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Significant Issues in Criminal Justice: California

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An exerpt from our department newsletter, CCJS News:

California has become a leader in the passage of laws and the implementation of policies that are a harbinger of change in other states and the federal system. While the merits of this are hotly debated, crime and its control are among the most contentious issues in politics and each year there are many issues that capture public and lawmaker attention. The following are certainly among the many important ones being discussed today.

Gun Control
Certainly one of the most significant national discussions relating to criminology and criminal justice has been the issue of gun control in the wake of mass killings in Newtown, Aurora and elsewhere and the recognition that death from weapons, accidental (e.g., and otherwise, is significant in American society.

Overall the discussion revealed the powerful role of money, lobbyists and the NRA in lawmakers' decisions to refuse to support any federal legislation. California continues to maintain its position as one of the leading states with controls on access
to high power weaponry and (most recently) appropriations for enforcing existing laws prohibiting certain categories from having weapons, but New York, Connecticut and Colorado have also passed significant legislation in the past few months. Amazingly, with overwhelming U.S. citizen support support for universal background checks on weapons purchasers, the attempt to even debate the issue was stopped in the Senate by mostly Republican opposition. There is no surprise that unfavorable public opinion of Congress is now at the lowest point it has ever been measured by pollsters (see PEW 2013 at Perhaps the move for concerned citizens today will be toward citizen initiatives where these are allowed (see, e.g., this discussion).

One of the biggest changes being felt at both the state and local levels is realignment, which is a direct result of the court ordered transfer of inmates from state prisons in California to county jurisdiction. There is a great deal of discussion about, monitoring of and related information about realignment underway in California.

The general issues posed by realignment are provided in the most recent issue of the Western Criminology Review at The latest updating on the monitoring of realignment is available through the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which is directed by SSU's Dan MacAllair, at There is wide-ranging discussion about the topic at city, county and state levels (e.g., see the Public Policy Institute Report at; KQED's examination at; and the California Report at

Gay Marriage
The 9th Circuit Court struck down Prop. 8, which limited marriage to a man and woman, but the law was eventually upheld and subsequently gay marriage was upheld nationwide.

Prison Break

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The California Report's Prison Break is worth visiting. They have put together a video and three articles on realignment:

  • Were Counties Prepared for Flood of Inmates Under Realignment?
  • Prison Costs Should Drop With Realignment
  • LA Uses Realignment Funds for Re-Entry and Mental Health Programs
  • Television Special Preview

"Prison Realignment:" The Time Has Arrived

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The long awaited realignment in California has begun. The state of California now transfers responsibility for specific categories of less serious criminal offenders to county jurisdictions rather than state prison. Let us hope that it goes smoothly. Perhaps other jurisdictions could then see a viable way to reduce overused prisons and return offenders to local jurisdictions where they may have a greater chance of successful reentry. It is clear that many other states (and the federal system) have serious crowding and other problems, but it appears that California leads the pack in the size, extent and severity of the problems. If we have learned anything in California, it is that history can repeat itself: using prisons as we have to solve the problems of crime is an extraordinarily costly use of scarce public money that is highly likely to fail.

The colossal California prison failure has taken a narrowly defined federal court order (one that had to go to the U.S. Supreme Court) to change, which coincides with a financially broke state that has no money for teachers, roads, health care, and the like. So it's about time. Some of the nearly ten billion dollars that goes to the state's prisons--over eleven percent of the state's budget--should be reduced by $1.5 billion.

Observers estimate that almost twenty-six thousand would-be prison inmates will do time in local jails now instead of prison, which one would expect would be closer to home, job, family and perhaps even rehabilitation or job training programs. There won't be the rapid and wasteful "churning" of parolees.

There is a lot of speculation about the effects of the realignment on local jail capacity, crime levels, and the like. An editorial by our local paper says that it is an "experiment" and a "gamble." Much of the discussion statewide mirrors that that surrounded of the probation subsidy program of decades past: "Will the money for all of these inmates materialize?" (When and exactly how much are reasonable questions); "Will crime levels increase?" (Hard to imagine they could ever be as high as the recidivism levels of released prisoners in California); Can we develop effective local programs to manage our own criminal offenders? (What a refreshing question. Local experience in Napa County suggests that local programs can provide beneficial employment training, drug testing and yet have substantially reduced recidivism levels.)

