Monday, May 30, 2011

The Housing Index and the Prison Bubble

Just think of prisons as a kind of housing, the new public housing, and it may seem less crazy to wonder if the decline of the portion of Americans who are homeowners may coincide with a decline in the portion of Americans who make their home in a prison. As David Streitfeld reports in the New York Times:

Even as the economy began to fitfully recover in the last year, the percentage of homeowners dropped sharply to 66.4 percent from a peak of 69.2 percent in 2004. The ownership rate is now back to the level of 1998, and some housing experts say it could decline to the level of the 1980s or even earlier.

The astounding rise of American prison populations, which began in the late 1970s (when hyper inflation was keeping homeownership down), seems to have ended in the early 2000s, while homeownership was still trending up. The two are not tightly aligned, but in a recent article (may be access limited) I offer some reasons to be believe that expansion of homeownership to the solid majority of Americans, accomplished by the late 1960s, helped prepare a public more inclined to fear crime and to look to imprisonment as an answer to it.

First, homeowners have a geographically defined risk in the market valuation of their home (to which they are tied typically by massive debt, but later by some substantial investment of their own money) which is highly sensitive to crime associations and which is not easily spread (you cannot buy insurance for housing price loss, other than the mortgage itself which as long as you can pay it, enables you to stay in the home, but little more). Crime is not the only risk that can taint property, but it is one of the most widely publicized and thus active. It is little wonder that people look to recent crime mapping websites as realestate hunting tools (along with school testing websites) and that the location of sex offenders on websites maintained by some states have created measurable losses in the home prices of nearby properties. Renters fear crime as well, but not the reputation impact of crime on their property.

It less obvious, but I suspect the homeownership based crime fear fits with a cluster of solutions that include reliance on prisons, private fire arms, and living in a more securitized community (like a suburb, preferably with a gate). These are property based solutions that respectively isolate known criminals in non-sensitive real estate (usually located in a predominantly rural area less sensitive to home price concerns), allow a person to defend their home from attack or invasion (or give the illusion of allowing such a defense), and signal to the market of potential buyers that your home is particularly safe.

Police, at least in their role independent of arrest (where they are ushering people into imprisonment), in their preventive role, are associated with protecting people in public. When it comes to the home, the police are more associated with showing up to investigate the crime scene after you've murdered or raped (or filling a report for something less serious). Moreover, since police tend to go where the crime is, they create their own negative signals about the crime vulnerability of real estate.

Homeowners or renters, Americans are likely to stay pretty concerned with crime (although less so if it remains down in a sustained way). But a declining homeownership index may mean a steady shrinkage in the segment of the American public most prone to supporting (now obviously unsustainable) mass incarceration policies. The implicit renter majority that may follow, could be far more attracted to innovative police based crime control strategies.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Brown v. Plata: Dignity is Coming to the USA

"Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment."
Brown v. Plata, No. 09–1233, Kennedy, J. May 23, 2011

Much will be written in the weeks and months ahead about the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling upholding the 3-Judge court's population reduction order in the California prison case, Brown v. Plata (read the slip opinion here). For now just consider one word, "dignity." That word has long been held to be an important value underlying the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment." But in recent decades it has fallen into a kind of oblivion, providing little basis to inform the way American prisons are evaluated and run. Brown v. Plata represents a turning point.

For now the reappearance of dignity may seem of minimal importance. After all, the 3-Judge court's findings of facts represented a litany of medical and administrative malfeasance so dramatic that Justice Kennedy in his majority opinion did not flinch from using the word "torture" in relationship to it. California's unprecedented combination of a prison system designed without consideration of the fact that prisoners have bodies with organs that are vulnerable to disease and massive prolonged overcrowding may render it an outlier with little relevance to the operation of prisons in much of the rest of the country. But that is to ignore the fact that both these features lie close to the heart of the system of mass incarceration that has animated the growth of prison populations throughout the US over the past several decades.

