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Public Criminology and the Social Media Echo Chamber

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When the news came from Ferguson on November 24th, it was hard to know what to do. Each of us possesses some pertinent expertise, whether we study violence, law, race, or criminal justice and injustice. But how and when should we engage? The streets were alive with protesters, police officers, and journalists. The President was calling for calm, which was itself a polarizing message. And Facebook feeds flowed with horrifying videos, rage, and invective, as many were “defriending” and “unfollowing” one another until their social networks were fully purged or converted.

Public scholars can and should step up in such highly-charged political moments, but there was little room to maneuver in those first few days. A dispassionate rendering of cold social facts – on the legal intricacies of grand jury indictment, for example – would ring hollow to those who saw the events in clear moral terms. A straightforward presentation of a pertinent research study – on the effectiveness of police body cameras, for example – would redirect energy and attention away from larger questions. And, to the extent we could actually penetrate the teeming information space, our statements would be reduced to 140-character factoids and channeled to those predisposed to agree with us already. How can we do good public work under such conditions?

In the tense days and nights after the indictment announcements, sociologists such as Michael Eric Dyson and Doug Hartmann made insightful big-picture contributions. Some of us wrote op-eds or gave interviews, others spoke at demonstrations or held teach-ins, and many more revamped our regular teaching and research activities. Like many of you, I found myself in several community forums, most recently with a sitting judge and a television reporter who would moderate our discussion. The talk had been scheduled for months as a wonky “nuts and bolts of justice reform” discussion, but the sudden surge of interest in crime and punishment reshaped our agenda. It would have been foolish, if not impossible, to ignore the protests and issues occurring right outside the door. Interest was high. We moved the event to a larger hall when we reached capacity and we recorded the proceedings for later broadcast. As I looked around the racially and socially diverse crowd of journalists, students, lawyers, teachers, police officers, formerly incarcerated people, and community members, I knew that dozens if not hundreds of my colleagues were similarly engaged in their communities. I claim no special expertise on these topics or events, but I share these personal reflections and suggestions in hopes of encouraging other section members who might wish to engage the public.

Position and Language

When speaking with a public audience, I try to remember that there are other experts in the room. For example, a middle-aged white guy like me has little authority or legitimacy regarding the subjective experience of interacting with police as a young African American in the central city. Put simply, many in attendance did not want or need me to lecture to them about how their communities are policed. So my job was to give due attention to race and justice while also acknowledging the real limits of my perspective and the research evidence I would cite. Thinking a personal story might help, I opened by acknowledging the #BlackLivesMatter and #CrimingWhileWhite campaigns and briefly noting my own juvenile arrests – and how the “judicious and humane discretion” of three Minnesota police officers was so important in my life that I thanked them by name in my dissertation acknowledgements. After repeated exposure to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner videos, few in the audience would have argued that men of color have been getting the same breaks that I received. As importantly, few would have argued against providing the same sort of breaks to all young people. Yet framing the issue in this way also helped make such points without bashing or demonizing those police officers – several of them my former students — who showed up at the forum.

This was not the night for a PowerPoint presentation, as personal stories are often more effective than statistics in helping audiences evaluate and reframe their image of crime and justice. I also called out Emily Baxter’s WeAreAllCriminals.com. Using evocative images and personal accounts, WAAC shows the blurriness of the criminal/non-criminal distinction. Terminology plays a similar role in public scholarship, where the wrong descriptor can quickly alienate half the audience. I try to use simple, neutral language to facilitate discussion, addressing people formally (e.g., as Ms. Johnson or Judge Castro, rather than as Angie or Lenny). In such forums, identifiers such as “police officer” or “formerly incarcerated” are more helpful and precise than terms like “cop” and “offender.”

