Author Archives: chris

Why Sex Offenders are Running for Office

Locked Out (creative commons image by Jared Rodriguez)

Locked Out (creative commons image by Jared Rodriguez)

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that a group of “sex offenders” are registering to vote and plan to run for elected office. I put “sex offenders” in quotations because these voters and office-seekers are not currently under supervision for any crime. Instead, they are “civilly committed,” which means that they have either already completed their criminal sentences or, as is the case for over 50 clients, they were never charged as an adult for a sex offense. Although they are euphemistically called “clients” rather than prisoners, most will likely be locked away forever.

How can we continue to lock someone up after they have done their time? The state Department of Corrections generally reviews those convicted of sex crimes at the end of their sentences, referring those deemed dangerous to county attorneys, who may then file a petition for commitment with the district courts. Although civil commitment is rare in many places, Minnesota does this a lot — there are currently about 700 such clients in two secure facilities in the state. How many are released? The program has been in operation for over 20 years, but only 2 people have ever been provisionally discharged from the program.

In a federal class action lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank has raised serious questions about the program’s constitutionality. To date, however, the residents/inmates have received little hope or relief and the trial has been pushed back until next year. Given the hyper-stigma surrounding sex offending, few brave souls will act or advocate on behalf of the people in the program. So, they are doing their best to advocate for themselves and to work within what is increasingly acknowledged as a broken system — exercising their rights to vote and seek office.

While the article by Chris Serres and Glenn Howatt contains a wealth of information, they omitted one other factoid that speaks to the program’s sustainability: according to the state Department of Human Services, the per diem cost of the program is $341. This is approximately $125,000 per inmate per year, or roughly four times the cost of the $86 per diem at the state’s correctional facilities. As law professor Eric Janus once put it, “The option of doing nothing would not be responsible from either a legal or fiscal perspective.”

Which Prisoners Get Visitors?

Prisoners who can maintain ties to people on the outside tend to do better — both while they’re incarcerated and after they’re released. A new Crime and Delinquency article by Joshua Cochran, Daniel Mears, and William Bales, however, shows relatively low rates of visitation. The study was based on a cohort of prisoners admitted into and released from Florida prisons from November 2000 to April 2002. On average, inmates only received 2.1 visits over the course of their entire incarceration period. Who got visitors? As the figure below shows, prisoners who are younger, white or Latino, and had been incarcerated less frequently tend to have more visits. Community factors also shaped visitation patterns: prisoners who come from high incarceration areas or communities with greater charitable activity also received more visits.  C&D14

There are some pretty big barriers to improving visitation rates, including: (1) distance (most inmates are housed more than 100 miles from home); (2) lack of transportation; (3) costs associated with missed work; and, (4) child care. While these are difficult obstacles to overcome, the authors conclude that corrections systems can take steps to reduce these barriers, such as housing inmates closer to their homes, making facilities and visiting hours more child-friendly, and reaching out to prisoners’ families regarding the importance of visitation, both before and during incarceration.

Real Gutter Stories

It takes courage to tell a big audience of strangers how your picture somehow ended up next to the headline “Drug Bust Nets Large Haul: Police Find Cocaine, Methamphetamine, and Viagra.” The excellent Life of the Law podcast team brought a series of such painfully honest and powerful stories to the stage this summer. These two are my favorites, from two outstanding young scholars and friends.

school crime and safety

Anyone interested in School Crime and Safety should check the new joint report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and National Center  for Education Statistics. I graphed a few of the statistics below, but there is a great wealth of information on teachers, bullying, weapons, and student perceptions of safety. Although any level of school violence is troubling, the report seems to offer more good news than bad. Total victimization rose from slightly from 2011-2012, but serious violent victimization (rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault) has been flat or declining at about 3.4 victimizations per 1,000 students. Moreover, indicators such as the percentage of students carrying a weapon to school are continuing to decline. SchoolVic

Elliot Rodger and Violence Against Women

RodgerShock, frustration, and rage. That’s our reaction to the hate-filled video record that Elliot Rodger left behind. The 22-year-old, believed to have killed 6 people in Santa Barbara last night, left behind a terrible internet trail.

