Friday, December 28, 2007

The Availability Heuristic: Your "Clear Channel" to Fear of Crime

It's what psychologists and economists like to call "the availability heuristic," the more available a particular risk is to your consciousness, the more likely you are to prioritize managing that risk, even if the probability of the risk coming to pass times the degree of harm it would result in makes it a lot less serious than many other risks in your environment. (For a great reading list on the topic check here).

One of the forces that has driven governing through crime is the availability of crime in the information environment. The mass media, and especially television, is obviously a big source of this availability. On primetime, one might say, the crime rate is always up. But the true density of crime information and its degree of apparent urgency and plausibility derives from a complex web of knowledge and power that binds government, the mass media, academia, and the endless semiotic web of conversations and images across the landscape of an average day.

Increasingly road signs are part of this web. The National Amber Alert System, created by an Act of Congress (growing from an informal collaboration between Texas radio DJs and police departments), means that smart highway signs all over America now periodically flash information about child abductions in progress. The latest addition to this already stocked field of crime information availability will bring the FBI's most wanted list to digital billboards in 20 US cities early next year.

According to Joe Milicia's reporting for the AP (read it in the sacbee):

The FBI's most wanted bank robbers, violent criminals and terrorists will soon appear on 150 digital billboards in 20 cities nationwide.

The agency has teamed up with Phoenix-based Clear Channel Outdoor to begin airing mug shots following a successful test run in Philadelphia that led to several arrests.

One of those arrests was that of a man suspected in the fatal shooting of a Philadelphia police officer, the agency said Thursday. He was captured in Florida as a result of exposure on the billboard, the FBI said.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Subprime Prisons: Pay Your Debt to Society and then Pay Some More

We need to hold offenders accountable! How many times have you heard that soundbite accompanying efforts to enhance prison sentences for one crime or another. Prison alone, it would seem, is capable of delivering on the law's promises and threats. And yet, the more you look at the prisons created by this fetish for imprisonment, the more you see that accountability is just another myth.

The latest example comes from California's distended prison system, which at roughly 173,000 inmates is approaching 200 percent of capacity and court-ordered population caps. As reported by Jordan Rau in the LATimes, the prison, which promises to hold wrongdoers accountable, cannot account for itself. With antiquated computer systems, inmate data has been unable to follow inmates through their frequent transfers among prisons. While crime has gone down for more than a decade, prison populations have continued to go up as sentences increased and inmates returned to prison from parole for technical violations often unrelated to crime rates. Perhaps the ultimate symbol of the system's basic lack of interest in accountability is its recent admission that more than 30 thousand inmates were held beyond their lawful sentence because administrators miscalculated their time served.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Can the World Save Us? And China, Pakistan, Iran...

For the first time in history, a majority of the world's nations have gone on record calling for a moratorium in the use of legal executions. In a 104 to 54 vote, the United Nation's General Assembly voted to support a non-binding resolution calling capital punishment's deterrence value dubious, and its errors and miscarriages of justice "irreversible" and seeking a global moratorium on its use. According to Maggie Farley's reporting in the LATimes, the US joined with traditional allies China, Syria, and the Sudan to oppose the resolution.

While the US aggressively insists on its right to invade other countries that flout international standards of human rights, we blithely insist on our own sovereign right to kill. Don't look for any of our Presidential candidates to lead the charge here. When it comes to execution, Hillary, Barak, and John Edwards are ostensibly as ready to execute as Romney, Giuliani, or Mike Huckabee (who as Governor of Arkansas can claim 17 hides). Still, the next occupant of the Oval office will find that repairing America's standing in the world is a top priority. It is in that light, that the General Assembly's vote takes on its real importance. By defining abolition as part of a general global consensus on human rights, this week's vote will help put American capital punishment on the endangered species list.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Next Disaster

Thankfully 2007 turned out to be an unexpectedly gentle hurricane season in the United States, which did not receive a direct hit in a season in which there were fewer named storms than predicted. Hallelujah, Insha Alla, Thank God, on behalf of all our friends and loved ones in harm's way down there (I used to live in Miami). But I don't think God messes with long-term trends (especially not ones aggravated by human misconduct). Based on the science of global warming we must prepare for a lot more terrible hurricane seasons like the savage fall of 2005 in which Katrina and Wilma left death and havoc across the Gulf coast and into Florida.

We cannot do much about the storms themselves (other than try to reduce our current carbon footprint), but there is much we need to do to prepare our people and our infrastructure (which as Katrina demonstrated is in terrible shape and not just in New Orleans). Above all else we need to change our governing paradigm from our relentless focus on "stranger danger" set by the war on crime to one capable of mobilizing collective trust and cooperation to reduce carbon and improve the efficiency of local capacities for self-help during severe disasters. I've argued for some time that the mentalities shaped by a generation of governing through crime are totally unhelpful when it comes to preparing for these 21st century disasters.

But this change will not come by itself. As the coverage of Katrina demonstrated, our media and political leaders will emphasize crime and stranger danger at every possible moment. Only last week, as reported by the AP, Texas officials outlined a new procedure to screen evacuees being bussed away from disaster areas for sex crimes.

AUSTIN (AP) — Texans who board evacuation buses during hurricanes or other emergencies must now submit to criminal background checks, the state’s emergency management director said.

The policy is an effort to keep sex offenders and fugitives from boarding evacuation buses with children, the elderly and the disabled, Jack Colley, the chief of the state’s Division of Emergency Management, told The Houston Chronicle, which posted the article on its Web site Saturday.
The fact that they are not going to leave sex offenders (a group that includes many people who were convicted of nothing more serious than having consensual sex with their under-aged girlfriends when they were also very young) behind, but only segregate them, is not very reassuring. The logic of this policy is utterly flawed. Consider that your child is unlikely to be molested on a crowded bus and that they are in more danger from the undetected pedophile within the family than from a stranger with a record of sex offenses. What is significant however is not how stupid the policy is and how readily it panders to our most self-reassuring fears, but how it directs or misdirects our fears in the face of the next disaster.

Friday, December 14, 2007

But its Illegal! Immigration and the False Premise of Crime Control

The most alarming trend in this election year is the growing body of sentiment that any effort to respond to the plight of millions of undocumented non-citizens working in the United States, other than by arresting and deporting them, constitutes an abandonment of the rule of law. Although the federal government backed off of a recent effort to heighten the criminalization of undocumented workers, state and municipal efforts are producing a growing body of mostly punitive laws.

Arizona's new law punishing businesses that knowingly hire illegal aliens with fines and eventual loss of their business license is typical and that in a state that depends on aliens, many of them undocumented, to sustain its large agricultural industry. (Read Randal Archibald's story on the Arizona law in the NYT)

But just because its illegal, does not mean that the problem of undocumented foreign workers is primarily a problem of crime. It is often true, for example, that homeless people sleeping in parks or on the street are violating laws and ordinances backed by criminal penalties. But rounding up the homeless and jailing them is a cruel and generally futile way to govern the problem of homelessness. Instead, the most innovative communities are finding that well targeted housing assistance combined with concentrated efforts to treat mental illness can make a difference. Choosing not to pointlessly punish the homeless for crimes that are a product of their situation does not sap our moral character or prove that we do not respect the law.

Likewise, our response to illegal immigration must begin with the recognition that the fact that it is a crime does not provide a satisfying strategy for addressing it. Indeed, unlike the homeless, who are often victims of extreme poverty, mental illness, and histories of substance abuse, undocumented workers are generally involved in producing goods and services of value to our society. Choosing not to punish them for breaking our laws does not diminish our moral character or weaken the rule of law.

There is another choice, one even more in line with our devotion to the rule of law. We should recognize that there is an under supply of law in this situation and move to remedy that. For example, new legal mechanisms could be established for ameliorating the often degrading and dangerous conditions that undocumented workers put up with. Giving them drivers' licenses as New York's courageous Governor Elliot Spitzer tried to do, was a good start. Bringing labor laws fully to bear to protect their working conditions and pay would be an excellent follow up. The workers would remain illegal, but the job conditions and domestic lives they lead would become less so. The rule of law would be expanded.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Crack Follies

This week saw two significant steps in removing what has been for two decades the most glaring example of racism in America's pursuit of mass imprisonment. In 1986 Congress passed a law instructing the US Sentencing Commission to create a guideline for sentencing crack traffickers that treated possession of a given weight of crack as the equivalent of possessing 100 times as much powder cocaine. Often mis-stated as requiring 100 times more punishment, the 100 to 1 rule meant crack traffickers faced sentences 5 or 6 times as long as traffickers in powder cocaine.

