Friday, December 28, 2007

The Availability Heuristic: Your "Clear Channel" to Fear of Crime

It's what psychologists and economists like to call "the availability heuristic," the more available a particular risk is to your consciousness, the more likely you are to prioritize managing that risk, even if the probability of the risk coming to pass times the degree of harm it would result in makes it a lot less serious than many other risks in your environment. (For a great reading list on the topic check here).

One of the forces that has driven governing through crime is the availability of crime in the information environment. The mass media, and especially television, is obviously a big source of this availability. On primetime, one might say, the crime rate is always up. But the true density of crime information and its degree of apparent urgency and plausibility derives from a complex web of knowledge and power that binds government, the mass media, academia, and the endless semiotic web of conversations and images across the landscape of an average day.

Increasingly road signs are part of this web. The National Amber Alert System, created by an Act of Congress (growing from an informal collaboration between Texas radio DJs and police departments), means that smart highway signs all over America now periodically flash information about child abductions in progress. The latest addition to this already stocked field of crime information availability will bring the FBI's most wanted list to digital billboards in 20 US cities early next year.

According to Joe Milicia's reporting for the AP (read it in the sacbee):

The FBI's most wanted bank robbers, violent criminals and terrorists will soon appear on 150 digital billboards in 20 cities nationwide.

The agency has teamed up with Phoenix-based Clear Channel Outdoor to begin airing mug shots following a successful test run in Philadelphia that led to several arrests.

One of those arrests was that of a man suspected in the fatal shooting of a Philadelphia police officer, the agency said Thursday. He was captured in Florida as a result of exposure on the billboard, the FBI said.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Subprime Prisons: Pay Your Debt to Society and then Pay Some More

We need to hold offenders accountable! How many times have you heard that soundbite accompanying efforts to enhance prison sentences for one crime or another. Prison alone, it would seem, is capable of delivering on the law's promises and threats. And yet, the more you look at the prisons created by this fetish for imprisonment, the more you see that accountability is just another myth.

The latest example comes from California's distended prison system, which at roughly 173,000 inmates is approaching 200 percent of capacity and court-ordered population caps. As reported by Jordan Rau in the LATimes, the prison, which promises to hold wrongdoers accountable, cannot account for itself. With antiquated computer systems, inmate data has been unable to follow inmates through their frequent transfers among prisons. While crime has gone down for more than a decade, prison populations have continued to go up as sentences increased and inmates returned to prison from parole for technical violations often unrelated to crime rates. Perhaps the ultimate symbol of the system's basic lack of interest in accountability is its recent admission that more than 30 thousand inmates were held beyond their lawful sentence because administrators miscalculated their time served.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Can the World Save Us? And China, Pakistan, Iran...

For the first time in history, a majority of the world's nations have gone on record calling for a moratorium in the use of legal executions. In a 104 to 54 vote, the United Nation's General Assembly voted to support a non-binding resolution calling capital punishment's deterrence value dubious, and its errors and miscarriages of justice "irreversible" and seeking a global moratorium on its use. According to Maggie Farley's reporting in the LATimes, the US joined with traditional allies China, Syria, and the Sudan to oppose the resolution.

While the US aggressively insists on its right to invade other countries that flout international standards of human rights, we blithely insist on our own sovereign right to kill. Don't look for any of our Presidential candidates to lead the charge here. When it comes to execution, Hillary, Barak, and John Edwards are ostensibly as ready to execute as Romney, Giuliani, or Mike Huckabee (who as Governor of Arkansas can claim 17 hides). Still, the next occupant of the Oval office will find that repairing America's standing in the world is a top priority. It is in that light, that the General Assembly's vote takes on its real importance. By defining abolition as part of a general global consensus on human rights, this week's vote will help put American capital punishment on the endangered species list.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Next Disaster

Thankfully 2007 turned out to be an unexpectedly gentle hurricane season in the United States, which did not receive a direct hit in a season in which there were fewer named storms than predicted. Hallelujah, Insha Alla, Thank God, on behalf of all our friends and loved ones in harm's way down there (I used to live in Miami). But I don't think God messes with long-term trends (especially not ones aggravated by human misconduct). Based on the science of global warming we must prepare for a lot more terrible hurricane seasons like the savage fall of 2005 in which Katrina and Wilma left death and havoc across the Gulf coast and into Florida.

