Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Georgia is set to execute a man that many people believe is innocent in a little less than an hour. I’ll leave the question of innocence to others, as the case has been widely detailed in numerous outlets, except to say that I think he has one of the better cases for reasonable doubt in the absence of DNA that I have seen. Putting that (important) question aside, I am struck by the ‘I Am Troy Davis’ campaign in support of clemency. On YouTube, in the media, at protests, on twitter and facebook, death penalty opponents (or Troy Davis supporters — it’s interesting to note how many death penalty advocates support clemency in this case) are shouting/wearing “I Am Troy Davis,” the implication being that this miscarriage of justice could happen to anyone. While I admire the organizations working on behalf of Mr. Davis, the simplicity of the campaign generally, and the empathy implied by its message, I wonder if it leads us away from a useful discussion. Some thoughts:

  • Let’s assume Davis is innocent. I am not Troy Davis and this would never happen to me — I am a white, highly educated woman who comes from a privileged background. There are few (none?) on death row who even remotely look like me. While I might post ‘I Am Troy’ on my facebook page, do I really believe that this could happen to me?
  • That a good predictor of eyewitness misidentification is whether or not the witness and suspect are of the same race seems relevant here (mistaken identification is the most common cause of convictions overturned with DNA evidence). Again, my race, class, and gender is an extremely good predictor not just of whether I will commit a crime but also of whether I will be erroneously convicted of one.
  • It is often the case that convicted innocents have lengthy prior criminal records (though not in the case of Troy Davis, which may have something to do with the attention his case has received). A friend of mine once said to me, regarding the recent execution of an arguably innocent man in Texas, “Well, he may not have done that but he certainly did a whole lot of other things.” I suppose (hope?) he was only half serious but it occurred to me that he had made a telling point — from his point of view, if you can demonstrate a pattern of bad behavior, it begins to matter less if the person being executed did the particular crime we’re killing him for and more if we can demonstrate a pattern of evil-doing. It also tends to get in the way of feeling empathy for a death row inmate, innocent or not.
  • Related to above, arguing that any one of us could be innocently caught up in the system is probably an unsuccessful strategy for the people whose minds you are trying to change. At the end of the day, very few of us are Troy Davis and those who are will rarely be in a position to offer clemency.

Perhaps I’m wrong on all of this but as I watch the discussion of the case, I think the  tougher long-term conversation to be had is why this happens to the Troy Davis’ of the world and not how it could happen to any of us.

And the award for timeliest social science research goes to… Tim Wadsworth of UC Boulder. In the wake of Arizona’s passage of SB1070, the toughest state ban on illegal immigration to date, Wadsworth’s research finds that cities with the largest increases in immigrants from 1990-2000 experienced the largest reductions in violent crime. Wadsworth tests an earlier argument made in Contexts (and elsewhere) by Rob Sampson of Harvard. The possible explanations for the ‘more immigrants and less crime’ connection are intriguing — the US may benefit as those with strong work ethics and perseverance select into this country, immigrants tend to move into disadvantaged neighborhoods and prevent them from becoming worse, and immigrants bring with them values that lead to more neighborhood cohesion and less crime. Work in this area is hampered by significant data problems, especially with respect to illegal immigrants (who don’t tend to volunteer their status and are difficult to find) but Sampson and Wadsworth’s findings certainly challenge the prevailing notion that ‘immigrant’ and ‘criminal’ are roles that often/usually/typically go together.

The scholarly research can be found here (gated) and the Newsweek article is here.

For more on sex offender laws and their unintended consequences, see the lead article in the Economist* this week. A nice analysis for the uninitiated and it makes a clear argument about how the breadth of these laws make us less safe — even better, they mention the work of our very own Chris Uggen.

*I reluctantly bought the Economist only because Contexts is unavailable at the airport.

