Thursday, December 31, 2009

Punishment in California: the Long View

As I'm preparing to teach my favorite class at UC Berkeley this spring (Legal Studies 160: Punishment, Culture, and Society), I've been thinking about California's twisted penal history and the man who knows it the best, the great John Irwin, the legendary prison sociologist (and convict criminologist before that had a name). John's life runs like a river through the hopes and fears of the Golden state from end of World War II to the present. He served time at a California prison for auto theft, earned a doctorate in sociology at UCLA, was a leader of the transformational prisoners rights movement of the 1970s, and a great public intellectual and educator at San Francisco State University for most of the last forty years.

Irwin's many books have definitively characterized California's (regrettably) influential penal devolution from the optimistic "correctional institution", whose contradictions and fate were brilliantly dissected in the book Prisons in Turmoil (1980), to the cynical and vicious "warehouse" prisons whose current crises Irwin foretold in The Warehouse Prison: Disposal of the New Dangerous Class (2004). Most recently Irwin has been documenting the lives of California's burgeoning "lifer" population in Lifers: The Long Road to Redemption (2009)

2009 has been a bitter year for those of us who hope to see California unlock itself from the nightmare of mass incarceration. The executive has used the fiscal crisis to drag its feet on fixing intolerable prison conditions, and the Democratic controlled legislature failed to pass even modest steps toward sentencing reform. As a faded reform governor limps off stage, those contending to replace him in both parties barely acknowledge our penal crises. Now, to top it off, I learn that John Irwin, whose prison hardened build and boyish good looks never faded, is ailing.

Still, on this New Year's Eve, I'm taking the long view, and trying to think, like the great John Irwin, about our current crisis, as well as the opportunities it creates to forge a better democracy and a freer state. I'm going to dedicate my class this spring to that crises and how this generation of California students can solve it. For the first time ever, the class will be available to the general public through podcast of the audio and power-point slides, so I'm going to invite all of you to participate (look for the syllabus and links in a couple of weeks).

I'm also going to hope for a least a couple of John Irwin guest lectures.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Crime Decline Conundrum

With aviation terrorism and a still lackluster employment market dominating year end headlines, the one piece of good news appears to be a fairly widespread decline in homicides in major cities. New York, as trumpeted in yesterday's NYtimes (read Al Baker's reporting) had a year with fewer homicides than any year since 1963 (essentially before the modern crime wave was evident). San Francisco also reported a record drop (read Jaxon Van Derbenken's article in the SFChron) to as low as the city has seen since 1961 (take that New York), and after a series of rather violent years in the middle of this decade. Chicago and LA have also reported declines this year. Providence, was one of the few cities reporting a homicide "spike," with the addition of two dead this week in a drug raid that also left three police officers wounded (read W. Zachary Malinowski's reporting in the Providence Journal). This is good news in a year with little of it.

The journalistic lead is that this is happening despite a severe recession (the man bites dog angle). Whatever the intuitive appeal to the notion that bad times generate crime, few criminologists believe it is a clean relationship. In many respects, times are always bad in those communities that experience the highest levels of crimes like homicide, aggravated assault, and robbery. This, not surprisingly, does not stop police chiefs and mayors from claiming credit (at least if they've been on the job for more than six months) whatever the hazard that their policies might be blamed when crime begins its inexorable return (like most gambles, it probably makes sense in the short term context of political survival). But even criminologists, this one included, are not immune from believing that, combined with the substantial crime declines of the 1990s, and the relative stability of crime through most of this decade, this end of decade crime decline could mark a longer term shift away from the pattern of high levels of gun violence concentrated in cities that has defined urban life for the much of the past forty years. What would drive such change? Here is a New Year's speculation list of the top three "positive" factors underlying declines in urban violence.

May they all continue in 2010!

1. Bottoming out of the de-industrialization of American cities that began in 1946 and continued through the 1980s. Even if new economic engines of prosperity have not exactly re-emerged in many cities, the process of losing existing assets has run its course.

2. Demographic diversification of urban neighborhoods through immigration and in-migration of suburbanites fleeing unsustainable lifestyles.

