Category Archives: violence

Am I Troy Davis?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Georgia is set to execute a man that many people believe is innocent in a little less than an hour. I’ll leave the question of innocence to others, as the case has been widely detailed in numerous outlets, except to say that I think he has one of the better cases for reasonable doubt in the absence of DNA that I have seen. Putting that (important) question aside, I am struck by the ‘I Am Troy Davis’ campaign in support of clemency. On YouTube, in the media, at protests, on twitter and facebook, death penalty opponents (or Troy Davis supporters — it’s interesting to note how many death penalty advocates support clemency in this case) are shouting/wearing “I Am Troy Davis,” the implication being that this miscarriage of justice could happen to anyone. While I admire the organizations working on behalf of Mr. Davis, the simplicity of the campaign generally, and the empathy implied by its message, I wonder if it leads us away from a useful discussion. Some thoughts:

  • Let’s assume Davis is innocent. I am not Troy Davis and this would never happen to me — I am a white, highly educated woman who comes from a privileged background. There are few (none?) on death row who even remotely look like me. While I might post ‘I Am Troy’ on my facebook page, do I really believe that this could happen to me?
  • That a good predictor of eyewitness misidentification is whether or not the witness and suspect are of the same race seems relevant here (mistaken identification is the most common cause of convictions overturned with DNA evidence). Again, my race, class, and gender is an extremely good predictor not just of whether I will commit a crime but also of whether I will be erroneously convicted of one.
  • It is often the case that convicted innocents have lengthy prior criminal records (though not in the case of Troy Davis, which may have something to do with the attention his case has received). A friend of mine once said to me, regarding the recent execution of an arguably innocent man in Texas, “Well, he may not have done that but he certainly did a whole lot of other things.” I suppose (hope?) he was only half serious but it occurred to me that he had made a telling point — from his point of view, if you can demonstrate a pattern of bad behavior, it begins to matter less if the person being executed did the particular crime we’re killing him for and more if we can demonstrate a pattern of evil-doing. It also tends to get in the way of feeling empathy for a death row inmate, innocent or not.
  • Related to above, arguing that any one of us could be innocently caught up in the system is probably an unsuccessful strategy for the people whose minds you are trying to change. At the end of the day, very few of us are Troy Davis and those who are will rarely be in a position to offer clemency.

Perhaps I’m wrong on all of this but as I watch the discussion of the case, I think the  tougher long-term conversation to be had is why this happens to the Troy Davis’ of the world and not how it could happen to any of us.

Judging Change

I spent eight hours with our state’s parole board yesterday.  I sat in on two “Murder Review” hearings, the stated purpose of which is to:  “determine whether or not the inmate is likely to be rehabilitated within a reasonable period of time so that the offender’s sentence may be converted to life with the possibility of parole, post-prison supervision, or work release.” 

The individuals in both of these cases were charged with aggravated murder; for both of them the question was whether they could prove themselves “rehabilitatable” so that they might have the possibility of parole at a future date.  One has at least 9 more years to serve on the mandatory part of his sentence before he can even be considered for release; the other is nearly 70 years old and is hoping for a chance to re-connect with family on the outside rather than die in prison.

The circumstance of the cases were quite different, and so were the hearings.  I’ll focus on the first, though, because it raises some difficult moral, ethical, and behavioral questions.  The first man presented over 100 pages of records, proof, and testimony that he has worked hard in his 20-years in prison to change and grow.  He has “programmed” persistently and thoroughly, participating in many educational and cognitive courses and experiences over the years.  His crime was a truly horrifying case of domestic violence – there really is no excuse for that crime and no making up for it, and the man acknowledges that.  Members of the victim’s family came to testify at the hearing, and their grief and pain was readily apparent.  They fear his possible release 10 or more years in the future, and they hope that he will serve natural life in prison.   The district attorney who attended the hearing called this man “a monster” and also asked that he be found “not likely to be rehabilitated in a reasonable amount of time.”

