Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Strangers We Know

As sociologists of urban American have powerfully documented, our inner city neighborhoods of highly concentrated poverty have suffered under a powerful stigma of crime fear that influences almost all aspects of economic and social life from the unwillingness of retail enterprises to open in such neighborhoods even when federal welfare transfers assure a profitable market for at least some essentials (like groceries) to the willingness of the police to assume that virtually anyone of the right age and gender on the street is involved in gangs and crime. In many respects this stigma has now replaced (and arguably reproduced) the stigma once associated with non-White racial status in American (and especially "Blackness"). The other side of this equation is the huge "pass" middle class Americans give neighborhoods that are coded as middle class (where most people have jobs and a plurality of them, at least, are white. For many individual "consumers", and for the businesses that serve them, these neighborhoods signify safety and security, places where violent crime, if it happens at all, is an aberrant event created by the penetration of outsiders.

Of course that kind of thinking is a textbook example of what sociologists since the mid-20th century have called the "ecological fallacy," the false presumption that a statistical portrait of a place gives you an understanding of the individuals who occupy that place. The irony is that while violent crime is far less of a risk than many people imagine, those kinds of violent crime that people may fear the most, stranger abductions and murders, often for sexual purposes, may be the part of that risk least able to be strategically avoided through ecological discrimination in residential and commercial life.

A terrible crime here in the United Kingdom (where I am spending this Hogmanay), illustrates these themes (read the latest coverage by Steven Morris in the Guardian). The Monday before Christmas, 25 year old Joanna Yeates, a landscape architect with a close family and recently living with her boyfriend went missing in Bristol, a city of around 450 thousand (in a met area of more than a million). The case quickly capture media attention in a society almost as crime focused as the US. Her parents made a public appeal for help. When her frozen body was found Christmas morning on the edge of a street in a suburban area about three miles from her home the palpable horror in the country cut through the holiday frenzy.

Today, just a day before the Hogmanay holiday (New Years Eve to those of you reading outside of Scotland), the Avon and Somerset Police announced the arrest of a suspect, Chris Jeffries, her landlord and a slightly flamboyant retired English teacher at the local equivalent of a community college. The coverage of this makes clear that the police consider him a suspect rather than a witness, a judgment that could come undone, police at least in the US have a long history of focusing on weird suspects who may come across to jurors as alien in some respect and thus possibly a murderer.

The coverage now carries the predictable but nonetheless illuminating statements of other neighbors who can add to their shock at having one of their neighbors murdered, the shock that one of their neighbors, perhaps this very well established figure in the block, might be the murderer.

A resident, Tony Buss, 51, said that one of the cars towed away by police belonged to Jefferies. "Today's news is a shock and surprise," he said.

Another neighbour, a 26-year-old man who did not want to be named, said: "It's all been pretty scary, especially for my girlfriend as I'm away most of the week so it's been pretty scary for her to be home alone. We chose the area of Clifton to live in because we thought it was safe."

Note especially the language of about neighborhood and crime risk. "We chose the area of Clifton to live in because we thought it was safe." Its a nice one line summary of just how important crime fear is in how middle class people live even in the UK. Even if the case against Jeffries holds up it may not do much to alter the willingness of people to invest in the ecological fallacy. When terrible crimes are committed by the residents of "safe" neighborhoods there is an automatic presumption that it reflects a deep psychological flaw in the killer rather than anything about the neighborhood. This is indeed one of the origins of the serial killer as a crucial folk devil of late modern crime fear. The crimes they commit may be gruesome, but it is the threat they pose to the whole ecological crime security strategy of so many middle class citizens in both the US and the UK that makes them monsters.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Homeroom security

Even though my blurb reads like a teaser aimed at security minded parents of school age children anxious to find out what research can tell them about how to avoid the next Columbine, Aaron Kupchik's important new book on the securitization of American schools helps us understand how much the compulsion to hard wire schools for security against a variety of real and imagined crime threats (too often imagined). Kupchik's work is part of an important wave of new empirical studies by criminologists, political scientists and sociologists that is probing the practice of crime control inside schools more than a decade of the passage of the landmark School Safety Act of 1994, at the height of Clinton's war on crime.

