Archive: Oct 2009

shelt1jpg-eddebc90d2954863_largeHere’s a feel-good story for Halloween: The Oregonian reports on a program out of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office where inmate trustees from the county jail give more than 800 hours a month to the local animal shelter.  The story credits the inmates with saving the lives of countless animals:

“It helps us tremendously,” says Sgt. Barbara Perry of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, the interim shelter manager. “We have been able to reduce the amount of euthanasia dramatically because the inmates come and do a lot of the work we would normally do.

“That allows us to dedicate more time to very important programs such as fostering, second chance programs and rescue groups. Those are vital programs that we should be utilizing rather euthanizing because we don’t have space or time.”

The program seems to be a win-win-win: good for the animals, good for the county, and good for the inmates who are involved.  It may lead to brighter futures for the inmates as well as the rescued dogs and cats.  Duane Parton III (pictured) is taking part in the program while serving more than 200 days for not paying fines on a DUI and misdemeanor charges.

“I love animals,” says Parton, who has learned to give vaccinations and how to detect illness in the rescued canines. He’s recently decided he may take veterinarian classes when he enrolls in community college.

“I am actually glad I am in jail because I get to do this,” says the 26-year-old skateboarder. “How often do you hear that?”

Not often enough.  Sounds like a great program to me.  Thanks to the Oregonian for reporting on it  and offering a hopeful story on second chances.  Happy Halloween, everyone!

LynchNews from the White House:  President Obama has announced his intent to nominate James P. Lynch as Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice.  Here’s the official bio:

James P. Lynch, Nominee for Director, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice

James Lynch is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at John Jay College, City University of New York.  He was previously a professor in the Department of Justice, Law, and Society at American University from 1986 to 2005 and chair of the Department from 2003 to 2005.  Dr. Lynch is currently serving as the Vice President-elect of the American Society of Criminology (ASC).  He previously served on the Committee on Law and Justice Statistics of the American Statistical Association and as a member of the National Academy of Science panel evaluating the programs of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Dr. Lynch has published three books and numerous articles on crime statistics, victimization surveys, victimization risk, and the role of sanctions in social control and is also co-editor of the Journal of Quantitative Criminology.  He received his B.A. degree from Wesleyan University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Chicago.

In my opinion, Jim Lynch is the perfect choice to direct BJS.  Along with John Laub’s nomination to head NIJ, two very smart and distinguished criminologists are suddenly in place to hold key administrative positions.   What great examples of public and policy criminology…I look forward to their leadership.

Good luck, Jim!

ssTim Pawlenty may have switched off the TVs at Moose Lake’s Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), but he clearly switched on public sentiment about punishment of sex offenders.

Today’s Star Tribune reports that, upon hearing of new flat screen TVs installed at the $45 million sex offender treatment facility, Pawlenty ordered that they be dismantled and an investigation undertaken to discover whose “boneheaded” idea it was to purchase and install them in the first place. While on the surface this looks like a classic case of mismanagement of public dollars during tough economic times, there’s much more going on here when it comes to public sentiment and the criminal justice system.

In a nutshell, this story illustrates the tension between rationalization and emotion in modern punishment.

On the one hand, we expect prison administrators to mind the state’s prisoners, keep the public safe and manage state resources efficiently. Most of the time, we don’t know (and maybe don’t care) what’s going on behind prison walls. Social theorists like Max Weber and Michel Foucault have given us some useful ideas for understanding this phenomenon. As modern society has developed over time, our system of punishment, like other social institutions, have become increasingly routinized, centralized, and largely removed from public view and participation. Prison professionals employ various techniques to maintain order, classify prisoners, and manage daily operations effectively. In fact, MSOP officials cited the maintenance of institutional order as a principal reason for installing the flat screen TVs in common areas. It’s no big secret that prisons use many methods for keeping prisoners occupied, including weight rooms, educational programs, and, yes, television. From the standpoint of institutional control, TVs are a useful and arguably cost-effective way of managing inmate behavior, despite their $58,652 price tag.

