Thursday, August 30, 2007

Alert. A Murder has Taken Place in your Community. Proceed with Caution and Alert

The expert commission appointed by Virginia Governor Tim Kane has concluded that one of the mistakes made by Virginia Tech officials during mass killer Seung Hui Cho's rampage last spring, was waiting two hours to alert students and employees that murders had taken place. (read a summary in the Washington Post). In this day of instant messaging and peanut allergy warnings on the glass case at Starbucks it may seem obvious in retrospect that University officials should have sent out notice. Indeed universities are required by federal law to make crime information widely available.

I wonder however about the value of making everyone aware that a homicide has just taken place, especially when, as here, the police are quite confident that they have a suspect. After all, it is the extremely rare murderer who is out to kill just anyone they can find (although for that reason they are especially terrifying and movies find them irresistible), most killers have very specific reasons for using violence against very specific people (specific, not good).

A campus like Virginia Tech (or Berkeley for that matter) is a small city of 30 to 50 thousand people. If you live in a city do you really want the police to alert you right away that a murder has taken place? The "costs" of such information include a level of fear and trauma that may not be trivial. Since follow up information on what happened is far less likely to succeed in the typical case of a single incident killing, the informed subject may never learn the ultimately "reassuring" (even if desperately sad) facts, e.g., that the victim and perpetrator had known each other and endured interpersonal violence for years.

Americans often act in their lives as if the chances were relatively good that sudden and relentless violence might descend on them. Events like 9/11 and Virginia Tech remind us that these fears are not totally baseless. But the precautions we take are not costless either. They have effects on our physical and mental health, as well as in the inefficiency of environments that have become heavily securitized (notice how often security delays are now part of your internet experience).

Sometimes what you don't know can kill you. Sometimes what you know can kill you too.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tangled Up in Crime: Kids, Schools, and Violence

A weekend feature in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle describing the impact of violence on urban youth and their school performance, and its Tuesday "follow up" (what are the politicians going to do about it?) shows how difficult it is to address contemporary urban problems without navigating the dense web of governing through crime.

The feature by Jill Tucker argued that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) most commonly treated in adults, exists among many young urban residents exposed to violence deaths and injuries of people close to them. The implication was that this untreated PTSD pandemic was a significant factor in the educational difficulties of SF's public schools.

The Tuesday follow up, also by Tucker, covers the response including specific proposals by political leaders to seek a stream of funding from the County government's share of Prop. 63 money. Proposition 63 established a complex new funding line for addressing California's massive community mental health gaps, with the catch that County's have to develop programs that are themselves usually politically controversial to get the money. The follow up also adds an additional wrinkle to the PTSD story. Many kids in the same schools are traumatized by having a loved one disappear into jail.

Ironies abound here. Fear of violent crime is what has most motivated the war on crime from the perspective of the public across the last forty years. The kids described in Tucker's well researched articles are the kids who actually experience the feared reality of a social landscape dotted with the memories of those disappeared to violent crime. But in forty years of crime rates going up and down (they remain lower then in the late 1980s) its the same kids in most of the same neighborhoods who continue to be exposed to the violence.

During the same period, the generalized fear of violent crime promoted by the war on crime and the media helped drive the middle classes out to more and more distant suburbs, exacerbating the social and economic isolation of urban youth, and leading to a high carbon, high obesity life style that many are now stuck in.

In the meantime the harsh war on crime, with its mass incarceration and lengthy prison sentences, have disappeared as many or more of the significant social connections of these same kids.

So how can local government get funds to address problems of urban youth and especially the hard-pressed schools? By focusing on PTSD, the article builds from a well established extension of how we understand crime victims (not just those felled by the bullets but those shattered by the consequences). Tucker's article was able to expose a new class of crime victims. This has significance because crime victims as a category of citizens have become one of the most politically salient symbols ever in American political culture, during and as a consequence of the war on crime.

