Saturday, March 24, 2012

Whose Public Safety? Trayvon Martin and Neighborhood Watch

The killing of teenager Trayvon Martin earlier this month, in Sanford Florida, has inflamed classic concerns about racism and criminal justice (especially in the South) as well as well as criticism of Florida's "stand your ground law"; a gun rights law that has expanded the circumstances under which self defense may be raised in many states. Less noted has been the role of Neighborhood Watch,a program launched by the National Association of Sheriffs in the 1970s with the objective of increasing the role of citizens in local crime prevention. Much beloved by criminologists and politicians alike, Neighborhood Watch is credited with reducing crime and improving police-citizen relations in many communities since the first trial program was run in Seattle in the mid-1970s. Trayvon Martin's death points to a darker side of Neighborhood Watch, one that may be unintended but predictable.

Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old African-American high school student from Miami was visiting with his father and his father’s fiancĂ© in the racially diverse suburb of Orlando when the shooting took place. The apparent killer, George Zimmerman, a 28 year old of mixed Anglo-White/Latin American parentage had been very active in what was at best an informal neighborhood watch group (reports suggest he made over 50 calls to the police in the past several months). Zimmerman called the police to report suspicions about Trayvon (who was in fact walking home from a convenience store with a bag of candy and an ice tea while talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone). He apparently told police that Trayvon assaulted him and that he used his gun in self defense leading to a police decision not to arrest or charge Zimmerman in Martin’s death. Public outrage built after the case received attention from the national media, including New York Time’s columnist Charles Blow last week (read it here). Demonstrations have sparked appointment of a special prosecutor in Florida and widespread concern about Zimmerman's use of his weapon. There has been widespread debate about whether the killing plausibly fits the criteria intended by the "stand your ground" laws.

As a crime prevention strategy, NW combines several potentially crime suppressive dynamics including facilitating quicker and more effective police response, deterring potential offenders through the observation of active and alert guardians, and altering the perceived opportunities for crime through routine activities like removing accumulating newspapers at the door of a home whose residents are away. The most recent meta-analysis of research on NW in both the US and the UK is modestly supportive of the proposition that neighborhood watch groups can reduce crime in their areas (with roughly half the communities studied showing some crime reduction and 12 of 18 empirical studies showing statistically significant differences between neighborhood watch covered areas and those without. According to the same study 27 percent of the British population and fully 40 percent of the US population live in a neighborhood in which some form of NW operates (See Trevor Bennett, Katie Holloway, and David Farrington, Does neighborhood watch reduce crime? A systematic review and meta-analysis, Journal of Experimental Criminology (2006) 2:437Y458; read it here but registration may be required).

As a social formation NW is also a vehicle for promoting law enforcement as a kind of citizenship project to which individual citizens are invited not only to support but to adopt. As such it is a crucial expression of what I have called “governing through crime” and what Garland calls the “culture of control”. Historically citizens did participate in criminal justice as jurors, and as well as in the posse comitatus powers associated with citizen arrest. Neither approximates the distinctive political subjectivity modeled by NW. As a juror, the citizen sits as a peer of the accused, not the police. Even as a member of a posse the citizen acts as a peer of a fellow citizen who has raised the hue and cry against a trackable felon, a legal relations that goes back to Norman England and according to an article by renowned 20th century criminologist Sam Bass Warner persisted in the US as a significant part of law enforcement in rural areas as late as the 1940s (See, Sam Bass Warner, Investigating the Law of Arrest, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1931-1951), Vol. 31, No. 1 (May - Jun., 1940), pp. 111-121, read it here but registration may be required). The Neighborhood Watch subject, in contrast, is mobilized to extend and supplement an existing police forces in urban and suburban areas. Rather than being limited to pursuit of a fleeing felon, whose criminality has been witnessed by a neighbor, the political subject mobilized by NW is directed to attend to quotidian world of micro disorders and to act in relationship with police rather than neighbors.

Considering the role of race in this encounter suggests the continuities and differences with the Jim Crow era. If mass incarceration is the New Jim Crow in Michelle Alexander’s formulation (See, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, it is because it is a legal structure that is also a racial order but not because it carries the same beliefs or mentalities about race on an either conscious or unconscious basis. Zimmerman is unlikely to turn out to be some postmodern equivalent of Mississippi's Milam brothers who tortured and murdered 14 year old Emmet Till, an African American teen visiting his Misissippi family from Chicago in 1955 (the incident helped galvanize northern public opinion for federal enforcement of civil rights laws in the South in the year after Brown v. Board of Education was decided, read the Wikipedia article here).

