Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Rain Dances and Crime Prevention

Imagine that ME, NH, and VT all need rain badly. ME decides to address the need by having its residents all do ecstatic, emotion-venting rain dances each day. NH has its residents pray fervently every day. VT seeds any cloud unfortunate to form. Over the next 30 days, ME gets rain 6 days, NH 7, and VT 8.

Hard-selling advocates in ME cite the popular dances as the cure for its rain problem, with the association of rain with the dances as their proof. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia also needed rain badly but did none of the 3 things done by the states. In fact, they did nothing but their usual. Each province got 7 days of rain over the same period. What caused the rain?)

I got the latest issue of Criminology & Public Policy the other day, and the lead piece in it is a commentary by Franklin Zimring advocating greater U.S. researcher attention to crime and policy in other nations as a means of understanding crime and policy here in our own country. His case is well-made and you should get hold of the journal and read it. But I wanted to note one particular aspect of his presentation. He notes that the 1990s saw a similarly dramatic decline in index crimes in Canada as we had here in the U.S. We, of course, debated whether imprisonment, more cops, or the economy had been responsible for our decreases, and are still arguing frankly.

The thing is, Canada did not have the jumps in any of the three "explanations" and still registered very similar results. Any remaining difference in decline here may have been the result of these forces, but his point is that that difference is small. The bulk of our crime decreases in recent years is likely the result of influences at work in Canada, too, that don't include these "causes." He poses demographics as a partial explanation (the under-29 age group declined). I would add the general cultural variable I've referred to here before--more people just got tired of the crime and crappy outcomes (the personal toll of crime, not the increased sentences). He concludes that "the parallel Canadian and U.S. experience strongly suggests cyclical forces without links to either criminal justice policy or economics played a large role in both the Canadian and the U.S. crime drop in the 1990s."

It's hard for those of us in criminal justice to accept that our dedicated and heartfelt actions are only marginally effective, that so much of what we do is symbolism and ritual with all the impact of rain dances, designed to reassure and offer comforting stories about controlling things we actually barely can keep hold of reins on. That our society and communities may just ebb and flow in their own patterns of action/reaction, equilibrium/disequilibrium, that we can at best channel somewhat but never direct, is a conclusion difficult to acknowledge. It threatens our legitimacy and reason to exist organizationally and professionally. But symbols and rituals, not data and research, are the hallmarks of most criminal justice policy, including corrections sentencing.

A classic example in the news from AZ today, as caught by Doug Berman. Phoenix DA announces no more plea bargains for felons coming through a second time. Says it will stop crime. "Rising incarceration rates correlate with dropping crime rates," one story says he said. Well, actually, no, they don't. You can cherry-pick a few years where one goes up and the other goes down. You can also cherry-pick years where they both go up or down. The careful work on the subject is much more nuanced, and nothing I'm aware of has ever said the policy proposed, across the board on everyone based on one factor, will produce the results claimed. Clearly, the DA isn't aware of any specific studies either since he would have used them to make his case better. (He certainly isn't aware of the studies showing that a dollar invested in prisons only produce about 80% of the public safety derived from that same dollar invested in law enforcement. . . or maybe he is but that wouldn't help him make news. . . . No, he isn't aware.)

In the meantime, AZ DOC officials predict 2600 more inmates each year and $57.4 m. to accommodate them. Note that the state is already down 471 correctional officers and 5618 beds without this influx. Put them in tents, the DA says. Well, they have, and have studied the cost-effectiveness of a "solution" that requires even more personnel than traditional housing. IOW, where study has been done, it trends against this policy but it's ignored here. What a nice example of illustrating that not only do we not know what "best sentences" for offenders and offenses are but that we just don't care.

I'll give the DA credit for honesty. He's not like so many who propose these things and pretend they won't affect anything else or fairy tale money will solve the problems. He says he knows that more burdens will be put on the state crim just system, but "we have to put public safety first." Got that? Protect public safety by adding to an already overburdened criminal justice system. "I understand the various competing interests for resources," he says, but "the main mission of government is to protect law-abiding citizens from criminals." Again, by adding to an overburdened system? By taking money from other crime prevention and recidivism-stopping activities? Did the people of Phoenix and AZ generally have a thorough and informed public deliberation of what the priorities should be? What the "main mission" of their government was? With full knowledge of the costs and benefits of all options?

The articles and the DA don't indicate they did. If they have and this is what they decided, good on 'em. They're getting the future they dream of. If they haven't, then a public official is just substituting his preferences and (unsupported) theories for democratic decision. As the brave DOC spokesperson noted, echoing my post the other day which I'm sure she copied, "It's easy to come up with policy when somebody else has to pay for it."

Whether AZ residents back this or the DA is just arbitrarily performing, either is based on a view of incarceration equivalent to ME's rain dances in our final exam question. Feels good in the short term, lets out passion. And rains sometimes follow. Must all be connected. Ignore any experience that indicates the ebb and flow of normal human activity at work. In the meantime, as Prevention Works (the blog of the National Crime Prevention Council) notes, crack ebbed from its flow after education campaigns (and I would add "experience"), and they recommend similar efforts now against meth. We've "rain danced" Mom and Pop labs out of existence pretty much now (as Grits for Breakfast has given me a hard time for supporting), proud and exultant at our success, while the imports flow in and users still have plenty to choose from until the toll gets so high that potential users decide, "You know what? That looks pretty sucky, think I'll pass." Then some new drug will come along, or an old one will have been forgotten enough, for the cycle to begin again. It's a predictable cycle which we can only marginally control, whether we like it or not, regardless of how many second-time offenders we decide to send to prison.

Zimring's piece tips us off to all the "rain dancing" going on that looks like what it is only when we step far enough away to see the full picture. If states that did other things got as good or better crime decreases, if similar nations did also without doing any of the things we did here on nearly the same scale, then incarceration is demonstrated to be just one of those very marginally effective options. Needed for some in some cases, but certainly not justified or proven enough for a bazooka-shot approach like our friend in Phoenix is attempting. His rationale is just an unfortunate (mis)use of data to justify something too broad to be supported by good research and analysis.

On the other hand, AZ really needs rain. Let's watch for the next few days.

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