Saturday, July 25, 2009

President Obama and the Paradoxes of Policing

The end of the week controversy over Professor Henry Louis Gate's arrest in Cambridge, and President Obama's own comments on that arrest, may have presented the nation with a "teaching moment" about race and policing (Gate's words quoted in the NYTimes story by Peter Baker and Helen Cooper). It has already been one about the national importance of police power since the "war on crime."

First, the idea tha President Obama erred by making a "neighborhood story" into a "national" one is wrong historically. Policing the neighborhood has been a national issue since the mid-1960s. Every president since LBJ has posed as frequently as possible with large phalanxes of uniformed local police. The politicians who have most sought public police support, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Rudolph Guliani, have all reaped national benefits. If President Obama did something different it was varying from the tone of reverential solemnity and adoration in describing the "boys in blue". I will leave it to our linguists to parce whether the President's use of the phrase "stupid" was a mistake that opened the door to class conflicts, I suspect that no matter how carefully he had crafted his message, anything recognizably critical would have been met by the kind of response it has. The first paradox than is that police operate locally but since the "war on crime" became a national crusade, police have become what the military is in foreign wars, a sacralized metaphor for the national public itself. Sgt. Crowley, once surrounded by the national police community and the deeply ingrained media love affair with the police (anchors are almost as eager as politicians to pose with them), is actually the equal of President Obama in stature.

[read the rest of this post on Prawfsblawg]

Friday, July 24, 2009

Memo to the bond market

Ok, I know nothing about bonds (its basically a loan, right?), but I have watched California prisons grow steadily over the second half of my now 50 years. While it looks certain that the California legislature will pass, and the governor sign, the complex budget compromise (read the SFChron coverage), if I were loaning money to the state on the basis of there budgetary projections, I would start worrying now. Specifically, 1.2 billion in savings in the fiscal year is promised from cuts to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Republicans initially balked at voting for the overall package if it included the corrections cuts which assumed prisoner populations reductions (the dreaded early release). They compromised at voting for the 1.2 billion cut without any specification as to how it would be obtained. That will leave the Democratic majority free to enact specific prison policy shifts on a majority vote (rather than the 2/3 constitutionally required for budget resolutions) and the governor, theoretically willing to sign it. But the Republicans have promised a major debate against "early release" backed by law enforcement and the correctional officer's union. It is quiet possible that enough Democrats will defect or that Schwarzenegger will decide not to sign the bills that emerge. More importantly, for any promise of long term sustained correctional cuts to be believable, you need to see the magic words "sentencing commission" in any package of correctional policy changes. Short of that, do not loan us money withoug "juice loan" premiums.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Read my lips, "no early releases from prison"

As day light breaks over the second day of California's epically ugly budget compromise there are signs the deal may yet fall apart on the way to a legislative vote later this week. The problem is not that draconian cuts in social services to the poor and disabled, the open thievery of county revenues, or the very obvious gimmicks like moving the dates of pay days from one fiscal year to another, its the possibility that some California prisoner, somewhere, may leave a prison early.

[read the rest of this post at Prawfsblawg]

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Wise Prosecutor

In chapter 2 of my book, Governing through Crime (OUP 2009 pap), I describe how the war on crime transformed the political significance of prosecutors:

The prosecutor has long been a unique and important officeholder within the American systems of justice and government, with deep but limited powers and a special claim to represent the local community as a whole. In the last decades of the twentieth century, however, the war on crime reshaped the American prosecutor into and important model for political authority....

That authority was on display in the past two days of Sotomayor hearings as the Judge deflected some of the harshest attacks of Republican Senators by invoking either her law enforcement perspective generally, or her prosecutorial experience in particular. The tactic has been quite effective. Not surprisingly, Senators of both parties are disinclined to follow their critique of Judge Sotomayor's subject perspective into a concern for her possible bias against criminal defendants or to question the appropriateness of empathy when it comes to real or possible victims of violent crime. Below the fold I offer a few examples.

[read the rest of this post at Prawfsblawg]

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Rule of 10

I started last week with the proposition that sentences for violent crime are too long and that overly long sentences for the violent anchors a system of mass imprisonment. I want to come back later to the dynamics that might explain how fear of violence generates support for incarcerating the disorderly, but for now I want to raise a more provocative point. How long should prison sentences be for violent crime? I do not have an answer, but I do I have a hunch I'd love to get some reaction to, it is what I'll call, the rule of 10. Putting aside what to do with violent recidivists (a person who serves a lengthy prison term for a violent crime and then commits another such crime on release), and the kinds of especially heinous murders that are sometimes still punished with death in the United States, persons convicted of willful injury (or even killing) another, should generally be released after not more than 10 years of imprisonment. (I'll reserve for now the question of whether indeterminacy could be built into that to prevent the release of those prisoners who seem to pose a particularly extended risk given their behavior in prison).

[read the rest of this post at Prawfsblawg]

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Reconsidering the Punishment of Violent Crime

For those of us who believe that America imprisons too high a portion of its population, recent years have seen mixed progress. Many states have adopted measures that aim to move drug-addicted offenders involved in drug and property crime from jail or prison toward treatment under the threat of jail. Other categories of prisoners who seem to be enjoying some increase in sympathy from the public and politicians include women (whose crimes are often tied up with the criminality of abusive partners, and whose loss from the community often leaves a bigger hole than with men), juveniles facing long prison terms, and parolees returned to prison on technical violations (this may be a unique California problem but it includes tens of thousands of prisoners). This approach has lots of political appeal right now, but it will not work to achieve a substantial and enduring reduction in the US rate of incarceration. Instead, against all political common sense, I believe we need to directly address the extraordinarily harsh prison sentences we now hand out for violent crime.

[continue reading this post on Prawfsblawg]

Monday, July 6, 2009

Mass Imprisonment: The Birth of a Social Problem

Looking around for a dissertation topic in 1986, I followed the lead of my adviser, Sheldon Messinger, and began to look more closely at California's rapidly growing prison system. I came to focus in particular on the parole system that was supposed to guide prisoners back into society, but which instead seemed to keep them cycling back to prison (see my 1993 book Poor Discipline: Parole and the Social Control of the Underclass, 1890-1990 for the details). California's prison population had already increased more than 100 percent since I began as an undergraduate at Berkeley nine years earlier in 1977 (we took our time in those days). Many people, especially academic criminologists, doubted the wisdom of sending lots of felony offenders indiscriminately to prison (let alone parole violators), mainly because they did not believe it would reduce crime (others did believe, especially James Q. Wilson). Messinger was one of the few beginning to worry outloud (although not in print) about how this massive increase in the scale of imprisonment would effect society more generally. I was able to communicate some of his disquiet empirically in Poor Discipline.

The turnabout in that perception is now quite visible in academic research, and increasingly in public discourse. Erik Eckholm's excellent article on the children of the incarcerated in yesterday's NYTimes is a case in point. But while the emergence of mass imprisonment as a social problem in its own right is an encouraging sign (for those of us who would like to reverse it), it will only get us part of the way there.

[to read the rest of this post with all the links on Prawsfblawg]

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Durkheim's Law and Order

A terrible crime is committed, the kind that brings scores of relatives to their knees in grief and sets thousands more on edge; the kind of crime that can lead people to question their own sense of the rightness of the moral order in which they live. A wrong doer is identified. Upon him the moral outrage of the community is turned. Through the expression of that outrage in punishment (originally in the most physical and painful ways), the sense of rightness to the moral order is restored.

[The rest of this post can be read on prawfsblawg where I will be guest blogging this month and next]