citizens and officers at risk on tuesday. before we ramp up any other formal and informal sanctions, however, we'd do well to remember that harsh punishments can sometimes make things worse. put another way, would you consider fleeing the police if you knew that a citation would effectively end your career?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

hard time, no money

when i wrote recently about the michael evans case, the jury was still out. he was wrongly convicted of the kidnapping, murder, and rape of a 9-year-old girl in 1976 and spent 27 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. evans was seeking $57 million dollars, based on claims that the chicago police falsified evidence, coached witnesses, and otherwise worked to deny him justice.

after deliberating for slightly more than one day, the jury rejected all of his claims and evans will not receive a dime in his civil lawsuit.

as the chicago sun-times reports, jurors believed there was a miscarriage of justice, but felt their instructions were too rigid to allow a finding for the plaintiff. as one juror explained:

A juror who voted against awarding money to a man who spent 27 years in prison before DNA freed him said Wednesday he believes police officers bungled the case so badly that criminal charges should be brought against some of them.

"I know one thing: Justice was not done. The verdict went that way because the jurors' hands were tied. Our hands were tied," said juror Olaseinde Sapara. "The jury instructions were too rigid; we could not find for the plaintiffs. We knew absolutely, definitely that there was a lot of police misconduct; the handling of the case was bungled by the police. Personally, I believe a lot of coercion went on. I think a lot was falsified."

illinois has paid evans approximately $160,000, the maximum state law will allow. as chris pointed out in the comment on the last post, the variation between what compensation states will allow the wrongly convicted is staggering. the city had offered evans $2.7 million to settle, but he and his team turned it down. evans explained his feelings on the jury's decision: "it was like life and death they were holding in their hands at that moment...instead of giving life, it's like they gave death, to an innocent man...there really is no amount that could justify what happened and give me all my years back."

evans and his lawyers are planning to appeal. the outcome of the appeal will undoubtedly have implications for similar cases; four other suits have been filed by pardoned death row inmates and are pending in the chicago courts.

27 years in prison. evans spent the end of his teens, all of his twenties, all of his thirties, and into his forties in prison for a crime he did not commit. now he is expected to pick up his life and move on with only $160,000 to make up for lost time. that may be the toughest sentence of all.

**image: Poetic Justice by Peter Ehrlich

Monday, August 14, 2006

simple, huh? memphis 8/15

i'm loving old montreal and the sociology meetings, but nearing saturation. on my way home (sort of), i'll be giving a talk in memphis at a felon voting panel hosted by the american civil liberties union. barring travel delays, i'll be at the cecil humphreys school of law, university of memphis, 3715 central avenue (Rooms 248, 250 and 252) at 6:30.

tennessee has had one of the twistiest felon voting laws for former felons, with one's rights dependent on the date of conviction, the type of conviction, the financial obligations owed to the state or victims, and other criteria. fortunately, attorney erika wood of the brennan center for justice and several local experts will handle the tough legal questions. my job will be to give the big picture overview.

the flyer notes that tennessee has dramatically simplified its procedures:

Public Chapter 860, a new law, simplifies the process for restoring voting rights to persons with past felony convictions who have completed their sentences. What was the country’s most confusing system, with six different procedures for restoration, has been streamlined into a single restoration process.

it still seems pretty complicated relative to other states, though. in minnesota, a former felon simply has to show up at the polls with some identification. here's another flyer that breaks down the new simplified procedure:

Just follow these easy steps:
1) Complete your sentence, including probation and parole
2) Pay court-ordered restitution, if any
3) Be current on all court-ordered child support obligations
4) Complete a Voter Registration form and submit it to the local Election Commission office
5) Obtain a Certificate of Restoration form from the local County Election office and have it completed by:
• An agent of the pardoning authority (probation or parole officer), or
• An agent or officer of the supervising or incarcerating authority (prison or jail), or
• An agent of the circuit/criminal court (clerk).
6) Submit the completed Certificate of Restoration to the local Election Commission office. If your application is approved, you will receive a Voters Registration card. If it is denied, you will receive a letter explaining why and explaining the steps you need to take to restore your right to vote. (Contact your local Election Commission Office if you have not received your registration card or a letter within a week.)
NOTE: The Voters Registration and the Certificate of Restoration forms can be found at your local Election Commission Office or at the Tennessee Election Commission website (

