Friday, March 28, 2008

It's Not Apartheid, It's Security

“The basis of separation is not ethnic since Israeli Arabs and Jerusalem residents with Israeli ID cards can use the road,” argues Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a conservative research organization. "The basis of the separation is to keep out of secure areas people living in chaotic areas."

Israel's increasingly malignant 40 year occupation of Palestine provides an ongoing mirror for the consequences of governing through crime. For most of those years, the Israeli governments have insisted on treating an apparently insolvable political conflict as a manageable security problem (with some moments of insight like early Oslo). But as security increasingly demands the destruction of democratic ideals that have been central to Israel's state building project, the slow deformation of institutions is becoming apparent. The Supreme Court, long a check on the power over the military and state to govern autocratically in the name of security, has with increasing frequency accepted practices of gross categoric inequality as necessary accommodation to the permanent state of tensions that followed the second intifada and the breakdown of the Oslo process.

The most recent decision, reported by Ethan Bronner in this morning's Times, upholds the exclusion of West Bank Palestinians from a highway running through the area on land taken from private Palestinian land owners.

White Americans have also increasingly accepted a state of defacto hyper-segregation, even while celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday as a national holiday, all in the name of necessity of separating the orderly from the chaotic and dangerous.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Department of Corrections

This mornings papers and radio news is covering the "return" of former SLA radical Sara Jane Olson to a California prison just days after her release following six years in prison. According to the Department of Corrections they made a mistake in calculating her sentence back in 2004, and she really needs to serve an additional year, with release now scheduled for March 17, 2009. According to the SFChron coverage by Carolyn Jones and Bob Egelko

"The department is sensitive to the effects this has had. The department sincerely regrets the mistake," said Alberto Roldan, chief deputy general counsel for the Department of Corrections.

California's massive and catastrophically poorly managed prison bureaucracy (read many of the previous posts on this blog concerning California's prison crisis) is now actually called the "Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation" in testament to Governor Schwarzenegger's original zeal to try to alter the state's policies of warehousing people in prisons. However the Sara Jane Olson story gives new meaning to the department's "correctional" mission. Can an agency incapable of calculating a determinate sentence (fixed term, minus time reductions for good behavior at a fixed rate) undertake anything as complicated as trying to rehabilitate prisoners damaged by life times of child abuse, educational failure, poor lifestyle choices, and chronic bad health? Indeed can an agency incapable of calculating such a sentence undertake to safely house, feed, and care for nearly 170,000 adult human beings?

The answer to both questions is clearly no.

The sad truth is the Department, swaddled in the state's tough punishment at any cost political philosophy, has not been held accountable for any kind of performance objectives for so long that it has created a chronic culture of incompetence that could well explain this sad mistake and may account for thousands of unreported or undiscovered errors (shall we do an audit now and at least figure out who we are holding past their release date?).

It is also certain that this "mistake" was discovered because of the extraordinary pressure placed by the law enforcement community (cops, DAs, COs), by far in a way the most powerful and privileged special interest group in the state. Law enforcement has long viewed the state's prisons and execution chamber as a special zone for their personal vengeance against those among the mass imprisoned hordes, mostly characterized by luckless incompetence, whose crimes have personally affected members of that community.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

At the Heart of White Resentment

"So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town, when theyhear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed, when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time."

Senator Barack Obama, March 18, 2008, Philadelphia
(read the entire speech in today's NYTimes )

Like a specialist who combines brain surgery with psychoanalysis, Dr. Barack Obama reached into the souls of white folks yesterday in Philadelphia and displayed, as if in anatomy lab, ugly and wiggling, still very much alive, the viscera of white anger about race in America.

And at the very heart of that tangle was fear about crime in urban neighborhoods. Obama named two other iconic sources of white political heat (and not surprisingly, the very stuff of racial wedge issues in American politics) busing and affirmative action, but busing itself was very much about fear of crime and the outrage that white parents felt (and feel today wherever its active) they were being forced by government to expose their kids to risks of crime in neighborhoods they had sought to separate themselves from.

For white Americans since the 1960s, urban crime has appeared as a kind of civil war or insurgency directed against them. In return they have authorized a war on crime that has often been nothing short of a real war against minority/majority inner city urban neighborhoods. That reaction and response have dominated American politics and government for two generations. (see my book if you want that elaborated on a bit).

But Obama's insight is so keen that he sees as even a greater burden on the white soul, the perception that this fear reaction and response is itself racist (essentially what Rev. Wright noted in his 3-Strikes sermon).

In far less then the analytic 50 minute hour, Dr. Obama took white Americans right down to the heart of our racial neurosis and offered us a path toward healing.

Stop the war on crime, which is not a reflection of white racism, but a source of racial division.