The ultimate irony being that while we politically pay a lot of attention to crime victims (who unlike the kids here are typically imagined to be white), we do not spend money on them per se (we spend it on locking other people up in the name of those victims). So where to find funds that can be spent once you have political attention? Since PTSD's are recognized mental illnesses they should fit into the legal terms of Prop. 63 spending. Since the programs involved would be school based they do not create the kind of NIMBY problems (not in my backyard) that normally accompanies plans to address untreated mental illness in dense urban areas where high property value neighborhoods are not all that far from any proposed program.

Thus one further irony, some one of the rare sources of spending for mental illness (a social problem that has been neglected for years often in favor of tough on crime spending) finds itself drawn into a collateral dimension of crime and the war on crime.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Behind the Surge: Mass Imprisonment and our Strategy in Iraq

Only in its fantasy moments of "mission accomplished" and "shock and Awe" has the "war on terror" succeeded in escaping its intellectual roots in the war on crime. The Baghdad surge is only the latest of those fantasy moments. In the fantasy, the surge is about American forces obtaining enough strength to overwhelm the insurgents and death squads whose terrible toll on Baghdad's civilians was supposed to have been what justified the troop buildup. In real time however, accumulating right behind the surge, is a rapidly growing population of prisoners. According to Thom Shanker's reporting in the New York Times, the surge has produced a fifty percent increase in the number of detainees under US control, to 24,500 from around 16,000 in February.

The vast majority of the detainees are Iraqi men of Sunni background. Most are suspected of setting or aiding in the setting of the roadside bombs that have produced most of the US casualties in Iraq (note the focus on suppressing US casualties). Like the US prison population, the US Iraqi prison population keeps growing despite releasing lots of its inmates. More than 3 thousand have been released since the beginning of 2007, with the average length of detention being approximately a year. While there is no indication at this point of any repetition of the abusive tactics at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, there is also little reason to believe that the US can mass imprison its way out of insurgents.

Here in California, where the majority of state prison admissions are men already on parole who can be sent back for up to a year with a minimum of legal procedure, the system has regularly faced severe overcrowding problems despite building dozens of new prisons. While no one believes a year back in prison will alter the life patterns that are producing the behavior the state seeks to suppress, neither can the state muster the political will to question the basic strategy of mass imprisoning a troubled population.

A more immediate parallel for Iraq is the Israeli use of mass imprisonment against the Palestinian intifada brilliantly described by Jeffrey Goldberg in his book Prisoners detailing his own work in an Israeli prison for Palestinian militants and later as a journalist interviewing many of the same militants. The strategy of mass imprisoning young Palestinian men believed to be involved in Palestinian militancy has gone on since the 1980s and has produced a permanent problem of managing a large mass of resistant prisoners whose captivity is a constant provocation to the larger Palestinian population. Even more ominously for Israel, the strategy of mass imprisonment has shown no ability to cut the strength of the militants or move them toward compromise.

The age old prison paradox is repeating itself in Iraq. Echoing centuries of prison observers and reformers, Shanker observers.

But the detention system itself often serves as a breeding ground for the insurgency and a training opportunity for those who, after they are released, may attack Iraqi or American-led forces, military officers say.

It may be that there is no good alternative for the surge than to produce prisoners (the alternative of deliberate killing of non-resistant arrestees is hopefully too abhorrent to be considered, even for this administration). If so, however, it is another reason to question whether American strategy should continue banking on the surge.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mandate for Fear

One of the central dynamics of what I call "governing through crime," is the systematic production and dissemination of knowledge about crime. Knowledge is power. What we know about is generally what we try to act on (or at least avoid). In recent decades a variety of laws have made crime knowledge more generally available. This aspect of the law is generally unnoticed (even as the result is more notice of crime). Thus the well known "No Child Left Behind Law," (which I argue in Chapter 7 of the book Governing through Crime is largely modeled on crime, treating educational failure as a crime) included a little discussed provision which requires states to maintain lists of "persistently dangerous schools." The result is media coverage such as the story reported by Jennifer Medina in yesterday's New York Times, describing the list of such schools in New York (here is the list) and its growth or shrinkage. (Unlike most such stories, Medina helpfully reports on the law itself and process of setting the terms of dangerousness which the law leaves up to states).

