At Oregon State University, our football team is big news.   The team is 5-0 for the first time since 1939, and they are currently ranked as the eighth best team in the country.

What makes this particularly surprising and, frankly, glorious, is that the OSU football team only won three games total last season, and there were no great expectations for this year’s squad.  OSU’s team is young and scrappy, and their confidence is growing with every win.

And, yes, I realize this is not a sports column, so let me explain how my experiences with OSU football coincides with the time I spend with men in the Oregon State Penitentiary – the connection today is about motivation, preparation, and – one hopes – redemption.

As I’ve written about before, for the past 6 years, I have taught our incoming freshmen football players in a summer session intended to help them make the transition into college.  I teach them a Sociology course in Social Problems, and I always arrange a field trip to one of our state prisons where the young student-athletes can learn about crime, social control, inequality, and family and neighborhood issues from incarcerated men.  For the past several years, we have worked with a wonderful inmate club to spend an afternoon talking with incarcerated fathers, and then the football players were able to spend that evening meeting and playing with the kids of those men at a family event in the prison.  It’s a wonderful experience for all involved, and in this way,  OSU football has a positive connection with state prisons.

The OSU players also know what it is to work hard.  Brandin Cooks, in the photo above, played last year as a true freshman, and he is now in his sophomore year.  He is currently one of the top college receivers in the country; in this week’s game, he sprained his ankle, got it taped, and came back to finish the game with 8 receptions for 173 yards.  Brandin was a standout student and leader in the classroom last summer; it’s clear that his work ethic has translated onto the field.  Coach Riley spoke about him in a story in The Oregonian:

Riley talked earlier in the week about Cooks’ motivation when asked how his receiver can go all-out on every play – finishing pass patterns, diving for deflected balls – in practice.

“The best motivation guys can find is self-motivation,” Riley said. “Cooks is a high, high character person. He only knows one way to do it. He works hard. That is catchy for everybody else. Really, we have a whole team like that now – if you don’t do that, then you stand out the other way…”

Back to Cooks’ example. After his father died when he was 6 years old, Andrea Cooks raised four boys by herself – a lesson that stays with Cooks.

“I knew she had hard days, but she kept pushing, and nothing can be harder than that. I’m playing something that I love. She didn’t choose to do that, I’m choosing to do this. If she can get through anything, I’ve got to get through.”

The other impressive example of motivation and preparation that I have been witness to this quarter is taking place within the Oregon State Penitentiary.  A parenting program is offered within the prison for men who want to learn parenting strategies and practice those skills.  A required component of the program is that the men first have to carry around an egg, and then they graduate to carrying a stuffed animal.  The egg/animal represents their child, and they must care for it 24 hours a day for several weeks; they can never leave their “child” unattended.  It’s quite a sight to see a small handful of men in a large maximum-security prison carrying around eggs and stuffed animals.  It seems a clear sign of maturity and motivation to make that choice.

I got a tiny taste of caring for a stuffed-animal-child in prison last week.  Along with 2 college classes and a job with a lot of responsibility, my TA for my Inside-Out class is going through the parenting program.  He is also the president of a respected inmate club.  He is incredibly busy, but he has an amazing attitude and is a joy to work with.  I chose to “babysit” for him during class, and then more visibly babysat for him at his club’s annual banquet, where he was taking care of details and being presidential.  It was both funny and somewhat disturbing that some of the elderly guests thought that I had brought my “little friend” into the prison with me; carrying the stuffed animal all night, however, did provide several opportunities to explain the parenting program and the ongoing work and efforts of her “parent,” the club president.  It was yet another reason for guests to be impressed by this smart, motivated young man.

Motivation and preparation are paying off for Brandin Cooks and the OSU football team.  I can only hope they will also pay off in redemption for the club president and my other hard-working students and friends inside the Oregon State Penitentiary.  If and when they get their chance to return to the community, I hope their efforts will be recognized and we – as community members – will offer them the fresh starts they have earned.

A new Bureau of Justice Statistics Report by Erica Smith and Jessica Truman shows a significant decline in the Prevalence Of Violent Crime Among Households With Children, 1993-2010. The study is based on the large-scale annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and it differs from standard victimization reports in its explicit focus on households with kids.

The chart below shows the percentage of households with children in which at least one member age 12 or older experienced nonfatal violent victimization (rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault) in the previous year. This does not necessarily mean that the children witnessed the violence or that they were even aware of it, but it does give us a pretty good sense of whether kids are living with household members who are themselves experiencing violence. And the NCVS provides the sort of high-quality nationally representative survey data that are useful in charting big-picture trends. According to the report, this rate dropped from 12.6 percent of children to 3.9 percent in the past 18 years (the blip in 2006 is due to a shift in methodology). That’s an impressive 69 percent decline since 1993.