Let us hope that the experience with realignment will be carefully studied by researchers. We need ways of rationally assessing the consequences of our policy choices rather than allowing such things as politicians with simplistic crime control agendas, pundits, and high profile cases to guide policy decisions. The last thing we need is the hyperbolic thinking that got us into this enormous problem to begin with, like that supplied our own Republican State Senator (Runner) commenting on realignment:

"Now is the time for Californians to get a dog, buy a gun and install an alarm system. The state of California is no longer going to protect you."

Immigration Issues

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(Updated) 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."

Should America unleash the private sector to solve our immigration problems? Even ardent private sector believers can't help but see the humor and truth in the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon about capitalism in America. Project Censored looks at the role of private sector corrections in responding to the issues facing immigrants and the U.S. problems with immigration. Their observation differs from but seems to complement Francisco's. They note at this link that two private sector leaders in the privatization of prisons,

"CCA based in Nashville, Tennessee, and Geo Group, a global corporation based in Boca Raton, Florida, are the principal moving forces in the behind-the-scenes organization of the current wave of anti-immigrant legislative efforts."

For the latest data on federal law enforcement in the area of immigration take this link. The table below is taken from 2010 TRAC report. It shows how Arizona compares to the rest of the U.S.

Here is a web site on issues of immigration that looks at its human side. Enjoy!

Justice: Criminal Justice Through Art

This ebook, Justice (pdf), was made possible by the Rockefeller Foundation, Columbia University, and Penland School of Crafts.


U.S. Supreme Court upholds release of California inmates

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Justice Kennedy was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan in upholding the previously ordered release of California inmates from CDCR. California's prisons, designed to hold 80,000 inmates, have been holding more than double that for decades. In response to a long period of attempted federal intervention and a prior three judge federal court finding (subsequently appealed) that mental and medical care needs of inmates could not be met unless population size is reduced, the high court's 5-4 decision finally concludes the case.

This is big news. Supposedly population will be reduced to about 137 percent of capacity. Exactly how and when this will be accomplished has yet to be seen but supposedly it will happen within two years. Inmates will hopefully receive better care rather than cruel and unusual punishment.

And now California can re-embark on a new era of community based corrections rather than having such an extraordinarily heavy reliance on the extremely expensive system of incarceration. I say re-embark because we have successfully gone down this path before--in the 60's and early 70's through probation subsidy and in the 80's through the Blue Ribbon Commission's community supervision act proposal. There have been more recent proposals as well. Jeanne Woodford and Barry Krisberg note in their Op-Ed piece ("Don't fear the prison decision") that California will not be freeing dangerous offenders to meet mandate and that other states have recently reduced their incarceration levels maintaining public safety.

Hopefully, decreased commitments and shorter terms will also lead to reduced reliance on parole supervision as well. California has been criticized heavily for paroling everyone even though not everyone "needs" it. Some have argued that the system of supervision itself should be done away with, but a significant response has been that even if that's true, there has to be a release valve from prison. Perhaps for the moment there is a greater need for flexibility to get or keep people out of prison.

The high court's finding could also not have come at a better time--over the past 30 years California's prison budget has more than tripled to over 9 billion dollars while the state's services have been severely crippled. The horrific budget deficit that threatens massive layoffs at local levels, closure of public parks, retraction of higher education and huge increases in tuition/fees, might be mitigated by the proper reduction of money to the prison system. Whether that can happen has yet to be seen.

Relief ordered, at last! Download the opinion at this link.

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."

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.


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.

Supreme Court Limits LWOPs for Juveniles

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.

The Chancellor Has Seen the Light

The Chancellor of the CSU system finally gets it. How long has this taken?

"During the budget debate, it became clear to me that something unthinkable has happened in California: Our fiscal meltdown has so distorted our legislative priorities that we are now a state that places a higher priority on prison than on higher education.

"Last week, at the same time that the California State University's Board of Trustees was approving drastic measures to manage unprecedented budget cuts, a tentative budget deal in the Legislature was unraveling because of outrage over cuts to California's prison budget. How could the message to California students have been any clearer? You can cut higher education to the bone and you won't hear a single statement of remorse from the Legislature, but start cutting into the prison budget and you'll hear howls of protest from the Capitol."

