Reading press reports on school bullying got me thinking about the limits of my own expertise and about how social scientists can sometimes contribute to debates even when we are not experts. I always tell graduate students to imagine their expertise as a series of concentric circles radiating outward from the core stuff they know best. They should be grade-A champion world authorities on their dissertation topics, possess solid expertise in their specific areas of research and teaching, and they should know enough about methods and evidence to evaluate claims made by others in the broader fields in which they work. But even when we are not experts, we can always raise questions.

The question I’d raise here is simply whether getting tough on bullying will worsen racial disparities in education. Bullying is a hot issue these days, with a steady drumbeat of legislation and opinion pieces urging us to “strengthen” anti-bullying laws. At the same time, there is deep and abiding concern about closing the gaps in education. Now I can’t claim any real expertise in bullying or in educational attainment, but I can offer a respectful heads-up to policy folks as they craft new anti-bullying laws and practices. How are you thinking about their likely racial impact? I ask because stricter regulation of a broad set of behaviors like bullying could worsen racial disparities in school discipline.

I’ll explain my rationale for this heads-up below, but I really want to make the more general point that sometimes social scientists can contribute to public debates even when we aren’t the leading experts on a topic. We have to be more careful and guarded in our claims, of course, when our expertise is limited to reading and teaching what others have written. Still, we can provide a service even when we raise questions or help people “connect the dots” in a useful way. My approach is usually to just point to the “dots”  that I’ve found convincing and to ask questions about whether and how the policy action being considered might take account of them.

I base my bullying heads-up on two related lines of social science research. The first concerns implicit racial bias in perceptions of threat and dangerousness. The chart below is taken from a 2010 piece by Kimberly Kahn and Paul Davies, who  showed that both White and African American study participants were more likely to assume people with stereotypically African American features had guns in a split-second shoot/don’t shoot computer simulation. Both Whites and African Americans mistakenly shot targets with darker skin, broader noses, and fuller lips about 11 percent of the time, relative to 8 or 9 percent of the time for White targets and “low-stereotypical” African American targets. This sort of pattern is evident in a lot of research on “implicit bias,” where whites tend to be perceived as more safe and less threatening than (otherwise identical) African Americans. My sense from this research is that actions by darker-skinned students might be more likely to be perceived and punished as bullying than when the same actions are taken by lighter-skinned students.

The second “dot” is that most of the self-report studies I’ve seen also show racial differences in self-reported bullying behavior. The chart below is taken from a 2007 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health by Aubrey Spriggs and colleagues. According to their analysis of a nationally representative sample of 6th to 10th graders, African American children were significantly less likely than White children to report they were targets of bullying and significantly more likely to report engaging in bullying behaviors themselves.  

About 17 percent of African American kids self-reported physical bullying, relative to 15 percent of Hispanic youth, 11 percent of Whites, and 12 percent of those of other groups. The targeting or victimization numbers go in the other direction, with 12 percent of African Americans reporting being physically bullied, relative to 15 percent of whites. The same patterns seem to hold for other types of bullying (verbal, relational, and cyber) as well.

Experts on bullying can surely provide a better account of these figures than I can, but it looks to me as though enforcing vague bullying rules more strictly could worsen racial disparities in school discipline and, perhaps, educational attainment. I don’t know enough about bullying or schools to make strong policy recommendations, but it seems there is enough evidence here to at least put the question of racial impact to those charged with making or enforcing new rules. A small but significant difference in self-reported bullying combined with implicit bias in enforcing bullying rules could lead to pronounced disparities. That doesn’t mean anyone should ignore bullying, of course, it just means that we might consider steps to help reduce or mitigate bias when we change the rules.

One proposed Minnesota bill would define bullying as conduct “so severe, pervasive or objectively offensive that it substantially interferes with the student’s educational opportunities,” or places the student in “actual and reasonable” fear of harm, or substantially disrupts school operations. This seems to set a pretty high bar, which would appear to be racially neutral — unless, of course, students, teachers, and administrators are already more afraid of darker-skinned students. If so, there is some evidence to suggest they will be quicker to pull the trigger in suspending or expelling such students.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper has devoted several recent crime and punishment  reports to the pardons meted out by former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. In several segments, Mr. Cooper seemed incredulous that convicted murderers were allowed to serve as “trustees” in the governor’s mansion prior to their release. In one report, for example, he and attorney Jeffrey Toobin dismissed Governor Barbour’s claim that murderers convicted of a single crime of passion were somehow better suited for such positions than inmates serving time for lesser offenses.

