Monthly Archives: March 2009

(still) under the bridge

two years after the amazing cnn report below, the washington post reports that 52 sex offenders are living under a miami bridge.

“In Miami-Dade County, such people must live at least 2,500 feet from places children gather, making only a handful of areas _ generally out of an offender’s price range _ possible homes. … Many offenders have family or friends who would house them but can’t because they live too close to a school or playground or bus stop. … The state says offenders found the bridge because it was among the few covered places in compliance with the local ordinances. Officials say probation officers haven’t suggested it outright, though some residents dispute that.”

the least corrupt u.s. senator?

in harvard’s applied statistics workshop, gabriel lenz will be presenting a clever paper (with kevin lim) on corruption and wealth accumulation in congress. according to the abstract, u.s. representatives do not appear to get significantly richer than other citizens — at least not during their terms in office. their wealth indeed grows faster than that of other citizens, but the differences wash out when a statistical matching strategy (some sort of propensity-score method, i assume) is applied.

the authors interpret the results as providing evidence against aggregate-level corruption in the u.s. house. the paper calls to mind the case of minnesota’s (former?) u.s. senator norm coleman, whose financial difficulties have been well-documented. if senators leave office poorer than when they entered, should this be taken as evidence against their (individual-level) corruption?

while senator coleman has earned a good living in office, his $180k annual salary apparently hasn’t provided the financial wherewithal to sustain his washington and st. paul lifestyle. i was initially surprised to learn that the senator had refinanced his house 14 times in 12 years, that he had been living in a friend and donor’s washington basement, and that even his clothes were sometimes purchased by donors.

but now i see this difficulties as virtues. senator coleman is the main (if not sole) breadwinner in his family, he’s got a couple kids near college age, and, in terms of relative deprivation, he surely ranks among the least-wealthy senators in congress. my guess is that the senator has probably lived above his means — those donated suits apparently came from nieman-marcus rather than men’s wearhouse — but in some ways his financial problems simply mirror those of other americans.

though i’ve disagreed with senator coleman on many issues over the years, i’d have to grant that there’s no evidence he has accumulated great personal wealth by cashing in on his position. the aggregate-level argument by professors lenz and lim, equating wealth and corruption, would seem to imply some sort of corollary about poverty and virtue. by this logic i can almost talk myself into believing that a penny-ante misdeed, such as failing to pay one’s utility bill, is evidence that one is successfully resisting the temptations to sell out on a major scale.

while i’m definitely intrigued by the study, i’d ask a few more questions about the basic relationship before i went that far: (1) how well is wealth measured (or hidden) among the representatives and in the comparison sample? (2) shouldn’t we really expect about a five-year lagged effect, in which government service leads to greater wealth accumulation after one leaves office? and, more personally, (3) would the authors extend their argument to equate personal wealth with corruption for academic department chairs?

love thy neighbor – unless he is a convict

love_thy_neighborwhere do you go to start a new life after 35 years in prison?  is it possible to pay the price for your crimes and to start again with a clean slate?  in this age of community notification, apparently not.

the new york times reported this story out of chichester, new hampshire:

A pastor in this quiet, picturesque New England town thought he was doing the Christian thing when he took in a convicted child killer who had served his time but had nowhere to go. But some neighbors of the Rev. David Pinckney vehemently disagree, one even threatening to burn his house down after officials could find no one else willing to take 60-year-old Raymond Guay.

the neighborhood is in an uproar and  town leaders are planning to ask state and federal officials to remove guay from the town.  rev. pinckney, for his part, is quite literally practicing what he preaches.  acting on faith, he has brought guay into his home to stay with him, his wife, and their four children, ages 13-18, for the next two months.

conrad mandsager, a man who formerly worked for prison fellowship added this perspective to the story:

Mandsager said he took in a violent criminal to live with his family of five in 1988. Sentenced for attempted murder and kept in solitary confinement for his role in a prison riot, the man turned his life around while living with Mandsager and working at a job through the Prison Fellowship, Mandsager said.

He disagrees with Chichester officials who say Guay would do better in a city with more jobs and other resources.

