Saturday, June 30, 2007

Too Many Broken Windows or Too Few Immigrants?

As homicides soar in a number of East (and West) Coast cities, criminologists and police experts are divided on how to explain this dramatic turn around to what had been a nearly universal decade of crime decline between 1994 and 2004. As profiled in a recent Yahoo story, one emerging explanation focuses on the failure of these cities to adopt the right kinds of policing strategies, the other emphasizes the role of immigrants in defusing violence within low income parts of the city.

One theory is that police in these particular cities (Philadelphia, Baltimore, Newark) missed out on the revolution in police technique carried out in the 1990s in various cities (especially New York). Some adherents of this view emphasize the popular Broken Windows theory that when police crack down on a minor misbehavior (from public urination to marijuana use) they send signals through the community that results in fewer serious crimes.

The other major theory, promoted by criminologists Robert Sampson of Harvard and Larry Sherman of Penn emphasizes the relative absence of immigrants in these same cities. Sherman has offered the most complete explanation (although he acknowledges it is untested and incomplete):

"Cities that have heavily concentrated and segregated African-American poverty are the places that have increases in homicide," Sherman said. "The places that have lots of immigration tend not to have nearly as much segregation and isolation" of poor blacks.

Sherman acknowledges the theory is evolving and unproven.

"The fundamental driver of the homicide rate is honor killings among young black men," Sherman said. "What is it about immigration that tends to tone it down? I don't think we know the answer to it."

He said immigrants "change the spirit" of a community and affect the way young black men in poor areas relate to each other.

"It seems a plausible way to account for the big difference in the trajectory of homicides" in stagnant cities versus ones with lots of immigration, he said.

The percentage of foreign-born residents is 11 percent in Philadelphia, compared with 22 percent in Chicago, 37 percent in New York and 40 percent in Los Angeles, according to 2005 census figures.

It is noteworthy that these theories point in very different policy directions. Fixing more "Broken Windows" would mean more "governing through crime." Getting more immigrants, many of whom are illegal, into places like Newark and Philadelphia would be mean less "governing through crime."

Monday, June 25, 2007

Race and the Gang

The overlap between crime and racialized fear in American society cannot be overestimated. Some forms of criminalization, however, are so deeply steeped in race that any responsible effort at assuring equal treatment under law would require prophylactic elimination of entire categories of criminal liability. This is especially true of gangs and the vast quantity of crime defined as gang related. Mostly the American media has bought the basic myth that gangs of young minority males are the core of the crime problem in America. Every once in a while, however, a story picks up on the deep irrationality and simple injustice of the way the "gang" problem is deployed by law enforcement. See, “Mass Arrest of Brooklyn Youths Spotlights Tactics.” New York Times (June 24).

Friday, June 22, 2007

"Safety Zones" in California: Dennis Herrera's Bid for the Streets of San Francisco

With "gang" related violence going up along with the unusually nice weather in San Francisco, City Attorney Dennis Herrera has gone to court seeking to obtain civil injunctions against gang members in two very small areas and one large (60 block) area of the City (both in the immediate environs of public housing projects). See, SAN FRANCISCO City attorney aims to widen gang injunction.

Declaring these areas to be "safety zones," Herrera would require gang members to remain off the streets in these neighborhoods other than for school and work, and to obey a 10 pm curfew.

The gangs spread violence and fear through their neighborhoods, dealing drugs, killing rivals and innocents and intimidating law-abiding citizens, the city attorney said.

"We need to take back the streets," Herrera said at a City Hall press conference attended by police, prosecutors and Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Ross Mirkarimi, who represent the Mission and Western Addition respectively.

Do not let the fact that the orders are civil mislead you. This is governing through crime. The ordinary presence and conduct of adults in their own communities are directly regulated by law in order to prevent specific crimes from occurring.

As the presence of Ammiano and Mirkarimi documents, governing through crime is hardly a right wing monopoly in the US. Both Supervisors, and City Attorney Herrera would self identify as progressive liberals in American political terms.

Of course it is easy to conclude that circumstances like these, an upswing in violence among criminal gangs with a long history of violence, are just the kind of ones you would want to govern through crime. Crimes of extraordinary violence are the target, as well as the rights of hundreds of other ordinary residents whose freedom is curtailed by a sense of gang domination.

But even assuming such violence and intimidation is at stake, escalating degree to which ordinary behavior is governed as crime is not necessarily a helpful response. Indeed, there is much about the civil injunction model (embraced by some prosecutors and city attorneys since the 1980s, and by Mr. Herrera in an earlier crack down a year ago) to suggest it is a repetition of failed themes of the war on crime.

