Monday, June 25, 2012

"Unlocking" the mentalities of governing through crime: The Time's Flawed Series on New Jersey's Halfway Houses

I've finished reading Sam Dolnick's important investigative report on New Jersey's burgeoning system of half way houses, Unlocked, and I'm still more impressed with the power of traditional media ways of representing crime and criminal justice than I am with the power of its investigating or reporting. On the later point, the series does an important public services by introducing readers to a type of institution which is likely to play a more and more important role in the twilight of mass incarceration as state correctional systems struggle to escape the enormous fiscal and moral costs of that project without admitting to the public that they were always locking up way too many of the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Such places, often operated by private contractors, are places that few Americans are familiar with and which raise novel questions about state power, private responsibility, and the objectives of criminal justice. Unfortunately this potential was largely lost because the piece was captured from the start by a series of assumptions that constitute the basic media mentality of what I call Governing through Crime.  

First, never question the basic wisdom of arresting, detaining, and imprisoning people who have committed crimes (or who the police suspect in the case of arrest) no matter what crime or under what circumstances they committed them.

The two most significant victims discussed in the series, A woman detained at the Bo Robinson Center in Trenton who was raped, and a man robbed and murdered at Delaney Hall in Newark, should never have been in detention at all. Vanessa Falcone was convicted of forging prescriptions after becoming dependent on prescribed medications. Sending the 20 something stressed out single mother to prison for that was outrageous, a human rights violation (especially to her child) and an astoundingly poor act of public policy that benefited no person in New Jersey. The arrest of Derek Harris for outstanding warrants and driving an unregistered vehicle was also a highly questionable call. Harris was guilty of no more serious crime than being behind in obligations associated with his automobile, he did not deserve the humiliation and risk involved in being locked up (even at a proper county jail). The public officials responsible for these decisions are the real engineers of these tragedies but Dolnick's reporting never questions the wisdom of locking them up in the first place. Its like a reporter complaining that the state is doing a terrible job rescuing distressed swimmers from a river without ever asking why the state is throwing them in the rapids to begin with.  

Second, always emphasize the role of prisoners or the formerly incarcerated in discussing society's crime problems

You would have to read the second story on Vanessa Falcone carefully to realize that she was raped by a janitor employed at the facility, someone with no previous criminal record, and not by someone locked up or formerly incarcerated. The whole key to mass incarceration as a public policy was to keep the public more focused on people locked up or formerly incarcerated people, while ignoring the fact that most crime is committed by people who are not locked up and have not been previously. If you took the latter seriously you would support effective strategies to keep people safe from crime through careful attention to organizational and environmental factors, as well as flexible and intelligent policing. All of these were and are absent in New Jersey, but you would miss that from "Unlocking" which as its title suggests, makes the main point the fact that people who could have been locked up in prisons and jails were held less secure places.  

Third, use drugs as smoke and mirrors to expand the category of crime while switching back and forth between drugs and violent crimes to create a frothy mix of anxiety that can cover the ambiguity and chaos of

The the most significant problem emphasized at Bo Robinson was the suggestion that illegal drug use was routine (especially marijuana smoke). True, if you think that locking people up because they use drugs, in order to make them stop doing so, than may be the fact that lots of drugs are in an around these half way houses would be alarming. Some of the descriptions of Bo Robinson Center reminded me of the Freshmen dorm I lived in at Berkeley in the late 1970s. Now most college dorms wouldn't tolerate the clouds of marijuana smoke I remember, but that's at least in part because they are all "non-smoking buildings". There were at least two violent crimes described in the series (see the first point) but many more references to violent criminal and people committed of violent crimes. Even as we make some progress on demystifying the logic of the drug war, we continue to discuss violent crime as if it was a monolithic kind of behavior. All states treat a great many things as violent crimes that do not involve actual injury to anyone or even a significant threat of it and many people incarcerated who are categorized as there on a violent offense may have actually violated their parole or probation on an offense like a non-armed robbery that may not have been very violent in the conventional sense to begin with.  

Fourth, keep pretending mass incarceration does not exist

Dolnick's most oft repeated finding is that today's halfway houses are not the neighborhood centers of the past but giant institutions. This is an interesting an important point. It would be helpful to see more data on New Jersey's many halfway houses because the Bo Robinson Center in Trenton, which receives most of the attention, is a reception center designed to receive, classify, and reassign prisoners coming out of state prison and it may be quite different at other facilities. Indeed, reception centers are always problematic sites within correctional systems as they tend to aggregate all the problems of overstretched organizations. Still, even if Bo Robinson is somewhat representative of the new halfway houses, what about the prison system to which it relates? Since the 1970s America's correctional systems have grown massively (the national average is something like a quadrupling of the imprisonment rate between 1975 and 2005). Moreover, the prisons are not the one's many people remember from the 1970s (and project on today), rehabilitative oriented institutions filled with educational programs and treatment. Today's prisons are engaged in human warehousing with little or no effort at education or rehabilitation. At their worst, as in California, they are humanitarian crises in which prisoners weekly die of routine failures of medical care (like providing simple medications) and at their best they tend to be secure warehouses which is what New Jersey seems to have.