Read more:

Swine Flu - panic watch

For the moment, fears about the H5N1 avian flu--and related criminological issues--have receded while U.S. and other investigators look into the latest outbreak of Swine Flu. WHO and the Center for Disease Control appears to be on top of this and (as of June 11) a worldwide pandemic has been declared. The CDC is careful to say that "WHO's decision to raise the pandemic alert level to Phase 6 is a reflection of the spread of the virus, not the severity of illness caused by the virus." As of 6.25.09 there have been 127 deaths in the U.S. and its territories and a total of 265 deaths worldwide.

People are discussing primarily the flu in general and swine flu in internet forums. The figure below, created from BlogPulse, shows the trends in mention of swine flu relative to "flu" and "avian flu" on 6.29.09 for the prior six month period. It is notable that the June 11 announcement barely led to a slight blib in discussion.


Remain aware by reading regular updates from the Sonoma County Public Health Division.

The link below is one way to keep on top of official CDC information.

What, We Worry?

A recent article in the local newspaper, "Santa Rosa crime rate plummets," notes the dramatic drop in crime. It asks whether local citizens are safer than they were 20 years ago--an interesting question to ask when 'objective' indicators of crime clearly show dramatic decreases.

In light of this, we may ask, What is newsworthy about the drop in crime? In another entry, we reviewed some of the statistical evidence--using the most accurate measures of crime we have--which indicate that crime is declining dramatically--not just police data but also victim reports of crime and other sources. Moreover, there are steep decreases even though reporting of crime is improving. However, the truly astounding fact is that even though crime is going down, citizens are still afraid of crime and still believe that crime is going up. Year after year, the same pattern continues. How is that possible?

Here's data from Gallup on public opinion about whether a nationally representative sample of Americans think crime is going up. Believe it or not, even though crime continues to go down, as it has for decades, a higher percentage of people feel crime is going up than has existed for more than a decade. See the table here.

Here we are, one of the richest and most educated nations in the world, and many people are out of touch with reality. How is this possible? Why are people so afraid when they're safer now than they have been for decades?

Statistics Laundering

Statistics Laundering: false and fantastic figures may be a web site worth examining for its helpfulness in pointing out how and why statistics can be inaccurate. This site is helpful because it deals with issues that overlap with the criminology & criminal justice area.

Will CDCR be Received?

The Universe is waiting. Will CDCR go into receivership? The trial is on but not being televised. Hold on to your seats while the experts offer opinions about whether CDCR is capable of managing its own affairs. See "Corrections chiefs: Calif. prisons unmanageable."

The overcrowding numbers that have been used to drive the growth of prison and its supporting structure are now being used to attack the very legitimacy of self-governance. There's a nice quote in the above newspaper article from Jeanne Woodford, SSU's former alumni of the year and former warden of San Quentin: "We just passed an initiative that gives chickens appropriate living space, and yet we permit conditions like this," referring to a makeshift dorm at CRC.

Tennesee Private Prison Sales Video

Here's a news story about a video that was made to entice California inmates to transfer to an out-of-state prison. The facility--West Tennessee Detention Facility in Mason--is owned and operated by private industry: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

Here is a link to the video. And here is a quote from the beginning of the article. We haven't heard about this video being played very recently since a court order put a stop the transfer. There is, however, much to learn from this.

Thousands of California inmates are getting a daily pitch on the finer side of what prison life could be like in Tennessee.

The video they're watching touts a private Tennessee prison's larger and cleaner jail cells; 79 TV channels, including ESPN; views of peaceful cow pastures; and inmates in the "Dorm of the Week," staying up all night, watching a movie and eating cheeseburgers or pizza.

The video's stars are some of the 80 California inmates who transferred to Corrections Corporation of America's West Tennessee Detention Facility in Mason last fall in what was the Golden State's first export of prisoners to ease overcrowding. Their taped testimonials are being used in an attempt to entice some of their former jail mates to follow them to the promised land of prisons.

Does this presage California's future of managing inmates--trolling for 'volunteers' by wagging the promised land in front of them through a sales video? Does it reflect how we will deal with the ethical, legal and related issues raised in proposals to transfer inmates far, far away from their families and communities to which they will eventually be returned? Initially this video was shown over the prison network for California inmates. You have to ask yourself, can inmates make a free or voluntary choice on this issue that is in their best long-term interest when they are experiencing the conditions of confinement that they do in California's prisons? Is inmate transfer a rational public policy when recidivism levels are at such high levels and California's re-entry process is in such sorry shape?

