I spent some time in court today, taking the stand to share some research on voting and disenfranchisement. I’ve done this sort of thing a few times before, but courtrooms, sworn oaths, and cross-examinations are still a little scary to me — more like heebie-jeebies scary than howling fantods scary — but scary nonetheless. Whenever I get anxious, though, I try to “do as I say” in my capacity as advisor, editor, or chair.

When my students are anxious about presentating their work, I tell them what my little league coach told me on his (frequent) trips to see me on the pitcher’s mound: trust your stuff. I remind them about all the preparation, hard work, painstaking research, analysis, and careful writing they’ve done on the subject. If they”re well-prepared, know what they’re doing, and have good stuff to present, there’s really little reason for anxiety. And, at that point, they can direct their energies into communicating effectively, rather than worrying about freaking out, melting down, or curling up in a fetal position before a room of stunned observers.

Social scientists are trained to be appropriately cautious in presenting our work to peers and to the public, but such caution shouldn’t morph itself into learned helplessness or defeatism. As editors, we’re often encouraging writers to trust their stuff — “We actually know a lot about that right? You don’t need to put “may,” “perhaps,” “preliminary,” and “exploratory,” in the concluding sentence. You’ve actually written some good stuff that’s quite convincing on those very points, right?” 

So, while it makes good sense to worry about “overselling” a particular study or finding, there’s also a danger in “underselling” the real knowledge we’ve gained on a topic of importance. When I see social scientists overselling or overreaching, it is usually because they’ve gotten away from their stuff and started popping off about things they haven’t researched or thought much about.

I was thinking of this after raising my right hand and striding across the courtroom to take the stand — just stay on your research and trust your stuff. And it seemed to work out okay today — I said “I don’t know” when I lacked the information to answer a question responsibly, but I also made clear that we have learned some information relevant to the case at hand.

Learning how to trust your stuff comes in as handy in the courtroom as it does in the lecture hall or on the pitcher’s mound. Of course, it won’t eliminate all sources of anxiety. While 95 percent of my attention may have been devoted to responsibly communicating the research, about 5 percent was still pretty anxious. So, however much I may trust my research, I’m still mortified that my fly may be down when I feel a cool breeze on my way to the witness stand.

cross-posted at The Editor’s Desk

I spent the last several days in Washington, DC attending the Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching and spending some time with best friend and fellow criminologist Charis Kubrin.  I took the Metro from Reagan National Airport, and I was struck by these signs:

These posters, sponsored by the NAACP and carrying the tagline: “Let’s build a better America together,” were plastered on virtually all available surfaces.  I found it a particularly powerful campaign, and I hope politicians – as well as voters – take the Metro to the airport and get the message.

How to incite public panic: the Oregonian newspaper offers an example in an article entitled “Oregon Court Ruling Could Shave Years from Killers’ Sentences”. The first lines read:

Thirty killers in Oregon could get out of prison up to a decade early following a court ruling that parole officials haven’t followed the law.

The pool of killers eligible for such release could be up to 250 over the next 15 years, state authorities said.

The convicts are serving life terms for aggravated murder with minimum 30-year sentences. The state Supreme Court recently declared those convicts are eligible for freedom after 20 years.

The article goes on to detail the graphic nature of the crimes of several men in question, naming names while reminding the public that each of those men is a convicted killer and may soon be living amongst them.  At the point, the fear apparently takes over for the vast majority of people who took the time to comment on the newspaper’s website.  A careful reading of the article, however, makes clear that the only real change in the law is  that a relatively small percentage of individuals whom the Parole board has deemed “rehabilitatable” after spending more than 20 years in prison will have a chance to go before the Board again this summer with the possibility of release by the end of the year.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Convicted killers will not be flooding the streets.

Last summer I blogged about the day I spent with the parole board listening to them conduct two “murder review” hearings, where they decided if the persons in question were “rehabilitatable” and might have earned the chance to one day return to the community.  I was impressed with the Parole Board members’ attention and thoughtfulness.  The case I primarily went to view was “flopped;” that individual will continue to work on his issues and will see the Parole Board in 2 more years to again plead his case.

