Tag Archives: crime

Capital Punishment, Public Opinion, And Who Should Suffer

A Guardian UK graphic from 2011 draws on execution data from Amnesty International.

A Guardian UK graphic from 2011 draws on execution data from Amnesty International.

In societies that allow for the death penalty in criminal punishment, there has been a shift toward ever more “humane” methods of execution. The rhetoric surrounding these changes generally involves not violating the rights of the prisoner by applying a cruel or unusual punishment—that is, just death, not torture.

In an interview with The Voice of Russia, University of Colorado professor Michael Radelet explains that the real motivations for a turn toward the medicalized execution may have more to do with minimizing the suffering of the audience than the condemned. When asked if there was a humane way to kill someone, Radelet points out that shooting and guillotining have no history of failure, unlike generally bloodless lethal injection (recently pegged at 7% in the U.S. by Amherst College’s Austin D. Sarat).

“Most state authorities in the US couldn’t care less whether or not the inmate suffers, what they care about is the suffering by the audience. This all has to do with the spectators.” Apparently, modern sorts want their vengeance deadly, but not grisly.

Radelet says that the death penalty is mainly political, allowing the public to be convinced their society is tough on crime. If the obvious question in the death penalty debate is: Do you support the death penalty? Data Radelet cites points to a more thorough question: Do you support the death penalty, given the alternative of life without parole? When the question is rephrased, support for the death penalty actually goes up a bit. It seems that, when the respondents consider a lifetime of suffering against death, their views on the suffering of others shift yet again.

Can a Rise in Rape Reports Be Good?

The 40th Anniversary of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre marks just one of the long-standing resources available to victims. It is funded both publicly and privately.

The 40th Anniversary of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre marks just one of the long-standing resources available to victims. It is funded both publicly and privately.

A recent Metro News article turned to social scientist Isabelle Côté for an explanation about an alarming rise in the rate of sexual assaults in Ottawa, Canada. Côté suggested that the data could point to something other than an actual increase in assaults: since Ottawa devotes resources to programs that help those who have been assaulted, Côté believes victims may be more likely to report the crime there than elsewhere.

Still, sexual assault is significantly underreported. Côté tells the paper only about 10% of sexual assaults are actually reported to the authorities. That means perhaps a number as low as 6,000 (the number reported in Ottawa last year) should be cause for concern. Côté told Metro News that issues of race, class, and gender stereotypes can influence whether the crime is reported—and whether the victim is believed.

Increasing rates of reported sexual assault may be a good thing if it means more victims are coming forward. Côté also discusses the importance of funding for rape prevention alongside support for victims. The key is to reduce assaults but dramatically increase reporting when they occur.

Alice Goffman: Telling the Tale of Extreme Ethnography

Photo by Greger Ravik via Flickr.

Photo by Greger Ravik via Flickr.

Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City shares the stories of young men evading arrest for crimes ranging from unpaid fines to murder. In describing their day-to-day maneuvers under heavy surveillance, she brings to life the impact of the U.S. prison boom on members of a low-income African American neighborhood in Philadelphia. But her work was not without risk. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer,

By the time Goffman left Sixth Street, she was displaying symptoms reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as panicking at sudden noises.

In fact, so compelling is Goffman’s ethnography–and the great lengths she goes to in getting it–that the Inquirer is not alone in its eagerness to share her story. The New York Times writes:

Though written in a sober, scholarly style, “On the Run” contains enough street-level detail to fill a season of “The Wire,” along with plenty of screen-ready moments involving the author herself, who describes, among other ordeals, being thrown to the floor and handcuffed during a police raid, enduring a harrowing precinct house interrogation and watching a man be shot to death after exiting her car.

But the attention lavished on Goffman’s work has been mixed. On the one hand, her extreme ethnography is technically demanding and dangerous. She gives us a sympathetic and sociological glimpse of a world that’s usually off-limits to outsiders. On the other, she is “hardly the first middle-class white observer to venture into black urban America and emerge with a marketable story to tell,” as the New York Times puts it. Given this bipolar public gaze, Goffman may find it every bit as dicey to take a position in the spotlight as in the field.

Goffman acknowledges this awkwardness to the Times: “It just feels morally strange to talk about my own experiences when a whole community is dealing with violence and getting arrested…. I could always just leave.” To the Inquirer, she insists, “For the residents…there’s no ‘post’: ‘It’s just traumatic. This is everyday life: a series of ongoing and acute traumas.’”

It appears she’s already working on her next professional challenge: coaxing the spotlight back onto the the 47,000 fugitives living in fear in Philadelphia in 2009, avoiding hospitals and skipping friends’ funerals to avoid surveillance, worrying about eviction and losing custody of their children.

