Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Logic of Deterrence from Gaza to Oakland

Israel's fierce air war against Hamas and its operatives and infrastructure in Gaza provides a window into one of the most important forces at work in our own war on crime, i.e., deterrence. Deterrence is the economic theory, dear to both criminology and state-craft, which holds that actors will alter their behavior to maximize the net sum of costs and benefits.

Both Israeli officials and citizens defend the action as necessary to restore deterrence by making Hamas understand the high cost of shooting their rockets into southern Israel. For example, in today's New York Times, peacenik David Grossman even while making the case for restraint emphasizes this logic:

NOW, after the heavy blow that Israel has dealt to the Gaza Strip, we would do best to halt, turn to the leaders of Hamas and tell them: Until last Saturday, we restrained ourselves in responding to the thousands of Qassam rockets fired at us. Now you know how severe the retaliation can be.

But as with the criminal law, deterrence works well to curb opportunism among those actors who already have strong incentives to continue non-aggressive (even if generally chilly) relations, but works very poorly to curb those actors who have no incentives to avoid the chaos of crime or war; and indeed may have psychic or political incentives to foment violence and chaos.

Is Israel's deterrence broken? There are dozens of Arab and Muslim states in Israel's vicinity. None of them, not even the broken state of Lebanon, has lifted a military finger against Israel. Deterrence works. However for Hamas and for the people of Gaza generally, the base line conditions of life are not high enough to establish the normal incentives that deterrence presumes. If life is one of bare survival and abject humiliation, even a relatively high risk of death, especially an exciting, quick, and morally honored death is insufficient to restrain their desire to inflict pain and fear on their hated enemy (at least for the masculine culture which appears to dominate Palestinian society).

Israeli's understand deterrence probably better than any other people on earth, but their basic anger and mistrust of the Palestinians, especially after the second intifada, is such that they cannot bring themselves to do what they know they must. They know they must build up a true political alternative to Hamas, in the form of President Abbas and his Fatah Party in the West Bank, but they cannot bring themselves to make the political concessions necessary to produce for Abbas gains in sovereignty and legitimacy. They know they should be creating an economic alternative to Hamas in Gaza, by creating the possibilities for economic exchange that will pull young men into the entanglements of markets and diapers rather than honor and death, but they are too angry at Hamas for the humiliating capture of one of their soldiers. So they turn in the inevitable logic of deterrence to raising the collective punishment of Palestinians ever higher, even full while knowing it only exacerbates the fundamental limits on deterrence.

The parallels with our own war on crime, almost the same age as the four decade long Israeli occupation of Palestine, should be clear. Let us pray that President Barack Obama will show the wisdom necessary to save both Israel and the US states from this destructive logic.

Happy New Year

Monday, December 29, 2008

Crime and the Mayor: Not just an Oakland tale

As Mayor Ron Dellums reaches the midpoint of his term as Oakland's Mayor, the celebrated politician who served for years as one of Congress' few lions of the left, finds himself crucified on the issue of crime. So long as the public and the media (read the SFChron midterm report card) views Oakland as an unacceptably dangerous place do to crime, nothing else Dellums accomplishes will be considered success. However, mayors have few significant tools to address either crime or fear of crime.

In recent years many have come to believe that police, one of the few crime control tools that mayors at least influence, can make a difference. The best case of this, as my colleague Frank Zimring has shown in his book The Great American Crime Decline is New York City, which enjoyed approximately twice the crime decline that the rest of America enjoyed in the 1990s. But New York may turn out to be a unique case because of the enormous urban density that allows police pressure (especially on the heavily used subway system) to be maximally effective on both potential perpetrators and the general public (thus impacting both crime and fear of crime). Few American cities are like NYC in this regard, and certainly not sprawling Oakland.

The Mayor (and beleaguered Chief Tucker) are right to resist pressure to ratchet up arrests for the sake of a show of force. Simply feeding more young men into the jail and prison system can have little if any effect on crime or fear of crime. But what are they to do? Nobody I know has a great answer. The simplest solution, taking the drug trade away from criminal gangs (by creating a legal and heavily regulated and taxed market for the most popular and safest drugs) combined with new jobs for urban youth would produce a dramatic change in both crime and fear of crime, but mayors and chiefs of police can do nothing about that.

However, the Mayor is wrong to think that it is simply media failure to highlight the positive that is generating his political malaise. After a generation of war on crime, Americans, even in progressive Oakland, have come to believe that security against violent crime is the one and virtually only right that citizens have a claim to with government (read the case for this in my book, Governing through Crime).

My recommendation for the Mayor's New Year's resolution list is to play to your strengths. The Mayor must engage the public and the media in a sustained discussion of the real security challenges facing Oakland in which crime plays only a part. Moreover he should turn his formidable oratorical skills to a sustained attack on the failed war on drugs including shaming the incoming president (who has already signaled his timidity on this issue) to fundamentally reconsider it. His question should be the following.

Mr. President, as you have suggested, Oakland and other cities can help save America (and the world) from global warming by offering Americans a sustainable low carbon lifestyle based on diverse multi-use walking communities and public transportation. But how can you ask Oakland to help solve our national problem when the federal government continues to impose demonstrably failed policies that are sustaining a violent subculture that keeps middle class Americans from taking the responsible decision and moving back to the cities?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The High Cost of Paying Hommage to Virtue

In Mexico, the bodies continue to pile up. By the count of Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Mora, over 8,100 people have died violent, drug trafficking-related deaths since Felipe Calderon became president in December 2006. The Brookings Institute recently published a Latin America report, "Rethinking U.S.-Latin American Relations," that includes a sizable section on drug trafficking- which they consider to be “at the core of organized crime in the hemisphere” – and which notes that, this year alone, the same number of people have died in Mexico as have died fighting for the United States in Iraq since the start of our war there almost six years ago. Increasingly, that seems like an understatement.

