label_happyWhile many criminologists still use the term “offender,” I’ve tried to purge it from my writing. For me, at least, the “offender” label implies an inherent criminality, rather than a factual legal status. I’m heartened when fellow academics consider the stigmatizing consequences of the terms they use, but it is especially good news when the official labelmakers take steps in this direction.

As Chris Palmer of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports,

 The hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians who have served time in prison will no longer be referred to as “ex-offenders” in official city language, the mayor’s office announced Thursday. Instead, an ordinance will be introduced to call them “returning citizens.”

In a statement, Mayor Nutter said that the new term emphasizes reintegration, while ” ‘ex-offender’ carries with it a stigma which may increase the challenges these citizens face.”


GatesBrown2If I wrote a novel about an ex-prisoner who became a successful major league ballplayer and Detroit legend, I’d probably name him “Gates” Brown.

Nah, too obvious.

William “Gates” Brown died Friday at 74. Mr. Brown was among the greatest pinch hitters in baseball history, batting an absurd .450 in 40 pinch-hitting appearances (and .370 overall) for the Tigers in their 1968 championship season. As a kid, I admired him for his cool demeanor at the plate, the fine career he fashioned from a very specialized skill, and a near-Ruthian story about toting hot dogs on the basepaths. What’s not to like?

On the backs of baseball cards, they generally list information like “Bill enjoys bowling in the off-season!” rather than “Bill did 22 months for B&E!” — and athletes of the day were quite content to keep their criminal histories in the closet. Still, even as a little leaguer, I knew something about Mr. Brown’s past.  His 1974 Topps card, which I happen to have in my office (don’t ask) says, “Gates makes public appearances for the Tigers.” And he did just that, according to this 1974 piece from The Argus-Presswhich details his efforts to get kids “on the right track” and his television appearances discussing his prison history. He’d done 22 months in the Ohio State Reformatory at Mansfield — an iconic prison used in certain Shawshank Redemption scenes. 

Mr. Brown was also forthcoming about the racism he endured coming up the ranks in the Jim Crow south of 1960. Because the first year of his career was spent on probation, he knew that reacting physically to racist fans and coaches would quickly put said career to an end.  Nevertheless, Mr. Brown progressed quickly through the minor leagues, playing 13 years in Detroit and then serving as hitting coach from 1978 to 1984.

So, while baseball fans will remember Gates Brown as the consummate pinch hitter, the matter-of-fact and compelling manner in which he told his desistance story is also well worth remembering.

I don’t recall any “So, your dad’s in prison” discussions on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or Captain Kangaroo, but United States criminal punishment has increased greatly since my preschool days. Arturo Baiocchi sends along this powerful Sesame Street clip addressing parental incarceration in their “Little Children, Big Challenges” series. The short video is heartbreaking in concept and in execution, but I’m glad to see more people and institutions reaching out to support the children of incarcerated parents. For those interested in the numbers and the effects of parental incarceration, I’d recommend the excellent series of articles and upcoming book by our friends Sara Wakefield and Chris Wildeman.

Virginia_new_sign Two quick felon voting updates:

Most importantly, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell will begin automatically restoring voting rights for  “nonviolent felons” beginning July 15. Those convicted of violent crimes must still undergo an application process, following a five-year waiting period. “Non-violent” is a problematic definition in practice, but I expect this to be a meaningful change for Virginia. In particular, a switch to an “automatic” or default system tends to be far more effective in restoring civil rights than, say,  “streamlined application processes.”

Also, Marc Mauer and I wrote a new Huffington Post op-ed on race, voter turnout, and felon disenfranchisement.

mnloveYou might have heard that Minnesota Governor Dayton just signed Freedom to Marry legislation, but he also made Ban the Box the law-of-the-land-of-10,000-lakes.  Megan Boldt describes it succinctly at

Gov. Mark Dayton this week signed a bill that would ban employers from considering a job applicant’s criminal history until the applicant has an interview or is offered a job.

Supporters of the bill, dubbed “ban the box,” have argued the change allows people who have made mistakes to be considered for a job on their merits and skills, instead of having their application immediately discarded.

Since 2009, Minnesota has required all public employers to wait until a job candidate has been selected for an interview before inquiring about criminal history.

I can take no credit (or blame, I suppose) for this development, but I can brag a bit about amazing Minnesota graduate students like Sarah Walker and Rob Stewart, community leaders like Mark Haase at the Council on Crime and Justice, and many formerly incarcerated men and women who came forward to tell their stories and build support for this legislation.