Moreover, once it is admitted that the Eighth Amendment requires that the state's discretion to set penal policy is limited by the recognition of the human dignity of prisoners, a great deal is open to review by courts. In Europe, for example, dignity has been held to require prison regimes that promote individualization, normalization, and the preparation of all prisoners for the possibility of return to the community (see Dirk van zyl Smit and Sonia Snacken, Principles of European Prison Law and Policy (2009))

The Court was forced to confront the humanity of prisoners, and their claim on dignity, by the shear magnitude of California's penal depravity as reflected in photos of chaotic scenes from overcrowded prisons and inhumane conditions that were included in the appendix to the majority opinion. Perhaps no single practice seared the Court's conscience more than California's use of vertical cages to hold suicidal psychotic prisoners for weeks and months before they could be transferred to treatment beds. In December's oral arguments Justice Breyer had confronted the State's lawyer with a picture of just such a "dry cell," noting that California had a "big human rights problem" on its hands, and that photo was also included in the appendix. Like the pictures from Abu Ghraib,these photos locate California's penal practices in a place of inhumanity, degradation, and torture that cannot be tolerated (even by judges disciplined by decades of punitive populism and crime fear).

The Court's opinion also recognized that this case goes beyond individual instances of cruelty to a political system that facilitates inhumane and degrading punishment and cannot be trusted to reform itself.

"In addition to overcrowding the failure of California’s prisons to provide adequate medical and mental health care may be ascribed to chronic and worsening budget shortfalls, a lack of political will in favor of reform, inadequate facilities, and systemic administrative failures."

In short, this is the first decision to move beyond evaluating prison conditions, to place mass incarceration itself on trial.

The dissents by Justices Scalia and Alito (joined by Justice Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts, respectively) avoided any consideration of the inhuman and degrading conditions in California's prisons.

Justice Scalia simply and profoundly disagrees with the very notion that courts have a role to play in remedying institutions that produce unconstitutional conditions, being limited instead to handing out individual remedies to petitioners. In Scalia's universe, a court could order the release of a prisoner from Auschwitz, but not the closing of Auschwitz. This is a coherent vision of the Constitution, but one that renders the Constitution largely irrelevant to modern society.

Still I agree with Scalia's assessment of the importance of this decision.

"Today the Court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history."

Justice Alito, as he did in oral argument, falls back on the notion that even unconstitutional conditions are acceptable if done in the name of protecting citizens from criminal violence. Most of his opinion amounts to a disagreement with the 3-Judge Court's fact finding on the question of whether the population reduction order was necessary (abandoning the clear standard of review which requires deference to the factual findings of trial courts). The real force of his argument, however, amounts to a metaphoric invocation of the war on crime in which the 3-Judge court is condemned for releasing an army of criminals on the public.

"The three-judge court ordered the premature release of approximately 46,000 criminals—the equivalent of three Army divisions."

The road from Brown v. Plata to a humane and dignified prison system will be a long one. But this opinion represents a turning point. The system of mass incarceration depends deeply and irretrievably on a simple condition, the denial of the humanity of prisoners. Yesterday the Supreme Court overturned that denial.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

New Labour Lives: Tony Blair is Still Gone but his Instinct to Govern through Crime is Back

Sometimes legal academics can seem like prophets (or just very lucky). Just last evening we were hearing from Professor Nicola Lacey of All Souls College Oxford, for the University of Edinburgh, Centre for Law and Society Lecture, on the vulnerable status of the UK Coalition governments tentative plans to step down the long prison sentences built up by the previous New Labour government and the growing prison population those policies have bequeathed (long sentences are the gift that keeps on giving because each year a new cohort of people will be sentenced to them while their predecessors remain, leading to an escalation in the pace of growth). Nicky's point, in part, based on her book The Prisoners' Dilemma: Political Economy and Punishment in Contemporary Democracies (The Hamlyn Lectures), was that coalition politics affords a potential opening for penal moderation because the logic of competitive two party dominated electoral systems (typically with first past the post election rules)has been to ratchet up penal severity in a unidirectional bidding game about law and order. The Tory's and New Labour demonstrated that in the 1990s, when first John Major, and Michael Howard his Home Secretary, and then Tony Blair (himself shadow Home secretary before his election as Labour leader) bid up the rhetoric and ultimately the prison sentences on crime in an effort to prove the toughest on crime and the most loyal to citizens as crime victims.

