Friday, December 29, 2006

News of the Day, Friday, December 29, 2006

One of the things that gives me such well-ground teeth in the corrections sentencing policy debates is the furor that erupts when someone on early release, home detention, parole, whatever commits a crime is the well-supported fact that those who serve their entire terms have much higher recidivism rates as a rule. This article about a reentry facility in CT not only describes the program well but also provides the numbers to support it (h/t Real Cost of Prisons). Of those released in 2000 and tracked for 6 years, recidivism overall was 39%. But it was 47% for those who released directly from prison versus 24% for those who had to go through reentry housing. Yes, 24% were back in 6 years, enough for more than a couple of blaring headlines or 3-minute spots on idiot local news, but the guys who didn't get the support did twice as bad. For some reason unknown to me, reporters aren't interested in reoffenders who did all their prison time, just the ones we tried and failed with in the community. I know why opportunistic politicians and victims demagogues focus on the community guys, but the inexcusable failure of the media to do its job on this just reinforces keeping guys from getting the release programming . . . and doubles their rate of return to prison. . . excuse me, have to go get my rubber mouthpiece now, back in a second. . . . . . . . . . Okay, that's better. On to other enlightening stuff. I know others have commented more lucidly on the frightening and ridiculous debacle of the Duke lacrosse case, now with the putrid DA there getting state bar charges filed against him. I won't add anything to what those others have said, but I would appreciate it if you remember this case every time I talk about prosecutorial abuse, the "ethics" behind their obsession with "winning" against "bad guys," and all the other motivations behind their opposition to demonstrably effective corrections sentencing policy proposals. As I've said, I've worked with some great prosecutors who have a sense of both justice and the public good, but there's something about that office that brings out far too much of this reprehensible behavior, in my experience anyway. . . . The US DOJ reports that domestic violence dropped sharply from 1993 to 2004, although some categories of women (Native American and native Alaskan) were much more likely victims than other demographics you can think of. The overall number fell from 5.8 per 1000 (above 12) to 2.6, more than half, and the homicides decreased by almost 30%. Good news for the greater part. Let's see if we can keep up the promising work. . . . A couple of Wichita Falls editorials that (gasp) denounce the TX prison build-up and recommend alternatives for non-violent offenders, courtesy of Grits for Breakfast. Next thing you know, ice fields the size of 11,000 football fields will be breaking away from Canad. . . what? Uh-oh. . . . The NORML folks can't be real happy about this story. Experts say marijuana pills work better for most patients, even the ones insisting on their tokes. . . . Common problem for corrections officials and policymakers in the states--do you just add on to an existing facility or build a new one? This time, the deliberation's in ND, but the arguments apply just about everywhere. . . . And a common problem for jails in states with overcrowded prisons, reimbursement rates not keeping up with expenses of state inmates being backed up. This time, the problem is in TN, but the arguments apply just about everywhere. . . . Civil commitment of sex offenders keeps rolling. This time, the deliberation's in VT (where they seem to think available fed dollars will always be there), but the arguments apply just about everywhere. . . . Peggy Ritchie over at Corrections Community alerts us to a U of CA-Irvine report on female offenders that apparently gets at a number of the special questions that have to be address with that population. A little light reading for your holiday. . . . Speaking of which, we probably will only post a time or two over the long weekend. Our numbers took a big hit over the Christmas week so we'll save any earth-shattering tomes for you after the break. So enjoy the festivities, don't do anything I'd do, and come back safely to us. (Or . . . organize "Corrections Sentencing" read-alongs at your New Year's parties!! Yeah . . . !)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

News of the Day, Thursday, December 28, 2006

While murders are down in some key cities (DC, LA), others are up or fluctuating. NYC's is up after a low year last year, and they're attributing some of the increase to people wounded last year but dying this year. I've been around data a while but hadn't really thought about that contingency. What's interesting especially about NYC's increase is that the state is always held up as an example (including by me) of how crime rates can be brought down by other, less victim-dependent policies such as those pursued by NYC. But this at least points again to the possibility that no policy is that effective and that the bulk of the rises and falls occur because of cultural and community trends that prison, police, or rain dances don't reach. . . . Inmate suicides are up in CA and TX, and some folks see a relationship between that and the states' prominence among our incarcerators. On the other hand, it looks like there are some incarceration programs that effectively keep suicides down. . . . Add CT to the states admitting that its prison population needs to be addressed more effectively. Same problems, same litany, probably same "solutions." (h/t Real Cost of Prisons) . . . And CA's incarceration problems get a couple of reviews today, this time jails. Check this story out for a detailed description, including a really nice breakdown of some stats taking arrests through convictions through prison (h/t Real Cost of Prisons). And this one has some good quotes, including this one from LAPD Chief Bratton: "We didn't cure malaria until we started draining the swamps instead of just swatting at the mosquitoes. The resources have just not been committed to draining the swamps." . . . Finally, filed in the "don't the prosecutors and cops really have a lot more important things to do" file (or was it the "have we really gone this crazy?" file?), this was found at Governing:

“The only thing that comes close to this is dueling.”
Utah Associate Chief Justice Michael Wilkins, on a peculiar case before the court in which a 13-year-old girl is charged as both a sex offender and a victim for having consensual sex with her 12-year-old boyfriend

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

There Goes the Neighborhood

Got a good little book read over the holiday weekend, There Goes the Neighborhood by William Julius Wilson and Richard P. Taub. With a cadre of students, the authors examine the recent history and demographic changes of 4 Chicago neighborhoods. One in a stable white community just experiencing (and resisting) Latino newcomers; another, a white-to-Latino transitional neighborhood; another, a community that has fully undergone that white-to-Latino shift; and the last, a stable African-American community. Through interviews with current and former residents, they track how the development and use (or not) of community institutions and standards impacted the (in)stability of each neighborhood. It's a quick but deep read of the ebb and flow of people, communities, stability and instability that any general reader can gain from. (Plus, it borrows heavily from the conceptual framework of one of my favorite books ever, Albert Hirschman's Exit, Voice and Loyalty, which should be required reading for all crim just students, well, for everyone actually, even though it was written for, eek, economists.)

Of course, it has particular relevance to corrections sentencing. Stability and instability are cousins of order and disorder, law obedience and law breaking, self-government and not so much. Community and culture determine levels of crime far more than anything government does, and you see through these overviews just how important they are. What also stood out for me, and clearly the authors' intent, was how their descriptions of the changes, the fears, the resistance, the perceptions, the strength and weaknesses of institutions and mores all mirrored the nation as a whole as we go through similar ebbs and flows of demographics and values, the loss of "control" and the efforts (good and bad) to combat that loss. It's clear that strong neighborhoods are our best crime control policy and that funneling money into other efforts at their expense is foolish and ultimately self-defeating.

It's not a profound message, but it's done well and memorably. Short book, worth your time, maybe even as you need something peaceful and quiet to do after the coming weekend. No need to thank me.