The newspaper printed a sidebar with the names of 30 convicted killers and the dates they will see the Parole Board this summer.  It was particularly interesting to me because I know at least six of those 30 men quite well; they have been students in my college courses in the prisons and several of them are leaders in inmate clubs.  They seem to have worked hard to redeem what is left of their lives and to – perhaps against the odds – become decent men while growing up and maturing in prison.

Do they deserve another chance?  The Parole Board has already found this select group rehabilitatable, which suggests that they might.  Does justice require a minimum of 30 years in prison rather than a minimum of 20?  I’m not sure how to judge that.  How much are those extra 10 years worth, both in terms of what the citizens will pay for incarceration and what the convicted will pay as they try to rebuild lives?  How much will those extra 10 years change the odds for the “convicted killers” who are likely to reenter the community one day in the future?

I don’t know.  The Parole Board has a thankless job in any case, but sensationalistic news articles and headlines seem particularly destructive when they incite moral panic without revealing the true issues and questions behind the story.

My colleague Josh Page offers a thoughtful commentary on California’s prison system in Zocalo Public Square today. Quote:

Prison officers understandably worry that downsizing the correctional system will put them out of work. Thanks largely to their effective union, these officers have solid, middle-class jobs with good pay, good benefits, and good retirement packages. California officers make between $45,000 and $73,000 a year before overtime and other incentives. As the manufacturing sector declines, “prison officer” is one of the few remaining occupations providing upward social mobility for people who lack advanced degrees. This is especially true in the rural areas in which many prisons are located. Officers and their families, then, are justified in thinking that major reforms might close one of the few remaining paths they have into the middle class. Policymakers must make good faith efforts to protect these workers as they reshape the correctional system…The CCPOA would be much more likely to support reform measures if it could protect its members’ jobs along the way, or at least be persuaded that its worst-case fears are unfounded.

For more, check out, The Toughest Beat, Josh’s new book with Oxford.

Nice story from the sports page: high school basketball coach, Bob Hurley Sr., is likely to earn his 1,000th victory in the next week.  He is one of only three high school coaches to make it into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

But, when Hurley measures his own success, he thinks of the young men that he has worked with over the years, helping to teach them discipline, trust, and teamwork.  He can point to the college graduates and successful adults who have come out of his program at St. Anthony, a tiny Catholic high school in Jersey City, New Jersey.  As the article explains:

But his true legacy is much deeper than the lights on the scoreboard. Hurley said he would trade in those wins — every last one of them — for a chance to help more inner-city kids.

“You know what? I would give them up for one more chance with some of the kids I didn’t reach over the years,” Hurley said. “If I could have a second chance with some of those, it would be worth all the adulation.”

Hurley can certainly be proud of his victories both on and off the court.  The article provides some testimony from former players and offers this overview:

Still, even with 25 state parochial titles, the victories are a small part of what he has accomplished. Hurley, 63, has been a father figure for hundreds of inner-city teenagers over the past four decades. He has placed nearly all of them in four-year colleges, most on scholarships.

Some are doctors and businessmen now. Others are lawyers and police captains. One owns a popular restaurant in Jersey City and once held a seat on the city’s board of education.

Maybe there should be a mentoring hall of fame, as well; I think Hurley would make it in on the first ballot.

In our paper on public criminologies, Chris and I wrote about some of the perils of making your research accessible to a wide audience:

We also should acknowledge the potential costs of practicing public criminology. Making one’s work and perspective visible in the media opens the possibilities for threats and hate mail, loss of credibility, or worse from detractors. It can lead to close identification with the populations one studies; for example, attempts to discuss the low recidivism rates of sex offenders can be derailed by venomous attacks from a fearful public. (Uggen & Inderbitzin, 2010: 743)

The latest – and perhaps scariest – example of vitriolic threats and electronic hate mail is the targeted attack against sociologist Frances Fox Piven.  Based largely on a piece of work that was published 45 years ago, Glenn Beck has suggested that Frances Fox Piven is an enemy of the Constitution. Examples of the threats made against Dr. Piven can be found in this article; the author then points out:  “One thing that I think has not been adequately highlighted amid this fiasco is Piven’s own response: the professor has been calm, fearless, and articulate, providing a model of how a public intellectual should behave in such a situation.”