In the era of the Conservative Liberal Democratic coalition that began one year ago, however, there were clear signs of penal moderation breaking out. Here the moving force was one Justice Secretary Kenneth Clark, a conservative former Home Secretary with a liberal skepticism about prison working all that well. Clark, who has combined some refreshingly candid appraisals of penal policy along with the politically dangerous tendency to speak off-the-cuff (and off the script) as well as to nod off at meetings of the Commons (where the frontbench is televised almost non-stop) not surprising in a man admittedly near retirement. Professor Lacey, pointing out the underlying tensions in the Conservative Party presented by Clark's penal moderation policies (which have more a constituency with the Lib Dems) was speculating on when Clark might have to be sacked to appease right of the Conservative back benchers or to perry a New Labour like thrust to the right on crime from Ed Miliband.

Today it happened. Clark hasn't quit yet, but the story has legs. A brief recap (here is the Guardian's coverage). First, a Justice consultation paper (an early version of a policy put out for commentary) was recently getting attention in the press, in which the government raised the possibility of increasing (it already exists) the discount given criminal defendants for pleading guilty at the earliest possible procedural point (thus saving the government the costs of prosecution and the victim the challenges of appearing as a witness in court) to as much as 50% (this would be a guideline for judges, but they would retain the sentencing discretion, as they do now). Second, the classic crime baiting tabloid press jumped on this in today's papers, some of them unabashedly reaching out for rape (the most evocative of violent crimes), proposing that the government wanted to cut rape sentences in half leading to sentences as little as 15 months (a slightly abbreviated statement of the policy). To head this off, Justice Secretary Clarke was placed on BBC Radio 5 Live, where instead of pouring oil on the waters, Clarke stirred them. First, trying to explain why most sentences would be much longer than 15 months because judges already apply guidelines to select sentences from between 30 months to life imprisonment that reflect the severity of the rape facts (violence, etc.), Clarke conflated the issue with the fact that some crimes that meet the statutory definition of rape, which in England and Wales includes under-age but consensual sex. He started using the phrase "serious rapes", implying that some rapes were not serious. Second, while at the station (on air?) Clarke was confronted with a weeping rape victim who declared his policy a "disaster". Clarke ended up returning to BBC no fewer than two more times attempting to clarify his position.

Little time had passed, however, before Prime Minister's Question Time afforded a chance for Labour leader Ed Miliband to demand the PM take a stand on Clarke's wording and also "sack him." More important, he went beyond criticizing the Justice Secretary's inept articulations with the underlying policy, underscoring that Labour is prepared to treat any walking back of prison sentences as a betrayal of victims (despite any evidence that long sentences make victims or potential victims better off). In short, New Labour is back.

Clearly this is a sign of desperation from a promising leader who had signaled his interest in rebalancing Labour's priorities and politics, but who has failed in recent regional and local elections where Labour made gains at expense of Lib Dems, except in Scotland where a party that has rejected governing through crime and was attacked for it by Scottish Labour, won big (as well as in the Alternative Vote referendum which he tepidly supported and which crashed and burned)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Monsters on the Block

Attack the Block is taut, scary, funny and ultimately insightful movie that just opened here about crime and fear of crime in a south London council estate. Sam, a young female nursing student, attractive and white, is mugged by a gang of juveniles led by an aggressive and large (and like his victim, physically very attractive) black teenager, Moses. Most of the others are also adolescent youth of color (African, Caribbean,Arabian?). The attack is quite vicious, frightening, and physically abusive. Sam is pushed to the street. A ring is forcibly pulled from her fingers, and a knife brandished. She escapes during the confusion of an explosion of a nearby car. (Fire works are going off all over London, is this a holiday, or a crisis of some kind? We cannot yet tell.) . Sam is badly shaken, even after reporting the crime to the police. Taking temporary refuge in the apartment of a neighbor Sam finds herself orally agreeing with the neighbor, an older white woman, that boys like Moses and his gang are "monsters." Later we follow her as she rides with the police looking for the attackers.