For many it will seem benign and appropriate for information to be provided on which schools are dangerous. Schools may be quite reluctant to disclose the level of crime (indeed New York and other states, according to Medina, have been accused of keeping the lists too short) and the incidents involved are serious crimes like robbery, assault, and use of a weapon. The point however is that law is mandating your awareness to crime risk and not to others. Parents can learn whether the school they are considering is a "persistently dangerous" one in terms of crime but not, for example, whether it is a persistently racially segregated one, or one with high levels of diabetes, high exposure to pollution, or automobile accidents.

What we know about, we act on.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Mess wth Texas

As reported on, the European Union today asked Texas to stop short of its 400th execution since the re-establishment of the death penalty in 1976. Texas, which accounts for some 40% of all the executions in the United States since 1976, has now come to define American civilization to the rest of the world, much as George W. Bush now defines our governance (he was, of course, the Governor of Texas). The next President may begin to rebuild our shattered credibility as the leader in free government, by rejecting the central premises of the last administration. Sadly, save for a sudden turn-over on the Supreme Court, or a re-invasion from Mexico, nothing can protect our image from Texas.

Rosa Parks, Criminal Alien

What do you do when a photogenic young immigrant mother of US citizens, sheltered by a church, has become a major symbol for one of the cruelest aspects of our incoherent immigration policies? Seize her, deport her, and when asked about the message being sent just say that you were sending a: "message to criminal illegal aliens who are fugitives, that we are going to continue to target them."

The mother is Elvira Arellano. During the last year in which she has been given sanctuary in a Chicago church, Arellano has raised public awareness of how current mandatory deportation laws rip apart families and leave US citizen children deprived of their most basic need by action of the US government. During a trip to a Los Angeles church, Arellano was seized by Immigration Control and Enforcement agents and quickly deported to Tijuana Mexico. Her 8 year old son Saul was with her. Arellano's saga was reported in a story by Randal Archibald in today's New York Times.

Arellano has been compared with Rosa Parks, the legendary Alabama civil rights activist who became the face of the famed Montgomery bus boycott. Just as segregationist governors called Parks a criminal for violating laws enforcing segregation, ICE officials described Arellano as a "criminal illegal alien" and a "fugitive." Unlike Alabama officials, the US government has laws that label as "criminal aliens" any non-citizen (legal or otherwise) who has been convicted of a wide range of state or federal criminal laws (including misdemeanors).

Arellano's crime, a felony, was a classic instance of creating a crime out of the very fact of being a worker and an illegal immigrant. Arellano used a false social security number to obtain her job (the false number in no way defrauds the government or other citizens since the funds are only paid into the social security account and never are able to be withdrawn by the illegal immigrant). That is a felony of identity theft and based on that she moved from illegal immigrant to the full, "criminal illegal alien fugitive."

Monday, August 20, 2007

Prosecutor in Chief: Executive power and the politics of fear

As Adam Liptak documents in his "Side Bar" column in today's NYT (requires Times Select), the Bush administration used the Patriot Act to advance its broader agenda of giving executive officials more and more control over the operation of the criminal justice system. The particular case in point is a little discussed provision that allows the Attorney General, rather than the courts, to certify that states provide adequate defense support to death row prisoners to qualify for "fast track" status in terms of the sequencing of appeals. The whole concept of "fast tracking" death row appeals has been a pernicious goal of both Congress and the Executive branch since the 1990s, and has been pursued vigorously by both Democrats and Republicans. This enthusiasm to speed up execution has been hardly diminished by repeated exposures of wrongful convictions, including on death row, and lots of evidence that these miscarriages of justice are often discovered late and through repeated review by courts.

