Thursday, February 28, 2008

1 in 100

It was bound to happen soon. Newspapers and media outlets today carried stories on a just published survey that places the nation's jail and prison population at an all time high proportion of the overall population, the magic number, 100 to 1. The report by the PEW Center on the States (read it here) shows that America's thirty year old prison binge has continued. In the early 1970s, fewer than 1 out of every 1,000 adult Americans were behind bars. Today its 1 in 100.

Actually, 1 out of every 100 is an overall figure that masks severe racial, age, and gender disparities that are well developed in the PEW report. Interestingly white men, and black women, both hover around that precise number, but white men were far less likely to be incarcerated then black men (1 in 15) and black women far more likely than white women (1 in 100 compared to 1 in 355).

The PEW report has a message, costs are rising astronomically (due to aging and higher medical costs) while the crime suppression pay off of imprisonment has long ago past optimal levels and is now probably producing more crime. These are important considerations, but in a year of democratic renewal when unusually larger numbers of people have been participating in the highly competitive primary campaigns, let us go beyond the fiscal impact and pay off, to more fundamental questions for our democracy.

First, can any society based on individual freedom and private choice, survive having 1 percent of its adults (and disproportionately the young who will be here for a while) going through a process that has a tendency to obliterate human capital, destroy the likelihood of future family formation, and encourage attitudes favorable to interpersonal violence, racism, and misogyny.

Second, over the last 20 years, while spending on prison has gone up 121 percent in inflation controlled dollars (compared to 21 percent for higher education), a massive unfunded mandated has accumulated in the form of millions of alumni of the prison system, many of them rendered economically and socially isolated by the experience of incarceration. We need to create a program like the environmental super-fund (come to think of it we need to refinance the original one as well) designed to pay for the clean up of industrially polluted locations, aimed at restoring the social ecology of communities damaged by mass imprisonment.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Choosing Between Security and Its Metaphors

"When you let go, you get more control." Those were the words that had to be spoken to me over and over again growing up, when learning to ride a bicycle, how to ski, how to practice tai chi (and perhaps when learning how to walk, but I don't remember that one).

The same lesson often applies to security. Often inclusion works better than exclusion, if we have intelligent ways to use the power that inclusion brings. When you build a wall against what scares you, you give up any hope of influencing what scares you (see Israel's nightmarish relationship with Gaza for a strikingly sad example of the limits of wall building as a security strategy).

New data from California's Sex Offender Management Board, a commission set up to monitor California's sex offender policies, suggests that enforcement of Jessica's law is pushing more sex offenders into homelessness (or transience to use the language of the report). Jessica's Law, passed as Proposition 83 by voter initiative in 2006, forbids people with certain classes of sex offenses on their records from living within 2000 feet of where children congregate (the law is very vague). As described by Michael Rothfeld in the LATimes last week, the data state wide suggest that more than 4000 California parolees are subject to the law's restrictions. The number with no stable address has jumped from 2000 to more than 2800 in a year, suggesting that enforcement of the law on parolees is driving many of them into homelessness. Not only does such a status make efforts at normalizing the lives of people driven by sexual compulsions ever more difficult, it also makes it far harder for parole agents and police to maintain surveillance.

Still the metaphor of space free from the presence of the dangerous is just to tempting. We can't let go, we just keep clamping down hoping that this vertigo will pass, until we fall off the bike...

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Why the Drug War Persists: The Progressive Connection

To those who see in America's forty year long war on drugs a right wing plot to roll back the civil rights movement and civil liberties, consider the major feature in Saturday morning's NYTimes on the scourge of cheap smokable cocaine in Argentina's slums. The impressively photographed (as well as streaming video from their website) by Alexie Barrioneuvo is a potent reminder of how progressives end up supporting drug wars. With echoes of the crack cocaine panic in America of twenty years ago (and more distantly progressive concerns about alcohol and immigrants in the years before Prohibition), the article paints a picture of addictive drugs destroying lives in an already disadvantaged slum, while police are helpless to stop the infusion across open borders.

A mother speaks of two sons caught in the grip of "Paco" a cheap smokable form of cocaine waste products. The high is inexpensive, about a $1.50, but its intense pleasure is short lived, leading addicts to constantly pursue another hit. The problems are said to have gotten worse because of the economic crisis of the new millennium (although Argentina's economy is said to have improved considerably of late), relatively open borders between Latin American countries, and the increased production of coca in Bolivia under pro-grower President Evo Morales.