I was very impressed with the members of the parole board.  They had clearly done their homework in preparing for the hearings, and they patiently listened to testimony and took notes for the 8+ hours of these hearings, not even taking a break for lunch.  After the testimony of the inmates and their attorneys, they asked careful, thoughtful, and very probing questions, pushing the inmates to look deeper within themselves to answer the difficult questions.  Being a member of the parole board must be a thankless job – I doubt they get much credit for giving second (or third, or fourth) chances, but they undoubtedly face a great deal of public scrutiny and criticism should a release decision turn out badly.

The decisions will come later after the parole board has time to review and reflect on the evidence presented.  But here is the question: how can and should we judge change?  Even if an inmate has turned his life around in prison, does he deserve another chance at life in the community?  He can’t change the circumstances of his crime, but if he really has changed himself, is that enough?  Should it be?  How much weight should the victims’ fear, grief, and pain hold in parole decisions?  Can we ever really know if an inmate is “rehabilitated” enough or if he is just a master manipulator as the victims and prosecutors believe and claim?  Is it worth the risk to grant even the possibility of parole?

Big questions.  I don’t have any clear answers at this point, but I definitely came away from the hearings with a lot to think about…

More Immigrants=Less Crime

And the award for timeliest social science research goes to… Tim Wadsworth of UC Boulder. In the wake of Arizona’s passage of SB1070, the toughest state ban on illegal immigration to date, Wadsworth’s research finds that cities with the largest increases in immigrants from 1990-2000 experienced the largest reductions in violent crime. Wadsworth tests an earlier argument made in Contexts (and elsewhere) by Rob Sampson of Harvard. The possible explanations for the ‘more immigrants and less crime’ connection are intriguing — the US may benefit as those with strong work ethics and perseverance select into this country, immigrants tend to move into disadvantaged neighborhoods and prevent them from becoming worse, and immigrants bring with them values that lead to more neighborhood cohesion and less crime. Work in this area is hampered by significant data problems, especially with respect to illegal immigrants (who don’t tend to volunteer their status and are difficult to find) but Sampson and Wadsworth’s findings certainly challenge the prevailing notion that ‘immigrant’ and ‘criminal’ are roles that often/usually/typically go together.

The scholarly research can be found here (gated) and the Newsweek article is here.

OJ’s Sentence Length

OJ Simpson was sentenced to at least 15 years in prison today for armed robbery, kidnapping, burglary, and assorted other charges. He would become eligible for parole in nine years. The judge specifically said that the sentence did not account for past events, most likely a reference to Simpson’s 1995 acquittal in the death of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman. I wondered how his sentence compares to others…

At first glance, data from the US Sentencing Commission and the Bureau of Justice Statistics on State Court Processing suggests that OJ’s sentence is a long one. For those with a most serious conviction offense of robbery, the mean maximum sentence length ranges from a little less than six years to a little more than eight years, far less than the 15 years OJ was given. OJ’s sentence also seems long in light of his short criminal history, err conviction record. As far as I know, his only prior conviction is a no contest plea in a domestic violence case involving Nicole Brown Simpson and some tax evasion judgments.

OJ also appears to have paid the price for not pleading guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. Convicted robbers who go to trial are sentenced to an average fourteen years in prison while those who plead guilty are sentenced to just over seven years.

Much of the roughly seven year gap in OJ’s sentence relative to the average convicted robber is likely due to the included kidnapping and burglary charges. BJS data doesn’t include information on average sentences for kidnapping but I suspect they are not short but not overly long either (other sources suggest about 3-5 years in most cases) nor does it allow for separation of armed robberies from others. Burglary will get you almost five years in prison on its own. And, being a black male robber as opposed to a white male robber will get you a year more in prison.

Still, I’d bet burglary and robbery often go together and OJ’s sentence is more than double those whose most serious offense was robbery AND had convictions of at least three or more felonies surrounding the same criminal event.