On the other hand, we expect prisoners to suffer, especially when their offenses are considered particularly heinous, as in the case of sex offenders. Sociologist Emile Durkheim thought of punishment as a collective emotional response to violations of society’s most deeply held values and morals. Our moral passions are aroused, said Durkheim, when our collective sense of right and wrong is breached. Debatably, there is no better contemporary example of this than the punishment of sex offenders. No other group of offenders is more reviled or feared.

Yet, aside from occasional high-profile investigations and court room dramas, the public is generally unaware of what happens in the day-to-day practice of punishing sex offenders. As a result, our collective passions go relatively unexpressed in the process of punishment. According to sociologist and legal scholar David Garland, the rationalization of punishment has largely suppressed our punitive emotions by hiding the actual process of punishment behind thick bureaucratic walls and delegating its administration to specific professionals. It’s only when media reports like this one provide us with a peek inside those walls that public sentiment is aroused and unleashed.

Politicians, like Pawlenty, are well aware of the power of public emotion surrounding crime and punishment. University of Minnesota sociologist Joshua Page analyzed how legislators capitalized on similar sentiments in outlawing prisoner access to Pell Grants in 1994. Marshaling public fear about scarce education funds, legislators utilized the popular media to stage what Page calls a “legislative penal drama,” pitting undeserving prisoners against deserving middle class youth in the battle for higher education dollars. In doing so, these legislators won significant political clout among key constituents, in spite of substantial research showing that college education in prison reduces recidivism and promotes institutional order.

While TVs in prison may not reduce recidivism or have any treatment value aside from maintaining order, Pawlenty’s public denouncement of flat screens for sex offenders looks very much like Page’s notion of a penal drama. The governor has caught the MSOP robbing hapless taxpayers for the sake of pacifying irredeemable sex offenders. As the Star Tribune article demonstrates, lawmakers from the other side of the aisle are all too willing to join in the settling of scores. One need only glance at the online comments left by readers to see the ferocity of punitive passion at work. Such theatrics can hardly be coincidental given Pawlenty’s well-known White House hopes. This is undoubtedly not the last such political media play on crime and punishment that we will see in the months to come.

Sarah Shannon

Garland, David. 1993. Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Page, Joshua. 2004. Eliminating the Enemy: The Import of Denying Prisoners Access to Higher Education in Clinton’s America. Punishment & Society, 6:357-378.

PEPAfter weeks of feeling I had nothing interesting to say/blog about, I suddenly have several stories that I would like to comment on and invite others to respond to.  I’ll start with the one that raises the most questions for me, and I’ll try to get to the others in the near future.

I first read about the Prison Entrepreunership Program in a feature story in Miller-McCune earlier this year.  Here’s how author Vince Beiser described the program and its results in the Miller-McCune article:

So far, the program has put 440 male inmates through four months of classes in which volunteer executives and MBA students from the likes of Harvard and Stanford help them develop business plans. Applicants are carefully screened. They must be within a year of their release, renounce gang affiliations and submit to several tests and interviews. Only about 1 in 7 is accepted. Nearly half are kicked out over the course of the program for infractions ranging from cheating on tests to maintaining gang ties.

PEP also provides crucial support after release. Staff members pick up each graduate at the prison gate and help him find a place to stay. At the organization’s headquarters in a north Houston office park, program grads choose suits from a room full of donated business clothes. Post-release classes and mentoring opportunities are available. Rohr and her husband even take the men out to the beach or the movies sometimes and organize holiday parties for them.

By the organization’s count, almost all of the program’s graduates have found jobs after their release, and 57 have started their own businesses, ranging from landscaping to dog training. Just shy of 9 percent have so far wound up behind bars again — an impressive statistic in a state with a recidivism rate of around 30 percent. “No question, it’s an innovative model with a lot of promise,” says Amy Solomon, a researcher at the Urban Institute specializing in prisoner re-entry issues.