Content and Context

Academics sometimes try to teach a whole semester’s worth of material in an hour, which dramatically exceeds anyone’s ability to process new information. I try to identify three to five key points and to make sure that they are well-supported in the literature. That is, that they are “near-consensus” areas in our field that the public might not yet appreciate. That night, I called out: (1) Tom Tyler’s work on procedural justice, and how treating people with dignity and respect engenders greater trust and legitimacy, regardless of the outcome of a citizen’s encounter with the criminal justice system; (2) social-psychological research on implicit bias, which shows that the great majority of Americans, including police officers and professors, hold unconscious group-based biases that affect our behavior; (3) a few well-chosen statistics on the basic race-specific rates of arrest and incarceration in our community; and, (4) the proportion of these arrests that are for low-level offenses that rarely result in prosecution or conviction. Local evidence is critical because the audience is far more engaged in practices close to home (and more likely to dismiss or discount bad things that happen elsewhere). Public criminology can also provide an important myth-busting function in such cases. For me, this meant calling out states like Minnesota and Wisconsin for having the nation’s worst racial disparities in correctional populations – a difficult but essential truth for the audience to grasp. Context is also important for drawing local, national, and international comparisons. For example, I explained how my home state was admirably stingy with prison beds, but profligate in putting people on very long probation terms.

Hope and Questions

Public events, to a far greater extent than academic talks, should leave the audience with a sense of efficacy, or at least hope for real change. I made sure to note that after four decades of rising incarceration, that criminal punishment had finally begun a modest decline. And, of course, that our community and the nation had enjoyed a 50 percent crime drop over the past two decades. To put this drop in perspective, I explained how this meant a decline from 100 Minneapolis murders in 1995 to about 40 the past few years. Nationally, I pointed to bipartisan reform efforts such as the REDEEM Act, cosponsored by Senators Corey Booker and Rand Paul. Locally, I identified bipartisan reforms such as the new Minnesota expungement law and a new ban-the-box provision that bars organizations from asking about criminal records on job applications, but permits them to inquire at the interview stage. I also tackled issues in my own area of research expertise, including local challenges to felon disenfranchisement and the broader problem of “piling on” so many collateral sanctions that they become criminogenic. In particular, I described recent testimony on behalf of six “model probationers,” who were hauled into court and charged with new felonies because they had voted while still “on paper.” A broad coalition was assembling to challenge the voting ban (including the district attorney charged who prosecuted those cases) and several audience members approached me after the event to ask how they could get involved. Finally, I spoke about the costs of diminished trust in the criminal justice system, including Todd Clear and Natasha Frost’s argument that the discretion to make back-end sentencing adjustments can help curb excess or gratuitous punishment – even, or especially, for those serving long sentences for violent crimes.

Public events work best when audience members have a chance to engage the speakers, and we received an impressive range of audience questions that evening. When asked about the prospects for a new social movement around criminal justice reform, I could applaud the efforts of students — and the members of this section — to shine a brighter light on crime, law, and justice in the contemporary United States. As a medical school colleague is fond of saying, sunshine can be a marvelous disinfectant. So too can public criminology.

For further reading, see Doug Hartmann’s Ferguson, the Morning After; Insights on Crime and Punishment from a Judge and a Sociologist, and Public Criminologies (with Michelle Inderbitzin).

Reprinted from Crime, Law & Deviance News, FALL/WINTER 2014 -2015
Newsletter for the Crime, Law & Deviance section of the American Sociological Association

The 1 in 100 Continues to Grow

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Once again, my Inside-Out students from Oregon State University and Oregon State Penitentiary have contributed thoughtful, insightful, and sometimes painful submissions to the We are the 1 in 100 website, representing the 1 in 100 people in the United States who are currently behind bars, and the many, many more people in the community who care about them and are affected by mass incarceration.

I have a personal stake, here – I’m fond of these faces and proud of their work and their courage – but, if you check out the site (representing 3 years and 7 different college classes), I think you will find it a moving and educational experience, well worth your time.

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.”