On May 19th, California will hold a special election on several propositions related to the budget (the propositions, among other things, increase some taxes for a short period and divert money from early childhood and school programs to reduce the budget shortfall). Every poll suggests the propositions will fail. In order to increase support for the propositions, Governor Schwarzenegger is releasing his budget early in two versions — one if the props pass, another if they do not. Included in the latter is reportedly a plan to release 38,000 inmates from prison early. This will be the third time the Governor has suggested early release for some inmates — it failed miserably the first two times, largely for political reasons.

It begs the question — how far will the politics of fear get you? Will people vote for higher taxes in order to avoid releasing inmates? Will the voters choose to lay off teachers or release inmates? While these choices needn’t be pitted against one another, the press and the Governor are framing the choices this way.

Several reports also have the Governor proposing to sell San Quentin. Putting aside the apparent contradiction of why we would sell one prison while simultaneously building many more, I can’t help but wonder… do the inmates come with that?

At what point does more punishment reduce rather than enhance public safety?

I teach a couple of courses on the sociology of punishment and I usually end them with some variant of the above question. There are a number of answers to it — punishment policy with respect to sex offenders is an obvious example. I gave this lecture a few nights ago and was deeply saddened to see this story this morning. A young girl was allegedly assaulted and killed by a homeless sex offender living in a field near her home. What could we have done to prevent this?

We could have required him to register as a sex offender so that the girl’s parents knew his whereabouts. We could have monitored him with a GPS tracking unit. We could better assess the likelihood that he was dangerous and monitored him more closely. We could pass a law restricting where sex offenders can live and work to keep them away from children.

Except… all of these things were done.

Darrin Sanford, who has reportedly confessed to the crime, was registered as a Level 3 sex offender (denoting him most likely to re-offend). He was listed as homeless in the sex offender registry. The young woman’s parents were aware of the transients spending time in the field nearby and had warned her of the danger, specifically highlighting sexual assault as a risk. Sanford was required to check in daily with a probation agent (and did so in the days surrounding the girl’s murder). Perhaps most disturbing, Sanford was wearing a GPS monitor when he committed the crime.

Sanford was subject to all of the punishment and control we heap on sex offenders. But, really, what do these sorts of policies do? Do they make us any safer?

GPS tracking is notoriously difficult to implement and, while it may help convict offenders after a crime has been committed, there is not a lot of evidence that it prevents crime in the first place. Laws restricting where sex offenders can live have been successful in increasing the number of sex offenders who are homeless and concentrating them in particular apartment buildings. Homeless sex offenders are harder to monitor and, at the very least, a bunch of sex offenders living together is not a good strategy for public safety. What of the public registries? There is good evidence that sex offender registries are filled with inaccuracies because law enforcement has too few agents and too few dollars to keeps tabs on so many sex offenders. I also worry that our emphasis on labeling sex offenders publicly makes it more likely that they will re-offend.

All of this adds up to the illusion of control over sex offenders, not control itself, and a public that merely feels more safe in the presence of such policies. Feeling safe is good — being safe probably a bit better.

Since our blog is dedicated to public criminology, I thought it appropriate to call attention to the passing of Lloyd Ohlin. Dr. Ohlin died on December 6th at the age of 90. Dr. Ohlin is known for his work on juvenile delinquency, rehabilitation, and anti-poverty crime prevention. His classic work, with Richard Cloward, Delinquency and Opportunity is one of my favorites and argues, simply and elegantly, that crime results from differentially-distributed opportunity structures. Put simply, some of us can commit embezzlement because we work in a bank and others become drug dealers because we live in neighborhoods with large amounts of drugs and a high poverty rate. Ohlin noted that “[T]he boy who joins a gang isn’t in a rut. He has aspirations, but no place to go with them.”

In reading his obituary, it is clear that Ohlin operated as a public criminologist long before anyone would have called him that. For example, Delinquency and Opportunity was not mere academic theory. It was the basis and result of a number of anti-poverty and crime programs implemented in the 1960s, most notably the Mobilization for Youth program that offered legal services, psychological counseling, substance abuse programs, and other programs to at-risk populations. He also served in the Army during WWII and the Korean War, spending some time investigating conditions in Korean prisoner-of-war camps. He worked for the Illinois Department of Corrections interviewing parolees and consulted in a variety of positions under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. He was the second non-lawyer appointed in the Harvard Law School. Very few criminologists can boast this sort of variation (and success) in their careers or this level of commitment and involvement in the public and political sphere.

