Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Infra Danger: The 10,000 Year View

In an earlier post this summer, I suggested that America's obsession with crime and other forms of "stranger danger", came at the expense of sufficient attention to the hazards of defective and deficient infrastructure, or "infra-danger." A measure of just how casual we have been about infra-danger is provided by the very language we use to discuss infrastructure. In a fascinating interview that Harry Shearer did with John Barry, author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America (Le Show, July 20th), Barry noted that while most American flood levees are designed to protect against a 100 year flood (the highest water likely in 100 years), European countries and Japan typically guard against 10,000 year floods (at least when dealing with oceans, rivers might receive protection again 1,250 year floods).

The contrast of course is with imprisonment where Americans support harsh prison sentences and the death penalty while Europe has abolished the death penalty and have incarceration rates that are 1/5th or less then Americas.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Cyclops

David Johston reports in the NYTimes on the growing unease in American law enforcement with the federal governments continued focus on terrorism (to the exclusion of crime). Some of the billions once spent by the federal government to incentive participation in the war on drugs, has been shifted to fighting terror, but while local police have responded by seeking anti-terror funds for training and equipment, they are concerned that crime is getting short shrift.

The Providence police chief, Col. Dean M. Esserman, said the federal government seemed unable to balance antiterror efforts and crime fighting. “Our nation, that I love, is like a great giant that can deal with a problem when it focuses on it,” said Colonel Esserman, who has been chief since 2003, when he was hired by Mayor David N. Cicilline. “But it seems like that giant of a nation is like a Cyclops, with but one eye, that can focus only on one problem at a time.”

“The support we had from the federal government for crime fighting seems like it is being diverted to homeland defense,” he added. “It may be time to reassess, not how to dampen one for the other, but how not to lose support for one as we address the other.”

The image of the state as cyclops, attacking only one mega-problem at a time, is consistent with my argument in Governing through Crime that crime became the template for all social problems after the 60s. What Chief Esserman and others seem to ignore is how much the war on terror plays to the same mentalities of citizenship (protect me!) and the same technologies of power (racial profiling) as the war on drugs did.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Community Justice?

According to SF Chron columnist C.W.Nevius, Mayor Gavin Newsom's proposal to develop a "community justice center" based on New York's much ballyhooed Midtown Community Court is picking up steam as an answer to persistent offending by aggressive mentally ill homeless people. Nevius' column profiles a particularly frightening assault on a popular police officer in the Castro neighborhood. The homeless man who assaulted her was released from jail on probation after several days, a pattern that continues the course of more than 100 misdemeanor arrests (and two felony arrests) that have resulted in a total of 64 days in jail.

The community justice center model promises to couple the legal threat of punishment with individualized case work oriented toward providing services and long term solutions those whose persistent low level offending undermines the quality of life in the City. While this model is attractive, it remains tied to defining behavior as criminal and its authority to work solutions comes from its power to sanction. While better than a revolving door jail, it remains a strategy of governing through crime. In contrast, a recent and as yet unpublished study of California parolees and their violation behavior suggests a strong negative correlation between parole violations and the existence of drug and mental health treatment resources in proximity. In other words, just the existence of such resources in a community can diminish criminal behavior among a population of people with an existing track record of crimes (I will provide a link as soon as the study is released by its authors).

This suggests that rather than community justice centers, we ought to invest in drug and mental health treatment centers. Once those assets exist, they can be used by parole and probation to provide treatment to offenders with documented needs, but they are not defined by their relationship to the power to criminalize and punish.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Citizenship in the Crime State

One of the features that most marks America in the age of Governing through Crime is the emergence of the crime victim as an idealized citizen subject, around whose interests and sentiments, political leaders imagine the nation's objectives (see, Governing through Crime, chapter 3; see, also David Garland, The Culture of Control, p. 11). You can see this in the unseemly rush of both presidential candidates to condemn the recent Supreme Court decision prohibiting states from extending capital punishment to the rape of a child (without a related homicide). Argument of policy and constitutional meaning took a back seat to the mandate that politicians identify uncritically by the imagined sentiments of crime victims or potential crime victims.