But as bad as the fast-track provisions produced in the 1990s were, they at least let courts, the branch least likely to be pressured by the politics of crime fear (although hardly immune) to decide whether states were really doing enough to warrant such a speed up in the sequence of appeals. Indeed, until now no state has been found to warrant fast track status (although it hardly matters in places like Texas and Virginia where the federal courts have long abandoned any effort to protect the innocent or vindicate constitutional rights of defendants).

In moving the power to decide on fast-track status to the Attorney General the Bush administration turned to the figure most likely to be politically responsive to crime fear and to calls for speedier executions. As I document in chapter 2 of my book, Governing through Crime, the war on crime has led to a steady shift of power both toward the executive branch and toward the most crime fighting oriented figures in the executive branch. No figure better exemplifies this model of the crime fighting executive then modern Attorney Generals of both parties. From Robert Kennedy through Ed Meese, Janet Reno and more recently John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez, most Attorney Generals have adopted the stance of national prosecutor and embraced both tough on crime policies and a crime centered vision of the justice system. As in some many areas of government, the Bush administration's response to 9/11 wasn't an innovative leap into a new model of governance; rather it was an opportunistic effort to extend the major features of governing through crime, beyond all remaining restraints, through the deft exploitation of the publics' justifiable fear of terrorism.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Murder and the Mayor

To understand why governing through crime is so attractive to American politicians of all stripes, watch Newark Mayor Corey Booker's public image soar in the aftermath of a brutal killing on a Newark school yard. Like most big city mayors, Corey Booker has an impossible job. Almost every big city is faced with the paradox that they must govern populations with far higher costs than others, with resources far more constrained than any other unit of government. If they try to bridge that gap by raising city taxes, they drive even more middle class residents and businesses to the suburbs, which can offer lower taxes because they have newer infrastructures and fewer high cost, needy residents. The more big cities lose these revenue-producing residents and businesses, the higher the proportion of revenue-absorbing populations, and the higher taxes have to rise, etc.

Newark, scarred by one of the nation's worst riots in the late 1960s, has an especially severe version of that problem. To be Mayor of Newark is to be the person most visibly responsible for managing that paradox, and is thus highly likely to become an icon for governmental failure.

Since Booker's election last year he has struggled to find a way to balance the impossible fiscal realities of urban management with the need to sustain popularity in a city who residents are disproportionately needy. As reported by Andrew Jacobs in a New York Times feature today, the public reaction to the shocking murder of three friends hanging out on a Newark schoolyard last week, has given the Mayor a much-needed dose of support.

Suddenly, instead of presiding over tough fiscal choices, the Mayor can move around the city, embracing grieving families, speaking out against "evil" to church audiences, and personally receiving the surrender of one of the suspects in the murder. Suddenly his inability to speak language that unifies lending institutions and impoverished residents is resolved by the unifying effects of the emotions that violent crime produces. He has become, in Jacob's apt phrase "the spiritual voice of a city in mourning."

And the Mayor clearly appreciates the difference:

“I’ve never felt more strong as a mayor and more determined that we are going to win this fight, that we are going to demonstrate to the nation the true nature of this city.”

Of course, Corey Booker is hardly the first Mayor in America to appreciate counter-intuitive effect of violent crime. Another mayor presiding over a much more promising fiscal situation, saw his flagging career revived by single worst act of murder in American history. Today that mayor, Rudolph Guiliani, is hoping to ride the strong approval over his handling of New York City on September 11, 2001 all the way to the White House.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Future of American Cities? Welcome to the West Bank

A feature by Stephen Erlanger in today's NYTimes on Israel's infrastructure planning for its settlements around Jerusalem, provides a glimpse of how American cities may look if a global warming inspired return to central cities takes place without a significant reduction of governing through crime.

