Archive: Jan 2007

during my term as a piece of furniture consisting of a seat, legs, back, and often arms, designed to accommodate one person, i’m at least partially responsible for the content of faculty meetings. at the request of undergraduate advisor ann miller, we allocated fifteen minutes of monday’s meeting to a presentation on the use of mid-semester course evaluations.

a representative from the minnversity’s center for teaching and learning introduced a model called student feedback through consensus. here’s how it works: a consultant comes to your class, asks students what’s working and what changes they would recommend, and meets with you confidentially to share the results. in the next lecture, you can then reflect the students’ concerns, reiterate your priorities, and explain your response to the recommendations.

i’m not sure i’ll use a consultant, but i always try to evaluate my courses as i teach them. i distribute midterm evaluation forms, with the first few questions mirroring those on my official end-of-semester evaluation forms. the front side of the form consists of likert-type items (e.g., the lectures are clear and well-organized; the professor is available to me outside of class; the professor resembles “beavis”), with some open-ended items on the reverse (e.g., would you like me to lecture more on readings? more discussion of hot topics? more theory applications and examples? whaddayawant?; do you think the exam format and grading have been fair? why or why not?).

when i reflect their responses, it gives me the chance to show the diversity of tastes and expectations in the class (e.g., some people really like my riffs on theory) and to reiterate my priorities and goals for the semester. i am usually open to changing test formats and will occasionally trim a reading or two, but students typically request much simpler changes. for example, i’ve been asked to put black-and-white rather than color handouts online, saving them a few dollars in printer cartridges. i also try to throw a few fun questions into the mix, which seems to liven up the discussion.

i’m convinced that midterm evaluations can simultaneously enhance student learning and one’s end-of-semester evaluations. they provide a quick heads-up on students who are really upset and an opportunity to clarify misinterpretations or make good on mistakes. for example, a student last year felt my delinquency class had an anti-immigrant bias, primarily because my social disorganization theory lectures and readings tied immigration to disorder and high crime rates. i appreciated the opportunity to get another shot at teaching these ideas and the students seemed to appreciate a more thorough discussion of immigration and crime. they certainly nailed the disorganization question on their final exams.

despite my support for midterm evaluations, i was a little nervous during monday’s faculty meeting. at the start of the midterm evaluation presentation, our speaker asked our busy faculty to form small groups and set them to work on a task. uh-oh, i thought. even though many of us ask students to form small groups for class exercises, i didn’t know whether her task would fly. how would your colleagues react if they were asked to get into small groups at the next faculty meeting?

i’m happy to report that the exercise was useful and thought-provoking. i’m even happier to report that my colleagues jumped into the unexpected task with good will and a bit of enthusiasm (perhaps because the speaker was well-organized and stuck to her allotted fifteen minutes). even so, i can imagine a few professors in a few departments being somewhat less cooperative. we didn’t complete any evaluations for the session, but i suspect they would have been quite positive.

we finally had a relatively healthy group and all 30 students made it to our inside-out class on wednesday night. the oregon department of corrections is currently in the news as the food buyer for all oregon prisons is accused shady dealings and of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks. the story broke earlier in the week and i thought it might be useful to give our inside students a chance to comment.

they seemed to believe that the DOC is guilty of nepotism on a large scale, and they were very well-informed as to the details of the current case. as the oregonian reports, fred monem appeared to have saved the taxpayers millions of dollars, reducing the system’s daily meal costs by 40 percent: “Under special procurement rules, Monem aggressively pursued distressed and bulk foods on the spot market. The savings have helped Oregon regularly rank among the lowest in the nation for per-inmate food costs.” monem also apparently thought quite well of himself. in his 2005 performance review, he gave himself very high marks: “Continually striving to exceed professional and ethical standards,” he wrote of his work, “as well as setting the highest measurement as a role model for fellow staff members.”

hmm. unfortunately, it seems that while buying distressed and expiring food for inmate consumption, monem collected more than $600,000 in kickbacks over the last 5 years. while his state salary was around $75,000, monem was driving a $77,000 BMW; when federal agents searched monem’s home and safe deposit box, they found more than $530,000 in cash.

