Sesame Street on Incarcerated Parents

I don’t recall any “So, your dad’s in prison” discussions on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or Captain Kangaroo, but United States criminal punishment has increased greatly since my preschool days. Arturo Baiocchi sends along this powerful Sesame Street clip addressing parental incarceration in their “Little Children, Big Challenges” series. The short video is heartbreaking in concept and in execution, but I’m glad to see more people and institutions reaching out to support the children of incarcerated parents. For those interested in the numbers and the effects of parental incarceration, I’d recommend the excellent series of articles and upcoming book by our friends Sara Wakefield and Chris Wildeman.

Virginia Reenfranchisement News / HuffPo op-ed

Virginia_new_sign Two quick felon voting updates:

Most importantly, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell will begin automatically restoring voting rights for  ”nonviolent felons” beginning July 15. Those convicted of violent crimes must still undergo an application process, following a five-year waiting period. “Non-violent” is a problematic definition in practice, but I expect this to be a meaningful change for Virginia. In particular, a switch to an “automatic” or default system tends to be far more effective in restoring civil rights than, say,  ”streamlined application processes.”

Also, Marc Mauer and I wrote a new Huffington Post op-ed on race, voter turnout, and felon disenfranchisement.

“Ban the Box” Now Law in Minnesota

mnloveYou might have heard that Minnesota Governor Dayton just signed Freedom to Marry legislation, but he also made Ban the Box the law-of-the-land-of-10,000-lakes.  Megan Boldt describes it succinctly at twincities.com:

Gov. Mark Dayton this week signed a bill that would ban employers from considering a job applicant’s criminal history until the applicant has an interview or is offered a job.

Supporters of the bill, dubbed “ban the box,” have argued the change allows people who have made mistakes to be considered for a job on their merits and skills, instead of having their application immediately discarded.

Since 2009, Minnesota has required all public employers to wait until a job candidate has been selected for an interview before inquiring about criminal history.

I can take no credit (or blame, I suppose) for this development, but I can brag a bit about amazing Minnesota graduate students like Sarah Walker and Rob Stewart, community leaders like Mark Haase at the Council on Crime and Justice, and many formerly incarcerated men and women who came forward to tell their stories and build support for this legislation.

Yes, employers can and will still discriminate on the basis of a criminal record, but the research literature suggests that ban the box is a tremendously important step. In my Minnesota audit study on low-level records, for example, 25% of the hiring authorities we interviewed told us they wouldn’t consider any (hypothetical) applicant with a record, but they were much less likely to discriminate on that basis when confronted with a real human being applying for a job. And in Devah Pager’s important audit studies (and my own as well), personal contact with a hiring authority is a powerful, powerful predictor of “callbacks” from employers. So, I’m optimistic that Ban the Box won’t simply waste applicants’ time — or that of employers.

For a national perspective on these laws, check the recent EEOC guidance on the topic and a useful page from the National Employment Law Project. And, yes, I’m already scheming to evaluate implementation and outcomes…

Weaver & Uggen Event on Tuesday 4/30

Weaver

Join me and the incomparable Vesla Weaver this TUESDAY, for a spirited conversation on crime, punishment, and democracy at the Hubert H. Humphrey Forum.  As moderator, I’ll either be channeling Charlie Rose or Axl Rose, depending on the crowd. All are welcome and admission is free, but advance registration is appreciated.

How America’s Public Safety System Hurts Our Democracy 

Is justice blind? Vesla Weaver reveals racial disparities in the American criminal justice system and their implications for undermining full democratic citizenship. Professor Christopher Uggen will moderate the discussion.  Find more information here: http://justiceanddemocracy-rss.eventbrite.com/

April 30, 12 p.m. | Humphrey Forum
Humphrey School of Public Affairs, 301 19th Ave S Minneapolis, MN 55455

 

Restoring Gun Rights to Felons?

When I discuss voting rights for people convicted of felonies, I’m often asked whether I’d favor restoring gun rights as well. Hostile talk show hosts sometimes take this tack, perhaps anticipating a knee-jerk liberal response that will lay bare the contradictions in my position. But I always respond that I haven’t done enough research on restoration of firearms privileges to offer any sort of expert opinion on the issue.

Fortunately, others are doing such research. For example, Brandon Stahl of the Star-Tribune examined the 114 people whose gun rights were restored by Minnesota judges over the past 8 years. He found only one new gun crime, a 2011 conviction for carrying-under-the-influence and fifth-degree assault. Of the 114, Mr.  Stahl also uncovered 3 new drunk driving cases and a conviction for violating a protective order by sending a hostile text message. I can’t vouch for the rigor or comprehensiveness of the analysis, but it does not appear that judges are routinely giving guns to people at high risk of reoffense. Getting such basic facts is timely and important, as Minnesota State Senator Barb Goodwin of Columbia Heights has introduced a bill that would make it more difficult for former felons  to regain gun rights.