I will not comment here on the uses and abuses of the trustee (or “trusty”) system, except to note that the practice was once widespread but waned considerably after the prisoners’ rights revolution that began in the 1960s. Instead, I’m here to explain why Governor Barbour and his staff preferred employing convicted murderers rather than, say, convicted car thieves.

The chart below is taken from an excellent large-scale Bureau of Justice Statistics recidivism study (Langan and Levin 2002). Overall, 67.5 percent of prisoners were rearrested within 3 years of their release and 25.4 percent were returned to prison for committing new offenses (others were returned to prison for violating the terms of their release). If you click on the chart, you can see that people convicted of homicide have the lowest rate of recidivism as measured by rearrest — 40.7 percent — and the second lowest rate of return to prison for a new offense (10.8 percent). At the other end of the chart, about 79% of those convicted of motor vehicle theft were rearrested and about 31 percent were returned to prison after being convicted of a new crime.

This doesn’t mean that a 20-year-old murderer is less dangerous than a 20-year-old car thief, of course. It just means that by the time we see fit to release people convicted of homicide, they are unlikely to pose a significant threat to public safety. Many have spent decades in prison and are much older than other inmates when they are finally freed. Convicted murderers make good candidates for pardons precisely because their sentences are soooo long relative to the risk that many of them pose at the tail-end of those sentences.

But aren’t those convicted of killing especially likely to kill again? I mean, a 10.8 percent recidivism rate would be awful if half of those offenses turned out to be new murders. Contrary to all we’ve learned from Quentin Tarantino movies, however, homicide offenders tend not to specialize in killing.

The chart below uses odds ratios to represent the degree of specialization among people convicted of various crimes. Here, the 1.4 for homicide is the ratio of the odds that a homicide offender will be rearrested for another homicide (that’s the numerator in the ratio) relative to the odds that prisoners released for other offenses will be arrested for a homicide (that’s the denominator). You can see some evidence of specialization among those convicted of motor vehicle theft, where the odds of rearrest  for a new auto theft are about 1.9 times greater than those for non-car thieves (2.9-1=1.9). There is an even greater degree of specialization for rape and other sexual offenses, with odds ratios of 4.2 and 5.9, respectively, corresponding to rates of new sex offenses that are 3-to-5 times higher than those for people convicted of non-sex crimes. For homicide, however, the odds ratio of 1.4 suggests comparatively little specialization. 

I might also add that a great proportion of homicides are “cleared” by arrest, relative to the other offenses on the list, so it doesn’t seem likely that rampant homicide recidivism is somehow going undetected by the system.

In short, there is much evidence that recidivism rates for people convicted of homicide tend to be particularly low. While it may be politically unpopular to pardon convicted murderers or to place them in positions of trust, they tend to do well when, at long last, they are afforded such opportunities.

Criminologists Al Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura offer a powerful New York Times op-ed this week, arguing that “stale criminal records” should expire when they can no longer distinguish criminals from non-criminals.

But this isn’t just a couple of bleeding heart academics advocating on behalf of a stigmatized group — there’s a solid research foundation supporting the argument. Several smart and creative studies have now followed people arrested or convicted of crimes to watch how long it takes before a criminal’s risk of a new offense drops to the point that it is indistinguishable from those with no record of past crimes.

Several teams of social scientists have designed really elegant studies to answer this important question. Most use some variant of event history or survival analysis — a semi-fancy but straightforward set of statistical tools. Based on their own research, Blumstein and Nakamura now conservatively estimate the “redemption time” at 10 to 13 years. Megan Kurlychek, Bobby Brame, and Shawn Bushway came up with about a 6-year window using somewhat different data and methodology in 2006.

While the specific “time-to-no-crime” varies across studies, the best evidence is now calling into question standard “lifetime” bans on employment, voting, and other rights and privileges. This doesn’t mean that the laws will be changed or even that they should be changed. But it does show how good social science can challenge old assumptions and inject much-needed evidence into public debates. And, for those of us who like to put our semi-fancy statistics to good purpose, the op-ed and the research beneath it offer a fine example of public scholarship.

Inspired by the Occupy movement, my Fall 2011 Inside-Out students started a tumblr site – We are the 1 in 100 – representing the 1 out of every 100 American citizens who are behind bars.  Each of the students – both inside (from the Oregon State Penitentiary) and outside (from Oregon State University) – wrote a statement or fact of their own choosing.  Not quite all of those pieces have made it online yet, but little by little we are working to grow this site into a place where the voices of those inside and those who care about people inside can be represented.

