Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Boycott Arizona? Only if we can bring our prisoners home

As a sense of genuine revulsion toward Arizona's new status crime of being a person who looks like an illegal immigrant grows in the Golden State, public officials from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to State Senate President Darrell Steinberg are warming to the idea of a California boycott of Arizona. Its a good sign of how far we have come since the dark days of the 1994 when California under Pete Wilson led the nation in immigrant bashing xenophobia (although we still have the Prop H8 egg on our face). (California now looks at Arizona the way Europe looks at the United States). But according to Susan Ferriss' reporting in the Sac Bee, an interesting wrinkle has emerged, thousands of California prisoners that are in custody in Arizona under contract with our bloated and catastrophically overcrowded prison system.

Schwarzenegger did tell reporters that he didn't want any California prisoners housed in Arizona returned to the state because he wants to save money on incarceration costs.

But perhaps there is a chance here to combine our growing identity as a cosmopolitan globally minded state (at least relative to Arizona) with a our desperate need to shed both prisoners and fear. Let us bring those prisoners back from Arizona and reduce California prisons by enough low risk, parole ready prisoners (lists of which the state has been preparing for months). Most of those prisoners will return to places like Alameda County where there is a vibrant re-entry community ready to be put to work reducing the risks that those released prisoners will return to crime and prison. If need be let the Governor lead a telethon to raise money to support these services for this special group of "no thank you, Arizona," parolees. This won't be about complying with the courts. It will be about standing up for California values.

Monday, April 26, 2010

2010 Kitty Genovese? Shared Space, Stigmatization, and the Death of Hugo Tale-Yax

Eight days ago, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, one of many Americans left jobless and homeless by the past couple years' market collapse, intervened in a violent domestic dispute and was stabbed multiple times. His "neighbors" responded by "minding their own business" -- stepping around his body until all the life had bled out of it -- until a schoolteacher notified the police that something was wrong. By then, it was too late.

Few Americans who read this story will avoid feeling shock, sadness, or at least some sort of disgust, but generic on how rotten people are, which is the dominant "point" being made in comment threads attached to articles on the killing, doesn't get us very far in understanding what happened, why it bothers us, and what kind of historical could make this kind of thing less likely (or even imaginable). At the same time, it's just as easy to resort to generalities about "culture," "society," "human nature" and the like as it is to chalk everything up to "individual choices" as though they occur in a vacuum. A more useful starting point is recognizing the complexity of what seems like a simple situation ("Good Samaritan ignored by hardhearted passersby, indicating the moral poverty of modernity"). None of the below musings are meant to be explanations; attempt at a univariable "explanation" for this sort of event would oversimplify it. Rather, it seems that this kind of tragedy should be a focal point in an ongoing conversation about the many ways in which it might typify, intersect with, shore up, or cut against a variety of historical patterns.

While a number of lessons could be drawn from a tragedy like this, one hopes that the primary one is not that drawn from the Kitty Genovese story: that cities are sites of inhuman dissociation and anomie, places where "real Americans" don't belong (except perhaps from 9 to 5), lacking the protections of the suburban cul-de-sac (an issue which Jonathan's works in progress will address). Ironically, however, there's no doubt that it's difficult to imagine this happening in the suburbs -- but not because that's where the real, good, true Americans live. For one thing, suburbs are typically empty during the day, and for another, homelessness is primarily an urban problem, spurred on in part by city budgets that no longer prioritize either preventive social services (such as education, healthcare, or job training and creation) or curative measures. City residents would do well to recognize the homeless as their neighbors, not as human detritus or parasites deserving only of contempt. At the same time, perhaps Tale-Yax's heroic attempt will humanize people in his position for Americans who don't live in cities, who experience homelessness only as a brief interlude on the nightly news (where, until recently, it has typically been presented as a pretty straightforward result of individual failings, with no awareness of broader social developments or trends).

The press has universally identified Tale-Yax based on two features: the fact that he was homeless, and the fact that he was a Central American immigrant. That is, he falls squarely into two categories of people that have been increasingly reviled for many, many years. If Tale-Yax had been wearing a crisp Brooks Brothers suit, would passersby have responded differently? As for his race, of course, it's not as though the events took place in Arizona, whose recent legislation is giving pause even to some of the hardest of immigration hard-liners. Nonetheless, the public's reaction to this tragedy will doubtlessly be prefigured by this aspect of Tale-Yax's background.

This tragedy also makes one wonder about the merits of relying solely on the police to protect us. Conservatives might argue that this indicates the need to protect individual gun rights. People all over the political spectrum could see it as a sign of the perhaps-unfortunate need for putting more police boots on the ground (notice that the fact that a camera recorded the entire incident did nothing to prevent it). But a more nuanced way of seeing this would be to consider the merits of community, of the neighborhood, of close quarters, as against the neo-frontiersman, mind-your-own-business ideals that have come to re-animate American middle class life in the past half-century.

