Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Detroit Journal: Does America Need another Black Man in Jail?

Yesterday Detroit's former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, began serving a four month sentence in the Wayne County jail. There is plenty of drama to the specter of the former leader of the city whose extroverted celebrity like life style was often a source of talk in the city (Read the NYT story by Nick Bunkley) now occupying Cell 143-4 of his home town's jail. Kilpatrick's romantic extramarital affair (detailed in a huge number of text messages), his efforts to cover it up by trying to get some police officers fired (sounds like Sarah Palin), and his brief shove with a police officer during one of his court proceedings (upgraded to "assaulting an officer" in his criminal case) were all tawdry and perhaps a bad example to the boys and girls of the once Motor City.

Still, does Detroit, does America need another Black man in jail? One who was a middle-school teacher, was twice elected mayor and helped lead a nightlife boom in the city's depressed downtown? Is he a danger to anyone living in Detroit? Is it so essential to send a harsh deterrent message to adulterers or those who would manipulate their work place power to cover up their mistakes?

I for one cannot understand what purpose of policy or justice is served by locking the man up at tax payers expense for four months. Nor can I imagine that Bill Clinton or any other white politician drawing time for the same conduct.

(By the way I don't favor sending an old White man like Ted Stevens to prison either, just take all his money and leave it at that!)

(photo credit: Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

Monday, October 27, 2008

From Stranger Danger to Infra-Danger: the Green Collar Path

For a while now I've been pumping the theme that American society will only overcome mass incarceration and its attendant pathologies by shifting the attention and concern of Americans from "stranger danger" (the risk that someone out there is waiting with a gun to hurt you or your family) to "infra-danger" (the risk that technical systems on which you and your family depend for survival, might fail when tested by a natural disaster, like a major hurricane or earthquake striking a major city).

When you are worried about an armed stranger out there, it tends to concentrate the imagination quite strikingly. When law, media, and political chatter overlap in varying degrees and varying times to keep fear of that stranger high, it changes the expectations people develop about government. Thats what I call governing through crime in my book. Thats why George Bush still seems so surprised that the American people expected him to govern competently. Based on his experience as the Governor of Texas, getting tough on juvenile crime was pretty much enough. He still thinks seeking the death penalty against Khalid Sheik Muhammed is just about all any American should want of him.

When you start worrying about infra-danger, the expectations you have of government change. You want government to help make sure these inherently exceptional, but catastrophic risks, which can be expected to happen in ones lifetime, just not frequently, are dealt with seriously. That means mobilizing science to understand sustainable ways to cope with the threats, capitalizing giant building projects where necessary, regulating and maintaining those systems, and incentivizing the consumer behaviors that will help create prevention and resilience. This leads to a very different kind of government than we've seen in Washington for a long time (including the Clinton era).

Once we begin to make infra-danger the major focus of government, many of the problems that loomed large and seemed unsolvable in the era of governing through crime will largely solve themselves. That is one of the insights of a remarkable environmental and justice activist and public intellectual, Van Jones, who in his new book "the Green Collar Economy" makes a case for a major investment in greening America's urban infra-structure to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases and create a stable and resilient base for our population centers. The benefits of such a move will go far beyond saving the polar bear. The creation of new jobs and a lower cost middle class lifestyle in cities(less dependent on commuting) will resolve many of the intractable problems of the late 20th century including an underclass of presumptively unemployable people, huge and expensive prison systems that seem to produce more crime, periodic spikes of violence on our city streets, and growing racial segregation despite less official racism, will reverse. The key element is the employment (and training) of tens of thousands of urban youth who will be needed to actually construct the greener systems sustaining our metropolitan areas. These young people, many of them coded as a threat by businesses afraid to invest in cities, will become a huge asset to society once we make the decision to do green collar rebuilding of our infrastructure. The collateral effects on crime reduction, building safer stronger communities, and shrinking our dysfunctional correctional systems (at another huge cost savings) are beyond what any criminological crime prevention strategy could hope to produce.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Calling Willie Horton: John McCain Needs You, Please Call Rudy Guiliani

As the Presidential campaign comes down to its last days with Senator Obama enjoying a comfortable lead, the McCain campaign is making one last effort to mobilize the soft on crime tag that has worked against Democrats before (most famously Mike Dukakis). According to Talking Points Memo, this is the text of a Robo-call that has been received by voters in several swing states, with the voice of Rudolph Guiliani (the candidate who could have done the most to make the crime war appeal had he been the nominee):

Hi, this is Rudy Giuliani, and I'm calling for John McCain and the Republican National Committee because you need to know that Barack Obama opposes mandatory prison sentences for sex offenders, drug dealers, and murderers.

It's true, I read Obama's words myself. And recently, Congressional liberals introduced a bill to eliminate mandatory prison sentences for violent criminals -- trying to give liberal judges the power to decide whether criminals are sent to jail or set free. With priorities like these, we just can't trust the inexperience and judgment of Barack Obama and his liberal allies. This call was paid for by the Republican National Committee and McCain-Palin 2008 at 866 558 5591.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Change Moment: Part I, Change in Mass Incarceration?