That record is bringing the program major support. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice gave it an award for being the state’s “most innovative” volunteer program in 2007. The group’s budget, donated by individuals and foundations (including a recent $750,000 grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation), swelled from nothing in 2004 to $2.5 million last year. PEP now has 26 employees, many of them program graduates.

And now, this disappointing news reported in the Austin American-Statesman:  Catherine Rohr, the PEP program’s founder and driving force, abruptly resigned after she was banned from entering state prisons for having “improper relationships” with four graduates of her program.  The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has banned Rohr from prisons and from working with parolees, with a spokeswoman stating: “Our policies are clear: Volunteers cannot have personal or intimate relationships with current or former offenders.”

There are plenty of ethical and moral issues here, and Rohr made poor decisions that may now threaten her entire program.  She certainly seems to have shattered her own life.  But what bothers me most is the punitive action of the state.  I know other states have similar policies, but it seems to me a rather long reach for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to banish Rohr so completely for having inappropriate relationships with men who are no longer under their supervision.  It just doesn’t seem like it should be the state’s business at that  point.  I know the focus isn’t on the men – it’s on Rohr in her role as a volunteer with the agency – but I think the banishment sends a clear message about the absolute lack of confidence the agency has in the rehabilitation of the men released from its own institutions.

I hate stories like these.  As a female teacher/volunteer in state prisons, I feel like I’m always forced to deal with an extra layer of suspicion that my male counterparts are somehow exempt from (at least in male prisons).  It’s frustrating when stories like this one add fuel to those generalized suspicions.  Even worse, though, I suspect the loss of Rohr will do a tremendous amount of damage to the PEP program.  Hopefully, the program has enough momentum and support to keep it going under new leadership.  It seems to be making a difference for a population that  needs all the hope and skills training it can get.

ceoI attended an amazing conference on employment and criminal records yesterday and could blog at length about several of the papers. My favorite moment, however, came in a discussion with Mindy Tarlow, the CEO of CEO — New York’s Center for Employment Opportunities.

Ms. Tarlow has been providing employment services for recent prison releasees at CEO for about 15 years. As the Times reported last year, They do job readiness training, transitional employment, job placement, and retention. The transitional jobs are especially important for new releasees — they can be on the job site just days after incarceration and they get a paycheck at the end of each day to address their pressing financial needs.

I’ve long appreciated the program’s approach, but hadn’t seen what I’d consider really solid evidence on its effectiveness until yesterday. CEO now has 2 years of data from an independent randomized evaluation by MDRC — and they’re showing significant treatment-control differences in new confictions and incarceration.

When I remarked that it takes real guts for an agency to voluntarily subject itself to rigorous assessment, Mindy said, “I know. MDRC gave me this button that says I survived random assignment.”

Laubvia Katie Kaukinen: President Obama announced his intent to nominate the great life course criminologist John Laub to head the National Institute of Justice. I can’t imagine a better candidate for NIJ director.

John H. Laub – Director, National Institute of Justice, Department of Justice.
John Laub is the Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is also an Affiliate Faculty Member in the Department of Sociology at the University and a Visiting Scholar in the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard. Dr. Laub was previously a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts from 1981 to 1998. He has served as the President and as a fellow of the American Society of Criminology, which awarded him the Edwin H. Sutherland Award. He was also named a Distinguished Scholar-Teacher at the University of Maryland for the 2006-2007 academic year. Dr. Laub was the Editor of the Journal of Quantitative Criminology for five years and currently serves as an Associate Editor of Criminology. From 2002 to 2008, Dr. Laub was a member of the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Academies of Science. He has published two award winning books and many research articles in the areas of crime and the life course, juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice, criminal victimization, and the history of criminology. He received his B.A. degree from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in criminal justice from the State University of New York at Albany.