Researching Locked OutI got a glimpse of the issue when I asked Minnesota prisoners about firearms rights. Losing gun rights seemed especially important to the hunters I interviewed, some of whom relied heavily on firearms to put food on the table. Here’s an excerpt from my conversation with Daniel, a young American Indian man from northern Minnesota who was incarcerated for burglary. His story didn’t necessarily change my mind on the issue, but it helped me see the stakes involved.

Daniel: I believe if you’re a violent felon with gun charges or anything else, you should not be allowed to own or use a firearm. But for those of us that aren’t into that kind of thing, I believe you should be allowed to hunt because it is a means to support your family.You know?

CU: Yeah. So loss of that right is especially important to you, the hunt-, or the firearms?

Daniel: Yeah. Because it’s hurting my family. I mean they look at it, “Well, he’s a felon, he doesn’t get to use a gun. The community will be safer.” Yet they don’t look at it like, “Okay. We won’t let him hunt. We’re taking food out of his kids’ mouths.”

CU: Yeah. So when you say that- So you’re someone who would go out and get a deer or get something-

Daniel: I was born and raised like that. And, you know, it’s not the sport of it. I was never raised like that. It’s not a sport to me, it’s a way of life. Means, you know, to feed my kids.

CU: Yeah. Yeah. So you hunt year-round?

Daniel:  I can’t hunt. I can’t hunt ‘til I don’t know when I get my rights back….

CU:  See ‘cause to me, I think of hunting as like something, you know, one week of deer, and you go and do that. And I don’t think of it in terms of the food. But for you, that’s a big part of it.

Daniel: Right.

CU: And that ha- And since a gun- Let me just make sure I’m tracking. So since a gun had nothing to do with your crime,

Daniel: I should be allowed to own one. ‘Cause you know, even, even if it’s I gotta go in and get a permit once a year, say, to use a firearm, a rifle. Fine. You know, I’ll go in, I’ll pay the extra money for a permit. Plus you know, it’s income the state could be collecting, for whatever.

So hunting and guns were a much bigger deal to Daniel than they were to me — for reasons that had nothing to do with criminal activity. But it isn’t just men. Here’s how Mary, a White woman from greater Minnesota who was incarcerated for a drug-related offense, described the importance of hunting in her family:

I can’t hunt. I can’t carry a firearm. And in my family, I have two young boys so, you know, we take [them] out hunting. My husband and I hunt, I hunt with my father, and so on and so forth. We go deer-hunting every year. Well, now all I can do is walk in the bush. I can’t carry a gun. And it makes it difficult. [We’ve been going] ever since I was twelve years old, and I’m forty. That’s an awful long time. 

Diana, another female hunter, offered a similar account.

I love deer hunting. I love goose, I love bear. I’m a country girl- that’s the way I was raised. And I am a member of the NR-, well I was a member of the NRA. My father was, I mean, my brother, the whole bit. 

I haven’t done much research on this issue outside Minnesota, but I found that gun rights were also important to former felons in a random sample of Florida clemency applications I examined a decade ago. There, White ex-felons were especially likely to seek restoration of firearms privileges (while African Americans were especially likely to be seeking restoration of voting rights).

Given the potential risk to public safety, I’d likely oppose any sort of blanket restoration of firearms rights — despite the salience of the issue to those I interviewed and the reassuring absence of gun crimes among those who’ve had their rights restored. That said, I’d likely oppose the bill presented by Senator Goodwin, which create further barriers for people like Daniel, Mary, and Diana to regain these rights.

Two Ways to Reduce Crime

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe all want lower crime rates, but ”how we get there” matters. Rick Rosenfeld and Steve Messner see two basic approaches: (1) we can lock down criminal opportunities through surveillance and control; or, (2) we can reduce criminal motivations by building up the social safety net. Their new Social Welfare Critique of Contemporary Crime Control makes a strong case for the latter approach.

The argument is based less on the relative efficacy or efficiency of these approaches than on our collective vision of the society we’d like to inhabit. Further reducing criminal opportunities will place increasingly onerous restrictions on freedom of movement, association, and other liberties — and further extend the disciplinary practices of the prison to public life.