We are at extraordinary change moment in American history, far more so than when the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon eight years ago. A catastrophic failure of the highly leveraged US financial system has put into question a dominant view of political economy that has highly favored unregulated markets and minimizing efforts to socialize some of the individual risks. It has also favored a financial economy generally, over retaining a significant engineering and product development sector (let alone a major manufacturing sector), an economy which has seen massive income inequality and a redistribution of wealth (relative to the post-World War II norm) from the stratified middle classes to the very top of the pyramid. If Barack Obama is elected President, this economic crisis will coincide with the passing of political leadership to one who grew up after Vietnam and Watergate, and to the first African-American and mixed race American to win the Presidency.

Do these momentous changes suggest the possibility for a course change away from the politics, policies, and laws that have fed the rise of mass incarceration?

Mass incarceration is the practice of imprisoning residents in a manner that relative to both historical and comparative dimensions is in many respects shockingly indiscriminate as to the individuals confined, and of such a scale that it has become a major life-course gateway for a substantial portion of men in our communities. This institution is only about 30 years old (in contrast to incarceration which dates to the post-Revolutionary period of American history) but which has come to constitute a challenge to the character of American democracy. Does the crisis of neo-liberalism and the victory of a genuinely post-racial (or at least post-racist) American political coalition (the first successful one in its history) provide reason to believe we are at a turn away from mass incarceration?

Those following the political scene might question whether any change here is at hand. Neither Obama or his opponent John McCain have made incarceration or criminal justice issues generally a big theme in their campaigns. To the extent that it comes up, as when the Supreme Court issued a decision last spring banning the extension of capital punishment to the cases of child rape without homicide, both candidates cleaved to a pro-punishment position. It is true that minority communities have been especially hard hit by mass incarceration (with a third of African American men experiencing prison in their lifetimes), but Obama has generally stayed away from emphasizing a politics of racial justice.

On the other hand, for those following the scholarship on the American mass incarceration, both of these changes, the crisis of neo-liberalism and evidence that America is becoming less racist, might seem like very promising signals indeed. Among sociologists of punishment the most popular theories of mass incarceration emphasize that prisons and a "penal state" have replaced welfare (for the poor) and insurance (for the middle class) as primary mechanisms for governing (e.g.s, Katherine Beckett, Bruce Western, Ruth Gilmore, Loic Wacquant,James Dignan and Michael Cavedino). Almost equally popular is the notion that mass incarceration reflects at best a backlash against the civil rights gains of minorities in the 1960s and 1970s, and at worst a comprehensive regime of race domination (e.g., Katherine Beckett, Loic Wacquant, Bruce Western).

In Governing through Crime I offer an account of mass incarceration that de-emphasizes both of these factors as major causes in favor of focusing on the legitimation problems of the post-New Deal state and its major political and civil institutions (chapter 5). From this perspective, neo-liberalism, if by that we mean the abandonment of the major 20th century tools of social welfare governance (public welfare for the poor, but also the structuring of an insurance anchored middle class life with pensions, insurance policies, and generous civil justice), is a co-variant, along with mass incarceration, of the crisis of the New Deal state and its political and civil institutions. Likewise, White supremacy (and its political and civil institutions) should be seen as one of the anchors of the post New Deal, and its undermining by the civil rights movement one of the causes of the delegitimation of the post New Deal state.

From this perspective the change moment is a potentially hopeful one, but not as directly as the sociology of punishment might suggest. Over the next few posts (delivered erratically until November 4th) I hope to sketch the path that change from mass incarceration might take and the opportunities created by both the financial crisis and by a dramatic manifestation that White supremacy (like General Franco) is still really dead in America.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Ever Expanding Category of "Victim"

After forty years of governing through crime, it is clear that to be a full citizen of the United States, you need to be a crime victim. It is only by occupying this category that a person can obtain the highest regard of state and society, and the broadest assemblage of rights.

Fortunately for those who have not actually suffered a violent criminal assault, law-makers ceaselessly work to expand the category of victim. The most recent case in point is a new California law signed by Governor Schwarzenegger and authored by one of the Assembly's most liberal members, Mark Leno.

As reported by Jill Tucker in today's SFChron:

The new law is a major shift in how the state defines a victim of crime, acknowledging that for children, at least, simply witnessing a violent act can result in trauma-related mental illness.

"I am thankful to the governor for recognizing that children who live in our tough neighborhoods bear the scars of violence they see every day," said Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who wrote the bill after The Chronicle last year reported widespread post-traumatic stress disorder among youths living in violent neighborhoods.

The legislation, AB2809, allows young bystanders to access funding from the state's Victim Compensation Program. A legislative analysis estimated that 40 children statewide would apply for the funding annually - far fewer than the number who need it, mental health professionals said Wednesday.

Of course there is nothing invidious about trying to use state funds to help children who suffer from "post-traumatic stress disorder." What is perverse, is the mentality that assumes only traumas whose origin lies in crime, are worthy of state concern. What about the child who witnesses their loved ones die in a car accident, or whose parent is killed in Iraq, or whose parents have been shipped off to state prison for being addicted to drugs?