The number of U.S. state prison inmates fell for the first time in 38 years, according to a new report by The Pew Center on the States. A few figures from the report:

Pew attributes the drop to greater diversion of low-level offenders and probation and parole violators from prison; stronger community supervision and re-entry programs; and, a quicker release of low-risk inmates who complete risk reduction programs. State budget problems have likely played an important role in accelerating each of these trends.

While the magnitude of the 2009 change is small — a drop of 5,739 inmates (or .4%) on a base rate of 1.4 million — any change in direction is meaningful after four decades of unabated growth. Nevertheless, I should note that the total number of state and federal prisoners actually rose in 2009, since the federal inmate count rose by 6,838. And, despite a crime rate that has fallen over at least the last two decades, the United States still maintains the world’s highest incarceration rate.

Deborah Appleman was an inspiring public school teacher at Henry Sibley Senior High, whose poetry class blew our young minds to kingdom come. Today I read that she’s a Carleton professor with a new book, based on her work at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater. So I went right to Amazon, of course, and ordered the anthology: From the Inside Out: Letters to Young Men and Other Writings Poetry and Prose from Prison.

If anybody wonders why a sociologist and criminologist like me wants to write poetry posts (prison poetry posts, no less) or edit magazines, it probably started with the teacher we called “Apple.” She pushed and nurtured and cajoled and cultivated creative writing and dangerous thinking. And she was tough. If I’m remembering right, I got a B+ on my final project — a full album of angsty original love songs, recorded on a four-track reel-to-reel. The songs sucked, of course, but c’mon! I’d never worked so hard in my life. I’d like to think she was just as tough on the guys at Stillwater — and that maybe she’ll have the same long-term impact on their lives.

Zachary Hamilton and The Center for Court Innovation offer perhaps the most rigorous evaluation to date of the prisoner “reentry court” model championed by Jeremy Travis and others. The basic idea is to facilitate reintegration and protect public safety by giving some focused indivualized attention and intensive services during the critical period immediately after release.

More specifically, the Harlem Reentry Court “provides intensive judicial oversight, supervision and services to new parolees during the first six months following release from state prison. The goal of the program is to stabilize returning parolees in the initial phase of their reintegration by helping them to find jobs, secure housing, remain drug-free and assume familial and personal responsibilities.”

To criminologists, this may sound like low-caseload intensive supervised release programs — and results from the reentry court evaluation seem to mirror those of earlier ISP/ISR evaluations. The difference in the 3-year reconviction rate suggests that the reentry court significantly reduced new crime — from about 52% in the comparison group to 43% in the treatment group. Nevertheless, the greater attention given the treatment group likely led to their significantly higher revocation rate for technical violations of parole conditions (56% vs. 38%).

Like other forms of intensive supervision, the Harlem Parole Reentry Court probably observed violations in the treatment group that went unnoticed in the comparison group. However much reentry courts help clients adjust to life outside prison, the high rate of technical violations remains a stubborn problem in such programs.

Getting to know the distinctive personalities of Minneapolis and St. Paul is one of the true pleasures of living in these twin cities. Take a summer stroll in each city, for example, and you’ll know why the Minneapolis Star-Tribune runs features like How I Got this Body, while St. Paul’s Pioneer Press instead offers up community fare like Sainted and Tainted.

I love how the latter feature uses informal social controls to call out those who exemplify or offend community values. This being Minnesota, many features emphasize helping behaviors like snow shoveling and car-pushing. This being Minnesota, there are also a lot more saints than … well, I guess you would call them ‘taints.

For me, there’s no better start to the weekend than reading about a li’l or big act of kindness undertaken by my friends and neighbors. And, not being a big tsk-tsker, I usually get a chuckle out of the “tainteds” as well. Here’s the basic format:


Belated thanks to the couple who took the time to help me, a total stranger no less, with a flat tire in the Lino Lakes Kohl’s parking lot. They not only filled my tire with air, they led me to the Wal-Mart auto store, which I know was out of their way, to make sure I got there safely. They just drove off and I never got to thank them.