We cannot do much about the storms themselves (other than try to reduce our current carbon footprint), but there is much we need to do to prepare our people and our infrastructure (which as Katrina demonstrated is in terrible shape and not just in New Orleans). Above all else we need to change our governing paradigm from our relentless focus on "stranger danger" set by the war on crime to one capable of mobilizing collective trust and cooperation to reduce carbon and improve the efficiency of local capacities for self-help during severe disasters. I've argued for some time that the mentalities shaped by a generation of governing through crime are totally unhelpful when it comes to preparing for these 21st century disasters.

But this change will not come by itself. As the coverage of Katrina demonstrated, our media and political leaders will emphasize crime and stranger danger at every possible moment. Only last week, as reported by the AP, Texas officials outlined a new procedure to screen evacuees being bussed away from disaster areas for sex crimes.

AUSTIN (AP) — Texans who board evacuation buses during hurricanes or other emergencies must now submit to criminal background checks, the state’s emergency management director said.

The policy is an effort to keep sex offenders and fugitives from boarding evacuation buses with children, the elderly and the disabled, Jack Colley, the chief of the state’s Division of Emergency Management, told The Houston Chronicle, which posted the article on its Web site Saturday.
The fact that they are not going to leave sex offenders (a group that includes many people who were convicted of nothing more serious than having consensual sex with their under-aged girlfriends when they were also very young) behind, but only segregate them, is not very reassuring. The logic of this policy is utterly flawed. Consider that your child is unlikely to be molested on a crowded bus and that they are in more danger from the undetected pedophile within the family than from a stranger with a record of sex offenses. What is significant however is not how stupid the policy is and how readily it panders to our most self-reassuring fears, but how it directs or misdirects our fears in the face of the next disaster.

Friday, December 14, 2007

But its Illegal! Immigration and the False Premise of Crime Control

The most alarming trend in this election year is the growing body of sentiment that any effort to respond to the plight of millions of undocumented non-citizens working in the United States, other than by arresting and deporting them, constitutes an abandonment of the rule of law. Although the federal government backed off of a recent effort to heighten the criminalization of undocumented workers, state and municipal efforts are producing a growing body of mostly punitive laws.

Arizona's new law punishing businesses that knowingly hire illegal aliens with fines and eventual loss of their business license is typical and that in a state that depends on aliens, many of them undocumented, to sustain its large agricultural industry. (Read Randal Archibald's story on the Arizona law in the NYT)

But just because its illegal, does not mean that the problem of undocumented foreign workers is primarily a problem of crime. It is often true, for example, that homeless people sleeping in parks or on the street are violating laws and ordinances backed by criminal penalties. But rounding up the homeless and jailing them is a cruel and generally futile way to govern the problem of homelessness. Instead, the most innovative communities are finding that well targeted housing assistance combined with concentrated efforts to treat mental illness can make a difference. Choosing not to pointlessly punish the homeless for crimes that are a product of their situation does not sap our moral character or prove that we do not respect the law.

Likewise, our response to illegal immigration must begin with the recognition that the fact that it is a crime does not provide a satisfying strategy for addressing it. Indeed, unlike the homeless, who are often victims of extreme poverty, mental illness, and histories of substance abuse, undocumented workers are generally involved in producing goods and services of value to our society. Choosing not to punish them for breaking our laws does not diminish our moral character or weaken the rule of law.

There is another choice, one even more in line with our devotion to the rule of law. We should recognize that there is an under supply of law in this situation and move to remedy that. For example, new legal mechanisms could be established for ameliorating the often degrading and dangerous conditions that undocumented workers put up with. Giving them drivers' licenses as New York's courageous Governor Elliot Spitzer tried to do, was a good start. Bringing labor laws fully to bear to protect their working conditions and pay would be an excellent follow up. The workers would remain illegal, but the job conditions and domestic lives they lead would become less so. The rule of law would be expanded.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Crack Follies

This week saw two significant steps in removing what has been for two decades the most glaring example of racism in America's pursuit of mass imprisonment. In 1986 Congress passed a law instructing the US Sentencing Commission to create a guideline for sentencing crack traffickers that treated possession of a given weight of crack as the equivalent of possessing 100 times as much powder cocaine. Often mis-stated as requiring 100 times more punishment, the 100 to 1 rule meant crack traffickers faced sentences 5 or 6 times as long as traffickers in powder cocaine.