News of the Day, Wednesday, December 27, 2006

As states consider sentencing commissions as a means to control their prison populations, they invariably turn to MN and NC as the states they want to model. However, MN is now loading up inmates as fast as or faster than anyone, and look at what's happening in NC, where, despite prison building, they'll still be short in 2008 and looking at a need for over 6000 more beds 8 years later. It's not that the commission there hasn't been trying but here's the money quote that should be in everyone's ears: "The N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission has proposed several law changes to achieve that, but lawbreakers have not warmed to the suggestions." There you go. For a commission to be effective, a supportive political environment and practitioner context have to exist. That context is what makes their guidelines work and, frankly, probably has more to do with subsequent declines or slowing of population growth than the guidelines themselves. As these states show, guidelines solve nothing if the political support and will are lacking. NC deserves its reputation, but, if it can't close the deal with one of the best traditional commissions, then isn't it clear by now that something far more than a traditional commission is needed? . . . Nice article here on the development of a mental health court in Cleveland if you're interested. . . . CrimProf Blog links to the news of the lethal effects of a new and improved heroin coming out of Afghanistan, a 75% jump in deaths in 3 years, especially good at taking out middle-aged types. . . . Heroin scaring you now? Thinking about switching to crystal meth (yes, I know they're different types of drugs)? Want some strokes and tears in neck arteries with that? No? Well, looks like you may get them anyway if you make the change. Maybe you should just stop. No, seriously. . . . A KY poll shows that residents there, given a choice, favor long prison sentences over the death penalty for aggravated murder by a 2-1 margin. KY? Concerns about the long-term legitimacy of the crim just sys and about, you know, killing guys who didn't do it seem to be the motivating opinions. Just more evidence for the importance of law's legitimacy for a sense of justice to be possible. . . . Remember a while back when I talked about using Second Life or other virtual life programming to simulate crime conditions and when the initial feedback indicated that the energy and computing power necessary would be prohibitive? Well, others, it turns out, have had something of the same idea. Here, at an interesting new blog on judicial performance measures that doesn't post enough, they've suggested mirroring case processing conditions to see what happens when those conditions can be controlled (unlike Real Life prosecutors, defense, and judges). The estimated costs were between $100,000 and $300,000. Prohibitive for me or you, but isn't there some university or non-profit with some spare change lying around? (h/t Governing) . . . Finally, IL looks like it may get heavy into criminal code revisions. This is always a good idea but extraordinarily hard, especially if you haven't done it for a while. It also is a very good way to rethink your punishments within the context of consistency and equal justice rather than simply as a means of hiking pain for offenders or instituting "reform." It's especially helpful, however, if you really are thinking "guidelines." Chances are you will be wanting to categorize common offenses together for your sentencing grids, and that will likely lead to joining by either common penalties and/or felony classifications. If you don't link the two, you might end up with two different classification systems in effect. But linking them isn't always a salvation. In WI, the reclassification was done by the same people who developed the state's temporary guidelines and recommended the sentencing commission there. However, when possible permanent guidelines were proposed there, using the felony classification scheme approved based on the prior recs, one of the commissioners who had worked on and voted for the resulting classifications threw a less than mature fit over how some offenses had been linked. Yes, it was all politics and pique, but it could have been avoided (and the state might now have real and meaningful guidelines rather than the Zen restrictions it has) had the guidelines and classification happened at the same time. At the very least, a review of your current classifications should go on parallel with your guidelines development. You'll save yourself a lot of trouble (and silliness) later.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Justice Strategies

Judy Greene's shop, Justice Strategies, is undergoing some changes you might be interested in. First, the good news, they've added a website with their reports on corrections sentencing issues, including work in MD, MT, and other non-M states. We'll keep it linked over on the right under "Agencies and Organizations." Second, the bad news, Kevin Pranis, with whom I've done work in MD and WI, is moving on to doing labor non-profit work. Other than pouring coffee (or was it just water?) over his keyboard, Kevin demonstrated exceptional talent at the proactive work he did with JS. We wish him well and hope he keeps his voice in our arguments in corrections sentencing once in a while. New wife, new job. Is it "heart attack" that comes next, Kevin?

News of the Day, Tuesday, December 26, 2006

One of the famous stories about the limits of the federal judiciary in the "balance of powers" scheme is Andrew Jackson's purported quote that, "Chief Justice Marshall made the law, let Chief Justice Marshall enforce the law" or something like that. Courts never have less power than when they have to depend on actual enforcement by hard-pressed, recalcitrant, lazy, or whatever enforcers. Proof of that, and a lesson to all those counting on ignition-interlock devices to stop convicted drunk drivers from continuing their pastime, comes from WA state where, out of 28,000 or so convicted drivers required to get the devices, only roughly 4400 have done so. No agency to confirm the installation, apparently, or to check to see if they've been dismantled once installed. King County has one, count 'em, one full-time DA to prosecute DUI deaths, among other poorly implemented aspects of the policy. Really interesting story on the policy and its problems, if you have the time and interest in this perpetually frustrating offense (h/t Governing). . . . Here's another story to watch as we consider scarce resources. A successful drug court in AL (Alabama, not Alaska) is losing its long-time judge to retirement. And, as anyone familiar with drug courts can tell you, the judge is key to the success and continuity. We'll see if they follow up with what happens. . . . Because of the problems CA is having arranging the departure of its inmates out of state, IN may be left holding the bag. Well, not really. Always somebody else out there willing to pay. IN estimates up to $6.9 m. a year and 200 jobs just from the CA produce . . . I mean, inmates. . . . Research from MI in Personal Relationships indicates that the more masculine the face, with brow ridges, strong chins and thin lips get negative reactions compared to more "feminine" faces. Not exactly corrections sentencing, but it does add to the literature on the way brains process and react to faces based on possibly irrelevant criteria, which might be important to someone ever in, say, a lineup. . . . Finally, and yes, I know we keep repeating this, but this is a really, really good overview of the way ME is dealing with child sex offenders, the problems and the responses. Here's the part that sums up the entire way we're performing:

The public seems to accept the idea of residency restrictions as a method of keeping children safe from sexual predators. Town councilors in Oakland, for example, passed their ordinance with little or no opposition, or even much comment from residents, despite multiple public hearings on the matter.

The councilor who brought up the idea, Ralph Farnham Jr., said he did so at the request of two mothers concerned about the safety of their children. When asked if residency restrictions are likely to be an effective measure to cutting down on the number of incidents of predatory sexual behavior, Farnham said he was uncertain.

"I don't know that," he said. "I guess it's a place to start with."

Not really much to say after that, is there?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

If you're looking for some good material to surf to today, try out these:

  • Really promising research in Britain to treat alcoholics by blocking the brain's orexin system which helps to regulate feeding (and other obsessions)
  • Overview of drug sentencing of women and the impact on corrections sentencing, with good reviews of how women's treatment should be different from men's and how kids can be affected (h/t Sentencing Law and Policy)
  • While you're at Doug Berman's place, check out his post on how we treat drunk drivers compared to the far less numerous sex offenders. (There's a post on the role of the cultural stories we tell about offenders and the penalties we end up doling out to be done at some time in the near future. Maybe I'll do it if New Year's isn't too bad.)
  • Prawfsblawg highlights the latest NYTimes mag article on the Right's conversion to interest in prisons and prisoner rehab, which may provide the necessary political support to get away from some of the counterproductive "solutions" we've pursued for a couple of decades. There's always the potential problem of giving the government the foot in the door to regulate religious practice, which will have to happen as consistent standards are required to be applied ("equal justice" and all that) beyond the feared First Amendment problems. It's a very careful balance that will put even the best corrections department directors to the test. But it's a wave that can bring improved perspective as well and Lord knows it's nice to see someone actually take that "the poor, the sick, the prisoners" stuff seriously. Something very definitely to pay attention to if you're a corrections sentencing person at all.
  • Finally, a farewell and good luck to Ken Lammers over at CrimLaw Blog. His traffic has dropped (to daily levels we'd love to get actually) and he's moving to videocasts. It's not easy to blog unless you're psychotically obsessed (I've heard), but the voices need to be growing, not shrinking. His will be missed.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Commissioners v. Representatives

My recent disappointment upon hearing the composition of the proposed CA sentencing commission (and yes, I realize if those hard-core reps come up with anything pleasant, it'll have a "Nixon Goes to China" effect--the odds are "Nixon Goes to Hell") made me think more about the nature of appointed commissioner roles and how they relate to the traditional roles portrayed for elected representatives. Now, it's been years (decades!!) since my last "Legislative Process" class (and they've probably dropped all this by now), but I remember a typology for legislators as representatives that may be of use here.

There were three basic types of legislators, we learned. The first was the "delegate." This person saw his/her role purely as a conduit for constituent needs. S/he was to have no personal views or act on any actually possessed. This person was simply a channel of public opinion to be faithfully rendered. Now any halfway mammalian brain can see the problems with saying this person will know and reflect the totally homogeneous view of all the constituents. Reality forces this representative to decide whom among constituents s/he will reflect while being this "bound" voice. That in practice isn't completely untethered discretion but allows much more wiggle room than the advocates of this role solemnly proclaim.

The opposite of this role for a rep is the "trustee," the person who believes s/he was chosen to do whatever s/he thought was best, regardless of constituent perspectives. "If you knew what I know, you'd do what I'm doing" is the basic idea. The first best-known proponent of this view was Edmund Burke, who promptly was defeated the next election after espousing this. You see it in the Kennedy "Profile in Courage" stuff, including Caroline's awards, which frequently go to more recent guys who were promptly defeated since it tends not to be that popular an idea with people who, like, want their reps to do what they're told instead of playing superior.