—–

According to the Editor’s Desk, ethnography sells. Here’s one example of how it’s used in corporate America: http://thesocietypages.org/editors/2013/05/07/corporate-anthropology/

SociologyLens caught Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh, explaining extreme ethnography: http://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/tag/sudhir-venkatesh/

Economists against the War on Drugs

Picturing the War on Drugs in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher "Rice" via flickr CC.

Picturing the War on Drugs in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher “Rice” via flickr CC.

As far as the London School of Economics is concerned, it is time to end the global War on Drugs. According to LSE’s new report, the “War” is a “billion-dollar failure.” The report was signed by five Nobel-Prize winning economists (Kenneth Arrow, Christopher Pissarides, Thomas Schelling, Vernon Smith, and Oliver Williamson), as well as former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, British Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and former NATO and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Al Jazeera explains:

“The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage.” Citing mass drug-related incarceration in the US, corruption and violence in developing countries and an HIV epidemic in Russia, the group urged the UN to drop its “repressive, one-size-fits-all approach” to tackling drugs, which, according to the report, has created a $300bn black market.”

The LSE report urges a shift toward evidence-based approaches to illicit drug use: the tremendous resources devoted to the drug war could be diverted to more rigorous analysis and effective policy with “a focus on public health, minimising the impact of the illegal drug trade.”

How Often Are Executions “Botched”?

In the U.S., it’s enough to cause concern, Amherst College’s Austin D. Sarat tells “All Things Considered.” After a botched execution—that is, one that did not follow protocol, did not kill the prisoner, or did not kill the prisoner in a way that prevented suffering—in Oklahoma, the co-author of the forthcoming Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty (with Katherine Blumstein), said that the country has seen a 3% rate in botched executions overall. And though legislators have favored scientific progress in the death chamber, choosing hanging, then electrocution, lethal injection, and finally, today’s three-step injection process, the record of by-the-book executions is getting worse.

The rate of botched executions by lethal injection is now up to 7%, according to Sarat’s studies.

Lethal injection by the current process is meant to be more humane in that it is more scientific. It also removes any one person in the execution chamber from personal responsibility for the prisoner’s death, as each injection is delivered by a different person. But when it fails 7 out of 100 times, the experience is likely to be a “gruesome spectacle” for prison staff, prisoner, and viewers alike.

For more on the death penalty in the U.S., listen to our podcast with David Garland, author of Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition.

Affluenza: A Cute Name for the S.O.S.

Photo by Martin Bowling via Flickr CC

Photo by Martin Bowling via Flickr CC. Click for original.

The latest controversy in criminal justice revolves around the defense of 16-year-old Ethan Couch, who killed four people when he hit them with his car, driving at double the speed limit and double the legal blood alcohol level (as an underage drinker, actually, there is no acceptable limit, but let’s stick with the charges). Couch’s defense argued that he suffered from “affluenza”—a condition under which he had lived such a privileged and entitled life, with so few consequences for bad behavior, that he could not now be held suddenly responsible for his actions. Bizarrely, the judge accepted this defense and sentenced Couch to ten years of probation and a stay in a rehab facility known for its hippotherapy (affectionately, if a bit dismissively, known as “having a therapy pony”). Had affluenza not been accepted as a defense, the usual sentence for Couch’s crimes would have been 10-20 years of prison time.

In an article for Forbes, Dr. Dale Archer reminds us that the lack of consequences that accompanies privilege isn’t anything new:

Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen introduced the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the 19th century to explain the behavior of […] families who spent their accumulated wealth in ostentatious ways to show off their newfound prestige and power.

Archer goes on to stress that the real worry is how common the modern trend of affluenza seems to be. He worries that the Keeping Up With the Kardashians era may be breeding a generation of narcissists, if not sociopaths who not only don’t understand punishment but also balk at the idea that they have anything to be punished for. He cites social psychologist Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan:

Her study of 13,737 college students found that there was a 40% decrease in empathy currently, when compared with 20 or 30 years ago.

In the end, it may be the application of the cute name “affluenza” that proves most offensive: personal responsibility is all the rage when it comes to the poor and people of color, but wealthy whites’ privilege appears to have found yet another way to keep them above the fray.

See more on “Affluenza” at: http://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/2013/12/20/catching-affluenza-the-role-of-money-in-criminal-justice/

Picture 2

 

 

Squeaky Clean?

Photo by Emily Baxter from "We Are All Criminals"

Photo by Emily Baxter from “We Are All Criminals”

What separates those with a criminal record from the rest of the population? According to lawyer Emily Baxter, not a whole lot. Baxter’s new project “We Are All Criminals,” highlighted in a recent StarTribune article and a post on Public Criminology by Chris Uggen, examines the illegal activities committed by people without a criminal record. In Minnesota, 1 out of 4 residents has a criminal record, but Baxter’s project, she says on her website, is about the 75% that “got away, and how very different their lives may have been had they been caught.”

