SNHCADP Protest - World Day Against the Death Penaltyociologist  David Garland has written in the Washington Post about the contentious issue of the death penalty.

Much of what we think we know about American capital punishment comes from the longstanding debate that surrounds the institution. But in making their opposing claims, death-penalty proponents and their abolitionist adversaries perpetrate myths and half-truths that distort the facts. The United States’ death penalty is not what its supporters — or its opponents — would have us believe.

According to Garland, Americans are not as death-penalty-happy as you may think.

In fact, this country barely uses the death penalty today. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment. Of the 35 “death-penalty states,” one-third rarely sentence anyone to death and another third impose death sentences but rarely carry them out. In many states, the only people to be executed are “volunteers” — death row inmates who abandon an appeals process that would otherwise keep them alive.

And the U.S. has made the practice more humane, though European nations have been quicker to abandon it altogether.

For most of the past 200 years, American states have been on the vanguard of death-penalty reform…The United States led the effort to develop less painful execution techniques, replacing hanging first with the electric chair, then the gas chamber, and finally with lethal injection…It is only in the past 30 years that a gap has opened up, with Europeans abolishing the institution and Americans retaining it in an attenuated form.

Government structure has a lot to do with why nations keep or abolish the death penalty. European leaders have managed to get rid of the death penalty in spite of public approval of the practice.

The United States’ democracy is different. Each state can choose whether to have the death penalty. It’s not a central government decision, as it is in other countries. Our criminal justice system is different, too. In many cases, we elect prosecutors and judges — a politicization of the process that is unheard of elsewhere. In this country, the Supreme Court is the one national institution that has the power to abolish capital punishment throughout the nation.

Finally, whether the death penalty “works” or not to deter crime, Garland says it serves other social purposes.

In a nation where the prison system is so overused that the currency of imprisonment is largely devalued, the death penalty allows juries to make an emphatically punitive statement. Politicians give voters what they want by enacting capital punishment statutes even when they will never be enforced. Prosecutors use the threat of a death penalty as leverage to elicit plea bargains and cooperation. The news media are drawn to death-penalty cases because they elevate a routine case to a suspenseful drama where life and death are at stake.

We avidly consume these dramatic stories and enjoy the opportunity to engage, once more, in the old and familiar debate. But it’s time to change the terms of that all-too-familiar debate. Getting past the myths and looking at how the death penalty actually operates is one place to start.

Day 167/365 - Pure EvilMany skinny Americans are fed up with obesity, reports the Los Angeles Times:

“Americans as a society are getting fed up with the matter of obesity. No doubt about it,” said Douglas Metz, chief of health services for American Specialty Health, a San Diego-based company that offers wellness programs to employers. “Some pockets of society are taking positive action, and unfortunately others are taking negative action. That’s what happens when a society hasn’t figured out what the fix is.”

Recent notable actions include:

* A recent and ultimately unsuccessful plan at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania sought to take the body mass index of every enrolling student and require the obese to lose weight or take a fitness class before they could graduate.
* In Mississippi, legislators tried to pass a bill to let restaurants prohibit obese people from dining.
* In an interview with the New York Times last August, Toby Cosgrove, chief executive of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation’s largest medical centers, provoked national outrage when he said that, if it were up to him, he would stop hiring the obese. He later apologized for his remarks.
* Last summer in Florida, animal rights activists at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took aim at heavy women in a “Save the whales” billboard campaign that featured an overweight, bikini-clad woman. It read: “Lose the blubber. Go vegetarian.” Angry reactions caused the organization to remove the signs.

Statistics about obesity are being assessed in the current debates on how to reduce the nation’s health care costs:

A report by Emory University researchers projected last November that by 2018 the United States could expect to spend $344 billion on healthcare costs attributable to obesity. Obesity-related costs would account for 21% of healthcare spending, up from 9.1% today, said the report, sponsored in part by the United Health Foundation and the American Public Health Assn.

