Archive: Mar 2008

inside higher ed reports on criminal background checks for faculty members.

i was surprised a few years ago when a student applying for an academic position sweated-out a very thorough criminal background investigation. during my job search in the mid-1990s, i can’t recall any discussion of criminal history — except for the senior scholar who chided me, saying “young criminologists these days haven’t done enough crime to make any sense of it.”

i can understand why colleges and universities might want a basic screen on applicants, but my student was called upon to explain every single arrest. on this point, i agree with the senior scholar who interviewed me: screening out criminologists with arrest histories is sort of like screening out economists who’ve handled currency.

i’m perplexed at the attention to the pew foundation’s recent 1-in-100 study, since i figured that by now most of us had at least a dim sense of the social distribution of criminal punishment. the risk is far greater than 1 percent for many segments of the population and far lower than 1 percent for many other segments.

the 1 percent figure is misleading because it aggregates a bunch of zeros with a bunch of 50 percents. c’mon, just think about the denominator for a second. if we exclude those at essentially zero risk of prison, the percentage quickly rises. do you really think that your great grandmother in the birchwood convalescent center is at any risk for incarceration in a state penitentiary? the likelihood of incarceration is far greater for the working-age population, and far, far greater for the working-age male population, and far, far, far greater for the working-age african american male population.

and that’s just the denominator. now think about the numerator. we’re talking about people sleeping in a cell tonight, and not talking about anyone who slept in a cell last night (but not tonight) and who will sleep in a cell tomorrow night (but not tonight). when you add in the formerly or recently incarcerated, and those who’ve served lengthy probation sentences, the risk of imprisonment far exceeds 1-in-100. in 2006, melissa, jeff, and i estimated the felon and ex-felon population at 7.5 percent of the adult population, 22 percent of the black adult population, and 33 percent of the black adult male population.

another way to think of such risks concerns the election. according to paul campos:

During football games, the University of Michigan’s stadium hosts about 111,000 people. If you filled the place with randomly selected 60-year-old white women, around 10 of them would turn out to be prison inmates. If you did the same with 46-year-old black men, about 5,500 would be current residents of our prisons and jails. In other words, if we took into account only race, gender and age, Obama’s chances of being in prison would be 550 times higher than Clinton’s. Here’s a good question for a presidential debate: “Do you think 46-year-old black men are 550 times more likely to deserve to be in prison than 60-year-old white women?”

the atlanta journal-constitution reports on rufus terrill, a local tavern owner with a novel approach to neighborhood crime.

He mounted an old meat smoker atop a three-wheel scooter and attached a spotlight, an infrared camera, water cannon and a loudspeaker. He covered the contraption with impact-resistant rubber and painted the whole thing jet black.

in this video clip, the robo-smoker doesn’t come off as terribly intimidating. in fact, i can’t imagine it surviving long in an actual high-crime neighborhood, since its li’l water gun would never stand up against a sustained attack by a louisville slugger.

in atlanta, as elsewhere, the police generally frown on vigilantism — even robotic vigilantism-by-proxy:

Atlanta police officials said they haven’t received any complaints about the robot. But police spokeswoman Lisa Keyes said Terrill would be committing an assault if he intentionally sprays water on someone when in control of the robot.

i’m not sayin’ that there’s a racial angle to this story, but there’s certainly a socioeconomic angle. the bar is in close proximity to the metro atlanta task force for the homeless and mr. terrill’s regulars apparently refer to the robot as the bum-bot. while i can’t applaud the use of his private security robot on the public streets, i’ve got to give mr. terrill 10 out of 10 for ingenuity.

despite a student’s recommendation, i never got around to reading margaret b. jones’ gang memoir, love and consequences. as it turns out, the “refugee from gangland” appears to have made the whole thing up.

via the times:

In a sometimes tearful, often contrite telephone interview from her home on Monday, Ms. Seltzer, 33, who is known as Peggy, admitted that the personal story she told in the book was entirely fabricated. She insisted, though, that many of the details in the book were based on the experiences of close friends she had met over the years while working to reduce gang violence in Los Angeles.