In other societies, citizens still imagine their relationship to the state, even on matters involving crime, very differently. Consider Israel, where considerable public agonizing is taking place of a prisoner exchange today in which the bodies of two Israeli soldiers are being repatriated in exchange for the release of Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese commando who murdered an Israeli father and his young daughter in a terrorist attack more than 30 years ago (read Dina Kraft's reporting in the NYTimes). The release is causing intense debate both because of the horror associated with the crime, and anger that the Israeli soldiers whose rescue was the cause of the 2006 Isreal-Hezbollah war, are dead. But what has not fueled the debate, but almost surely would have in this country, are angry demands by the family members of the victims for eternal vengeance (Kumar who was 16 at the time of the crime has served far longer than aggravated murderers typically do in Israel). Instead, Smadar Haran, whose husband and daughter were murdered, and who accidentally smothered to death her two year old son while hiding from the terrorists (who broke in the Harans' apartment and kidnapped the father and daughter), made the following statement:

“Samir Kuntar is not my private prisoner, and we live in a country where there is a framework for making decisions,” she said, echoing what she wrote in a letter to the prime minister and the cabinet ahead of their decision to proceed with the deal. “I asked them not to think about my personal pain and to make decisions according to the interests of the state.”

“What happened to me and my family will always be part of me, part of my personal pain, but it does not mean that I don’t see the pain of others, the Goldwasser and Regev families,” she said.

A similar statement is almost unimaginable in America, where politicians fear criticism by crime victims for prison furlough and parole release decisions made by routine procedures.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

True Conservatives

One of the most surprising results of the "war on crime" has been to redefine conservatism in the US with support for maximum crime control at any cost to liberty. Many assume that governing through crime has been a political strategy of the right. I argue in the book Governing through Crime that the "war on crime" has been more of a competitive alliance of left and right, combining the right's support for traditional practices (like the death penalty) with the left's support for massive governmental intrusion in the name of social betterment (think prohibition).

In the United Kingdom, where the center-left "New Labour" party has embraced an American style "war on crime," some leaders in the center-right "Conservative" or "Tory" party have begun to rediscover their traditional role as protectors of liberty against government intrusion. In today's NYTimes John F. Burns reports on one Tory leader who took the unusual step of resigning and re-seeking his parliamentary seat in a special election in order to demonstrate public support for his campaign against over-reaching in the name of security (against both crime and terror).

Not long ago, Labor critics in the House of Commons had the habit of calling David Davis a “bruiser.” It was a sobriquet he earned as the Conservative Party’s unyielding point man on issues of law and order and as a proponent of bringing back the death penalty last used in Britain more than 40 years ago.

But as he campaigned around the villages and towns of the rolling Yorkshire countryside near here for a by-election he won Friday, Mr. Davis, 59, was embraced by many as an improbable standard-bearer for traditional British liberties.

In a one-issue campaign, he focused on what he called “the steady, insidious and relentless erosion” of individual freedoms by the Labor government. He denounced as especially threatening a six-week detention power the government plans to give the police to help combat the growing terrorist threat it says Britain faces from an underground network of Islamist extremists.

The bill of particulars Mr. Davis cited in his campaign included other measures adopted by the government in recent years to combat a deteriorating law-and-order situation.

If Senator Barack Obama, who often sounds like New Labour's Tony Blair, should lead the Democrats to a sweeping victory in November, defeated Republicans might want to examine Mr. Davis and his campaign for liberty.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Mayor to Governor: The Crime Path to Power

Thanks to Rutger's political science professor Lisa Miller's scholarship we now understand just how different the information world about crime is around those who exercise power at the city level, and those who govern at the state or federal level. City leaders hear about crime from a wide variety of groups, of whom organized law enforcement is only a small part, and most of these groups are multi-issue organizations focused on local communities. State and federal leaders hear about crime from a limited set of hegemonic groups dominated by organized law enforcement and single issue agenda organizations, like the NRA or the ACLU.

Miller studies legislatures but the same imperatives apply even more to executives. Mayors may choose to make crime a greater (Giuliani) or lesser (Dellums) theme of their administration, but their politics and policies are generally checked by the very complex links that both victims and "criminal" subjects have with the vital interests of the community (moms and dads, siblings, children, cousins, etc.). Governors and Presidents, when they focus on crime, do so at a level of remove from these human complexities that allows them to frame it in simplistic ideological terms. The resulting policies (e.g. 3-Strikes) generally sold at the state level appeal to ordinary voters to imagine themselves in the same terms (rather than as the moms, dads, siblings, children, cousins, etc. of the people who will be victimized in crimes not prevented by harsh symbolic policies, or incarcerated).

If you want to watch this transition in process, keep your eye on SF Mayor Gavin Newsom as he gears us to win in what is certain to be a crowded Democratic field for the next governor of California. In today's headlines, Newsom is bowing to a classic governing through crime newspaper firestorm, in this case about the city's practice of not handing undocumented juvenile drug offenders over to the federal immigration detention and deportation system. More about that controversy later (keep in mind that as the New York Times showed in a recent series, federal immigration is the next US detention human rights scandal, with people dying in a appalling conditions), but Newsom's moves after initially denying any control over the situation, are on the path to crime power that leads to the state house.