Consistent with their institutional arguments in Crime and the American Dream and elsewhere, Professors Rosenfeld and Messner argue that a more robust welfare state can help compensate for the weaknesses of a market economy in promoting and sustaining a viable moral order. They recognize that any (reality-based) crime policy must limit criminal opportunities, but the challenge is to enhance public safety without sacrificing individual liberties and democratic values.  On this count, “welfare state” policies to reduce criminal motivations have much to recommend them over “security state”  policies to lock down opportunities.

Charis Kubrin on California Prisons

Criminologist Charis Kubrin of UC-Irvine went head to head with former Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley yesterday on the issue of prison downsizing in California. In my view, Professor Kubrin’s presentation here is as sharp, clear, and thoughtful as her academic writing. I’ve always found the long-form live interview to be a terrific forum for public criminology, since it leaves a bit more space for academics to introduce social scientific evidence to explain how they arrived at their opinions — and to question those who arrived at opinions based on anecdotal evidence or other means. This one comes from SoCal Insider, a PBS program hosted by Rick Reiff, but similar issues are being debated in many communities. Dr. Kubrin is appropriately cautious about whether crime rates will rise with realignment, but she nicely counters the premature conclusion that California’s experiment in prison downsizing has been a disaster — and she makes an excellent case for conducting a more systematic scientific evaluation.

TSP Crime Features and Volume

Kashner_crime

Creative Commons Image by Nikita Kashner

Though these pages might seem a little quiet lately, rest assured that we’re plugging away on some extra-good crime and punishment features.  I’m happily immersed in final edits on some really exciting new pieces for TSP — and our crime volume, due out this fall with WW Norton.

Like what? Look for a moving account of prison and close relationships by Megan Comfort, a social welfare approach to  crime control from Rick Rosenfeld and Steve Messner, a roundtable on the International Criminal Court with Susanne Karstedt, Kathryn Sikkink, Naomi Roht-Arriaza, and Wenona Rymond-Richmond, and a powerful piece by pubcrim’s own Michelle Inderbitzin and colleagues on the young leaders of a prison “lifers club,” who will be locked up for decades for  crimes committed as juveniles.

In addition to this fine work coming in over the transom, we’ve got a great mix of in-house as well as external (please don’t call them out-house) features forthcoming and under review. I’m helping out on a couple of them, including a soon-to-be-released feature with Sarah Shannon (Visualizing Punishment) and a just-released feature with Suzy Maves McElrath on the big U.S.  Crime Drop. More soon!

Mental Health and Second Chances

Today’s post is coauthored with Jason Schnittker for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Human Capital blog

More than 650,000 inmates are released from prison every year.[i]  Although their debt to society may be paid, their struggles have just begun.  Reentry is not easy.  Former inmates need to find a place to live.  They need to find a job.  And many need to support families.  All told, 4 million people in the U.S. are dealing with the “mark” of a prison record and its consequences for their work and personal lives.[ii]  Most will struggle for years following their release.

Given all these difficulties, it’s hard to imagine health being a major part of their struggle.  After all, many former inmates are still quite young and, for that reason, unlikely to suffer from major health problems.  Mental health is part of the picture, but usually considered through a different lens:  policy-makers ask how mental illness affects criminal offending—that is, what leads to prison in the first place—but rarely consider the pivotal role of mental health in making a successful return to the community.

Yet the role of mental illness is just as relevant after release as before.[iii]

Many former inmates suffer from poor mental health.  And these problems often get worse following release, given the many disadvantages they face.  Former inmates suffer from many of the same disorders as other people, including depression and anxiety, albeit at higher rates. We know that substance disorders and psychosis are related to criminal offending, but former inmates suffer from mood and anxiety disorders too, and these conditions have received far less attention.  Our own research suggests that depression plays an especially powerful role in shaping the reentry prospects of former inmates.[iv]

Insofar as we demand that former inmates become productive and responsible members of society, we may need to provide them with a little more help.  Reintegration requires persistence, motivation, and a strong social network, all of which are undermined by mental health problems.  Mood and anxiety disorders, in particular, can rob individuals of motivation and initiative and undermine their relationships.  Psychosis and substance abuse are, of course, important as well, especially in preventing new offending.  But good health is more than the absence of these particular conditions, just as reintegration is more than the absence of particular criminal behaviors. Reintegration also implies successful adjustment to challenging work and family situations — and good overall health fortifies us all in meeting such challenges.

To date, enthusiasm for better mental health treatment among former inmates has been limited.  From a cost-benefit perspective, the role of treatment in reducing crime is inconclusive.[v]  But evidence on the effectiveness of mental health treatment for other outcomes, including employment, is more favorable.[vi]  The Affordable Care Act will help.[vii]  A robust safety net of low cost service providers will help too.  But true reform requires something more ambitious:  the recognition that good health is a precondition to getting back on your feet.