A quantitatively problematic turn of a long-simmering conflict has been accompanied by a qualitative one: bodies are now increasingly headless, pinned with narco-messages, or placed in very public places. Sometimes corpses are even physically arranged to form rough but explicit messages themselves.
Today, in a front page story accompanied by a grainy mugshot, the LA Times reported on corpses in Tijuana that were found arranged to spell out “3 L”. Tijuana drug kingpin Teodoro Garcia Simental goes by the three-letter moniker Teo, and the arrangement was supposedly a message, both threat and boast, of his domination of the city.

The catalyzing combination of a steadily rising body count and a new level of viscerally disturbing gore has led to the focus of a considerable amount of American media attention on Mexico’s drug trafficking industry. Mexico is the new Colombia. Often, as today, that coverage is transmitted in simple narrative form. The violent end product of a toxic mix of factors- including an insatiable American appetite for illicit drugs, the lack of viable alternative livelihoods for many well-intentioned, supply-side citizens, and cross-border policies that have the effect of increasing inequality and enmity- is boiled down to the story of a particularly ruthless or fascinating drug kingpin. Today, proclaimed the LA Times, that man is Teodoro Garcia. We always seem to learn fascinating personal details: Teo supposedly likes to arrange private horse races, at which he bets heavily, at ranches outside of Ensenada.

As a literary device, the biographical news sketch has the advantage of breaking a complex tangle of issues into a manageable chunk of digestible information, convenient and accessible to a casual news-follower. For the same reason, it brings with it the danger of oversimplifying a multi-faceted problem, of reducing to black and white, hero and villain, a tricky interplay of factors and characters, and in the process distorting the way things really work. So, while such devices are understandably used to convey mass media news, they are disastrous as a basis for policy formulation.

Nonetheless, since the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the first real drug super-villain, in the early 1990s, this has been America’s approach to counternarcotics work. Taking out the kingpin and his cartel, or the kingpins and their cartels, will eliminate the supply of drugs in America, or at least reduce them to a level where prices are unaffordably high, the theory goes. Accordingly, when Escobar was finally hunted down and killed in 1993, there was a sense, according to John Carnevale, then budget director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, that this military triumph was “a big part of how we would go about winning the War on Drugs.”

History has not been kind to that vision. Escobar’s Medellin Cartel was merely replaced by the Cali Cartel (rumored to have colluded with Colombian security forces against him to eliminate their chief business competitor). The center of the drug trafficking world eventually shifted to the Caribbean, and then to Mexico, and drug kingpins continued to be killed, and their organizations dismantled, at an impressive rate. Still, new groupings of traffickers, ever more inventive and sophisticated, kept popping up.
Now, 15 years after Escobar’s demise, cocaine prices in the United States (according to Brookings calculations) are lower than ever, which suggests that the flood of drugs north remains unabated, and has maybe even increased.

Until Teo Garcia made the front page, the drug super-villain of the moment has been Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The story of "El Chapo", or "Shorty," and his rise in Culiacan, on Mexico’s Pacific coast 650 miles south of the border, formed the foundation for recent articles in New Yorker and Rolling Stone that explored the Mexican crisis, and political attention has lately been focused on his reigning Sinaloa Cartel. Guzman, 53 years old, married an 18 year old beauty queen last year; he also reportedly likes to stay up late drinking and dancing at his Sinaloa hill country hideouts. While El Chapo and his fellow 'capos' may have colorful personal lives that provide fodder for fascinating character studies, they don’t provide the key to efficient counternarcotic strategies, or ways to reduce the damage of drug use and abuse.

More focus and attention, it seems, needs to be directed to less flashy, though more substantively important, underlying factors. For instance, 2,000 guns cross the border from the United States, where they are legal, to Mexico, where they are not, on a daily basis. This becomes very significant when you consider that, according to the ATF and their Mexican counterparts, approximately 90% of the weapons that are the physical means of Mexican drug violence originate in the United States.

The Brookings report ends by recommending that the United States “undertake a comprehensive, cross-country evaluation of counternarcotics policies,” which it concludes are “failing by most objective measures.” America’s drug war is “more a balloon than a battlefield,” and it seems like the sooner U.S. policymakers realize that, and that every Pablo they kill is going to beget a Chapo or Teo, the sooner they can begin preparing an effective response.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Don't Mix Crime and Politics

Check out the Daily Show's lengthy riff (12/10/08) on crime and politics in the context of the Rod Blagojevich implosion in Illinois. Jon Stewart compares the imprisonment rate of Illinois governors to murderers (point out that the odds of staying free are higher for the latter). He also compared Blagojevich to a boogey man figure from medieval German fairy tales, making the latent reference to the highly politicized field of sex offenders, a theme Stewart then made explicit by shifting into a satirical special news segment for children, ill-tabbed "Jon Stewart touches kids."

Nicely underscoring the irony that governors as criminals (and presidents one might add since four of the last eight of so presidents have been at least linked to crimes that could result in prison, two of them actually facing impeachment charges), is just the other side of an executive branch that has made fear of crime a major foundation for its style of rule, Stewart shows a snippet of Patrick Fitzgerald opining that people get into trouble mixing politics and crime. Stewart points out that the same could be said of crime and mothers day.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Infrastructure Nation: The City is Back

I watched President Elect Barack Obama's Saturday morning "radio" broadcast video on U-Tube (see it here) twice this morning (the second time, after my 11 year old daughter showed me how to make it fill my laptop screen was even more interesting). Anyone wishing, hoping, to find that Barack will not shrug off the FDR comparisons will find much to like here. No civilian conservation corps, but as elements of what he promises to be a much bigger plan, this morning's message signaled a willingness to move federal investment through multiple pathways into energy saving and mission enhancing infrastructure and technology spending. Federal buildings will get energy upgraded (a nice move that will make sure that something visible is going on in almost every big city in America). State's will get money to spend on highways and schools, but only if they spend it quickly. More money will flow into wiring hospitals and schools, whether through states or some other vessels is not clear.