If, as the authorities claim, these gangs have operated since the 1960s, a spike in violence is likely to be the result of a specific conflict between the "gangs" rather than a structural feature of the communities. A potentially productive logic is to identify those specific gangs involved in a dispute and address them very specific promises and threats, like Boston's much touted "Operation Ceasefire." The logic of injunction just builds on the same problematic criminological presumptions that have misguided the war on crime right from the start, i.e., the "ecological fallacy" that neighborhoods are the source of crime problems, and that targeting them with one or another law enforcement intervention will solve those problems.

But to borrow a phrase from our friends on the locked and loaded right, neighborhoods don't kill people, people do. Freezing the mobility of gang members (even assuming we can agree on who rightly belongs in that category) in a specific area, large or small, is not likely to prevent partisans of both sides from finding other parts of the city to be out in public together and to pursue opportunities for the vendetta(s) to continue. Haven't we seen this play before, Romeo?

If we are really tired of forty years of gangs in San Francisco lets begin pulling our investment out of this identity. Without prisons to reinforce gang organization, most would remain loose neighborhood cliques. But like the musshegannah Israelis delivered Palestinian teenagers to prisons during both intifadas, facilitating recruitment by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc (see Jeffrey Goldberg's brilliant book Prisons for this story), we are delivering up the youth of our cities to prison gangs. More fundamentally (and driving the incarceration) we simply have to step up and end the illegal profits available for selling illegal drugs in the only way we've always known how to do that, i.e., by creating legal, taxed, and heavily regulated markets for those same commodities . Once "gangs" no longer hook you into a viable way to make money and honey, they will go the way of the hippies and other identities that had their summer of love (or hate) and then faded away.

Most pathetically, the rhetoric of "safety zones" is itself a repeat of a failed strategy of precisely forty years ago with the introduction of the "safe streets" idea by the Johnson administration in the legislation they offered in 1967 (see, chapter 3 of Governing through Crime). Of course the result is always the opposite. By talking of safe streets and safety zones we guarantee that the people in and around them will feel less of both.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Gated Childhood

For some years I've been arguing that one of the effects of governing through crime is in the incredible rates of obesity among our children. The argument, in a nut shell, is that parents, hyper conscious about the need to protect their kids from crime risk, accept the immobility of their kids as a price for safety.

Some recent books and newspaper articles suggest that others recognize the locked down quality of contemporary childhood as a crucial part of the obesity problem, but they seem to over romanticize the notion of the "great outdoors" and the association of that with experiences in "nature' (often quite manipulated nature, of course). The problem is not lack of access to nature --- national parks are in more demand then ever and the REI culture of getting outdoors has never flourished so mightily among ordinary middle and upper middle class people. The real problem is getting outside at at all. Roaming urban and suburban streets can be just as effective in preventing obesity, diabetes, etc. as hiking in the woods. Americans "boomers" may not have found our way to nature often enough, but we roamed our neighborhoods and parks. Unfortunately, forty years after President Johnson' administration declared a federal commitment to "safe streets," the fear induced flight from street life has become a major threat to American physical and mental health.

See., St. George, Donna. 2007. “Getting Lost in the Great Indoors: Many Adults Worry Nature Is Disappearing From Children's Lives.” The Washington Post. (June 19) p. A1.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Schools without mercy

Watching the parade of childhood rituals that attended the last week of the elementary school my children attend (Rosa Parks, Berkeley Unified) with twin day, backwards day, pajama day, and wear red day, it was easy to float nostalgically downstream the relative immunity to punishment that surrounded school kids in my youth during the sixties and early seventies. Except that practically every day brings another press reminder that the new childhood is barbed-wired in with harsh automatic rules that brook little possibility of mercy. The latest reminder is a link from the Lawrence Journal World out of Lawrence Kansas (forwarded courtesy of Robert Perkinson). The amazingly harsh and stupid zero tolerance policies detailed make it apparent why it is far from impossible to turn Americans against the mandate to govern themselves through crime. It is bad enough that we bequeath our kids schools far less well funded and far more boring then the ones we had in the 1960s. Surely we owe it to them to remove the zero tolerance regime that turns the merely boring into something far more cruel and damaging.

Fight or Flight: In the minutes after a tragedy begins do you think pedophile or bear attack

This morning's SF Chronicle bring an AP story perfect to set a father's blood pressure to high, "Utah Boy Killed by Bear While Camping." I've got a boy, we love camping, I'm afraid of bears. To boot it happened on a father's day camping trip. You have to read on to find the other dimension of the tragedy. In the crucial minutes after the bear opened the side of the tent, dragged the kid off into the woods and was presumably killing him, the father, unable to see him, jumped to the conclusion that his boy had been abducted by a person and went off in search of police help.