Zimmerman, whoever he turns out to be, is more likely to reflect a new kind of law and order subject constituted by programs like Neighborhood Watch, and other cultural expressionso of the war on crime, than the traditional racialized vigilante or racist neighborhood lynch mob member of the sort that afflicted Mississippi or even parts of Brooklyn and Queens as late as the 1980s. Till’s banter with a married white woman in 1955 affronted the racialized Jim Crow honor code of the murderers. Zimmerman's lethal viiolence seems to have been activated by different set of nonetheless racialized codes which Trayvon traduced, one in which African American young men wearing hoodies are presumed to be cruising for criminal opportunities and should be prepared to perform their innocence visibly at all times (and not be distracted talking to their girlfriends). Zimmerman drove his SUV around his gated community, gun and cell phone at his side not to enforce a racial order in which miscegenation is the gravest moral breach (indeed he was the product of a mixed racial marriage), but to enforce a civil order anchored in fear of crime in which fitting a racialized risk profile is a breach that can cost a young man his life.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Women and Children First: It's how liberals govern through crime

Jonathan Weisman's March 14 article in the NYTimes on the partisan battle over the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (read the story here; read the act here, scroll down to Title IV) is a reminder of how Democrats found their voice on crime in the 1990s by placing women and children at the forefront of legislation bristling with harsh retributive penal elements, but wedded to a thin menu of thin welfarist benefits tied to crime victim identity. Back then it was mostly about getting Dems to sign on to a bill that expanded the federal death penalty and encouraged states to lock in long prison sentences. President Clinton signed it into law as part of his successful effort to replace failure on health care with success on largely symbolic crime legislation.

Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, himself an OG Republican crime warrior, called the politics about right for the current round of partisan skirmishing:

“I favor the Violence Against Women Act and have supported it at various points over the years, but there are matters put on that bill that almost seem to invite opposition,” said Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, who opposed the latest version last month in the Judiciary Committee. “You think that’s possible? You think they might have put things in there we couldn’t support that maybe then they could accuse you of not being supportive of fighting violence against women?”

By placing a few "poison pill" elements favoring undocumented immigrants, or LGBT people (so long as they are crime victims), Dems can build their brand as both tough on crime and concerned about immigrants and women (although not enough to deliver on immigration reform, or reproductive rights protection, or even fight for same), while appearing to outflank Republicans in protecting women and children from violent crime.

In California the same mid 1990s moment produced Cal Penal Code Section 1160(a) (read it here) requiring health providers to turn over to law enforcement the identities of individuals for whom they have provided professional health care service if the wound or injury was caused by a host of criminal actions, including "assaultive and abusive actions." The measure was typical of many aimed at intensifying enforcement of domestic violence but it was invoked by the University of California Berkeley's Tang Health Care center to explain why they turned over the names of students who were seen for injuries caused by being assaulted by the police on November 9, 2011, to the police. These seem to have played some role in allowing the Alameda County DA (SHAME) to charge a number of victims (of police violence) who were not arrested on November 9th.

Children and their safety was also in the news this week when U.S. Attorney Melissa Haag cited the safety of children as instrumental in her successful pressure on a Berkeley property owner to shut down Berkeley's highly touted (and legal under state law) marijuana dispensary, the Berkeley Patients Group (BPG). AS quoted on the KQED Blog (here):

We've sent letters to a number of dispensaries and we certainly hear back from most if not all of them, or lawyers representing them. And one thing we've heard in response is that this is a good dispensary. This is a dispensary that's patient-run, or they consider themselves to be a good actor in the marijuana space. And I hear them, but I have a hard time making that distinction. I've already drawn a line. I've already made a distinction. If it's close to children then that's a line we're going to draw. If I then start trying to get in and figure out which ones are quote good or not, it's just not something I'm capable of doing. So I've decided to draw this line, and to keep that line fairly bright.

No doubt fears of robbery are not far fetched, but the fact that the dispensary has a reputation as being a source of crime preventing traffic in an otherwise darkened section of San Pablo, and as one of the industry leaders in being a source of harm reduction and good neighborliness, was given no account nor consideration of finding ways to extend their already effective crime prevention activities (keep in mind this is a Berkeley neighborhood in which gang shootings have occurred which had nothing to do with BPG).

For those of us old enough to remember Attorney General Janet Reno's invocation of the need to protect children in her justification for the botched Waco raid against the Branch Davidians (which ultimately resulted in the deaths of 20 children) one can only hope that the Feds feel no need to preemptively protect Berkeley's school children.

Friday, March 2, 2012

By By "Bad Beds"! Hello Dignity?

California's Secretary of Corrections, Matthew Cate, held a press conference today to announce that as of the end of February, the last of California's notorious "bad beds" have been removed. The substantial local and national media coverage of this "event" (including KQED California Edition, and the Washington Post) included links to the Department's own front page web treatment of this story which billed the beds as "iconic" and their departure as a clear signal of California's progress. These triple bunked "temporary" manner of housing inmates in the gymnasium, hallways, and utility rooms of the state's numerous prisons persisted for over two decades, including as many as 20,000 inmates at a time, and stood at the very center of the historic Brown v. Plata decision last May upholding the sweeping population reduction order that is without doubt the major cause of the reduction of over 17,000 prisoners since it was decided.

