Archive: Aug 2012

I’ve been teaching and taking college students into both “adult” state prisons and juvenile correctional facilities for a number of years now.  One thing that always stands out is how very young many of the men in prison were when they committed their crimes.  In a visit with the penitentiary’s Lifers Club, I could look around the room and see former students of mine who were 14, 15, and 16 at the times of their crimes and have been or will be locked up for most of their lives.  The photo above is from the tumblr site, “We are the 1 in 100” that my students and I created to represent perspectives from those inside of prison and those affected by the prison sentences of their family members, friends, and classmates.  The sentiment was written by one of my inside students, based on his own experience (although the card is held by a young man on the outside).  He was convicted as an adult at age 14 and sentenced to a minimum of 30 years.  He’s about 10 years into his sentence now, and he is a remarkable young man – smart, motivated, driven to do something meaningful with his life.  I’ll be working with him again this fall, and I’m looking forward to what he can teach me and my other students.

At the same time, for the past 6 years, I have taught Oregon State University’s incoming freshmen football players in a summer bridge program designed to help them make a smooth transition to college and the accompanying responsibilities.  Every summer I have arranged to take them to one or more of our state prisons and juvenile correctional facilities to talk with inmates, see the institutions,  and to get outside of the classroom to learn about social problems.  It is easily the most impactful experience of the class.

It’s generally the case that at least a few of my student-athletes in the summer have not yet turned 18.  I make an effort to talk to their parents and to ensure that I get waivers signed before our field trips; parents seem to trust that if a woman like me can spend that much time in prison, their young and often very large sons will probably be okay.

So here’s the irony…the maximum-security prison will not allow my 17-year-old students to visit/tour the facility and meet the inmates.  I’m not entirely sure of the reasoning – the waiver releases the Department of Corrections of responsibility should any incidents arise (although they never have) and parents sign on behalf of their minor sons.  Perhaps, the prison administration does not want minors to be exposed to inmates and the harsh realities of prison life.  Yet, the young man convicted at 14 has lived in that very prison for a number of years.  How can we possibly treat 17-year-old college students as incapable of making a decision about a 1-day experience, yet judge young teenagers as fully responsible for their criminal behavior.

The debate about life sentences for juvenile offenders is both important and timely.  Perhaps with a fresh look, we can critically evaluate the accumulated evidence (including the emerging data on brain development and maturity) and create new, thoughtful, considered sentencing structures and policies for juvenile offenders who have committed serious crimes.

Over on facebook, my friends Raka and Jay asked similar questions about the long-term drop in violence discussed in the previous post.

“They asked, and you answered, about “violence” But what they seem to be thinking about is mass killings by individuals. Are those also on the decline in the US? Who has data on that?”


“I’d be interested in knowing the rise and fall rates of different kinds of crimes — one on one homicide versus the movie theater/Sikh temple sort. Michael Hout? Chris Uggen?”

Fortunately, criminologist James Alan Fox has conducted precisely this sort of analysis. His chart below shows the annual number of mass shootings, offenders, and victims in each year from 1980 to 2010. 


Professor Fox describes how mass shootings remain quite rare in the U.S. (about 20 incidents and 100 victims per year) relative to other homicides (about 15,000 victims per year), as illustrated in the figure above. Since 1980, I see variation, but no strong upward or downward trend — a non-pattern that we sometimes call “trendless fluctuation,” at least until we can identify its correlates (e.g., a pattern that looks like this). 

This is important to bear in mind, as Dr. Fox points out, before (a) we assume there’s been a big increase in mass shootings; and, (b) we attribute this rise to factors that appear to be steadily increasing or declining, such as weapons technology or the availability of mental health care. I’ve no doubt that weapons and mental health care play a big role in such cases, but it is hard to see how either factor could explain the pattern shown above — that is, to predict something that goes up and down with something that just goes up or just goes down over the same period.

The only points I’d add to Professor Fox’s careful analysis is to note that when the numbers are this small the picture could change very quickly. First, it might change if one examined different thresholds or constructed other definitions of mass killings. Second, the chart would look radically different if, heaven forbid, there are more events in the next year or two that push the total number of victims past 150. So, it is probably best to be cautious before making any predictions about the future. All that said, however, it doesn’t appear that we’re currently in the midst of a steep rise in mass killings.

I’m often hesitant to do interviews in the immediate aftermath of a horrific crime, but I was glad when WCCO-TV asked “Are we more violent than ever before?” as part of their Good Question series. Jason DeRusha (and his colleague Liz Collin) do a terrific job with this feature, interviewing diverse experts on questions ranging from dandelions and tick spray to ammunition purchases and solitary confinement.

Since one can’t really provide a reading list on-air, I’ll offer a few supporting citations for those interested in trends in violence and homicide. On long-term historical trends, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature is an accessible starting point. In my research and teaching, I’ve been most influenced by Manuel Eisner’s work, particularly his 2003 review in Crime and Justice. For more recent years, good data are widely available, especially for homicide. For the United States, I go directly to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Criminal Victimization series.

Minneapolis photographers Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber recently shot some powerful images and the short film above to complement an ACLU report on the steep rise in elderly prisoners in the United States. The haunting photo below is from a similar series and film on the emergence of prisons and jails as the nation’s default mental health care facilities.

In my view, both series dramatize how prisons must increasingly serve populations and perform functions for which they are poorly suited. Operating hospices, nursing homes, and psychiatric hospitals is certainly difficult enough on the outside. Attempting to replicate such institutions within prisons is often inordinately more difficult and costly. 

There are, of course, alternative approaches. I’ll offer my two cents on the subject at the American Sociological Association meetings on August 18, but I’m really looking forward to learning from my fellow panelists (Bruce Western, Katherine Beckett, and Marie Gottschalk). Powerful images like these should do more than dramatize prison conditions — they should motivate us to think critically and to actively pursue alternatives.

I try to avoid full-on shameless job plugs in this space, but I’ve gotta mention that I’m chairing an assistant professor search this fall in the area of law, crime and deviance (deadline 10/1). Send me a note offline if you’d like to chat about the job (especially if you’ll be attending the sociology meetings later this month). My department is also conducting a joint junior search with statistics (chaired by Dave Knoke, deadline 10/15). And, as if that’s not enough, the Minnesota Population Center is seeking two or more open-rank positions (tenure-track or tenured) positions in population studies and demography.

If your department happens to be hiring in criminology and/or law, I’ll even more shamelessly plug two really extraordinary scholars on the market this fall: Heather McLaughlin (in law, gender, and life course) and Sarah Shannon (in crime, inequality, and social welfare). I’ve worked very closely with them both and would love to tell you more about their research, teaching, and pubcrim activities.