“For whatever reason, I was really torn and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to,” Ms. Seltzer said. “I was in a position where at one point people said you should speak for us because nobody else is going to let us in to talk. Maybe it’s an ego thing — I don’t know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it.”

oh, i get it — sort of a noble thing. one can’t help but think of james frey, who fictionalized a good bit of his memoir a couple years ago. still, it bears repeating: there’s nothing more pathetic than a pretend badass.

Fraudwell, this is disappointing. i read last week’s nytimes review of love and consequences and i was looking forward to reading the book. from the excerpt, it seemed like an interesting, well-written book that dealt with issues of race, class, and gender, and might have been appropriate reading for a number of my classes on crime and delinquency. i also read the feature piece on author, margaret b. jones, and the life she created in eugene, oregon. it sounded nice.

unfortunately, it turns out the author fabricated the entire story. amazingly, no one caught the deception until after her “memoir” had been published and reviewed. as the nytimes reports:

In “Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.

The problem is that none of it is true.

Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members.

this story just gives everyone involved a bad name. there was a compelling story to be told here, but why did the author have to claim it as her own? sometimes the real truth is found in fiction — that’s a lesson i learned in a journalism class as an undergraduate — but the distinction between truth and fiction should always be clear. credibility once lost is likely gone forever. the publishers have recalled all copies of the book, so now the author has become the story after all.

president bush released the 2008 national drug control strategy this weekend. the table at left uses data from the venerable monitoring the future study to establish a six-year decline in prevalence rates for the most common licit and illicit drugs.

i was a bit skeptical of this chart at first, since it only shows two years, the mtf only samples in-school youth, and it seems hinky to pool respondents in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade. nevertheless, the downward trend is real — especially since the peaks of the mid-1990s.

the most recent mtf press release indicates steep declines in marijuana, speed, and meth, alcohol, and cigarettes. drugs “holding steady” from 2006-2007 include powder and crack cocaine, lsd, heroin, ecstasy, steroids, and most of the prescription-type drugs such as oxycontin and vicodin. still, prevalence rates for these drugs were well off their earlier peaks as well.

one finding from the introduction to the national drug control strategy might be of interest to demographers: figure 4. baby boomers are carrying higher rates of drug use with them as they age. i can’t link directly to the figure, but here’s the accompanying text:

One of the more disturbing data trends identified in the past several years is a dramatic rise in current drug use among adults aged 50-54 (see Figure 4). This trend does not necessarily mean that people are taking up drug use as they enter middle age, but rather that a segment of the population that experienced high rates of drug use in their youth continue to carry high rates of use with them as they get older. While drug use is a burden that the baby boomer generation has borne into middle age, the generation coming of age today will benefit from comparatively lower rates of drug use for the rest of their lives.

this seems like a classic age/cohort/period illustration that might be useful in the classroom. when i report substance use data from the late-1970s and early-1980s, i now tell students that many drugs were more prevalent in their parents’ high schools in 1982 than in their own high schools in 2007. i sometimes have difficulty convincing the students of this, which is sort of sweet. when they do believe me, however, i advise them to repeat my lecture around the dinner table at a big family gathering — you know, like when grandma and grandpa are in the room. that way, both the kids and the elders can have a little fun with the baked-est generation.

it seems everyone is writing about the story that the U.S. currently imprisons 1 in 100 adults. i’m glad the story is making news and getting attention, but ultimately ashamed of the statistic. rather than write about the general trends, i thought i would point out a few facts about oregon and imprisonment. with my involvement teaching inside-out classes and teaching introductory sociology in the oregon state penitentiary, i spend a lot of time in prison these days and this all hits close to home for me.

it turns out that oregon earned a dubious distinction in this study: according to the oregonian newspaper, oregon spends a bigger percentage of its state budget to lock up criminals and supervise those on parole than any other state. we’re number one. and unfortunately, still growing. oregon’s mandatory minimum sentences already deeply affect state prison populations, and in november we will vote on two alternatives to create mandatory minimums for drug offenses and property offenses. projected growth for the prison population is 12% to 44%, which would put oregon at the top of the list for prison growth as well as spending.