The Department's coverage is fascinating on a number of levels. They have clearly embraced the mission of downsizing which the state (under then Attorney General Brown) had recently defended in the Supreme Court as unnecessary to resolve constitutional violations and a clear and present danger to Californian's. According to the CDCR's web-article:

“Non-traditional beds became the iconic symbol of California’s prison overcrowding crisis,” CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate said. “Now, gyms once filled with inmates in triple-bunk beds are open and can be used for their intended purpose. This demonstrates how much progress California has made in improving inmate conditions and employee safety.”

Moreover, Cate (and presumably Governor Brown) are signalling that the move is not only necessary to establish conditions that are not cruel, inhuman, and degrading, but also to creating a more effective rehabilitative penal regime. If the beds are "iconic" it is because they stood for a whole penal regime that had lost its bearings in both human rights and penology. If the prisons can now return to their "intended purpose" then the past two decades during which that purpose was abandoned by the state stands as a shameful chapter in our history.

The Department chose a potent symbol to showcase the empty space suddenly available, Deuel Vocational Institution, a prison built in the 1950s to embody California's then internationally advanced commitment to rehabilitative programming by placing relatively young inmates together with a range of vocational training programs for skilled and semi-skilled employment upon release. That mission continued for sometime after California abandoned rehabilitation as a penal goal in the 1980s but in the course of the 1990s the uncontrolled population growth of mass incarceration transformed Deuel by 2002 it had become a "reception center" a prison delegated to holding prisoners entering prison (whether for the first time or after a violation of parole) which became among the most overcrowded sites in the chronically hyper overcrowded system. In 2003, which was operating at as much as 238 percent of design capacity suffered a riot in which both prisoners and correctional officers were injured. Governor Schwarzenegger visited the prison soon after and declared the system broken.

With the last of the "bad beds" being rolled away in a video posted on the website, the Department promises:

The building is now being restored to its intended purpose as a place for inmate recreation and rehabilitative programming.

More reassuring would be a promise by the state of California to assure that the dignity and human rights of prisoners and correctional officers would be protected in the future, whether or not the federal courts are breathing down our necks. What would that require?

The Department is making progress on reducing overcrowding and its public statements are an important form of transparency and even accountability that has been sorely lacking in the past. Indeed, the web-article not only includes a video of the last "bad beds" being rolled away but also set slide show of images of what the "bad beds" looked like filled with people serving their prison sentences in what looks like the temporary shelter set up to assure the survival of refugees fleeing a disaster (only for years instead of weeks). But the Department is a politically controlled agency that could easily find itself used again to plan and execute human rights violations on a broad demographic scale as occurred in the past.

First, we need a commission to investigate for the public record how the state found itself operating prisons that attract words like torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. This is not Honduras where poverty, spiraling crime, and corruption are the order of the day, or Mexico, but we had prisons that belong in the same frame as recent news stories about the fire the killed hundreds in an overcrowded and chaotic Honduran prison (Guardian coverage here) and a murderous riot by one prison gang against another in Mexico to cover over an escape of elite gang members abetted by guards (coverage in the Guardian here).

Given the severity of the human rights problem in California's prisons and its duration for more than two decades, retrospective documentation should lead to prospective preventive techniques. The commission could become a California Committee for the Prevention of Torture, or CAL CPT, modeled on the European CPT; a body of legal, medical, human rights, and criminological expert investigators with the authority to inspect any prison, mental hospital, or indeed any place of confinement, in order to warn state government of the potential for degrading conditions to form and how to prevent it.

Realignment, the package of statutory changes that has sent most parole violators and many low level felony convicts to county justice systems rather than state prison and which is the major cause of the drop in prison population, is important, but it does not reflect a true repudiation of the state's extremist commitment to penal incapacitation, reflected in our sentencing laws. The legislature (or a commission appointed by it) needs to seriously revisit the entire California penal code to clean out and reframe its 19th century core and the vast accumulation of repetitive crimes and the absurdly long arbitrary sentences that destine so many Californians to years in prisons that serve neither to reflect just retribution or any real crime control benefits.

Supermax prisons, known in California as Secured Housing Units or SHUs, where prisoners are locked down 23 hours a day, 7 days a week, have long raised troubling questions about their propensity to lead to mental distress or illness. California's version of Supermax is extreme on every level, involving more prisoners, for more of their sentences, under worst conditions (including double celling in lock/down). All states should revisit their use of these prisons, but given California's proven propensity to create cruel, inhuman, and degrading conditions under the justification fo security, large scale use of SHUs should cease (lock downs and disciplinary isolation would remain as tools for security).