On Monday of this week the Supreme Court held that a District Judge who chose explicitly to reject the 100 to 1 weight guideline was not unreasonable (read the decision in Kimbrough v. US). On Tuesday, the US Sentencing Commission, which had recently reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine, decided to extend that relief retroactively to inmates already serving federal sentences if a judge determines in an individualize review that a reduced sentence would not endanger public safety. (read the Commission's statement)

These steps are good but modest. Keep in mind that the new policies will produce only modest reductions in prison sentences, and then only when individual federal judges agree. Moreover, given the fact that a crime policy that was highly problematic from the start, took more than 20 years to correct, does not bode well for all the other bad crime policies we made after 1986!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Christian Leader meets Willie Horton: Mike Huckabee and the politics of crime

Mike Huckabee's rise in the polls in the Iowa guaranteed that the opposition research would kick into geer. Huckabee was the governor of Arkansas in the 1990s. Governors are generally aided by their role as crime fighters, carrying out executions (by denying clemency) and using their powers to extend prison terms. But when states provide for the parole release of violent criminals there is always the chance that someone released on the governors watch, went on to commit a new and horrible crime. This has become known as the "Willie Horton" problem, following the name of the convicted killer who received a furlough from Massachusetts in the 1980s under Governor Mike Dukakis. When Horton kidnapped a couple and raped the wife, the tragedy became a center piece of the 1988 Presidential election in which Vice President George H W Bush won after being behind in the polls.

Huckabee's Willie Horton turns out to be a convicted rapist named Wayne DuMond, whose release from prison becamme a cause celebre for evangelical Christians like Huckabee in Arkansas. As reported by Richard Serrano in the LA Times, the DuMond story is a one that"rings with gothic details" including rape, castration and finding God. DuMond's spiritual advoisor was a minister named J. D. Cole who had known Huckabee for years. Cole and fellow Christians believed that DuMond might have been innocent, horribly punished for a crime he did not commit. Even if he wasn't, DuMond had found Jesus in prison and now claimed to be saved.

Cole's intervention moved Huckabee who wrote DuMond and suggested that parole was his best hope. Reports on how much the governor may have lobbied his parole board are conflicted, but Huckabee made clear he supported DuMond's release, even after meeting with his victim and the prosector in the case.

At one point in the meeting, Stevens recalled, she stood up, put her face next to Huckabee's and told the governor: "This is how close I was to DuMond. I'll never forget his face, and you'll never forget mine."

The meeting ended, and Long, a Republican, could tell the governor was unmoved: "Most of what I think about him would be unprintable. His actions were just about as arrogant as you can get."

The prosecutor added that Huckabee and Arkansas evangelicals were conned by DuMond's contention that he had been "saved" -- a common ruse by prisoners.

"If you're religiously converted," Long said, "how do you go out and kill two women in Missouri?"

Dispute remains about how hard Huckabee pushed the parole board to release him. Huckabee wrote to DuMond in prison "Dear Wayne. . . . My desire is that you be released from prison," the governor wrote. "I feel now that parole is the best way. . . ." Today he indicates that he only recommended parole (although some parole board members recall feeling pressured and that letting him out was a "favor" for the governor).

So far few of his opponents are using this potential Willie Horton against Huckabee on the campaign trail. They may be hoping for a media frenzy that will do the work for them. But there is another possibility, one which bodes well for us who would like to see this campaign and nation get beyond the stale politics of crime. Perhaps the media frenzy won't work this time even though the elements are all there (save one). You've got a terrible crime and then its even worst repetition. You have a governor seemingly spurning a frightened and angry rape victim while writing a "Dear Wayne" letter to her rapist.

One big difference is that DuMond is white and maybe if Willie Horton wasn't black it would not matter if he had raped and killed. Its a sickening thought that racism alone explains the power of crime politics. But it is also possible (and this is much more hopeful to me) that Huckabee's own self definition as a "Christian leader" provides him a way to respond that the wonkish Mike Dukakis did not have. Huckabee can admit and regret failing to see through DuMond's claims of spiritual salvation without abandoning his belief in redemption and the possibility of salvation for even the worst criminals.

Just as importantly, as a former pastor, Huckabee has and proclaims a model of leadership and governance that is centuries old, well respected, and totally different than the executive as prosecutor or crime fighter which has become so normal during the war on crime.

If Huckabee continues in to remain in the top tier of Republican candidates it will be fascinating to watch how he plays against the pre-eminent "governing through crime" candidate, Rudy Giuliani.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Rudy Watch: Batman Begins

Writing in today's NYT, Michael Powell lays out the crime fighting origins of Rudolph Giuliani's vision of power (read his article).

There are three founding stones in the public career of Rudolph Giuliani: His performance during the terror attacks of 9/11; his image as a crime-fighting mayor of New York; and his nearly five-year tenure as United States attorney. It was in this earliest incarnation that Mr. Giuliani is most plainly seen in the rawness of his promise and drive.

