Monthly Archives: February 2009

dang semi-literate kids


i’m opposed to all forms of vandalism, of course, but i always figured snoreview was funny and horeview was just crude. and misspelled. i’d prefer to see kids creatively altering the sign’s meaning with a couple feet of masking tape — no permanent damage and no cost to taxpayers! i told my kids that i’d better not catch them vandalizing the big sign up the street. so far, so good, though i go to bed each night with the fear that i’ll awaken to a torview sign at 96 and lexington.

cast a little vote and you land in jail

a minnesota probationer who voted in violation of state disenfranchisement law has been sentenced to a year in jail. since all but 30 days of the sentence is “stayed,” the rest of the time won’t be imposed unless he violates whatever conditions the court sets.

some will say he got off easy, i suppose, since he could’ve gotten a much longer sentence and another felony conviction. regardless of the sentence, however, i still can’t believe that we’re locking people up for voting. via minnpost:

Willems voted in Roseau County in November. Election officials didn’t recognize him as an illegal voter, but he had told his probation officer — as he was required to do — where he would be that day. The probation officer later broke the news to him that voting was a no-no and informed county officials.

Willems originally was charged with a felony for his illegal vote, but the charge was reduced to a gross misdemeanor. He was sentenced Monday in Roseau County Court to one year in jail with all but 30 days stayed for three years.

youth and consequences

imagesin november, i wrote about the 8-year-old boy from arizona who was charged with 2 counts of premeditated murder for the deaths of his father and his father’s roommate. you may remember that he apparently confessed to the crime while being questioned by two female police officers without a parent or legal representative in the room. i was cynical, and suggested we all remember the ryan harris case in chicago where the 7- and 8-year-old defendants eventually settled wrongful arrest suits for millions of dollars.

well, the boy in the arizona case is now 9-years-old and he has pleaded guilty to one count of negligent homicide. under the agreement, the boy pleaded guilty in the death of his father’s roommate and charges of premeditated murder for both deaths were dropped.

this is a bizarre case. bits from the news story:

The boy’s mother cried throughout the hearing and, through her lawyer, objected to the plea deal. But Superior Court Judge Michael Roca accepted it….

(Apache County Attorney) Whiting said he spoke with the Romero family before giving final approval to the plea deal, and they agreed it was in the child’s best interest for him not to be forced to admit to killing his father.

“If the kid is ever going to have a chance at a normal life, how is he going to deal with `I pleaded guilty to killing my dad,’” Whiting said….

Under the agreement, the judge will decide later whether the boy will be institutionalized or live with relatives. He will receive diagnostic evaluations and mental health examinations when he’s 12, 15 and 17. The reviews are intended partly to determine whether the boy will pose any danger in the future.

i guess i’m surprised that the plea was accepted against the express wishes of the boy’s mother. and, while the boy didn’t have to admit to killing his father, he did essentially admit to committing murder (at age 8!). won’t that significantly hinder his chance for a “normal life”?

and now, another case with an extremely young defendant. an 11-year-old pennsylvania boy is charged with shooting and killing his father’s pregnant girlfriend. the victim, 8 months pregnant, was shot in the back of the head while lying in bed. the boy, jordan brown, was charged as an adult with criminal homicide and criminal homicide of an unborn child. the boy is currently being held in a county jail. the jail warden, aware that his 300-inmate jail cannot offer proper care for a pre-adolescent defendant, plans to ask the judge to move the 11-year-old jordan brown to a juvenile detention center.

these cases certainly test our notions of youth, accountability and consequences. what is the right thing to do with child defendants? is there any hope that they can go on to lead productive adult lives in the community? what is or what should be society’s role in these situations? big questions, all, but i think the answers might go a long way toward revealing the hidden assumptions about crime, justice, and punishment in the united states today.

peter donnelly on how juries are fooled by statistics

via heather and TED, a short video that might be good for intro crim or stats:

quick crim news

1. i’ve long marveled at the false precision offered by scientific experts in courtroom testimony — you know, our evidence confirms that there is a one in fourteen-gazillion chance that these prints came from someone other than the defendant, mr. uggen. once again, the national academy of sciences is calling for reforms in this area. the times calls a forthcoming NAS report “a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprinting, firearms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting.”