On Monday of this week the Supreme Court held that a District Judge who chose explicitly to reject the 100 to 1 weight guideline was not unreasonable (read the decision in Kimbrough v. US). On Tuesday, the US Sentencing Commission, which had recently reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine, decided to extend that relief retroactively to inmates already serving federal sentences if a judge determines in an individualize review that a reduced sentence would not endanger public safety. (read the Commission's statement)

These steps are good but modest. Keep in mind that the new policies will produce only modest reductions in prison sentences, and then only when individual federal judges agree. Moreover, given the fact that a crime policy that was highly problematic from the start, took more than 20 years to correct, does not bode well for all the other bad crime policies we made after 1986!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Christian Leader meets Willie Horton: Mike Huckabee and the politics of crime

Mike Huckabee's rise in the polls in the Iowa guaranteed that the opposition research would kick into geer. Huckabee was the governor of Arkansas in the 1990s. Governors are generally aided by their role as crime fighters, carrying out executions (by denying clemency) and using their powers to extend prison terms. But when states provide for the parole release of violent criminals there is always the chance that someone released on the governors watch, went on to commit a new and horrible crime. This has become known as the "Willie Horton" problem, following the name of the convicted killer who received a furlough from Massachusetts in the 1980s under Governor Mike Dukakis. When Horton kidnapped a couple and raped the wife, the tragedy became a center piece of the 1988 Presidential election in which Vice President George H W Bush won after being behind in the polls.

Huckabee's Willie Horton turns out to be a convicted rapist named Wayne DuMond, whose release from prison becamme a cause celebre for evangelical Christians like Huckabee in Arkansas. As reported by Richard Serrano in the LA Times, the DuMond story is a one that"rings with gothic details" including rape, castration and finding God. DuMond's spiritual advoisor was a minister named J. D. Cole who had known Huckabee for years. Cole and fellow Christians believed that DuMond might have been innocent, horribly punished for a crime he did not commit. Even if he wasn't, DuMond had found Jesus in prison and now claimed to be saved.

Cole's intervention moved Huckabee who wrote DuMond and suggested that parole was his best hope. Reports on how much the governor may have lobbied his parole board are conflicted, but Huckabee made clear he supported DuMond's release, even after meeting with his victim and the prosector in the case.

At one point in the meeting, Stevens recalled, she stood up, put her face next to Huckabee's and told the governor: "This is how close I was to DuMond. I'll never forget his face, and you'll never forget mine."

The meeting ended, and Long, a Republican, could tell the governor was unmoved: "Most of what I think about him would be unprintable. His actions were just about as arrogant as you can get."

The prosecutor added that Huckabee and Arkansas evangelicals were conned by DuMond's contention that he had been "saved" -- a common ruse by prisoners.

"If you're religiously converted," Long said, "how do you go out and kill two women in Missouri?"

Dispute remains about how hard Huckabee pushed the parole board to release him. Huckabee wrote to DuMond in prison "Dear Wayne. . . . My desire is that you be released from prison," the governor wrote. "I feel now that parole is the best way. . . ." Today he indicates that he only recommended parole (although some parole board members recall feeling pressured and that letting him out was a "favor" for the governor).

So far few of his opponents are using this potential Willie Horton against Huckabee on the campaign trail. They may be hoping for a media frenzy that will do the work for them. But there is another possibility, one which bodes well for us who would like to see this campaign and nation get beyond the stale politics of crime. Perhaps the media frenzy won't work this time even though the elements are all there (save one). You've got a terrible crime and then its even worst repetition. You have a governor seemingly spurning a frightened and angry rape victim while writing a "Dear Wayne" letter to her rapist.

One big difference is that DuMond is white and maybe if Willie Horton wasn't black it would not matter if he had raped and killed. Its a sickening thought that racism alone explains the power of crime politics. But it is also possible (and this is much more hopeful to me) that Huckabee's own self definition as a "Christian leader" provides him a way to respond that the wonkish Mike Dukakis did not have. Huckabee can admit and regret failing to see through DuMond's claims of spiritual salvation without abandoning his belief in redemption and the possibility of salvation for even the worst criminals.

Just as importantly, as a former pastor, Huckabee has and proclaims a model of leadership and governance that is centuries old, well respected, and totally different than the executive as prosecutor or crime fighter which has become so normal during the war on crime.

If Huckabee continues in to remain in the top tier of Republican candidates it will be fascinating to watch how he plays against the pre-eminent "governing through crime" candidate, Rudy Giuliani.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Rudy Watch: Batman Begins

Writing in today's NYT, Michael Powell lays out the crime fighting origins of Rudolph Giuliani's vision of power (read his article).

There are three founding stones in the public career of Rudolph Giuliani: His performance during the terror attacks of 9/11; his image as a crime-fighting mayor of New York; and his nearly five-year tenure as United States attorney. It was in this earliest incarnation that Mr. Giuliani is most plainly seen in the rawness of his promise and drive.

Giuliani's rise to be US Attorney in the media saturated Manhattan district took place after a decade of new laws designed to make it easier to go after organized crime leaders (especially the semi-eponymous RICO), mostly by reducing the act component of crime (the part that most of us really care about) and increasing the penalties for those accused of being involved in organized criminal efforts. Giuliani not only took advantage of these to go after relics of New York's crime families, he saw the opportunity to use these laws in unexpected ways to go after business and public corruption cases. According to Powell's reporting:

Those who worked with Mr. Giuliani came away impressed by his intuitive grasp of his new arsenal.

“Rudy was a sponge, willing to sop up any idea, any new strategy,” said G. Robert Blakey, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, who crafted the anti-racketeering law as a consultant for the Senate Judiciary Committee. “He was very creative about wielding power.”

Giuliani's success was not just technical however, and not just an artifact of Manhattan's media power. Clearly his own moral sensibilities fused with the power of the prosecutor as spokes person for the community's moral outrage about crime, to produce a compelling vision of leadership for an era in which crime had come to serve as the master metaphor for the problems afflicting society.

Mr. Giuliani married aggressiveness to moral absolutes, reflecting his steeping, he said, in the Catholic catechism. Asked about political corruption in 1987, he offered a wintry smile and said, “I don’t think there’s anybody much worse than a public official who sells his office, except maybe for a murderer.”

Combined with an overwhelming ambition, and incredibly good timing, Giuliani now contends for the White House at or near the top of the Republican field.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Homicide: Beyond the Rhetoric of Community Safety, the Realities of the Killing Streets

As 2007 draws to a close, Bay Area citizens are witnessing the grim site of Oakland and Richmond trading off nightly reports of young men dead in what seems an undeclared war on the streets of the East Bay's poorest neighborhoods. Politicians, like George and Sharon Runner are getting ready to place a new alarmist crime measure on the state's ballot, this one timed to pick up the current anxieties about gang crime. Homicide among urban youth is usually the stuff of media attention, but not the unusually objective and systematic analysis offered in today's San Francisco Chronicle by Meredith May, Many young men in Oakland are killing and dying for respect.

Meredith May's well researched and written feature on Oakland homicides presents a portrait familiar to most sociologists and criminologists, but lost in the usual "gang killing" rhetoric of television and print media. According to May's sources, killings among Oakland's youth are embedded in family and community networks in which drugs, violence, and incarceration are common and repeated elements. It is a world where the threats of the criminal law pale behind the belief of many that a youthful death awaits them. As the title of May's article, "Many young black men in Oakland are killing and dying for respect," suggests, violence is bound up with the relentless search for security and respect in a world where the employment market and the legal system provide little of either.

Overall the article supports something this blog has frequently endorsed, i.e., the local nature of violent crime and the need for subtle locally based crime prevention strategies over the search destroy model of mass incarceration we have utilized for decades now.

I have one bone to pick with May however. The article is laced with alarmist rhetoric about kids with no morality and raising a generation of super criminals, mostly from mouths of law enforcement officers. These images are deeply racialized (whether the officers are conscious of that or not). They circulate in every generation (the exact phrases were used in the 1980s to describe the crack sellers of that era). Terrible childhood's do produce substantial consequences (both individual and collective) but we should resist giving in to ultimately racist images of inhuman predatory youth.

Lastly, anyone who really wants to see and end to this has to acknowledge three points. First, the link between gang criminality and the trilogy of females/respect/security that May describes, is driven in large part by the black market for drugs which these gangs control and fight for. Second, the war on drugs has done nothing to diminish that link. Third, only a legal market for the most popular drugs (marijuana and some form of cocaine) will ultimately displace youth gangs from their current status in the community.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Lash, the Prison, and the World's Judgment

As the New York Times epitomizes in its editorial today, Lashing Justice , Americans have been quick to join the world's outrage at recent snap shots of Islamic justice in the form of lashes for a rape victim (for the crime of being alone with an unrelated male) in Saudi Arabia and insulting Islam (by allowing school children to name a teddy-bear "Muhammed") in Sudan.