Without contesting the facts it is worth stepping back and looking at what the story tells us and does not. The power of addictive drugs is always shown to be irresistible, while the massive joblessness and subsequent spread of anomic social patterns (breakdown in family formation, etc) are ignored, their influences on behavior invisibly added to the seemingly irresistible pull of the next high (leaving mysterious how middle class people who could easily afford the same drugs aren't ruined by the same forces.

The story is artfully told but relies heavily on the identified voices of only a Brazilian narcotics officer in the São Paulo State Police Department and a 46 year old resident of the eponymous Ciudad Oculta, a neighborhood of some 15 thousand in the city of Buenos Aires, and who has become an activist against drugs (her means of support are not described).

More subtle is the story's implications that only a more concerted effort to interdict the flow of cocaine and to suppress its sales on the streets of Ciudad Oculta will benefit its residents. But how realistic is that? Imagine the billions it would take to bring up the Argentine drug war to say the effectiveness of the US drug war, which means it would still have no impact on the lives of people in Ciudad Oculta, other than to assure that many more of them are dead or in prison.

Moreover, the fact that the entire global drug trade could be managed in ways that would dramatically reduce its collateral harm to communities, while capturing the pockets of wealth necessary through taxes and liability to regulate the use and sales of drug, is never suggested.

The feature has all the feel of one that may win Barrioneuvo and the Times, the Pulitzers they crave. I bet you could find ones telling the same narratives from the same sources two decades ago about crack in New York City. I bet they won Pulitzers to. Thats why the war on drugs is not a vast right wing conspiracy. Its a vast left and right wing conspiracy

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Joseph Pannell in custody, 1969, Chicago Sun Times, Associate Press

Although its a premature anniversary year, and there is plenty more to "celebrate" (if thats the right term) looking back forty years to 1968, Catrin Einhorn's reporting in this mornings NYTimes about an extraordinary plea bargain in Chicago, brought that year and that place back to me with a cold awakening.

It was my first full year back in the city of my birth. We had moved in the summer of 1968, sometime between the deadly riots that had followed Martin Luther King's assassination in April and the less lethal but spectacular events in the streets outside the Democratic Party's national convention in August. Both waves of violence had involved heavy handed police brutality.

As 1969 dawned, the city was divided and dismayed. Long a bastion of the national Democratic Party, the campaign that began in that ruinous convention had ended with the election of Republican Richard Nixon (who may have had Mayor Daley's tacit support but not his affections). For African Americans, long held to a humiliatingly thin slice of the city's racially hierarchical machine politics, the King riots had opened up a chapter of new vulnerabilities. The Chicago Police Department, dominated by sons of the city's Irish, Italian, and Polish neighborhoods, had always been a force of terror for African Americans. The Mayor's "shoot to kill" order during the riots took that to a war like level that would culminate in December of 1969 in the execution style slaying of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by a unit of the Cook County State Attorney's office (read the Wikipedia article on Hampton).

Hampton's murder, which I remember reading about in the Sun-Times over a bowl of breakfast cereal, scared the hell out of me. A pudgy 10 year old from a Jewish left-wing family, soaked in post-Holocaust consciousness, it seemed quite plausible to me that if they could murder a leader of the city's huge black population in his bed, they could build camps and gas a few unpopular lefty Jews with impunity (and hadn't Daley called Abe Ribicoff a "Jew Motherfucker" on the floor of the convention after Ribicoff explicitly compared the Chicago Police to the Gestapo).

In March of 1969, in an event that I have no memory of but fits a like glove in the sequence of that terrible year, Joseph Pannell, then 19, fired a bullet at Terrence Knox, then a 21 year old Chicago Police officer. Knox survived but has suffered from the wound in his arm ever since. The officer testified that he was asking the black teenager why he was not in school (but he was 19?). Pannell, long known in Canada, where fled on bail from the crime, as Gary Freeman (clever), may have been a member of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, and according to one of his earlier lawyers, shot in self defense.