2. a truly inspiring sociological criminologist wins the 2009 stockholm prize — make that two truly inspiring sociological criminologists.

3. a new pew center report by mark hugo lopez and michael t. light documents some major shifts in the race, ethnicity, and national origin of u.s. federal prisoners.

4. while michael phelps wasn’t taken into custody, his famous photo spurred arrest of seven fellow partiers. though mr. phelps lost a lucrative endorsement deal with kelloggs, he’ll surely pick up some exciting new sponsors. apparently the bonggate seven won’t be so lucky — they’re just stuck with a misdemeanor record and out of pocket $570.

big windows to let in the sun

an officer once told me how cleanup companies scrub crime scenes before nasty homes are put on the market, removing all (visible) evidence of homicides, meth labs, and other messy illegality. even in times of real estate crisis and hi-def hgtv, however, realtors don’t always show homes at their very best. the two photos below come from lovelylisting.com, with links to the actual listings advertising the homes for sale.

moorpark, california — 4 beds, 3 baths, $449,900, extremely motivated seller.


st. paul, minnesota
— 3 beds, 2.0 baths @ 153,000.
nice. you couldn’t spend fifteen bucks for a gallon of white latex and a can o’ kilz?


understanding that folks actually lived in these houses, these are some of the saddest pictures i’ve seen. one can either laugh at the realtors or cry for the owners. call me a homer, but i’m hearing paul’s here comes a regular and grant’s 2541 — cuz these houses have nothing to do with the “our house” of csny or madness.

lott v. levitt and the meaning of replication

replicant1via volokh: the seventh circuit u.s. court of appeals has affirmed the dismissal of john lott’s libel suit against steven levitt. the case hinges on the following critique of mr. lott’s more guns, less crime in freakonomics:

Then there was the troubling allegation that Lott actually invented some of the survey data that support his more-guns/less-crime theory. Regardless of whether the data were faked, Lott’s admittedly intriguing hypothesis doesn’t seem to be true. When other scholars have tried to replicate his results, they found that right-to-carry laws simply don’t bring down crime.

reading this, i figured the case might hinge on the allegation of falsified data in the first sentence. instead, it came down to the meaning of replication in the last sentence. in truth, that last sentence is very close to my own reading of the literature — and my lecture descriptions of mr. lott’s (admittedly intriguing) more guns/less crime hypothesis. i’d joke that i’m tempted to sue professor levitt and mr. dubner for plagiarizing my lecture notes, but i suspect they’re in no mood for jokes about lawsuits.

in my view, we social scientists have dodged a real bullet on this one. were mr. lott to prevail in this case, the chilling effect on faculty speech would do the impossible: it would add a whole new level of weasel words to our literature reviews, rendering them even more boring and hesitant. they’d look something like the following:

“When certain other scholars may have tried to partially replicate his results, some found that in some cases right-to-carry laws sort of don’t significantly bring down some forms of crime. Or not.

in any case, justice evans’ brief and well-written opinion might make fine reading in a proseminar class on professional ethics. a few passages:

John Lott, an academic and economist, believes that his reputation was sullied by Freakonomics, the popular and off-beat book written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Lott’s name was mentioned in one paragraph of the 200-page book, and understood this passage to be an accusation of scholarly dishonesty. Offended, he filed suit against Levitt and HarperCollins, the publisher of the book, claiming that he had been defamed. The district court dismissed this claim after concluding that the passage could reasonably be read as a refutation of Lott’s controversial theories and not a swipe at his integrity. Lott now appeals…

Lott contends that Levitt’s refutation of his more-guns/less-crime hypothesis can be read only as a smear of his professional reputation and is therefore defamatory per se. Using an academic definition of “replicate,” Lott maintains that the passage means that others repeated, to a tee, his technical analysis but were unable to duplicate his results, suggesting that he either faked his data or performed his analysis incompetently…