Jason Schnittker, PhD, and Chris Uggen, PhD, both recipients of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research, recently published a study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior on incarceration and psychiatric disorders. They found that incarceration increases the risk of mood disorders after release and that these disorders increase disability. Schnittker is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Uggen is the Distinguished McKnight Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.

A Broader-based Response to Shootings

I’ve been reluctant to write about the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School because the wounds are still too fresh for any kind of dispassionate analysis. As a social scientist, however, I’m disappointed by the fear-mongering and selective presentations of the research evidence I’ve read in reports and op-eds about Friday’s awful killing.

Such events could help move us toward constructive actions that will result in a safer and more just world — or they could push us toward counter-productive and costly actions that simply respond to the particulars of the last horrific event. I will make the case that a narrow focus on stopping mass shootings is less likely to produce beneficial changes than a broader-based effort to reduce homicide and other violence. We can and should take steps to prevent mass shootings, of course, but these rare and terrible crimes are like rare and terrible diseases — and a strategy to address them is best considered within the context of more common and deadlier threats to population health. Five points:

1. The focus on mass shootings obscures over 99 percent of homicide victims and offenders in the United States. The numbers should not matter to parents who must bury their children, but they are important if policy makers are truly committed to reducing violent deaths. There are typically about 25 mass shootings and 100 victims each year in the United States (and, despite headlines to the contrary, mass shootings have not increased over the past twenty years). These are high numbers by international standards, but they pale relative to the total number of killings – about 14,612 victims and 14,548 offenders in 2011. In recent years, the mass shooters have represented less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the total offenders, while the victims have represented less than one percent of the total homicide victims in any given year. We are understandably moved by the innocence of the Sandy Hook children, but we should also be moved by scores of other victims who are no less innocent. There were 646 murder victims aged 12 or younger  in the United States in 2011 alone — far more than all the adults and children that died as a result of mass shootings.

2. The focus on mass shootings leads to unproductive arguments about whether imposing sensible gun controls would have deterred the undeterrable. As gun advocates are quick to point out, many of the perpetrators in mass shootings had no “disqualifying” history of crime or mental disorder that would have prevented them from obtaining weapons. And, the most highly motivated offenders are often able to secure weapons illegally. Even if such actions do little to stop mass shootings, however, implementing common-sense controls such as “turning off the faucet” on high capacity assault weapons, tightening up background checks, and closely monitoring sales at gun shows are prudent public policy. But the vast majority of firearms used in murders are simple handguns. I would expect the no-brainer controls mentioned above to have a modest but meaningful effect, but we will need to go farther to have anything more than an incremental effect on mass shootings and gun violence more generally.

3. The focus on mass shootings obscures the real progress made in reducing the high rates of violence in the United States. I heard one commentator suggest that America had finally “hit bottom” regarding violence. Well, this is true in a sense — we actually hit bottom twenty years ago. The United States remains a violent nation, but we are far less violent today than we were in the early 1990s. Homicide rates have dropped by 60 percent and the percentage of children annually exposed to violence in their households has fallen by 69 percent since 1993. We can and should do better, of course, but these are not the worst of times.

4. The focus on mass shootings exaggerates the relatively modest correlation between mental illness and violence. Those who plan and execute mass shootings may indeed have severe mental health problems, though it is difficult to say much more with certainty or specificity because of the small number of cases in which a shooter survives to be examined. We do know, however, that the correlation between severe mental illness and more common forms of violence is much lower – and that many types of mental health problems are not associated with violence at all.

5. The focus on mass shootings leads to high-security solutions of questionable efficacy. Any parent who has attempted to drop off a kid’s backpack knows that security measures are well in place in many schools. Rates of school crime continue to fall, such that schools are today among the safest places for children to spend so many of their waking hours. In 2008-2009, for example, only 17 of the 1,579 homicides of youth ages 5-18 occurred when students were at school, on the way to school, or at school-associated events. Of course we want to eliminate any possibility of children being hurt or killed at school, but even a 2 percent reduction in child homicide victimization outside of schools would save more lives than a 90 percent reduction in school-associated child homicide victimization. While every school must plan for terrible disasters in hopes that such plans will never be implemented, outsized investments in security personnel and technology are unlikely to serve our schools or our kids.

In the aftermath of so many deaths I am neither so cynical as to suggest that nothing will change nor so idealistic as to suggest that radical reform is imminent. I’m just hoping that the policy moves we make will address our all-too-common horrors as well as the rare and terrible events of the past week.