Like FDR, Barack Obama's one step forward always has a bit of a half step back. In his 2.5 million jobs created or saved, I thought I heard a watering down of the number that has been out for a week.

Like FDR setting matters. Barack Obama spoke from a desk with curtains behind him slightly open to reveal that he was high up, presumably in one of Chicago's downtown skyscrapers. Behind him on one of those grey Chicago winter mornings that I remember all too well having grown up there, snake lighted streets and highways and slumbering neighborhoods. When was the last time we had a President so identified with urban America (something intertwined with but not exhausted by his race)?

When he spoke of the real families behind the more than half a million jobs lost in November, for the first time in a long time one could be sure that those families included the very substantial portion of the American population living at or near the urban core of metropolitan areas with more then one or two million people (I'm no demographer), and not just the morning in America small towns and suburbs.

Even more important, cities for Obama, like Chicago, are not a "problem" of poverty and crime to be solved by some federal "medicine" as concerned suburbanites look on, as they have been for Democratic presidents since LBJ. Instead, cities, like his Chicago, are centers of expertise for problem solving, and platforms for low carbon, high content life styles.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Crown Prince of Crime Control? A Ray of Hope in a New Cabinet

As American government was transformed around the problem of crime in the 1960s, one of the most significant and fateful development was the morphing of the attorney general into the nation's "top law enforcement officer." Once a quasi-judicial officer with a special brief to defend the rule of law within the administration, the attorney general became a veritable crown prince of crime control, astride an ever growing law enforcement and punishment behemoth (at least until the formation of Homeland Security cleaved off some chunks, but that's another story).

Actual attorneys general have varied in how much they took up that potentiality. Some from both parties emphasized crime fighter aspect, including Robert Kennedy (who served under JFK and LBJ) and Edwin Meese (who served under Reagan). Others were more concerned to restore the rule of law job (like Ford's AG, Edward Levi), or were simply too involved in political machinations to bother (like the recent Alberto Gonzalez).

There are some encouraging signs that new appointee Eric Holder may be more in the Ed Levi camp than the Ed Meese (and G-d knows the rule of law could use some bolstering).

In introducing Holder at Monday's press conference (December 1, 2008, read the NYT transcript here), President Elect Obama mentioned crime, but not the "usual suspects."

Eric Holder has the talent and commitment to succeed as attorney everyone from his first day on the job, which is even more important in a transition that demands vigilance. He has distinguished himself as a prosecutor, a judge, and a senior official. And he is deeply familiar with the law enforcement challenges we face from terrorism to counterintelligence, from white-collar crime to public corruption.

During his own remarks, AG nominee Holder seemed to suggest a wider range of interests then crime.

I also look forward to working with the men and women of the Department of Justice to revitalize the department's efforts in those areas where the department that's unique capabilities and responsibilities in keeping our people safe and ensuring fairness and in protecting our environment.

When Holder did mention crime in his statement, he emphasized the lead role of state and local government, a good sign, since leaders at the state and especially the local level have a much more nuanced view of crime problems and can craft less harmful solutions.

We will need to interact with our state and local partners in new innovative ways to help them solve the other issues that they confront on a daily basis. National security concerns are not defined only by the challenges created by terrorists abroad but also by criminals in our midst, whether they be criminals located on the street or in a board room.

Photo Credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images, USA Today

Thursday, November 6, 2008

V is for Victory

"Remember, remember, the Fourth of November"

There is a lot to be sorry about what happened Tuesday, especially Prop 8 and 9 here in California (on Prop 8 see my other blog, on Prop 9 see future postings here). But let that regret not dampen the spirit of renewed citizenship expressed in the massive lines of voters and early voters. There is little doubt that this will be remembered as a pivotal election like '32, like '80 in which a fundamental governing change of course began.

At first, this will not look like a repudiation of governing through crime. The political neuro-network of knowledge and power links that tie Americans to their fears of crime remain potent and Obama was careful never to trigger them (McCain tried to use it against Obama but failed).

What we can hope for is the emergence of a new governing platform, one I suspect will be based on the need to rebuild and green America's infrastructure. Once this gets going it will begin to grow a knowledge power network of its own that will compete with an overtime outgrow governing through crime.

Monday, November 3, 2008


I'm reminded this morning of a poster that resided on my bedroom wall sometime in the mid-1970s. My father had brought it back from a trip to London. Two police officers were violently arresting a young man dressed in the standard "punk" style of that era. Underneath the text read: "Whoever you voted for, the government got in." It was signed by an anarchist party whose name eludes me. Whoever (and in CA, whatever) you vote for tomorrow, governing through crime will continue.

There are several measures on the California ballot, however, that can in some degree begin to process of retracting public affirmation from the crime war, as well as gauging the underlying strength of its hold on the way people imagine themselves as citizens.


If you produced one of those cool GPS social maps that geographers work in these days, that showed the geographic locations where California's 170,000 state prisoners lived before they went to prison, you would see that it is highly concentrated in several very precise neighborhood locations in the large cities (and in many small ones). If you then added data on the location of drug treatment placements (not to mention mental health treatment),you would see that these same neighborhoods that send people to prison, have comparatively few of these assets.