Muslims who wonder why non-Muslims are often baffled, angered, even frightened by some governments’ interpretation of Islamic law need only look to the cases of two women in Saudi Arabia and Sudan threatened with barbaric lashings.

But as the Times editorial board well knows, America itself, with its extraordinary incarceration rate, including the use of life without parole prison terms for juveniles (practiced almost no where else in the world), and its continued use of the death penalty for homicides that would net a prison term of twenty years in most of the world, stands today as a frightening symbol of punitive severity around the world. As with our quick judgments about the lash and Islamic societies, the prison serves for much of the world, especially after Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, as a symbol of American lack of restraint and infidelity to democracy and the rule of law.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Property Rights As a Limit to Governing through Crime

In its recent opinion striking down aspects of Georgia's harsh law forbidding registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, church, or any one of a number of enumerated functions thought to attract children, the Georgia Supreme Court did not invoke the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, or even due process. Instead, the opinion by Justice Carol Hunstein emphasized property rights, citing the Supreme Court's recent regulatory takings case and suggesting that the Georgia law creates just such a taking.

The opinion in MANN V. DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS (S07A1043) held that Mann has a substantial property interest in the home he had purchased with his wife. Since the home complied with the 1,000 foot rule when they purchases it, Mann had sought to comply with the law. By criminalizing him for subsequent decisions by others to locate child oriented functions nearby, the law made Mann subject to the whims of his neighbors and perhaps deliberate efforts to run him out of the area (noting that addresses are available through the registry). In terms that remind us why property rights are part of the American vision of equality, Justice Hunstein wrote:

All of society benefits from the protection of minors, yet registered sex offenders alone bear the burden of the particular type of protection provided by the residency restriction in OCGA § 42-1-15 (a). No burden is placed on third parties to aid in providing

Justice Hunstein's opinion is a reminder to those of us looking for a way out of the culture of fear and control that resources for resistance and change lie to the right as well as the left.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Murder Cards: The Crime we Fear, the Criminals we Jail

SAN DIEGO -- The next time inmates play cards in county jail, they may have a pair of murders or a straight of victims looking up at them.

New card decks unveiled Tuesday will be made available to inmates in seven jails and depict 52 unsolved murders. Some of the cold-case cards will show a murder victim along with a description of the crime, while others will have the faces of fugitives on them.

The hope is that inmates can provide information about the unsolved cases and will call a toll-free number linking them to Crime Stoppers....


The cards may be good policing, but they also reflect the uncanny twinning of the worst crimes and the pettiest criminals that characterizes so much of American criminal justice. To be blunt, we fear murderers and we lock up Laurel and Hardy. Jails in America are crammed. Some are awaiting trial for felony offenses, but many are there for a wide variety of relatively minor crimes from driving under the influence (which means being over a chemical blood test limit, not a behavioral degree of intoxication), fighting with their parents (lots of teenage girls end up in jail now for domestic violence after striking their mothers), and of course marijuana possession.

The linkage between the two, murder and mundane misbehavior, is a network of laws that has made penalties tougher for minor crimes on the theory that they are causally related to major crimes. (That theory is epitomized by the Broken Windows policing approach, but is much broader and began much earlier).

The cards, by the way, do generate tips (actually jails are factories of tips to the police, not all of them accurate). But solving serious crimes by focusing on minor offenses is generally an expensive and ineffective idea that has helped make America less free without making it more secure.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Dare to say No to DARE

Sign of the times? According to Linda Saslow's reporting in the NYTimes school district in Suffolk County New York has announced that it plans to replace its current curriculum based on DARE, for Drug Resistance and Awareness Training, in favor of a more comprehensive health and safety curriculum. DARE, a crime oriented approach to health education in which police officers present curriculum about drugs, alcohol, tobacco and peer influences, was relentlessly promoted by the federal government for decades.

In 2002 a National Academy of Sciences committee assessed the empirical record and found that there was no evidence DARE education improved drug or educational outcomes. In a powerful demonstration of the grip that crime has on our imagination of schools (and everything else), the major response to the study was to try and reinvent the curriculum rather then question its crime and police centered approach.

In calling for a more comprehensive view of health and safety, Suffolk County authorities are helping to shift the knowledge context for parents and students away from America's obsessive focus on crime.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Mayors and Murder: Michael Nutter Takes the Helm in Philadelphia

"The streets are safe in Philadelphia -- it's only the people that make them unsafe." Frank Rizzo

The surprising come from behind candidacy of Michael Nutter, Philadephia's mayor-elect, is a potent reminder that long before the war on terror (and existing on a more primal stage of our political unconscious) the war on crime had reshaped American politics and especially the role of the executive as crime leader. Nutter,formerly a city council representative, won the crucial Democratic primary last spring after coming from the back of a five candidate pack and went on to win the general election this month by a record setting landslide of 86 percent. According to Ian Urbina's reporting in the NYTimes, Nutter's campaign took off after he began promising a crack down in gun violence and specifically to declare certain neighborhoods to be in a "state of emergency" permitting street closures and curfews to be imposed. He also promised a "stop and frisk" strategy to use police to find guns on young men. (Interestingly the wiki-pedia entry on Nutter hardly mentions crime).

For the first election cycle in several, a spike in homicides, including the deaths of police officers, made murder a central problem through which Philadelphian's imagined their future. Not only does fear of violence have a remarkable way of concentrating the imagination of citizens (to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holme's famous quip about hanging)but long before Dick Cheney occupied the Vice President's house in Washington, crime fighting mayors and police chiefs (or both) had ceased the mantle of emergency rule to promise aggressive plans to police city streets.

Like Corey Booker in Newark [see an earlier post], and City Attorney Dennis Herrera in San Francisco [see my earlier post], Mayor Nutter has discovered that violent crime can be like steroids for building political muscle. But as Nutter, a council member who once specialized in issues of property and redevelopment, surely knows, muscle backed fists are poor tools for governing the complex fiscal dilemmas of major cities. All can hope that the spikes in violence which began before, or at least early in, their terms, will turn down (as the laws of statistics suggest they will) on their watch. But they can also keep going up.

The particular tactics embraced by Nutter, neighborhood states of emergency and stop and frisk policing are different but they both share an important truth, violent crime almost always has its origins in locally anchored disputes among individuals and small networks of peers who are known to each other and to others. This truth suggests that mayors and police almost always in a better position to address violent crime than governors, state legislatures, let alone national politicians.

But local problems require solutions crafted to local conditions and both of these tactics are off the shelf of nationally promoted crime prevention strategies (with the talent available in Philadelphia between Penn and Temple alone, Nutter could do better). If forced to choose between the two, I'd put my money on "stop and frisk." pol Declaring states of emergency in narrowly defined sections of the city is a highly symbolic gesture, marked by closing streets and issuing dramatic court orders against gang members, but as a practical matter has little likelihood of bringing down violence rates. Young men with guns aren't stupid and they aren't compelled to remain in the designated crack down zones. Look for gun play to spill over into other neighborhoods if this is relied on.

Stop and frisk is really nothing more or less than the practice of preventive policing. Rather than responding to citizen requests (911 calls), police patrol areas where they expect potential homicide victims and perpetrators to be gathering. When they encounter individuals that they believe may be involved in crimes (past, present or future) police may "stop" them for a brief period of questions. If they have a reasonable belief that the person may be carrying a gun (or any weapon that could be used against them), the police may "frisk" the suspect, passing their hands over their outer-clothing, but in a manner calculated to feel any weapons in or under those clothes. Stop and frisk may reduce violence by discouraging young men in high crime areas (who are the most likely to be subjected to this technique) from carrying guns during their trips through the city. Just making the guns less available can reduce the number of occasions where situational disputes lead to violence.

On the other hand, stop and frisk can exacerbate the mistrust that may already exist in Philadephia's poor neighborhoods. If it is seen as racial profiling, stop and frisk may backfire, even on an African American Mayor.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Supreme Court Battle Over Gun Rights:Crime will be the argument on both sides!

Linda Greenhouse delivers up a fascinating overview of the gun rights case that is likely to be among the most awaited of this term's Supreme Court docket (read her analysis here). The case presents the gun debate in its most iconic form since the DC law at issue, which dates back to 1976, bars gun ownership anywhere in the District, including in a private home. If the Supreme Court strikes the law down they will break new ground by holding that the 2nd Amendment creates a personal right to possess fire-arms. Such a decision will open up many questions to keep lawyers busy in terms of the standard by which regulations short of prohibition must be judged.