I collect for snow plowing an alley in the Como area. Sainted to the people who pay without question; tainted to the few who think I am a big bother; and a super tainted to the couple who “bought a house and not a neighborhood; we don’t care what happens to everyone else.”

Ouch! Now that’s a profoundly un-Minnesotan attitude about both snow removal and neighboring. My friends and neighbors also tend to dwell on the positive aspects of their stories — relegating their own very serious troubles to the background:


Several weeks ago, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Aime Dahl, James Magee and Erin Courtney quickly responded when they saw a medical emergency involving my husband. They calmly and professionally did everything they could to try to save his life. They truly deserve to be sainted.

It is getting tougher and tougher for the twin cities to support two independent dailies, but I’ll lobby hard to save Sainted and Tainted if a merger is really inevitable.

I enjoy talking publicly about my research, though I’m sometimes caught off-guard by an aggressively partisan interviewer. During a “talk radio tour” for Locked Out, I remember how a producer put me at ease and told me to relax and have fun. But as soon as the theme music ended and I let down my guard, the host snarled, “So, Mister Professor, tell my listeners why you think Charles Manson should pick the next President of the United States?

I honestly don’t remember my response, though I’m sure it involved both stammering and yammering. This sort of thing happens a lot on talk radio and television. How best to approach such attacks? As Danielle Maestretti reports, Yes! magazine asked Pramila Jayapal, director of the immigration-rights group OneAmerica, how she handles guest appearances on shows like the O’Reilly Factor. Ms. Jayapal’s advice is spot-on and heartening:

I look for something that I can agree with. The host says, “I believe in law and order.” I find a way to take that argument and connect it to my values. When I become reasonable, that deflates both my anger and the conversation. The host is not expecting me to agree with anything they say. They’re expecting an all-out fight.

I cite statistics. I am the one with the facts. The facts are not to convince anybody but to establish my identity as someone who is calm, uses logic, and isn’t just speaking wildly. The host becomes the angry, shouting, loud, mean person.

I focus on values that I believe most people hold deeply. I say, most Americans value respect or hard work, and that’s what this debate should be about. The host is not going to say he or she doesn’t believe in respect or kindness.

Then when I come home, I need to be around people who can shower me in wonderful, nice things. The hosts’ comments are not directed at me personally, but they are personal. A good glass of wine, good friends, good family, good love are important if you are going to be out there on the front lines.

I’d summarize these points as finding common ground, citing solid evidence, referencing shared values, and — if all else fails — limping off to lick your wounds. I never want to sound like an egghead, but I try to remind myself that I’m a researcher and educator rather than a combatant in such settings. That means that I don’t have to play if someone starts making personal attacks, or questions my patriotism, masculinity, or fashion sense. With regard to the evidence, I also carried around a little folder with all the basic facts and figures I might need for an interview.

If you can keep your facts straight and keep your cool, you might even connect with audiences hostile to your research. I’ll never forget how a regular listener called in after I’d been savaged in an especially rough interview: “I listen to you every day, Bob, and we agree on most things, but the professor makes sense — I got out of jail twenty years ago and I sure as hell deserve the right to vote!” I can’t say that this sort of thing happens very often, but it sure feels good when it does.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics just released a new report on Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities based on a sample of over 9,000 adjudicated youth in 2008-2009. Overall, about 12 percent of youth in these facilities report some form of sexual victimization by staff or other residents. Many of these involved contact between female staff and male youth where no force is involved. Nevertheless, 4.3 percent of the youth reported being sexually victimized by facility staff who used force, threats, or other explicit forms of coercion.

I charted a couple of the differences in victimization by staff and other residents below. Male residents are more likely to report sexual victimization by staff (10.8%) than other residents (2%), while the reverse pattern holds for female residents. And sexual orientation is an important predictor: over 20 percent of “non-heterosexual” youth reported some form of sexual victimization, with 12.5 percent reporting victimization by other youth.