so, i thought it important to give our inside students a chance to talk about prison food and air their indignation. they took the opportunity and shared many stories about the food and problems with the system with the outside students. a piece that i have heard now from three different sources (including the oregonian story) is that inmates were repeatedly fed bait fish from boxes clearly marked “not fit for human consumption.”

the monem case led into the question of why individuals commit crime and we discussed in small groups some of the theories/explanations (social learning, social control, etc.) for such behavior. i’m pleased to say that the inside students — most of whom have no background in sociology or criminology at all — are struggling through the academic readings and doing a very good job of making connections between the theories and their own evidence and understanding of causes of crime. in fact, one of my inside students wrote a sophisticated essay discussing four different theories — above and beyond what was required in the assignment and by far the best paper of the week. they are making the most of this opportunity.

finally, for now, because the prison water is a bit suspect, the administration arranged for us to share bottled water during class. the first 2 weeks we had a couple of gallon jugs waiting for us; this week, there were 31 individual bottles along with a note saying that i needed to make sure we got back all 31 bottles before anyone left. apparently, they can be used to make “pruno” in the cells, so the administation wanted to make sure none of our inside students left with contraband.

in our closing circle, one of the men made the week’s most memorable statement when he said: “i knew about bottled water, but i’ve been in since 1983 and this is my first ever bottle of water.”

small privileges and a lot to think about. wednesdays have become nearly all of the oregon inside-outers’ favorite night. i’ll say it again: i can’t wait for next week!

yesterday’s sharp new york times editorial picks up on some themes discussed here and in pubcrim. very cool to see social facts escape the maximum security confinement of academic journal articles. here’s the piece:

Closing the Revolving Door
The United States is paying a heavy price for the mandatory sentencing fad that swept the country 30 years ago. After a tenfold increase in the nation’s prison population — and a corrections price tag that exceeds $60 billion a year — the states have often been forced to choose between building new prisons or new schools. Worse still, the country has created a growing felon caste, now more than 16 million strong, of felons and ex-felons, who are often driven back to prison by policies that make it impossible for them to find jobs, housing or education.

Congress could begin to address this problem by passing the Second Chance Act, which would offer support services for people who are leaving prison. But it would take more than one new law to undo 30 years of damage:

Researchers have shown that inmates who earn college degrees tend to find jobs and stay out of jail once released. Congress needs to revoke laws that bar inmates from receiving Pell grants and that bar some students with drug convictions from getting other support. Following Washington’s lead, the states have destroyed prison education programs that had long since proved their worth.

People who leave prison without jobs or places to live are unlikely to stay out of jail. Congress should repeal the lifetime ban on providing temporary welfare benefits to people with felony drug convictions. The federal government should strengthen tax credit and bonding programs that encourage employers to hire people with criminal records. States need to stop barring ex-offenders from jobs because of unrelated crimes — or arrests in the distant past that never led to convictions.

Congress should deny a request from the F.B.I. to begin including juvenile arrests that never led to convictions (and offenses like drunkenness or vagrancy) in the millions of rap sheets sent to employers. That would transform single indiscretions into lifetime stigmas.

Curbing recidivism will also require doing a lot more to provide help and medication for the one out of every six inmates who suffer mental illness.

The only real way to reduce the inmate population — and the felon class — is to ensure that imprisonment is a method of last resort. That means abandoning the mandatory sentencing laws that have filled prisons to bursting with nonviolent offenders who are doomed to remain trapped at the very margins of society.

Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
Summer Fellowship Program
Pursuing Self-Directed, Issues-Oriented Research

Who: Students enrolled in a master’s or Ph.D. program in public policy or a social science. Qualified minority students are encouraged to apply.

What: Up to five summer fellowships with a stipend of $6,000 for full participation ($2,000 per month) plus $500 toward project-related expenses.

When: June 1 to August 31, 2007 (approximately)

Where: Princeton, NJ, Washington, DC, and Cambridge, MA

Why: To pursue independent research on a policy issue of relevance to the economic and social problems of minority groups. To expose students to social policy research in a non-academic environment.