Monday, March 17, 2008

California Prisons and the Long Haul

At a conference organized by the University of San Francisco Law Review this past Saturday, lawyers and prison reform experts gathered to discuss California's catastrophically overcrowded prisons and the pair of lawsuits that have brought the state's correctional system to its legal knees. The legendary federal judge Thelton Henderson, in whose court one of the two epic legal battles originated, gave the keynote speech, promising those in attendance that he was ready to "go the long haul" in his battle to create a constitutional health care system for the state's 160K plus prisoners, a system in which currently prisoners die routinely from treatable conditions due to the lack of adequate facilities, staff, and management capacity (Read Bob Egelko's coverage in the SFChon).

The effort to create decent health care will likely take years and involve as large a scale restructuring of the state's health care economy as has ever been taken at one time. Along with a parallel case involving mental health in the prisons, the litigation has raised the possibility of a cap on California's mammoth prison population.

The ongoing prison crisis which is certain to cost the state billions at a time of painful budget cuts, provides the nation's most potent display of the dangers of a political system that has prioritized governing through crime for decades through the enactment of an endless stream of punitive crime legislation, and through building prisons that literally treat their inmates as if their criminality was the only feature of their existence worthy of government attention. The resulting prison system is beggaring the state's once worthy public universities and ambitious infrastructure projects while Californian's remain deeply insecure and vulnerable to crime politics.

The great jurist who went to Cal on a football scholarship, brings decades of insight about institutional reform litigation and specific success with reforming California prisons. Judge Henderson describes himself as a catalyst for change. By compelling the state to spend billions to bring its prison up to constitutional standards. But even with his great insight and courage as a jurist, Judge Henderson cannot compel California to stop governing through crime.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Drug Moms: Here we go again

A decade ago, sociologist and law professor Laura Gomez studied the movement to prosecute and punish pregnant women and mothers of new born babies, where evidence emerged (usually from the medical system) that the mother and or baby had metabolites of illegal drugs in their bodies. Gomez's fascinating book,Misconceiving Mothers, traces the ways that this new frontier in the war on crime was largely resisted through the counter pressure of the medical profession and feminism.

Today's NYTimes carries news that a new wave of such prosecutions has begun. Read Adam Nossiter's reporting on prosecutions in Alabama).

Its a reminder of how tenacious the governing through crime mentality remains in America notwithstanding the crime decline of the 1990s and the emergence of new threats to security from climate change and infrastructure decline in America.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

From Crime Fighter to Criminal: The Arc of American Leadership

Revelations that New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was a regular customer of a high end prostitution ring has shocked veterans of the state's famously partisan politics and led to immediate calls for his resignation (read Michael Powell and Mike McIntire's analysis piece in today's NYTimes).

The exposure of the Governor's appetite for paid sex is different then the scandals that have swirled around American politicians caught in adulterous affairs for one simple reason. Most Americans do not consider adultery a crime anymore (although it remains one in many states), while patronizing a prostitute is.

Spitzer's came to power along the path that has become well marked for leadership in the era of governing through crime. As a prosecutor and later Attorney General, he made a reputation for being a fierce antagonist of crime wherever it lay. Indeed, his reputation as a reformer who could change Albany's fatally gridlocked political system was largely based on his ability to use crime war rhetoric against the rich and powerful in business and politics (rather than directing it mostly against the deviant and marginal which is the more favored strategy, see, for example Pete Wilson or George W. Bush as governors).

As I note in chapter 2 of Governing through Crime, the enormous power of crime to lift the authority of executives goes along with tremendous vulnerability on anything that looks like crime. President Clinton's sexual tryst was legal, but his attempts to lie about it almost cost him the job. Now Governor Spitzer has found the steep backside to the mountain of crime war.

The real shame is that breaking through the gridlock that prevents any substantial governing project from being launched whether in Albany or Sacramento is the key to opening up new modes of governing less locked to crime and Spitzer appeared to be someone capable of turning his crime warrior capital into such change.

The Governor will almost certainly have to resign, but perhaps the very magnitude of that result from what all must concede to be a marginal crime (compared to say bribery or drunk driving) will hopefully produce some head scratching. Is it better that all our politicians must spend their nights entertaining lobbyists with their attentions in order to raise campaign funds, than that some pay for sex in high end prostitution rings (probably ones with better working conditions and less exploitation than many)?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Public Education: Three Cheers for HBO's The Wire

As my wife has long pointed out, my ability to opine on American culture is sorely undermined by the fact that I haven't watched TV seriously since Twin Peaks went off the air. Even I however, have heard about HBO's The Wire, and the extraordinary job it has done over the last five years portraying the very high costs and limited successes of the war on drugs. For all these years, students who have taken my classes or heard me lecture have told me to that many of the issues we dealt with in class were being readily handled on HBO's The Wire.

