October 2010 Archives

In the aftermath of the attempted killing of Garbriel Gifford and the slaughter of others in Arizona, people are beginning to discuss how offenders choose targets in today's world.

Perhaps a useful place to look at this issue directly, as it highlights the vitriol presumably created by the right today, and which appears to be directly associated with threats, is in the actions and words of Glenn Beck in his vilification of of Frances Fox Piven. See the New York Times article, Spotlight From Glenn Beck Brings a CUNY Professor Threats.

In light of the Arizona bloodbath, you'd think such spokespersons for the right could use such a situation to demonstrate their serious concern about changing rhetoric and their complicity in offenders' choices of targets--past, present and future.

America's prison failure

On Dec. 6 the New York Times published an opinion piece worthy of note. In response to the California prison conditions case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, Schwarzenegger v. Plata. Federal oversight of California's broken system determined that population must be reduced by forty thousand inmates to provide adequate, but minimal, health care to inmates, who die routinely as a direct result of the the poor quality of care and a failure of the prison to respond to court orders issues to prevent these problems over the past couple of decades.

The editorial concludes: "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."

In these times of potential social change it is useful for students and teachers to read the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union in light of their criminal justice systems. This provides a useful example for comparison to the U.S.

Public Attitudes on Crime and Punishment

PEW's just released study, National Research of Public Attitudes on Crime and Punishment, is must reading for people concerned with correctional reform in the U.S.

The study shows that voters want citizens and communities safe and want offenders to be accountable. In addition: "Voters believe a strong public safety system is possible while reducing the size and cost of the prison system."

The findings detail how much people are willing to release offenders from prison, the high priority they place on funding education over prisons, and how important people view preparing people who are released from prison (since 95% are) to become productive members of society.

Do the PEW findings apply to California? Some data suggests that the answer is yes. For example, the table below is derived from a random sample of Californians as of January, 2010 collected by the PPIC. It shows support for cutting various state agencies in California to reduce the deficit. The data show that nearly 70% of the California public supports cutting prison budgets to reduce the deficit. The public is, however, strongly opposed to cutting budgets in education and health and human services to reduce the deficit.


Crime and Victimization Data through 2009

People want to know how much crime there is. The data below have been taken from publicly accessible data sources identified in the tables below or in the text.

Police Data. Here are some police data generated from the Uniform Crime Reports, 2009.

Part I or Index Personal/Violent Offenses, 1990-2009:
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Part I or Index Property Offenses, 1990-2009:
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UCR reported offenses cleared by arrest or exceptional means, 2009:
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UCR Arrests, 2009, all offenses and jurisdictions (% of total computed):
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Justifiable homicides by police over time, by time of weapon:
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Justifiable homicides by citizens over time, by type of weapon:
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Victim Data. Latest data (see year on table). Here are some data from National Crime Victim Survey: Americans reporting on how frequently and what kind of victimization they have experienced, as well as whether or not they have reported it to the police. One recent report is Criminal Victimization 2008

Proportion of victims who do/do not report victimization, by offense:
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Why victims report victimization to police:
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Why victims do not report victimization to police:
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Dramatic declines in victimization, 1998-2008 (from Criminal Victimization above):
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Violent personal victimization by gender, race, ethnicity and age:
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Violent personal victimization by race, controlling for gender:
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Victim-offender relationship in violent victimization, by type of crime and gender of victim:
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Self-protective measures taken by victims of violent personal crime, by gender and race
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Property victimization by annual household income:
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Self report data. The third method of measuring crime is by asking those who break the rules. For reasons that are not entirely clear, these kinds of questions are often only asked of juveniles. Today one of the best known self-report program is called Monitoring the Future, which has been collecting data for thirty-six years. At present self report data are collected annually from 8th, 10th and 12th graders. Here's a small sample from the latest survey. A report overview (pdf) is available.