The Isreali's are constructing a new kind of divided highway. That used to mean traffic going in different directions is separate, it now means traffic of different ethnicities is separated. Israeli drivers will have all kinds of exit options on their side of the wall. Palestinians will be forced to stay on the road as it travels near East Jerusalem; despite the fact that it is a significant demographic and cultural hub for Palestinians. The political objections raised are being dismissed by Israeli planners with one word, "security."

The same word will be on the lips of future city planners as infrastructures are laid down for an eventual revitalization of abandoned central cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore. As Americans are compelled by high gas prices to return to central cities, their demand for security will likely take the form of an architecture of segregation designed to make sure that denizens of "high crime" districts cannot easily access the new posh neighborhoods around them. Americans are used to accomplishing this with vast distances by moving out to ex-urbs. As that strategy dies, a new one of close proximity plus enforced segregation may take root.

For those who value the cosmopolitan ethos and routine accessibility of cities, now is the time for total resistance to governing through crime.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Governing Work through Crime: Hello Kitty

American models of crime control have a way of being transferred around the world. In the 1990s, Phoenix, Arizona's publicity hungry sheriff Joe Arpaio (read his Wikipedia entry), who likes to be known as "America's toughest sheriff," started making his inmates where pink underwear. Now according to an article by Seth Mydans in the New York Times, the Bangkok police department has introduced a new disciplinary rule that will force police officers who show up late, or break other department rules, to wear a pink "Hello Kitty" arm band over their uniforms.

Sure enough, Pongpat Chayaphan, acting chief of the Crime Suppression Division, who introduced the new management method, trained with the American Secret Service and says he "he wants to modernize his force."

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

When Criminals Set the Agenda

Continuing coverage of the terrifying home invasion and murders of three members of a suburban Connecticut family (read today's feature in the NY Times) underscores why it will be so hard to to eliminate the death penalty in the United States. Connecticut is a death penalty state located in a region where the trend in recent years has been against the death penalty. New York's death penalty was struck down by the Court of Appeals several years ago and there has been no move by political leaders to revive it. New Jersey is actively exploring the abolition of its death penalty. In a region where there is little cultural emphasis on capital punishment and where traditions of due process make obtaining and implementing capital verdicts difficult and expensive, abolition has real prospects.

But even in such a promising region it only takes one particularly horrible and well-publicized crime to set back abolition for years. This case has all the elements: the rape of a mother and daughter, their murders by strangulation and fire (along with one other daughter), the burglary of a clearly occupied home, and two criminals with very lengthy records of repeated crimes and chances at rehabilitation.

Stephen J. Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky are the new poster children for the death penalty in America. For each there will no doubt be mitigating circumstances (Komisarjevsky was raped himself at 14 by a foster brother in his own home), and good defense lawyers may well be able to convince a jury compelled to think hard about the evidence to spare their lives. But in the jury of public opinion, where evidence and hard thinking are in short supply, the two will serve as prime examples of why a death penalty is justified and necessary. Politicians, even the Northeast, will likely be deterred from open support for abolition for some time, out of fear of being linked as sympathizers with scoundrels like these.

So what are death penalty opponents to do? It's too late to wish that these two miscreants had died of drug overdoses during their many previous sordid escapades (although that's where my fantasies remain). Abolition for the moment remains primarily a political path. So long as it is, criminals like Hayes and Komisarjevsky get to set the agenda.

It will not be an easy path, but the only road to abolition that criminals do not control is one that runs through human rights charters and the steadfastly abolitionist demands of international human rights tribunals. The US has tried to play both sides of human rights, claiming fealty to the ideal of human rights, but maneuvering to avoid placing its own policies under a rigorous charter of human rights.