The case will also give the country a chance to talk about gun-control during a Presidential election and in the midst of an alarming surge in violence in many large cities after more than a decade of dramatic declines in crime (see my colleague Frank Zimring's definitive book on the topic).

It is an equally good time to note that both sides in this long running culture war are highly motivated by fear of crime and both gun control and gun rights belong to what I have called "Governing through Crime." The gun control advocates will argue that DC's city council was well motivated to respond to an epoch plague of gun violence which was (and is again) threatening the vitality of American cities. Gun rights advocates will argue that DC's high crime rate and poor police success at clearing homicides, warrants permitting citizens to defend themselves (at least in the sanctity of their homes). With fear of crime driving both sides of the debates, expect any decision to set off further alarms about crime.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Death States: Will New Jersey Abolish the Death Penalty

It remains one of the most decisive political turns in American history. In the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia, the US Supreme Court struck down all existing death penalties, while leaving the door open to the possibility that better drafted statutes might be upheld. By the time the Court considered a host of new statutes in the 1976 case of Gregg v. Georgia, thirty five states had re-enacted the death penalty and scores of individuals were already on death row (following years of actual death sentences declining). As I argue in Governing through Crime, this come back represented the empowerment of a whole new constellation of political power at the state level, anchored around governors, attorney generals, and prosecutors.

Now, for the first time since this new constellation was formed more than thirty years ago, a state is moving toward repealing its death penalty. According to the reporting of Jeremy W. Peters in the NYTimes, a bill that would do just that has come out of a Senate Committee and is on track to be considered by both houses. The reasons are not hard to understand. Like other states outside the death belt, New Jersey has found capital punishment to be very expensive and very difficult to actually execute (in fact no one has yet been executed under the revived death penalty law).

Yet even where the death penalty is moribund, renouncing the right to kill involves a huge modification of political authority (and the opportunities for politicians to act in the charged space of power it creates). Look for politicians on the margins to cease this opportunity to occupy the center of voter fears by rushing to defend the death penalty (which is never more productive politically than when under attack).

Friday, November 16, 2007

Feedlot Government: Coalinga and the Consequences of Our Fears

Our desires have consequences. For meat eaters in California that becomes evident near a place called Coalinga, where extensive cattle feedlots abut Interstate 5 which runs between LA and Northern California. Coalinga by happenstance (one assumes) is also the home to a different kind of animal storage facility, although not one you can see or smell from I5. Coalinga State Hospital, the first state mental hospital built in nearly half a century in California (a subject in itself I will blog on soon), is dedicated fully to housing a special category of California criminals that California (and other states) invented in the 1990s. Sexually violent predators, a term which has no known scientific basis, are convicted sex offenders who are civilly committed on the completion of their prison sentence on the grounds that they are mentally abnormal and a continuing danger. The programs are supposed to provide treatment, and periodic hearings are intended to prevent the state from confining people unnecessarily (being they've already served punitive prison sentences).

The problem is that only a tiny handful of people have gotten out so far, and they have found themselves celebrity monsters, chased across the landscape by television and sometimes real mobs. The result is a growing new sector of California's mass incarceration government. It may not churn the stomach as much as the feedlot's you see from I5. But as a recent story by Scott Gold and Lee Romney of the LA Times suggests, human feedlots produce their own kind of disgust.

Two years after California opened the nation's largest facility designed to house and treat men who have been declared sexually violent predators, Coalinga State Hospital is described by both patients and staff as an institution in turmoil.
Convinced that they stand little chance of being released and angry about perceived deficiencies at the hospital, patients are engaged in a tense standoff with administrators, according to interviews with more than 40 patients and staff members.

Almost all of the detainees at Coalinga have served time for serious sexual offenses. But instead of being released after completing their sentences, they were transferred to the state hospital system under a 1995 law that allows the state to declare certain high-risk sex offenders mentally ill and commit them to psychiatric facilities.
Detaining someone under the law is constitutional provided that the patient receives treatment. But today, significant treatment at Coalinga is rare. Administrators acknowledge that three-quarters of the hospital's 600-plus detainees refuse to participate in a core treatment program, undermining a central piece of the $388-million hospital's mission.

Some patients have also declined to eat for days at a time to protest alleged inadequacies in psychiatric and medical care as well as less important issues, including limited access to phones. Many have boycotted educational and improvement programs that include anger management workshops, computer training and Spanish classes -- a protest known inside the hospital as a "strike."

A severe staff shortage has further impeded treatment, patients and staff members say. As of last week, 26 of the hospital's 37 budgeted staff psychiatrist positions were vacant. On many wards, hospital police officers fill roles assumed by clinicians at other hospitals.
"We're calling it the Titanic State Hospital," said a psychiatric technician who, like most other current employees, spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal from administrators. "We've lost control. I've been saying for a couple of months now that the monkeys are running the circus."
Coalinga opened in September 2005 amid promises of a new era, both in protecting the public and in treating sex offenders. Even empty, the facility stood out; its sleek architecture and tidy topiaries presenting a jarring contrast to the tumbleweeds and dust devils that dominate the surrounding landscape.

But the operation of Coalinga -- the only mental hospital built in California in half a century -- was never going to be effortless.

Read the article by Scott Gold and Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

It Rhymes with Crime: Sub "Prime" Crisis and the Crime Angle

It had to come up. If crime is the ideal against which all social problems are measured, and forms of governance imagined (more or less my thesis in Governing through Crime), it was only a matter of time before the rippling sub-prime loan crisis would be recast as a story of crime.

In one sense there is much about the sub-prime scandal which invokes crime, especially the highly premeditated strategies employed by many in the loan supply chain to manipulate the rules in order to enrich their personal bottom line (while exposing unsophisticated consumers to high risks of financial ruin). But the preferred crime story in America emphasizes poor people and minorities involved in street crimes, not educated professionals involved in "suite crimes."

Thus MSNBC's coverage:

Eighty-five bungalows dot the cul-de-sac that joins West Ontario Avenue and East Ontario Avenue in Atlanta. Twenty-two are vacant, victims of mortgage fraud and foreclosure. Now house fires, prostitution, vandals and burglaries terrorize the residents left in this historic neighborhood called Westview Village.

Squalor, crime follow wave of foreclosures, MSNBC.COM

(thanks to Keith Hiatt for calling this to my attention)

Friday, November 9, 2007

Governing through Crime Italian Style

A terrible crime against a vulnerable victim generates massive media coverage. When the suspect turns out to be a foreigner, part of an immigration flow from a bordering country drawn by the relatively high wages and labor needs at the bottom of the pyramid, politicians at all levels rush to assure the public by promises of crackdowns against dangerous members of this suspect class.

Its an all too familiar story in America over the last several decades, only its playing out in Italy. The arrest of a Romanian suspect in the murder and molestation of an Italian woman last week led to a great deal of public turmoil about immigration and crime. The Center-Left government of Romano Prodi responded by authorizing municipalities to deport immigrants they considered dangerous (apparently with no hearing of any sort). As many as three dozen were deported. The government maintains it will resist calls from the right for mass deportation.

Read the reporting of Ian Fisher in the November 8th edition of the NYTimes

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Giuliani Watch: America's Tough Guy

No politician today better embodies the vision of the chief executive as crime fighter shaped by the war on crime than Rudolph Giuliani. This is why it does not matter whether crime drops out of the news to be replaced by terrorism or Iran's nukes. It is the mentality of governing, the ways of thinking and feeling projected by the leader that originate in the war against crime but carry over into governing generally.

While most of our recent Presidents have embodied the same crime mentality (consider Texas Governor George W Bush) the current group of candidates in both parties is remarkably thin in politicians who project this style of leadership well. That is why in my view, Guiuliani has a better than even chance of being our next president despite his very clear "problems"

Consider Rudy on the campaign trail as covered by Peter Wallsten in the Los Angeles Times:

A 9-year-old girl, afraid of another attack like the one on Sept. 11, sparked a finger-waving lecture at another point in the day from Giuliani, who said that Democrats were afraid to use the term "Islamic terrorism." "You have to face your enemy," he told the third-grader, Kailey Lemieux.

Other politicians might have expressed empathy, or drawn voters into deeper conversation, or lightened the talk of violence around elementary school children. But not the former New York mayor. With his intense demeanor and aggressive policy stances -- such as pledging to "prevent" Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon or to "set them back five or 10 years" -- Giuliani has methodically built an image as the toughest guy on the block, unafraid of looking belligerent in the cause of keeping America safe.