View table

Some data are available for juveniles and adults on illicit drug use. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse conducted a national survey in 2008 available at this link. The latest data are available in this report. The table below displays marijuana use level by age for the U.S. as a whole:

View table

Three Strikes in California

Updated and reposted:
Everyone interested in crime and punishment may be interested in the 2005 report on California's Three Strikes Law, entitled A Primer: Three Strikes: The Impact After More Than a Decade, authored by Brian Brown and Greg Jolivette of the Legislative Analyst's Office of the State of California.* This study is elegant in its simplicity and its quantity and quality of information. There are important findings.

First, the three strikes law has had a major impact on California prisons: individuals sentenced under the law now comprise 26 percent of the state's prison population. Since the law was passed about 87,500 people have been sentenced to prison under its provisions. Unlike some other states, who use tough-sounding habitual offender laws more as symbolic legislation, California has made big-time use of this law. At $35,000 per inmate per year this means Californians are paying big money for this.

Second, fully 56% of "strikers" (inmates sentenced under the law) are in prison for nonserious or nonviolent offenses: this includes 59% of second strikers and 46 percent of third strikers. Sentence lengths of all inmates increased by 19 percent since the law was passed; "Second strikers released to parole in 2004 served 43 months on average. The additional time in prison for second strikers costs the state approximately $60,000 per striker" (p. 20). None of the 7,575 third strikers have yet been released and none will be until 2019.

Third, the fiscal impact is unclear, but the report estimates that the law costs about a half a billion dollars a year and that this cost will increase significantly. There will be long term costs as aging prisoners' health care costs are added to the base cost of incarcerating inmates. There will be additional parole and parole decision-making costs, and there has been a 10% increase in trials that can probably be attributed to the law; calculation of these and other costs are not included in the half billion figure. Parole officials are beefing up supervision of striker releasees, thereby increasing the cost of supervision.

The very big promise of this law is that it will reduce crime. Has it? First, it is important to recognize that the law was passed when crime was declining to begin with, both in California and the U.S. as a whole. Second, there is wide variation in use of the law by the counties, e.g., "Kern County with 1,518 strikers per 100,000 adult felony arrests is over 13 times more likely to send an arrestee to state prison with a strike enhancement than San Francisco County (113 strikers per 100,000 adult felony arrests)" (p. 25). Third, there is no correspondance between county usage of the law and subsequent changes in county crime rates. Citing a report by Jim Austin, they note: " If Three Strikes works as intended, one would expect that those counties that used the law more often would experience significantly greater reductions in crime than those that did not use it as often. However, the county comparison study did not find significantly different outcomes across different counties, suggesting that the Three Strikes law was not the primary cause of the significant drop in crime after 1994" (p. 31).

As it concerns violent crime rates in particular, the report goes on to compare the declines in violent crime across counties that used the striker enhancements a great deal compared to those that did not use it as much. They find no differences in benefits across counties: "The violent crime rate in those counties least likely to send strikers to prison declined by an average of 45 percent, while the violent crime rate in the counties most likely to send strikers to prison declined by an average of 44 percent."

In short, the decline in crime in California (and elsewhere) can not be linked to the three strikes law.

The report does not say this but it obviously needs to be: the law has been an enormously costly and ineffectual response to crime. It is grounded in unfounded and simplistic assumptions about how to control crime. Despite the hard-line rhetoric it very likely has had no effect on public safety.

As we continue to dump massive amounts of public money to fund the incarceration of offenders convicted of nonserious strikes, we miss the opportunity to support other pressing needs--ones that might well have demonstrable positive effects in dealing with crime and its antecedents.

California's Proposition 66 of the 2004 election, which would have scaled down Three Strikes to only include offenders whose second and third strikes were violent or serious felonies, was narrowly defeated at the polls because of a last minute campaign headed by the Governor, a very wealth friend of his, and other vested interests--the most powerful lobbying group in California (the California Correctional and Peace Officer's Association), and the District Attorney's Association. The television ads against the law were filled with gross inaccuracies and distortions (see them for yourself at http://www.keep3strikes.org/video2.asp).
Prior to this extremely well-funded media blitz there was strong public support for changing the three strikes law. Pollsters were surprised by the dramatic switch in public opinion.

We, the public and taxpayers, are left with paying the enormous price tag for no crime reduction benefit and lost opportunities to spend money on alternative pressing needs that can do much more to prevent crime.