This initiative should pay for itself while possibly saving us billions in collateral court imposed mandates on prisons (see other postings on this blog) by breaking up this dynamic. By allowing drug addicted state prisoners to receive treatment in the community, proposition 5 would help stop the revolving door of parole in California through which thousands of non-violent offenders go back and forth to prison. Even the Governor has called this revolving door a problem.

Why isn't the Governor supporting this. Why is every living ex-governor opposing it. The long answer is in chapter 2 of Governing through Crime. Suffice it to say that being the chief champion of a public recast as crime victims, in their demands for vengeance and security has become the lifeblood of political executives. As prosecutors-in-chief, governors oppose anything that would reduce the punitive discretion of prosecutors.


This is vintage governing through crime. It locks up money for law enforcement, demonizes youth crime and raises prison sentences. Its major proponent, George Runner, is a crime warrior legislator whose last major initiative success was the noxious and ludicrous (but successful) sex offender blockbuster called Jessica's Law. The major ideological function of this law is to further invest gang crime with political meaning. Its hard to have a war on crime unless crime looks and feels like a threatening army. The real value of gangs to politicians is that as a stereotype gang members fit the need for an enemy army. The reality is that most "gang crime" is simply youth conflict whose origins have little directly to do with gangs but for which gang signs are a convenient explanation.


This measure would help constitutionalize the citizen as crime victim identity (subject of chapter 3 of Governing through Crime). The only good news here is that the very existence of this initiative may be evidence that the end is near for governing through crime. Efforts to constitutionalize usually mark awareness that the political vitality of a movement is slipping. Like its sister, Proposition 6, 9 would provide an opportunity for those who have benefited from the war on crime to lock in their gains. The single most atrocious feature of this initiative, is the senselessly cruel provision that would set rehearings in parole consideration for lifers in California prisons from its current 1 year, to a new presumption of 14 years. For many lifers in prison this is a death sentence and its adoption may well be followed by a wave of despair inside our prisons where lifers often play a key role in socializing younger inmates.

Both 6 and 9 are being supported financially by the Henry Nicholas, an internet millionaire whose sister was murdered by her boy friend 25 years ago, and who is now facing serious criminal charges involving fraud, sex, and drugs (read the story by Bethany Mclean in the November issue of Vanity Fair, Dr. Nicholas and Mr. Hyde)

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?

Monday, September 29, 2008

What happened to the super-predators?

For a workshop at NYU I re-read John DiIulio's much vaunted (and disparaged) 1995 article titled "The Coming of the Super-Predators," The Weekly Standard, Vol.I, No.11, pg. 23. What stands out today is not DiIulio's prediction that the nation was about to be overwhelmed by a birth cohort of morally impoverished young offenders (in fact youth violence dropped precipitously during the rest of the 1990s) but his accurate accounting of the intellectually impoverished criminological and crime policy thinking of the 1990s.

DiIulio offered what he called a "moral poverty" theory of youth crime. From DiIulio's perspective it was not economic poverty, discrimination, or savage levels of inequality that leads to crime, but instead, "moral poverty."

“Moral poverty is about the poverty of being without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong. It is the poverty of being without parents and other authorities who habituate you to feel joy at others joy, pain at others pain, happiness when you do right, remorse when you do wrong. It is the poverty of growing up in the virtual absence of people who teach morality by their own everyday example an who insist that you follow suit.”

DiIulio suggested that liberal social policies had intensified moral poverty and that each new generation of ghetto youth were becoming ever more savagely amoral. The world of the "Sharks" and the "Jets," in the 1950s, had become the world of the "Crips" and the "Bloods."

The logic was perfectly in step with the policies of mass incarceration which DiIulio supported. If society was going to be spared mass killings and rapes, only a massive effort at preventive incarceration could work against a feral generation of violent narcissists. If we wanted to something more positive, DiIulio suggested, we could build more churches and hopefully save a generation still in diapers (too late for the super predators).

As everyone now knows, the super-predators never showed up, but where did they go?

The answer is that they never existed. Each generation of young people is a generation of potential "super-predators" because youth is defined by narcissism and radical presentism. Whether this results in rapes and murders has far more to do with the unpredictable patterns of social networks, markets for criminal behavior, and the distribution of violence intensifying technologies like hand-guns then it does with either prisons or churches.

The lesson of the 1990s, if there is one, is that if you want to reduce criminal violence study housing, study the informal economy, study the logic of disputes among young people, study just about anything other than crime.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Our First Socialist VP: Baked Alaska Please

Philip Gourevitch's fascinating Letter from Alaska: The State of Sarah Palin, The peculiar political landscape of the Vice-Presidential hopeful, in the latest issue of the New Yorker, raises a little noted feature of Sarah Palin's experience as governor. The largest source of wealth in Alaska is its massive energy reserves (mostly oil and gas). Unlike most commodity based economies however, Alaska owns these resources for the benefit of all the people of Alaska. Alaskan's of sufficient residency in the state receive an annual cash benefit from the state's energy development. Indeed it was her success at negotiating a larger revenue stream for some of the development, resulting in larger annual checks, that has lifted Sarah Palin to very high approval ratings.

In short, thanks to its New Deal constitution, Alaska is a socialist state that operates for the benefit of its citizens, not property owners and capitalists. As Sarah Palin explained to Gourevitch (in a conversation weeks before her sudden fame after John McCain named her his running mate):

....Alaska ---we're set up, unlike other states in the union, where it's collectively Alaskans own the resoures. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs...Our state constitution---it lays it out for me, how I'm to conduct business with resource development here as the sate C.E.O. It's to maximize benefits for Alaskans, not an individual company, not some multinational somewhere, but for Alaskans.

