Yahoo News reported on a study by media-research company Experian Simmons today. I couldn’t find any methodological details about the study and cannot vouch for its accuracy, but it presented the listing below, purporting to show how political partisanship is linked to preferences for various television programs.

Not surprisingly, Glenn Beck ranks high among Republican viewers and low among Democrats, with Keith Olbermann’s Countdown showing the opposite pattern. Yet some of the other patterns are more intriguing, with critically acclaimed cable-only shows like Mad Men garnering far higher ratings among Democrats, and highly-rated network programs generally doing better among Republicans. [I can only guess about the precise metric here, but it looks as though scores are standardized such that an average rating would be scored at 100.]

To get a better sense for the story the data might tell, I arrayed the shows and ratings from left to right by the ratio of Democratic to Republican scores. In this figure, it is easy to spot the “purple middle” represented by programs such as Desperate Housewives, Dancing with the Stars, and The Mentalist.

I wouldn’t draw any inferences from the bivariate association shown in the chart. It would be fun (or at least “fun” in the classroom exercise sense of the word) to ask a social statistics or methodology class to identify potential confounders and sources of spuriousness here — at minimum, I suspect that age, gender, race, and urban residence would be associated with both viewing habits and partisanship. That is, it might be the case that the Mad Men or 30 Rock crowd is not so much Democrat as young, urban, and female.

As a criminologist, I’m fascinated by portrayals of the criminal justice system — specifically, the extent to which they adopt a “crime control” or “due process” model of law enforcement. I’d guess that Democrats would be more likely to favor crime dramas that nod to “due process” concerns (e.g., Law & Order), but I’ve never seen a study documenting such preferences. Most shows, in fact, lean heavily toward crime control portrayals, with rogue officers routinely taking all manner of head-busting liberties with suspects.

For example, I recently caught an episode of the new Hawaii Five-O and was surprised to see the heroic detectives toss a witness (a witness!) into a shark tank, just to loosen his tongue a bit. Despite Five-O’s silly portrayal of police work, stilted dialogue, and cheesy acting, I’d still rate it highly — that theme song remains irresistable.

Josh Beckman sends word that Charlie DeTar and friends have developed a prison blogging platform, with support from MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media. The description:

Between the Bars is a weblog platform for prisoners, through which the 1% of America which is behind bars can tell their stories. Since prisoners are routinely denied access to the Internet, we enable them to blog by scanning letters. We aim to provide a positive outlet for creativity, a tool to assist in the maintenance of social safety nets, an opportunity to forge connections between prisoners and non-prisoners, and a means to promote non-criminal identities and personal expression. We hope to improve prisoner’s lives, and help to reduce recidivism.

It felt good to see how they used one of our civic reintegration articles, since this sort of public criminology and civic reintegration project goes way beyond anything we might have envisioned.  Amazing stuff. I even like the project title, which brings to mind still another interpretation of an especially evocative Elliott Smith lyric.

As I sit here listening to election results on the west coast, I’m reminded that it is both privilege and a responsibility to vote.  I didn’t always feel that way – as a working class kid, I was never really convinced that my vote “counted”.  I’m still not sure one vote makes a significant difference, but I do know that I owe it to my incarcerated students to vote knowledgeably and responsibly on issues that concern us all.  And I owe it to my on-campus students to set an example of civic responsibility.

Chris and I wrote a small paper last year on “The Price and Promise of Citizenship,” in which we argued the United States should extend the vote to non-incarcerated felons.   My favorite critique/response said that we were too modest in our goals and didn’t take the argument far enough.  I have several former “inside” students out in the community now – released from prison and building new lives for themselves.  I hope they voted in this election and made sure they had a voice in local politics for the first time in a long time, perhaps for the first time ever.

In Oregon, we vote entirely by mail.  Although the mail-in vote is definitely convenient, I miss the camaraderie of waiting in line at my local polling place for my moment in the booth.  I miss feeling the connection to the community, but I vote anyway, taking my civic duty seriously.  When you are fortunate enough to have a voice, it is both a privilege and responsibility to use it.

Flopped. That is what the men in prison call it when they go in front of the parole board and get back a disappointing decision. Essentially, the board defers a decision but the men will be allowed to petition and be heard again in 2-10 years.

In July, I wrote about my day with the parole board where I observed two “Murder Review” hearings.   As I wrote then, the stated purpose of such hearings is to:  ”determine whether or not the inmate is likely to be rehabilitated within a reasonable period of time so that the offender’s sentence may be converted to life with the possibility of parole, post-prison supervision, or work release.”

