Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Liberal v. Radical Criminology, cont.: A Reponse from Tony Platt

I'm posting this for Tony Platt since its a wee bit too long for the comment field
Thanks for your comments on the "Politics of Protest" session.

You might have pointed out that the heart of my comments focused, not on the School of Criminology at Berkeley, but on the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas in the original POP, and a critique of Skolnick's introduction to the new introduction (in which, in my view, he minimizes ongoing problems of racism and uncritically praises the Obama regime.)

I have a few initial comments on your views about liberalism and radicalism (below):

(1) By "liberalism" I assume you mean social democratic liberalism, that occupied a central role in American politics from early 20th century through the Clinton government. For most of its run, it was a managerial political ideology, focused on regulating rather than eradicating inequality. There are moments when this kind of liberalism gets pulled left during times of mass political activism (for example, 30s and 60s), but mostly it revives as top-down managerialism. (There's a huge historical literature on this issue.)

(2) It's just name-calling to suggest that "radical criminology" was a "rhetorical disaster" and "highly ideological" while liberalism was "more robust" and measured. Do you really think that liberalism as political ideology was somehow value-free and apolitical? You may prefer liberalism to radicalism, but then just say so. But whatever you think, its heyday is long over here (and soon in Europe).

(3) As to the excesses of radical criminology, I've written about this topic (in Oppenheimer et al., Radical Sociologists and the Movement), and there's much to be said about what we did wrong. But your preachy one-sided comments don't help our understanding. Radical criminology at Berkeley was part of and responded to a much larger left movement that exposed the injustices of criminal justice, took on the inadequacies and cowardice of liberalism, created debates about the ideology of criminology, humanized the incarcerated population, and educated millions about the ties between imperialism, militarism, racism, and criminal justice. In the 1970s there was at least a national debate about crime and justice, and for a short while liberalism was pushed left by radical movements.

(4) The rise of the Right and neo-liberalism (beginning with Nixon) has nothing to do with what radical criminology did or did not do. It represents a significant shift in regimes of power, and a rise of new political forms to deal with the deepening contradictions of capitalism. As you and others going back to Stuart Hall have noted, governing through law and order is not so much about crime as about a crisis in political authority (and the demise of social democratic liberalism).

(5) My debate with Skolnick is partly personal (because he and colleagues benefited from the demise of the School of Criminology; and because of his disrespectful treatment of our colleague Paul Takagi), but it's primarily political. He thinks the country is moving in a good direction; I don't. He believes that academics have to choose between a professional career and progressive activism; I don't.

Tony Platt

Monday, November 22, 2010

Radical v. Liberal Criminology: An Afterthought

One of the most interesting moments at this year's American Society of Criminology meetings in San Francisco was the "reunion" of Tony Platt and Jerry Skolnick during a session on the republishing, with a new forward and preface, of the book The Politics of Protest: Task Force on Violent Aspects of Protest and Confrontation of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, which was originally published in September 1969. Skolnick, Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley (and now co-director of the Center for Crime and Justice at NYU Law) was on the Berkeley Criminology School faculty, and already famous for his book, Justice Without Trial (1966, 1994) when he was appointed director of the task force on protest of President Johnson's violence commission. Skolnick hired one of his junior colleagues, Anthony Platt, and a graduate student, Elliott Currie to be his main research assistants and to help with the writing and editing of the report/book; both have become major criminologists as well. Anthony Platt, then an Assistant Professor Criminology at Berkeley, had already written the first edition of The Child Savers, a renowned study of the class origins and purposes of juvenile justice in the early 20th century, that has also recently been republished. Platt was denied tenure, in large part because of his protest activities, and left Berkeley after the Criminology School was eliminated in 1976 to be a Professor of Social Work at California State University, Sacramento until his retirement a few years ago, where he published many other books as well as editing the journal Crime and Social Justice for many years. Elliott Currie, Professor at UC Irvine's Criminology, Law & Society department, is the author of the classic, Confronting Crime: An American Challenge, as well as many other books.