”You create more opportunities for problems by putting (convicts) in a larger city where there’s no accountability,” Mandsager said. He expects better results in a home like Pinckney’s, ”where there’s accountability and care and love for the guy.”

i hope there is a safe and happy ending to this story and that no one burns the reverend’s house down.

wild horses and second chances

wild_horsespar38442image3702001gifprograms in which inmates work with dogs are fairly common and seem to benefit all involved, as both the animals and humans learn new skills and also learn to trust one another. project pooch is a local example in oregon; at maclaren youth correctional facility incarcerated youths work with rescued shelter dogs, training them to be canine good citizens and ready for adoption in permanent, loving homes. if you read the history of some of the dogs available for adoption, you’ll see that some of these animals were badly abused and face physical and emotional challenges. with the help of their young trainers, they are now doing great. and, it seems to be a reciprocal relationship — the trainers take enormous pride in their dog friends. i visited maclaren last summer and got to meet some of the young men and the dogs they were working with — it was a relatively happy space in a high-security juvenile prison.

the story that caught my eye this week was a similar program where inmates in colorado are working to prepare wild mustangs for private adoption and for use by the u.s. border patrol. here is the summary of the article:

The Wild Horse Inmate Program in Colorado prepares mustangs for private adoption and for use by the U.S. Border Patrol. Colorado inmates start out cleaning stalls and trimming hooves and can graduate to become full-fledged horse trainers. The recidivism rate for horse trainers is half the national rate of 68 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections. “This program has taught me patience, perseverance,” said one inmate.

apparently, the bureau of land management “rounds up” 6,500 wild mustangs a year to control the population on the open range. and while adoption of mustangs that are not saddle-trained is declining, demand for saddle-broken horses is high.

i always like these programs. they are certainly about building skills, responsibility, and trust, but, they also seem to offer second chances, for both the animals and their inmate trainers. given how hard second chances are to come by for abandoned animals and incarcerated individuals, i am encouraged by the efforts to build these partnerships.

The Illusions of Control

At what point does more punishment reduce rather than enhance public safety?

I teach a couple of courses on the sociology of punishment and I usually end them with some variant of the above question. There are a number of answers to it — punishment policy with respect to sex offenders is an obvious example. I gave this lecture a few nights ago and was deeply saddened to see this story this morning. A young girl was allegedly assaulted and killed by a homeless sex offender living in a field near her home. What could we have done to prevent this?

We could have required him to register as a sex offender so that the girl’s parents knew his whereabouts. We could have monitored him with a GPS tracking unit. We could better assess the likelihood that he was dangerous and monitored him more closely. We could pass a law restricting where sex offenders can live and work to keep them away from children.

Except… all of these things were done.

Darrin Sanford, who has reportedly confessed to the crime, was registered as a Level 3 sex offender (denoting him most likely to re-offend). He was listed as homeless in the sex offender registry. The young woman’s parents were aware of the transients spending time in the field nearby and had warned her of the danger, specifically highlighting sexual assault as a risk. Sanford was required to check in daily with a probation agent (and did so in the days surrounding the girl’s murder). Perhaps most disturbing, Sanford was wearing a GPS monitor when he committed the crime.

Sanford was subject to all of the punishment and control we heap on sex offenders. But, really, what do these sorts of policies do? Do they make us any safer?

GPS tracking is notoriously difficult to implement and, while it may help convict offenders after a crime has been committed, there is not a lot of evidence that it prevents crime in the first place. Laws restricting where sex offenders can live have been successful in increasing the number of sex offenders who are homeless and concentrating them in particular apartment buildings. Homeless sex offenders are harder to monitor and, at the very least, a bunch of sex offenders living together is not a good strategy for public safety. What of the public registries? There is good evidence that sex offender registries are filled with inaccuracies because law enforcement has too few agents and too few dollars to keeps tabs on so many sex offenders. I also worry that our emphasis on labeling sex offenders publicly makes it more likely that they will re-offend.

All of this adds up to the illusion of control over sex offenders, not control itself, and a public that merely feels more safe in the presence of such policies. Feeling safe is good — being safe probably a bit better.

control and spending in pew’s “1-in-31″ report

the new pew foundation report, one in 31, the long reach of corrections, assembles some fascinating state-level data. below, i’ve graphed the “adult correctional control rates” for the 50 states. i’ve shaded some of the midwestern states red for easy comparability. notice how minnesota has a very high rate of correctional control? about 4% of the adult population is under supervision — mostly being supervised in the community while serving probation sentences.

the next figure is based on the spending information in the pew report, taking corrections spending as a percentage of state general fund expenditures. although our correctional control rate is high, minnesota pays relatively little on corrections because probation is cheap relative to prisons (pew reports that about 82 percent of total corrections spending goes to prisons). i can’t vouch for the expenditure data here, since i haven’t used it or vetted it, but the correctional control figures look right to me. michigan is clearly an outlier, but i think this is due to data comparability problems (education spending is excluded from the gdp denominator).


finally, i made a little scatterplot showing the correlation between spending as a percentage of state gdp and overall correctional control. i dropped michigan from the figure, but ran the correlation with and without it.

i didn’t label every state, but you can get a sense for the overall patterns. minnesota (and alabama?) spend little, but have moderate to high control rates. georgia supervises a surprising 8 percent of the adult population, but spends a percentage of gdp comparable to low-control states like iowa or illinois. florida, arizona, and oregon all spend a great deal relative to their rates of correctional control. new hampshire and maine have few people under control, but still spend a fair percentage of state resources on them.