To give a quick summary, the cases I sat in on were both for aggravated murder; the question was whether the convicted men could prove themselves “rehabilitatable” so that they might have the possibility of parole at a future date.

The first man presented over 100 pages of records, proof, and testimony that he has worked hard in his 20-years in prison to change and grow.  He has “programmed” persistently and thoroughly, participating in many educational and cognitive courses and experiences over the years.  His crime was a truly horrifying case of domestic violence – there really is no excuse for that crime and no making up for it, and the man acknowledges that.  Members of the victim’s family came to testify at the hearing, and their grief and pain was readily apparent.  They fear his possible release 10 or more years in the future, and they hope that he will serve natural life in prison.   The district attorney who attended the hearing called this man “a monster” and also asked that he be found “not likely to be rehabilitated in a reasonable amount of time.”

Three months later, the decision is in and the man was flopped.  He can petition to go in front of the parole board to attempt to prove himself “rehabilitatable” again in two years.  I’m told it could have been worse; he could have been flopped for 10 years.

He has about 9 years left on the mandatory part of his sentence, so he had no hope of getting out any time soon.  But I’m left to wonder, what does it do to one’s psyche when you are told you are not rehabilitatable and given a list of reasons why the parole board believes that is the case.   It’s hard to imagine a more negative label.

The man just got the decision from the parole board this week and he is still processing it.  He’s trying to figure out what more he could have done and what more he can do over the next years to prove himself worthy of the possibility of a second chance.  I don’t know what it will take for him to get a more favorable decision; it’s obviously difficult to prove and judge change and possibility.  I am very glad that I was simply an observer in this process.   I would hate to have to go in front of a board every 2 years to prove my possible future worth or to have to sit in judgment on someone else’s.

Poker-themed t-shirts available from Lush T Shirts.

Marc Jenkins gave a terrific lecture titled “How the Immune System Remembers Infections” this week. As a sociological criminologist, I’ve long been fascinated by immunology and its connection to the social organicism of Spencer, Durkheim and others. The immune system wondrously learns to quickly recognize and neutralize pathogens in the body, even as the pathogens quickly evolve and adapt to overcome the immune system. He used this trunk monkey* video to introduce immune functioning (body=car; pathogen=thief):

By analogy, some argue that communities exercise social control in the same way. One hears such analogies when people describe how a social group is brought down by a nefarious “virus” or “cancer.”  For example, when the Patriots traded Randy Moss to the Vikings, a commentator was asked whether Patriots Coach Bill Belichek considered him a “cancer” in the locker room (“more like a polyp,” was the clever response). Such social organicism can be carried way too far, of course, perhaps even to genocide.

More positively, I’d compare immune response to the sort of rapidly mobilizing and self-sustaining resistance that a good school might develop in response to, say, a sudden rash of fights breaking out at the Friday night football games. The destructive behavior can either take root or it can be brought under control pretty quickly, once the fans in the bleachers learn to recognize and take the collective responsibility to stop it.

Professor Jenkins closed with another video, and I couldn’t help but identify with the host’s completely ineffectual efforts to ward off the pathogen in this one. Reminds me to boost the ol’ immune system before winter hits….

* No, that doesn’t look like an actual “monkey” to me either, but “trunk monkey” makes for a clever name.

In a few weeks, California voters will consider Proposition 19 — The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. This measure (1) legalizes various marijuana-related activities, (2) allows local governments to regulate these activities, (3) permits local governments to impose and collect marijuana-related fees and taxes, and (4) authorizes various criminal and civil penalties. As the national Gallup data indicate below, support for marijuana legalization has risen dramatically over the past quarter century, to the point where such ballot referenda now have a strong chance of passage in states like California.

I’ve gotten a few calls on the subject and wish I knew more about it. At this point, I defer to my California colleagues because I simply do not feel sufficiently informed or qualified to render an opinion as either an expert or a private citizen on this issue. But I do know this: should Proposition 19 pass, it would likely portend a Very Big Change in past practices and policies with respect to marijuana. Some excellent researchers at the RAND Drug Policy Research Center (Beau Kilmer, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Robert J. MacCoun, Peter H. Reuter) have made heroic efforts to model the likely effects of such a Very Big Change, based on estimates of current and future consumption, likely price changes, taxes levied and evaded, and nonprice effects (such as a change in stigma), but they acknowledge that we are in uncharted waters. Their best guess? 