this affects us all, of course, in big and small ways. where are the priorities for our state? as an oregonian editorial reports: we’re one of five states that spends more on imprisoning people than on sending them to college. as a professor at a state university, i can attest that we have faced budget cuts and crises nearly every year for the past six years. as a frequent volunteer/teacher in the state’s maximum-security prison, i can also attest that mandatory minimums–with few options for treatment or rehabilitation for the offenders who will someday return to our communities–are absolutely not the best use of our collective resources.

i hope we join texas (texas!!) and other states in focusing on getting smart on crime rather than spending so much of our budget trying to be the toughest.

for the first time in team history, the local call-in shows, letters to the editor, and message boards are awash in criticism of the minnesota wild. minnesota hockey fans are in revolt over the team’s recent trade for chris simon (left), the most notorious goon in hockey.

in truth, the term goon doesn’t do mr. simon Justice. for there is honor among goons and the wild’s latest acquisition has consistently violated the clear-cut norms and behavioral expectations of the enforcer role. as a criminologist, i’d characterize mr. simon as a violent recidivist. think that’s too strong? here’s how the strib summarizes his career accomplishments:

  • 30 games (December 2007): The longest suspension in NHL history, after Simon, playing for the Islanders, stomped on Pittsburgh’s Jarkko Ruutu with his skate on Dec. 15.
  • 25 games (March 2007): Then, the longest suspension in league history, for his two-handed stick attack to the face of Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg.
  • 5 preseason games (1994): While with Quebec, swung his stick at Ottawa’s Dennis Vial but missed.
  • 3 games (1997): With Washington, he used a racial slur toward Edmonton’s Mike Grier, who is black.
  • 2 games (2004): Crosschecked Tampa Bay’s Ruslan Fedotenko and then jumped on him and punched him.
  • 2 games (2004): Kneed Dallas’ Sergei Zubov.
  • 2 games (2001): Elbowed Florida’s Anders Eriksson.
  • 1 game (2000): In the playoffs with the Capitals, he was suspended for crosschecking Pittsburgh’s Peter Popovic across the throat.

the press even covers mr. simon as though he were a criminal rather than an athlete. the times, for example, writes that mr. simon needs help and counseling, while sports illustrated calls mr. simon a “hockey recidivist,” tracing his criminal history back to the junior leagues:

… In the Ontario junior hockey league Simon was a disciplinary nightmare. Although the OHL was unable to provide records, The Sault Star (of Sault Sainte Marie, Ont.) reported that in 1991-92 he was suspended eight times for a total of 34 games — 32 by the league and two by the team. The previous season, when the Soo Greyhounds acquired Simon from the Ottawa 67s, he was serving a 12-game suspension for having slashed Niagara Falls Thunder defenseman David Babcock in the face, breaking seven teeth and opening a gash that required 21 stitches.

i always teach a bit on chronic offenders in my delinquency class, citing marvin wolfgang et al.’s (1972) finding that 6 percent of the 1945 philadelphia birth cohort was responsible for 52 percent of that cohort’s police contacts. would a similar pattern of chronic offending hold in hockey?

my quick-n-dirty analysis of cbs sports‘ 2007-2008 penalty statistics indicates that 6 percent of hockey players are responsible for about 21 percent of the penalty minutes. if i throw 30-game suspensions into the mix, of course, the top 6 percent would be responsible for a significantly larger share of the penalty and suspension minutes.

violence is deeply engrained in hockey culture, so minnesotans can appreciate good physical hockey. after all, the real-life hanson brothers learned to play in virginia, minnesota (warning: bad language and worse violence in this clip, but this one seems to feature paul wellstone as a referee). while the violent hansons shocked their fellow players, however, chris simon reminds me of slap shot’s other goon: the feared ogie oglethorpe.

i almost expect the wild announcer to introduce him with a riff on jim carr’s movie intro: “Oh this young man has had a very trying rookie season, with the litigation, the notoriety, his subsequent deportation to Canada and that country’s refusal to accept him. Well, I guess that’s more than most 21-year-olds can handle. Number six, Ogie Oglethorpe.