 

These numbers still seem high to me, but I think it is because simple assault (which encompasses a pretty broad range of behavior) accounts for the bulk of the violence (about 2.6 percent of the 3.9 percent total in 2010). Which kids are most affected? Children in urban areas, children of color, and lower-income children are most likely to live in households experiencing violent victimization. Rates are significantly higher for urban households with children (4.5 percent) than for rural (3.6 percent) or suburban (3.2 percent) households. With respect to race and ethnicity, rates are lower fir households headed by Asians/Pacific Islanders (1.4 percent) than for households headed by multiracial persons (5.6 percent), American Indians/Alaskan Natives (5.3 percent), African Americans (4.9 percent), Hispanics (4.0 percent), and Whites (3.4 percent) (the authors caution, however, that estimates for several of these groups are based on a small number of cases). There is also a very clear socioeconomic gradient to violent victimization: the greater the household income, the lower the rate of violent victimization, as shown below.

This sort of story might be familiar to criminologists: the overall crime situation is improving, but victimization is heavily concentrated among the most disadvantaged. Nevertheless, this report is important and useful in showing how children’s proximity to violence is changing in some ways — and not changing in others.

I rarely write about crime fiction, since most of it seems completely orthogonal to the phenomenon that I’ve spent a career studying. Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese, and the Brothers Coen are surely gifted filmmakers, but the hyperviolent worlds they create are pure fantasy — bearing about the same relation to the lived reality of crime as the average pornographic film bears to the lived reality of human sexuality. By confronting compelling characters with horrible moral choices, however, the best crime fiction can actually tell us something meaningful about human frailty, morality, and justice.

I think Breaking Bad succeeds on this level, though I still switch over to the Hallmark channel or America’s Cutest Pets during its ugliest moments. I have many questions about the show, but Joe Kleinschmidt’s Minnesota Daily article answered one of the biggies. Forget about the crime, how’s the chemistry? Mr. Kleinschmidt put the question to Bill Tolman, the straight-up brilliant Minnesota chemistry professor and department chair pictured above.  I was surprised to learn that the show’s etch-a-sketch explosive might’ve actually worked and that the makeshift battery that Walter White constructs in the desert might indeed have started his stranded mobile meth lab:

Walt uses the RV’s brake pad for its mercuric oxide and graphite. This serves as the cathode, which gains electrons. He also gathers spare metallic parts, nuts and bolts, for the zinc they contain. The zinc serves as the anode, where the other electrochemical half-reaction occurs (loss of electrons). With potassium hydroxide solution leftover from their meth-making process serving as electrolyte (to conduct charge), Walt uses a sponge to separate the anode and cathode. Finally, he connects the cell components with copper wire and connects the parallel batteries to the RV’s jumper cables. “The only question now is, will this supply enough current?” Walt says in the episode, posing the only hang-up in his plan. “When he said that, I thought, ‘Yes! That’s the problem!’” Tolman said. But it worked. As Walt sets the batteries up and connects the wires, he creates a spark and the RV is revived. “It was a perfectly reasonable electrochemical cell using mercuric oxide and zinc,” Tolman said.

Of course, the show takes a few liberties — hastening a body’s dissolution in hydrofluoric acid, for example, and tossing around mercury fulminate like a bag of powdered sugar. All told, however, Breaking Bad does pretty well on the chemistry. As for its portrayal of drug markets, I’d have a few more quibbles…

I’ve been teaching and taking college students into both “adult” state prisons and juvenile correctional facilities for a number of years now.  One thing that always stands out is how very young many of the men in prison were when they committed their crimes.  In a visit with the penitentiary’s Lifers Club, I could look around the room and see former students of mine who were 14, 15, and 16 at the times of their crimes and have been or will be locked up for most of their lives.  The photo above is from the tumblr site, “We are the 1 in 100” that my students and I created to represent perspectives from those inside of prison and those affected by the prison sentences of their family members, friends, and classmates.  The sentiment was written by one of my inside students, based on his own experience (although the card is held by a young man on the outside).  He was convicted as an adult at age 14 and sentenced to a minimum of 30 years.  He’s about 10 years into his sentence now, and he is a remarkable young man – smart, motivated, driven to do something meaningful with his life.  I’ll be working with him again this fall, and I’m looking forward to what he can teach me and my other students.

At the same time, for the past 6 years, I have taught Oregon State University’s incoming freshmen football players in a summer bridge program designed to help them make a smooth transition to college and the accompanying responsibilities.  Every summer I have arranged to take them to one or more of our state prisons and juvenile correctional facilities to talk with inmates, see the institutions,  and to get outside of the classroom to learn about social problems.  It is easily the most impactful experience of the class.