You want Mavericks? What if McCain and Palin announced their intention to apply the Alaska model to American? No President since Richard Nixon has toyed with the idea of directly funding American families as a citizenship right.

What kind of state does this create? Alaskans are not rich. Indeed, many Alaskans, even with their share of the energy wealth, live at a subsidence level on hunting and fishing. It is worth noting however that notwithstanding Palin's national launch, Alaska appears to be a state little wracked by culture wars against demonized minorities, nor an aggressive war on crime. Indeed, growing marijuana for personal use was legal as late as the 80s (when Palin admits to trying it), the state has no death penalty, and has a smaller portion of its population then California or Texas.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Living the War on Crime

The traditional left critique is to see the war on crime and governing through crime as exclusively about governing the poor. I've always argued that the real significance of governing through crime is its hold on middle class life.

Thanks to Warren Rosenblum for this dispatch from Nancy Cambria's reporting in the St. Louis Dispatch:

WENTZVILLE — The trampoline outside the model home sits idle without a child in
sight — and so does the patio's kid-sized table scattered with storybooks
including Bambi and The Poky Little Puppy.

From the vantage point of the home's surveillance camera, one might wonder,
Where did the children go? Did the monitor in the kitchen just show a strange
car driving down the street?

In a home with ample views of cows grazing in a nearby farm, child abduction
scenarios might seem like the wrong sales pitch for a new subdivision in
Wentzville — a city where the murder rate last year was zero and violent crime
at the hands of a stranger is nearly nonexistent.

But inside the meticulous model home, real estate agent Joanie Graflage can't
stop talking about kidnappings, break-ins, peeping Toms, petty theft and any of
the other "God forbids" that haunt the hearts of parents.

"It may not all be about child abduction, but someone could break into your
home," she says.

Graflage is selling homes for the Villages of Hampton Grove, a neighborhood
that's being marketed as Missouri's first fully camera-secure subdivision.
Three surveillance cameras resembling tiny, black shower nozzles come standard
on the exterior of every home.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Media, the Mayor, the Iron Fist: Its How Governing through Crime Gets Done

-- A San Francisco court's ruling that a 14-year-old drug suspect from Honduras should be considered an abandoned youth - entitled to shelter rather than deportation - was thwarted Wednesday when the city turned him over to federal immigration authorities.

In SFChron, Jaxon Van Derbeken covers the City's new juvenile deportation practice, a change in policy Van Derbeken helped drive with a series of alarmest stories that pilloried the City for having applied its "sanctuary" policy to undocumented juvenile delinquents.

His first stories picked up federal complaints that San Francisco was privately flying undocumented juvenile delinquents back to their countries to avoid detention and deportation by ICE the federal Immigration Control and Enforcement Agency, as well as sending such juveniles to unlocked private juvenile rehabilitation facilities from which some had escaped by walking a way.

Subsequent stories turned up that one of these juveniles that benefited from the sanctuary policy now stands accused of a horrendous murder of a father and two sons.

Facing a possible gubernatorial run in 2010, SF Mayor Gavin Newsom beat a quick retreat on the policy after Van Derbeken's stories appeared. Newsom ordered the city's juvenile probation office to cooperate with federal authorities in deporting all such juveniles.

The resulting practice, now "covered" as news by Van Derbeken, is pure governing through crime. Agents of the executive (who appears as the champion of the people in their identity as potential crime victims), flouts the lawful orders of a court and the individual details of a vulnerable young person's life, handing over a 14 year old to ICE detention practices that have regularly resulted in deaths, and ultimately to being forced on an airplane and taken to a country in which he has no responsible family.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fear of Crime

I'm reading Richard Perlstein's mammoth book, Nixonland, on how defeated Nixon in 1962 won a landslide second term to the Presidency a decade later and the political transformations of the American public that coincided with that rise (a review will have to wait time to complete the more than 700 page tome). A big component emphasized by Perlstein was the perception that violent crime in America's large cities was galloping out of control.

It is hard not to feel political chills picking up the morning paper in 2008 to read of the East Bay's continuing series of armed robberies of restaurants and the growing public and political response. In the SFChron staff writers Henry K. Lee,Tyche Hendricks summarize the recent developments to include the pistol whipping of employees at a nail salon in North Oakland and 5:15 in the afternoon, robberies at a seafood restaurant Sunday night, and a pizzeria Saturday, a protest in affluent Rockridge after the robbery last week of a pasta restaurant especially popular with families, and the fact that the City of Oakland has openly asked the retro vigilante organization, the Guardian Angels, to help patrol the city.

Holy Cow Batman, is it 1968?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

August '68

The sounds of August 1968 were on the radio this morning during a segment of NPR's Morning Edition on the demonstrations at the Democratic convention in Chicago that summer, and next week's convention in Denver. The segment includes some snippets of original broadcast coverage as well as an interview with protest leader and later California State Senator, Tom Hayden.

The emphasis of the story was on the violence that week in Chicago and its impact on protest movements, but the scarier memories it brought back were about the police. First, consider the scale. According to Hayden, the much publicized call for protesters to come to Chicago netted something fewer then 1,000 visitors. At various points they were swelled to 10,000 by Chicago's large progressive community (my parents, then in their late thirties, and my older brother, then 16, among them). Mayor Daley in contrast had amassed a force of nearly 24,000 men, 12,000 police, 6,000 National Guard reserve soldiers, and astoundingly, 6,000 US Army troops.

What I remember, and what comes across in the snippets of broadcast tape in the NPR story, was the incredible sense of malice behind this unprecedented and probably unconstitutional force of state power. There was an anger toward the demonstrators, and toward the left-wing of the Democratic Party that anticipated the more lethal violence to come in America (Attica, Kent State, and Georgia State) and internationally (Argentina's dirty war).