The crime events are soon overtaken by another plot-line that develops after the explosion which allows Sam to escape without further injury (although having been robbed of her phone, money, and ring). The neighborhood, and possibly much more of London, seems to be under concerted attack by aggressive aliens with shark-like teeth and predatory intelligence to go with it. Sam is soon thrown together with Moses and his boys.

Attack the Block has some insightful things to say about the experience of being the victim of a violent crime and about juvenile crime, but most importantly it raises the question of under what terms and circumstances middle class publics in places like the US and the UK might be able to revisit the penal imaginary in which young men like Moses are cast not just as criminals, but as monsters. That question hangs over the larger problem of steering away from mass incarceration in the US and avoiding further moves toward it in England. Mass incarceration relies in no small part on seeing people convicted of serious crimes as monsters who can only be contained by penal coercion but otherwise remain a toxic risk to the peace of their communities. This pushes any consideration of risk toward an extreme and unchanging assessment of the prisoner and toward more and longer prison sentences.

Sam discovers a more nuanced view of Moses and his friends as they join in the fight for their and the block's survival. She does not need to abandon her view of them has having grossly violated her rights and done her harm, to change her view that they are monsters.

We cannot of course hope for an alien invasion to hit the reset button on a penal imaginary that was shaped most profoundly in the 1970s and has been reproduced ever since by a network of media, law enforcement, and political actors. As Rod Serling brilliantly captured in his Twighlight Zone script, The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, reports of the aliens closing in can just as easily set off cycles of deepening fear and imagining your neighbors have become monsters. But we do not lack for real life events that open the opportunity (and risk) of re-imagining those we have cast as the criminal underclass. Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, produced just such a crisis in New Orleans. A population that included a very high concentration of formerly incarcerated people survived with extraordinary dignity, and achieved a great deal of self help under extreme conditions of abandonment by government. Katrina might have been a moment to reimagine those we feel must be locked up for our safety. In that case, however, the fear scenario beat the hope story out of the block. New Orleans was, we were told, falsely it eventually emerged, under attack by monstrous criminals engaged in rapes, robberies, and murders of helpless people. That time the fear reinforcing story was told much earlier and more powerfully, maybe next time the hope reinforcing story will match it.

Movies like Attack the Block, although some will see them as reinforcing stereotypes about crime from young black men in council housing, is a vital reminder that stereotype or not we need to confront the monster image that hangs over urban crime.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A New Medical Model

While there is a great deal of work to be done in extricating American states from mass incarceration and in clearing the social and individual wreckage it has created, in another sense it is over. Lou Reed would say, "stick a fork in it and turn it over, its done." In California Governor Schwarzenegger acknowledged as much when he called the parole system broken and agreed to allow the courts to take over running the prison medical service. Governor Brown, through his proposed realignment plan (shifting resources and choices from the state to the counties) and is parole policies has also signaled that he wants to steer the state away from mass incarceration. Plata/Coleman, the giant prison health care case now before the Supreme Court has exposed inhumanity of mass incarceration and its rigid inability to actually protect public safety (for example by mismanaging preventive mental health care).

But penal history suggests that regime change requires a new vision of how to bring order to prisons while affirming the values of larger society. Mass incarceration had a moral account of its own, one that stressed the imperative of keeping Californians safe by physically isolating troubled individuals in their communities with a propensity toward crime and graduated levels of custodial security inside. In a sense, mass incarceration was a crude public health strategy, prisons prevent crime by quarantining those who would spread it. While this account is increasingly in tatters, it is not clear what replaces it. A return to the rhetoric of rehabilitation and penal welfarism, while predicted in some quarters, is quite unlikely (and probably not desirable). Neither prisoners or the community is likely to embrace a narrative of prison as a hospital to cure individual diseases of the will.