Providing a different take on the issue, it’s time to call in the sociologist:

“In our society, being heavy has become more of a stigma lately because we’re struggling with other issues of consumption,” says Abigail Saguy, associate professor of sociology at UCLA.

The economic climate, a recent history of people buying more than they can afford as well as environmental issues, including the depletion of our planet’s resources, are making people feel more angry about society’s overconsumption, she says. Obviously overweight people are an easy target.

“They’re almost a caricature of greed, overconsumption, overspending, over-leveraging and overusing resources,” says Saguy. “Though it’s not entirely rational, it’s an understandable reaction, especially in a country founded on the Puritan ethics of self-reliance, sacrifice and individual responsibility. If people feel they’re sacrificing, then see someone spilling over an airplane seat, they feel angry that that person is not making the same sacrifices they are.”

Research indicates that discrimination based on weight has been increasing in recent years:

Rebecca Puhl, a researcher at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, published [two papers] last January — one in the journal Obesity, the other in the International Journal of Obesity — Puhl reported that weight discrimination in the United States increased 66% over the prior decade.

“Weight discrimination is highly prevalent in American society and increasing,” said Puhl, who cites several possible reasons. Among them are a lack of legislation to prohibit weight discrimination and an increase in media coverage of obesity (up fivefold from 1992 to 2003). Most media framed the problem of obesity as one of personal responsibility, she reported.

The News Journal recently examined the potential consequences of implementing a national sex offender registry:

The Adam Walsh Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006, goes into effect later this year and aims in part to smooth out some of those issues by applying a uniform national classification system and implementing a national registry.

Some observers argue that while one-size-fits-all penalties and overly broad classifications may sound good politically, they’re not truly effective in preventing recidivism.

Commentary by University of Delaware sociologist Chrysanthi Leon and Ohio Northern University criminologist Keith Durkin:

“You’ve got a small group of offenders who commit lots of new offenses,” said Chrysanthi Leon, a University of Delaware assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice. “We need to do a better job of distinguishing among the bigger group of offenders, and dedicate more of our resources on this smaller group of high-risk offenders.”

Instead of looking at offense-based criteria, Leon said, the ideal classification system would involve individual assessments of each offender for factors that can increase the potential for repeat offenses.

Those factors include whether force was used, how the offender manipulated his or her victims and the age of the victims, Durkin said.

The current system, he said, leads to police and probation officers getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of offenders to monitor.

“They’re really trying,” he said. “But they’ve got this huge caseload.”

Read more.

The Santa Barbara Independent reports:

In 2004, demonstrations and protests in favor of marriage equality were observed by civil rights activists and same-sex couples across the United States. These acts were largely spurred by the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, and his act of defiance in ordering the County Clerk to issue marriage licenses, against California’s Defense of Marriage Act. This was seen as a sign of things to come by many optimistic activists until 2008 when Proposition 8 banned gay marriage in California.

The story draws on Verta Taylor and colleagues’ study in the American Sociological Review:

In the article, Taylor alludes to the pivotal role of the 2004 protests and shows the likely historical significance by saying: “The San Francisco weddings served as a public and dramatic tactic to claim basic civil rights for gay and lesbian people … Our research shows that the month-long wedding protest sparked other forms of political actions, including legal challenges and the formation of social movement organizations that ignited a statewide campaign for marriage equality in California.”

Check out abstracts from the December 2009 issue of the American Sociological Review.

Can't VoteAccording to the Seattle Times, evidence gathered by University of Washington sociologists Katherine Beckett and Robert Crutchfield overturned the state of Washington’s law banning incarcerated felons from voting.  The case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, was decided on January 5, 2010:

The surprising ruling, by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, said the law violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising minority voters.  The decision is the first in the country’s federal appeals courts to equate a prohibition against voting by incarcerated felons with practices outlawed under the federal Voting Rights Act, such as poll taxes or literacy tests.