Your right to vote can be restored when:
• Your sentence is complete, including probation and parole, or when you are no longer under the authority of the penal institution
• You have paid any applicable court-ordered restitution
• You are current on applicable child support payments
Most persons with felony convictions can have their right to vote restored. In some cases, convictions for certain crimes will prevent you from having your right to vote restored. These include:
• First-degree murder, aggravated rape, treason, and voter fraud (If convicted between July 1, 1986 and June 30, 1996)
• Murder, rape, treason, and voter fraud (If convicted between July 1, 1996, and June 30, 2006)
• Murder, rape, treason, voter fraud, any violent sexual offense designated as a felony where the victim of the offense was a minor, and offenses against the administration of government (official misconduct) by elected or appointed officials (If convicted on or after July 1, 2006)

this procedure surely makes it easier for tennessee ex-felons to regain the vote. that said, i'm guessing that many will be deterred by the financial hurdles and administrative requirements. in most states, one's rights are automatically restored after completion of sentence.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

the costs of incarcerating those who needn't be incarcerated

criminologists often write about the costs of incarceration --generating crude estimates by multiplying the number of inmates by the per diem paid by the taxpayers. larger costs, of course, are borne by the inmates who don't really need to be there.

though i've written about the relative safety of prisons and jails, they clearly remain dangerous places to spend the night -- especially for younger arrestees and those brought in on minor charges.

carl edward moyle was booked into the sherburne county jail yesterday and was beaten to death within twelve hours. his crime was a simple traffic offense: driving without proof of insurance, which is a gross misdemeanor in minnesota for repeat offenders. his assailant was a state prison inmate awaiting trial for assaulting yet another inmate in a st. cloud penitentiary.

sherburne county sheriff bruce anderson, jail administrators, and minnesota corrections officials will surely be asked why they failed to segregate an inmate with a history of assaulting other inmates. but my question is more basic: do we really need to be locking up folks because they don't have insurance? given state variation in insurance requirements, can you think of a better example of a mala prohibita offense?

doing prison interviews, i've asked inmates "how many of these guys need to be here?" most respond with an estimate between 25 and 75 percent of their fellow residents, easily pointing out examples in each category. i suspect that the incarcerated could have distinguished between mr. moyle and his assailant. i know that few would identify traffic violators as deserving of incarceration, much less a fatal beating.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

pubcrim paper

shameless plug: michelle and i are speaking on public criminologies this sunday morning at the sociology meetings in montreal.

here's the paper (comments welcome!) and here's the session info:

Regular Session. Public Sociology
Scheduled Time: Sun, Aug 13 - 10:30am - 12:10pm Building: Palais des congrès de Montréal

Session Organizer: Eric Klinenberg (New York University)

Presider: Kieran Healy (University of Arizona)

Accessibility through Accountability: Moving Beyond the Traditional Literature Review in Public Sociology
Laurel E. Westbrook (Univ of California-Berkeley), Damon W. Mayrl (University of California-Berkeley)

Challenging Institutional Barriers to Community-Based Research
Randy Stoecker (University of Wisconsin)

Public Criminologies
Christopher Uggen (University of Minnesota), Michelle Inderbitzin (Oregon State University)

Publicly Financed Sports Stadiums, the Media, and Public Policy
Kevin J. Delaney (Temple University), Rick Eckstein (Villanova University)

Saturday, August 5, 2006

solzhenitsyn didn't see this coming

i'm sure that plenty of americans would holiday on alcatraz, but something tells me this gulag won't be a huge money maker. according to the independent,

Igor Shpektor, the Mayor of Vorkuta, 100 miles above the Arctic Circle and 1,200 miles north-east of Moscow, says he is looking for an investor to turn an abandoned prison complex into a "reality" holiday camp for novelty-seeking tourists keen to understand what life was like for Soviet political prisoners at first hand.

His idea, which has upset survivors of the prison camp, envisages recreating a tiny part of the Gulag complete with watchtowers, guards armed with paintball guns, snarling dogs, rolls of barbed wire, spartan living conditions - and forced labour.

yeesh. they probably aren't taking volunteers at guantanamo, but "extreme tourists" who want a prison experience might be better served volunteering or mentoring at actual prisons and juvenile training schools.