I cannot and will not speculate about the “mind of the killer” in such cases, but I can offer a little perspective on the nature and social context of these acts. This sometimes entails showing how mass shootings (or school shootings) remain quite rare, or that crime rates have plummeted in the past 20 years. I won’t repeat those reassurances here, but will instead address the bald-faced misogyny and malice of the videos. It outrages us to see a person look into a camera and clearly state his hatred of women — and then, apparently, to make good on his dark promises. It also raises other awful questions. Are these sentiments generally held? If you scratch the surface, are there legions of others who would and could pursue “retribution” as Mr. Rodger did? Is serious violence against women on the rise?

Probably not. Rates of sexual violence in the United States, whether measured by arrest or victimization, have declined by over 50 percent over the last twenty years. As the figure shows, the rape and sexual assault victimization rate dropped  from over 4 per 1000 (age 12 and older) in 1993 to about 1.3 per 1000 in 2012.  And, if you add up all the intimate partner violence (including all rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault committed by spouses, boyfriends, or girlfriends), the rate has dropped from almost 10 per 1000 in 1994 to 3.2 per 1000 in 2012. The numbers below include male victims, but the story remains quite consistent when the analysis is limited to female victims.

RapeTrend14

Of course, misogyny and violence against women remain enormous social problems — on our college campuses and in the larger society. Moreover, the data at our disposal are often problematic and the recent trend is far less impressive than the big drop from 1993 to 2000. All that said, “retribution” videos and PUA threads shouldn’t obscure a basic social fact:  22-year-olds today are significantly less violent than 22-year-olds a generation ago.

for more on masculinity and mass violence, see There’s Research on That!

Alexes Harris on Monetary Sanctions — and More Crime on TSP

I hope folks are following some of the really powerful crim content on TSP these days.  To name just 5…

1. The Cruel Poverty of Monetary Sanctions by Alexes Harris — a terrific piece on prisoners and debt

2. A Crimmigration roundtable, with Tanya Golash-Boza, Ryan King, and Yolanda Vázquez

3. Debt and Darkness in Detroit by David Schalliol, on streetlights and fear of crime in a bankrupt city

4. A new Crime topics page to pull all this work together, edited by Sarah Lageson and Suzy McElrath

5. Crime and the Punished, our new book volume with WW Norton!

Productive Addicts and Harm Reduction

In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sad death, many are calling for various “harm reduction” approaches to substance use. Proponents of harm reduction have identified lots of ways to reduce the social and personal costs of drugs, but they often require us to shift our focus from the prevention of drug use itself to the prevention of harm. Resistance to such approaches often hinges on the notion that they somehow tolerate, facilitate, or even subsidize risky behavior.

This tension emerged clearly in my new article with Sarah Shannon in Social Problems. We re-analyzed an experimental jobs program that randomly assigned a basic low-wage work opportunity to long-term unemployed people as they left drug treatment. In some ways, the program worked beautifully. The job treatment group had significantly less crime and recidivism, especially for predatory economic crimes like robberies and burglaries. After 18 months, about 13 percent of the control group had been arrested for a new robbery or burglary, relative to only 7 percent of the treatment group. Put differently, 87 percent of those not offered the jobs survived a year and a half without such an arrest, relative to 93 percent of the treatment group who were offered jobs.

robbery

A randomized experiment that shows a 46 percent reduction in serious crime is a pretty big deal to criminologists, but the program has still been considered a failure. In part, this is because the “treatment” group who got the jobs relapsed to cocaine and heroin use at about the same rate as the control group. After 18 months, about 66 percent of the control group had not yet relapsed, relative to about 63 percent in the treatment group. So, there’s no evidence the program helped people avoid cocaine and heroin.

drugs

From an abstinence-only perspective, such programs look like failures. Nevertheless, even a crummy job and a few dollars clearly helped people avoid recidivism and improved the public safety of their communities. So, did the program work? From a harm reduction perspective, a jobs program for drug users surely “works” if it reduces crime and other harms, even if it doesn’t dent rates of cocaine or heroin use.

