Saturday, September 19, 2009

Workplace Violence? Making Sense of Annie Le's Murder

Am I the only one that was bothered by the effort of the New Haven Police Chief to make sure we didn't think the murder of Annie Le had anything to do with either New Haven or Yale? In their coverage in the New York Times Javier Hernandez and Serge Kovaleski write:

Chief James Lewis of the New Haven police would not speak about a possible motive, but said, “It is important to note that this is not about urban crime, university crime, domestic crime, but an issue of workplace violence, which is becoming a growing concern around the country.”

In a statement,Richard C. Levin, the Yale president, said the supervisor “reports that nothing in the history of his employment at the university gave an indication that his involvement in such a crime might be possible.

Urban crime? Last time I checked New Haven counted as a city (maybe not a major city). Does this just mean that the accused, Raymond Clark, happens to be white? He was after all otherwise a local. University crime? I'm not sure what that is meant to include except perhaps political violence like the 1969 bombing of a research lab in Wisconsin, or more recent violence by animal rights militants. Domestic crime? Ok, there is no hint that Annie Le had any kind of relationship with Raymond Clark. But where does the Chief get off hinting darkly that there is a growing problem of "workplace" crime?

It is true that people spend a lot of time at work, so its not surprising that they are sometimes victims of crime there. That is particularly true of domestic violence. When partners separate, work may be the easiest place for the abusive partner to arrange a confrontation. Many workplaces, like retail stores, are targets for robberies. Here is where you can find a copy of the federal government's last published report on workplace violence. Published in 2001 and reviewing data from 1993 through 1999, the report shows violence in the workplace going down along with violence generally in America in those years. In 1999 there were a little over 600 workplace homicides out of more than 15 thousand nationwide. Perhaps there is a new trend emerging in more recent data that the Chief is aware of. Otherwise it is irresponsible to suggest that workplaces are a place that would benefit from even more fear of crime than Americans generally already feel.

As for the university, like many employers they have already invested in crime background checks, and apparently closed circuit video taping around its animal labs (probably to combat animal rights activists). College or university teachers already enjoy the lowest level of occupational violence of any studied group (as of 2001) at only 2 incidents per 1,000 teachers.

I'm no expert on criminal motivation. She was a petite and beautiful young woman. He was a physically powerful and apparently heterosexual young man. We may never know more than that. Let us accept grief at a promising life brutally ended, and some gratitude at the prospect of legal justice thanks to what appears to have been an effective investigation (although some questions about crime scene management have emerged). Let us not seek to invest even more of our life-world with the apparatus of crime control in the pursuit of a level of perfect security that does not exist.

Wishing all of you a happy new year (on the Jewish calendar, 5770)

[cross posted at Prawfsblawg]

Monday, September 14, 2009

My Daughter Does Walk to School

My twelve-year-old daughter will walked to school this morning, she has been since a year ago when she began at Martin Luther King Middle School about a mile from our home in north Berkeley. As Jan Hoffman reported in yesterday’s Sunday Styles section of the NYT, this kind of routine traverse to and from school, a fixture of my childhood (ironically I was living in Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago where in the late 1960s street crime was hardly a fantasy), has become an endangered species in early 21st century America, a victim of a handful of childhood predators among us, and a vast and largely state supported fear of victimization. While according to Hoffman fewer than 115 child abductions by strangers occurs in a year on average, many Americans will see that many “Amber Alert” highway signs blinking a message about a child kidnapping in progress.
Those parents that seek to allow their children what one author and parent, Lenore Skenazi has appropriately called “Free Range" childhood, (the alternative the “gated childhood” we no impose on kids of all classes in the name of their security. Despite the fact that my daughter walks through an upper-middle class neighborhood where there are hardly ever drive by shootings or outdoor drug selling, the fact that a stranger might pull up and force her into a car (more or less what happened to Jaycee Dugard in South Lake Tahoe 19 years ago) haunts me and probably every parent. My wife and I have decided to embrace “free range childhood” for our kids because we have concluded that on balance the physical and mental gains from enjoying autonomy and that quintessential form of freedom known as walking around one’s neighborhood outweigh that terrifying if vanishingly small risk of a kidnapping.

The focus on gated childhood is important as we reflect on the costs of over-securitizing American society. While my book Governing through Crime devotes only a chapter to the family, and only a small part of that to the issue of overprotecting one’s children, it is in many respects where the war on crime really begins and ends. Protecting ones’ children, rather than conscious or unconscious racism, is the primary consideration that leads parents to choose non-walkable and non-diverse gated communities to live in, sterile segregated schools, and harsh penal policies that promise to (regardless of how marginally) improve that protection. Until we stop imprisoning our children behind walls of our own fear, there is little chance we will stop imprisoning so many of our fellow citizens. That is one political battle that will have to be fought one household at a time.

[Cross posted at Prawfsblawg]

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Prison Reform Lite: With Fiscal and Constitutional Alarms Ringing, Cal Legislature Hits the Snooze Button

Staggering to the end of what Assembly Speaker Karen Bass called "a painful year for all of us", the California legislature passed and sent on to Governor Schwarzenegger a prison bill that will help the state save about a billion dollars (in a 26 billion deficit situation), about 200 million short of the governors announced goal (read Michael Rothfeld and Shane Goldmacher's reporting in the LATimes; and Kevin Yamamura, Steve Wiegand and Jim Sanders' reporting in the SacBee). The other number, besides the budget, is the 40,000 inmate reduction over two years called for by the three judge federal court in the Plata/Coleman case. The plan is expected to reduce the prison population by about 17,000 during the year, as opposed to the 27,000 projected by the Governor's plan. While the "reforms" enacted are certainly sensible, and while the numbers may yet add up to something that will satisfy the federal court, the portions of the plan that opponents were able to defeat highlights the difference between short term adjustments and sustainable reform. As Senator Gloria Romero put it: "What's not in the bill is a resolution and solution to this prison crisis." The items dropped from the Governors more ambitious plan (which was enacted by the state senate) also reveals the black hole of public trust at the center of the constellation of political forces we call "mass incarceration."