Read the whole story

Monday, November 5, 2007

Governing Fire through Crime

The predictable focus on arson as the prime governmental issue in California's deadly wildfires this fall continued last week with Governor Schwarzenegger issuing the following statement on the fires:

10/27/2007 - Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today reinforced the state and
law enforcement’s strong commitment to capturing the criminals responsible
for intentionally setting at least two of the devastating southern
California fires. The Governor also discussed further actions the state is
taking to protect southern California fire victims by helping to ensure
that they are not taken advantage of during the rebuilding and recovery

“We already know at least two of the fires were started intentionally and
two more have suspicious origins. I want everyone to understand that we
are working with local and federal authorities to hunt down the people
responsible, arrest them and prosecute them to the full extent of the law.
And believe me, we will not fail,” said Governor Schwarzenegger.

Earlier this week, the Governor announced a $50,000 reward for information
leading toward the arrest and conviction in a California court of the
person or persons responsible for setting the Santiago Fire. In addition,
the FBI and ATF each contributed $50,000 and KFI Radio added $100,000.

In reiterating the state and law enforcement’s strong commitment to
catching the responsible parties, the Governor said that California is too
vulnerable to catastrophic fires to be anything less than super-vigilant
when it comes to going after arsonists.

To assist the victims in recovering from the devastation that these fires
caused, the Governor also discussed further actions the state is taking to
protect them during the recovery process. During a meeting the Governor
convened with state officials yesterday to discuss the state’s next steps,
the Governor said he would have no tolerance for price gougers or shady
contractors while all efforts are focused on putting southern California
back together.

“We are also going after the scam artists and price gougers, the insurance
claims adjuster rip-offs and shady contractors and anyone else who preys
on people hurt by these fires. We are as serious about protecting people
from cheats and criminals as we are about protecting them from fire,” said
Governor Schwarzenegger. “If anyone tries to exploit this tragedy, I will
make sure the state of California does everything in its power so they
regret it for a very long time.”

(read the Gov's full statement)

As I pointed out in a post several days ago, there is no reason to believe that even the most aggressive criminal enforcement against arson will do much to address the annual threat of wildfires which are far more often the result of accidents like sparks from a welding torch or power lines blown down in the very high winds that often accompany severe fire weather. Of course we can decide to punish the negligent or even hold power companies strictly liable and send their CEOs to prison. That may make us feel better. It won't make us safer.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

War on Terror = War on Crime

When I talk to people about my book Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (Oxford 2007), lots of people shake their head in agreement but tell me, "that was sure true of the '80s and '90s, but its all war on terror now."

That would be true if it wasn't so very clear that for most American political leaders the war on terror has largely been a direct extension of the political categories and rationalities produced by the war on crime whether evil doing criminals, innocent victims, uncompromisable executive leadership, and emotional law making.

Consider the way the Republican Presidential contenders project themselves as terrorism fighters as summarized by Marco Santora in today's NYTimes.

A central tenet of every leading Republican candidate’s campaign for president is one simple and powerful idea: I alone can best defend the United States from the threat of terrorism.
And in recent weeks, three candidates, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred D. Thompson, have embraced some of the more controversial policies on the treatment of those suspected of supporting terrorism, backing harsh interrogation methods and refusing to rule out the use of waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique, on detainees.

Their public statements came as the debate over whether waterboarding is torture had threatened to derail the nomination of Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general after he refused to call the technique illegal.

Not only do the three candidates refuse to rule out waterboarding and other techniques that have been condemned, but they also believe the American prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, needs to remain open, and they back the practice of extraordinary rendition, in which terrorism suspects are sent for questioning to other countries, including some accused of torture.

Mr. Giuliani often frames the threat of terrorism in graphically personal terms, telling crowds that Islamic extremists “hate you” and want to come to the United States and “kill you.” In that vein, he has been perhaps the most forceful in suggesting that the president must be able to take extraordinary steps to combat terrorist threats.

In an interview yesterday with Albert R. Hunt on Bloomberg TV, Mr. Giuliani said: “Now, intensive questioning works. If I didn’t use intensive questioning, there would be a lot of Mafia guys running around New York right now and crime would be a lot higher in New York than it is. Intensive questioning has to be used. Torture should not be used. The line between the two is a difficult one.”

As Mr. Romney was preparing for his presidential bid, he visited Guantánamo Bay in the spring of 2006 and said he “came away with no concerns with regards to the fair and appropriate treating of these individuals.” In the May debate, Mr. Romney said he would “double Guantánamo.”

Read the story

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Fire This Time

As California fire fighters continued fighting to put out the final bits of the terrible fire season of '07, prosecutors in LA grappled with whether to bring criminal charges against a 10 year old whose admitted playing with matches apparently started one of the major blazes last month. Another option is to hit the parents with a massive civil suit for the millions of dollars the fire consumed (although since they lived in a trailer on a ranch its not likely they are loaded). According to the reporting of Jean-Paul Renaud, Andrew Blankstein and Megan Garvey, in the Los Angeles Times, fire officials think charges against a 10 year old are unlikely, but in Orange County, a twelve year old has been arrested for an October 22nd blaze.

The fact that criminal charges against children would be pending for these fires shows how much fear of crime has twisted the way Americans think about risk. Arson ranks in the top 3 or 4 causes of California's wild fires, and clearly deserves criminal punishment when committed by people capable of criminal responsibility, but does anyone who lives near the reach of wildfire (and that includes me, although this year early rains brought an early end to the Northern California fire season) believe that they could stop worrying if 100 percent of arson could be deterred? (Let alone the far smaller percentage than could actually be deterred). Most such fires are set by accidents, sparks from welding, a badly put out cigarette, or by downed electrical lines (perhaps we can prosecute some of those people for criminal negligence or just invent a new strict liability crime). Most essentially, wildfire is a natural feature of the California landscape that development has largely overlooked.

The fact that from the beginning of this fall's major wildfires, press reports focused on the question of arson, is a demonstration of how much crime grips our imagination of disaster. Just as in the coverage of the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the California wildfires confront us with a terrifying new kind of threat the combines natural and social disaster to produce potential catastrophes. Trying to fathom this staggering threat to all of our futures, the American collective eye seizes upon the familiar figure of the criminal as the central pivot around which to frame disaster.

But what Katrina and the southern California fires challenge us to do is make major reinvestment in infrastructure and undertake far more vigorous governance of land use in our metropolitan areas. But such steps require the confidence in government and the social trust that fear of crime erodes.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

What do you get from mass incarceration? Staph

Correctional officers at Folsom State Prison here in California were hospitalized recently. The culprit wasn't a prisoner, it was Staphylococcus aureus, sometimes called "staph," typically a relatively minor infection (although I've always had bad experiences with it) but buffed up into a life threatening virus in the conditions of California's catastrophically overcrowded prisons (Folsom has 4,000 inmates in a complex "designed" for half that number).

The incident was brought before California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CalOSHA) by the correctional officers' union (CCPOA)on behalf of the stricken officers and yesterday the agency fined the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation $21,000 according to Judy Lin's reporting in the SacBee.

The ruling is yet another measure of the prison's system deepening crisis. The crisis and the lawsuits that have brought the crises to the public attention have exposed a different side of mass imprisonment. The point of prison may be punishment (at least California law says so), but it is ultimately the government of human beings that is involved. When a population is herded together with virtually no thought to its human needs what follows is at best a human rights disaster and at worst the start of biological catastrophes that can threaten the general population (both prisoners and correctional officers come home).

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Capital Punishment Moratoriums and the Politics of Death

The Supreme Court's last minute stay of Mississippi execution yesterday marks the beginning of a moratorium on capital punishment in the U.S. that will last at least until the Court decides a case on lethal injection that it accepted this fall and will hear argument on in January. (Read Linda Greenhouse's reporting). The Court is being asked to decide how lower courts should proceed in considering whether the current method of lethal injection violates the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."

The stay, which could last until summer (the Supreme Court usually resolves all pending matters prior to ending its term in June) or longer, is unlikely to result in a permanent obstacle to executions. Unlike the Supreme Court's moratorium in the early 1970s, the Court is not considering fundamental challenges to whether the death penalty is constitutional. Even if the current method of lethal injection is found wanting, it is likely that some altered method will ultimately prove acceptable.

Still, moratoriums are interesting things. Two quick predictions about the impact of this one. First the utopian hope. The American death penalty is a bizarre creature. In most states where it exists, it is an expensive and incredibly lengthy legal process that only rarely result in an execution. No one, not even its supporters, really believe that capital punishment is indispensalbe thinks (unlike prisons which as Frank Zimring points out in his book The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, few can imagine dispensing with altogether). The rate of Americans sentenced to death has declined in recent years as have actual executions (reasons are unclear). In such a situation, it is always possible that once it stops, this complicated and unnecessary machinery will never start again (Keine Chara! as my Bubbie would have said).