While certain stereotypical suburbs (the easy targets) may best physically embody this mentality, it animates the lifestyles of millions of Americans living in other types of communities. As Jonathan has recently argued, what matters more than the absolute number of Americans whose lives perfectly embody the fast-food, SUV-commuting, McMansion stereotype is the fact that it's become a paradigm for what we as Americans are supposed to want, and to be. Nostalgia tends to be ahistorical, but it's hard to read a story like Tale-Yax's without longing for a period where people who lived near one another gave a damn about each other. We should interrogate the multitude of ways in which crime-fear and related stereotypes constitute the way we navigate our shared spaces, and what trade-offs we are able or willing to make to feel less atomized and afraid within them.

What, then, are the material conditions of possibility under which that sort of community feeling can arise, and how do they differ from current conditions in cities and suburbs, town and country, across America? What policy choices, construed broadly as possible, help give rise to an America where minding one's own business -- that is, hurrying up and getting to work, which takes a couple hours, thanks to changes in residential patterns and capital distributions, and where you have to stay for ten hours, since wages have been flat for almost forty years, and which doesn't really help you own a home, pay your medical bills, or put your kids through college -- takes precedence over noticing the man underfoot in a pool of his own blood?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Utah Execution: Its the years, not the bullets, that make it cruel

If Utah proceeds to execute Ronnie Lee Gardner on June 18th, as an execution warrant signed by a Utah court ordered yesterday, there will probably be a great deal more media attention and possibly criticism,than usually attends executions in Utah. That is because Gardner yesterday affirmed his choice to die by firing squad rather than lethal injection. According to Erik Ecklholm's reporting in the New York Times, the two previous Utah executions by firing squad have drawn extensive attention, especially from international media, who find in the firing squad an irresistible image of American penal backwardness.

The event attracted hordes of reporters who often, to the chagrin of Utah officials, invoked images of raw, frontier justice. Mr. Gardner’s execution, if and when it occurs, appears certain to attract similar worldwide attention.

An accompanying slide show highlights the distinctive features of firing squad as execution method, including a black chair to which the victim is bound, and a black ledge on which the four shooters stand behind a curtain. It also depicts the firing squad' most famous victim, Gary Gilmore, who dropped his appeals and became the first American to be executed after a ten year moratorium. But while its easy to understand why some condemned prisoners would find this a more "manly" way to die than being strapped down in a hospital gurney and put to sleep it is worth noting that Gardner, unlike Gary Gilmore, does not appear eager to die, and has not waived his appeals. His attorneys have filed a new petition. One of the claims they will raise is truly where the nation and the world's should lie. Ronnie Lee Gardner's crime was committed more than 25 years ago.

Gardner was in custody on another charge when he shot a man during an attempted escape. The slide show includes a shot of a far younger Gardner in custody immediately after the escape attempt. His white prison uniform is stained dark with his own blood (he had himself been shot during the attempt). Oddly, he seems to be smiling.

For 25 years Gardner has sat in a Utah prison under a sentence of death. In most of the world, where capital punishment is not available, the most serious criminals, who have committed multiple murders or even genocide, face at most 25 years of imprisonment, after which they are generally eligible for parole (and indeed in most countries parole would come far earlier for all but the most infamous criminals). Only in a handful of US states and Japan do condemned prisoners routinely spend decades on death row prior to execution. Not only is this unusual, in the eyes of many human rights tribunals it is the prolonged detention of a person prior to execution that constitutes "degrading and inhumane treatment," more so indeed than the execution itself. To most of the world, the idea of holding a human being captive while awaiting death is more cruel than the act of killing them.

Consider the picture on the Times website of Ronnie Lee Gardner being given his death date by the Utah judge. He is not smiling now. His face looks taught with with-held emotion despite the neatly trimmed rakish lip beard. To his right, a female attorney seems to be reaching her hand out in a comforting way. While Gilmore is said by his brother to have chosen (or perhaps even sought out) firing squad execution because of its redemptive symbolism in Mormon tradition, Gardner is quoted as preferring bullets because "there’s no mistakes," referring perhaps to recent litigation over botched lethal injections. It is far easier psychologically to picture Gary Gilmore flashing his dark good looks and saying "lets get on with it" to his executioners.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Haunted Houses (part whatever)

How do you know you are middle class in America? Do you open your wallet and look at how much cash is there (my Uncle Lou Jacobs used to carry around huge wads of twenties, fifties, and hundreds,way back in 60s, but he was a Purple Gang associate and may have been unusual even for his era)? Do you look at your family pictures and think with pride how many generations of your lot went to college? Do you check your employee ID, health insurance membership or social security card?