 

Productive Addicts and Harm Reduction: How Work Reduces Crime – But Not Drug Use

Christopher Uggen and Sarah K. S. Shannon
Social Problems
Vol. 61, No. 1 (February 2014) (pp. 105-130)

From the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal to the Job Corps of the Great Society era, employment programs have been advanced to fight poverty and social disorder. In today’s context of stubborn unemployment and neoliberal policy change, supported work programs are once more on the policy agenda. This article asks whether work reduces crime and drug use among heavy substance users. And, if so, whether it is the income from the job that makes a difference, or something else. Using the nation’s largest randomized job experiment, we first estimate the treatment effects of a basic work opportunity and then partition these effects into their economic and extra-economic components, using a logit decomposition technique generalized to event history analysis. We then interview young adults leaving drug treatment to learn whether and how they combine work with active substance use, elaborating the experiment’s implications. Although supported employment fails to reduce cocaine or heroin use, we find clear experimental evidence that a basic work opportunity reduces predatory economic crime, consistent with classic criminological theory and contemporary models of harm reduction. The rate of robbery and burglary arrests fell by approximately 46 percent for the work treatment group relative to the control group, with income accounting for a significant share of the effect.

We Are All Criminals

purseFew (if any) of us have abstained from crime completely. And recognizing our own criminality is often an important first step in understanding the situation of those who are caught and punished for crimes. I use self-report delinquency surveys to show this commonality to my students, but the traveling exhibit We Are All Criminals makes the point far more emphatically.

The multimedia project tells our stories — the millions of people who have committed felonies and misdemeanors but managed to avoid the stigma of a criminal record. Its architect is Emily Baxter, a visionary Minnesota attorney and Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at the Council on Crime and Justice. From the site:

Participants in We Are All Criminals tell stories of crimes they got away with… The participants are doctors and lawyers, social workers and students, retailers and retirees who consider how very different their lives could have been had they been caught. The photographs, while protecting participants’ identities, convey personality: each is taken in the participant’s home, office, crime scene, or neighborhood. The stories are of youth, boredom, intoxication, and porta potties. They are humorous, humiliating, and humbling in turn. They are privately held memories without public stigma; they are criminal histories without criminal records. 

We Are All Criminals seeks to challenge society’s perception of what it means to be a criminal and how much weight a record should be given, when truly – we are all criminals. But it is also a commentary on the disparate impact of our state’s policies, policing, and prosecution: many of the participants benefited from belonging to a class and race that is not overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Permanent and public criminal records perpetuate inequities, precluding thousands of Minnesotans from countless opportunities to move on and move up. We Are All Criminals questions the wisdom and fairness in those policies.

You can see much of the project online, attend one of the public events, or attend Ms. Baxter’s presentation at the American Society of Criminology meetings in Atlanta this November 23rd.

Robina Institute Research Fellows

RobinaRobina’s Sentencing Law and Policy Program Area is hiring two research fellows
The Robina Institute’s Sentencing Law and Policy Program Area (“SLP”) is one of three program areas within the Institute. SLP has recently received augmented funding from the Robina Foundation to work on four projects over the next 3-5 years in the fields of sentencing and corrections. The Institute’s sentencing programs are strongly interdisciplinary; accordingly, funding has been obtained to hire at least two research fellows, with complementary backgrounds (e.g., social science, law, or public policy).
A .pdf of the full job description can be downloaded HERE.TO APPLY CLICK HERE.

Labeling Matters

label_happyWhile many criminologists still use the term “offender,” I’ve tried to purge it from my writing. For me, at least, the “offender” label implies an inherent criminality, rather than a factual legal status. I’m heartened when fellow academics consider the stigmatizing consequences of the terms they use, but it is especially good news when the official labelmakers take steps in this direction.

As Chris Palmer of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports,

 The hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians who have served time in prison will no longer be referred to as “ex-offenders” in official city language, the mayor’s office announced Thursday. Instead, an ordinance will be introduced to call them “returning citizens.”

In a statement, Mayor Nutter said that the new term emphasizes reintegration, while ” ‘ex-offender’ carries with it a stigma which may increase the challenges these citizens face.”