The report “names names” by identifying the rate of sexual victimization in particular institutions (as well as the survey response rate in each institution). In the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Red Wing, for example, about 2.8 percent of youth reported sexual victimization. In Pendleton Juvenile Correction Facility in Indiana, in contrast, the rate was over 36 percent.

While such surveys are now mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, I’m both disturbed by this report’s statistics and impressed by its clear and unflinching presentation.

The Times reports that Osvaldo Hernandez, whose weapons conviction barred him from the New York Police Department but not the U.S. Army, has been pardoned by Governor David Paterson.

I learned Mr. Hernandez’s story when I met his attorney, Jim Harmon, at a recent Cornell conference on criminal records and employment. The military now conducts a “whole person review” of enlistment eligibility, granting Mr. Hernandez a misconduct waiver. Here’s the policy:

The Services will enlist into the Armed Services individuals who are fully qualified to serve. Judgment as to an applicant’s qualifications is reached by virtue of a “whole person” review in which all aspects of an applicant’s qualifications are examined. It is possible, in some cases, that waiver consideration may be warranted. Enlistment waiver practices shall be standardized across the Military Services to ensure consistent and equitable reporting that, in turn, assures reliable and meaningful evaluation of the Department’s performance in managing whole person eligibility reviews.

In contrast, the NYPD has categorically barred anyone with a felony from service. Mr. Hernandez evidently served with great distinction as a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Now, with the help of various generals, governors, attorneys, and advocates, he hopes to make good on his dream of becoming a New York City police officer.

via the crawler and Seattle Times:

Evidence gathered by friends at the University of Washington — sociologists Katherine Beckett and Bob Crutchfield — played a key role in overturning Washington’s law banning incarcerated felons from voting. Much of the litigation to date has focused on former felons who have completed their sentences, rather than current inmates. The case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, was decided on January 5, 2010.

Having spent a few years doing expert witness work on this issue, I know that it takes good social science evidence, lucid presentation, and dogged persistence to prevail in such cases. The ruling will likely be appealed, but it represents a major step toward a more inclusive democracy.

When the Strib reported that Minnesota traffic deaths had fallen to a 65-year low, I checked the Department of Public Safety to see the long-term trend. They posted data from 1910 to present on traffic fatalities and from 1961 to present on vehicle miles traveled. The rate of deaths per mile traveled has fallen even more sharply than the rate per 100,000 population. As the figure shows below, both peak in the beautiful-but-deadly muscle car era of the late 1960s. Experts attribute the drop to safety features such as seat belts and airbags. Why, my own dad tells me that he started buckling up his seat belt when the legislature toughened the mandatory seat belt in 2009 — he even stuck a post-it note on the steering wheel to remind him of the fine.

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Over the past three decades, the death rate has also fallen for homicide and fire in Minnesota. In contrast, the suicide rate has risen in recent years. In 2008, almost as many Minnesotans died from suicide as from fire, traffic, and homicide combined. The final numbers are not yet available for 2009, but I bet that the number of suicides now surpasses the combined sum of the other three categories. Moreover, at least some of the deaths classified as accidental fires, car crashes, and shootings may be victim-precipitated (e.g., one-car accidents, “suicide by cop”).

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Suicide rates rise with age, especially for white males, so the number of suicides is likely to rise in Minnesota as the population ages (the figures above are not age-adjusted). Nevertheless, the overall death rate across the four categories has fallen from about 38/100k in 1980 to about 23/100k in 2008. If these trends continue, I suspect that more social scientists will be turning their attention to suicide (and, presumably, Durkheim) in coming years.

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JoshPageJohn Irwin, an inspiring and pathbreaking criminologist, passed away this weekend. We shared a few good conversations, often in the weight rooms of conference hotels, and a common lineage as  descendants of Donald Cressey (his undergrad advisor and my advisor’s advisor). Professor Irwin’s  powerful treatment of prisoner reentry and indictment of mass incarceration certainly altered my own research trajectory. I also find myself quoting him in lecture whenever a student makes a comment about senseless crimes or monster criminals (“Criminal behavior is human behavior!”).  