Dr. Ohlin was concerned about prison over-crowding and the potential for harm for juveniles being shuttled through the system, noting that this was likely to encourage further criminal involvement. Whether or not you subscribe to theories of crime like Cloward and Ohlin’s, many of the cautionary tales in Ohlin’s work in the 1960s have been borne today, especially in the areas of mass incarceration or the influence of neighborhood characteristics on crime.

OJ Simpson was sentenced to at least 15 years in prison today for armed robbery, kidnapping, burglary, and assorted other charges. He would become eligible for parole in nine years. The judge specifically said that the sentence did not account for past events, most likely a reference to Simpson’s 1995 acquittal in the death of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman. I wondered how his sentence compares to others…

At first glance, data from the US Sentencing Commission and the Bureau of Justice Statistics on State Court Processing suggests that OJ’s sentence is a long one. For those with a most serious conviction offense of robbery, the mean maximum sentence length ranges from a little less than six years to a little more than eight years, far less than the 15 years OJ was given. OJ’s sentence also seems long in light of his short criminal history, err conviction record. As far as I know, his only prior conviction is a no contest plea in a domestic violence case involving Nicole Brown Simpson and some tax evasion judgments.

OJ also appears to have paid the price for not pleading guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. Convicted robbers who go to trial are sentenced to an average fourteen years in prison while those who plead guilty are sentenced to just over seven years.

Much of the roughly seven year gap in OJ’s sentence relative to the average convicted robber is likely due to the included kidnapping and burglary charges. BJS data doesn’t include information on average sentences for kidnapping but I suspect they are not short but not overly long either (other sources suggest about 3-5 years in most cases) nor does it allow for separation of armed robberies from others. Burglary will get you almost five years in prison on its own. And, being a black male robber as opposed to a white male robber will get you a year more in prison.

Still, I’d bet burglary and robbery often go together and OJ’s sentence is more than double those whose most serious offense was robbery AND had convictions of at least three or more felonies surrounding the same criminal event.

OJ’s sentence doesn’t appear to be improperly long but he certainly wasn’t given any breaks by the court nor did his relatively short criminal record earn him any reductions. In any case, I doubt he’ll have many supporters this time around to suggest that the court treated him unfairly.

Amidst California’s Obama-hangover and continued unrest over the passage of Proposition 8, it’s still worth noting public reaction to the various ballot propositions on the criminal justice system. I posted on the crisis in CA’s budget and prison system in July; since then, the situation has become measurably worse (did you hear about our plea to the feds for a paltry few billion last month?). I wondered then whether the budget crisis and credit crunch would bring about a change in public exuberance for ever tougher and longer sentences.

The answer is… sort of and it depends on how the question is framed.

On Nov. 4, 54% of Californians voted to lengthen the time between parole hearings (from 5 to 15 years in many cases), 60% of Californians voted against expanding drug treatment and limiting incarceration for some drug offenders, and 70% of Californians voted against increasing spending (by an estimated 365 million) on police and law enforcement.

If you are a Californian and concerned about the financial crisis, which sounds better?

Proposition 9 included elements of both but was consistently referred to as the ‘victim’s rights’ proposition. I’m not surprised it passed, only that it passed by such a small margin.

Contrast this with Propostion 5, which allocates 460m annually to improve and expand drug treatment programs, limits court authority to incarcerated certain drug offenders, and substantially shortens parole. The fiscal impact was estimated to include a large initial outlay and then savings from incarceration were expected to offset costs. Prop 5 got little public attention, no ads that I heard, and included the word “rehabilitation” in the title and ‘improve’ and ‘offender’ in the text. The amount of spending was named but voters had to do quite a bit of research to find that it may have saved money in the long run. No surprise that voters rejected it.