The book relies on anecdotal evidence and describes with only the broadest strokes the statistical methodologies used. In this context, it is reasonable to read “replicate” in more generic terms. That is, the sentence could mean that scholars tried to reach the same conclusion as Lott, using different models, data, and assumptions, but could not do so. This reading does not imply that Lott falsified his results or was incompetent; instead, it suggests only that scholars have disagreed with Lott’s findings about the controversial relationship between guns and crime. By concluding that this more generic definition of “replicate” is reasonable, we are not assuming that the reader is a simpleton. After all, econometrics is far from conventional wisdom. We are, however, taking into account the context of the statement and acknowledging that the natural and obvious meaning of “replicate” can lie outside the realm of academia for this broadly appealing book.

dramatizing budget cuts

in light of minnesota’s anticipated $7 billion state deficit, agency heads and administrators are scrambling to minimize cuts to their units. mark brunswick of the strib reports on how the state department of corrections used dramatic video evidence to resist cuts:

Dealing with a current $10 million budget cut, Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian has made an impassioned pitch about the perils of slicing any more funding … In the last six years it has had $85 million in operational cuts and reduced staff by over 300 positions. Double bunking to save money at prisons in St. Cloud and Stillwater have proved problematic. Cuts in recreation time for prisoners has led to violence, according to the department… To make her point, Fabian presented video footage taken from prison security cameras, showing a guard head-butted unprovoked, another guard sprayed with hot water and honey and then assaulted, and inmate fights in cell block areas where responding guards are armed with nothing more than a chemical irritant…

while i’m upset to see such dehumanizing conditions for both correctional officers and inmates, part of me wishes that the university could safeguard our interests by showing legislators our own dramatic footage of overstuffed classrooms and crumbling infrastructure. nevertheless, my university experience also makes me somewhat sympathetic to corrections administrators — across-the-board freezes and budget cuts hurt lean units (such as MN DOC and my home department of sociology) more than fat ones. if a department is already running near peak efficiency, even a minor cut carves muscle and bone from the operation.

while i’ve argued that the u.s. overincarcerates its citizens, my home state continues to maintain a relatively lean prison system. this makes it difficult to cut costs (e.g., via early release programs) without jeopardizing public safety. with the national imprisonment rate at 509 per 100,000, most states are incarcerating hundreds or thousands of prisoners who might be good candidates for early release or community supervision. minnesota is currently reserving incarceration for the .19% of the population that tends to persist in more serious or frequent criminal activity — this is less than half the rate in neighboring wisconsin and less than one-fourth the rate of high-incarceration southern states.

while i’m sympathetic to the difficulties of cutting minnesota corrections expenditures below current levels, i’d hate to see any department’s video sway the legislators — especially in light of the governor’s proposed 11% cut to higher education, health care, and other state units.

united states executions, 1930-2008

via the u.s. department of justice, bureau of justice statistics.


thirty-seven u.s. inmates were executed in 2008, the fewest since 1994. nevertheless, 3,220 people remained on death row at year-end 2007. the latter number has also been declining since the mid-1990s, though at a far slower rate than executions. click the figures if you’d like to see the raw data.

pubcrim writing and arts residency

writingvia realcostofprisons:

Blue Mountain Center is pleased to invite you and your colleagues to apply to a special two week session, May 8-25, that will be dedicated to artists and writers who are working on material pertaining to incarceration: the system itself, the alternatives, the inmates, the stories, the data, etc. …

To apply, simply submit a letter postmarked by February 23 to:

Ben Strader
Blue Mountain Center PO Box 109
Blue Mountain Lake, NY 12812-0109
or to ben@bluemountaincenter.org.

The letter should include:
(A) a brief description of what you plan to work on at BMC,
(B) your history with the issue,
(C) a list of two references who are familiar with prison issues and with your work,
(D) A short (up to 10 pages) writing sample. Artists should send 5 jpeg slides on a CD.

(If you have been a Resident at BMC previously, it is not necessary to include C or D. Three pages is ample for A and B.)

15 people will be invited to participate in the session. We welcome applications from non-fiction and fiction writers, activists, poets, filmmakers, playwrights, and artists of all kinds. There is no application fee or cost for the program. Residents will work on their individual projects as they do during the regular season; but they will also be encouraged to share their perspectives, ideas and approaches with one another. Please go to www.bluemountaincenter.org for basic information about BMC’s Residency Program. This session and it’s application process are distinct from our regular residency program.