Given a chance to hear three such renowned criminologists reflect on an ultimately doomed effort to steer America's response to violence toward completing the institutional reforms begun by the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty, it was not surprising that the room was packed. It was perhaps inevitable that most of the attention was on the death of the Berkeley Criminology School. Platt bluntly blamed Skolnick and other liberals on the faculty, for "selling out" the School and its junior faculty, much of which, especially Platt, were openly engaged in the protest politics of Berkeley in those years. Skolnick suggested that the closure (and Platt's denial of tenure) were decisions taken at the top of the University which neither he, nor other faculty, could do anything to stop. Currie, who has remained very friendly with the other two, kept himself to chairing the session.

I'll leave to another time a discussion of the actual history. What disappointed me about the session (which was mainly focused on what John Dombrink aptly analogized to the hurt feelings of children to a divorce) was the missed opportunity, buried in Platt's opening remarks, to reflect on how both liberal and radical criminology were "failures" that had failed to stop the coming of mass incarceration and all the other destructive features of what David Garland has called our Culture of Control. I would love to have heard each of these thinkers on why despite the considerable intellectual and even political resources, progressives could not effectively prevent the policy discussion of violence in America from becoming dominated by thinkers like James Q. Wilson, and his reduction of the problem of violence to crime prevention in his epic and influential Thinking About Crime (1975).

By the time The Politics of Protest was published, Richard Nixon had already been elected on a "Law and Order" platform, and a growing coalition of law enforcement groups and politicians were beginning to coalesce around a politics of capital punishment and mass incarceration in state politics around the country. Still, it would take a decade for the logics of governing through crime to become hegemonic in America, and much of the progressive critique of criminal justice as racist and arbitrary remained salient to many Americans. Overall I suspect that nothing merely criminological could have stopped this trend. Even if Skolnick and Platt had stayed on the same side, and continued to work together along with Currie, perhaps no book from the left could have prevailed over Wilson at the time given the social and political roots of governing through crime.

I've always viewed this history and its conflicts with fascination. I was too young to protest in the 1960s (although my parents introduced me to the civil rights and anti-war movements through their participation). I made my way to Berkeley for college in large part drawn by the legacy of protest there, arriving the year after the Criminology School closed. Drawn by the coming catastrophe of mass incarceration, I did graduate work at the Jurisprudence and Social Policy program at Berkeley, (the program that took some extent replaced the Criminology School) where I studied with Skolnick, as well as Shelly Messinger and Caleb Foote (to other prime "liberals" from the Criminology School). Given my own propensity to protest, which earned me three visits to Santa Rita County jail while a student, I've always sympathized with the plight of the untenured radical faculty. The fact that Platt was denied tenure despite proven excellence as a teacher and scholar, and only because of his political participation, is a permanent stain on Berkeley's academic record.

From my perspective now, however, after the war on crime, liberal criminology has remained a more robust and enduring position while radical criminology, especially the highly ideological sort advocated by the Berkeley Criminology school radicals, has, for the most part, proven to be a rhetorical disaster (and would have been a policy disaster had it been implemented). Celebrating convict revolutionaries and denouncing the criminal justice system as it then existed in states like California at the time (far smaller and much more benign than today) as a hopelessly racist and fascist apparatus aimed at preventing popular revolution, had no chance of appealing to ordinary Americans witnessing a genuine wave of both state and private violence, let alone convincing them to support necessary anti-racist reforms. More importantly, it left progressive criminologists with few tools and little credibility to respond to the massive growth of incarceration and the hyper policing of minority urban neighborhoods that would follow in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Berkeley's racial criminology, in short, turned out to be the "boy who cried wolf."

In contrast, the best of liberal criminology, including Justice Without Trial, recognized the potential of "law" in "law enforcement" to resist the excesses of populist punitiveness and ultimately to rebuild support for insisting that law enforcement serve a "democratic" society and not the other way around. It is telling, in this regard, that when Elliott Currie wrote the first really effective response to the Wilsonite orthodoxy in his 1988, Confronting Crime, he began to rehabilitate the policy premises of liberal criminology while abandoning most of the rhetoric of radicalism.