The third type--the "politico"--predictably is a cross between the two. Tries to be up-to-date on the issues and educates his/her constituents while keeping a finger on their pulse, or in the wind, or somewhere. Balance their votes between what is good for everyone and what is so important to constituents that they can't or won't cross them. In theory, this is the best, providing the most opportunity for good, informed policy, but is difficult to pull off either personally or electorally. It's just easier to take an ideological position if you have a majority with the same view or the PR tools to convince a majority you share theirs. Gerrymandering makes this pretty easy for most reps. (Most of us cyn . . . realists would add a fourth type, the "opportunists" who say anything, dole out goodies, and claim to be all three, depending on the majority of the audience. Academics take pride in not being cyn . . . realistic, though, so we'll leave this one off.)

The question is, how appropriate would this typology be for those appointed as sentencing commissioners? At first glance, it might seem very so. We explicitly choose commissioners from specifically designated groups, with the clear implication that they are the group "representatives." Analyzing commissioner roles, then, would seem to be simply a matter of figuring out what applies. Those of you with experience with commissioners can probably already think of different commissioners who fit all types. But that conclusion, while popular, is not only superficial but also damaging to commission work. Why?

One answer should include the word "appointed." Commissioners are chosen by elected and non-elected officials, not elected themselves. Keep in mind that, given the different sizes of the groups from which they are chosen, there is a definite violation of "one man, one vote" if representation is the intent. A sentencing commission is not a legislature and the people selected to it are not there to give their groups a "vote." The purpose of every commission is to provide to its appointers recommendations as to Best Practice to achieve whatever goals and to resolve whatever problems the commission is created to address.

For commissions like CA's (and maybe CO's in the future), the problems are not only enormous, they are desperately clear. The commission is to inform state policymakers how to best use scarce (and growing scarcer) correctional resources to achieve best public safety results--IOW, "What Works?" in keeping offenders from reoffending when released and in convincing non-offenders not to start. We know what the "What Works?" is for the bulk of them, and it's rarely what the groups from which the bulk of the CA commission are to be chosen want, at least for the bulk of offenders. The state cannot afford a commission made up of "representatives," delegates or trustees or even politicos. It needs the equivalent of the Space Shuttle Columbia commission, one that defines the problems and spells out objectively what needs to be done so the onus and blame will clearly be on the policymakers who receive their recommendations.

The last thing any commission needs is a bunch of appointees who see themselves as mini-legislators with constituents to represent. That's what emasculated the commissions I served in OK and WI. (And it technically wasn't even true that the commissioners "represented" their constituencies since I talked to many of the latter and knew that what the commissioner was saying in meetings at best "represented" only a fraction of them.) Commissioners are there for their expertise and experience to delineate what is possible in light of purpose or what the impact will be on their practitioners and clients if recommendations are proposed. Everyone of them must be there with a conception of the "public good" and the recognition that that "good" is frankly NEVER the equivalent of the professional and personal vested interests of the groups from which they were chosen. (For an example, read the description of being a commissioner by one of the best, Russell Butler, on the right.)

Anyone appointed to a commission should be required to take an oath to the "good" rather than the group from which they are appointed. Performance of that oath should be monitored by the commission chair at regular periods of no more than 6 months, and that chair should have the power to remove offending vested interests. Yes, the politics of it will be troublesome but consider the alternative. All it takes, and this is from unfortunate and frustrated staff experience, is one commissioner determined to have his/her way preying on the civility of fellow commissioners (who, mainly being attorneys and/or nice people, always tend to half the loaf to get along, to keep people happy and together, to seek a settlement, halfing and halfing and halfing until there's just one crumb that's not what the preyers want . . . and they hold out for that, too) and the commission will either fail completely or just end up an "average sentence for burglary" data-reporting agency. In the end, 2,3,4 years have been wasted with minimal to show and the state worse off than when the commission started.

Commissions are not legislatures and commissioners are not legislators. The roles have some similarities, but those similarities confuse differences that are far more important. Commissions have jobs of expertise and wonkery to do. Best Practice is the finding of careful analysis and evaluation, not the outcome of a democratic vote. The policymakers are the ones to take the votes, and the constituency groups will be free to work at that level. Having commissioners who see their roles as "winning" on commission recs will doom a commission at the start. Those serious about an influential commission will cut that off at the roots before it can even grow. CA looks like it will be the penultimate example of why.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Evolution of Cooperation

If I asked you the book that made the most impact on the way you looked at the world, you’d probably have as much trouble as I would. But if I asked to name one in the top 5, without the singling out, maybe it’d be easier. It would for me. And this is one I’d say it about—Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation. And now it’s back out in a revised edition so you can likely find it at your local bookstore if you don’t want to go online.

Axelrod had already established himself as an international relations specialist, especially with this applications of cognitive schema and mapping. But he’s made his most lasting mark with E of C, one of the first and still most important computer simulations, back in the day when desktop PCs were still pretty much sci-fi and being written off as unworkable by IBM.

What Axelrod did was perversely simple by today’s standards. He sent out a request to a range of scholars across many disciplines to have them submit what they thought would be the strategy that would pile up the most points in a long-term game of “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Then he ran them against each other to determine what the most successful strategy was.

Don’t know “Prisoner’s Dilemma”? I could just tell you it’s a game played with weird enthusiasm by a bunch of academic nerds seeking esoterica for publication. But, less snidely, the game basically posits that you and your buddy have been caught dead to rights on a lesser offense, but the cops believe (but can’t prove) you’ve done worse together. To prove the latter, they have to get confessions. Now, being smart interrogators, they separate you two and offer you a deal. You finger your partner for the crime—he does the full time for the worser offense, you walk. Of course, he’s being offered the same deal, so, if you both rat each other out, you’re both doing harder time. On the other hand, if you both keep quiet, you’ll get a lesser sentence than if you both snitch. What do you do?

Axelrod assigned values to the four options—you “defect” and your partner “cooperates,” vice versa, you both snitch, or you both keep quiet—and played out the strategies. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that, short-term, defection will be more popular, having the biggest payout and all if your partner is stupid enough to trust you. But, over the long-term, especially when you don’t know when the game will end, is it still smarter to be a jerk all the time?

No. Turns out that defectors bring on defectors, and the harsher penalties. But then, cooperators don’t do well either because, known for their predictable and certain cooperation, the defectors can dump on them at will and still pile up the big gains. Which leads us to the simple strategy for winning long-term—that is, reciprocity or TIT FOR TAT. Which is exactly what it sounds like—whatever is done to you, do it back. Defect, defect, defect until the idiot figures it out. Once you’re both on “cooperate,” you’ll get consistent points even if they aren’t the highest possible per turn. And groups of interacting cooperators, having demonstrated their willingness to defect when defected upon, pile up the points.

Now, Axelrod later found that a little mercy sometimes worked a little better(if the partner mistakenly defected or only did it once in a very great while, like your sad, sad lovelife), but overall TIT FOR TAT was an amazingly successful strategy. Change the rewards for defecting or cooperating, or course, and the game can change dramatically. But the message was essentially this: Do unto others as you would . . . well, you get it. And it was scientifically proven.

The implications for criminal justice should be obvious. Transgressions must be met in proportion to the harm done, and defectors must be rewarded for choosing to cooperate. The costs of defecting must be made higher than those of cooperating or certainly of doing nothing in response at all. This speaks to the punishment aspect. But first, we have to guarantee a definite response. Certainty comes first, then severity (which is as crim theory also has it), meaning policy that short-changes proactive prevention or apprehension and accountability in the name of perhaps possible later punishment will be short-sighted and less effective. Then, once the proportionate response has been made, we must reward the prodigal defectors for their return to cooperation. If we don’t, if we keep them from jobs, from voting, from living among us, then there are no points in cooperating, are there? And we know how to spell “recidivism.” Yes, you do prison, but only as demonstrably necessary to counteract the defection and as part of a holistic crim just policy strategy.