The two-judge majority apparently was persuaded by the plaintiffs’ argument that reams of social-science data filed in the case showed minorities in Washington are stopped, arrested and convicted in such disproportionate rates that the ban on voting by incarcerated felons is inherently discriminatory.

The article details the sociological research in question:

[The case] was built on research by University of Washington sociologists who found that blacks are 70 percent more likely — and Latinos and Native Americans 50 percent more likely — than whites to be searched in traffic stops.

The research also showed that blacks are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, despite the fact that the ratio of arrests for violent crime among blacks and whites is less than four-to-one. One result of that: 25 percent of black men in Washington are disenfranchised from voting.

The decision, written by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, said the studies “speak to a durable, sustained indifference in treatment faced by minorities in Washington’s criminal justice system — systemic disparities which cannot be explained by ‘factors independent of race.’ “

The state of Washington is appealing this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.  To read a somewhat sociological editorial on this decision, you may also want to check out an editorial by Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large.

Voter Disenfranchisement Statistics:


The New York Times reports on “soul-searching” in Turkey after the murder of a gay man last year:

For Ahmet Yildiz, a stocky and affable 26-year-old, the choice to live openly as a gay man proved deadly. Prosecutors say his own father hunted him down, traveling more than 600 miles from his hometown to shoot his son in an old neighborhood of Istanbul.

Mr. Yildiz was killed 16 months ago, the victim of what sociologists say is the first gay honor killing in Turkey to surface publicly. He was shot five times as he left his apartment to buy ice cream. A witness said dozens of neighbors watched the killing from their windows, but refused to come forward. His body remained unclaimed by his family, a grievous fate under Muslim custom.

A sociologist comments on this “honor killing”:

Until recently, so-called honor killings have been largely confined to women, who face being killed by male relatives for perceived grievances ranging from consensual sex outside of marriage to stealing a glance at a boy. A recent government survey estimated that one person dies every week in Istanbul as a result of honor killings, while the United Nations estimates the practice globally claims as many as 5,000 lives a year. In Turkey, relatives convicted in such killings are subject to life sentences.

A sociologist who studies honor killings, Mazhar Bagli, at Dicle University in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast, noted that tribal Kurdish families that kill daughters perceived to have dishonored them publicize the murders to help cleanse their shame.

But he said gay honor killings remained underground because a homosexual not only brought shame to his family, but also tainted the concept of male identity upon which the community’s social structure depended.

“Until now, gay honor killings have been invisible because homosexuality is taboo,” he said.

Gay rights groups argue that there is an increasingly open homophobia in Turkey.

Read more.

Lethal Injection ChamberThe Houston Chronicle recenly reported on the efforts of social scientists to understand whether the death penalty deters potential murderers.  According to the article, research on the issue has historically produced mixed results:

In 1967, sociologist Thorsten Sellin found no significant impact when he studied murder rates in adjacent states with differing approaches to capital punishment.

The next year, Nobel Prize economist Gary Becker developed a theory supporting the deterrent value of the death penalty, and eight years later one of his students published a study based on national statistics purporting to show that each execution saved eight lives.

The controversy led to a study commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences that found evidence of deterrence to be unconvincing.

More recent studies have reached conclusions all over the map. A national study in 2005 found “profound uncertainty” on the question and even suggested that executions might slightly increase the murder rate (possibly through a cultural “brutalization”). Another study that year suggested that each execution saves 150 lives.

The article discusses a new study, forthcoming in Criminology, by Duke University sociologists Kenneth C. Land and Hui Zheng and Sam Houston State University criminologist Raymond Teske Jr.:

After reviewing earlier studies, these authors came to the conclusion that the death penalty is used too sporadically and inconsistently around the nation for studies on national data to accurately measure its effect on crime.

They decided to focus their study by taking advantage of Texas’ gift to social science, what they call “an orgy of executions in Texas beginning in 1994,” during which time the state provided more than a third of the nation’s executions.