But my colleague Josh Page (shown at left) knew John Irwin far better than me, working closely with him on the recent Unlocking America report. Since Josh was corresponding with a reporter on an Irwin story today, I asked his permission to pass along some of these thoughts on pubcrim. I won’t reprint the entire message, since it wouldn’t be fair to the reporter posing the questions, but I do want to do all I can to introduce more people to Professor Irwin’s life and work. From Josh:

He redefined understandings about the origins and characteristics of prison culture and social relations (most notably in his book THE FELON and article with Donald Cressey, “Thieves, Convicts and the Inmate Culture.”). John traced changes in the prisoner culture and social relations over time in subsequent books (see his recent book THE WAREHOUSE PRISON). In short, he was a pioneer in understanding the “society of captives.”

He was one of the first scholars to tackle the issue of prisoner “reentry” (transition from prison back to the streets), arguing that the reentry process itself (not simply individual characteristics of ex-offenders) predictably lead many individuals back to crime and prison (see THE FELON). He insightfully compared prisoner reentry to the reentry of other returnees such as military veterans. In short, John analyzed “reentry” four decades before the topic was in vogue in policy and scholarly circles.

 He wrote the only sociological study of jails (THE JAIL), correctly arguing that the jail is a central penal institution (it’s the hub of the criminal justice system); it functions to manage “the rabble” (those who are detached and disreputable) not deal with serious crime; and it is harsh punishment, which raises serious liberty and humanitarian issues since most people in jails are not convicted of crimes.

His book PRISON IN TURMOIL is the best sociological history of California prisons during the rehabilitative era (1945-1976). It shows how the rehabilitative regime planted seeds for its own destruction by producing a prisoner intelligentsia (which included John), spreading injustice through indeterminate sentencing and parole release, and running what John termed “chickenshit” programs. PRISONS IN TURMOIL also details the “law and order” revanche that started in California in the late 1960s and gained steam in the early 1970s. Lastly, it chronicles the deep divisions between ethnic-racial groups and ethnic-racial violence that increasingly marked California prisons in the 1970s onward.

His recent book LIFERS delves deeply into an issue that John was extremely passionate about… an issue that receives little attention from scholars: prisoners serving life sentences. In this book, he opens up yet another area of analysis that criminologists typically ignore. This book is very important in an age when policymakers and many scholars talk only about reforms concerning “non-violent” and “non-serious” offenders while suggesting that those with long sentences (particularly those serving “life”) deserve to rot in prison.

He knew from experience that dominant criminological/sociological views of prison culture and social relations were partial and misleading. He understood, for example, that much of the prison culture during the 1950s was imported from the streets (it was an adaptation of the “thieves code”), not simply a reaction to the deprivations of imprisonment, as scholars had previously argued.

Most importantly, he knew that prisoners were primarily people who “fucked up”–not inherently or permanently bad people who needed to be locked up for decades. He abhorred and fought against images of monster prisoners that has permeated public and political discourse and informed policy for decades. After all, he and many of his friends were “fuck ups” who did their time and moved on.

He was incredibly principled (and rather stubborn). He detested injustice and spent much of his life advocating for outcasts. He wrote an autobiography called “Rogue.” He was a “rogue” until he died. He was a “rogue” scholar who continually cut against the grain and didn’t submit to stifling academic conventions. He was a “rogue” social activist who fought for people that many people (and even many “liberals”) defined as hopeless losers. He was “rogue” in his personal life… he defied conventions he felt were repressive and/or unjust. He inspired and supported people who take risks and question/defy convention. He was one-of-a-kind.

John passionately felt that prison sentences were too long and very unjust. His mantra was “cut the damn sentences.” He also felt that the parole system didn’t work and was unjust in many ways. In short, he (and me) wanted to make clear in UNLOCKING AMERICA that good rehabilitation programs should be in every prison; however, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that rehabilitation alone will significantly decrease the prison population… sentencing and parole reform will.