Archive: Jul 2008

I. the good news:

a. the city of minneapolis honors 39 officers today for outstanding valor in the line of duty.

b. official reports of violent crime continue to drop — about 14 percent from january-june 2008 in comparison to january-june, 2007. this follows a drop of similar magnitude between 2006 and 2007. the numbers look (surprisingly) good for just about every part I crime.

II. the bad news:

city attorneys are advising that the city pay $2 million to settle a lawsuit by five african american police officers alleging discriminatory treatment. such news is disturbing in both its costs to taxpayers and its meaning for the department and the city. i don’t have any inside information about the case, but cities are rarely eager to settle on numbers this large without some evidentiary basis for the allegations. as of friday, the city council had yet to approve the settlement.

i’ve got some excellent former students on the minneapolis police force, so i’d like to think they’ve played some part in the good news reported above — and, of course, that they bear no responsibility for the bad news.

California’s prison system is the most over-crowded (170,000 in a system designed for 100,000) and its inmates have the highest recidivism rate (70%) in the country. Why? A public that favors longer sentences, mistrusts corrections officials to make good public safety decisions, and increasing politicization of crime that results in politicians who advocate sentencing reform at their peril.

These constraints have, in part, been taken out of the hands of the public and political system in CA. As a result of class action suits, the prison system here is increasingly in the hands of third parties. Health care of inmates was transferred to a receiver because of widespread problems. In an historic decision, CA awaits the recommendations of a panel of federal judges regarding prison over-crowding.

How might the state respond to orders from the judicial system to change its practices and reduce overcrowding?

Reduce the number of people sent to prison. The options for sending fewer people to prison are limited. As a result of the common use of ballot propositions in CA, some sentencing policies are unavailable to legislative manipulation. Most notably, overturning the well-known Three-Strikes law would require a 2/3 vote by the state legislature – unlikely to occur when almost 70% of Californians voted for it. Policies not hampered by propositions get little traction.

Release inmates early. Governor Schwarzenegger lobbied this but the idea fell by the wayside about 24 hours before his latest budget proposal was released. Opinions differ but I suspect it also has to do with political viability – even if crime doesn’t go up overall with the release of 22,000 low-risk inmates, there is the nagging political (and public safety) problem of the one guy who does something horrible.

Build more prisons. A ($7.8 billion) reform bill that includes substantial funds to build more prisons has been passed but progress has stalled over implementation and budget difficulties.

Supervise parolees differently. The debate now is, quietly, over this remedy. Some of the increase in the prison population is due to an increased likelihood of parolees being returned to prison for technical violations. CA supervises the vast majority of released inmates – by watching them for a shorter period, they will notice less crime. By declining to send parolees back to prison, they reduce the prison population.

I’ll be watching closely – the sociologist in me says that (federal) judges will have a difficult time imposing sentencing reform on a public and political climate that does not want it. On the other hand, it is intriguing to watch a state struggle with these issues when the influence of public zeal for punitive punishment is substantially reduced and a budget crisis is forcing the state to make very real choices between more prison beds and laying off public elementary school teachers. Stay tuned.

jay wrote this morning, regarding david carr’s piece in sunday’s times magazine. i don’t think our paths ever crossed, though we certainly ran in the same minneapolis music/journalism circles. mr. carr, now a respected writer with a regular times column, offers a disturbingly honest first-person account of his addiction and criminal history. his book, the night of the gun, will be released this august. if the times excerpt is representative, the memoir will offer an unflinching look at some ugly truths. an excerpt:

If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story? What if instead I wrote that I was a recovered addict who obtained sole custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we’re talking. Both are equally true, but as a member of a self-interpreting species, one that fights to keep disharmony at a remove, I’m inclined to mention my tenderhearted attentions as a single parent before I get around to the fact that I hit their mother when we were together. We tell ourselves that we lie to protect others, but the self usually comes out looking damn good in the process.

just about every prison has a hole, a box, or a seg unit. these are thought to deter inmates from disruptive behavior, incapacitate those dangerous to themselves or others, and, sometimes, to protect inmates who might be especially vulnerable. if a prison is a microcosm of society, the seg unit is therefore the prison’s prison.