Axelrod’s book, and subsequent sequel, The Complexity of Cooperation, have far more depth and nuance than I can relate here, including the answers to the objections you undoubtedly came up with as you read my summary. And his major concern was international relations, not interpersonal ones. But the lessons apply to any interactions in which gains and losses are distributed based on practicing reciprocity or on asserting superiority—parents/children, bullies/bullied, sweetie/sweetie, crook/cop, boss/employee, prosecution/defense, political party/political party. A lot of great analysis has connected Axelrod’s dots in the last 26 years. There’s a lot more to be learned and applied. It’s good to see the book still has an audience. I hope you’ll be in it.

Technocorrections, Neuroscience, and The Economist

Matthew Bowen at Prevention Works was kind to leave this link to The Economist's current story on liberalism, free will, and modern neurology in a nice comment below. I thought it deserved more prominence. Good article, good stuff to think about (or bad, depending on your point of view). Cognitive science and neurology will change everything about our world, and corrections sentencing will be (already is) one of the prime areas for piloting that brave new world. Thanks again, Matthew.

Friday, December 22, 2006

News of the Day, Friday, December 22, 2006

Next time we talk about the increase in violent crime in many cities in the last year or two, also keep in mind that DC is looking at its lowest homicide total (not rate) in over two decades. . . . Here's a novel idea for reducing our jail and prison populations, offered by a former drug agent. He's selling a video on how to hide drugs so guys like he used to be could never find them. Of course, this could never receive an official endorsement. . . . While on the "new idea" idea, this is a connection between id theft and corrections that I doubt you've seen before. Be sure to read all of it. (Have to link to it, not going to tell you.) . . . More evidence of our good neighbor policy. Here we see how the new Mexican (not New Mexican) administration is going after its drug cartels, including that super-weed that grows year-round and laughs at pesticide I mentioned the other day. I'm willing to take bets on who wins this one. . . What? No takers?? And here, Ecuador and Venezuela are getting PO'ed at Colombia and its renewed insistence on taking pesticides to coca crops, pesticides that don't respect borders and kill off legit crops in the other countries. At least those countries always get along and will surely work all this out peaceably. And at least we don't have to actually exercise self-government (by "we," I mean drug users and government officials) and stop doing stuff that harms other people needlessly. . . . Excellent point made by the folks over at Sex Crimes (not technically a News item, I know, but whose blog is this?) As much trouble as the residency restrictions for child sex offenders are already proving to be, they will still likely be less costly and legally contestable than civil commitment for those same offenders, not to mention the political acceptability. The fact that the restrictions are counterproductive and cut into resources that could be sent to actually effective victim-prevention efforts will likely not matter. We'll say, "look at what we're doing, isn't it tough???" and pay no attention to the actual impact, just like most of what we do in crim just policy. We didn't get where we are by really paying attention, you know. . . . And finally, more details on the "reform" being proposed for corrections sentencing in CA. Here are the key points that, frankly and unfortunately, tell you everything you need to know about how effective the proposed sentencing commission will be: (1) "a 17-member commission that would include four legislators, the attorney general, the corrections secretary, a judge and representatives of law enforcement and crime victims' groups'--but no defense? no academic experts? no budget or business people, public or private?, no citizens with no dog in the hunt?, (2) "it will not have authority to make changes in the law"--which no existing commission does, but no existing commission could have an impact on CA's problem, (3) "its membership tilts heavily toward police, prosecutors and victims' relatives"--yeah, I just pointed out the problem with that, but it's so obvious that even the newspapers can figure it out, and (4) "Schwarzenegger said he would not favor a softening of the three-strikes law"--which isn't the major problem with their corrections sentencing but is bigger, and will get even bigger in the future, than the law's advocates will ever admit. And it also shows that the necessary attitude that "everything is on the table" that will be required to deal with this Gordian Knot isn't even there over something secondary to their problems, much less the more immediate problems. I'm sorry. I've talked with some very serious, intelligent, and dedicated people there who could actually do something about the demented future CA faces, and I wish them well and hope I'm as far offbase as I was when I thought Brad Johnson still might have one more good full year in him. But, as someone who's invested over a decade watching commissions starting off far better, both in composition and environment, and end up dead in the water, I'd rather put my money on the Mexican government defeating its drug guys. Of course, if they did that, maybe CA's problems would be solved, too. Or maybe they could buy a lot of that guy's videos for their offenders.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

News of the Day, Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sorry, don't have much left in the tank after a long, long day. Let's just hit these news items and I'll try to revive over the holiday, I promise. This teen drug survey finds fewer teens drinking or using illegal drugs but more use of prescription drugs and stimulants. This is what was interesting to me: 8th graders--12% used marijuana, 33% alcohol; 10th graders--25% marijuana, over 50% alcohol; 12th graders--31%, 67%. Now tell me again, which is the "gateway drug"? . . . Christian Science Monitor has a nice analysis of the recently reported 9.7% increase in robbery, complete with suggested explanations, including weakened police departments, inmates returning from prison, meth, and the baby boom echo pumping a new round of 15-25-year-olds into our communities. One suggestion is the statistical link between increases in poverty rates and robbery rates historically. None of these would be a sufficient explanation, of course, and the article is smart enough to get into that. Overall, a nice job. . . . A couple of studies to report on. This one in Injury Prevention demonstrates a statistically significant drop in gun deaths (homicides and suicides) after Australia's gun control law went into effect. This study in the Journal of Neuroscience has located the area of the brain that distinguishes people's preferences for delayed versus immediate reward. Given the problem so many offenders have with delaying gratification and spontaneous, impulsive pleasure, this should have relevance for studying a wide range of offenders as well. . . . Good story on Delaware's efforts to entice businesses to hire felons by offering tax incentives. Thorough and informative. . . . A story on VA's assault on Internet neutrality under the guise of protecting us from the child porn that has become the number one crime in the universe. . . what? It's not? It's just the crime du jour that will leave more mandatories and opportunism in its wake? Clearly I don't understand the Forefathers' warnings that those who buy into "security" to protect "freedom" will preserve neither. . . . A couple of stories on CA's latest proposals to deal with its corrections nightmare and with the political power of its prison unions to stop serious reform. This one details how the latest corrections directors there (3 in less than a year???) saw the handwriting and quit despite working for a "terminator" (h/t Sentencing Law and Policy, and while you're at Doug's, check out his post on how, this time around, it looks like the feds' cutting DOJ spending may get the brunt of the attack over recent crime rate increases). And this story goes over much the same ground, but includes more background on the actual elements of the “reform,” including a super-powered sentencing commission that will ride in and save the day. Oh, and $10 b. more in prison beds. Uh . . . never mind. Too tired. Just somebody save this so we can pull it out in 5 years and see if we end up shaking our heads.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Commission on Effective Criminal Sanctions

I've been reading the recs of the ABA's Commission on Effective Criminal Sanctions that will apparently be considered in February next year. The usual well-done work, with separate resolutions and reports on alternatives to incarceration, improvements in probation and parole supervision, employment and licensure of former convicts, access and use of crim history info by non-law enforcement types, presentation of info on the collateral consequences of accepting conviction pleas, and "training in the exercise of discretion" by all crim just professionals from the judges down (or up, depending on your point of view). Good summaries of the known research and practice, well-thought resolutions, nothing probably profoundly new to you if you follow these issues at all. What was surprising to me (at least for a nanosecond) was that, although the ABA's Criminal Justice Section and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association endorsed all the resolutions on all the topics, the National District Attorneys Association refused to concur with making sure defendants knew all they were giving up after completing their sentence (voting, access to licensed professions, etc.) and with encouraging policies to provide more employment opportunities for offenders upon completion. I can see why they would fear anything that might cause fewer pleas, but I'm befuddled by the failure to endorse helping offenders get gainfully employed and off the crime market. If someone has an answer that is anything other than spiting all our faces to indulge their . . . well, please just let me know. In any case, the recs are sound and should receive serious consideration. Should.