The authors compared this period to an era in which Texas carried out fewer executions from 1980 to 1993, attempting to isolate the effect of the increased use of the death penalty:

They found that many earlier studies had vastly overestimated the effect, but the number of murders did go down in the short-term aftermath of executions.

Based on two different statistical models, they found the effect in the months after each execution to be a reduction of between 0.5 to 2.5 homicides.

That may not sound like much, but as the authors note, “even the estimated .5 deterrent per execution yields an estimated reduction in the expected numbers of monthly homicides of 5 to 10 during the subsequent 12 months, which is substantial.”

Perhaps more interesting are the difficult issues that remain unresolved:

Here’s the mystery:

This study and previous ones show no correlation between the amount of publicity executions receive and their deterrent effect.

“We have no theory on that,” Teske said on Friday. After a few more questions, he said, “I hear your frustration. If I wasn’t working with one of the top guys in the nation, my confidence would be shaken.”

One other mystery: The study shows, as other studies have, more impact on the kinds of murders that don’t qualify for the death penalty than on those that do.

At the end of last week the New York Times ran an article about how the effects of parental imprisonment have led to a ‘tide of troubled kids.’

The Times reports (with sociological commentary):

The chances of seeing a parent go to prison have never been greater, especially for poor black Americans, and new research is documenting the long-term harm to the children they leave behind. Recent studies indicate that having an incarcerated parent doubles the chance that a child will be at least temporarily homeless and measurably increases the likelihood of physically aggressive behavior, social isolation, depression and problems in school — all portending dimmer prospects in adulthood.

“Parental imprisonment has emerged as a novel, and distinctly American, childhood risk that is concentrated among black children and children of low-education parents,” said Christopher Wildeman, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who is studying what some now call the “incarceration generation.”

Work by sociologist Sara Wakefield offers additional insight:

Quantifying other effects of parental incarceration, like aggressive behavior and depression, is more complex because many children of prisoners are already living in deprived and turbulent environments. But researchers using newly available surveys that follow families over time are starting to home in on the impact.

Among 5-year-old urban boys, 49 percent of those who had a father incarcerated within the previous 30 months exhibited physically aggressive behaviors like hitting others or destroying objects, compared with 38 percent of those in otherwise similar circumstances who did not have a father imprisoned, Dr. Wildeman found.

While most attention has been placed on physical aggression, a study by Sara Wakefield, a sociologist following children in Chicago, found that having a parent imprisoned was a mental-health tipping point for some. Thus, while 28 percent of the children in her study over all experienced feelings of social isolation, depression or anxiety at levels that would warrant clinical evaluation or treatment, about 35 percent of those who had an incarcerated parent did.

And additional sociological commentary…

With financial woes now forcing many states to rethink the relentless expansion of prisons, “this intergenerational transfer of problems should be included as an additional cost of incarceration to society,” said Sarah S. McLanahan, a sociologist at Princeton University and director of a national survey of families that is providing data for many of the new studies.

Read more.

A recent article from the LA Daily News discusses the Alvarez death penalty case in California and the recent verdict to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Juan Manuel Alvarez, 29, was charged with eleven counts of murder in connection with the Glendale train crash that occurred just north of downtown Los Angeles in 2005. The crash was the deadliest in MetroLink history, killing 11 people. 

More about the Glendale train crash…

The LA Daily News writes

University of Colorado at Boulder sociologist Michael Radelet, one of the nation’s leading criminologists and most-cited experts on the death penalty, said that often the extent or even the depravity of the crimes alone does not guarantee death sentencing convictions.

“This case reminds me a great deal of the Jeffrey Daumer case in Wisconsin where so much emotional testimony was allowed during the sentencing phase but Daumer wound up (with) 15 life terms in prison and eventually died there,” said Radelet.

“In this case, the jury agreed that this guy is going to die – it’s just going to be in prison and a few years down the road.”

Read the full article.