3. Better trained and motivated police forces.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Prisons and Public Safety: Learning from the "Gitmo North" debate

President Obama's announcement that the federal government will buy a mothballed supermax prison in northern Illinois (the fact that the such a facility was empty is itself an intriguing signal that the war on crime is drawing down) is bringing a new wave of criticism (mostly from Republicans) that this endangers public safety. As Helene Cooper and David Johnston, reporting in the NYTimes, summarize the thrust of concern:

“The administration has failed to explain how transferring terrorists to Gitmo North will make Americans safer than keeping terrorists off of our shores in the secure facility in Cuba,” Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, said in a statement. Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, told reporters he would not vote to “spend one dime to move those prisoners to the U.S.”

The upcoming debate is unlikely to be inspiring, but it will be revealing of two features of contemporary American political culture that have helped sustain mass incarceration.

1. Prisons are never enough to make us feel safe. We want them and gated communities. Even when we have a supermax prison it would be much better if those prisons that are separated by water and national borders. Now its true that the fear being expressed is not simply of the super terrorists themselves (who will apparently have a virtually 1:1 ratio with guards), but their colleagues who may decide to retaliate against ordinary Americans. But that "logic" does not hold up. What stops the terrorists now from retaliating against "ordinary Americans" by blowing up strip malls in northern Illinois or northern Kentucky for that matter? What is being expressed here instead is the profound influence of the "container" metaphor turned toward its carceral core.

2. Congress, whichever party is in or out of power, finds it very hard to be on the side of providing less protection to Americans against criminal violence of any kind. I argued in Governing through Crime, that Congress (and state legislatures) now find it natural to view themselves as representing American crime victims as the idealized citizens of the Republic. I predict plenty of Democrats will join with Republicans to block any actual transfer of prisoners.

If the Republicans get away with spinning this as Obama making ordinary Americans vulnerable in order to please liberal cosmopolitan elites (mostly in Europe), they will have effectively reprised the Nixon v. Ramsey Clark moves of 1968, despite a period of declining crime and rising environmental threat.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Crime Politics and Racial Signals: Evidence from Houston

In the 1960s, racial conservatives (defenders of the Jim Crow order that was crumbling) used the language of "tough on crime" as a new discourse in which they could appeal to potential allies outside the South, without having to defend the indefensible. Politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan helped forge that link into an important anchor of the Republican Party's "Southern strategy." But forty plus years later it is clear that the discourse of crime fear has long ago slipped its bonds to racial conservatism to become a far more general logic with appeal to voters across the spectrum of opinion on racial issues. Yesterday's Houston Mayoral election was a case in point. The voters handed a solid victory to Annise Parker, a Democrat, recently that city's comptroller, and the first openly Gay or Lesbian politician to be elected mayor of one of the major American cities. But in the competitive race her opponent, Gene Locke, also a Democrat and formerly Houston's city attorney, made crime and whether Parker was "soft on crime" his main issue. Now the crime talk may have offered a way for Locke to send a signal to anti-Gay conservatives, or to anti-feminists, but one thing it clearly did not seek was to send a signal to Houston's remaining racial conservatives. Indeed the consensus on the eve of the election (read James McKinley's article in the NYtimes) was that the best opportunity for Locke, an African American, to overtake Parker's steady lead, was to produce a large turn out of African American voters.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Pre Crime: Why are we so confident that we can prevent acts of terrible violence?

As politicians and officials in Washington (state) and Arkansas battle over who should have stopped Maurice Clemmons before he apparently shot to death four Washington state police officers outside a strip mall coffee shop near Tacoma last weekend before being shot dead by Seattle police, we can observe a very enduring if not endearing American obsession-- our conviction that we might have stopped the tragedy (read William Yardley's summary of the blame game in the NYTimes). Clemmons, sent to prison with a hundred year plus term for violent crimes as a teenager, received clemency and parole from then Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (who made no secret of his religious belief in the possibility of redemption and change). Both Washington State and Arkansas officials appear to have missed opportunities (in retrospect) to turn up the control pressure on Clemmons. More should be learned over the next news cycle or two.

As an overall trait, this American confidence that better technique and method could stop violence is largely admirable, small "d" democratic, and great for the criminal law and policy reform business (which includes fairly or not, academics). Overall it may make us prone to waves of generally temporary civil liberties destruction in the name of personal security (as we have seen). My objection, however, is limited to two points.

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