It’s generally the case that at least a few of my student-athletes in the summer have not yet turned 18.  I make an effort to talk to their parents and to ensure that I get waivers signed before our field trips; parents seem to trust that if a woman like me can spend that much time in prison, their young and often very large sons will probably be okay.

So here’s the irony…the maximum-security prison will not allow my 17-year-old students to visit/tour the facility and meet the inmates.  I’m not entirely sure of the reasoning – the waiver releases the Department of Corrections of responsibility should any incidents arise (although they never have) and parents sign on behalf of their minor sons.  Perhaps, the prison administration does not want minors to be exposed to inmates and the harsh realities of prison life.  Yet, the young man convicted at 14 has lived in that very prison for a number of years.  How can we possibly treat 17-year-old college students as incapable of making a decision about a 1-day experience, yet judge young teenagers as fully responsible for their criminal behavior.

The debate about life sentences for juvenile offenders is both important and timely.  Perhaps with a fresh look, we can critically evaluate the accumulated evidence (including the emerging data on brain development and maturity) and create new, thoughtful, considered sentencing structures and policies for juvenile offenders who have committed serious crimes.

Over on facebook, my friends Raka and Jay asked similar questions about the long-term drop in violence discussed in the previous post.

“They asked, and you answered, about “violence” But what they seem to be thinking about is mass killings by individuals. Are those also on the decline in the US? Who has data on that?”

and

“I’d be interested in knowing the rise and fall rates of different kinds of crimes — one on one homicide versus the movie theater/Sikh temple sort. Michael Hout? Chris Uggen?”

Fortunately, criminologist James Alan Fox has conducted precisely this sort of analysis. His chart below shows the annual number of mass shootings, offenders, and victims in each year from 1980 to 2010. 

 

Professor Fox describes how mass shootings remain quite rare in the U.S. (about 20 incidents and 100 victims per year) relative to other homicides (about 15,000 victims per year), as illustrated in the figure above. Since 1980, I see variation, but no strong upward or downward trend — a non-pattern that we sometimes call “trendless fluctuation,” at least until we can identify its correlates (e.g., a pattern that looks like this). 

This is important to bear in mind, as Dr. Fox points out, before (a) we assume there’s been a big increase in mass shootings; and, (b) we attribute this rise to factors that appear to be steadily increasing or declining, such as weapons technology or the availability of mental health care. I’ve no doubt that weapons and mental health care play a big role in such cases, but it is hard to see how either factor could explain the pattern shown above — that is, to predict something that goes up and down with something that just goes up or just goes down over the same period.

The only points I’d add to Professor Fox’s careful analysis is to note that when the numbers are this small the picture could change very quickly. First, it might change if one examined different thresholds or constructed other definitions of mass killings. Second, the chart would look radically different if, heaven forbid, there are more events in the next year or two that push the total number of victims past 150. So, it is probably best to be cautious before making any predictions about the future. All that said, however, it doesn’t appear that we’re currently in the midst of a steep rise in mass killings.


I’m often hesitant to do interviews in the immediate aftermath of a horrific crime, but I was glad when WCCO-TV asked “Are we more violent than ever before?” as part of their Good Question series. Jason DeRusha (and his colleague Liz Collin) do a terrific job with this feature, interviewing diverse experts on questions ranging from dandelions and tick spray to ammunition purchases and solitary confinement.

Since one can’t really provide a reading list on-air, I’ll offer a few supporting citations for those interested in trends in violence and homicide. On long-term historical trends, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature is an accessible starting point. In my research and teaching, I’ve been most influenced by Manuel Eisner’s work, particularly his 2003 review in Crime and Justice. For more recent years, good data are widely available, especially for homicide. For the United States, I go directly to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Criminal Victimization series.

Minneapolis photographers Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber recently shot some powerful images and the short film above to complement an ACLU report on the steep rise in elderly prisoners in the United States. The haunting photo below is from a similar series and film on the emergence of prisons and jails as the nation’s default mental health care facilities.
 

In my view, both series dramatize how prisons must increasingly serve populations and perform functions for which they are poorly suited. Operating hospices, nursing homes, and psychiatric hospitals is certainly difficult enough on the outside. Attempting to replicate such institutions within prisons is often inordinately more difficult and costly. 

There are, of course, alternative approaches. I’ll offer my two cents on the subject at the American Sociological Association meetings on August 18, but I’m really looking forward to learning from my fellow panelists (Bruce Western, Katherine Beckett, and Marie Gottschalk). Powerful images like these should do more than dramatize prison conditions — they should motivate us to think critically and to actively pursue alternatives.