Juvenile Lifers and New Beginnings

marc_tumblr 2013 (2)IMG_2356 (2) These two. Smart, funny, focused. Both were convicted of committing very serious crimes before they were 16 years old. Both spent time in a youth correctional facility before being transferred to the Department of Corrections where each served more than a decade in a maximum-security prison. Each of them has spent more of his life behind bars than in the community.  Yet, their time in prison was not wasted time; they took advantage of opportunities to learn and to grow in positive directions.  As I have written before, aging in prison is inevitable, growth is not.  These two chose to use the time to cultivate good choices and good habits: they grew and matured. While in prison they became students, citizens, philanthropists, and leaders, volunteering their time and best efforts to help at-risk and troubled youth.

They have worked hard from within prison to try to better their communities, both inside and outside of the prison walls. I’m happy today that both of these men will leave the prison behind them within the next few days and weeks – returning to society as full grown men. They will get another chance at life in the community, carrying within them hard-earned compassion and wisdom. Selfishly, I’ll miss interacting with them on a regular basis. They have been both students and teachers to me, and over the past several years we’ve shared some incredible conversations, projects, and laughs.

Welcome home, guys. One of you will get out in the next couple of days, and the other will follow shortly thereafter. Without internet access, you can’t yet read this post, but I wanted to put it out there anyways. I have no doubt that you will each prove to the world that it is possible to have positive, meaningful, and happy lives after growing up in prison. You’ve earned that chance.

(photos from We are the 1 in 100 site: http://iam1in100.tumblr.com/)

On Second Looks, Second Chances, and the Possibility of Redemption

shawshank redemptionI spent time in Southern Oregon last week to testify in a rare “second look” hearing. “Second looks” are possible in Oregon for some juvenile offenders (generally under the age of 15 at the time of the crime) at the midway point in their sentence in order to review the individual’s progress and reevaluate his/her sentences. The petitioner was 14 years old at the time of the crime and was sentenced to 30 years to life. He has served 16 years, literally growing up behind bars and becoming a real leader within the prison, with many positive accomplishments in that difficult setting. The judge was there to weigh evidence of the young man’s growth, progress, and accomplishments in the hearing and then wield the power to decide whether the young man would be paroled to the community or simply returned back to the prison to continue his sentence. Extremely high stakes for the petitioner, obviously, and the case would likely set precedent for any future second look cases in Oregon.

Thursday was a full day of testimony. It was nice to have friends (old and new) in the courthouse to share the time with as we waited to testify. The day started with opening statements/arguments/remarks, and then moved onto video-conference testimony from five different staff members from the Department of Corrections. I was one of the first to testify in person; I have worked closely with the petitioner and spent time with him in a number of groups and settings within the prison over the past 3 years.  He has been my student, my teaching assistant, the leader of inmate clubs that I work with, and a terrific collaborator on several different projects.  Because I had a lot of good things to say about him, I also had one of the tougher – and more sexist/offensive – cross-exams from the District Attorney. After my testimony, I was able to stay in the courtroom and be there for testimony by three other volunteers who teach and lead programs in the prison, the psychologist who conducted an in-depth evaluation of the petitioner over the last year (she was amazing in the cross examination!), two former prisoners who braved coming back into court for a man they knew inside and consider a friend, and the petitioner, himself. It was an extremely emotional day for everyone in the room, and I imagine I will be processing the experience for some time to come. The hearing was carried over into the next day in order for the judge to hear from a lawyer representing the victim’s family and to hear closing statements from both sides.

I had thought the judge would need time to reflect on all of the testimony, written statements and evidence, and to review the particular statutes and legal issues with second looks for juvenile offenders. We were told it could be a few days or weeks before the ruling. I teetered between being hopeful and trying not to get my hopes up. The testimonies had been consistent and compelling, and the evidence was overwhelming that the petitioner has become a model citizen and a leader in prison. He has grown into a very different man at age 30 than the boy he was at 14. The real question that remained was whether the judge would prioritize ideals of retribution and punishment over redemption and possibility.

I was very pleasantly surprised (this is an understatement) when the judge made his ruling from the bench after the closing arguments.  I had driven back to my home town in Corvallis the night before, and I was not able to be in the courtroom for the decision.  Instead, one of the petitioner’s lawyers sent me a two word email message: “We won.”