We made the site open submission and we invite each of you who has been affected in some way by prisons and incarceration to submit a statement, fact, or feeling of your own.  Friends of public criminology, please share widely.

And, thanks Chris, for posting about our time on the “Think Out Loud” radio show on Oregon Public Broadcasting.  We had a great time practicing the art of public criminology and sharing our experiences over the airwaves.  Here is a photo of our Inside-Out students, alumni, and friends and the very helpful “Think Out Loud” crew.  Please do listen to the podcast of the show if you get a chance!

 Michelle’s too modest (and busy!) to post this herself, but Oregon Public Broadcating devoted their Thinking Out Loud program to her Inside-Out class last week.  There’s a great mix of both inside and outside voices represented on the hour-long show, as well as some extended content online. Highly recommended.

Food is important in every social setting, but it is especially salient for prisoners deprived of so many other comforts. For prisoners in disciplinary units, a meatloaf-like concoction known as Nutraloaf is often the only meal. Nutraloaf (sometimes called a “special management meal”) is intended to meet the basic nutritional requirements in a “meal” that requires no utensils and minimal time to prepare or distribute. Nutriloaf — and the whole concept of “disciplinary food” — is so unpopular that prisoners have challenged its constitutionality in a number of jurisdictions.

I mention all this because Jesse Wozniak passed along this class project from Micaela Magsamen, a student in his policing class this semester. Hearing Jesse’s mention of Nutraloaf in lecture, Ms. Magsamen decided to prepare and taste-test one recipe for the  loaf (which includes both tomato paste and applesauce), photographing and powerpointing the results. While I didn’t taste-test this version myself, I’d imagine that such an exercise might change one’s view on the whole constitutionality issue.

I arrived late and left early at this year’s criminology meetings, but the two days in Washington, DC were terrific. I’m always inspired by forward-looking talks that put a big issue on the table, especially those that could spark public discussion and, perhaps, intervention.

The paper that really turned my head this year was Bob Agnew’s general strain model of the impact of climate change on crime. Professor Agnew made a convincing and nicely documented case that climate change will “increase strain, reduce social control, weaken social support, foster beliefs favorable to crime, contribute to traits conducive to crime, increase opportunities for crime, and create social conflict.” After 15 minutes, he had me convinced that climate change could become a driving force of crime rates over the next century.

Sara Wakefield and Simon Cole offered a similarly future-directed and provocative talk on racial disparities in DNA databases. Every state is now collecting DNA — in many cases for arrestees, as well as those convicted of crimes. While acknowledging potential gains to public safety, the paper raised large and timely issues about how such data collection affects surveillance and inequality. We heard evidence about what the databases look like now, but everyone in the room expected them to grow dramatically in coming years.

I’ve worked a lot with Sara, of course, so I’m not exactly unbiased about her work — or that of other Minnesota grads at the meeting (including the program co-chair, Ryan King). This year, I gave talks with current grad students Suzy McElrath (above), Jessica Molina, and Heather McLaughlin (all attending their first ASC meeting), as well as Brianna Remster of Penn State. I mostly sat in the background scribbling (as above), while my collaborators did the heavy lifting.

My only solo presentation came at Madam’s Organ Blues Bar’s Thursday night Karaoke. Like the two papers above, my rendering of Sinatra could spark public discussion and, perhaps, intervention.

I’m teaching something like my 10th Inside-Out class in the Oregon State Penitentiary, and I am inspired anew by my students’ compassion and commitment to learning with and from each other.  Even more impressive, they are already taking the learning outside of the classroom and passing their knowledge on as widely as possible.  This quarter we are focused on issues concerning crime, prisons, communities, and prevention.  We are only three weeks into the quarter; we have shared just three classes within the prison.

I am writing this post to share an informative editorial written by Molly, one of the current outside students, and published in Oregon State University’s student newspaper, The Daily Barometer.  Molly does a great job of discussing difficult issues surrounding incarceration, punishment and communities clearly and convincingly.  Molly is a columnist for the paper, so I may be sharing more of her work throughout the quarter as the class continues.

There are more exciting projects in the works, including: a plan to visit our state representatives to talk about prisons and mandatory minimum sentencing, participation in a campus diversity summit representing the voices of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated students, and negotiations about a possible discussion of the class and the issues on public radio.

This is an extremely motivated group of students and they are already providing an important service as public criminologists.  It will be fun to see just how much we can accomplish this quarter.  Stay tuned.