Officers of the American Sociological Association issued a public statement, ending with these words:

Thus, the right to free speech does not ever include rhetoric that encourages violence against one’s opponents, especially in the current atmosphere of heated political mobilization. We call on Fox News and other responsible media to set the appropriate standards of accurate and honest debate.

Frances Fox Piven, herself, has been graceful under pressure, and as a true public intellectual, she is using this unwanted publicity to point attention back to the larger structural issues.  She offered this comment:

It’s hard for people to understand what’s going on in a complicated society. Democracy requires that people have some understanding of what’s going on, of what their own interests are, who their enemies are. But it’s a very complicated society. And moneyed propagandists have taken advantage of that to create a demonology in which it is the left, the Democratic left, that is the source of many of our troubles.

And, one more thing, in case you haven’t heard much about this case or followed any of the links in this post, Frances Fox Piven is 78 years old…and apparently more relevant than ever.  With her her courage and continuing efforts to educate the public, Dr. Piven offers a positive model for public sociologists/public criminologists to learn from and emulate.  It is appreciated.

I like gear that comes with a story. And “these alligator boots were seized in a cocaine bust” is a story worthy of Quentin Tarantino, if not the Coen brothers. See, the proprietor of St. Paul’s El Primo Western Wear was evidently stashing cocaine in the boot boxes, so the store’s inventory was placed into storage. Now you and I can bid for the fine snap-button shirts, boots, belts, and stetson hats at auction.

via Mara Gottfried at The Pioneer Press:

A large amount of Western wear seized from a St. Paul store by police is now up for auction. The owner of the store, El Primo Western Wear, was sent to federal prison after he was convicted in a 2008 drug case. He had stored cocaine among cowboy-boot boxes in the basement of the store at 176 Cesar Chavez St., according to a search warrant affidavit.

The merchandise seized included 881 pairs of boots, 579 hats and 1,111 pairs of jeans. It had been in storage until the advisory board of the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force authorized the sale of the inventory at auction last month. Hines Auction Service is holding the online auction now. The first one closes Dec. 20 and the second Dec. 23. There will be more auctions, but they haven’t been scheduled yet, the Ellsworth, Wis., company said today. The auctions are listed at http://bit.ly/g2lf80 and http://bit.ly/hBHJ9N. Proceeds from the auction will be used to pay Metro Gang Strike Force legal fees, settlements, storage fees and other costs, an attorney has said.

Property seizures by law enforcement agencies are controversial to say the least, as forfeitures of cars and other big-ticket items have increased directly with budget cuts in some jurisdictions. For their part, Minnesota’s Metro Gang Strike Force has transitioned from beleaguered to defunct, finally shutting down in 2009. By most accounts, the MGSF was overzealous about seizing property and not nearly zealous enough about recordkeeping — hence, an auction to help defray their own legal fees.

Now that’s a story worthy of the Coen brothers.

[update: Jessica Lussenhop offers further details on both the bust and the goods in City Pages.]

Arlo Guthrie, whose Alice’s Restaurant is dished up like cranberry sauce each Thanksgiving, finally made the Macy’s parade this year. The protracted protest anthem tells the story of Mr. Guthrie’s 1965 littering arrest, as detailed in this uncredited and unsourced account:

The lyrics tell the tale of how this trivial criminal event emerges as a major issue at the draft induction center, with Mr. Guthrie ultimately asking, “you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug?” So, while there was plenty of humor and good fun in the song, it packed a real punch.

The story is well-told and still engages audiences, but the status politics of garbage dumping have changed a lot in forty-five years. When it comes to dumping busloads of garbage down hillsides, contemporary hippie kids might sympathize more with Officer Obie’s strict environmental protection than with their smiling sixties-era counterparts.

As I recall from my own freshman year, the film version was considerably sadder, slower, and uglier than the song. But I still like the following clip and could imagine using it for a class exercise on changing environmental norms:

Two different stories hit the news (features) this week, and I was struck by the similar themes in these bad-boy-grows-up-in-prison-and-tries-to-go-straight-on-the-outside stories.  The first, published in The Oregonian, focuses on LaMarcus Branch, an ex-Crip who was recently released from prison and is now making visible efforts to reach young gang members in Portland.  He and friends wear matching t-shirts branding them the new, self-imposed label of BRO (Brothers Reaching Out), and they “show up at gang funerals and high school football games to ease tensions, they mentor young men on parole, and they try to intervene in gang scuffles before things turn violent.”