According to the Governor's spokeswoman: "the centerpiece of this legislation is the parole reform that protects public safety, avoids early release and saves the state nearly $1 billion." The plans major proposal, and where most of the savings come, is the parole reform measure that will essentially create a new parole status for inmates deemed lower risk. Prisoners released onto this parole-lite would continue to be subject to special parole conditions (including a waiver of 4th Amendment rights) but would not receive active supervision by a parole agent and most importantly, would not be eligible for administrative return to custody for violating those conditions (they could still be sent to prison for a new term based on a new court conviction).

The plan is not a bad one, although I question whether a parole status whose only purpose is to permit police to ignore the Fourth Amendment should survive a constitutional challenge. California is practically alone in placing every single one of its vast number of prisoners on parole at the end of their most determinate sentences. Public safety probably will be improved if parole supervision is focused on a more select group of high risk parolees (like Philip Garrido), and prison conditions will improve if some of the 70,000 plus parolees a year sent back to prison are kept in the community instead. However, depending on how the classification process works, I would expect relentless pressure on the bureaucracy to classify prisoners as high enough risk to qualify for active parole. Especially after the inevitable media frenzy that will happen once a "low risk" parolee rapes or murders someone, the ratio of low to high risk parolees on which all the savings depend will shift in favor of more surveillance for more people.

The two elments of the Governor's plan that were defeated are revealing about the kinds of mistrust that anchor political resistance to reform. First, the Governor would have saved another 200 million by moving some 6,300 most elderly or very sick inmates to hospices, hospitals, and in some cases to home arrest in what was euphemistically being called "alternative custody" to avoid the dreaded accusation of "early release." The idea of "early release" is, of course, a highly arbitrary one in California, since the length of our prison sentences have no relationship to any principled basis of penology. But even one wants to call it early release, the fact that Californians (or more precisely their representatives in Sacramento) are terrified by the idea that some 65 year old life long meth addict dying of emphysema may be housed in a hospice outside of prison walls is sad and pathetic.

Far more crucial is the fear of expert knowledge represented by the defeat of a sentencing commission. The commission would have been stacked with law enforcement represenatives appointed by the Governor and the legislature anyway, but even so the chance that a systematic overhaul of our penal choices would have been authorized was considered far too dangerous by organized law enforcement (most I assume the Correctional Officers union) and prosecutors who benefit from being able to draw on a vast an incoherent jumble of excessive punishment.

Cross posted at Prawfsblawg

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Truly Radical Idea: Van Jones and the Greening of Criminal Justice

The midnight resignation of Obama environmental adviser Van Jones is being treated in the media and the blogosphere [read Fred Barbash and Harry Siegel's summary on Politico] as yet another turn in Washington's ideological gang war ("Washington's a tough place that way," noted Howard Dean in one of the more sympathetic comments). Fox's Glenn Beck is said to have scored the first "scalp" inside the Obama White House, and many progressives are describing Jone's demise as a "lynching" or a "swiftboating" and bemoaning the administration's unseemly haste to rush Jones out the door. Indeed, the controversey seems like a decent Hollywood send-up of Bill Clinton dumping Lani Guinier. Jones' past as an organzier with an avowedly revolutionary organization here in the ultra-Left Bay Area, STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement) was widely known at the time of his appointment to an advisory position requiriging no Senate confirmation (the alleged policy nub of the criticisms directed at Jones). It seems hard to believe that Jone's alleged primary sins of signing a 9/11 "truther" petition or calling Republicans "assh-les" in a speech last February before he took office (didn't the former Vice President use an expletive on the floor of the Senate without having to resign) could be more damning in the eyes of Fox News then being a Marxist revolutionary, but there you have it. The truth is that Jones' has promoted one of the most radical ideas to emerge from the Bay Area in some years; but his vision has more in common with Alice Waters than Che Guevera.

The Ella Baker Center, the civil rights organization Jones cofounded in 1996, was one of the first to take up the issue of mass incarceration as a primary focus for civil rights struggle. In innovative and successful organizing drives, like the movement to stop Oakland from building a giant new juvenile detention center at the height of California's "lock-em up" politics, Jones began to forge a vision linking environmentalism and criminal justice reform. What Jones saw was that the high carbon automobile dependent lifestyle of mostly white middle class people in the suburbs, was linked to high incarceration economically disinvested lifestyles of mostly people of color in the inner cities by a logic of fear. The alternative to both was a new green urban agenda, in which the inherent energy advantages of innercity locations could be leveraged by investment in new energy efficient infrastructures. The by-product (in addition to slower climate change) would be tens of thousands of new skilled jobs in the very innercity locations which had suffered the most crime and incarceration during decades of deindustrialization and middle class flight. If that infrastructure reinvestment cycle could be unleashed, a serious effort at breaking down the barriers to employment by the formerly incarcerated could be the single most important criminal justice fight of our time (and one that could unify law enforcement and justice system critics).

This is a truly radical idea, one that challenges not democracy and capitalism, but our expensive and cronyism riddled penal state. It is not the vast rightwing conspiracy, but the far more powerful centrist alliance of high incarceration/high carbon political and economic interests that will benefit from removing Van Jones.

[Cross posted on Prawfsblawg]