I try to avoid full-on shameless job plugs in this space, but I’ve gotta mention that I’m chairing an assistant professor search this fall in the area of law, crime and deviance (deadline 10/1). Send me a note offline if you’d like to chat about the job (especially if you’ll be attending the sociology meetings later this month). My department is also conducting a joint junior search with statistics (chaired by Dave Knoke, deadline 10/15). And, as if that’s not enough, the Minnesota Population Center is seeking two or more open-rank positions (tenure-track or tenured) positions in population studies and demography.

If your department happens to be hiring in criminology and/or law, I’ll even more shamelessly plug two really extraordinary scholars on the market this fall: Heather McLaughlin (in law, gender, and life course) and Sarah Shannon (in crime, inequality, and social welfare). I’ve worked very closely with them both and would love to tell you more about their research, teaching, and pubcrim activities.

As our friends at sociological images so ingeniously demonstrate, images send powerful messages. Here on pubcrim and in related articles, Michelle and I have argued that popular images of crime and justice often serve to widen the gap between public perceptions and the best available scientific evidence — and that evaluating and reframing these images is a central task for public criminology. 

Since releasing a new Sentencing Project report last week with Sarah Shannon and Jeff Manza, I was reminded of the pervasiveness of certain stock images and the challenge of finding good alternatives. As I mentioned on the Ed’s Desk, the report presented some new numbers on the people affected by U.S. felon voting restrictions. Some outstanding articles have since appeared in a good range of print and broadcast outlets, including the New York Times and NPR. I’m always impressed by how quickly smart journalists can master a complex issue and then write an informed piece that really teaches readers about the subject. Of the articles that quoted me directly, I especially appreciated passages like this one, in Eliza Shapiro’s story in the Daily Beast:

Four million of the 5.85 million disenfranchised are currently out of prison, some on probation and parole. “The murderer behind bars,” waiting to cast his vote, “is an atypical case,” says Christopher Uggen, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and lead author of the Sentencing Project report.

Yes! That’s an angle that is too rarely mentioned in stories on felon voting. I’ve tried for years to convey how only a minority of disenfranchised felons are locked up — and that a much larger number are already living and working in our communities. The relative rarity of the “murderer behind bars” is both an evocative image and a demonstrable social fact, so I felt like I’d done my small bit for public criminology. Before I could dislocate my shoulder patting myself on the back , however, I noticed something else in the article.

The story was accompanied by the even more compelling Reed Saxon/AP photograph at left, showing faceless inmates in uniform lined up along a wall. Regardless of what I might’ve said about the “typical case,” I suspect that readers will call to mind a picture like this when they think of felon voting.  Having edited Contexts magazine and the Society Pages, I know how challenging it can be to illustrate such stories. Even if the typical disenfranchised felon is a fortyish white guy who has served his time, how do you tell his story in a way that will visually engage readers? Show a picture of Uggen watering his lawn? Not likely.

Well, in this case, the editors found many creative ways to illustrate the story. The Courier-Journal created a graphic to show the disenfranchisement rate among African American voters; the Huffington Post offered a woman casting a ballot in Mississippi; Tampa Bay Online used a woman passing a VOTE sign; the Crime Report showed a sign labeled POLLING STATION; and, the Times-Picayune used a head shot of a former inmate and activist. Still, many outlets relied on prison imagery: the National Journal offered a picture of hands sticking through prison bars; the Grio showed inmates with their hands up, being searched near a chain-link fence; and WTVR showed inmates’ feet walking along a yellow line.

There’s no right or wrong way to illustrate this story or any other, though I certainly have my preferences. Knowing how hard Sarah Shannon worked on our report’s maps, however, I was most happy to see the stories that reproduced them directly.

Some influential social theories predict a strong link between criminal punishment and unemployment rates, but the research usually paints a more complicated picture. The picture above, taken from a new article with Ryan King and Mike Massoglia, doesn’t seem so complicated by comparison. I won’t belabor all the details, but one basic idea was to ask whether the United States deported more people for criminal behavior when unemployment was on the rise. Sure enough, unemployment and criminal deportation tracked each other very closely from about 1941 to 1986 (since 1987, deportations have more closely tracked the steep rise in incarceration). The chart shows year-to-year changes in each measure, with the spikes in deportation (the solid line) corresponding to similar spikes in unemployment (the dashed line). Of course, no picture is that simple; there’s always a real danger that such correlations could be due to chance or to factors we failed to consider. At minimum, though, a picture like this could make it a little tougher to dismiss the old idea that punishment might have something to do with economic conditions.