(1) the pretax retail price of marijuana will substantially decline, likely by more than 80 percent. The price the consumers face will depend heavily on taxes, the structure of the regulatory regime, and how taxes and regulations are enforced;
(2) consumption will increase, but it is unclear how much, because we know neither the shape of the demand curve nor the level of tax evasion (which reduces revenues and prices that consumers face);
(3) tax revenues could be dramatically lower or higher than the $1.4 billion estimate provided by the California Board of Equalization (BOE); for example, uncertainty about the federal response to California legalization can swing estimates in either direction;
(4) previous studies find that the annual costs of enforcing marijuana laws in California range from around $200 million to nearly $1.9 billion; our estimates show that the costs are probably less than $300 million; and
(5) there is considerable uncertainty about the impact of legalizing marijuana in California on public budgets and consumption, with even minor changes in assumptions leading to major differences in outcomes.

So, marijuana will become significantly cheaper in California, but we cannot tell for certain whether the increase in consumption will be correspondingly large (say, to the peak marijuana levels of the late-1970s).  We also can’t say for sure how much will be collected or evaded in taxes, saved or spent on treatment and law enforcement, or how neighboring states and the federal government will respond. The RAND report is helpful in showing both the kinds of factors to be considered before casting one’s ballot and the limits of our current knowledge base.

On balance, will we be better off or worse off in a post-Prop. 19 world? At this point, responsible experts, including  the RAND team, are pointing to an unusually large gap between the change voters must consider and our knowledge about its likely impact.  Call me gutless, but under such conditions my personal preference would be for a gradual phase-in and limited pilot period before attempting to flip such a Very Big Switch in a state of 39 million people.

The FBI has released their Uniform Crime Report Crime in the United States numbers for year-end 2009 and, once again, the rate of crimes reported to police continues to fall.

I’ve just begun to explore the new report, but researchers can easily download spreadsheets to show long- and short-term trends in both population-adjusted rates and raw numbers. The chart above shows the crime decline since 1990 in murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, motor vehicle theft, burglary, and larceny-theft. This chart makes it apparent how much the overall crime numbers are driven by larceny-theft — and the comparative rarity of violent crimes such as rape and murder.

But crime is dropping across each of these categories. The purple bars show the magnitude of the drop in the past 20 years, comparing 1990 rates with 2009 rates, or ((2009-1990)/1990). The green bars show the most recent change from 2008 to 2009 ((2009-2008)/2008). I’d normally compare these numbers with those from the National Crime Victimization Survey before drawing any big conclusions about crime trends. With regard to the FBI’s official crime index, however, it seems pretty clear that there has been a significant drop in crime reported to police over the past year and, for that matter, over the past twenty years.

Despite a new wave of programs and research, people still write about reentry using the stylized tropes of old James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart movies. Either the ex-prisoner is portrayed as a noble witness to this cruel world, as a predatory menace to be gunned down, or (in more sophisticated variants) as a gangster with a heart of gold.

Given these cultural reference points, it takes courage to say something real and true about the lived messiness of reentry — especially when one’s freedom or livelihood depends on telling convincing narratives of success. Josh Page tipped me off to a short piece by Jody Lewen of the Prison University Project, who describes the sort of reentry experience I see played out in my research and in everyday life.

In the latest issue of the PUP Newsletter, Dr. Lewin writes about a former client who hadn’t committed any major new crime but had nevertheless violated the conditions of his release.

Derek Meade had been an exceptional student while in the program at San Quentin, had enrolled in school immediately after paroling to continue his studies, and had also managed to find a part-time job. He had sounded great for quite a while. When he didn’t respond to one of our messages, we sent another, and he finally wrote to say that he had recently relapsed, and was close to being sent back to prison as the result of two positive drug tests. He said he hoped to send us the letter soon, with some better news.

Derek’s assumption was, of course, that his current news was “unfit” for the newsletter. It was as if he had absorbed the pressure we often feel to provide nothing but upbeat success stories and clear evidence of our “results.” And yet how many of our former students – or other people in recovery, for that matter – experience the same thing he was going through? What impact does it have on those individuals never to see their experiences reflected in publications about our programs? And equally important: how does this absence affect the public’s understanding of our work – whether in terms of the value of education for people in prison, or the role education can play in the process of recovery?