News of the Day, Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A DC advocacy coalition has issued a report identifying "gender nonconformity" as a factor in at least 50 hate murders, mainly of blacks and Hispanics. A majority of those crimes remain unsolved, compared to only a third or so of all homicides. They're asking that these offenses be treated more seriously, but it may take a little more than that. . . . Continuing their good recent work, Prevention Works notes that study indicating that participation in AA is associated with decreases in murder rates. Good links to related material, as usual. . . . We can all name "demented drivers," I'm sure, or at least know them when we see them, but the term is being applied to drivers who are truly demented. And there are more of them now than ever, with the problem looming as a major concern once the Baby Boomers get older and hunched over the steering wheels. Right now it's a health care issue, but we've already seen numerous cases lately of elderly plowing into people, parades, and houses. What will we do when it's as common an occurence as DWI, coming at us from behind, somewhat slowly and weaving a bit, but something we have to deal with? . . . Speaking of dangerous driving, HA is implementing a new law come the new year requiring that, if you get stopped with .15 or higher, you are "highly intoxicated," (pause here for "DUH"), license immediately gone, driving privileges lost for 6 months, just like repeat offenders. We'll check back for stories of impact. . . . Turns out MO thinks, maybe, it ought to, you know, inform the relatives of mentally retarded offenders in state group homes that some of their roomies are sex offenders, after all. . . . In NC, not satisfied with going after registered sex offenders, the General Assembly there wants to strengthen other child-sex offense penalties, promising more prison-based treatment programs as well. The state has done better than most in providing treatment options, but where exactly is the constituency for this treatment if the state's treasury hits some turbulence? One more thing to keep an eye on. . . . Speaking of treatment, OR may move some tax dollars from liquor sales into more alcohol and drug treatment programs, $17 m. to start, plus another $3.5 m. for drug courts. The money is coming from surplus, not increased taxes so, again, let's see what happens if revenue turns down. . . . As we consider marijuana offenses and the seemingly unending supply of the weed (No. 1 cash crop in America!!), here comes some Mexican weed that is hybrid, growable year-round and impervious to pesticides. Still in Mexico right now, but becoming popular more broadly. Just what we need--more and cheaper pot year-round. But let's not let that force us to actually think if what we're doing makes sense. . . . A FL task force says "let's have more faith-based prisons" and calls for 6 more. It might be nice to have some independent research on these things' effectiveness since most of that so far isn't all that impressed. Still, it gets guys into some kind of treatment and does seem to occupy them enough (like any programming will) to reduce misconducts for prison officials. I think they've established themselves now. It's just a question of how much state control of their activities will happen (h/t Real Cost of Prisons). . . . Finally, add MI to the states with a cigarette lighter going on over its head concerning the impact of prison spending on anything else the state may need to do (another h/t Real Cost). Says an op-ed, "Michigan needs fewer people in prison and more people working in productive citizens. That goal should be the basis of a bipartisan policy at the Capitol in 2007." Uh-huh, and how did that sentencing commission you used to have work out for you, there? Are you paying attention, CA??

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

When You're in a Hole

Doug Berman has an extended series of posts going on the idiotic 10-year sentence of a 17-year-old black male who had consensual oral sex from a 15-year-old girl in GA and who will now take up bedspace and resources that should be devoted to people who actually, like, hurt someone. Doug and his commenters (and links to other blogs) deliberate the (in)justice of it all, and I'll forgo my usual rant about opportunity costs beyond the comment above. I know I'm just shouting into the wind, and you can probably predict what I'd say anyway. But there remains one point to be made (maybe already made at the blogs I haven't looked at on this).

I've talked repeatedly about how the biggest crime deterrent effort we can make is to give everyone a belief that laws are just and fairly administered, a la Tom Tyler's Why People Obey the Law (reviewed last month or so). So look at this case this way: not too long ago, a middle-aged powerful white man not only walked free after being uncovered for the same behavior, he is now feted and hailed by large crowds as their hero or villain while a young, powerless black man is spending 10 years in prison for the same action. You want young black men to obey the law? When law does this? Please.

About a decade ago Gary LaFree (U-MD crim program--#1 in the nation, I taught seminars there!!!) published Losing Legitimacy, a book linking the crime increases from the 70s into the 90s with the decline in legitimacy of all US institutions, not just government, over the same period. LBJ and Nixon, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky, Iraq, innumerable smaller scale travesties by officials at all levels, in all institutions. Exactly the same time. Before impeachment-gate, though, we had sort of cooled down ethics-challenged-wise and the polls showed growing support for all institutions again, before the s_m_n-stained dress and before pretend WMD. In other words, the decline in respect for institutions paralleled the decline in law obedience. As support rebuilt, crime went down. As respect has fallen again, crime starts going up again. Coincidence? Maybe. But that's a lot of smoke, especially when you consider again that our decrease in crime doesn't really correspond well to any of the major policy actions we've taken to combat it, in light of Canada's similar declines without doing any of those things. And Gary is one of the brightest guys you'll ever meet, now handling a major homeland security grant at U-MD. Does it really sound so silly, in light of his research and Tyler's, that having a legal system that produces such conspicuously divergent results for people of different ages, colors, and power would have the long term effect, if prevalent everywhere, of creating a law-disobeying culture?

All I'm saying is that, just because you have the power to invoke corrections sentencing, you don't have to when the payoff will be so minimal compared to the costs. The prosecutors and court did all criminal justice a major wounding with this case. The unfairness of it and all the similar injustices will reverberate and reinforce all the things that people who want an excuse to break the law and stick the system will need to justify those actions. No one was protected here. There was no victim (besides the guy in prison). A life may be irreparably damaged. And the expenditures could have gone to prevention of real crimes and victims. The state legislature changed the law because of this case, for God's sake, but its genius justices can't connect the dots. The only upsides are that we showed that black boy, by golly, and proved sodomy wrong. Now find us some stones and bring on those adulterers, divorcers, cutters of beards, and eaters of shellfish.

Too much of our corrections sentencing policy could tell the same story. Maybe the attention that Doug and others are bringing to this case will cause us to back off just a little and use a little more sense next time. It's not just an embarrassment to GA. It's an embarrassment to the entire nation. We can't afford any more of these assaults on law's legitimacy and future acceptance of our policies. This hole is too deep already. It's time to stop digging.

News and Blogs Together Today

I talk a lot about working in OK's first sentencing reform effort. Here's an update on its second one. What the story doesn't tell you is that the reason the legislation they're proposing won't be considered this year (because they missed the filing dates) is because they couldn't get enough members to the meetings to have a quorum for action. This isn't a knock on the commission or the dedicated staff that's trying hard. It's just an example of what I was talking about yesterday regarding what happens to some states that do do commissions but don't accomplish what was originally hoped. Something, as I noted, that I hope the CA folks pay a lot of attention to before pinning hopes on a similar venture. . . . Prevention Works does a nice take of its own on yesterday's report that violent crime is up again in the first half of 2006. The best part of Matthew Bowen's post is the set of links to prevention techniques. . . . The Journal of Consumer Research has a study talking about how ad campaigns using virtual reality may cause false memories that lead to disappointment with purchases that don't do what buyers thought they did. Not directly relevant to corrections sentencing, but it's not like we ever rely on people's memories for what we do here, is it? . . . Recently at that reentry training I went to, one of the presenters made the point that we really didn't want to incorporate the "self-esteem" movement into our reentry efforts since it might not be a great idea making a rapist feel really good about himself. Which reminded me of this terrific Scientific American article taking the whole "self-esteem" silliness apart as applied both to education and to social behavior. The payoff is poor socially, although we may feel a lot better about it. Which also reminds me of that great line in what I thought was a great movie, "Spanglish," where the mother tells the daughter, "You know, dear, sometimes your low self-esteem is just good common sense." Maybe that's where we should start with a lot of folks. . . . Finally, another link that may not seem immediately related to what we do, but hold on. Turns out that, despite mountains of studies and of documented research results, hospitals still can't divorce themselves from their old tried-and-true torture of interns, with demonstrated adverse results for patients. Folks, keep in mind that health care is THE AREA held up as "evidence-based practice" success, but it seems even there, the old traditions, SOPs, sunk costs, tunnel vision, and inability to shake off illusions they've lived with for years can dig in and endanger people. Keep that in mind as we try to bring evidence-based to an area with even more to overcome. Sometimes it takes lots of old guard funerals before anything based on reality can take hold. I just hope we have the time.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Parents in Criminal Justice and Violence Risk

My reentry training last week kept me from finishing my summaries of the Criminology & Public Policy I recently got. Before I shelve it, I want to alert you quickly to the other two sets of articles in the issue that I haven’t commented on yet. One article and its reviews deal with examining the actual impact of parental criminal justice involvement on their kids. There are a lot of initiatives on this right now, and a lot of back-and-forth on “kids need maintained contact with their parents to stay out of trouble” versus “they’ll just get into more trouble with derelict parents.” So, the authors looks at parent risk factors and subsequent impact on their children. They concluded that parental substance abuse, mental health problems, and lack of education probably put the kids more at risk than their involvement in criminal justice. The moral for corrections sentencing? “. . . it is unrealistic to expect correctional programs that focus on inmates’ relationships with their children to single-handedly impact intergenerational incarceration.” If we’re serious, we’ll work on the substance abuse, mental health, and education factors as well. (Check also the article reviews, which lay out specific recs and questions that should be answered in these kinds of programs.)