I think most Americans (at least until the music stopped in 2008) looked out at their home, probably through the car window, on the way to work at 4:30 am, or on the way back at 9:15. Does my home stand physically apart from my neighbors? Does it have a bit of green between us? Does it abut a cul de sac, preferably or at least a curving suburban lane, entered through a drive way, with perhaps a basketball hoop? And most of all, do I "own" it (even if that means I own 5 or now perhaps -50 percent of it)?

For too many Americans, being able to answer yes to most of those questions is what assured them they were middle class, no matter how lousy (or how many) jobs they had to work, no matter how far they had to commute, no matter how distant any amenities like parks, libraries, museums, or shops might be from their door.

Here in the Bay Area, where prices to own a home on one side of the Bay or the other long ago went beyond starter range for most middle class families, pursuing that middle class status meant locating in places like Pittsburgh and Antioch, where subdivisions rapidly filled in the canyons in the dry hills behind San Francisco and San Pablo bays. Its a place now haunted by the ruinous financing schemes behind the housing bubble. But it is also haunted by the unsustainable life styles that government promoted in this country right up to the crisis, an in the name of producing more secure "crime free" communities. The perverse relationship that Americans have developed to their houses (that has gone along with a loss of serious political movements directed at jobs) has a terribly dark side to it. Its a dark side of methamphetamine, of domestic violence and child abuse, of heart attacks and bankruptcies. And occasionally a twilight zone of unspeakable sadness. Case in point, penned by veteran crime reporter Henry Lee in today's SFChronicle, "Antioch baby girl dies after being left in car."

Sofia Wisher, 7 months old, was sitting in her car seat in her parents' Toyota station wagon when the family pulled up to its Antioch home late Saturday after doing laundry at a relative's home. Each parent thought the other would be taking Sofia inside.

Tragically, neither did....

The parents, both of whom work two jobs, went to bed about 3 a.m. Each saw the door to their infant's room closed and assumed the other had put her in her crib, Orman said.

The parents told police that Sofia was a "light sleeper, so it wasn't their practice to be going in there all night checking on her, because she'd wake up," Orman said.

After Sofia was found dead, Contra Costa's Child Protective Services agency placed the couple's 2-year-old daughter into protective custody, authorities said.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Bay Area's Death Belt

The ACLU of Northern California has published an impressive new report showing California leading the country in the use of death sentences in 2009, leaving once blood thirsty states like Texas and Florida far behind. Driving California's rush in the opposite direction from the rest of the country is a death belt in Southern California that includes Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange Counties that accounted for more than 80 percent of all California death sentences last year. The website also includes a nifty interactive map that allows you to examine each county in the state for how much money has been spent pursuing the death penalty since 2000, how many people have been sentenced to death since 2000, and how many people on death row total come from the county.

When you work your way around the Bay Area, it turns out that only two counties in the five county area have spent in $1 on seeking the death penalty. In my home county of Alameda, the District Attorney has spent more than 16 million dollars to send 15 people to death row since 2000. In next door Contra Costa county, the District Attorney has spent 12 million to send 11 people to death row. Keep in mind, that in California, a death sentence means mostly that you are very likely to never be released from prison and to die there (the fate of most death row occupants who have died over the last 35 years). But that is basically the same fate that awaits those sentenced to life in prison without parole under the state's capital sentencing alternative (and indeed for far too many of the 1st and 2nd degree murderers who the law assumes to be paroled but are not). In San Francisco, San Mateo, Marin, and Santa Clara counties, DAs have chosen spend 0 dollars to send 0 people to death row during the same time period. It makes you wonder why these local East Bay leaders seem so out of touch with local priorities and values (may be we need to let them know we are here and know who they are on the ballot this November).

To me, at least in these years of dire need and fiscal crisis, this kind of squandering of public resources when those same funds could go to so many other public safety agencies with the ability to stop future murders including police, probation, community mental health treatment, among others, is outrageous (whatever you think about the abstract moral validity of the death penalty).

For those of you in the East Bay who are interested in this topic, there will be a forum on California's death penalty and what it means for us at the local level, Congregation Beth El, 1301 Oxford St in Berkeley, from 7 to 9 pm. Come hear, Stefanie Faucher, Associate Director, Death Penalty Focus; Natasha Minsker, Death Penalty Policy Director, ACLU of Northern California; Judy Kerr, sister of murder victim Robert Kerr; Darryl Stallworth, former Alameda County prosecutor with a discussion to follow.