We won. The judge ruled that the young man be released. It was a huge, huge victory for the young man, his family and friends, and the belief in redemption and possibility.

The young man will be released from prison within 45 days and will now be under community supervision, reporting weekly to a parole officer and following all mandates. Here are a few comments from the judge in explaining his ruling on this case:

The judge said the crime was senseless, monstrous, and cold-blooded, but decided after hearing from a string of character witnesses that the young man was reformed. “I believe society will be better off returning him to the community,” the judge said at the conclusion of the hearing.

The judge detailed the young man’s progress in prison as a role model, teaching assistant, accomplished worker and leader of the prison’s Lifer’s Club.

“I can only conclude he is unique,” the judge said. “He’s remarkable with regard to the efforts he’s made to make himself a better person.”

“For the juveniles still in prison,” the judge also said, “what kind of message would be sent to them if this young man is not granted this. If not him, who would be eligible?”

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.

The Best Days Inside are Family Days

field dayMy Spring 2014 Inside-Out class managed another first – my students were able to plan and host a Family Field Day for youth in the Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility on Saturday.  As a service-learning project for our shared college class, students from Hillcrest and Oregon State University planned a day where youth and their families could be outside, play games together, and enjoy more freedom of movement than normal visits in the facility allow.

Family members were invited to either a morning session or an afternoon session, and students from the class and volunteers from OSU manned stations with the following activities: face painting; cookie decorating and eating; potato sack races; water balloon tosses; basketball; and soccer.  A lot of little kids – the children, siblings, or nieces and nephews of the young men of Hillcrest – were able to attend the event, and they seemed to have a great time playing and running around the facility’s front greens.

CIMG3536CIMG3534Students from the Inside-Out class also hosted a fundraiser during our Family Field Day, selling lunches of BBQ cheeseburgers, potato or macaroni salad, potato chips, and pink lemonade for $5 per person.  The students decided that the funds raised would be equally split between a Hillcrest College Scholarship Fund and a donation to a community group that works with at-risk youth in Portland, Oregon.  This fits perfectly with our class discussions on prevention and rehabilitation, and our guests seemed happy to support the cause.  I haven’t seen the final numbers yet, but I think the BBQ fundraiser (also held during regular visiting hours on Sunday) raised in the neighborhood of $1000.  Amazing.

A related service-learning project that my students are continuing to work on is to create a child-friendly space for families visiting at Hillcrest.  The administrators have given us a fairly large room to work with, and my students are helping to clean it out, paint it (including the use of chalkboard paint so kids can draw on the walls), decorate it, and furnish it with toys so that kids visiting the young men of Hillcrest have a place to be active and play together.  We are planning a grand opening of the kids’ room on Father’s Day.  Stay tuned – I’ll try to post photos!

Obviously to make any and all of this possible, we have had – and continue to have – tremendous support from the administrators and staff at Hillcrest and from the larger Oregon Youth Authority.  The Hillcrest administrators are pretty wonderful in letting my students and I pursue our ideas and projects.  And, to their great credit, my students came with positive attitudes and enthusiasm all quarter long, and we accomplished a great deal in a 10-week class.

I’m sad to see this class ending, but I know our efforts have made a lasting impact at Hillcrest and on each of us who had the privilege of participating in this unique and fun experience.

More photos from We are the 1 in 100

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Representing the 1 in 100 Americans behind bars and those in the community who care about them and are affected by these incredible numbers, I ask my students in every Inside-Out course that I teach to share one key thought with the larger public.  I’ve shared photos from my previous Inside-Out classes on this Public Criminology blog, and will continue to do so as students put time and care into their messages.  This is the first time I’ve been able to put up photos of young men in the youth correctional facility.  I think the first photo here is all youth and vulnerability and this particular young man makes his case eloquently.  Please visit the We are the 1 in 100 tumblr site to see many more photos and sentiments of those inside and outside of correctional facilities.  I invite you also to submit your own photo.

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.

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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!