Listening this morning, I found the voice of a network correspondent describing the police moving in on demonstrators outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel (where many delegates and much of the press was staying) nothing short of terrifying as it was to me as a 9 year old boy. Like something out of Night of the Living Dead, the correspondent describes the Chicago Police wading into the crowd of unarmed and hapless young people and bashing them repeatedly with their heavy wooden batons, "he won't be getting up again," the audibly shocked reporter says.

At the time the actions of Mayor Daley and LBJ were denounced by many, including Senator Abraham Ribicoff who analogized the police to the Gestapo on the floor of the convention. A national commission ultimately laid much of the blame on the police. But as the NPR focus on the demonstrators suggests, the stigma ended up largely on the protesters not the "forces of order".

Friday, August 22, 2008

Notes from Italy (2)

By Alessandro De Giorgi,
Professor of Justice Studies,
San Jose State University
Special Correspondent to GTC

Another significant step toward a reduction of rights and liberties has been taken in Italy last week. In fact, following the “security package” approved by the Berlusconi III government, among other unconstitutional measures to be used in the ongoing war against “illegal” immigrants and their supposed dangerousness, a new directive has been issued by the Ministry of Interior (08/05/2008), providing city mayors with increased discretionary powers in matters of public safety and urban safety.
In Italy, public order has always been a prerogative of the Polizia (the civilian police controlled by the Ministry of Interior), and the Carabinieri (the military police controlled by the Ministry of Defense).
However, locally each town has its own municipal police – traditionally an unarmed and “friendly” force, in charge of traffic regulation and other minor tasks – whose deployment and rules of engagement are decided by mayors and by local police chiefs, within the limits defined by the State’s law.

Berlusconi III’s “security package” has widely extended those limits, providing that mayors have the power and duty to deploy their (now armed) local police forces against:
a) Conditions of urban decay which are known to contribute to the emergence of street crimes, such as alcohol abuse, drug dealing and “aggressive” begging;
b) Situations in which the general quality of life has deteriorated as a consequence of vandalism (i.e., graffiti) or damage to public buildings and infrastructure;
c) Illegal occupation of abandoned buildings;
d) Unlawful street-selling activities;
e) Behaviors which offend public morality (such as street prostitution) or endanger safe access to (and use of) public spaces such as streets, parks, etc.
Mayors – both from the right and the left – have been quick to make immediate use of these increased powers, issuing citywide ordinances such as the following ones:
1) in Novara (Northern Italy) it is forbidden for groups of 3 or more people to be in public parks after 11pm;
2) in Venice, it is forbidden to carry bags containing goods for sale (a measure against unauthorized street-sellers – in 99% of cases, immigrants);
3) in Rome, it is forbidden to search for food or recyclable items in garbage cans;
4) in Florence, it is forbidden to wash windshields at street corners;
5) in several Northern Italian towns, call-centers – obviously used almost only by immigrants to call home – must now have two restrooms and a private parking lot in order to be legal (of course, none of this applies to restaurants, boutiques, or other “locally owned” activities).

A very “soft” critique of these measures – which target exclusively the immigrant population – has been expressed by the Democratic Party – the only parliamentary opposition left after the crisis of the left in Italy. Once again, the most surprising aspect is the degree of support these measures seem to receive from an emerging silent majority.

In the last two decades or so, many (post)-critical criminologists in Europe have been arguing – often under ambiguous labels such as “situational crime prevention”, “community policing”, “safe-cities”, etc. – for a shift from the national to the local level in matters of urban security and crime control: the idea was that more “democratic” and “grassroots” strategies of crime prevention and conflict resolution could emerge from the local level, where citizens would express their needs and concerns (i.e. fear of crime) directly to local administrators who would take those concerns seriously, but less constrained by the dangerous temptations of symbolic politics than national politicians.

However, the recent developments in Italy have shown once again that local crusades for urban security can be as exclusionary and discriminatory as the ones launched nationally, and that sometimes, contrary to some assumptions of self-proclaimed realist criminologists, public fears should be contested and deconstructed, rather than being “taken seriously”…

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dazed and Confused: Broke California faces an 8 Billion Dollar Prison Hang Over

I can understand the pain and shock that many Californian's felt this morning as they perused headlines in their local paper and took in the number 8 Billion, as in an 8 Billion dollar court order to pay that the state, currently in full budget crisis mode, may have to pay immediately (read Mathew Yi's reporting in the SFChron).

Its like reading the fine print on your credit card website as you try to comprehend a massive change in the interest rate being charged on your huge balance. Only times millions.

The state's revenues, flush during the long real estate boom, are now as dry as the creeks here at mid-summer. Even the most insulated public institutions, like the UC system, are taking a 10 percent "haircut" on their budgets.

For decades now prison spending has expanded regardless of where the state was in the economic cycle. The 88 prisoners in the state for every 100 thousand free people, when I moved here to attend college at Cal in 1977, had grown by more then six-fold when I moved back to teach at that college (for the best account of how the real estate surpluses fed the prison boom, see Ruth Gilmore's Golden Golden Gulag: Prisons Surplus, Crisis, Opposition, in Globalizing California). But during most of those years the pains of that growth were smoothed by budget surpluses in the good times and bonds in the bad, readily agreed upon by elected officials who mostly agreed that prison spending was good for Californians, sort of eating your vegetables, very very expensive vegetables.

But now a huge amount of money is being called due, not by smiling politicians who claim to have our back, but by a law professor who answers to a federal judge, who answers to the Constitution. Nobody's claiming this will make us safer (the usual spoon full of sugar) but instead, legal, even moral obligations that we haven't been told to worry about for a long time. Welcome Guantanamo, California style.