Gambling in California

California's Office of Problem and Pathological Gambling (OPG) has provided funding for the largest gambling prevalence study of its kind in California or the U.S. Over 7000 adult California citizens were surveyed using random digit dialing techniques with varied attempts to reach respondents. The 2006 California Problem Gambling Prevalence Survey is definitely worth examining.

Given that states like California are gambling on gambling to help finance their tenuous state budgets, that gambling has a long history of being associated with varied social problems and crime, and that varied groups have huge financial stakes in gambling in California (and elsewhere), there's a need for information about such an important issue.

The significant increases in gaming and gambling across the country and California have raised concerns about the increase of 'pathological' or problem gaming. How many people gamble or have gambled? How many of these have gambled recently and how many have varied levels of 'addiction' or associated problem behaviors? A very big question is: How does access to local gaming affect whether or not people engage in problem gaming? This study does a very good job of attempting to estimate the prevalence and incidence of gambling in California. The results should be of great interest to the debates about casinos and gaming.

On p. 31 of the study (see link above) Table 3 (click here for popup) of the study shows that the frequency of gambling participation is not trivial.

Did you know there is a the hot line for people who have a gambling problem (1.800.GAMBLER)? This study shows that most people don't.

Public Agenda: Crime

Public Agenda is a web site that looks at the agenda of public issues, in this case, crime. It's a different way of going about it, defined by whether or not public opinion defines an issue as worthy of attention.

This site provides an opportunity to discuss crime agendas in class. What is or should be the relationship between public opinion and crime agendas? Is 'public opinion' a product of elite attempts to generate support for crime control objectives? Is 'public opinion' a result of the lived experiences of citizens as they go about their daily activities? How is 'public opinion' affected by short term and long term media coverage of crime?

Try City Limits

City Limits: News for NYC's Nonprofit, Policy and Activist World. Here's something new and interesting. Perhaps there is a place for critical journalism in criminology & criminal justice studies.

California's Correctional Crisis

Perhaps the most most important and timely look to date at California's extraordinarily expensive prison problem is the Little Hoover Commission's latest report, Solving California's Corrections Crisis: Time is Running Out (Report #185, January 2007), available in pdf.

This is a report that ought to light the fire under legislators and opinion makers and force rational and rapid change in corrections. It is clear that the past solution to crises--building more prisons to solve community level problems--hasn't solved any (except political leaders' needs for 'tough on crime' appearances) and in fact makes them much worse: we have lost untold opportunities to fund alternative solutions to crime, our recidivism rates are extremely high despite the massive and record breaking investment in imprisonment, and looming and existing court orders to change the system fundamentally have created enormous pressures to solve the problem.

This report brings together just enough history of the system and the legislative responses to crime, along with the impact of these, to show how and why the prison and parole system consume such a huge and rapidly growing proportion of our state budget. It also provides many examples of how other jurisdictions have resolved the politically created problems that we have, clearly highlights the deadline (June of 2007) for solving these problems and what the consequences will be if we don't.

If there isn't a rapid solution the consequences will not be pretty for the legislature, the governor or CDCR (including the CCPOA), and they will be untenable for citizens as they see the price tag for corrections increase even more and watch federal and state judges take control of CDCR.

The time for drive-by sentencing reform solutions to crime problems is now over.

We quote what follows from a report provided at the non-partisan General Accounting Office (, U.S. Federal Government. The GAO was asked to evaluate the quality of the research done to evaluate the centerpiece of the campaign to reduce entry level drug use among youth in the U.S. The full report is available at this link.

"Between 1998 and 2004, Congress appropriated over $1.2 billion to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. The campaign aimed to prevent the initiation of or curtail the use of drugs among the nation's youth. In 2005, Westat, Inc., completed a multiyear national evaluation of the campaign.

"...GAO's review of Westat's evaluation reports and associated documentation leads to the conclusion that the evaluation provides credible evidence that the campaign was not effective in reducing youth drug use, either during the entire period of the campaign or during the period from 2002 to 2004 when the campaign was redirected and focused on marijuana use.