SuperCell thrives on California's three strikes law. SuperCell relishes people who don't want to be bothered with ineffective crime control policies. SuperCell admires politicians who ignore information on ineffective crime control policy.

To get the flavor of excesses in the use of three strikes to solve California's crime problem see a recent example of an inmate recently released from a 25 year sentence in this L.A. Times article.

For a study of the disproportionate impact of three strikes on minorities see "Racial Divide: An Examination of the Impact of California's Three Strikes Law on African-Americans and Latinos."

*The Acknowledgement states:
"The Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) is a nonpartisan office which provides fiscal and policy information and advice to the California Legislature. To request publications call (916) 445-4656. This report and others, as well as an E-mail subscription service, are available on the LAO's Internet site at www.lao.ca.gov."

Arson: sometimes a matter of economics

The economy is ripe for (mostly) downscale arson. Some news articles suggest the structural reasons for this, e.g., 

Economy blamed for jump in arson cases | MLive.com

Immigration Issues

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Using criminal laws to manage a narrowly defined immigration "problem" is currently a hot topic. SSU faculty member Francisco Vasquez discusses the issue of the legal vs. ethical issues surrounding immigration in light of Arizona's new laws. He writes, for example, that "Politically, the issue of Mexican illegal immigration is the most exploited, useful and, historically, the principal political weapon for U.S. politicians every time there is an economic crisis." He raises a number of good points that can inform debate about immigration today.

Find Francisco's "GUEST OPINION: Standing up against an unethical Arizona law" at the local newspaper.

It is also worth noting that President Obama is frequently criticized for failing to enforce federal immigration laws. However, as more recently noted by TRAC,

"Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) show that during the first nine months of FY 2010, more non-US citizens were removed from the country than during any similar period in the Bush Administration....the first nine months of FY 2010...resulted in the removal of 279,035 individuals compared to 254,763 in the same nine month period during the final year of the Bush administration."

For the latest data on federal law enforcement in the area of immigration take this link. The table below is taken from TRAC's report. It shows how Arizona compares to the rest of the U.S.

Here is a web site on immigration that is off the beaten trail. Enjoy!

The conviction of a peace officer for the killing of Oscar Grant raises the question of how frequently police are charged with crimes against citizens and what the outcomes of accusations are. The table on p. 5 of Crime in California, the California Attorney General's advance report on crime in California, shows how many times police in California were charged with crimes against citizens over the past six years. In 2009, 600 felony and 833 misdemeanor charges were leveled against officers by citizens. Fifty-one (8.5%) of the 600 felonies were "sustained," as were 101 (12.1%) of the misdemeanors. Click the table to enlarge it. An important question--not addressed in the report--is the meaning of "sustained" and the consequences of this for officers, departments and citizens.


Accusations against prison guards by inmates at this time appear to be far more hidden than accusations against police by free citizens. One would think that the California prison system would be far more open and transparent in its dealings with inmates given the sustained criticism of the operation of prisons but for varied reasons it is not. A recent Sacramento Bee investigative story discusses what happens to complaints filed by inmates in California prisons against correctional officers. Will this instigate more inquiry?

"Daniel Johnson, a recently retired state prison research analyst, was assigned in 2008 and 2009 to record information into a database from about 10,000 employee-misconduct appeals filed by prisoners over more than five years. He told The [Sacramento] Bee that virtually every complaint filed against a correctional officer was rejected by officials, including hundreds of appeals alleging physical abuse 'even when medical records supported the complaint.'"

Source: http://www.sacbee.com/2010/08/01/2928417/rights-of-prisoners-under-siege.html#ixzz0vOZjOuMp

In an update of an earlier report at the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, The California Miracle: Drastically Reduced Youth Incarceration, Drastically Reduced Youth Crime, authors Mike Males and Daniel Macallair examine whether adult and juvenile crime rates have changed in California as the incarceration of juveniles has dramatically declined. For the record, in the past thirty years the rate of incarceration for juveniles has declined by eighty percent. The answer (relax conservatives, don't sweat it politicians, take heart progressives): decarcerating juveniles has been a very good thing. As incarceration has decreased, crime among juveniles has decreased. For example, from 1980 to 2009, the felony crime rate among juveniles dropped sixty percent.