Wearing flip-flops and without a flashlight, the stepfather searched frantically for the boy and then drove a mile down a dirt road to a developed campground.
"He was pounding on my trailer door. He said somebody cut his tent and took his son," said John Sheely, host of the Timpooneke campground, who alerted authorities by driving down the canyon to a pay phone.
The boy's body was found about 400 yards away from the campsite, said Lt. Dennis Harris of the Utah County sheriff's office.

Governing through crime is not just about prisons, or the growth of the carceral state, it is about how we think about the risks we face on a real time basis.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Prison and the College

Today's New York Times brings a welcome graduation story of Mikki Hidalgo, a formerly incarcerated woman who has completed the transition back from prison to a successful and effective life in the community by completing a bachelors degree (read Dalton Walker's reporting)

The program which helped Mikki and scores of other formerly incarcerated women, College and Community Fellowship, is directed by Rev. Vivian Nixon, an inspiring mentor and leader in the growing movement to stem mass incarceration in America. Prison to college programs like College and Community Fellowship should be seen together with a growing group of programs around the country bringing college students into prisons to study with prisoners, including programs linking UC Berkeley and San Quentin, and at Bard College.

This is not the first time that prisons and higher education have developed channels both ways, but it comes after a long period of mass incarceration in which earlier educational initiatives have been delegitimized and dismantled. It also comes at a time when prisons and colleges are directly competing for public financing.

Twenty years ago, as mass imprisonment in California was hardening and escalating, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of a graduate student activist compelled by the formalities of a brief exchange before an official meeting, to make small talk with UC President David Pierpont Gardner. After he explained why UC's difficult budgetary negotiations with the legislature made any improvement in graduate student funding impossible at the moment, I quipped that he should seek a merger with the California Department of Corrections thereby solving his budgetary, diversity, and student protesting problems all at once. He didn't crack a smile.

Still, there is something very promising about this current circulation between prison and college. College students have been and can be articulate and influential participants in the national discussion about mass imprisonment. Prisoners and the formerly incarcerated are in a unique position to explain and analyze the nature of the carceral power that has been unleashed on America, and whose influence is shaping all our communities.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Hard Time High

Another creepy story about the growing penalization of high school comes from Cal State San Jose Justice Studies Professor (soon to be UC Irvine Professor) Mona Lynch (whose brilliant writings on contemporary penality should be on your summer reading lists). Mona writes about the experience of her high school senior daughter Molly:

For Molly's senior prom, which happened last Friday, the students all were required to ride a bus to and from the event, and were told to arrive an hour before the departure time so that they could each be breathalyzed before getting on the bus. They were also told that they would be breathalyzed as they departed the bus to go into the prom (in case anyone had smuggled booze onto the bus, I suppose). It turns out that they did not breathalyze everyone, but only "randomly" selected students, the majority of whom were boys. Then once at the dance, there were security "chaperones" surveilling from a balcony above and if they observed anything unusual, those students were pulled to be breathalyzed. One of the floor "chaperones" determined that Molly and a couple of her friends who were dancing together, were dancing too wildly or weirdly, so they were pulled from the dance floor and breathalyzed. After passing the test, she and her friends made sure they danced extra wildly for the rest of the night by the chaperone who had been so troubled in the first place.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

race, crime, and governance

I was recently privileged to participate in a high speed intellectual collision between people who think about criminal justice and people who think about race (with wonderful efforts made to make sure any intellectual bruises were healed with beauty). I'm still processing most of what I learned and will share the insights on this blog as they come. Many thanks to the Open Society Institute's After Prison Initiative and the Aspen Institute's Round Table on Community Change.

One fall out for me is that two issues I had been thinking about too separately are now more or less pureed. One is the drive by white Americans to control Americans of color, as a matter of political will (whether formed by malice, greed, or benevolence), call it "white man's government," and the other a drive (one shared by many Americans of color) to isolate themselves from those they consider deviant and dangerous (call it governing through crime). Each of these has their own genealogy but as a result of American history they are inextricably bound up with each other.

Both are important. The common history means that "white man's government" will be advanced by even the most progressive efforts to extend crime control measures. The distinct genealogy means that the discourses, motivations, and resources associated with "governing through crime" help lock in "white man's government" despite the cultural and political victory of the Civil Rights movement.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

More Governing Schools through Crime

With graduation in the air, more stories are appearing of crime and punishment models infiltrating our high schools. An AP story in today's NYT describes the situation of five students denied diplomas (they still get to graduate) because friends or family cheered during their walk across the stage despite an admonition to hold all applause until the end of the ceremony. Because parents signed a contract promising to act in a dignified way, it may be tempting to view this as a more civil action (even if a bit over the top) until you read that students denied diplomas could get them back by doing 8 hours of community service!