San Francisco will shift course and start turning over juvenile illegal immigrants convicted of felonies to federal authorities for possible deportation, Mayor Gavin Newsom said Wednesday as he took the blame for what he conceded was a costly and misguided effort to shield the youths.

Newsom said he hadn't known until recently that the city was keeping the juvenile offenders from being deported as part of its sanctuary-city policy, but he added that "ignorance is no defense."

"All I can say is, I can't explain away the past," Newsom said. "I take responsibility, I take it. We are moving in a different direction."

He is taking personal responsibility, identifying "crime" as the line that separates those whose humanity must be recognized from those who are not recognized as such, and promising exile and boundary enforcing as the methods of securing the community.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Feds

Of all the bizarre and disturbing aspects to the story widely report in the media yesterday (read Monica Davies reporting in the NYTimes) about the man impersonating a federal officer who led local law enforcement on a wave of house searches and arrests in a Missouri town this spring, the one that haunts me the most is the following:

Those whose homes were searched, though, grumbled about a peculiar change in what they understood — mainly from television — to be the law.

They said the agent, a man some had come to know as “Sergeant Bill,” boasted that he did not need search warrants to enter their homes because he worked for the federal government.
So, thanks to television!, people have a vague understanding that police ought to have a warrant before they could enter a persons home to arrest them or search through their private belongings. That's good, the right to privacy in one's home (at the very least) is guaranteed by something called the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution which provides as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
But what is truly amazing, is the fact that "Sergeant Bill" was able to brush off such reservations by citing his status as a federal agent. Of course for students of constitutional law that is truly ironic, because for decades the 4th Amendment was believed only to apply to the federal government! (It was not until the 1949 case of Wolf v. Colorado that the Supreme Court recognized that that protections of the Amendment applied against state law enforcement officials).

But while Sergeant Bill's brush off makes no constitutional sense, it does resonate deeply with the constitutional deformation that governing through crime has wrought on the American polity. Indeed, the single greatest problem with our 40-year-old "war on crime" is precisely that it has been "led" by the federal government. The feds, who were deliberately deprived of a "police power" by the framers, should by nature have little capacity to set the agenda for states and local communities as they police themselves.

Criminologically, the federal government's take over of crime control practices in America, beginning in the 1960's (and supported by liberals and conservatives) has been a disaster. Almost all crime is local and requires deliberative strategies based on local knowledge. Instead, our crime policy has been set from the federal level where it is most certain to be dominated by lurid ideological images having little real purchase on local conditions. Indeed, the endless focus on drugs, instead of crimes against people and property, which Sergeant Bill was aggressively pursuing, is the primary projection of the federal government which needs the interstate nature of trafficking to justify its ownership of the crime problem.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Stranger Danger v. Infra Danger

Barack Obama has argued that Americans do not deserve "another election governed by fear" and John McCain promises to talk straight to Americans about the risks we face. But how can we tell if we are getting a really new kind of election in America?

I offer today a simple index by which the degree of change in this election might be measured. Start with the premise (for the arguments, see my book, Governing through Crime) that America between 1968 and 2008 became overly obsessed politically with what might be called "stranger danger", i.e., the threat of malevolent unknown actors out there some where who wait to do us harm. For most the last forty years it has been "criminals" (often racialized as Black or Latino) that lurk out there. Since 9/11 "terrorists" (racialized as swarthy Middle Easterners) have to some extent replaced drug dealers and gang members as the most feared "strangers" (but only to an extent, the other still haunts us).

During the same period we systematically have ignored what might be called "infra danger", i.e., the threat posed by ignoring and underfunding our massive dependence on technical systems that require continuous capital investment. Infra danger came to the surface for a moment during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when the levee system failed New Orleans, only to be replaced quickly by stranger danger as the media spread false reports of rampant violent crime. In January of this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, along with Governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, and Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania, joined in a task force aimed to publicizing infra danger (read Ray Rivera's reporting in the NYTimes).

So let me offer a slightly different hope than Senator Obama. Americans do not deserve another election governed by fear (of strangers). We might deserve an election focused on the risks we face from our own failures of governance (like infra structure). So here is the test. When we add up the sound bytes about danger and risk produced by both campaigns and assign them to either the "stranger danger" or the "infra danger" column, how big will the margin for stranger danger be? It is too much to hope for parity or more attention to infra danger, but if the two are even close, we will have had a different kind of election.