The plea bargain that brings this case to light, and to an end, has all the feel of a movie. Pannell, arrested in Canada in 2004, gave up his fight for extradition, impressed he said, by what it meant that the current Mayor Daley (son of Hizzoner), had endorsed Barak Obama for President. Terrence Knox, who left the Police Department for a career in business, questioned what would be gained by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to prosecute and imprison a man who had lived a crime free and socially responsible life ever since. So instead of up to 23 years in prison, Pannell and his family are coming up with $250,000 (that better be Canadian!) in a donation to a relief fund for families of wounded Chicago Police officers. Mr. Pannell will spend 30 days in jail and two more years on probation.

The resolution has drawn comparison to a bribe, but it has many attractive features, practical healing, appropriate atonement, dignity and parsimony. The Pannell/Knox case seems an especially appropriate sign as we move toward the anniversaries of a sequence of events that began 40 years ago this spring, when assassinations of Martin Luther King, and a few weeks later, Robert Kennedy, would produce riots and a terrible new kind of federal crime bill, and soon, a law and order administration in Washington. By the following winter when Joseph Pannell shot Terrence Knox (March is winter in Chicago, believe me) a war on crime had begun in earnest on the streets of Chicago and other large cities. Forty years of casualties have accumulated, too many of them wandering the corridors of state prisons or on death rows, while the community pays an ever higher price to keep them locked up.

Monday, February 18, 2008

In the Safe Zone: At the heart of governing through crime is an impossible dream of the perfectly safe space

One of the most distinctive features of America's late 20th century engagement with crime as a problem of governance is the relentless recourse to spatial constructions of crime and the possibility of security from it that have at their core the creation of a pure space of safety in which dangerous people have been excluded. This is a distinctive vision of order and security. The great cities of 19th and 20th century America were built to encourage maximum freedom of access to stoke commerce and probably class mobility (of course this was an idea betrayed in a thousand ways). They relied on police and the criminal justice system to deter crime before the fact or correct it afterwards. Since the 1960s Americans have increasingly rejected this model of security and in favor of a very different and extreme model, one that placed crime prevention right at the heart of the polis.

In the 1960s, when I was growing up, it was moving to the suburbs that provided the most palpable expression of this priority and its spatial imperative, an act of family governance, but one affirmed and subsidized by numerous acts of official state support from highway building to FHA loans. As city spaces, especially streets, got painted with the primacy of crime, kids in my neighborhood near the University of Chicago on that city's south side, disappeared to new towns with Scottish names (Glencoe, Flossmoor, etc.) that had no taint of crime and sometimes no real streets.

In the early 2000s, the specter of pedophiles lurking in suburban libraries and through the internet (brilliantly captured in Todd Field's film, Little Children, New Line Cinema 2006) has made that way of creating safe zones increasingly untenable. In its place is coming a steady demand to turn all spaces into zones of prison like security, with surveillance cameras, identification checking, and exclusion of categories of high risk subjects.

California and several other states have added laws requiring certain categories of sex offenders to live more than 2000 feet from spaces associated with children, including schools and parks. But even as these laws, if enforced, would stretch correctional and police resources beyond the breaking point, new demands build to intensify the policing of space on a more cellular level.

In the New York Times, Katie Zezima reports on a new ordinance in Massachusetts aimed at cleansing libraries of any sex offenders.

The problems of over and under inclusion of these laws are well known, and in my view fatal. By excluding a class that will inevitably include lots of people who pose no threat to children, while including the pool of those people willing to rape a child inside a public library who have not been convicted of the predicate offenses necessary for exclusion (the latter inevitably being a larger group then the former), such laws can only mislead parents as to the security of libraries and reduce the odds of other precautions being taken. At the same time, the new security regime will detract from the value of libraries in countless ways, beginning with their already meager resources.

The classic security regime of the great 19th and 20th century cities remains an open option. That does not mean placing a literal cop in every library. But imagine hiring a young person or two to staff the children's library, and to be aware of which kids are going off the bathroom, with whom, as well as helping kids with homework, keeping an eye on misuse of the library computer, etc. Such resources are currently beyond the reach of many libraries that can barely maintain open hours.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What's a Mayor to Do? Right on Ron

Ron Dellums, a Bay Area legend for his twenty-plus years in the House of Representatives where he made a national reputation as a critic of American war policies, now finds himself sinking in America's greatest quagmire, its war on crime. A series of highly publicized gun crimes have angered and embarrassed a city that has long struggled for a measure of recognition for quality of life, arts, and culture as against its famous neighbors, San Francisco and Berkeley. The California Senate President Don Perata, was carjacked in Oakland while dropping off a Christmas present for a friend. Less than a month later, a 10 year old was paralyzed during a piano lesson by a bullet that came from a gunman across the street robbing a service station. The perception that crime is growing out of control (seven homicides this last weekend) is building inexorable pressure on the Mayor to announce some kind of crackdown (typical is the sniping of Chron columnists Matier & Ross).