The other set of article/reviews deals with violence risk screening in community corrections, where such assessments are vital for agents as well as general citizens. Kim a couple of weeks back gave you an excellent overview of the article and the issues it raises so I’ll just add a couple of thoughts.

The editorial intro was probably as valuable to me as the set itself, noting the basic methodological and administrative problems with risk assessments but also lauding the academic-practitioner partnerships that we’re seeing developed in this area. I found the overviews of effective assessment generally and specifically in Multnomah Co. (OR) interesting and thorough. I also appreciated the clear implication that these instruments are likely to be widely used due to the high costs of developing and administering them in individual jurisdictions. I found myself imagining each new “advance” in technocorrections being adopted for the same cost-cutting reasons . . . and posing similar questions of methodology, administration, and ethics. I hadn’t thought of this area as a possible resource for that one, but it may be. In any case, good articles, all worth your time.

News of the Day, Monday, Dec. 18, 2006

A couple of really big stories today. The biggest news is clearly that violent crimes increased substantially (3.7%) in the first half of this year, despite all the deterring and incapacitative success of prisons for the last two decades. Robberies up almost 10%, murder and assaults up less so, property crimes down. Got that? The offenses we've been toughest on with prison up, the offenses we've tried hardest to find alternative sentencing for down. Must be an artifact of the data. (Check out here for a story I missed a few weeks back on the previously announced violent crime increase for 2005, this one focusing on WI and how and why the efforts of this premier "lock 'em all up" state are flying apart at the seams. Like most states, the full effects of what they've done there won't be felt for years yet. At least the judges there have preserved their precious independence from guidelines or policymaker input. . . no hard feelings about two-and-a-half years of my life I'll never get back, nonewhatsoever.) . . . Here's another big story. Quick. What's the US's biggest cash crop, with as big or bigger impact on our national economy as any another??? Ding, ding, ding. Marijuana! $35 b. annually. And that's not including all the government spending on the people trying to keep it from growing. Here's NORML's take on it: "Marijuana has become a pervasive and ineradicable part of the economy of the United States. The contribution of this market to the nation's gross domestic product is overlooked in the debate over effective control. Like all profitable agricultural crops marijuana adds resources and value to the economy. The focus of public policy should be how to effectively control this market through regulation and taxation in order to achieve immediate and realistic goals, such as reducing teenage access." The government's response is not so enthusiastic. . . . If druggies have money enough not to have to go to jail and hope for treatment by the state, they might just enjoy rehab in these luxury centers. . . . I used to have a boss who told me every drink of alcohol killed a million brain cells. After thinking "cooollll," I then realized, how the hell could they do that research? But still the point was made. Alcohol = brain cell death. Well, turns out my boss was wrong about that, too, according to Brain. But you do need to stop drinking. More frontier for future technocorrections. . . . Keep this British Medical Journal study in mind when I report rat or hamster studies and their possible utility for humans. Turns out we're not all the same. Obvious implications for technocorrections. Time to create those "science courts" yet? . . . Corrections Today has a new issue out on Programs. I liked these articles best--one on the True Grit program for NV inmates, one on sex offender management in MA, and one on children and incarcerated parents in OR. And, while you're reviewing Programs, check out Corrections Community for a good piece on the Thinking for a Change program. . . . Another program story today, this one on Moral Reconation Therapy in KY. Good overview with examples. . . . In MO, they're catching heat for including mentally retarded sex offenders in group homes with other mentally retarded offenders . . . and not telling all the folks who might want to know. . . . Toughening DUI penalties in ME and taking some of the financial pressure off jails in OR (some nice stats on recidivism rates and (non)treatment of offenders near the end of the latter article). . . . In TX the counterproductive impact of sex offender registration is getting serious enough attention that they may be considering deregistering some of the more obvious egregiouses, like the 18-year-olds with 15-year-old sweeties. Maybe Grits for Breakfast could prod them along. . . . WARNING, WARNING. Here comes yet another rant on how opportunity costs of our corrections spending are running headlong into other areas of our public safety and welfare. State retirement systems are disasters looming as big as CA's prison problem. When the states have to start paying off big time, the money's going to be horrendous. And at that same moment, we'll finally be hitting the payoff on all of our imprisonment of the 90s and since. Something will have to give, unless the "money on trees, throw it at prisons, no price too high as long as it’s not my money" crowd is right about money being infinite and not having to be prioritized. Frankly, my bet's on prisons trampling retirement just like it has public health, transportation, education and the rest of our seed corn. But articles like these might at least keep it from being a surprise.

Around the Blogs, Monday, Dec. 18, 2006

Sex Crimes Blog has several good posts up right now on the unreliability of sex offender registry info and the possibility that highlighting pedophiles may make the offense even more exciting and enticing. Don't know about the latter, but the former gets at one of the dirtier secrets of crim just policy--the horrible state of our data in most cases, due to data entry error and indifference, among other things. People wouldn't put nearly the confidence they do in laws and policies based on our data if they could, like laws and sausages, see how they're made. . . . Ken Lammers at CrimLaw Blog points us to a multi-part series on the sad, sad Richmond jail (which unfortunately doesn't sound all that unique). . . . Grits for Breakfast left this good comment to a post lower down that deserves to be elevated. "The voluntary mind control stuff is just freaky, and you're right, probably right around the corner. What's still missing is a 'diagnosis' to say criminals are 'sick' so they can justify it as 'treatment.' We already require the mentally ill to take meds as probation and parole conditions. To someone who's bipolar, what's lithium but 'mind control'? Indeed, that's precisely why many go off their meds. Interesting stuff to think about." (Grits also requested the change in the way we title these updates to ease ability to keep them all straight. Hope it helps.) . . . And what's a blog update without reference to posts at Sentencing Law and Policy? Lacking, I tell you, lacking. So here are a couple of many worthy links Doug Berman has up right now. This one notes an innovative sentencing program in OH that makes jail on holidays and birthdays a condition of probation. One point Doug doesn't make about this--this is actually a very nice example of the "therapeutic shaming" that we've talked about here. It not just incarcerates and denies freedom, it brings the offender's wrongdoing back into highlight with loved ones at precisely the right time and in the right way. "Shaming" doesn't have to involve the whole community. Restoration makes sure the offender knows what s/he has done to the people who care for him/her as well as to the victims. This gets at the point well. I'll put some bets down on how many offenders repeat. And this post notes the recent moves in AL and CA to get effective sentencing policy underway, partly with the help of a new sentencing commission. With my reentry training last week, I missed CA's governor's call for a sentencing commission there. I've made my points about that here before and wish them well. I'd just point one more time to this fact--I've been involved with commissions in three states (OK, MD, and WI) and none of them succeeded in dealing with the problems for which they were created. Problems similar to but on a lesser scale than CA's. (I realize that I could be seen as the common denominator, but we're not going there.) Maybe the threat of worse (results and/or interventions) will empower CA commission, but, without supportive prosecutors and victims, and without strong judge leading way, I just don’t see how traditional commission works. Commission promoters are very dedicated and have successes to point to, but solid analysis of failures and misses has seldom been done except as case studies. Bringing in witnesses to discuss failures may have been more important than bringing in the far fewer successes. CA needs to be realistic about the history of all commissions and understand that very special factors aligned to make MN and NC work. And MN at least now failing by its own standards and NC is still building prisons. Time wasted on failing commission there will hurt the state and delegitimize commissions all over the country, since it’s CA. But I could be wrong. Been there before. Like the times I thought commissions in OK, MD, and WI would work.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