Kupchik's well designed qualitative and quantitative research helps make clear that while some of this an extension of racialized versions of coding the identity of minority youth in disadvantaged communities as defined by crime, much of it cuts across race and class demarcations. An obsessive emphasis on crime security has become part of the way we imagine adequate schooling in all kinds of communities. As Kupchik shows, these strategies are more often than not counter productive, and systematically ignore the real factors that drive school violence in those settings where it is a real problem, while increasing the chances that youth in those communities will end up out of school and ready for drafting into the criminal justice system. Safe schools are a must for all parents, and there are ways school stakeholders can attend to that without allowing the performance of security adequacy through visible and symbolic measures to overwhelm schools themselves.

This is another reminder of how much it is costing America to give crime and other forms of "stranger danger"undue sway over our institutions. Schools are there to educate in ways that open the door to economic opportunity, citizenship, and a life of integrity. The first factor has become increasingly important in the globalized and insecure labor market our young people face. We have become ever more critical of the ability of schools to achieve these goals over the last 20 years, during the same period we have allowed crime to mission creep its way into our educational practices. The much discussed No Child Left Behind law contained significant and hardly ever discussed provisions that demand more "availability" for school crime information on a comparative basis (so like test scores it can become the fodder for reflex and decontextualized searches for school comparisons).

Friday, December 10, 2010

“A big human rights problem”

One of the big take aways for me of the Plata oral argument was the very explicit mention of human rights and the unnamed but palpable presence of dignity values in the 8th Amendment. Justice Breyer described the conditions in the underlying Plata and Coleman cases (dealing with physical and mental health respectively) as presenting "a big human rights problem". That was not a phrase used by the briefs for the prisoners, and it was not repeated during the oral argument, but it underscored a palpable sense among many of the Justices (a majority) that the underlying denial of adequate medical and mental health care was horrifying (Breyer uses the term "horrendous") and beyond the range of ordinary prison condition litigation.

Justice Breyer invoked this sense of horror by talking about a photograph he had seen in an amicus brief filed by a group of religious organizations. I believe he was referring to this:

It is from one of the filings in the Coleman case, involving failure to adequately treat mental illness, and it depicts cages "without toilets, sinks, or beds" in which suicidal prisoners were confined for days awaiting treatment. Justice Breyer's questioning of Mr. Philip's indicates that these photographs cut through the record as a whole for him, and the Justice challenges the advocate to show him something in the record that proves the state is able to make that horror go away without the population cap ordered by the 3-Judge court.

JUSTICE BREYER: What would I look at to find this? It's a big record. What I did was I -- it refers to on-line evidence, and I went and looked at the pictures, and the pictures are pretty horrendous to me. And I would say page 10 of the religious group's brief, for example, shows you one of them. (20) ...

Now, you've looked at them. I've looked at them. And what is the answer to that? So how can I -- or you if you were in my position -- what would you say

Interestingly, Carter Philips, for the state, not only did not challenge the depiction of the treatment of prisoners as horrendous and a human rights violation, he embraced it, describing the core constitutional violation involved as:

culture of disregard for the inmate

While suggesting that the conditions were a lot better (without showing the court was clearly erroneous in finding otherwise) Philips acknowledged that the problem was a distinctive and radical, justifying the unprecedented quality of placing the entire prison health care system under a receiver rather than the more typical special master.

Monday, December 6, 2010

California Style Mass Incarceration

Socio-legal scholars have long spoken of "naming, blaming, and claiming" (Felstiner, Abel, and Sarat, The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes: Naming, Blaming, and Claiming, 1981) to describe how disputes arise and move toward legal realization. If the same may be said of polities, than the Supreme Court's oral arguments a couple of days ago, in the great California prison population case (Schwarzenegger v. Plata) may mark the moment when the harm of mass incarceration in America broke out of its canyons of attention, and became a public dispute for the US.