It is a measure of Dellum's strength that he has not rushed to announce some dramatic but improbable strategy in the fashion of his equally crime-troubled predecessor Jerry Brown (but then he was already focused on further office, Dellums, who came out of retirement to run, is done after this). One hopes, however, that behind the scenes he is meeting with his outstanding Police Chief Wayne Tucker to develop the quieter, longer-range strategies that can work.

First, Oakland needs to break down these crime patterns on a block-by-block basis and develop policing deployments that can bring the maximum pressure to bear at the right times and locations to deter assaults. Second, the mayor needs to use his formidable leadership to mobilize corporate, state, and federal funds for a massive effort to engage Oakland's legions of children and youth living in poverty this summer in a host of age-appropriate educational, employment, and public service opportunities. There is a sense of desperation among the very poor for whom George Bush's (until recently) invisible job crisis and now the subprime housing crisis, have hit hard. Finally, the mayor has to speak out about both the causes of crime in Oakland and the reasons why Oakland needs to forge a strategy to reduce it that expresses the city's own deep values of diversity, integration, and public participation.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Crime and Punishment to Book End Bush Presidency

After a wobbly first nine months, the Presidency of George Walker Bush found its stride in the aftermath of the devastating terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The tough on crime Texas governor was suddenly in a comfort zone, promising to bring outlaws to justice and demanding power in the name of the victims. Everything else that has unfolded since has been far less effective. Whether waging war or rebuilding nations and cities, the Bush Administration has found itself haunted by evidence of incompetence and deception. Success alone has come from reinvoking the terror crimes of 9/11 and the possibility of redemptive justice.

According to reporting by William Glaberson in the New York Times, the administration has now set a course certain to assure that the last year of the Bush Presidency will be filled with a trial and almost certain death sentence against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and five other top Al Queda terrorists now being held at Guantanamo.

Military prosecutors have decided to seek the death penalty for six Guantánamo detainees who are to be charged with central roles in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, government officials who have been briefed on the charges said Sunday.

The officials said the charges would be announced at the Pentagon as soon as Monday and were likely to include numerous war-crimes charges against the six men, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the former Qaeda operations chief who has described himself as the mastermind of the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

In addition to bringing the horrors of 9/11 back into perspective in the middle of a new presidential campaign that was likely to focus on domestic priorities (like health care and jobs), the trial and litigation over the death sentences will generate other dynamics likely to foster Mr. Bush's image.

The death penalty is a practice that Mr. Bush practically made his signature act of governing during his governorship of Texas where he presided over more than 100 executions.

Even better, the death sentences are likely to be delayed by litigation and court interventions. Mr. Bush's style of executive leadership is a permanent protest against the constitution's separation of powers and fights with courts are a tonic to it.

The torture of Mohammed, whose water boarding by the CIA has been admitted, will divide the country over whether the human rights of terror suspects are as important as security for America (at least as defined by the President). Ironically this may prove a problem for likely Republican nominee John McCain who has long spoken out against the practice.

Update: See Steve Lee Myers analysis in the NYTimes for a similar suggestion that focusing public attention on the terrorist trials and on the legal niceties of whether it was ok to water-board and now execute them.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

When Organizing Becomes Racketeering, You are Governing through Crime

When a union started complaining about working conditions in Smithfield Foods giant hog slaughtering operation in Tar Heel, North Carolina, they didn't get mad, they got lawyers and field a RICO complaint. The law, designed to capture elusive mobsters has increasingly been used by government lawyers against white collar crime. Now corporations are turning around and using it against unions. According to Adam Liptak, of the New York Times, the underlying "bad act" of this crime, looks a lot like free speech.

This brings us full circle back to the beginning of the 20th century when unions were considered criminal conspiracies.