I believe the humanitarian medical crisis that California's prisons are now experiencing holds some promising clues to a path back toward legitimacy in prisons. Humanitarian medicine is political/therapeutic project that emerged more than one hundred and fifty ago with the Red Cross in Europe. The Red Cross sought to relieve the suffering of the dying and wounded abandoned to their fates on battle fields. Since World War II it has expanded its jurisdiction to natural disasters and pandemics, and from a focus on rescue the suffering to telling their story. While prison health care poses different dilemmas than the battle field or the site of catastrophic disasters, it shares some important features, especially the isolation of prisoners from the normal structures of knowledge and action that link individuals in post-industrial societies and the burden of stigma and fear associated with their crimes.

In Europe a version of this humanitarian medical model for prisons has emerged through the work of the European Community organs like the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, as well as the European Court of Human Rights. Since the early 1990s, these organs have begun to highlight health care as the crucial framework for preserving dignity in prison. Through a series of reports, guidelines, and through the European Prison Rules, these agencies have made improving prison health care both an upward wedge toward improved prison conditions and regimes overall, and a stopper against regression through overcrowding or violence.

The US constitutional system does not have such innovative human rights organs as the Committee for the Prevention of Torture. But federal courts have enormous power when they encounter unconstitutional conditions. In California the courts have confronted a massive unconstitutional complex that is also a humanitarian medical crisis. Whatever happens in the Supreme Court, California is likely to be grappling with resolving that crisis for years to come. In the short term, the humanitarian medical model itself can provide a crucial tool kit for restoring the legitimate order to our prisons.

I'll be speaking on this topic tonight at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research annual lecture in Edinburgh. When I get back I'll try to elaborate a bit more in this or future posts.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Revenge, Retribution, Justice: Killing Osama bin Laden

President Obama said "justice has been done." Many headlines were more direct. "Revenge" was the headline in the Scotsman, here in Edinburgh, while the the New York Daily News went right for "Rot in Hell you Bastard." Whatever our emotions on learning the news, the killing of Osama bin Laden by a Navy Seals "kill" team raises questions about the relationship between revenge, retribution and justice. Specifically, does revenge and retribution remain an essential core meaning of penal justice, and, if so, can it be made compatible with the premise that punishment should not be "degrading" in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 5)

To be sure, whatever the truth about whether bin Laden was given the option of surrendering alive (more on that in a bit), this was a military not a judicial operation. Whatever instructions they had, the Seals were not carrying a warrant for bin Laden's arrest. But whatever the legal status of the act, its interpretation raises questions of justice.

While I'm not inclined to join crowds of flag waivers in the streets of New York or DC (even if I were there), I have to admit to a fair amount of agreement with a sense of satisfaction at both the fact and the manner of bin Laden's death. In a weird coincidence, I found myself imagining precisely his end last Saturday night as the operation against him unfolded (clearly I had no advanced briefing). My brother-in-law, a Bellingham, Washington, fire fighter, was visiting us here in Edinburgh and the topic of tall buildings on fire somehow came up at the dinner table. My son, nearly 11, asked about the fire at the World Trade Center. How come, he wanted to know, did so many people jump to their deaths as the towers burned. My wife and I started to explain to him about the terrible choice so many faced between the unbearable heat coming from the building and the yawning abyss below it. I realized I was becoming quite emotional. Later, while washing the dishes, I turned to my brother-in-law and unprovoked said, "I wouldn't mind learning that bin Laden was shot in the head." I'm not a believer in capital punishment, not even for a Hitler or bin Laden. But thinking of him that night, still free, and seemingly able to defy the most powerful military apparatus in the world while continuing to play on the terror he had created, filled me with a real sense of rage and, yes, injustice.