The money, which will pay for some eight new prison hospitals, and a dental facility, as well as massive remodeling of existing prison medical facilities, is a testament not only to the length and depth of this prison boom but to the total disregard for anything other then locking people up as cheaply and rapidly as possible. Governor George Deukmeijian, (1983-1991) used to quip that it was better for the state to have worry about how to house criminals, than for citizens to find criminals in their houses. That sounded like common sense, and it may be true (at least for the minority of prisoners who were burglars on the outside), but now that so many of our houses are in foreclosure, and the state's fiscal house is in full crisis, we must look at this commonsense with new eyes.

Start with what a loss this will be. The 8 billion which would have paid a substantial portion of the cost for bringing health insurance to all Californian's will pay for facilities that will only be used by prisoners and which will become mostly useless if we can ever succeed in shrinking the base of our massive prison population to something even remotely reasonable.

In the short term, that massive economic signal to medical professionals everywhere to come join the ranks of the prison health system, will raise the costs of health care for every single Californian and probably all but dry it up in the poorer corner of the state.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Symbol of Liberty? Prison-like plan for World Trade Center

It was supposed to be a symbol of how liberty arises from its ashes, a restoration of a real street grid and living neighborhood (which ironically the original WTC design eviscerated). But while the new tower may symbolize liberty from afar, its street level design is a palladium of security with even the terminology of prisons:

According to the reporting of Charles V. Bagli, in the NYTimes:

the entire area would be placed within a security zone, in which only specially screened taxis, limousines and cars would be allowed through ‘’sally ports,'’ or barriers staffed by police officers, constructed at each of five entry points.

The proposal threatens to reopen a bitter debate that many had thought was settled four years ago.

Landlords, company executives, public officials and some urban planners acknowledged the need for security at ground zero, but worried that the procedures would undermine the effort to reweave the trade center site into the city’s fabric. They fear that the proposed traffic restrictions could create tie-ups in a congested neighborhood and discourage corporate tenants from renting space, or shoppers from visiting the stores in the area.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Mess with Texas

The state of Texas executed Jose Medellin yesterday in defiance of international treaties signed by the United States and over the objection of the death penalty friendly Bush Administration. Medellin was part of a horrible gang rape and strangulation murder of two teenage girls fifteen years ago. The only member of the gang to be executed so far (two others remain under sentences of death while two others were sentenced to death but were commuted to life in prison). Medellin was 19 at the time (a year younger and he could no longer face execution).

The international law issue arose because the United States is party to a treaty that requires signatory nations to provide access to counselors from their home nation after being arrested. Medellin was never provided this counselor assistance. Since Mexico is strongly opposed to the death penalty, and advocates for its citizens caught up in the US justice system, and since obtaining good legal assistance as early as possible is the most crucial factor in any capital case, there is good reason to believe Medellin might not have been sentenced to death had Texas followed US law (treaties have superiority to any state law).

This counselor access treaty operates to protect Americans when they get arrested in a foreign nation, which is why the Bush Administration has sought repeatedly to get Texas to remove Medellin from death row. But protecting Americans is not a priority for the state of Texas which apparently puts its rituals of vengeance above any other consideration. Texas has long put itself apart from the rest of the nation in its practice of execution. With 26 executions in 2007 (down from as many as 50 per year in the 1990s), Texas executed more people then all the other states in the union combined.

There are a lot of good people in Texas, including some of my loved ones, and many of them despise the state's reputation as blood thirsty state. But as much as I'd miss the art and the barbecue in Houston, and the music in Austin, its time to face the truth. Texas belongs in some other union. So I'm personally appealing to Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Legislature to secede from the union.

As Phil Och's once wrote of Mississippi, "find yourself another country to be part of." I would suggest China, Iran, Nigeria, or some other country that better fits your moral values.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

From the World Series of Democracy to the Super Bowl of Security

In today's NYTimes David Johnston and Eric Schmitt provide a fascinating (and grim) look at police preparations for the upcoming national party conventions in Denver (Dems) and St. Paul (Reps) later this month and next. Its clear that what was once a kind of championship of partisan democracy, with floor fights and multi-ballot nominations contests, has turned into a Super-Bowl of security where federal and local law enforcement compete with each other to spy-on and manage citizens who might want to express their views before the assembled party leaders.

National political conventions are a chance for federal agencies to test their latest and most sophisticated technology, and this year is no different. There was a brief flare-up recently between the F.B.I. and the Secret Service, when each wanted to patrol the skies over the convention with their surveillance aircraft, packed with infrared cameras and other electronics. The issue was resolved in favor of the Secret Service, according to people briefed on the matter.

Both Denver and St. Paul, where the Republican National Convention will be held Sept. 1-4, are enlisting thousands of additional officers to help with security. Even so, their numbers will be only about a third of the 10,000 police officers that New York City fielded for the 2004 Republican convention, just three years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Denver Police Department will nearly double in size, according to federal officials involved in the planning. The city is bringing in nearly 1,500 police officers from communities throughout Colorado and beyond, even inviting an eight-person mounted unit from Cheyenne, Wyo. State lawmakers changed Colorado law to allow the out-of-state police officers to serve as peace officers in Denver.

I particularly like this quote from White House security adviser (and Boalt grad!) Kenneth L. Wainstein which suggests that since 9/11 no expression of liberty is too minor to escape security management.

“In the post-9/11 world, you have to prepare and plan for all contingencies,” Mr. Wainstein said. “That means preparing for everything from a minor disruption and an unruly individual to a broader terrorist event. We need to plan for everything no matter what the threat level is on any particular day.”