Of course, there are two layers of courage here. Unlike Mr. Meade, many clients will remain silent about their struggles and only share stories of unadulterated success or extreme hardship that justifies their actions. Unlike Dr. Lewin, many program directors will select and highlight only those narratives that celebrate the transformative power of their programs or justify a claim to greater resources. In challenging such biased and selective pictures, they give us a glimpse of what reentry is really like — and it is rarely as black and white as those old movies.

ps. If you’d like to support the Prison University Project, you can make a donation in any amount.

Here at pubcrim, we’re devoted fans of Criminology & Public Policy, the American Society of Criminology journal devoted to policy discussions of criminology research. So we’re delighted to report that C&PP is publishing the piece we’ve informally designated as our pubcrim manifesto. We can’t imagine a better home for these ideas.

Articles in C&PP are generally accompanied by a set of critical policy essays, written by smart experts in reaction to the article. We’re still correcting our page proofs and have yet to see the policy essays, but we’re looking forward to some tough but fair critique. In lieu of abstracts, C&PP asks authors to spell out the research summary and policy implications on the front page. Here’s ours:

Research Summary
Public scholarship aspires to bring social science home to the individuals, communities, and institutions that are its focus of study. In particular, it seeks to narrow the yawning gap between public perceptions and the best available scientific evidence on issues of public concern. Yet nowhere is the gap between perceptions and evidence greater than in the study of crime. Here, we outline the prospects for a public criminology, conducting and disseminating research on crime, law, and deviance in dialogue with affected communities. We present historical data on the media discussion of criminology and sociology, and we outline the distinctive features of criminology—interdisciplinarity, a subject matter that incites moral panics, and a practitioner base actively engaged in knowledge production—that push the boundaries of public scholarship.

Policy Implications
Discussions of public sociology have drawn a bright line separating policy work from professional, critical, and public scholarship. As the research and policy essays published in Criminology & Public Policy make clear, however, the best criminology often is conducted at the intersection of these domains. A vibrant public criminology will help to bring new voices to policy discussions while addressing common myths and misconceptions about crime.

I spent eight hours with our state’s parole board yesterday.  I sat in on two “Murder Review” hearings, the stated purpose of which is to:  “determine whether or not the inmate is likely to be rehabilitated within a reasonable period of time so that the offender’s sentence may be converted to life with the possibility of parole, post-prison supervision, or work release.” 

The individuals in both of these cases were charged with aggravated murder; for both of them the question was whether they could prove themselves “rehabilitatable” so that they might have the possibility of parole at a future date.  One has at least 9 more years to serve on the mandatory part of his sentence before he can even be considered for release; the other is nearly 70 years old and is hoping for a chance to re-connect with family on the outside rather than die in prison.

The circumstance of the cases were quite different, and so were the hearings.  I’ll focus on the first, though, because it raises some difficult moral, ethical, and behavioral questions.  The first man presented over 100 pages of records, proof, and testimony that he has worked hard in his 20-years in prison to change and grow.  He has “programmed” persistently and thoroughly, participating in many educational and cognitive courses and experiences over the years.  His crime was a truly horrifying case of domestic violence – there really is no excuse for that crime and no making up for it, and the man acknowledges that.  Members of the victim’s family came to testify at the hearing, and their grief and pain was readily apparent.  They fear his possible release 10 or more years in the future, and they hope that he will serve natural life in prison.   The district attorney who attended the hearing called this man “a monster” and also asked that he be found “not likely to be rehabilitated in a reasonable amount of time.”

I was very impressed with the members of the parole board.  They had clearly done their homework in preparing for the hearings, and they patiently listened to testimony and took notes for the 8+ hours of these hearings, not even taking a break for lunch.  After the testimony of the inmates and their attorneys, they asked careful, thoughtful, and very probing questions, pushing the inmates to look deeper within themselves to answer the difficult questions.  Being a member of the parole board must be a thankless job – I doubt they get much credit for giving second (or third, or fourth) chances, but they undoubtedly face a great deal of public scrutiny and criticism should a release decision turn out badly.

The decisions will come later after the parole board has time to review and reflect on the evidence presented.  But here is the question: how can and should we judge change?  Even if an inmate has turned his life around in prison, does he deserve another chance at life in the community?  He can’t change the circumstances of his crime, but if he really has changed himself, is that enough?  Should it be?  How much weight should the victims’ fear, grief, and pain hold in parole decisions?  Can we ever really know if an inmate is “rehabilitated” enough or if he is just a master manipulator as the victims and prosecutors believe and claim?  Is it worth the risk to grant even the possibility of parole?

Big questions.  I don’t have any clear answers at this point, but I definitely came away from the hearings with a lot to think about…