How: Submit the following to Human Resources, Princeton office, by March 16, 2007:
• A resume
• A proposal (minimum 2,000 words) for the research project you hope to pursue, including a clear statement of the research question, its relevance to social policy affecting minorities, and the steps necessary to complete the project during the fellowship period
• Undergraduate and graduate transcripts
• Two letters of recommendation, including one from a sponsoring faculty member

For more information, visit our website at: or contact:

Karen Chaffkin
Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
P.O.Box 2393
Princeton, NJ 08543-2393
Phone: 609 716-4396
Fax: 609-799-0005

i jog at night while dressed in black. clever lad, eh? so i was gifted with a cateye ld100 flashing red safety light for christmas. i didn’t really want to wear it, but then again i didn’t really want to find bits of myself stuck to the undercarriage of a ford f-150 either. so i gave it a try.

as expected, the light seems to increase my visibility to impatient motorists. but there’s an unexpected side benefit as well: other walkers and runners now find me infinitely less threatening. see, any hard-running dude in a black hoodie represents a potential threat. but a hard-running dude with a flashing red safety light is immediately recognizable as a harmless dork. surely no predator would draw attention to himself in this way.

it surely makes my late-night encounters more friendly. i’ll still cross the street when i come upon a woman walking alone, but there’s no longer that awkward moment in which my intentions are subject to question. nevertheless, while the flashing light reassures people, their dogs are another matter. the light doesn’t seem to incite them, thank goodness, though a black lab once cocked his head and shot me a sneer, as if to say, whatta dork…

our second full class meeting of the inside-out class at the oregon state penitentiary went well. unfortunately, one of our outside students forgot her ID and was not allowed into the institution; she was very disappointed but a visitor’s ID is his/her ticket into and out of the prison, and there was no way to get it from corvallis (approx. 40 miles away) in time.

we made our way into the prison and up several flights of stairs to the education hall and waited for our inside students to join us. we started the class with a quick icebreaker and then the inside/outside students worked in small groups together to discuss a hypothetical scenario and figure out “who is most reprehensible” in the story. it was an interesting discussion of values and motivation, which led into a full group discussion of potential causes of crime/deviance. with that as the lead in, i then began discussion of the books and theories i’ve assigned.

one interesting point that came out was the inside (OSP) students’ belief that the outside (OSU) students should be admired for the tough choices they made to avoid trouble and to go to college. while the outside students have worked hard to get where they are, i tried to counter that for some of the outside students, college was really the easier and expected choice for them to make, but i don’t think the guys from inside quite bought it. i appreciated when one of my outside students said: “i think i’m getting too much credit for going to school.”

there are three books for the course: Classics of Criminology, 3rd ed.; Code of the Street; and Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation. all of my students find the classics difficult, so i spent a little time doing mini-lectures on a couple of the readings, translating the ideas into plain english. after a short water break, we had more small group discussion (with students in different groups) and then a closing circle in which everyone said a sentence or two about what they were thinking.

the comments from the closing circle reminded me that my job in this course is to *direct* the discussions and the flow of the class and then to try to stay out of the way of the learning that is taking place amongst the students. i’m used to being more center-stage in my classes, so it’s a little bit of a challenge to take that step back, but i know it’s important and the collaborative learning is the key to this entire experience.

one of the other comments from the closing circle was: “eight more weeks isn’t enough.” everyone is enjoying the class and the interactions so much, there is already consensus that the quarter is going to seem much too short. i chose the picture for this post of crocus in the snow partly for that reason — we’ve had snow during these first two weeks of class and i can see the crocus bulbs in my yard pushing their way through the soil. they’ll likely bloom before the class ends, giving hope for spring, and then they’ll fade into a memory. until next year, when they’ll be back, having multiplied, and bringing even more color and beauty into the world. it seems like an appropriate symbol/metaphor for this class.

speaking of metaphors, i thought i would share an excerpt from one of the inside student’s thoughts on the night before the first combined class. he wrote:

…it’s been fifteen plus years since my last ‘open’ conversation with people not associated with the penal system, family or friend. In a way that’s scary by itself. It’s kind of like a new pair of dance shoes I guess — you know the dance but will the shoes fit comfortably? Will they hurt a little at first and then settle in, or will they just be the wrong shoes all together? One will never know until he puts them on and takes ’em for a spin.

there’s a lot more i could write, but i recognize these posts get a little long. i’m hoping my outside students will add some comments and share their perspectives, too (unfotunately, it’s not possible for the inside students to do so since they do not have internet access). your thoughts and comments are invited and much appreciated!

when people plead guilty to felonies, they are typically thinking about whether, where, and for how long they will be doing time. most probably know that they will lose other rights and statuses, but they may not realize that the plea can lead to their deportation.

such is the case of luis alexander duenas-alvarez, a native of peru and permanent legal resident in the united states. he served three years for car theft in california, when immigration officials moved to deport him. this week, in gonzales vs. duenas-alvarez, the u.s. supreme court made it easier to deport aggravated felons, such as mr. duenas-alvarez. the ruling reverses the u.s. 9th circuit court of appeals, which had held that california’s law applied deportation too broadly.

i’ve written a lot about how convicted criminals can lose the right to vote, but i’m also interested in the myriad other collateral consequences of conviction — affecting employment, family life, housing, educational opportunities, receipt of public assistance and even citizenship status. deportation affects a relatively small number of convicted felons, though it surely ranks among the most serious and disruptive of the collateral sanctions.

bernard harcourt, my gracious host on a recent visit to chicago law, offered a provocative op-ed in the times this week. shouldn’t sociological criminologists be able to offer some explanation for the figure at left, showing the aggregate rate of institutionalization for prisons and mental hospitals? in my opinion, the questions posed by professor harcourt might also make for some outstanding dissertations:

Why did we diagnose deviance in such radically different ways over the course of the 20th century? Do we need to be imprisoning at such high rates, or were we right, 50 years ago, to hospitalize instead? Why were so many women hospitalized? Why have they been replaced by young black men? Have both prisons and mental hospitals included large numbers of unnecessarily incarcerated individuals?

as the detroit news reports, nathaniel abraham turns 21 on friday and will be released from state custody. we just talked about abraham’s case in my delinquency class last week. i often start the course with the basic facts of his case — in 1997 at age 11, nathaniel shot and killed 18-year-old ronnie green. in spite of his youth, he had a history of contacts with the police and had basically fallen through the cracks of the juvenile Justice system. his mother had sought help in controlling his behavior but was put on a waiting list. the wait proved to be too long and ronnie green and his family paid the ultimate price.

the interesting question in this case was what to do with an 11-year-old murderer. should he be held as responsible as an adult offender? under michigan law, nathaniel abraham was tried as an adult. when a jury found abraham guilty in 2000, the judge had a big decision to make — he could sentence nathaniel as an adult where he could face life in prison without the possibility of parole; he could sentence him as a juvenile in which case he would be out on his 21st birthday; or, he could give a blended sentence in which they would re-evaluate nathaniel at 21 and potentially move him into an adult prison.

judge eugene arthur moore sentenced nathaniel as a juvenile (for some of his reasoning see here) and has had regular contact with him over the last 7 years. now, after being raised in juvenile correctional facilities (and, yes, costing the people of michigan nearly a million dollars in their attempts to rehabilitate him), nathaniel will be a free man on friday.

as the article reports, he will walk into the world with no job and no ongoing education. and the world will be watching. nathaniel abraham is perhaps the test case for what the juvenile Justice system can do to rehabilitate young offenders in this day and age. will he be able to build a successful life in the community? what will it take? what do you think?

i’m welcoming 80 new juvenile delinquency students on tuesday. having taught some variant of the course since ’93, i’ve got lots of delinquency alums in the community — as social workers, officers, lawyers, and even sociology professors. cooler still, two former delinquency student just got engaged to one another. will this semester’s students find love and fulfilling careers? i’m not sayin’, i’m just sayin’…