"...By collecting longitudinal data--i.e., multiple observations on the same persons over time--using generally accepted and appropriate sampling and analytic techniques, and establishing reliable methods for measuring campaign exposure, Westat was able to produce credible evidence to support its findings about the relationship between exposure to campaign advertisements and both drug use and intermediate outcomes. In implementing the study, Westat encountered problems that are common to large-scale longitudinal studies, and it addressed those using methods that are generally recognized as appropriate approaches for the study implementation challenges Westat faced.

"...For intermediate outcome measures thought to influence the ultimate target of the campaign, youth drug use--for example, recall and identification of campaign messages, youth anti-drug attitudes, and parents' beliefs and behaviors--Westat found favorable effects for some measures and subgroups, as well as unfavorable effects and no significant effects for others. In general, both youth and parents' recall of specific campaign messages increased over the life of the campaign. In addition, NSPY trend data showed some increasing trends in anti-drug attitudes and beliefs as well as the proportion of youth who reported never intending to try marijuana. However, cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis provided no evidence that these trends resulted from campaign exposure. Westat's analysis also indicated that among current, non-drug-using youth, exposure to the campaign had unfavorable effects on their anti-drug norms and perceptions of other youths' use of marijuana--that is, greater exposure to the campaign was associated with weaker anti-drug norms and increases in the perceptions that others use marijuana. (Emphasis supplied.) Data for parents in the NSPY on five intermediate measures show some favorable effects of campaign exposure on parents' behaviors and beliefs. However, for a major aim of the campaign, affecting parental behaviors regarding monitoring their children's whereabouts, activities, and friends, Westat found no evidence of a significant effect. (Emphasis supplied.) Moreover, where the data showed favorable relationships between campaign exposure and parental beliefs and behaviors, Westat did not find that these effects on parents ultimately lead to corresponding changes in their children's beliefs and behaviors.

"Westat's evaluation found no significant favorable effects of campaign exposure on marijuana initiation among non-drug-using youth or cessation and declining use among prior marijuana users. Westat's NSPY data did show some declining trends in self-reported lifetime and past-month use of marijuana by youth over the period from 2002 to 2004 and declining trends in youth reports of offers to use marijuana. Declining drug use trends in the NSPY were consistent with trends in other national surveys of drug use over these years. However, Westat cautioned that because trends do not account for the relationship between campaign exposure and changes in self-reported drug use, trends alone should not be taken as definitive evidence that the campaign was responsible for the declines. ONDCP has also acknowledged the limitation of drug use trends for the purpose of demonstrating a causal link between campaign exposures and declines in drug use trends. Westat's analysis of the relationship between exposure to campaign advertisements and youth self-reported drug use in the NSPY data for the entire period covered by its evaluation--assessments that used statistical methods to adjust for individual differences and control for other factors that could explain changes in self-reported drug use--showed no significant effects of exposure to the campaign on initiation of marijuana by prior nonusing youth. Westat's analysis found significant unfavorable effects--that is, a relationship between campaign exposure and higher rates of initiation--during one round of NSPY data and for the whole period of the campaign among certain subgroups of the sample (e.g., 12 1/2 to 13 year-olds and girls). Westat found no effects of campaign exposure on rates of quitting or use by prior users of marijuana.

"In light of the fact that the phase III evaluation of the media campaign yielded no evidence of a positive outcome in relation to teen drug use and congressional conferees' indications of their intentions to rely on the Westat study, Congress should consider limiting appropriations for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign beginning in the fiscal 2007 budget year until ONDCP is able to provide credible evidence of the effectiveness of exposure to the campaign on youth drug use outcomes or provide other credible options for a media campaign approach. In this regard we believe that an independent evaluation of the new campaign should be considered as a means to help inform both ONDCP and Congressional decision making."

For your information, recently there was a meeting of prior drug czars in the U.S., who reflected on the drug war. Their opinions are found in this document: 2006 Drug Czar Conference: A Reflection on Three and a Half Decades of National Drug Policy.

WiFi Freeloading

A relatively new offense that is gaining some attention in our society (e.g., this ars technica piece) is WiFi freeloading, a situation where someone or a group with a laptop (sometimes even a desktop) find a wireless access point (WAP) available and log on to it, surfing the web on another person's dime, or checking e-mail, whatever. Some see it as opportunistic web usage, others a form of "theft of service". This is an issue that has come up in classes repeatedly.