News of the Day 12-17-06

A few items to catch up from the days I was off conferencing. AL (Alabama, not Alaska) is getting very needed sentencing help from our friends at the Vera Institute and the Pew Trusts. Vera probably doesn't surprise you but you may not have known that Pew is getting involved in a big way with new initiatives to assist states find their own ways. In the past, foundations have gotten heat for pushing specific agendas, but the presentations I've heard on this indicates that Pew is very aware of the long-term drawbacks of that. Vera is certainly a great example and model for them to partner with. Good luck to them and all the states that get to work with them. . . . A couple of items from Science Daily. First, a study of emergency care in Wales, according to Prevention, indicates that feet, not fists, are the most dangerous body attachments in assaults. Might be something helpful to keep in mind when sentencing "assault with a dangerous weapon" offenses. And here we have a great example of something I've talked about occasionally, the increasing interface of minds and machines, in this case, a brain-controlled robot for people unable to move. My point about these things is that, if you can make minds control machines, won't someone start messing with making machines control minds (all such controls would, of course, be voluntarily agreed to)? Oh, that's just science fiction, you say? Like mind-controlled robots aren't? . . . Finally, I've mentioned before the growing demand for private prison beds wherever they can be found, which can lead to bidding up of bedspace and existing contracts not being renewed despite the impacts that will have on the states with prisoners there now needing new beds. Here's a story on CO's displacement of OK inmates in an OK private prison. Now, as you might suspect (and I do have special connections to this), this has aggravated OK prison administrators immensely, to the point of declaring that the state would never do business with this contractor again, no matter what. So why would the provider risk p--sing off a very good customer (OK has a quarter of its inmates in private beds) to the point of losing all future business? Well, for one, it may consider it an empty threat. OK isn't going to stop locking people away and needing bedspace. I wouldn't bet against the current director following through with the threat, but who knows about the next one? For another, do we really think the current national demand for bedspace is going to diminish? Even if CO miraculously got its prison problem under control or just built until its treasury runs dry, there's always CA. And finally, most businesses that want long-term success engage in future planning, looking down the road at future prospects. And I bet the prison industries have done something very simple that most public policymakers have yet to do. The impact of the long sentences of the 1990s to date is just now hitting the US prison system. Guys who would have gotten out after 7, 10, 14 years have just started returning or have yet to return to the streets, may not return for another 7, 10, 14 years, plus the ones we've added since the start of the increase. The pileup of bodies in bunks that comes from holding onto these guys for longer terms, coupled with our overall national population increase adding to people convicted, will continue to multiply bed needs for at least another decade or so, even if reentry efforts are fully implemented and work as predicted. One more thing. The longer these guys are in, the older they get, and the more their health care needs eat into prison budgets. The estimates are that an inmate 50 or older sucks up 2-3 times the resources as those younger. I published an article a decade or so back estimating just what the renal and cardiac costs of those inmates would do the OK prison budget and they're even more substantial. You want to do the estimate of what Alzheimer's will do? Not to mention any increase in the mental illnesses that Kim discusses a couple of posts down? Add to that the fact that county jails, which frequently hold many offenders who should be in the prisons, are getting hit as bad or worse with health care costs for their entire populations and may not be able to keep holding state inmates to the same extent, and voila!!! An industry that will never be short of business. As I used to tell my criminal justice advisees when I was their faculty advisor, we'll close the last school before crim just jobs will be in danger of going out of existence. So, while I admire and appreciate OK's corrections director, I can see why the private vendor took the CO inmates at a better rate and has no fear whatsoever of retribution in the marketplace. I wouldn't either. Of course, that's not to say the rest of us shouldn't be really, really afraid of the future they're clearly seeing.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Public Safety Is More Than Prisons and More Than Crime

Finished my reentry training, back at the post a little more over the weekend. In the meantime, when I talk about how throwing money at prisons takes money away from other areas of public safety, I don't just mean what it does to other crim just efforts. I also mean Taco Bell, Olive Garden, and all the other places which receive far too little inspection and use products that do likewise because there's not enough money for inspectors. But the last tv show or movie about a valiant health inspector fighting a vicious e.coli bacterium didn't get much viewing so we pay no attention. Just too bad for the people jeopardized and actually victimized. Should have gotten shot. Then we'd pay attention.

Enjoy the weekend. Be sure to eat out.

Mental health treatment and the CJ system

One of the issues raised by the previous post, Hip-hop in the holler (Up the Ridge documentary) is the issue of our criminal justice system’s handling of the mentally ill, specifically in super-max prisons. Of course, that’s only part of a broader picture.

This is one of those occasions when it helps to consider the criminal justice system as a system. Mentally ill people disproportionately come in contact with the CJ system, from arrest to incarceration. Our jails and prisons contain a disproportionate and growing number, as documented by BJS here:

At midyear 2005 more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem, including 705,600 inmates in State prisons, 78,800 in Federal prisons, and 479,900 in local jails. These estimates represented 56% of State prisoners, 45% of Federal prisoners, and 64% of jail inmates.

Further, the mentally ill prisoners are at least somewhat more dangerous to citizens, other inmates, and staff - both based on prior record and current infractions. The BJS study notes that State prisoners who had a mental health problem (61%) were more likely than State prisoners without (56%) to have a current or past violent offense. The BJS study also notes that State prisoners who had a mental health problem were twice as likely as State prisoners without to have been injured in a fight since admission (20% compared to 10%). This means staff will be under pressure to respond professionally to a particularly troublesome clientele. One of the issues raised in the documentary is that employee training is vital to appropriate response.

Jurisdictions such as my own are grappling with ideas for better procedures. For example, one of the earliest points of contact with the CJ system is at arrest. Police departments are attempting to build interdisciplinary crisis response teams to link police with mental health services – which may mean diversion from the criminal justice system to treatment in an inpatient or outpatient setting. Whether diversion occurs or not, police need to be trained in detection and treatment to identify the problem early and deliver the appropriate response, and that may mean calling on other professionals. And of course we all know that inter-agency and inter-discipline teams are complicated and require skillful coordination to work.

Later on down the line, after arrest, specialized courts are also appearing to address the problems raised by the mentally ill in the CJ system (here). For pre-trial/probation/parole departments, timely linkage of mental health professionals for pre-trial releasees, probationers and parolees can avoid costly incarceration in some cases and trouble later (e.g., here and here). If incarcerated, prisons and jails need resources devoted to mental health treatment, and staff trained in emergency response. Federal prisons and most State prisons and jail jurisdictions, as a matter of policy, provide mental health services to inmates. However, staff training, or lack of it I should say, appears to have been a major problem documented in Up the Ridge.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


While I recover from two full days of reentry training, please visit Kim's interesting post on prisons and small towns below, which includes info on towns and private prisons that I have great familiarity (personal and now statistical) with. And here are a few posts that will continue your interest:
  • Doug Berman catches a nice article on how the (im)maturity of teen brains is popping up as a possible factor at trial. As we all know from Edward Levi's intro to legal reasoning, it doesn't take long for these things to fuzz up and bleed into findings no one predicted, opening the door for the MRIs and other technocorrections concerns we've been raising. (Fuzz and bleed? Sorry. I told you I'm recovering.)
  • Real Cost of Prisons has a couple of good items--one on the $500 m. CO needs to house its 5000 new inmates in the near future and one on Marc Mauer's latest "incarceration nation" piece.
  • And here's an interesting piece. Turns out that OK is facing a major prison population problem and is considering structured sentencing as a means of dealing with it . . . sorta what got me to go to work for its sentencing commission in . . . 1995. If you're wondering how I got that giant bruise and soft spot in the middle of my forehead, well, now maybe . . . .