The kind of revenge fantasy that I was having (and that played out a few hours later) has its roots, I believe, in very ancient associations between justice and war. Long before the power to punish was exercised through courts and legal offices, the ability of the king, duke, or clan leader, to slay his violent enemies in battle was an integral part of reproducing what we would call sovereignty. After legal authority replaced pure battle, the trial and the execution of punishment continued to include simulations of battle. As Foucault documented in the unforgettable chapters of Discipline and Punish on scaffold executions,the rituals of the scaffold were a kind of theater in which a now quite fixed battle between the King and his enemy, the felon, were played out before an audience expected to experience the emotions of triumph.

Clearly the memory of this kind of battle justice remains in modern societies and exercises at least a metaphoric hold on our practices of penal justice. The evolution of modern penality for a long time has been toward repressing and transforming this memory (albeit in incomplete and inconsistent ways) and replacing it with reform, rehabilitation, or more recently in the US, incapacitation. In my view this is an evolution dictated not only by the larger cultural contexts of modernity, but also by the internal needs of justice. Revenge, as the old expression goes, "is a meal best served cold", i.e., quickly, without undue reflection or debate, and without unseemly acts of passion. But legal justice can never be served cold in this way. The process of trial, appeals, clemency petitions, etc., guarantees reflection, debate, and considerable passion.

The modern criminal, caught up in the disciplinary apparatus of prisons, parole, probation, and policing, is rarely the clear enemy of the people (or the King) and typically excites little need for revenge or retribution in the Durkheimian sense. Even in the rare case, like terrorists, where the heinous killing of an absolute innocent person is carried out by responsible person unmarred by mental illness, the processes of legal justice assure that the attempt to enact revenge or retributive justice will always be unsatisfying. That is why the execution of Tim McVeigh (for the Oklahoma City bombing which killed hundreds) could not produce the same kind of satisfaction that bin Laden's killing produced. Stretched out on a gurney, after some years of legal proceedings and debates, with ample time to tell his story and become a more complicated figure rather than a demon, McVeigh became a human being snuffed out by a massive bureaucracy before a silent closed circuit television audience. Killing him could bring no honor to his slayer (which is why execution procedures always allow for multiple actors who cannot be certain they are the actual cause of death) but was an inherently degrading and degraded act.

I conclude that however unsatisfying reform and incapacitation are (and we might improve them with elements like restorative justice) they must remain the dominant values of penal justice, anchored not in positivist science, but in the values of dignity enshrined in human rights law.

If revenge is to work, to be served cold, it must be delivered by military, not judicial operations. Uncertainty has now arisen as to how and whether bin Laden was resisting and whether, in fact, he had an opportunity to surrender. From my perspective it does not matter. He was the subject of a legitimate military operation with the aim of killing an enemy. True, had he greeted the incoming helicopters with a white flag, prostrated himself on the ground and announced his surrender, killing him would have violated the laws of war and been degrading to both him and the men who carried it out. But there is not a shred of evidence thus far supporting that scenario. Having greeted the incoming Seals with armed resistance (whether by himself or more likely through his security guards) bin Laden was a fair target for killing. Had the guards been successful at shooting down the helicopters and wounding the Seals, it is hard to imagine they would have been shown mercy.

Finally, having come to view dignity as the central value (even more than life) that should be sustained in both war and justice, I do not believe that bin Laden's death, at least as it has been described, represented an act of degradation. He had sought, and was granted, a warriors death. Had he sought to surrender, he would have been repudiating the dignity of the warrior. To have killed him then, unnecessarily, would have been a degrading act. That did not happen. Moreover, there is no evidence that his body was mutilated and the US clearly took steps to assure him a dignified burial at sea (even if it failed to satisfy every Islamic rule of proper burial).

Moments like this, where revenge and justice are together enacted in an act of both courage and dignity, are certain to be rare. We should take them for what they are; experience whatever healing and sanctifying work they can do; and carry on with the business of creating forms of penal justice that transcend revenge and retribution to achieve dignity.