Giuliani's rise to be US Attorney in the media saturated Manhattan district took place after a decade of new laws designed to make it easier to go after organized crime leaders (especially the semi-eponymous RICO), mostly by reducing the act component of crime (the part that most of us really care about) and increasing the penalties for those accused of being involved in organized criminal efforts. Giuliani not only took advantage of these to go after relics of New York's crime families, he saw the opportunity to use these laws in unexpected ways to go after business and public corruption cases. According to Powell's reporting:

Those who worked with Mr. Giuliani came away impressed by his intuitive grasp of his new arsenal.

“Rudy was a sponge, willing to sop up any idea, any new strategy,” said G. Robert Blakey, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, who crafted the anti-racketeering law as a consultant for the Senate Judiciary Committee. “He was very creative about wielding power.”

Giuliani's success was not just technical however, and not just an artifact of Manhattan's media power. Clearly his own moral sensibilities fused with the power of the prosecutor as spokes person for the community's moral outrage about crime, to produce a compelling vision of leadership for an era in which crime had come to serve as the master metaphor for the problems afflicting society.

Mr. Giuliani married aggressiveness to moral absolutes, reflecting his steeping, he said, in the Catholic catechism. Asked about political corruption in 1987, he offered a wintry smile and said, “I don’t think there’s anybody much worse than a public official who sells his office, except maybe for a murderer.”

Combined with an overwhelming ambition, and incredibly good timing, Giuliani now contends for the White House at or near the top of the Republican field.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Homicide: Beyond the Rhetoric of Community Safety, the Realities of the Killing Streets

As 2007 draws to a close, Bay Area citizens are witnessing the grim site of Oakland and Richmond trading off nightly reports of young men dead in what seems an undeclared war on the streets of the East Bay's poorest neighborhoods. Politicians, like George and Sharon Runner are getting ready to place a new alarmist crime measure on the state's ballot, this one timed to pick up the current anxieties about gang crime. Homicide among urban youth is usually the stuff of media attention, but not the unusually objective and systematic analysis offered in today's San Francisco Chronicle by Meredith May, Many young men in Oakland are killing and dying for respect.

Meredith May's well researched and written feature on Oakland homicides presents a portrait familiar to most sociologists and criminologists, but lost in the usual "gang killing" rhetoric of television and print media. According to May's sources, killings among Oakland's youth are embedded in family and community networks in which drugs, violence, and incarceration are common and repeated elements. It is a world where the threats of the criminal law pale behind the belief of many that a youthful death awaits them. As the title of May's article, "Many young black men in Oakland are killing and dying for respect," suggests, violence is bound up with the relentless search for security and respect in a world where the employment market and the legal system provide little of either.

Overall the article supports something this blog has frequently endorsed, i.e., the local nature of violent crime and the need for subtle locally based crime prevention strategies over the search destroy model of mass incarceration we have utilized for decades now.

I have one bone to pick with May however. The article is laced with alarmist rhetoric about kids with no morality and raising a generation of super criminals, mostly from mouths of law enforcement officers. These images are deeply racialized (whether the officers are conscious of that or not). They circulate in every generation (the exact phrases were used in the 1980s to describe the crack sellers of that era). Terrible childhood's do produce substantial consequences (both individual and collective) but we should resist giving in to ultimately racist images of inhuman predatory youth.

Lastly, anyone who really wants to see and end to this has to acknowledge three points. First, the link between gang criminality and the trilogy of females/respect/security that May describes, is driven in large part by the black market for drugs which these gangs control and fight for. Second, the war on drugs has done nothing to diminish that link. Third, only a legal market for the most popular drugs (marijuana and some form of cocaine) will ultimately displace youth gangs from their current status in the community.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Lash, the Prison, and the World's Judgment

As the New York Times epitomizes in its editorial today, Lashing Justice , Americans have been quick to join the world's outrage at recent snap shots of Islamic justice in the form of lashes for a rape victim (for the crime of being alone with an unrelated male) in Saudi Arabia and insulting Islam (by allowing school children to name a teddy-bear "Muhammed") in Sudan.

Muslims who wonder why non-Muslims are often baffled, angered, even frightened by some governments’ interpretation of Islamic law need only look to the cases of two women in Saudi Arabia and Sudan threatened with barbaric lashings.

But as the Times editorial board well knows, America itself, with its extraordinary incarceration rate, including the use of life without parole prison terms for juveniles (practiced almost no where else in the world), and its continued use of the death penalty for homicides that would net a prison term of twenty years in most of the world, stands today as a frightening symbol of punitive severity around the world. As with our quick judgments about the lash and Islamic societies, the prison serves for much of the world, especially after Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, as a symbol of American lack of restraint and infidelity to democracy and the rule of law.