For the Court's "liberals", the staggering portrait drawn by the many experts who testified before both original courts and the 3-Judge panel of the way physical and mental health needs are unmet appears to have broken through their own instincts to defer on criminal matters. The routine way in which California prisoners met death not through lethal injections, but by fatal neglect of their obvious and remediable medical needs, or by suicide after florid psychotic symptoms were ignored, animated a livelier questioning of the state in a criminal matter than in a long time. The Court's "conservatives", stripped of their preferred grounds of deference to the state's penological rationality, by the sheer scale of California's organizational failures over a twenty year period, were left to rest on the primal fear of violent crime and the biblical conviction that keeping people locked up must mean fewer crimes. Of course even if the Supreme Court (5-4), upholds the population cap, it will not end mass incarceration, that claim was not yet before the Court (and probably never will be).

The New York Times editorial today does a nice job of condensing the naming and blaming and moving toward the kind of claiming that would be needed to move from an end to cruel and unusual punishment in California to an end to mass incarceration. Their title, The Crime of Punishment in California, names the harm, that punishment in California is itself fundamentally wrong (not just badly carried out or underfunded). The editorial goes on to further specify the where the blame lies, with "California style mass incarceration" These cases are not about imprisonment, per se, or any particular prison conditions, it is about the wholesale and systematic policy of expanding the prison population as an end in itself, with no serious effort to maintain the medical and mental integrity of its inmates let alone reform or discipline them. Not every state has embraced this "style" of imprisonment, it seems to flourish most in the sunbelt (see Mona Lynch's key book Sunbelt Justice, on Arizona), but it is a part of the political culture that sustains high incarceration levels across much of the US and which continues to spread to Europe. The editorial draws its claim, from the growing consensus among American criminologists that mass incarceration (many of the leading lights of which are in the Criminology and Public Policy issue referenced in the editorial) is a massive failure, even at the business of crime control.

Among experts, as a forthcoming issue of the journal Criminology & Public Policy relates, there is a growing belief that less prison and more and better policing will reduce crime. There is almost unanimous condemnation of California-style mass incarceration, which has led to no reduction in serious crime and has turned many inmates into habitual criminals.

America’s prison system is now studied largely because of its failure — the result of an expensive approach to criminal justice shaped by fear-driven ideology. California’s prisons embody this overwhelming failure.

The harm named is "mass incarceration" as bio-political phenomenon. The blame is laid at a "politic of fear" that has little to do with public safety in empirical terms. The claim is that public safety can be upheld and enhanced by abandoning California style mass incarceration.

Of course none of this means you should short your mass incarceration stocks tomorrow. Its going to take years and possibly decades to dismantle mass incarceration. But the essential elements of the public conversation that can end mass incarceration are now out there in official discourse to a degree I would not have expected in 2005.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Fire This Time

The dangerous wildfire spreading in Northern Israel is yet another reminder of how desperately the world community needs to pivot toward global environmental risk as the primary focus of security. It is also a reminder of the virtuous moral shift that would quickly follow a new "war on environmental disaster" to replace out spent and disastrous "war on terror." The blaze, which began in forested areas near Carmel, Israel, and now threatens the outskirts of Haifa (read Haaretz coverage in English here), has already killed 40, mostly young prison officer trainees who were rushing to aid the evacuation of a prison when a tree collapsed on the bus, trapping most of the rescuers in the conflagration.

With dozens of countries sending aid, and Israel's well organized air force now taking control of an international fleet of fire fighting equipment and personnel, the fire will hopefully be under control soon. When it is, perhaps Israelis, whose palpable sense of fear and isolation has grown in recent years along with the nation's insistence on a "go it alone" approach to its occupation of Palestinian territories (and International Law more generally), will consider how different it feels to confront environmental risks. Even though the blaze claimed more lives in one day than years of Hamas rocketing in the years before Israel's 2008 war on Gaza, Israel was not isolated this time. Instead dozens of countries immediately offered aid, including Muslim and Arab countries, and first of all, apparently, Turkey, the Muslim powerhouse whose once good relationship with Israel has gone sour over the Gaza situation and this summer's preemptive attack on the Turkish aid vessel bound for the strip. Meanwhile, the Netanyahu coalition government, which is fond of reminding the world that Israel looks to no one but itself for security, showed no hesitation in defining the need for and accepting international assistance. In its long war with the Palestinians, Israel has not only lost many of its friends around the world, it is increasingly divided on the inside, both between Arab and Jew, and among Jews. In the fire, by contrast, Arab and Jewish Israelis were together among the population threatened by the fire, on the bus of young rescuers who perished, and even the inmates in the jail they were speeding toward rescuing (they did get out).