The study also compares the juvenile and adult experiences and looks at particular counties that have widely varying rates of incarceration.

This is an important reading in a state with staggering budget deficits and an over reliance on incarceration as a solution to crime problems. Criminologists will appreciate how the study directly addresses the meaning and implications of the results for incapacitation theory. These kind of results do not bolster SuperCell's reputation.

Congress has done the right thing

Today the House passed legislation that will greatly decrease the wide disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine sentences. It will also repeal the five year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine. This comes on the heels of the Senate vote. The legislation now goes to the President. The issue of whether the changes will be applied retroactively is unknown.

This was bipartisan legislation, although one has to wonder whether it could ever have happened had Democrats not had the upper hand. It's the first repeal of a mandatory minimum drug sentence since the days of the Nixon administration. Various groups, including the Sentencing Project and FAMM have argued strenuously for reform of the laws.

During the early 1970's in California Ronald Reagan decided to deinstitutionalize persons with mental illnesses. With legislative support that's what happened, and it was supposed to be somehow replaced with some kind of community care system and psychotropic drugs that somehow never fully materialized. Over the years many commentators and researchers have noticed the increased presence of persons with varied mental illnesses or dual diagnoses in prisons and jails.

The Treatment Advocacy Center's latest nationwide study on the mentally ill in confinement notes:

"In historical perspective, we have returned to the early nineteenth century, when mentally ill persons filled our jails and prisons. At that time, a reform movement, sparked by Dorothea Dix, led to a more humane treatment of mentally ill persons. For over a hundred years, mentally ill individuals were treated in hospitals. We have now returned to the conditions of the 1840s by putting large numbers of mentally ill persons back into jails and prisons" (emphasis in original).

Have you been to a local jail lately and checked out how many persons identified as having mental illnesses are there and how many of them are walking around with shackles? It's upsetting to behold, but when you put people in a jail and they don't behave, you do what jailers do. A sad part of this is that there are no bandaid, panacea solutions. Over 30% of women inmates, and a little over half of male inmates, have serious mental health problems, and Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca can say with authority, "I run the biggest mental hospital in the country" (cited in the above study, p. 4).

Clearly U.S. priorities and California's in particular are to criminalize problems that belong elsewhere. Criminal justice incarceration, here in the form of local jails, is one of the most inappropriate, expensive and least effective solutions around. The above study suggests that states with the greatest spending on hospitals for the mentally ill spend the least money on mentally ill inmates in prisons and jails. Moreover, mentally ill inmates cost a great deal more to manage than other inmates--and they stay longer (not surprisingly, many have trouble following institutional rules! After all, it is a place of punishment in form if not intent.).

This is one of those areas of criminal justice where it is very clear the form of our structured response to people in trouble (jail and shackles for the mentally ill) is inappropriate. Our society--through our leaders--has put all its money into a criminal justice solution to everything: we're now governing through crime, to use the title of Jonathan Simon's book, Governing Through Crime, a vital way of thinking about the mass incarceration response to crime today.

How can we get out of this mess? It seems advisable to decarcerate the mentally ill with soundly planned and executed community based alternatives designed to keep them out of jails and prisons and which do not infringe on their civil liberties. There are programs that work to do that. Mental health courts appear to have promise, as may other alternatives suggested in the report. The non-help, non-system, let them eat cake solution of Ronald Reagan doesn't work and the current policy of incarceration doesn't work.

Today it appears that jails and prisons have become for the mentally ill what the juvenile court was in the early 1960's to juveniles having minor run-ins with the police: a solution of first resort. Edwin Lemert's angrily toned (and lengthy) report, Instead of Court: Diversion from Juvenile Justice, drew attention to the overreach of the juvenile justice system and suggested the importance of finding alternatives to formal processing. Since that time diversion programs, which have their own issues, have flourished and many states have decarcerated or completed closed their youth training schools (prisons for young offenders). The important lesson from research on these states' experiences is that with careful planning it is possible to decarcerate young offenders--as California has been doing--without increasing public risk and while providing people with the services and assistance to make them self-sufficient adults. Perhaps similar things can be done with mentally ill persons along lines suggested in the Treatment Advocacy Center report.