By emphasizing the crimes of the unconvicted, Baxter blurs the lines between criminal and noncriminal and draws attention to the detrimental effects that a criminal record has on the lives of those who are convicted. Many of the undocumented and unpunished transgressions confessed through her project were committed when the perpetrators were juveniles, many of whom are now lawyers, doctors, and professionals.

Executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis Michael Friedman is intrigued by the project, saying:

“I don’t think I’ve come across anybody who has not committed crimes as a juvenile,” Friedman said. “Allowing society to use juvenile criminal records as a marker for someone’s potential success, or risk for employment or opportunity, is not scientific. It’s dangerous and discriminatory.”

The most intriguing part of her project lies in its look at society as a whole. Imagine if we had all been prosecuted for every crime we committed, even as a juvenile. What would the crime rate look like then?

Barroom Bystanders

We hope it won't come to that. Photo by DigitalGirl via flickr.com.

We hope it won’t come to that. Photo by DigitalGirl via flickr.com.

When things start to get crazy, the “bystander effect” can kick in. As seen in many public incidents (notably when bystanders took photos of a man about to be killed on NYC train tracks), the bystander effect is generally considered a powerful force in determining whether someone intervenes in a dramatic indecent. Basically, people are less likely to intervene if others are around—they assume someone else will deal with the problem. That said, a recent study by graduate student Michael Parks of Penn State shows that the bystander effect may not be as strong as was once thought.  In an interview for MedicalXpress, Parks explains what he saw in observing bar fights:

These bystanders used nonaggressive interventions to break up about 65 percent of the fights between two aggressive males. Most bystander interventions were classified as nonviolent interventions, which included verbally stopping the fight, or separating the fighters.

Parks worked with Wayne Osgood and Richard Felson, both professors of Penn State; Samantha Wells of the University of Ontario; and Kathryn Graham of the University of Toronto. The team’s study found that bystanders were most likely to intervene when they felt the violence was getting “too severe.” Bystanders were most likely to step in when it was male-to-male aggression, since most assume the violence escalates most quickly. Surprisingly, bystanders generally avoided breaking up male-to-female aggression (though, anecdotally, police officers do say intervening in partner violence is risky, since both partners may turn their aggression on the interloper).

“It seems a little upsetting that people didn’t intervene in incidents that involved a man harassing a woman, but the results showed that this was indeed the case,” said Parks. “Our data showed that this type of violence had the lowest level of severity, so one explanation for the lack of intervention in these incidents is that third parties perceived that the events won’t escalate into higher levels of violence, something that does not have the potential to be dangerous or an emergency.”

“Spiritual” Scofflaws

Here's hoping... Photo by Erik Ingram via flickr.com.

Here’s hoping… Photo by Erik Ingram via flickr.com.

This year’s hot trend in religion research is definitely the “spiritual but not religious” (SNBRs), a growing group of Americans who choose not to affiliate with any particular religious tradition, but don’t want to take the plunge into full-blown atheism. While a lot of scholars are still working through the concept, this new identity label is already cropping up in all kinds of research. How do SNBRs feel about religious practices like prayer, are they a stronger political force than conservative Christians, and—most recently—are they even more criminal than their religious peers?

A recent report from the science news website phys.org starts in on this latest question with research from Baylor sociologists Sung Joon Jang and Aaron Franzen.

Young adults who deem themselves “spiritual but not religious” are more likely to commit property crimes than those who identify themselves as either “religious and spiritual” or “religious but not spiritual”… a fourth category—who say they are neither spiritual nor religious—are less likely to commit property crimes than the “spiritual but not religious” individuals.

Franzen suggests that the SBNR identity reflects weaker ties to social networks that may prevent these crimes:

We were thinking that religious people would have an institutional and communal attachment and investment, while the spiritual people would have more of an independent identity.

Of course, this doesn’t quite explain why those who were neither spiritual nor religious were less likely to commit crimes than the SBNRs. The next question is whether strong ties to religion actually prevent crime, or just show up after criminals have been caught.

Concerns over Canadian Crime

Canadian homicide rates increased in 2011 relative to 2010, but according to the Globe and Mail, the uptick shouldn’t cause alarm. Any rise in homicide is worrying, sure, but Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd cautions against inferring too much from a single year’s crime data.

Journalist Patrick White sums up:

When 2011 numbers are plugged into a broader time frame, the picture is much more soothing. Homicide figures bottomed out in the early 1960s, peaked in 1977 and began plummeting in the early 1990s down to a statistical valley of around two murders a year for every 100,000 people, a low where it has remained for 15 years. In 2011, the rate was 1.7 per 100,000.

Canadian homicide trends via Stats Canada

Moreover, while Canadian homicide rates did increase last year, attempted homicides and the overall rate of violent and property crimes reported to the police continued to drop.  Like in the U.S., most forms of Canadian “street” crime (e.g. burglary and assault) are much lower today than two decades ago. As CBCNews reported, the overall rate of crime in 2011 reached a low last seen in 1972.