minnesota’s ancient correctional facility in stillwater just built a new $19,600,000 segregation unit to house the institution’s most disruptive residents. such costs strike those on the left as an outrageous expenditure in dehumanization, while striking those on the right as an outrageous expenditure in mollycoddling. having visited this facility and other century-old units on several occasions, however, i agree with prison administration on the need for such a facility. if you think the new seg unit is dehumanizing, you should’ve seen the old one — violent, frighteningly loud, with fires, floods, and flying feces a constant threat to staff and inmates.
during visits, i thought it unimaginable that people could spend any length of time in such conditions and still be expected to function as productive citizens upon their release. one hopes that the colder but safer space in the new unit may ultimately play some role in reentry and reintegration. a kare-11 report (with a bit of video from the old seg unit) quotes stillwater’s warden on this point:

“It wasn’t designed for being more comfortable, but designed as being more humane,” Warden John King explained. “That’s an important thing, to treat offenders humanely because they’re going to be back on the streets and in our communities,” he added.

bruce western offers a fine piece in the new boston review — a characteristically thoughtful analysis of mass incarceration, nicely presented for non-experts. bruce argues that the failure of the great experiment in mass incarceration is rooted in three fallacies of the tough-on-crime perspective:

1. the fallacy of us and them.
2. the fallacy of personal defect.
3. the myth of the free market.

the argument, and the article, is well worth a read, as are the review’s other contributions: no further harm by mary katzenstein and mary lyndon shanley, and guarded hope by robert perkinson.

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.

scott jaschik offers another nice inside higher ed piece today, based on a new american sociological association report on employment opportunities in academic sociology. an excerpt:

More than one third of the assistant professor positions did not specify a subfield. But the top subfield specified (nearly three times more than the runner up) was criminology/delinquency, and the sixth most popular subfield was a related one, law and society. The concern of those who prepared the report is that evidence suggests grad students are focused elsewhere.

i spoke with mr. jaschik on friday, so my opinions on this issue are well-represented in the article. i won’t say more, except to add a few words of reassurance for sociology grad students with specialties outside criminology. though crim is the top specialty area identified, there were 227 positions listed as “field open” in the ASA report, often in top departments. my sense is that these open positions often go to areas such as stratification, demography, and political sociology.

that caveat aside, the ASA report is also reassuring to me as an advisor — the market continues to be exceptionally strong for sociological criminologists. here are the top specialties specified in job postings for sociology assistant professors in 2006:

Field and Number of Positions
Field open 227
Criminology/delinquency 86
Quantitative methods/statistics 29
Theory 21
Urban/community 19
Race and ethnicity 19
Law and society 15
Medical 13
Race, class and gender 12
Demography 11
Family 11
Social psychology 11
Culture 10
Organizations/Economic 10
Stratification/Labor Markets 9
Policy Analysis/Public Policy 8
Education 7
Environment 7
Latino/Latina 7
Political/Social Movements 7
Aging/Social Gerontology 6
Applied Sociology/Evaluation Research 5
Social Welfare/Social Work 5
Other Fields 75
Total 610

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.

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.

in gideon v. wainright (1963), the u.s. supreme court ruled that state courts are required under the constitution’s sixth amendment to provide counsel for criminal defendants who can’t afford their own attorneys. the decision greatly expanded public defender offices to provide for such defense.

now abc news is reporting that the severe budget problems faced by these offices may be compromising their ability to provide adequate counsel:

Statewide public defenders in Kentucky and Minnesota and local offices in cities such as Atlanta and Miami say budget cuts are forcing them to fire or furlough trial lawyers, leaving the offices unable to handle misdemeanor and, in some instances, serious felony cases.

The cuts leave states scrambling to find a solution to a constitutional dilemma: The Sixth Amendment requires the government to either provide poor defendants with lawyers or release them.

in the jurisdictions i know best, they’ve trimmed away every ounce of fat in the budgets over the past five years. so today they are cutting muscle and bone — paralegals, investigative staff, administrative support, and, finally, the attorneys themselves. for a strapped mayor or city council, it can be easier to cut the defender’s office than to trim the DA’s budget or that of the police. that’s why it could take some major wrongful conviction lawsuits — or another clarence earl gideon — to preserve the right to counsel for indigent defendants.