None of this is meant as a defense of the current system of halfway houses in New Jersey. As we move away from mass incarceration it is critical that we not fall into the presumption that unless perfect rehabilitative programs for each prisoner can be deployed they need to stay locked up (which I'm afraid is the not so implicit message of the Times' series on halfway houses in New Jersey). Those prisoners were not sent their for rehabilitation and many could be released tomorrow without posing a serious threat to public safety even if no halfway house was involved. No doubt we should offer reentry help to the people we have incarcerated (hopefully are fewer people in the future), but in ways that address real individual obstacles to successful survival in the community (educational, health, or employment) and do not conflate help with surveillance and control.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Iron Cage: Why its so hard to escape mass incarceration

For more than three decades state and local officials, egged on by the mass media and interested public employee unions, stoked the growth of prison systems in almost every state by greatly expanding the range of people considered eligible to go to prison. Plenty of local ne'er do wells that county prosecutors and judges would have kept in the community in jail, or under probation, got shipped up to the state prison system which was expanding rapidly, breaking down previous customary barriers to incarceration. Once in prison, the same local ne'er do wells now found themselves subject to both the pressures of statewide prison gangs (usually pretty formidable criminal organizations and often racists to boot), and when they get out, to far tougher scrutiny by state parole officers than they received in the past, with the result that many of them returned to prison. And so on... But you know the rest. The nation's incarceration rate quadrupled, and in some neighborhoods a term in state prison had become bigger than college, the military, or marriage as a pathway to adulthood. But all of that is so 2005. In 2012 we are two years into a national trend away of imprisonment. In some states, efforts have quietly been underway for years to reduce the flow of new prisoners and to move some prisoners out earlier. In other states like California, it has taken a massive federal lawsuit backed by the Supreme Court to force the state to reduce its population to relieve severe overcrowding that had created a humanitarian crisis. While there is a growing sense that mass incarceration has been morally wrong, it is primarily fiscal pressure that accounts for the progress made thus far. The real question is whether this can continue once there is less pressure on state budgets. If it is to be sustained it will require a generation of state leaders capable of taking on the powerfully embedded rationalities that supported mass incarceration and that make it so very hard to let it go. To understand just how powerful those rationalities are and how widespread the responsibility for maintain them is, consider the New York Times. No national media source has done more recently to question the status quo of mass incarceration with numerous stories on prison conditions, wrongful convictions, and excessive severe sentencing. Yet on the front of its June 17, 2012 Sunday edition is a story by Sam Dolnick that has "Welcome Home Willy Horton" written all over it (read it here). Horton you will recall was the furloughed prisoner whose crime capades while released on an administrative leave from prison during Michael Dukakis' governorship of Massachusetts became a major theme of the 1988 Presidential campaign. This time it is a Republican Governor Chris Christie whose Presidential ambitions look to be majorly damaged by the story headlined "As Escapees Stream Out, A Penal Business Thrives." While the story has a distinctly New Jersey air of state political cronyism, the master narrative is pure 1990s crime fear stoking. The title of the series which this leads off is "unlocked" (get it). Here is the tabloid version without the Times style empiricism. Tens of thousands of New Jersey prisoners every year are being let out of prison early to go to "half way houses" and every year scores of them "escape" (or actually walk out since in most cases the facilities have no legal authority to prevent anyone from leaving. Some of those "escapees" commit crimes. Indeed there is a neat illustration running across the right half of the full double page spread that the story opens up to. With the words "Crimes on the Run" in the middle, a graph showing escapes by the week from 2009 and below a photo line up of criminal faces (shades of Lombroso), mostly black and brown but some white and a list of ominous crimes including "murder", "assault on a police officer" or being arrested with a "cache of weapons and drugs" (what was that, five pocket knives and a lid of weed?) No doubt some of these are serious crimes. The main one profiled involved the murder of a young woman by a possibly mentally ill prisoner who became involved with her while in prison and then broke out of the half way house he had been released to after she tried to break things off. He persuaded her to get in a car with him and was found strangled. Against this background state officials, and especially Governor Christie are shown as feckless if not corrupt, praising well connected companies and expanding their contracts without evaluating the effectiveness of the programs or responding to the escapes (even after a Times investigation began last year). No doubt the story raises important questions about how state contracts are made and evaluated and on whether industrial scale "halfway houses" are a productive way to do "reentry", but for now let's consider how the story frames efforts to reduce prison populations as endangering the public without any basis. First, you have to read way into the story to realize that the thousands of people coming from prison to halfway houses are doing so at virtually the end of their prison sentences. They are spending weeks or possibly a couple of months in a halfway house where they can begin seeking employment and restoring ties to their community rather than paroling directly from prison several weeks or a month or two later. So all of the danger that the article invokes in its image of thousands of prisoners in poorly secured halfway houses completely ignores the fact that all of them would be out on the streets without a halfway house in a short time. Would that additional six weeks in a state prison have made New Jersey citizens safer? The Times provides no evidence at all that additional time in prison would have rehabilitated or deterred these individuals or that the additional weeks of incapacitation would have done anything more than shift the dates of future crimes by a few weeks. The implication throughout the story is New Jersey was safer when these folks were behind bars yet no evidence is presented that crime rates have gone up as a result of the program. The real deterrence here is for politicians who think about defying decades of wisdom that the only safe prisoner is in a prison cell.