Now, ahead of tomorrow's final episode, the show's writers,David Simon (creator of HBO's The Wire), actor Ed Burns and novelists George Pelecanos, Richard Price and Dennis Lehane have published a clear and powerful letter in Time Magazine that summarizes (perhaps for many who missed seeing the show) the undeniable fact that the war on drugs has failed at stopping illegal drug markets, and has undermined those communities already harmed by drugs themselves.

The short article should be read and passed on to anyone you know who remains ignorant of this shameful travesty that is the equivalent of ten Iraq wars only waged on American cities over forty years. (read it here).

I quote only briefly to underscore their crucial point that law enforcement itself has been deformed by the drug war in ways which have undermined its capacity to solve real crimes.

The drug war has ravaged law enforcement too. In cities where police agencies commit the most resources to arresting their way out of their drug problems, the arrest rates for violent crime — murder, rape, aggravated assault — have declined. In Baltimore, where we set The Wire, drug arrests have skyrocketed over the past three decades, yet in that same span, arrest rates for murder have gone from 80% and 90% to half that. Lost in an unwinnable drug war, a new generation of law officers is no longer capable of investigating crime properly, having learned only to make court pay by grabbing cheap, meaningless drug arrests off the nearest corner.

But for another example of why so many journalists have failed to understand the war on drugs and have promoted its ideology, listen to Scott Simon's testy interview with writer Dennis Lehane, about the letter (listen here).

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Senator Feinstein, the FBI, and the War on Crime

Yesterday in Washington DC, Senator Diane Feinstein and FBI Director Robert Mueller engaged in an extended an colloquy concerning the FBI's general lack of attention to the war on crime since 911. The Senator, who has clashed with the FBI repeatedly over issues in the war on terror, turned in yesterday's hearing to the question of why violent crime was 8th on the FBI's priority list. According to National Public Radio's account (listen to it here), the FBI director testily noted that the rise in priority of counter terrorism and intelligence had inevitably lowered the priority of crime before going on to practically embrace the Senators criticisms about the diminished role in the war on crime.

The episode is another illustration of how bipartisan the war on crime has been in Washington for a long time. It also underlines the danger that the war on terror will only become an additive to a continue war on crime, and that the combination of the two will diminish the practical and legal freedom of Americans even faster that it has declined in the past four decades.

On the real issues of crime it is worth noting that there is virtually no evidence that the FBI's role in combatting drugs, bank robbery, and related violent crime contributed meaningfully to the powerful crime declines of the 1990s, nor that increases in murders last year (mostly driven by a number of large cities) is a response to the "redeployment" of the FBI. The violent crimes that most people rightly fear are local in nature and must be addressed with tools of local knowledge. The Senator is rightly concerned about the recent violent crime surge in California cities, but the right role for Washington to play is providing funding for local law enforcement and crime prevention programs, not the largely symbolic role of the FBI.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Military Security Poster, 1944
National Archives

The word comes up in these posts with some frequency. No crime is more important to the world view that produced and has sustained "governing through crime." We would not made capital punishment into the lynch pin of political respectability it is in America without this background obsession with murder. A war on drugs, would never have taken hold in this country without the sustained efforts of government, media, and official criminology, to claim drugs as the source of the criminality that ultimately leads to murder. Nor would the vast efforts undertaken by the American middle class to gate themselves away from stranger danger no matter what the cost in money or lifestyle if murder did not weigh on the mind.

In her brilliant cultural history of murder in America, Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination, UC Davis historian Karen Halttunen documents that in the course of the 18th and 19th century, murder became the primary imaginary space for Americans to work out their conceptions of social morality in the context of a religiously diverse society. The 20th century assured enough waves of murder (the 20s and the 60s primarily) to give governing through crime a powerful tailwind (and it finally took flight after the '60s).

Most criminologists and others who believe our punitive culture is excessive, would rather talk about anything then murder. We emphasize that punitive drug crimes are the major reasons for prison crowding. But actually the harsh punishment of murder in America is a significant factor in the growth of imprisonment (as our opponents are happy to point out).

If there was good evidence to believe that mass imprisonment is what really broke the back of America's chronically high murder rates during our remarkable 1990s crime decline, it would be hard to argue with our harsh punishment generally and of murder in particular. But the evidence does not actually point to a strong causal relationship, (see my colleague Frank Zimring's book, The Great American Crime Decline, for the most careful effort to sift the empirical record).

Perhaps it would help us as a culture if we faced murder and decided to curb our appetite for punishment and security there first. After that it would be easy work to overthrow the gated communities, mandatory minimums, lock down schools, that characterize the America I describe in Governing through Crime.