OJ’s sentence doesn’t appear to be improperly long but he certainly wasn’t given any breaks by the court nor did his relatively short criminal record earn him any reductions. In any case, I doubt he’ll have many supporters this time around to suggest that the court treated him unfairly.

new bjs report on sexual victimization in local jails

the bureau of justice statistics has released a large-scale study of self-reported sexual victimization in local jails. i made the quick figure above to show the estimated prevalence of such victimization for different inmate groups: about 5% of females and 3% of males reported sexual victimization and rates were disproportionately high for inmates of color, youth, and more educated inmates. prior victimization and (self-identified) sexual orientation are most strongly correlated with victimization, however, with about one in 10 bisexual inmates and almost one in five homosexual inmates reporting sexual victimization.

one hopes that such data can help provide a road map for reducing sexual assaults in correctional facilities — and protecting those most subject to victimization. courageously, the bjs report also identifies the specific jails with especially high or low rates of sexual victimization:

The Torrance County Detention Facility (New Mexico) had the highest rate — 10.1% when sexual victimization excluded willing activity with staff and 8.9% when victimization excluded abusive sexual contacts (allegations of touching only). The Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail and the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center (New Mexico) were also among the top five facilities on each of these more serious measures of sexual victimization.

badges, posters, stickers, and road rage

brad k. sends word of a colorado state study linking bumper stickers to road rage. territoriality is the hypothesized mechanism. here’s the newsweek synopsis, with a link to the authors and article:

As scientists led by Lucy Troup and her student William Szlemko of Colorado State University report in the June issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, it’s a simple matter of territoriality. Researchers have long known that drivers who have a strong sense of personal space while in their vehicle are more likely to be road-ragers, and the more someone plasters his vehicle with bumper stickers and decals the more territorial he feels about the space inside.

and a few lines from the abstract:

Aggressive driving may occur when social norms for defending a primary territory (i.e., one’s automobile) become confused with less aggressive norms for defending a public territory (i.e., the road). Both number of territory markers (e.g., bumper stickers, decals) and attachment to the vehicle were significant predictors of aggressive driving.

when i pitched this story to the contexts board as a possible discoveries piece, i was asked whether the sentiment expressed on the bumper sticker made any difference. apparently not. while the number of stickers is highly predictive, the researchers found no evidence that visualize whirled peas was any less dangerous than they’ll have to pry my AK-47 from my cold dead fingers.

i suppose territoriality is a reasonable explanation, though my first thought was that badges, posters, stickers, and t-shirts are expressions of extroversion, which might be directly linked to externalizing behaviors such as bird-flippin’ and roadside dukers.

but now i’m buying the researchers’ argument and thinking it might be territoriality after all — i’ve been driving much more aggressively since the arrival of those ICUDV8 license plates.

dr. hlavka

we’re celebrating a new ph.d. in the department, after heather hlavka’s successful defense of her dissertation, the trouble with telling: children’s constructions of sexual abuse.

dr. hlavka analyzed ten years of case files and videotaped forensic interviews with children seen for suspected cases of sexual abuse. the diss is powerful stuff, rendered with great care, sensitivity, and sophistication. she shows how the meaning of sexual abuse is negotiated in interaction with adults, but keeps the children’s voices front-and-center throughout. a systematic research design yields clear (and disturbing) generalizations about social power and barriers to disclosure. in short, she’s got me questioning just about everything we (think we) know about the age, race, class, and gender distribution of child sexual abuse.

dr. hlavka will be professin’ at marquette university this fall, where she will join darren wheelock, a fellow minnversity sociologist.

strib 3-parter on sex offender civil commitments

larry oakes of the strib offers a well-researched look at sex offender civil commitment in minnesota. a few bullets:

  • 19 states and the federal government now detain former prison inmates for indefinite involuntary treatment.
  • the state now has the highest rate of sex offender civil commitments, locking up 544 men and 1 woman.
  • minnesota numbers have spiked dramatically since a heinous 2003 case.
  • it costs $134,000 per inmate per year in the minnesota sex offender program, relative to $45,000 per inmate per year in state prison, $15,000 per year for outpatient treatment, $10,000 per year for gps monitoring, and $4,000 per year for electronic home monitoring.
  • recidivism has dropped dramatically. as a 2007 state department of corrections report concludes: “due to the dramatic decrease in sexual recidivism since the early 1990s, recent sexual reoffense rates have been very low, thus significantly limiting the extent to which sexual reoffending can be further reduced.”

here’s the lead:

In the 14 years since Minnesota’s Sexually Dangerous Persons Act cleared the way for the state to detain hundreds of paroled sex offenders in prison-like treatment centers, just 24 men have met what has proved to be the only acceptable standard for release.