The second scenario is more likely. As I explore in Chapter 2 of Governing through Crime, the death penalty has been a boon to state politicians, especially governors who have been able to turn judicial obstacles to executions into opportunities to demonstrate their own loyalty to the public's darkest fears of crime. In short, look for governors in the affected states to blame the courts for favoring the interests of murderers over victims. The posture of this case which focuses on the suffering of inmates undergoing execution is particularly felicitous for this kind of politics. Courts, with their deliberation and formality inevitably seem out of line with the emotional logics unleashed by violent crime and its consequences.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

"Once you execute someone, you can’t unexecute him,”

As always, the limits of sovereign power are on display in the US nation building experiment in Iraq. The execution of Saddam Hussein last January marked a major assertion of sovereignty by the troubled Shi'ite led government of the Green Zone. Now according to reporting by RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. and ALISSA J. RUBIN in today's New York Times, a new round of executions of regime officials is on hold as Iraqi and American leaders worry out the implications of forceful execution or mercy. In its role as a tool of sovereignty making the death penalty is inevitably double edged, especially in a civil war situation. You become the King when you can execute rebellious barons (Friedrich III, Hapsburg emperor in the 15th century is a good example). The ability to reduce the former wielders of state power to lifeless bodies is as clear a demonstration of a revolutionary passing of power from one sovereign vehicle (the Baath party) to another (the government of Iraq).

At the same time, the killing of a leader respected by large portions (albeit a minority) or the population, and in violation of norms associated with military surrender is a dangerous thing. It can lead the aggrieved minority to view its differences with the state as irreconcilable (a good example is the hatred of the Cuban government among exiles stoked by the early wave of executions following the success of Castro's revolutionaries). An act of well timed mercy, in contrast, may provide the cultural cover for a reconciliation.

State building needs sovereignty (which capital punishment can provide at a high price) but it needs so much more than sovereignty. As an American military officer was quoted by the Times: "once you execute someone, you can't unexecute them."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Stop Them Before they Legislate Again: California's Lock-em-Up Couple Goes Back to the Ballot

As California prisons continue into a second year of state of emergency with nearly twice as many prisoners as spaces (even with the most optimistic design specs) and a chronic medical care collapse which causes at least one unnecessary death a week, some California law makers are busy at work making sure even more Californian's go to prison for longer.

According to the reporting of Patrick McGreevey in the LA Times, the husband and wife legislative team of Geoorge and Sharon Runner, who brought us the panoply of expensive and draconian sex offender policies called Jessica's Law has now teemed up with the father of the Three Strikes law to bring yet another crack down initiative to the ballot.

The new initiative, dubbed "The Safe Neighborhoods Act: Protect Crime Victims, Stop Gangs and Thugs" would target gang members and do more to lash California's budget to spending on crime. It has also been endorsed by LA County Sheriff Lee Baca and other law enforcement leaders. Some of the provisions include:

* Creating a nine-member Early Intervention and Rehabilitation Commission to evaluate and make recommendations on existing and future gang-reduction programs.

* Increasing by 10 years the sentence given convicted felons caught with guns.

* Requiring that convicted gang offenders register with local law enforcement each year for five years after conviction or their release from custody.

* Allowing admission of sworn statements by gang crime witnesses who have died or who are unavailable to testify at the time of prosecution because of intimidation.

* Increasing penalties for individuals who provide contraband to gang members in prison.

* Authorizing the seizure of cars in which a gun is found that was used during the commission of a crime by the registered owner.

* Prohibiting bail for illegal immigrants charged with violent gang crimes.

Gangs are the preferred target for crime warriors because they provide a fits all explanation for urban violence and offer abundant racial stereotypes around which to hang satisfying terms like "thugs." Law enforcement loves gangs because it gives them something that looks like an army to have their crime war against. Legislators like the Runners love them, because they provide the perfect enemy to focus a distracted public on.

The only problem is that prison itself is the biggest gang producing institution in the state of California and this law will only guarantee more people get sent to prison, more often, and for longer. In the meantime, the intensely local relations and problems that lead to most youth violence will continue to go unaddressed while the Runners and their fellow crime entrepreneurs campaign on.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Prison Tycoon 3

Signs of the times? Are we a the end of the era of mass incarceration? Or, is this just the time to encourage the video slacker in your life to take up a new skill enhancing gaming thrill.

Prison Tycoon 3, A popular series of video games invites the player to try their hand at running a private prison.

Copy for the box on the latest edition:

The latest sequel to the #1 best-selling prison tycoon!

Brick by Brick and Day to Day – You’re the Man. Male or female? Civilian
or military? Build your prison for profit and manage every essential

The Devil’s in the details. From the guards you hire to the food you
serve, every choice you make will ripple throughout your prison.

Back on the chain gang. Assign prisoners work detail from cleaning and
maintenance work to back-breaking manual labor.

Throw away the key? You determine whether to release your prisoners on
parole or keep them locked down tight to protect security.

NEW! Danger Zone. Manage gangs and prisoner morale to avoid riot,s but
remember, keeping the peace in men’s and NEW women’s facilities requires
different tactics.

NEW! Contain the military’s worst offenders. It takes a unique skill set
to control the worst this nation has to offer in NEW military prisons.

Back of the Box:

Crack the Whip! Take the reigns of a privately run prison. you are
responsible for the care, custody, and control of individuals who have
been arrested. Begin with a low security prison and build it up to a
SuperMax. From construction to daily operations, you must protect society
while turning a profit. It’s time for lockdown.

Country Club or Billy Club? Manage security levels, food rations,
recreation opportunities, and much more. How tough will you be?

En Guard. Hire trust-worthy prison guards and arm them with weapons, riot
shields, and guard dogs to maintain peace and control. Keep your eye on
your budget – underpay and organized crime will run rampant in your

NEW! Watch with an eagle eye! NEW day and night gameplay allows you to
monitor all illegal activities 24/7. Keep a look out for escapees,
contraband and illegal activity.

(Thanks to Ashley Aubuchon for calling this to my attention)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Fear of Crime

In my book, Governing through Crime, I argued that over the last 4 decades of the 20th century American governments and citizens placed violent crime at the center of their fears and efforts to control risk for reasons largely unique to the US. Both federalism and the division of powers make governing hard in America and give lots of power to engaged minorities.

Now that fear of crime that seemed so distinctively America in the 20th century, seems to be spreading to other societies. Two stories in today's New York Times profiled the increasing salience of precaution against violent crime to ordinary citizen consumers in Japan and South Africa. In Japan, in the absence of much evidence that crime is really going up, designers offer women's clothing design to allow wearers to suddenly appear as if a vending machine. In South Africa, where violent gun point robberies and kidnapping have grown alarmingly common, a popular reggae star is shot to death in apparent carjacking, as he drops of his 15 year old son at the home of his brother.

What is causing so much fear of crime in Japan? American TV shows?

What is causing so much real violence in SA?

What alternatives are there to growing demands on both governments that they address violent crime?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Gov. Schwarzenegger Vetos Wrongful Conviction Measures

Question, when does a Governor not want to sign a law related to criminal justice? Answer when to it creates any new restrictions on law enforcement. So may be it is a no brainer that our sometimes independent and unpredictable Governator vetoed three bills passed by the legislature that would have enacted recommendations made by an expert commission created by the California Senate in 2004 to address the root causes of wrongful convictions in violent crime cases, such as those documented in recent years through DNA testing. Associations of police chiefs and sheriffs opposed all three measures according to Bob Egelko's reporting in the Chron.

Still its worth noting that the recommendations made by a commission that included law enforcement and prosecutors were modest and in line with most expert opinion on interrogation and other police practices to collect evidence. One measure would have required video-taping complete interrogations in violent crime cases. A step that would make it possible to determine with precision whether police used techniques that create a high risk of false confession. A second measure would have barred the use of testimony from a "jailhouse informant" unless corroborated by another witness. Such informants have powerful incentives to make up incriminating statements they attribute to the defendant. A third measure addressed ways of making sure police do not influence witnesses at line-ups and photo line-ups of suspects. In all three cases the Governor emphasized that the laws would have in some way limited the flexibility of law enforcement. But that is what law does. On that basis he might have vetoed every law enacted this last session.


Sometimes people ask me how can crime remain so governmentally active, when people just don't seem as riled up and anxious about crime as they did say, in the 1990s, before the 9/11, and before the crime decline? But its because crime has been influential as a model problem of governance that it does not require either lots of real crime or even lots of real crime fear to reproduce a steady state salience of crime. It is always the pregnant possibility, the ready to hand frame, that can emerge or be thrown at a social problem whether the great crisis, like Hurricane Katrina flooding New Orleans, or the everyday problems of life.