Branch claims that his time in prison saved his life.  While that itself is perhaps not that unusual, what is unique about Branch is that he is particularly grateful for his lengthy sentence.  The article explains:

Branch, at 24, was sent to prison for 13 years, four months, a rare consecutive sentence for first-degree robbery and second-degree assault, his first Measure 11 offenses. During his first decade behind bars, he was angry and bitter, often in trouble for fights or gang beefs. But the last few years of his sentence brought a change of heart.

“I’d say those extra three or four years was the most important part,” he said. “They gave me time to realize the life that I lived wasn’t a life.”

Measure 11 is our version of mandatory minimum sentencing in Oregon, and I generally hear complaints about the harshness and inflexibility of such sentences.  This is one of the only times I can remember hearing a former inmate say he appreciated the extra years he served.  Branch even sent a letter to the prosecutor – now a judge – who won the case against him, saying if he had done only 70 or 90 months in prison, he probably would have returned home bitter and angry and jumped right back into gang life. “So I’m not just thanking you for winning the case, but also for getting me this 160 months, because now I see and realize with understanding that there’s more to life than gangs and crime.”

Branch has only been out of prison since March, and he still does not have a driver’s license or a job.  He will face significant hurdles in building a new life and following his dream to mentor youth.  But the choices are his.

The second story, published in the New York Times, focuses on 26-year-old Raheem Watson, who spent nearly ten years of his life in juvenile corrections and prison.  As difficult as his time in prison was, Watson, too, believes he underwent a transformation during his incarceration and he claims he came out of prison this February as “a mature adult.”  Watson doesn’t have a driver’s license or a job yet, either, but he is working toward both and he shares Branch’s passion to mentor young people.

Watson had a difficult childhood, abandoned by his father at age 4 and raised by a drug-dealing mother who died after ingesting cocaine laced with rat poison when he was 12.  The piece of Watson’s story that I most appreciated was the moment when social context met individual responsibility head-on.  The article explains:

Mr. Watson said he sometimes felt the troubles he had faced were a product of fate — a notion that seemed at odds with his stated desire to steer others away from the path he took.

So, the question again: Did he have a choice? He rolled it around in his head, struggling with its implications.

“Yeah,” Mr. Watson said. “I had a choice.”

Yes, Branch and Watson both had choices.  They may not have had great options, but they made the choices that sent them each to prison.  And now they face hard choices again every day.  Criminologists know all too well the difficulty ex-felons have reintegrating into the community, finding jobs, and creating new lives for themselves.  The struggle and the stigma are real and can be overwhelming.  But making the hard choices and “doing good” is truly the best way these men can fulfill their goals of mentoring young people.  In leading by example, they may be able to help influence the next generation to make better choices.

I’m feeling especially proud today of my current Inside-Out class at the Oregon State Penitentiary.  This is a class where students get deeply invested in the material.  To help facilitate their investment and involvement, one of their assignments is to write a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece to a local newspaper.  They can choose to send it individually or just turn it in to me; I had success one quarter getting a batch of them published together.  This quarter, the students did the work all on their own.

Two separate pieces were published in different local newspapers today.  First, here is the content of an op-ed written by Shelby, an outside (OSU) student, and published in the state’s largest newspaper, The Oregonian:

I recently attended a community breakfast hosted by the Marion County Reentry Initiative in Salem. According to its website, MCRI is dedicated to “rebuild lives, promote community safety and save taxpayer money by breaking the cycle of criminal activity.” I heard about the event through a brief article in the Salem Statesman Journal. The breakfast was meant to provide information for community members on how to help released Oregon prisoners reintegrate into Marion County society. Although I don’t live in Marion County, the opportunity was appealing to me because I’m currently taking a class called Inside Out.

Every Monday, my fellow Oregon State University classmates and I drive from Corvallis to the Oregon State Penitentiary. This unique class is held inside the maximum-security prison and it consists of 30 students — 15 of them from OSU and 15 of them OSP inmates. We come together once a week to discuss crime, communities, prisons and prevention. Through this exclusive opportunity, I’ve viewed all four topics in ways I never have before. The Inside Out program is one small way of helping a select few inmates prepare to re-enter mainstream society. Through our class they are able to feel tied to the community again. But we must be prepared to help all inmates.