They died.

“We would say, ‘Another one completed treatment,’” said Andrew Babcock, a former guard and counselor in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).

halving the homicide rate

hillary clinton unveiled an ambitious $4 billion proposal to halve the homicide rate in major american cities. the plan involves adding 100,000 new police officers and targeting gangs, drug markets, and illegal gun trafficking.

you might recognize (all of?) these elements from the 1992 clinton crime bill. this is great news for my teaching, since i can now dust off a killer essay question on the anticipated impact of 100,000 officers on the perceived certainty of apprehension and punishment. i’m also intrigued by the weapons interdiction aspects of the proposal. if you click on the chart above, you’ll see how gun homicide rates have fluctuated wildly relative to non-gun rates over the past three decades.

spinning a story — parents fight over kid’s gang affiliation

you might have heard the story of the 19-year-old colorado couple who busted up a video store fighting over their 4-year-old’s gang affiliation. here’s the denver post version:

A heated dispute between two parents about what street gang their son should join resulted in one parent threatening to kill the other, Commerce City police say. The center of the battle is a 4-year-old boy. The child was born to parents, who are not married, when they were about 15 years old, said Sgt. Joe Sandoval of the Commerce City Police Department.

On Saturday, the boy’s father, Joseph Manzanares, allegedly went to the Hollywood Video at 5961 E. 64th Ave., where his ex-girlfriend and the mother of the boy works. There, according to Sandoval, Manzanares, 19, began knocking over several displays in the video store, as well as knocking a computer off a counter. Manzanares began to verbally threaten the woman, including saying he was going to “kill” her, said the police sergeant. Manzanares then ran out of the store and was arrested a short time later at his residence.

The mother of the child told police that she and the boy’s father have been involved in ongoing domestic disputes regarding their son. The woman said she is a “Crip” gang member and that Manzanares is a “Baller” gang member, and “they have different ideas on how the baby should be raised,” said Sandoval. “Basically she said they cannot agree on which gang the baby would ‘claim,’ ” Sandoval said. Sandoval said the “Ballers” were formerly known as the “Westside Ballers.” He said the father is Latino; the mother, African-American.

On Tuesday, Manzanares pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a Class 1 petty offense. A charge of harassment, a Class 3 misdemeanor, was dismissed. Adams County Judge Simon Mole sentenced Manzanares to 12 months probation and imposed $835 in court costs and fees.

i’ve heard the story spun in four ways:

1. criminals do the darnedest things. this lighthearted approach, often delivered with a chuckle at the end of a newscast, portrays people convicted of crimes as idiots. it is generally better-suited to stories involving burglars caught in chimneys, however, than to those involving domestic disputes and children.

2. suffer the children. the newsreaders usually put on a frowny face when they tell stories about innocent kids caught in bad circumstances. sometimes progressive reforms are suggested, though simple tsk-tsking is more common.

3. end of the world as we know it. older generations sometimes take a well-practiced “hell in a handbasket” approach to such stories. this one seems to bring together a host of social pathologies, embodying all that a talk-radio commentator identifies as wrong or evil about contemporary society.

4. those people. every report that i’ve seen or heard about this case notes the race and ethnicity of the mother and father, though this information really isn’t central to beefs over gang affiliation. beyond simply identifying the parents, explicit racist stereotyping emerged in at least one of the reports i saw. you can bet that some profane and exaggerated version of this story will show up on every white nationalist site on the web.

though the manzanares case seems newsworthy, i suspect the full story is pretty mundane. there’s nothing new about couples fighting over their children, particularly the friends and relatives to which their children will be exposed. i’d guess that mr. manzanares was likely upset about the continuing social affiliations of his child’s mother as well as those of his child. there’s also nothing new about 15-year-old parents having an especially tough time of it, regardless of whether they’ve been involved in gangs.

as they age and take on new responsibilities, most gang-involved young people desist from gang involvement. if there’s anything positive to find in this story, it is that two kids who had a kid at 15 remain passionately committed to at least some vision of the child’s best interests.