Email me for more information,

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Jessica's Law: Protecting Property not People from Sex Offenders

Kudos to Maria Lagos and the SF Chronicle for a well researched, powerfully written, and well supplemented (with helpful explanations of the law that are usually ignored by journalists) feature on Jessica's Law, California's sex offender zoning restriction adopted by voters in 2006 [no online version until Tuesday]. Proposition 83 made any place within 2,000 feet of parks, schools, or other places habituated by children, off limits to residence by registered sex offenders. The latter include all persons convicted after 2006 of any of a long list of crimes (some of which are helpfully listed in the story, including kidnapping and rape, and annoying or molesting a child among others). The law allows authorities to monitor those under the registration with GPS, but does not require authorities to do so, nor does it authorize the funding to pay for that very expensive equipment. As a result, according to Lagos, the law only really impacts those registered who happen to be on parole or probation, where state or county officials have a mandate (and resources) to monitor them, a status that under current law ends for most registered offenders within five years. In short, the law does not apply to most of the state's actual sex offenders (that is those convicted before 2006 and those who have not yet been convicted, surely a larger number than those convicted after 2006), and only applies to those folks for three or five years; after that has little practical enforceability.

Lagos demonstrates that it is not just the under reach of the law that is fatal to its purported public safety mission. Jessica's law emerged in Florida where a sex offender on probation kidnapped the nine year old girl next door, raping her, burying her alive, where she later died. Because of the outrage, the law focused on where sex offenders live (really the outrage should have been about the failure of probation to notify the Lundfords), but experts see no real link between where sex offenders live and where they can contact their victims. After all, some pedophiles will attempt to contact kids in parks, at school, in church, at the homes of their relatives. in none of these situations is it necessary or even particularly helpful for the sex offender to actually live nearby (only those with the least self control since it will obviously bring great attention to their immediate vicinity). The most visible impact of the law is on the large number of registered persons who because they are on parole or probation are forced to be officially homeless. As the Chronicle illustrates in a graphic with the story, only several small areas of San Francisco, the Presidio (a national park), Lake Merced, and a few bits of Bay side waterfront are outside the ban zone.

So what does Jessica's law do? It protects property values. Economic research has documented that home prices drop measurably in the vicinity of a sex offender. Leigh Linden and Jason Rockoff, in an innovative study (published in the American Economic Review but here's the ssrn version) using registration information to calculate price variations in home sales by proximity to actual sex offenders, found that the home next door dropped 12% in value and the average home in the immediate vicinity was 4% (that may seem small, but given the signal to noise ratio in this kind of research its amazing they found a significant effect). One way of understanding the underlying logic of Jessica's law is that it protects homeowners from the danger that their home will be very close to that of a sex offender.

In several forthcoming articles I argue that home ownership, especially in the inflated form it took (especially here in California) in America from 1980 on, has been a crucial predisposing factor in making Americans prepared to support governing through crime and mass incarceration. Most of the war on crime makes no sense in terms of protecting victims from violent crime (sex or otherwise). If that is what we wanted to do, we would flood inner city neighborhoods with cops and social services at a fraction of the cost of our prisons. But that is not where the home owners are. Prisons, and expensive supplements like Jessica's law, make little sense as crime fighters, they make lots of sense as ways for politicians to reassure homeowning voters that those politicians are doing everything possible to protect their property values.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Media Mass Incarceration Link

A good example of how the media continues to be wed to the "crime run amok, government doesn't care" scare story of the 1960s and 1970s is Associated Press' apparent campaign against parole reform (for predictions of such backlash, see my last few posts on this). Despite decades of ever tougher laws, to many in the media, its always the summer of love, and murderers are clocking out of prison faster than their victims' corpses will decompose. Forget the fact that murderers in California now serve longer than genocide convicts in Europe and many will never leave prison alive. It was the media, abetted by politicians, who succeeded in turning New Orleans, after Katrina, into a crime story, and who beat the drums in anticipation of the looting in Haiti for days while no looting happened and aid shipments waited for military to deploy ahead of water and food. Now the AP is pushing a story that violent criminals are being released in California (and other states doing parole reform) despite promises that "early release" measures would apply only to the non-violent. Read Don Thompson's reporting published here by the SFChron. The AP takes credit for causing one state to back off reform.

Gov. Pat Quinn suspended Illinois' program in December after the AP found that hundreds of inmates were being released too early. About 200 of the paroled inmates were returned to prison within the first four months of the program because of violations.

Precisely what happened is very hard to figure out. The law was mainly about state prisons and parole, but the stories of early release all focus on jails. It may be that these are parole violators, released from jail where they were being held on parole holds for non-violent parole violations but who are listed as violent offenders because their original commitment offense was violent. In any event, I have some research assistants working on this and will report back. In the meantime, the fact that California has a lame duck Governor will protect the current program for at least the ten months or so until the election. But if this kind of toxic reporting continues, look for the Gov-Elect to announce plans to cancel it before their even inaugurated.