The damaging stigma attached to prisoners by our society is clear for all to see. Even after serving their time, they forever bear the label of ex-convict. We often hear, “You do the crime, you do the time,” yet we continue to punish these individuals long after they’ve served their sentence. After being released, many face difficulties finding jobs, obtaining student loans, securing housing and readjusting to mainstream society. Unfortunately, many fall back into criminal ways and re-enter the prison system.

At the community breakfast state prision chief Max Williams said, “Ninty-three percent of prison populations will eventually be returned to communities. Therefore we must have a strategy to help them readjust.” He also pointed out that it’s a community problem that needs a community solution. This concept is something we’ve discussed in great detail in our Inside Out class. If community members could actively help ex-inmates transition rather than shun them from our communities, the likelihood of them recidivating is much lower, making our communities safer. MCRI is one organization that’s helping ex-inmates have a successful re-entry, but without community support, those individuals will forever be locked into the stigma.

This isn’t an easy concept for most to gladly accept, but Marion County is up for the challenge.

And here is the content of a letter to the editor written by an inside student, Jeremy, and published in the Salem Statesman-Journal:

I am an inmate enrolled in an OSU sociology class taught inside the Oregon State Penitentiary.

The class, made up of half inmates/half university students, focuses on crime, communities, prisons and prevention.

I am serving a mandatory Measure 11 sentence and I can tell you from my personal experience that many of us are working toward becoming more productive members of society by participating in classes and job opportunities available at OSP. I strongly encourage concerned citizens and lawmakers to allow inmates to be able to receive “earned time” off their sentences in exchange for good behavior during incarceration.

Gov. Kulongoski’s Reset Cabinet recently recommended up to 15 percent earned time off for the majority of Measure 11 sentences. Offering earned time incentive promotes good behavior inside prison while, more importantly, promoting the changes necessary for true rehabilitation outside of prison.

Currently, Measure 11 doesn’t allow for judges’ discretion and expertise in sentencing. Furthermore, it costs the state excessive dollars that are spent on incarceration only, which provides the least amount of treatment and incentive necessary for rehabilitation.

Allowing Measure 11 offenders earned time incentive is a responsible solution to reduce the costs of corrections.

These pieces were published today.  Prior to the elections earlier this month, Chris, another outside student, had a letter published in the OSU student newspaper in hopes of educating his fellow students before they cast their ballots:

Students still determining their vote for ballot Measure 73 should consider voting no. Measure 73 would impose a 25-year mandatory minimum on “major sex felony crimes” and DUII convictions, if prior convictions for either exist. This “Oregon Crimefighting Act” looks to be, on the surface, a valid crime prevention tool. However, mandatory minimums have historically been ineffective at preventing crime and may in fact contribute to more crime and greater state budget crises. If enacted, the long-term costs to the state can be upwards of $30 million annually. Issues raised by Measure 73 extend beyond budgetary and extend to questions of justice. Put simply, mandatory minimums set specific sentences for certain crimes without regard for individual circumstances, despite little evidence that mandatory minimums prevent crime. Politicians hoping to persuade the public that she or he is tough on crime may be getting the facts of mandatory minimums incorrect. Fourteen other OSU students and I are enrolled in a course on crime, communities, prisons and prevention that meets in Oregon State Penitentiary with 17 of its residents. We have been studying research and learning from OSP’s residents’ experiences on political, social and economic ramifications of mandatory minimums. In short, mandatory minimums have contributed greatly to the increased prison population in the U.S., where we are the world’s No. 1 incarcerator. Oregon should stop spending money on putting its citizens away and start spending money on proven methods to help prevent crime – addressing our economic and public education crises. Do not put Oregon citizens behind bars for 25 years so that politicians can appear tough. Learn the facts about mandatory minimums and you will no doubt vote no.

In addition, the students arranged for the Oregon State student newspaper to do a story on the class and their experience.  At least four students made the time to do interviews with the reporter in order to share their thoughts on the issues with the larger student body.

All very cool.  We are also coming up with some great stuff for class projects – more on that later.  For now, I’m just grateful to get to work with  such a motivated group of students who really care about the issues and are striving to make their corner of the world a better place.