i should repeat the caveat that i haven’t vetted these data, so i’m not sure whether we’ve really got reliable and valid information on all variables, or whether the information is consistently reported across states. nevertheless, i very much appreciate the sorts of questions that the pew report is raising. at minimum, it should spur some productive discussions about policy choices.

blue laws

as the recession deepens, i’ve heard more about rolling back those “blue laws” that ban sunday shopping for automobiles, alcohol, and other commodities. because blue laws have ancient roots, researchers focus on accounting for their (putatively anachronistic) persistence as well as their passage.

i learned via time and reusse that economics professor david laband has published a monograph on blue laws, tying their demise to a long-term rise in female labor force participation and, more immediately, to economic contraction:

“[Sunday sales legislation] always comes bubbling up when the economy goes south,” says David Laband, an Auburn University economics professor who authored Blue Laws: The History, Economics, and Politics of Sunday-Closing Laws. Blue laws, which restrict shopping of any kind on Sunday, date back to the colonial era, Laband says. However, those laws gradually died off as economic forces made some states realize that they could stand to gain by having stores open on Sunday. For example, the entry of women into the workforce in World War II made weekend shopping a necessity.
“Slowly and systematically we’ve seen these laws lifted in past century, even more so when there has been an economic downturn,” Laband says. “States realize that consumers will migrate to a place where they can buy what they want. And whatever their reasons are for not wanting to sell on Sunday, these states realize they’re paying a price for it in foregone tax revenues. So once the economy goes bad, then the cost of their policies are apparent to them.”

i like the labor force and economic strain argument, though i suspect that many sociologists would also point to urbanization and shifts in religiosity to account for the demise of blue laws.

fed gazette piece on recession and crime

i’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately on crime and unemployment, most recently with mara gottfried and ruben rosario in the pioneer press. my research and reading of the literature suggests that there is a link, but the relationship is generally small in magnitude, crime-specific, and with a tricky lag structure. certainly few people will immediately “turn to crime” when they lose their jobs. nevertheless, a small change in the unemployment rate has big effects for people leaving jail or prison — they are always last in line for jobs, but during recessions there are a whole bunch more people in front of them.

the charts below come from a recent interview with doug clement of the minneapolis fed’s fed gazette. the first one shows property crime rates for the district’s five states during recession and non-recession periods. there appears to be a blip upward during the (blue-shaded) recession months, but one can find recessions during both high-crime and low-crime periods.
after briefly reviewing the economics and crime literature, mr. clement and fed colleagues estimated a county-level fixed effects model of unemployment and crime in the ninth district. though the study was not peer-reviewed and the authors list some standard caveats, their conclusions are generally consistent with the literature:

Unemployment rates are positively related to crime, but they don’t seem to have much explanatory power. Numbers of police per capita had no apparent association, but clearance rates did. More crime was likely in counties with higher fractions of young people. Spending on education was negatively linked with crime, indicating that schooling may reduce the relative appeal of crime.

i’ve been struck lately by the divergence between minnesota and wisconsin in incarceration rates, so the chart below caught my eye. while every state in the district is well below u.s. averages, minnesota and north dakota have the lowest incarceration rates in the nation.

even among five “low-incarceration” states, two patterns emerge quite distinctly: minnesota and north dakota track closely, on the one hand, versus montana, wisconsin, and south dakota on the other. i’m curious about the legal, political, and institutional reasons for the differences, but won’t offer any hypotheses until they’re at least half-baked.

literature as a lifeline

price-190how i do love this story! an essay in the sunday new york times profiles a program where convicted criminals are granted probation in exchange for full participation in six twice-monthly seminars on literature. the offenders, along with judges, probation officers, an english professor, and a graduate student discuss fiction, memoirs, and poems, finding universal questions and important life lessons in the pages of the books they are assigned.

the program, changing lives through literature, is now in nine states and boasts a recidivism rate of less than 20 percent. the website offers advice on how to start your own program, texts to use, even lesson plans. i really like the fact that judges and probation officers read the books, attend the meetings, and join the conversation. in some ways this program reminds of inside-out, where we take our classes into prisons and university students and inmates share perspectives and learn the material of a college course together. it’s an amazing experience and really speaks to the transformative power of education and open minds.

i’m working on building literacy programs for adult men and their children at the oregon state penitentiary, and for young women in oregon’s primary juvenile correctional facility for girls. i’ve applied for grants and been promised funding from different sources to get the projects rolling, but have felt stymied in my struggles to fight through the bureaucracy and the inertia and get buy-in from potential participants.

the essay in the times reminds me that it’s worth it. words have power. stories have power. shared experiences bring very different people together. it’s worth the effort to bring literature into the lives of offenders. it may even open whole new worlds for them.