Why is it so different when security is defined as about terrorists or criminals, than when the security problem is an environmental disaster? Think of risk as a kind of mirror in which a society sees and acts upon itself. In the mirror of terrorism/crime we see vulnerable victims and motivated capable aggressors (although we may not agree always on who is who, and we are very likely to read racial, class, and religious otherness into the classification scheme). Reacting to that image, we feel empathy with the victims (as we see them) and anger toward the aggressors (as we see them). How dare they? We seek to make them pay a punishing price which will surely change their motivations. Failing that we seek to build walls around the aggressors, or at least between the victims and the aggressors, who are imagined to share no characteristics, dependencies, or sympathies.

In the mirror of the Carmel fire (or the Haitian Earthquake, the 2005 South East Asian Tsunami, or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), we see a population that includes potential victims and potential rescuers, regardless of race, nationality, and religion. We see governments and people who are both part of the problem (because they failed to prepare and created life styles that made them more vulnerable and perhaps disasters more likely) and a necessary part of the solution. We see that the past no longer matters; nor who did what to whom. All that matters is how we can work together to survive on a planet whose margin for human habitation is far smaller and more fragile than we have learned to imagine.

While both Israelis and the world often act as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and extended conflicts with countries like Iran) is the only one that matters to security in the Middle-East, the fire is a reminder of the vast environmental problems within the region (especially around water) and the potentially devastating consequences of world environmental events (like a sea-level rise of 2 or 3 feet by the middle of this century). The need to face up to these environmental risks and give them the kind of political, economic, and cultural attention we give to terrorism and crime is not one of either objective necessity or moral preference, it is both. We cannot wish crime and terror away, but we can see other threats. In this problem/opportunity Israel is hardly alone. The whole world, whether developed or still developing faces a disaster roulette whose odds seem to be getting worst while their internal politics are getting sharper (especially in the US). The irony is that when we choose to allow ourselves to get really scared by this threat, we may end up far more confident in ourselves and each other.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

People are going to die

I have been arguing for some time that mass incarceration rests almost completely on an exaggerated fear of the risks of homicide that America in general, and California in particular, embraced after the bloody 1970s, and which remains seared into our political consciousness more than thirty years later, despite substantial drops in homicides and violent crime since the early 1990s. You can talk about the war on drugs, tough sentences for burglars, and over imprisonment of technical parole violators; but they all come down to a fear of citizens being murdered by someone that state could have stopped first.

This logic was on display in today's Supreme Court Oral arguments over California's appeal from the important 3-Judge panel decision ordering population reduction in order to remedy long standing medical and mental health conditions in California prisons. As commentator Hadar Aviram points out in her analysis, almost all of the Justices (save Scalia and Thomas) seemed to appreciate the extent of California's mismanagement. Where there seemed to be the most concern was that the population reduction might lead to more crime in California. The Justice seemed particularly horrified by California's 70 percent recidivism rate for parolees (failing to comprehend that most of this is for technical violations that are a symptom rather than a cause of exaggerated fear). But its not just crime in general, that people (and Justices) fear. It is murder.

Sensing this, Carter G. Philips, the learned advocate for the State of California, closed his final rebuttal with a simple but well calculated statement. As quoted in Adam Liptak's article in the NYtimes

“Anytime you say you are going to release 30,000 inmates in a compressed period of time,” he said, “I guarantee you that there is going to be more crime and people are going to die on the streets of California.”

Of course Californians are already dying of the state's prison management. According to earlier fact finding by the Judge Thelton Henderson in the medical part of the case (Plata v. Schwarzenegger), a prisoner a week dies of routine medical problems that a constitutionally adequate prison health system could prevent. But those kinds of deaths do not count in twisted logic of governing through crime.