I read this story in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago; it has stayed on my mind even through the busy first weeks of classes in our fall quarter.  Thomas Haynesworth was mistakenly identified by a rape victim as her assailant, and – with no criminal history whatsoever – was arrested at age 18.  He was tried for committing four related rapes and assaults in the neighborhood.  He was convicted for three of those attacks and sentenced to 84 years in prison.  84 years.  Let’s just call it life.

Fast forward 27 years.  DNA evidence has now proved decisively that Haynesworth did NOT commit the rapes in two of the cases for which he was tried.  DNA in the other cases is not available.  With help from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of New York, Haynesworth was released from prison on his 46th birthday.  He is, however, classified as a paroled sex offender and subject to the accompanying regulations – public registries, restricted movement, monitored telephone and email accounts.  Haynesworth is now fighting for exoneration.  While he is physically free of prison, a dark cloud still hangs over his name and his life.

It’s extraordinary enough to think of an innocent man serving 27 years in prison: imagine entering prison as a teenager and spending all of your twenties, all of your thirties, and half of your forties in a cage – the healthiest, most dynamic years of his life were stolen from him.  And the punishment continues with his classification as a sex offender and the public fear and revulsion that is attached to such labels.

Where the story gets even more interesting, in my opinion, is with the actions of the attorney general, Kenneth Cuccinelli.  Last year, local prosecutors came to Cuccinelli and told him they thought Haynesworth was innocent.  Cuccinelli conducted his own investigation into the 27-year old case and became convinced that the wrong man was in prison.  He then set out to make it right.

As the New York Times reports:

Now Mr. Haynesworth, 46, is asking for full exoneration on all of the rape convictions, although DNA from the other two cases is not available. But the circumstantial evidence supporting Mr. Haynesworth’s claims of innocence is so powerful that along with his own lawyers, the prosecutors from both jurisdictions where the rapes occurred support his efforts, as well as the attorney general for the commonwealth, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli…

Mr. Cuccinelli said in an interview that he and his staff reviewed the evidence in the Haynesworth case in great detail. “It was a complex decision,” he said, “but it wasn’t a hard decision.” The thought of the wrongful conviction haunted him. “It’s hard to describe how painful it is to me that somebody would suffer what he has.”

Cuccinelli has a reputation as a conservative figure, so his support for Haynesworth is perhaps even more surprising.  He argued in a Virginia appeals court that Haynesworth’s name should be cleared, and he went a significant step further by hiring Haynesworth to work in his office.  As reported in the Washington Post:  “Cuccinelli said he knew it would be tough for Haynesworth to get a job as a convicted felon. So the month after Haynesworth left prison, he put him on the state payroll.”

I’m really impressed with Cuccinelli’s actions in this case; he is a great example of “walking the talk” – truly examining the evidence and acting on what he believes is right.  Arguing for Haynesworth’s exoneration is already quite extraordinary; hiring Haynesworth to work in his office takes it to a whole new level.  Kudos, Mr. Cuccinelli.

My colleague Josh Page’s The Toughest Beat (2011, Oxford) is getting much-deserved good press from many quarters. Today’s props come from Wayne Kramer, the MC5 guitarist now writing at Jail Guitar Doors. Mr. Kramer calls The Toughest Beat a “well researched history of how the prison guards union grew from a minor municipal association into the second most powerful political lobby in California. It’s a fascinating journey into power politics.”

So how do legendary guitar players end up reviewing cutting-edge scholarship in the sociology of punishment? The name Jail Guitar Doors comes from a fine old Clash song that name-drops Mr. Kramer, who once served time in Lexington Federal Prison for a drug offense. His work with the MC5 once earned him 92nd place on Rolling Stone’s all-time top-100 guitarist list. Today, he’s working with Jail Guitar Doors, an organization that Billy Bragg and friends put together to provide prisoners with musical equipment in the United Kingdom and, now, the United States. 

I can’t cite rigorous evaluation data to show the positive effects of such programs, but it doesn’t take a top-100 guitarist to grasp the group’s vision: We believe prisoners provided with the musical tools to create songs of their own can achieve a positive change of attitude that can initiate the work necessary to successfully return to life outside prison walls. Creating music, along with other educational and vocational programs, can be a profound force for positive change in a prisoner’s life.

If the idea hits you like Wayne Kramer power chord — or if you’ve ever just found a little peace and focus while plunking away at an instrument — you might consider a donation.