In addition to this year's historic significance of the first African-American major party nominee, officials are pointing to internet organizing efforts by protest groups with names like "Recreate 68" and "Tent State."

Organizers insist the groups are nonviolent, but to the authorities their names alone raise the specter of violent confrontations like those at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

Apparently lost is the irony that in both the '68 Chicago convention riot, and the Kent State killings, official investigations largely blamed the Chicago Police Department and the Ohio National Guard for the violent results.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Notes from Italy

A special report by GTC correspondent Alessandro di Giorgi, Professor of Justice Studies, San Jose State University, and author of Rethinking the Political Economy of Punishment.

July 31, 2008

According to a recent opinion polls, 9 Italians out of 10 think that crime is rising in Italy (and 6 out of 10 hold the same point of view when asked about their own neighborhood); more than 50% identify immigration as the main cause of this increase; a majority of respondents say they would support “exceptional” measures to fight crime; 47% think that Gipsy camps should be cleared once and for all by the police – whether alternative housing for their occupants is made available or not.
However, this appears to be something more than just a matter of volatile opinions and floating views: when given the chance, some people have taken what they see as “justice” in their own hands against those whom they see as the immediate threat to their security and wellbeing. In the last few months – mainly in the poor and desolated peripheries of Rome and Naples, where most camps (and temporary housing for immigrants, more generally) have been established by the local authorities, in a clear attempt to make them invisible to decent citizens – racist attacks have multiplied.
Sometimes an over-amplified criminal episode has been taken as the pretext for these assaults, as in the case of Ponticelli near Naples, where last May hundreds of enraged residents almost managed to lynch a young gipsy girl accused of attempting to “steal” a baby from inside a house, and then set the nearby gipsy camp on fire destroying it entirely and forcing all its inhabitants to take refuge somewhere else. In other cases, the simple fact of being foreigner, black and poor has been enough to mobilize residents against immigrants, as in the case of Pianura – once again, near Naples – where this week 107 immigrants recently evacuated from a building they had illegally occupied, were prevented by enraged neighbors from moving into their newly assigned temporary housing (an abandoned school); at that point – in a desperate act of protest remindful of the 1995 sans-papier movement in France – the immigrants occupied a church in Naples, only to be attacked and dispersed by the police.

On the other hand, the Berlusconi III government is acting fast and furious against these internal enemies, promoting the idea that the fears of “exasperated” citizens must be taken seriously: after fingerprinting all the gypsies (and their children) – unleashing strong critiques from EU bodies, such as the European Commission, the Council of Europe and – most recently – the European committee on human rights – the Italian government has now adopted its “security package”: a comprehensive anti-(immigrant)crime legislation which, among other things, provides that:
1) Punishments for crimes committed by “illegal immigrants” are increased by up to 1/3
(a blatant violation of the principle of equality before the law, as established both by the Italian Constitution and by the European Convention on Human Rights);
2) Immigrants can be detained in “Identification and Expulsion Centers” for up to 18 months (formerly, the maximum period was 60 days);
3) European citizens can be deported from Italy whenever local authorities (e.g. majors, police chiefs) identify them as dangerous for public safety and public order (this measure had been already adopted by the former center-left government in order to be able to deport immigrants from countries recently admitted to the EU, such as Romania and Poland);
4) Almost 3000 soldiers will be deployed with public order responsibilities in several Italian cities (Rome, Naples, Milan; Palermo, etc.). Of them, 1000 will be assigned to “sensible targets” (foreign embassies, governmental buildings, etc.), 1000 will monitor immigration detention centers from outside (to prevent escapes), and the remaining 1000 will patrol cities (jointly with civilian police officers) with powers to identify and arrest suspects.

Finally, this is taking place without any significant parliamentary opposition to these measures – indeed, (due in part to an irrational electoral law), for the first time in the history of the Republic (1948-?), since the 2008 elections the left (green, socialist, social-democratic or post-communist) is not represented in the parliament – which means that any institutional resistance is now in the hands of the newly constituted (and very moderate) “Democratic Party”.
Meanwhile, the latest polls show that the popularity of the Berlusconi III government (and of Berlusconi himself as premier) is growing to levels (more than 60%) never touched by his predecessor Romano Prodi, nor by any recent government in Italy.
The question looming over critical observers of the punitive turn in Italy is not new: “democracy at work” or “authoritarian populism”?

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.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Leave No Crime Victim Votes Behind: Willy Horton's Shadow

Anyone who believes that crime and the fear of crime no longer "rules" American society and politics, better keep your eye on the "change" candidate, and what stays the same. The Supreme Court, by a one vote 5-4 majority, maintained a thirty-one year old barrier against expanding the death penalty to crimes where the victim is not killed. The decision, Kennedy v. Louisiana, overturned laws in several states that make capital punishment an option for the rape of a child. Among its first critics were state legislators in several states that have expanded capital punishment to child rape, and Democratic Presidential hopeful, Barack Obama (read the Washington Post coverage of Obama's statement). That's right, Obama, who saw Illinois fatally flawed death penalty up close, thinks murder is just too narrow a category for this worthy exercise of popular sovereignty. Here are the candidates words hot from the pander:

"I have said repeatedly I think the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances, for the most egregious of crimes," said the Illinois senator, speaking to reporters at a hometown press conference. But he added, "I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime, and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well defined circumstances, the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that does not violate our Constitution."

I'm still voting for Barack, but let's be clear, no part of our political system has been more transformed by the malignant war on crime than the office of president. No contemporary president will lead us out of the valley of governing through crime. Only a popular uprising against this flawed model of governance will lead Barack Obama or John McCain down the path they both know is correct (McCain knows a little something about the flaws of punishment).