Those of us who support abolishing the death penalty should probably stop talking about it altogether and focus on obtaining comprehensive US adherence to all existing United Nation's human rights provisions and the adoption of a Universal Charter of Human Rights modeled on the current European version. Here, we may find unwitting help from the Bush administration's disastrous policies of torture, and the tremendous setbacks for American influence in the world they have led to.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Locking Out Violence: Petty Offenders and Mass Incarceration

The sorry life story of suspected killer Steven J. Hayes reported by Alison Cowan and Christine Stuart in today's NYTimes is an excellent example of why so many Americans support mass incarceration. The suspected slayer of a Connecticut mother and her two daughters had a twenty year history of small property and drug crimes, with numerous incarcerations, paroles, and revocations. The chance that such a petty criminal will turn murderous is what motivates many Americans to support laws like California's 3 Strikes law (although even it requires at least one serious crime before you get an extended sentences for a petty one).

In an oped in the LA Times a couple of days ago I called on California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to release thousands of parolees whose records look a lot like that of Steven J. Hayes. The fear that one of them will do what Hayes did paralyzes most politicians ("Remember Willie Horton" has replaced "Remember the Alamo" among our current crop).

I wish I had a really satisfying answer to the Steven J. Haye's of our society. I'd like to believe we could develop effective methods of rehabilitating people like Hayes, but I haven't seen the evidence to support that. In the end, I think we need to view them as risks that we tolerate because the cost of locking up every Steven J. Hayes who might someday turn murderous is just too high and too destructive of our open society.

Because murders are deliberate, it is very hard to think about the analogy to accidents, but I think it applies. Petty criminals like Hayes who suddenly turn murderous are like bad drivers who, after wracking up numerous violations, one day finally run into a minivan full of kids and cause a tragedy. We should try to suspend licenses and compel bad drivers to become more careful, but in the end we cannot altogether prevent such tragedies. Of course the analogy breaks down because suspending licenses is actually a far less destructive measure than locking people up because it leaves them other ways to get around and function (and because it doesn't really guarantee they won't drive).

Maybe someday we will have a technological fix to both problems. In the meantime we shudder and accept that life has risks.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

29,000 Fewer Sex Offenders on MySpace

Sam Diaz reports in the Washington Post on the latest twists in the evolving struggle to rid cyberspace of sexual predators. MySpace and other social networking corporations, in an effort to stave off legislation that would make it harder for their key market of teenagers to participate without parental approval, have hired ex-police officers to lead corporate efforts at cleansing their webpages of sex offenders. According to story MySpace removed 29,000 registered sex offenders just last week (which makes you wonder how many of them must be on there).

With the opportunity that online social networking provides for anonymity and the popularity of such sites among pre-teens and teenagers it is little wonder that they attract people with a propensity to seek sexual activity with the very young. Those familiar with Governing through Crime will recognize that this represents an all too familiar pattern in which ever more aspects of life are opened up to scrutiny and action around the problem of crime.

Corporations hire cops to do what cops have always done, sleuth out bad guys. Sounding like a classic gumshoe, former NYPD member, now MySpace security expert, John Cardillo explains:

"Criminals are impulsive; predators are impulsive," said Cardillo, chief executive of Security Tech. "They trip up more than they think they do, if you know what to look for. And we do."

Attorney Generals and legislatures can develop new laws requiring sex offenders to make their emails available and segregating youth centered portions of the web from registered sex offenders.

Parents facilitated by social networking sites can develop new strategies to control their children in the name of keeping them safe from predators.

None of this is meant to suggest that social networking sites do not attract sex offenders (of course they do, why wouldn't they be attracted to sites full of pictures and details about the young subjects they crave). But it is interesting that among its other marvelous and useful functions, cyberspace now allows those who have already done everything possible to separate themselves from the deviant and dangerous by moving to a gated community, sending their kids to class- and race- segregated private schools, and insisting on 24/7 control over their kids can now have a nearly endless space in which to still feel vulnerable about crime and their kids.

Moreover, it seems clear that no one can actually get molested online. Unless you agree to go somewhere and meet one of these sexual offenders, you don't get hurt. Which underscores another repetitious feature of governing through crime, that the best strategies have to do with making potential victims smarter about their own behavior rather than seeking to exercise more control over the X minus 29,000 sexual offenders still on MySpace.