It will be of interest to see how this issue is managed in the future. It is a very simple matter to make WiFi access restricted but people refuse or don't know how to do it; the media grabs the issue and puts a panic-like spin on it. Thus far it is something to keep an eye on.

In the News Today

Today (6.13.06) the local paper, your basic local newspaper owned by the New York Times, is riddled with crime stories; is yours? There's an article on the banning of smoking in public parks, outside restaurants, the downtown square, and the like; an increase in violent crime using FBI statistics--the highest in 15 years!; another on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision yesterday that presumably makes it easier for death row inmates to challenge lethal injection and have DNA evidence brought before judges; the rising costs of coyote costs for illegal immigrants; the autopsy results of a terrorist the U.S. killed in Iraq along with a half dozen other terrorist stories from around the globe; the hate crime commited against Aviance, who performs in drag; the overturning of a San Francisco city and county law that banned handgun purchases on private property by residents; the snipe attack on a Reno judge by an unhappy party in a domestic issue through a courthouse window; a sunbather in Oxnard is accidentally run over and killed by two police driving an SUV; two San Francisco city cops are held liable for damages by a jury in the so-called "fajitagate" case, for a total of $42,000; a priest in Clayton resigns in the midst of a scandal involving sex with a minor; the Duke lacrosse incident gets op-ed treatment, which has taken a different turn; and many other stories.

Today seems like any other day--the more things change, the more they remain the same--an exemplary example of the media's love relationship with crime--here in the West but of course also in the North, the South and the East, and of course the Middle West, what the heck, all around the world where news sells. If you didn't know any better (i.e., didn't trust your personal, lived experience) many people would think that their daily lives are bombarded with crime, injustice, vulgarity, licentiousness, vice and random victimization. Some people do in fact live their daily lives in crime, injustice, etc. But for most in the U.S., if you believe victim surveys and studies of media coverage of crime, well, it's virtual, digital, and perceived but not objectively real in the realm of immediate sensory or physical perception.

White House Commentary

Somehow Stephen Colbert was selected to roast President Bush and company in their very presence--on CSPAN. Did someone confuse Colbert with a perfect friend of the Bush Administration? It looks that way. Couldn't have been more incorrect. No one seemed to speak for days about this event but now you can listen to it via this link. Colbert is on the borderland of commentary, humor, critique, and something else. You wonder where he's coming from and going to, and much of it is, well, hilarious. This iconoclastic approach is much needed to stimulate the media to examine its priorities, approaches, commitments and other aspects of its existance, irrespective of the pathetic and morbid state of the Bush presidency (see PEW's latest study on perceptions of Bush and the U.S., along with other countries). Colbert dredged the depths to find positive meaning in pollster popularity ratings; there are lessons there for interpreting statistics in criminology. Apparently this roast was the most popular download on iTunes at one point. The Colbert Report, available at the Comedy Central web site, is filled with numerous other fascinating videos of relevance to the field.

See also the
Top 100 video links on Google.

Official Crime Levels Down but U.S. Adults Believe They're Up

Truck over to the latest (October 2005) Gallup Poll video and learn the news: official (violent and property) crime rates are down, according to the FBI, but there has been an increase in public perceptions that there is more crime today than there was a year ago, both in general and in their local communities. Oh, but the FBI data must be wrong, you say, so you go to the alternative nationally representative survey of the crime victimization experiences of Americans: The National Crime Victim Survey also shows overall dramatic drops in crime and a continuation of drops in 2003-2004: "Violent crime rates declined since 1994, reaching the lowest level ever recorded in 2004."

Let's see, citizen perceptions are that crime is up but crime is actually down. Things are out of whack--people should not be so concerned about crime. Should we bring back the old federal research on how we could best calm public concern about crime? In the current political climate it seems more likely that people will propose ways for the private sector to solve the problem...what will it be, security devices (e.g., car alarms), more weapons to arm ourselves now that gun manufacturers have had liability redefined?, calls for more private prisons? Others?

Avian Flu and the Media

The developing official and media responses to the potential avian flu epidemic are of great interest to students of the media, including criminologists. The situation seems ripe for a moral or other panic. See, for example, the resource page put together by ABC News at
as well as the latest articles, one of which includes a prediction of a worldwide death toll of 150 million. Estimates vary greatly, with sober people saying nobody can know the form of the flu or the death toll until "it" happens. The blogosphere is, of course, discussing the flu situation to a high degree.