Cellphone laws

Laws relating to cell phone usage have been passed in many states or local jurisdictions (see this listing of states, local jurisdictions and their laws). This is one of those areas where systematic research has not quite caught up to the potential importance of a common practice (talking on a cell phone or even texting while driving) for traffic safety. Many such laws are targeting youth or 'novice' drivers: over 28 states target texting while driving, which is about youth mainly.

This is an area ripe for investigation by students of dynamic conflict and social change leading to legal change.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, in Graham v. Florida (08-7412.pdf), on the question of whether juveniles can be given life without parole sentences. In a case decided today the court ruled that juveniles can not be given such sentences unless convicted of homicide. The 5-4 decision is remarkable because of the minority opinion of Scalia, Thomas and Alito.

Environmental Catastrophe

If someone could cogently argue that this was the work of terrorists we'd be in even deeper trouble, but it is incredible enough as it is. The oil that has spewed from a mile below the surface of the Gulf is becoming one of the worst environmental disasters the world has seen. If the oil follows its projected path around the panhandle and up the Atlantic coast of the U.S. it will be perceived as unthinkably worse. Already an ecosystem is being trashed and an entire way of life and living among the human and non-human animals is in serious danger of being dramatically changed. So far we only have a superficial understanding of the depth and breadth of this slow moving catastrophe.

In May of 2008, a Gallup poll showed that fifty-seven percent of a random sample of Americans supported off shore drilling and drilling in environmentally sensitive areas that were at that time forbidden. That support included 80% of republications, 56% of independents and 39% of democrats (see Majority of Americans Support Drilling in Off-Limits Areas). To the dismay of his democratic supporters, President Obama ordered the expansion of off shore drilling.

Even though the well is now plugged, in light of the Gulf environmental catastrophe that is currently underway, and which portends damage far in excess of what we have seen, we see the consequences of Obama's centrist politics and the actual consequences of pursuing environmental actions that environmentalists have steadfastly opposed and republicans have supported. One only hopes that the Obama administration will get the message. The field of environmental criminology is especially relevant in this context. Damage to the environment is for some difficult to comprehend or quantify. The inevitable civil remedies, and perhaps criminal, that citizen, government or environmental groups will attempt to bring to bear on this situation will face formidable challenges against some of the most powerful forces in the world today--especially in the face of increasingly more tenable claims of declining fossil fuels. A more manageable approach might be to seek criminal wrongdoing charges against executives of the oil industry who allowed people to work under conditions that were likely to cause death. How the environmental damage is constructed and the forces of justice directed to satisfactorily resolve the enormous damages and grievances here will take years or decades to resolve, if they ever are.

California's Governor has decided to back off his position to support drilling off the coast in light of the Gulf disaster. Let's hope others will follow.

The loss of the right to vote because of a felony conviction under a de facto policy of mass incarceration in the U.S. means--translated into practice--that one-third of black men in Alabama can no longer vote. That is unbelievable. More will be added each year in that state and elsewhere as we continued to lock up massive numbers of inmates who are disproportionately represented by minorities and the poor. The NAACP has just completed a report on the general topic, "Free the Vote: Unlocking Democracy in the Cells and on the Streets." This is worth a close read and discussion. The question of whether disenfranchisement is inconsistent with the Voting Rights Act is an interesting one. See the recent opinion by Linda Greenhouse in "Voting Behind Bars."

Supreme Court Nominations

In these important times of U.S. Supreme Court replacements it is helpful to have a reference point for how the process is supposed to work. Try Supreme Court Nominations

1 in 31

PEW Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections provides the latest look at the reach of corrections in the United States. It documents the unprecedented growth in and costs of the increases in community and institutional corrections and points as well to ways out of the mess that we're in.

From 1 in 31:

For some updated statistics see this study from the Correctional Research Service.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from October 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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