Then I wake up and read the morning paper where a Pennsylvania woman is facing charges just for swearing in her own bathroom (but in ear shot of her neighbor), while instructing her daughter to bring her mop needed to deal with a toilet which was in the process of over-flowing into the kitchen. What is this country coming to?

Monday, October 15, 2007

President of Crime: Rudolph Giuliani's Quest for the White House

The Onion famously dubbed Rudulph Giuliani as a candidate for the President of 9/11, but we have suggested that what his candidacy is about more than anything else is being President of a place where crime and the potential for violence are the dominant features of reality. This is the place that most Americans before 9/11 feared that they lived (or had only barely escaped by moving to a gated community). This is the place that 9/11 seemed to all at once confirm and reframe as threatened even more by a global network of terror. Indeed it is because he understands so well the deep conflation between the America which had gradually come to reimagine itself through the problem of crime, and the America which has come into self-consciousness since 9/11 that Giluliani is such a formidable candidate.

Where can you find the most vibrantly concentrated image of America as a society in the grip (and thrall) of predatory crime? Either in the representation of urban space in the recent series of Spiderman movies, or in Giuliani's representation of the city he governed in the mid-1990s. They are both in fact the same (imaginary) place, New York City in its recent past. Consider how Giuliani describes New York in a story by Adam Nagourney about "Giuliani's New York" in today's times.

Mr. Giuliani recalls the days when, as he remembers them, a New Yorker couldn’t walk up Third Avenue without being on the lookout for muggers, of the blocks of dirty book stores and prostitutes, of public urination and pot-smoking. We accepted pornography, prostitution as just commonplace,” he said to a conservative audience in Washington last spring. “We accepted street-level drug dealing as something we couldn’t do anything about.”

“There was a tremendous amount of crime. It was the crime capital of America. It was a devastated city in many ways. It was a depressed city.”

Of course New York is also a metaphor for many of the things Giuliani hopes his Republican primary audiences will share is repulsion for, e.g., Democratic politicians, liberals, unions, etc, but among these it is crime that Giuliani returns to again and again.

It is the city he has tamed and the place where he stared down — as he tells appreciative Republicans to hearty applause — liberals, criminals, welfare recipients, big-spending City Council members and the editorial writers of The New York Times.

By focusing on the impression that New York was overwhelmed with crime (the very same picture of the city you see in the Spider fables where robbers and burglars are constantly at work beyond the eyes of the feckless police) Giuliani can indeed find an source of support for his form of rule that cuts across the conservative versus liberal divide in America. New York was indeed experiencing its highest homicide rates of the 20th century during the very early years of the 1990s. But virtually the entire extent of this violence surge was experienced by the poorest handful of precincts in the city. What you could find in Manhattan and the gentrifying districts of Brooklyn was marijuana smoking and public pan handling. Still, many liberal New Yorkers that I knew shared this Giuliani/Spiderman view of their city in the 1990s and supported his crime war on the pot smokers and squeegee men. Whether it in fact helped deepen a decline in serious and violent crime that had already begun under Mayor Dinkins but which reached epoch levels in the Giuliani years is an interesting criminological question which my colleague Frank Zimring provides the best overall analysis of in his book The Great American Crime Decline. Still, its the fact that both conservatives and liberals can nod their heads in agreement when he talks this way about crime that that makes Rudy Giuliani such a formidable candidate for the White House.

Friday, October 12, 2007

School Security: But Who is Watching?

As the latest wave of school shootings sends anxiety through parents, teachers, and school administrators, it is sobering to realize how securitized our schools already are, and how little good it apparently does. At SuccessTech, described as an "alternative" public high school in Cleveland, a 14 year old who had been suspended, entered school with a number of weapons and shot four persons (all of whom have survived their wounds) before killing himself. According to a report in the Sacramento Bee by Joe Milicia (AP), the school had 26 Closed Circuit TV cameras, metal detectors, and a guard posted at the door. Despite that, 14 year old Asa Coons was able to enter the school and go on a shooting rampage without interference. The point isn't to get more frightened about school violence (its still by far the safest place for students and teachers to be, comparing favorably to say, their homes). The point is that more security technology does not mean more security.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Three Judge Panel Takes Further Step Toward Prison Cap on California

The drama of whether and when federal courts in California will order population caps on California's super-sized and massively overcrowded prison system took another step forward yesterday. The three judge panel composed of Appeals Court Judge Stephen Reinhardt from the 9th Circuit and two District Court judges, Judge Lawrence Karlton of the ED District of California and Judge Thelton E. Henderson of the Northern District issued a seven page ruling (check here for it to be posted) that set out a briefing a trial schedule for a two part process. In phase I, the plaintiffs will have the burden of proving that a prison population cap is the least intrusive approach the courts can take in relieving the unconstitutional conditions brought on by the overcrowding. If the courts find with the plaintiffs in phase I, phase II will unfold to consider the actual form a population cap remedy might take.

The order also sets out a briefing and hearing schedule that aims to bring phase I too trial in February of 2008. Assuming the court finds that a cap is necessary, phase II should be underway by spring. With appeals however, it is hard to imagine real caps biting before 2009 begins. Keep in mind that the courts have already found that currently unconstitutional practices lead to as many as 1 unnecessary death from medical care failings every week in the system. That probably means 100 inmates will die from untreated by treatable medical problems before the caps come into play (how many prisoners have died at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib?)

The order also makes an important determination that statutory intervenors including state legislators, county district attorneys, county sheriffs and other local criminal justice officials will be allowed to intervene as parties (giving them powers of discovery and a voice in the hearings) only during phase II. These intervenors are precisely the political actors that my book Governing through Crime describes as the most reliable and fierce defenders of a war on crime mentality (see chapter 2 on prosecutors and chapter 3 on legislators). The Prison Litigation Reform Act, a classic piece of war on crime legislation, enacted in the 1990s to hamper prison reform action by the courts, specifically empowered those kinds of actors to intervene as of right in proceedings to which a population limitation is possible outcome. This suggests that one of the express purposes of the Act was to maintain the growth of mass imprisonment in the US. In limiting the statutory intervenors to only one phase the three judge panel is opening one of the largest avenues for reversal on appeal. This might result in an immediate delay in the case if an appeal is taken to this intermediate order. But if the judges are permitted to continue with phase I, this could result in a finding that a population cap is necessary sometime early spring 08. The actual cap would be delayed as the intervenors sought discovery and other litigation rights that will slow the process. This might have the happy result of putting maximum pressure on the Governor and the California legislature to solve the problems of the system before the no longer imaginary caps are implemented, while also providing space for the nearly paralyzed California political system to work.

The order does allow one third party to participate fully in phase I. That is the CCPOA, the union of the correctional officers. The union has no statutory right to intervene, but the panel has apparently concluded that they are essential to producing a viable cap (which the union supports).

Monday, October 8, 2007

US and Iran: Drug Obsessed Theocracies?

According to a recent report from Iran's own prison chief, carried by drug offenses account for the largest category of prisoners of the Islamic Republic. That would be even higher than the US where most estimates place drug offenders at 1/3 to 1/2 of current prison inmates in the US. Iran with 225 inmates for every 100,000 adult residents lags the US with more than twice that proportion of its population in either jails or prisons.

Three Times as Much

How much more money the State of California spends to run its prisons as it spends to run the UC system according to Richard C. Paddock's reporting in the LA Times. Of course UC is only the top of the larger pyramid of state supported higher education with many more students attending Cal State University campuses and community colleges. Still the two systems looked more closer in scale during the 1960s when the UC system was building its 8th campus at Santa Cruz and the Department of Corrections was operating around a dozen institutions.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Safety First! School Security Uber Alles

News reports from Knight Highschool in Palmdale, California, brings us the latest images of what life in high school is like under the regime of governing schools through crime. When 16-year-old Pleajhia Mervin dropped a birthday cake she was carrying in the cafeteria to celebrate a friend's birthday, and didn't clean it up to the satisfaction of the school's 300 pound (est.) racist school security guard, she got her wrist broken, got called "nappy headed" and was expelled. When another friend filmed it on his cell phone (watch it here) he got tackled. When her mom came to complain, she got arrested for assault on the principal and spent the night in jail.

How does the school explain such senseless brutality:

"Good afternoon. I can just comment we did have an incident at our school last week. However, I would like to emphasize that we do have a safe campus. I've been working with our staff, with my district office staff, community leaders, and parents, to ensure that we continue to keep our campus safe for all students, but I want people to know that our focus here is academic excellence for all students," (said Dr. Susan McDonald, principal of Knight High School.