Friday, August 4, 2006

time and money

how much do you think one day of your life is worth? no, really. if you had to give up one day, what would be your price? i'll admit to occasionally having days that i would pay to have someone take for me, but in general, it's hard to put a price on one's life. some have tried to quantify it, but that doesn't speak to issues of quality and what you may miss in a day that you gave up or lost.

now, what if you were wrongly convicted of a crime and spent years of your life behind bars? not only would you have missed all kinds of potentially lovely experiences, you would have been instead subjected to truly miserable ones. how much would a year of your life be worth to you then?

it's difficult for the wrongly convicted--and imprisoned--to get compensation for the years that they have lost. a recent story suggests that in many states the wrongly convicted must prove "actual" innocence and/or police/criminal justice misconduct to get compensation. for those who do prove their innocence, california allows $100 per day in compensation. do you think your life and your freedom is worth more than that?

michael evans thinks his is. the chicago sun-times reports that evans, who wrongfully spent 27 years in an illinois prison before being freed by dna evidence, is seeking up to $58 million dollars in damages. he is asking for $2 million per year he was in prison plus $1 million punitive damages from each of the four police officers who conspired against him. if the nine person jury finds for evans, the four officers will be personally responsible for the punitive damages and the city will pay the $54 million in compensation. the jury is currently in deliberations.

so how much is a day or year in your life really worth to you? do you have opportunities that may never come again? if so, are you taking full advantage of them? there may never be a better time.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

freedom and stability assumptions

as i reluctantly trundled a decade of sociology journals to the free shelf, my mind raced and ricocheted to all manner of worst-case scenarios. what if everybody dumped their paper journals but electronic access was sharply restricted? just because we have cheap or free electronic access today doesn't mean that we'll always have it, does it?

i quickly spun an(other) orwellian movie treatment in which all sociological knowledge was lost, save for the brave efforts of a rag-tag crew of grad students uploading pirate scans of ajs and asr, just one step ahead of the information police. in a cave. with a generator. more seriously, we all act as if services such as jstor or google will be around throughout our careers, and that we will be able to access such information -- as well as the great libraries of books being scanned -- for free or for cheap. maybe this is the case, maybe not.

i started a blog last year, in part, because i sensed that freedom this good is too good to last. i don't keep pace with efforts to regulate blogs or net content, but reports like this sometimes give me pause. unfortunately, i don't know what netcasting is either, just that my president is calling to regulate it.

in the end, i made the same stability assumptions as everyone else and gave away my old journals. that said, i suspect there's a non-zero probability that what's free is gonna cost, and it probably won't be long before the doors start closing.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

mistakes of our youth

the tacoma news tribune recently ran a couple of interesting stories essentially showing a before-and-after look at life in gangs. the before story features four young teenage boys discussing the allure and glamour of gangs. all of them have friends and family members who are in gangs; two of them are hoping to join soon, the other two are doing their best to avoid the gang life.

the boys anxious to join gangs anticipate proving their worth: "They talk ecstatically about getting jumped-in, a gang initiation ritual that involves beating the newcomer for several minutes. They contemplate the crimes they’ll commit to gain status. Attack someone? Knock over a store?"

the boys hoping to avoid gangs offer a different perspective: “'I’m going to go to school and do what I have to do,' is the message they send to friends who’ll listen. Both said they are upfront about telling friends they think gangs are a waste of time."

this literally hits close to home for me because i have a 14-year-old nephew growing up in this neighborhood and starting a new school next month. he's fortunate to have two loving parents (and a criminologist aunt), but peer pressure is absolutely crushing at that age, so i think there's reason for concern.

the second story, published the next day, details the life of Diamond Laurice Boyd, co-founder of the hilltop crips. it's an interesting and thoughtful account of a life that went wrong. boyd, 33-years-old, is currently serving nearly 30 years at mcneil island corrections center; his story is one of regret. "To today’s young gangsters, he sends a message: Get out of the life. There is no glory in it – only a road where freedom ends...his legacy is a lesson: It’s not that hard to fall. One step, then another and another – soon, all the chances are gone."

boyd has seen his friends and family members killed; his brother, who co-founded the gang with him, is serving 24 years in a california prison. boyd blames himself for his choices--he had love and opportunities throughout his childhood--and he claims that he was the black sheep of his family. there is no happy ending to his story. at earliest, he'll be nearly 50 when he gets out of prison. his five children are growing up in his old neighborhood; they see their father maybe twice a month. boyd worries about his sons, knowing the kind of pressure they'll face, the decisions they'll soon have to make. "He has a nightmare, a vision of torment: his sons, locked up with him. He will not permit it. He will block it with his own life. He will tell them how things happen. 'My boys, they really listen to me,' he says. 'They really listen to me.'”

his sons may listen to him now, but they will soon be teenagers facing peer pressure and tempted by the glamour of gangs. will his story and his regret be enough to deter them from following in his footsteps and his legacy? will his sons be strong enough to break the cycle? what, if anything, can the community do to help?