Yes, employers can and will still discriminate on the basis of a criminal record, but the research literature suggests that ban the box is a tremendously important step. In my Minnesota audit study on low-level records, for example, 25% of the hiring authorities we interviewed told us they wouldn’t consider any (hypothetical) applicant with a record, but they were much less likely to discriminate on that basis when confronted with a real human being applying for a job. And in Devah Pager’s important audit studies (and my own as well), personal contact with a hiring authority is a powerful, powerful predictor of “callbacks” from employers. So, I’m optimistic that Ban the Box won’t simply waste applicants’ time — or that of employers.

For a national perspective on these laws, check the recent EEOC guidance on the topic and a useful page from the National Employment Law Project. And, yes, I’m already scheming to evaluate implementation and outcomes…


Join me and the incomparable Vesla Weaver this TUESDAY, for a spirited conversation on crime, punishment, and democracy at the Hubert H. Humphrey Forum.  As moderator, I’ll either be channeling Charlie Rose or Axl Rose, depending on the crowd. All are welcome and admission is free, but advance registration is appreciated.

How America’s Public Safety System Hurts Our Democracy 

Is justice blind? Vesla Weaver reveals racial disparities in the American criminal justice system and their implications for undermining full democratic citizenship. Professor Christopher Uggen will moderate the discussion.  Find more information here:

April 30, 12 p.m. | Humphrey Forum
Humphrey School of Public Affairs, 301 19th Ave S Minneapolis, MN 55455


When I discuss voting rights for people convicted of felonies, I’m often asked whether I’d favor restoring gun rights as well. Hostile talk show hosts sometimes take this tack, perhaps anticipating a knee-jerk liberal response that will lay bare the contradictions in my position. But I always respond that I haven’t done enough research on restoration of firearms privileges to offer any sort of expert opinion on the issue.

Fortunately, others are doing such research. For example, Brandon Stahl of the Star-Tribune examined the 114 people whose gun rights were restored by Minnesota judges over the past 8 years. He found only one new gun crime, a 2011 conviction for carrying-under-the-influence and fifth-degree assault. Of the 114, Mr.  Stahl also uncovered 3 new drunk driving cases and a conviction for violating a protective order by sending a hostile text message. I can’t vouch for the rigor or comprehensiveness of the analysis, but it does not appear that judges are routinely giving guns to people at high risk of reoffense. Getting such basic facts is timely and important, as Minnesota State Senator Barb Goodwin of Columbia Heights has introduced a bill that would make it more difficult for former felons  to regain gun rights.

Researching Locked OutI got a glimpse of the issue when I asked Minnesota prisoners about firearms rights. Losing gun rights seemed especially important to the hunters I interviewed, some of whom relied heavily on firearms to put food on the table. Here’s an excerpt from my conversation with Daniel, a young American Indian man from northern Minnesota who was incarcerated for burglary. His story didn’t necessarily change my mind on the issue, but it helped me see the stakes involved.

Daniel: I believe if you’re a violent felon with gun charges or anything else, you should not be allowed to own or use a firearm. But for those of us that aren’t into that kind of thing, I believe you should be allowed to hunt because it is a means to support your family.You know?

CU: Yeah. So loss of that right is especially important to you, the hunt-, or the firearms?

Daniel: Yeah. Because it’s hurting my family. I mean they look at it, “Well, he’s a felon, he doesn’t get to use a gun. The community will be safer.” Yet they don’t look at it like, “Okay. We won’t let him hunt. We’re taking food out of his kids’ mouths.”

CU: Yeah. So when you say that- So you’re someone who would go out and get a deer or get something-

Daniel: I was born and raised like that. And, you know, it’s not the sport of it. I was never raised like that. It’s not a sport to me, it’s a way of life. Means, you know, to feed my kids.

CU: Yeah. Yeah. So you hunt year-round?

Daniel:  I can’t hunt. I can’t hunt ‘til I don’t know when I get my rights back….

CU:  See ‘cause to me, I think of hunting as like something, you know, one week of deer, and you go and do that. And I don’t think of it in terms of the food. But for you, that’s a big part of it.

Daniel: Right.

CU: And that ha- And since a gun- Let me just make sure I’m tracking. So since a gun had nothing to do with your crime,

Daniel: I should be allowed to own one. ‘Cause you know, even, even if it’s I gotta go in and get a permit once a year, say, to use a firearm, a rifle. Fine. You know, I’ll go in, I’ll pay the extra money for a permit. Plus you know, it’s income the state could be collecting, for whatever.