Today as the war on crime grinds on despite little public rationale for its existence (and mostly inertia to change keeping it in place), it is imperative that we focus on how to reconstruct American society and politics after the tremendous destruction of mass incarceration and governing through crime. That is a struggle which I believe the ideological warfare of 1968-1976 has practically no relevance for, and in which liberals, radicals, and conservatives can find common ground.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Punishment, States, and the Governance of Crime: Looking for the future of mass incarceration in the sunbelt

A session yesterday at the American Society of Criminology meetings in San Francisco on "Punishment, States and the Governance of Crime" offered exceptional insights into the changes in state government and politics that facilitated the rise of mass incarceration in California, Texas and Florida. Joshua Page chaired and presented a paper on "Interest Groups and Contemporary Criminal Punishment" and extension of his great research on mass incarceration and correctional workers in California soon to be out as The Toughest Beat:Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California. Michael Campbell presented "Prosecutors, Politics, and Reconstruction of the Penal Order in Texas," a piece of a dissertation that compares California and Texas. Phil Goodman presented "California's Prison Fire Camps and the Changing Nature of Punishment," a piece of his dissertation on a very little studied aspect of California's massive penal estate, and one full of clues as to how to reintegrate prisons with the rest of the state they now occupy much like tumors occupy a body. Heather Schoenfeld, presented, "Race, Institutions and Punishment in the Sunshine State," a piece of her research on the formation of mass incarceration in Florida. Mona Lynch, presented "From the Local to the Global: The Multiple Levels of Influence in the rise (and fall?) of Mass Incarceration," a paper in which she reflects on the multiple levels of institutions that have shaped mass incarceration in the separate states, including Arizona, the subject of her Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment.

The panel represents a good sample of the new state focused scholarship on mass incarceration. This research is confirming some of what we thought about the causes of mass incarceration, especially the role of prosecutors as key political actors. As Campbell notes they are a permanent institutional lobby for punishment in the legislature capable of besting the periodic emergence of opponents of excessive punishment (which exist even in Texas). But it is highlighting roles that were missed before, especially the crucial role litigation over prison conditions played in moving prisons to the top of the legislative agenda at the take off phase of mass incarceration in the early 1980s (a finding shown by Schoenfeld for Florida, by Campbell for Texas, and by Lynch for Arizona). Overall, mass incarceration (perhaps like cancer) is not one single "disease" but a family of related but distinctive maladies.

These particular studies also powerful suggest a sunbelt tilt to mass incarceration. Lynch in particular argues that the sunbelt gave us the model of warehouse incarceration at the heart of mass incarceration. It appears that early emphasis by scholars on the epistemological crises of rehabilitative penology in the 1970s may have been far less important in sun belt states that never had much commitment to rehabilitation (like Arizona), and which organized punishment along highly racialized lines decades earlier (like Florida and Texas). All this suggests that a winning strategy to dismantle mass incarceration has to play in the sun-belt and the solutions touted in states like New York, may not easily apply.

One "promising" development is the Great Recession we are experiencing which emerged from the over-leveraged real estate industry that has long shaped politics in these very sunbelt states and has now left them with severe fiscal and possibly more broadly social crises (as foreclosures erode whole communities). As these states grapple with massive economic insecurities and contracting revenues the logic of mass incarceration may begin to emerge as a subject for debate in states that are culturally predisposed against big government

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Horror

Certain crimes cut through the sensibilities of even a culture besotted with media images of crime. As Durkheim reminded us, the horror these crimes invoke tell us what our central values are. The 2007 attack upon the suburban Connecticut home of Dr. William Petit, which included rapes, kidnappings, arson, and ultimately murder was spectacular example. The articulation of this horror and its revealing features has factored heavily in the just completed jury trial and capital murder of sentencing hearing of the first of two defendants in the case, Steven J. Hayes.
As described by William Glaberson's reporting in the NYTimes

The details were stark: two habitual criminals invaded the quiet suburban home of a doctor and his family after spotting them in a shopping center parking lot the day before. In a night and morning of unimaginable terrors, they beat and tied up the doctor, forced the mother to withdraw $15,000 from a bank, before sexually abusing her and her younger daughter, then strangling the mother and setting a blaze that killed her two daughters and blackened the home.The killings brought a searching review of criminal justice and corrections practices in the state and, particularly during the recent election, came to be the prism through which the state viewed a debate about the future of the death penalty.

While the violence and the vulnerability of the victims can fully explain the outrage that many persons around the country and in Connecticut where the jury appeared to have wrestled with strong reservations about sentencing Hayes to death, several features make this incident horrifying beyond its violence.