If you have Windows Media Player see a video posted there that draws attention to the issue at In the video Senator Frist quotes an official federal report saying there is a global pandemic flu coming--it's not whether, just when it will happen. The video description of the report says 200,000 Americans will die; that there is no vaccine readily available to deal with it; and that there is only one company making one drug worldwide that supposedly can prevent it.

There is much to consider here...but first, a pill to prevent the kind of flu being considered? Even if the pandemic is possible (which is hotly disputed) given the extraordinary number of deaths associated with the so-called "Spanish Flu" of 86+ years ago it seems highly unlikely that any existing company's drug could prevent such a flu. One has to wonder why media sources would draw attention to a single company--what is the payoff here? Another thought is, should Center for Disease Control officials, or other knowledgeable experts in this area, exercise greater caution than usual given the extraordinary potential for the definition of this problem to rapidly get out of hand? Officials getting the most attention today are quoting the huge number of people who will die, while others who argue that the world is immune from the prior pandemic get little play.

An international discussion of the avian flu by health experts would be welcome, and it appears that this is beginning to happen. In the meantime the blogosphere is beginning to track the avian flu media controversy. One jazzy title is, "Bird Flu, a Media Hoax?". One blog has a subject heading of "Bird Flu Monitor". You can go there and find some more discussion of the media and flu.

More recently there has been more mainstream academic attention to the flu. See, for example, the Yale Global Online collection, and the Harvard contagion web site, both of which have links to other sites.

Also, Wendy Orent's brief article in the Outlook section of The Washington Post at is a well written critical piece about the hysteria in response to the avian flu. This is linked to her online discussion at , which answers some of the common questions being asked now about the flu issue, the media, and the Bush Administration's proposed military response to it.

A colleague recently asked, What is the difference in the the mortality levels of the great plague and the 1918-1919 pandemic? The NPR web site has a page on the flu at A quote:

*"Compared with Other Epidemics:* The 1918 flu is thought to have killed the most people in the shortest amount of time. However, its spread was aided by modern ships and a world war that required moving huge armies quickly across the globe. The 14th-century's Black Death killed as many as 20 million in Europe alone over a period of two years. However, global population was much smaller, cities weren't as dense, and global transportation relied on wind and animal caravans; considering its high death toll, the bacteria that caused it may have been more deadly."

It seems fairly clear that the plague has to win in the number killed per capita.

The federal government has now created a web site on the flu pandemic at The administration's plan for managing the issue is spelled out there. Already critics are having a go at it. An even more recent site of interest examines the effectiveness of local quarantines in reducing or eliminating the acquisition or spread of the flu: See The 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic Escape Community Digital Document Archive.

The November 18, 2005 Gallup made available their latest data on the most important health care issue facing the U.S. Fully 10% of the people in the U.S. believe that it is the avian flu or bird flu. Prior to this time concern about this issue was nonexistant. It appears clear that the widespread concern about the bird flu has indeed made it into the minds of Americans.

A federal researcher with a reputation for integrity named Larry Greenfeld had to leave the Bureau of Justice Statistics because he refused to go along with changes in the wording of a press release that described evidence of potential racial profiling by police. BJS officials eventually decided not to have a press release at all and to just post the research at the BJS web site.

A New York Times article, written by Eric Eric Lichblau, draws attention to this case. The actual nationwide study, as noted by Lichblau and found in the report itself, indicates that 1) "The likelihood of being stopped by police in 2002 did not differ significantly between white (8.7%), black (9.1%), and Hispanic (8.6%) drivers"; and 2) "During the traffic stop, police were more likely to carry out some type of search on a black (10.2%) or Hispanic (11.4%) than a white (3.5%)." The study also found blacks were less likely to feel that the police had a legitimate reason for stopping them than whites, among other differences by race/ethnicity.

It may be helpful to look at this is as an example of the exercise of power by political elites to keep controversial criminal justice issues out of the public agenda--in this case the use of racial profiling in traffic stops, a significant political issue in criminal justice. Because Greenfeld was in an exempt position he served at the pleasure of the Bush administration. His mistake was his inability to let supervisors hide the true story of a significant and authoritative federal study of law enforcement.

This study merits a close read because it gets to a variety of practices and attiitudes that are extremely important to many citizens and police.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Media category.

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