How did a "safe campus" become an excuse for brutality? How did sicking security guard who looks like an ex-bouncer from a biker bar on students become the icon of academic excellence at Palmdale High? Thats a good question to ask Dr. Susan McDonald. Her phone number is (661) 533-9000 ext. 184

(Thanks to Paul Hirschfield for calling this to my attention)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Governing Cruise Ships through Crime

Apparently even a cruise is no longer a way to escape from America's pervasive culture of fear. According to Kimi Yoshino's reporting in the LA Times, even these privileged vessels of the high seas now bristle with efforts to govern passengers through the problems of crime.

“Industry and law enforcement officials testified that between April 1 and Aug. 24, the FBI received 207 reports of serious crimes, including four missing Americans, 41 sexual assaults and 13 thefts of items valued at more than $10,000. Of the 18 open cases, 13 involve sexual assaults.”

“The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Cruise Lines International Assn. announced the formation of a "Survivor Working Group," to be composed of victims or their families, senior-level cruise line executives and representatives of industry groups, who will meet quarterly.”

“Among the changes, Royal Caribbean is installing peepholes on cabin doors in its two newest ships and working on an existing ship. The company plans to install peepholes on doors of all its ships, a spokesman said.

“In addition, Royal Caribbean has hired female investigators and counselors, put suicide hotlines in place and required mandatory sexual harassment training. In January, the company will begin notifying guests of a shipboard policy that crew members are not to fraternize with customers.

“Additionally, cameras are being installed in hallways and corridors, though Bald conceded that those cameras were not being monitored.”

Predictably, politicians are jumping on this new opportunity to manifest their concern for the public.

"I firmly believe that to do justice to the noble victims who have so bravely shared their stories, we must take definitive action," [Rep. Doris] Matsui [(D-Sacramento)] said. "There have to be better mechanisms for crime prevention and better systems for handling the crimes when they occur."
“On Monday, Matsui and other lawmakers introduced the Protect Americans From Crimes on Cruise Ships Resolution recognizing the lack of federal regulation of crime reporting, absence of law enforcement officials and lack of information made available to cruise customers. No legislation has been introduced to specifically address the issue, but Matsui and others have expressed interest in drafting such a bill at the request of victims.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Between Fear and Barbarity

Connecticut's parole system is back in the news a couple of months after a pair of parolees from the state were accused of kidnapping and murdering a mother and her two daughters. Christine Stuart reported in the New York Times earlier this week that Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell has halted paroles of all inmates imprisoned for violent crime.

“Until we can find a better way to determine who poses a risk to the public if released, we will not add to the ranks of people on parole,”

Of course, the parolees who stand accused of the murders were not in prison for violent crime to begin with. More importantly, we have no really reliable ways to predict who poses a risk to the public. But if the answer is to keep prisoners eligible for parole locked up until we have such reassurance, states like Connecticut will soon face the prospects of mass prison overcrowding, and the resulting barbarism we are now witnessing in California's super extended but still grossly overcrowded prison system. Indeed, the LA Times Tim Reiterman reports that the state's collapsed prison health care system may have led to the unnecessary deaths of one out of six inmates that have died in recent years.

Violent offenders should receive close supervision in the community once they have been released. But so long as Governors trade in the promise of total security through imprisonment, prisons will continue to become increasingly barbarous and the resources to make parole supervision more effecive, will never be available.

Between Fear and Barbarity

Connecticut's parole system is back in the news a couple of months after a pair of parolees from the state were accused of kidnapping and murdering a mother and her two daughters. Christine Stuart reported in the New York Times earlier this week that Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell has halted paroles of all inmates imprisoned for violent crime.

“Until we can find a better way to determine who poses a risk to the public if released, we will not add to the ranks of people on parole,”

Of course, the parolees who stand accused of the murders were not in prison for violent crime to begin with. More importantly, we have no really reliable ways to predict who poses a risk to the public. But if the answer is to keep prisoners eligible for parole locked up until we have such reassurance, states like Connecticut will soon face the prospects of mass prison overcrowding, and the resulting barbarism we are now witnessing in California's super extended but still grossly overcrowded prison system.

Violent offenders should receive close supervision in the community once they have been released. But so long as Governors trade in the promise of total security through imprisonment, prisons will continue to become increasingly barbarous and the resources to make parole supervision more effecive, will never be available.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Governing through Crime in the UK?

I'm posting from London where I've been attending the annual conference of the British Society of Criminology. I had the great privilege of giving an opening plenary lecture on the topic of Governing through Crime and raised the question of whether the UK is already following in our path. In his brilliant book (to which my heavy indebtedness will be obvious if you read both books) The Culture of Control, David Garland suggests that both nations have reshaped their politics around the problem of crime and turned punitive for similar reasons rooted in the conditions of late modernity and the exigencies of welfarist governance.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the UK is being shaped by fear of crime. As you walk through London, closed circuit TV cameras are visible on virtually every intersection. The New Labour government, enjoying its 11th year in power, has made no bones about being both "tough on crime" and "tough on the causes of crime." One of their most discussed initiatives involves Anti-Social Behavioral Orders (or ASBOs) which can be issued by courts to require a person to refrain from behavior that is not criminal but makes others afraid of crime (like wearing a hoodie in the shopping mall). If you violate an ASBO, it is a crime.

On the otherhand, British society remains far more open to debate about these policies than is true currently in the US (indeed Tory leader David Cameron last year spoke out against ASBOs for hoodies, which the tabloids dubbed "hug a hoodie". At the very least there are strong forces here that are likely to resist a full embrace of governing through crime as a mode of governance,including:

A constitutional system that gives ruling parties plenty of power to govern in many areas of life without having to compromise with the opposition or with other levels of government

A national agency in charge of criminal justice, the Home Office, which remains far more open to criminological influence (rather than the populist impulse that dominates both national and state criminal justice policy in the US)

A stronger commitment to the idea of government as a tool of social solidarity than exits in the US

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Treason: Among Prosecutors any Questioning of the Harshness of Punishment is Treason

Even many people who support the death penalty believe that it is unjust when a person most responsible for a murder is spared death while someon less responsible faces execution. Some death penalty states do not permit the less culpable party to face execution if the more culpable party is spared. Thus in Tennessee when a death sentence against Marcus Presley for shooting two people during the robbery of a pawn shop, was reversed because Presley was only 16 at the time, the prosecutor in the case, Robert Owen, testified in court that Presley's non-shooting accomplice LeSamuel Gamble, should also receive a life sentence.

Quoted in a story in today's New York Times, Own expressed the difficulty he faced.
“It’s difficult for me. I’ve been a career prosecutor. I don’t like taking a position that’s not what my victim would like to take, but I couldn’t lay my head on my pillow at night if I stood by and let a person who didn’t kill somebody be executed when the person who did kill somebody was not.”

That might seem a thoughtful instance of prosecutorial judgment. Just the kind of careful weighing we want these officials who exercise so much discretion to be engaged in. But in the era of governing through crime, prosecutors have become icons of the war on crime whose status is much sought after by other executive officials. As I argue in Chapter 2 of the book, politicians like Attorney Generals and Governors openly compete with prosecutors for the title of being the most loyal champion of crime victims.

Seeing an opportunity, Tennessee Attorney General Troy King announced he would intervene in the case to try an reinstate a death penalty against Gamble. According to Brenda Goodman's reporting in the Times, Mr. King's intent "was to protect the interests of the victims in the case and that Mr. Owens had acted on the side of the criminal."

Governing through crime has created enormous opportunity for expanding the power of executives, but only when the operate in the black and white terms dictated by governing through crime in which the world has only victims and evil doers, and in which any questioning of the harshness of punishment is a form of treason.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Welcome to Your "Gang Reduction Zone"

Los Angeles, long imagined as a site of dystopian futures, seems determined to embed crime fear into its present. As Mike Davis' books on the city have shown, LA since the 1980s has increasingly shaped itself around fear of crime with gated communities, its privatized high security downtown, and its "gang reduction zones". A recent story in the LA Times shows how the city creates ever new layers on the surface of its crime centered life. In the latest effort to reassure the public, “Los Angeles leaders unveiled several initiatives Wednesday to reduce crime at and around 20 public schools, including a computerized tracking system that authorities have already used to tailor violence-fighting strategies to the specific conditions in hot spots around the city."

“The anti-crime plan also calls for rookie police officers and their supervisors to mentor students at the schools -- in South Los Angeles, on the Eastside and in the San Fernando Valley -- starting next month. And it envisions greater community involvement, enlisting adults to walk with groups of children who must pass through some of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods en route to classes.”

But organizing life around crime only increases the fear.