The crime took place inside the sanctity of the home. As others have pointed out, the home, especially the privately owned, suburban home, has become the essence of the American dream (one that explains are tolerance for dangerously overextended real estate markets). The fact that the violence came upon the victims inside the home makes it a greater crime than if it happened on the street or in a public place. A killing is a shocking lapse of security. A lethal attack by strangers invading the sanctity of the home is an attack on the very possibility of security. Such crimes, including the 1959 Oklahoma farm house murders described in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and the Manson family's Tate-Labianca murders in two posh Los Angeles area homes in 1969, have an enduring fascination that can rivet attention on crime even in periods, like today, when overall crime appears more moderate than in recent years.

The two men charged with the crime were strangers with known criminal paths. The vast majority of people (including children) killed in their own home, are killed by someone they knew, often another occupant of the house (typically father or husband), but those killings are almost never the subject of enduring fear. It is the stranger invading the home to commit violence that invokes it.

The father was rendered helpless before the crime began. Victims who are killed by their own father, or who do not have a father (or husband) to protect them seem less violated than ones whose protection has been strategically eliminated by the home invaders. The criminal father is far less frightening than the stranger who overthrows the father and usurps his place with the intent to criminal violate what the father is supposed to be protecting.

When these strangers are men with a known criminal past, who have been in prison already, something true of the Oklahoma and Los Angeles murders as well as of the two defendants in the Petit murders, there is the added outrage that the state has betrayed its protection of the families by failing to keep the criminal locked up in prison (the polar opposite of the family home in its sense of security and the comfort of its residents, and the State's very own "Big House"). It is for this reason that these crimes almost always have an influence on state penal policies far beyond their relevance to overall crime.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Obama and Fear

President Obama's remarks about fear and American voter perceptions are once again raising the charge that Obama is an elitist who views the anger felt by American voters in this year's midterm election as pathological. According to Peter Baker's reporting in The New York Times the President said:

“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared,” he told a roomful of doctors who chipped in at least $15,200 each to Democratic coffers. “And the country is scared, and they have good reason to be.”

Besides the impolitic quality of the remark what is most telling is the President's assumption that facts and science normally carry the day. I have no doubt that the President was born in the US but times like this make one wonder whether he was living here during the last twenty years. More importantly, where is the effort to speak to the fear (rather than about it). Fear comes with historical context. Today's Americans are responding to a Great Depression level financial crisis through the metaphors and meanings shaped by decades of wars on crime, in which the basic economic security of middle class Americans was taken as given, and their protection from the misconduct of deviant others around them, was taken as the primary field for governance.

That context has done a lot to train Americans to focus on questions like, who is the criminal and how harsh is the punishment. In that kind of world, bailouts of misbehaving banks are inherently subversive, and immoral; and solutions that spend money on "stimulating" the economy are expensive, pointless and perhaps damaging. It is because of this orientation that after a devastating financial crisis caused by lack of regulation and increasing concentration of economic wealth, business executives can run for office all over the country on the theme of reducing regulation and taxes on the rich.

There may have been a way to govern this crisis through crime. Investigations and trials of major Wall Street executives would have followed and perhaps a government take over of the worst actors. Obama might have tried to have BP's chief executive during the Gulf crisis arrested and seized the companies US assets in symbolic "raids"before television cameras. All of that might have worked to give him the legitimacy he needs to re-regulate the financial markets and drive new economic investment. Of course unlike the usual suspects of governing through crime, Wall Street executives are not without influence, lawyers, and media control. Given how much they have whined about President Obama's rather modest actions, we must assume that their response to that kind of demonization campaign would have been massive (and perhaps lethal).

In any event, the time for that kind of strategy is probably passed. Instead the President has no choice but to take on the way Americans think about fear directly; not by whining about how irrational they are, but by providing a different framework for evaluating our fears. In January the President will have a chance to deliver his state of union speech to a national audience in a chamber where the noise of a much larger and probably triumphant Republican caucus will be loud. He needs to put aside the usual laundry list of legislative priorities and talk about fear. Those fears that Americans can no longer afford to indulge in like fears of the criminality of immigrants; and those fears, like global warming, that we can no longer afford to ignore. The President should challenge the leaders of Congress to come to two televised White House conferences, one on immigration and one on climate change. Let each side nominate experts to be heard from, but insist that the leadership sit down with him in front of cameras to talk about what the facts show about these two burning issues and explain to the American people what they intend to do about them.