Shall $460,000,000 be allocated annually to improve and expand treatment programs?

Proposition 6 was also assured of rejection by voters.

Shall of minimum of $965,000,000 of state funding be required each year for police and local law enforcement?

Does the rejection of 5 and 6 indicate a change in public feeling toward punishment? Maybe so or maybe not but I suspect it reflects the financial crisis more than anything else. Prop 9, though it passed, is the best indicator of a change in sentiment. Past propositions framed as victim bills or those that lengthen sentences have passed by much larger margins than Prop 9.

Then again, it could have been that voters remembered passing a similar resolution 26 years ago and surmised that the victim portion of the prop was already being enforced in California.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy recently released results of a joint study with Nielson on exposure of teens (age 13-18) to online videos with drug and alcohol-related content (see the summary here). Among the findings:

  • Of 18mm ‘unique viewers’, teens watched an average of 35 videos in one month. Of these, about 1 video per person contained drug or alcohol-related content
  • About 5% of online teens viewed a video with drug or alcohol-related content
  • Females were slightly more likely to watch videos with drug or alcohol-related context (57% to 43%)
  • More than 2/3 of viewers of drug and alcohol-related context were under age 16
  • 78% of drug-related videos included positive comments on drug use, 40% of videos showed explicit drug use.

What are we to make of this? Well, one ought not be too concerned if only 5% of teens viewed videos that some may deem dangerous or objectionable. And, we don’t know that watchers end up being users. On the other hand, it looks as if a small percentage of teens are watching a lot of stoner videos. And, there’s one more rub: the methodology section gives no information on whether or not kids knew they were being monitored (I suspect they did). After all that, should we be concerned about a nefarious You Tube-drug use link? I dunno.

I teach a course on imprisonment and reentry and I dispense with the crime issue relatively quickly. We talk about the contribution of ex-inmates to the crime rate and high recidivism rates overall but we don’t talk a lot about it until the end of the course. We RARELY talk about innocence — the best estimate I’ve seen (not Scalia’s, btw) suggests that about 3-5% of capital rape-murder convictions involve the factually innocent. Extrapolating from that (and conceding that it’s hard to figure out whether the innocence problem is larger or smaller in less serious cases that involve no biological evidence), let’s assume that fully 10% of people in prison are factually innocent. This is probably a [very?] large overestimate, but, in any case, it also assumes that the vast majority of people in prison did it. The course is implicitly designed around this assumption.

Jump forward to my course on the criminal justice system. The first part of the course deals with rights — the assumption in these discussions being that we must extend rights (against unreasonable search and seizure for example) to the worst among us, lest we all be violated. Underlying much of this is also the idea that it is better to let the guilty go free than to convict the innocent. All this presents a problem when we get to the back-end portion of the system — racial disparities in imprisonment are appalling, recidivism rates are through the roof, and punishment beyond the sentence (e.g., laws that bar ex-felons from certain jobs, voting, public assistance, college loans, any law involving sex offenders, and so on) is the order of the day.

The question I want my students in both courses to ask is not whether or not prisons are full of innocent people, but whether or not imprisonment at its current levels is an efficient, fair, or moral way to deal with crime. I’d also like them to get a sense of the disparities in who does crime and who gets arrested and punished for crime. [And, if I’m being really honest, I also suggest to them that not as much of current punishment policy has to do with crime per se as they would like to think].

All of this suggests to me that the innocence movement has another problem beyond the CSI effect.* I’m much more concerned about over-punishment (and I’m not the only one, apparently) and the emphasis on factual innocence might give people the impression that the way we treat those who DID do it is okay (read: efficient, moral, fair, good for crime control, etc).

*The CSI effect as I understand it being that DNA exonerations have the unintended consequence of reducing acquittals by raising the expectations of jurors and crime victims to expect factual innocence (he didn’t do it), rather than legal innocence (we can’t prove he did it).