So hunting and guns were a much bigger deal to Daniel than they were to me — for reasons that had nothing to do with criminal activity. But it isn’t just men. Here’s how Mary, a White woman from greater Minnesota who was incarcerated for a drug-related offense, described the importance of hunting in her family:

I can’t hunt. I can’t carry a firearm. And in my family, I have two young boys so, you know, we take [them] out hunting. My husband and I hunt, I hunt with my father, and so on and so forth. We go deer-hunting every year. Well, now all I can do is walk in the bush. I can’t carry a gun. And it makes it difficult. [We’ve been going] ever since I was twelve years old, and I’m forty. That’s an awful long time. 

Diana, another female hunter, offered a similar account.

I love deer hunting. I love goose, I love bear. I’m a country girl- that’s the way I was raised. And I am a member of the NR-, well I was a member of the NRA. My father was, I mean, my brother, the whole bit. 

I haven’t done much research on this issue outside Minnesota, but I found that gun rights were also important to former felons in a random sample of Florida clemency applications I examined a decade ago. There, White ex-felons were especially likely to seek restoration of firearms privileges (while African Americans were especially likely to be seeking restoration of voting rights).

Given the potential risk to public safety, I’d likely oppose any sort of blanket restoration of firearms rights — despite the salience of the issue to those I interviewed and the reassuring absence of gun crimes among those who’ve had their rights restored. That said, I’d likely oppose the bill presented by Senator Goodwin, which create further barriers for people like Daniel, Mary, and Diana to regain these rights.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe all want lower crime rates, but “how we get there” matters. Rick Rosenfeld and Steve Messner see two basic approaches: (1) we can lock down criminal opportunities through surveillance and control; or, (2) we can reduce criminal motivations by building up the social safety net. Their new Social Welfare Critique of Contemporary Crime Control makes a strong case for the latter approach.

The argument is based less on the relative efficacy or efficiency of these approaches than on our collective vision of the society we’d like to inhabit. Further reducing criminal opportunities will place increasingly onerous restrictions on freedom of movement, association, and other liberties — and further extend the disciplinary practices of the prison to public life.

Consistent with their institutional arguments in Crime and the American Dream and elsewhere, Professors Rosenfeld and Messner argue that a more robust welfare state can help compensate for the weaknesses of a market economy in promoting and sustaining a viable moral order. They recognize that any (reality-based) crime policy must limit criminal opportunities, but the challenge is to enhance public safety without sacrificing individual liberties and democratic values.  On this count, “welfare state” policies to reduce criminal motivations have much to recommend them over “security state”  policies to lock down opportunities.

Criminologist Charis Kubrin of UC-Irvine went head to head with former Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley yesterday on the issue of prison downsizing in California. In my view, Professor Kubrin’s presentation here is as sharp, clear, and thoughtful as her academic writing. I’ve always found the long-form live interview to be a terrific forum for public criminology, since it leaves a bit more space for academics to introduce social scientific evidence to explain how they arrived at their opinions — and to question those who arrived at opinions based on anecdotal evidence or other means. This one comes from SoCal Insider, a PBS program hosted by Rick Reiff, but similar issues are being debated in many communities. Dr. Kubrin is appropriately cautious about whether crime rates will rise with realignment, but she nicely counters the premature conclusion that California’s experiment in prison downsizing has been a disaster — and she makes an excellent case for conducting a more systematic scientific evaluation.

Creative Commons Image by Nikita Kashner

Though these pages might seem a little quiet lately, rest assured that we’re plugging away on some extra-good crime and punishment features.  I’m happily immersed in final edits on some really exciting new pieces for TSP — and our crime volume, due out this fall with WW Norton.

Like what? Look for a moving account of prison and close relationships by Megan Comfort, a social welfare approach to  crime control from Rick Rosenfeld and Steve Messner, a roundtable on the International Criminal Court with Susanne Karstedt, Kathryn Sikkink, Naomi Roht-Arriaza, and Wenona Rymond-Richmond, and a powerful piece by pubcrim’s own Michelle Inderbitzin and colleagues on the young leaders of a prison “lifers club,” who will be locked up for decades for  crimes committed as juveniles.

In addition to this fine work coming in over the transom, we’ve got a great mix of in-house as well as external (please don’t call them out-house) features forthcoming and under review. I’m helping out on a couple of them, including a soon-to-be-released feature with Sarah Shannon (Visualizing Punishment) and a just-released feature with Suzy Maves McElrath on the big U.S.  Crime Drop. More soon!