Big prisons in small towns

Just a little more follow-up regarding yesterday’s post on big prisons in small towns. Calvin Beale, a demographer, documents the growth of prisons in rural areas here from an NY Times article from August 1:

“In the last decade, 245 prisons sprouted in 212 of the nation's 2,290 rural counties, many in Great Plains towns of Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas that had been stripped of family farms and upended by the collapse of the 1980's oil boom, said Calvin L. Beale, senior demographer at the Economic Research Service of the Agriculture Department.Mr. Beale said an average of 25 new rural prisons opened each year in the 1990's, up from 16 in the 1980's and 4 in the 1970's. Growth followed. In the 212 prison counties, the population rose 12 percent in the 90's, far more than rate of 1.5 percent in the preceding decade. Three small Oklahoma cities with new prisons — Hinton, Sayre and Watonga — grew more than 40 percent.”

And there is little question that Main Street (in this case Sayre, OK) wants the prisons:

“As in many other small towns around the country, a three-year-old, $37 million,
1,440-inmate, 270-employee, all-male prison is responsible for lifting
Sayre's spirits and reigniting its economy."In my mind there's no more
recession-proof form of economic development," said Jack McKennon, 52, the city
manager who persuaded the Corrections Corporation of America to put its prison
in Sayre. ‘Nothing's going to stop crime.’”
However, there has been little empirical research on the viability of using prison sitings as an economic recovery tool. This prompted a Sentencing Project study here on the economics of this choice, examining 25 years of economic data for rural counties in New York, covering both (1) counties in which prisons were built and (2) those without any facilities.

The authors find that prisons create new jobs, but not necessarily for local residents, who may not be in a position to be hired for these jobs. Key findings include:

  • Unemployment rates moved in the same direction for both groups of counties and were consistent with the overall employment rates for the state as a whole.
  • Counties that hosted new prisons received no economic advantage as measured by per capita income.

Later the report notes that prison proponents contend that rural prisons will produce a multiplier effect (in theory, each dollar travels through the economy as it is spent and received, and the effect is the portion of the original dollar that remains in the local economy, as compared to the portion that “leaks” out to other areas.)In theory, a prison becoming embedded in the local economy becomes a development lynchpin. However, government or private prison jobs run a poor second to agriculture for its ability to produce a local multiplier effect.

The Sentencing Project report concludes:

“Results of this analysis of prison siting in rural counties in New York State since 1982 indicate that reliance upon a prison as a means of economic development is short sighted and not providing any long-term growth. The siting of a prison did not significantly influence either unemployment or per capita income. Moreover, once a town hosts a prison and becomes known as a “prison town,” discussion of other means of economic development is likely to evaporate.”

In short, while I'm not sure this single study can be regarded as in any way definitive, maybe we need another rural economic development plan.

Let's Keep This Secret

While I'm off learning reentry, I thought you might be interested in some of the materials that we were provided for the training. I'm not sure I'm supposed to be letting other people see these, so don't tell anyone, okay?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


My posting will be pretty light for the rest of the week as I participate in a three-day reentry training process. In the meantime, enjoy Kim's post below.

Hip-hop in the holler

Super-Max Security Prisons are built to gain control of inmate violence and prison gangs, thus restricting predatory and disruptive inmates who may otherwise prey on citizens, correctional officers, and other inmates. That's the theory, anyway. But actual practices can diverge in alarming ways.

A relatively new documentary film, Up the Ridge, is not in widespread distribution yet (see below). I suggest you look for it.

Nick Szuberla and Amelia Kirby are volunteer DJs for the Appalachian region’s only hip-hop radio show. They received letters from inmates of a newly-opened, super-max prison (Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, VA - let me tell you, that's a pretty remote place - I've been to that town). The letters detailed prison abuses (including inmate deaths) and racial tension within the prison, primarily between ill-trained guards and contract prisoners brought in from other states (Connecticut, New Mexico, etc.) to fill available space. So what did the DJs do? They became filmmakers, documenting the prison industry in their community. Up the Ridge deals with the impact of moving large numbers of inner-city minority offenders to distant rural outposts.

The film raises many troubling issues. One is the use of prison jobs as an economic development tool for rural areas, and the potential racial and cultural conflicts created by this strategy. US prison populations grew by 1.1 million people from 1980 to 2000, disproportionately affecting minorities. African Americans have six and one-half times the lifetime risk of going to prison as compared to whites, and Hispanic risk is four times white risk. Of course, some disparity is warranted by the risk to public safety and the differential crime rates among groups. However, the film addresses the clash of cultures brought on by this prison construction boom, disproportionately incarcerating minorities, and disproportionately located in rural areas which may have overwhelmingly white populations in desperate need of jobs. Of course, these problems may remain latent, and prison management problems are surely substantially to blame in this case.

Another issue is the mix of offenders for whom super-max prisons were designed to house, and intended procedures for housing them, as compared to actual practices. Human Rights Watch issued a briefing paper here which addresses several of the issues, in what I think is a balanced manner. (Human Rights Watch is an independent, nongovernmental organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world, and has been critical of various aspects of US incarceration policy.)

"A human rights assessment of supermax confinement requires consideration of
three factors: eligibility criteria, specific conditions, and the duration of confinement. Each must be considered in relation to the others. For example, extreme restrictions and controls that might be considered reasonable in dealing with incorrigibly violent inmates become excessive for inmates who are not. Deprivation of sources of stimulation, human contact, and activity that may not be unbearably cruel for some inmates can become torture when imposed on mentally ill inmates. Harsh conditions that might not be unacceptable for a month or two become inhuman and degrading when imposed for years."
Many of these issues come into play in this one-hour documentary. Up the Ridge documents that Wallens Ridge prison was accepting inmates from other states that were not violent criminals, in part because super-max facilities are expensive to built and operate and need to be full. The conditions also appear unduly harsh, and many inmates had medical or mental problems for whom that treatment was unbearably cruel - in fact, lethal.

See a clip here.
Pre-purchase a DVD here.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Around the Blogs 12-12-06

This is as or more important than that recent research that marijuana is not a unique "gateway drug." Comes from Prevention Works Blog, which as I mentioned yesterday, has been on fire lately. Economists looking at the long-term impact of incarceration on crime find that harsher treatment is more likely to produce later recidivism, challenging the popular notion that severe punishment is necessary to stop crime. Pretty nice research design, taking offender assessment scores at intake and tracking them (against control groups) into lower to higher security level facilities. No surprise to anyone who really understands anything about prison, but the higher the security level the offender was housed in, the more likely to commit more violent crimes once out of prison. The whole article is worth your time, but good work again, Prevention. There are some truly momentous studies coming out right now if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. Don't count on everyone to do so. . . . Via Sentencing Law and Policy, we hear more of the revolt in IA against the countereffective and ineffective child sex offender zoning restrictions. Here are a couple of quotes from the exec director of the state's DA association: " Good public policy needs to protect children. This residency requirement doesn’t do that” and "We find no correlation between where an offender resides, or sleeps, and whether that offender might re-offend." Or this from the president of the state's sheriff's group: "Before this law went into effect, I had 99 percent of (sex offenders) registered." The effect for him under this law: Now he devotes three members of his 10-person staff to tracking where sex offenders are living. He said that takes resources away from other areas, such as drug enforcement. The sad thing is that, not only was this predictable, it was predicted. And, as we noted the other day, experience in UT a decade ago points the same fate for all the other legislation that we're zooming into now. But, as they say, those who don't know hysteria are doomed to repeat it. . . . Want to know what they're proposing as an alternative in IA? It's not bad, at least in comparison. Sex Crimes Blog has it here, if you missed it in "News" below. . . . Sex Crimes has been earning deserved praise from Doug Berman lately with its posts, including this one on experiments with sex offender policies in NY and VA, as well as the feds. NY is adopting the lie detector testing of sex offenders recommended by Kim English and her knowledgeable folks at the CO Statistical Analysis Center. VA is talking about registering offenders' e-mails as well, so you can send them e-cards for the holidays. Not to say these new policies are wonderful, but, given what we've been doing before, it's good to know people haven't stopped thinking about doing things differently. . . . Want a nice example of how pouring money into prisons hurts other aspects of crim just and endangers public safety (except where money grows on trees)? Check out what's happening to TX jails, courtesy of our usual tour guide of the state, Grits for Breakfast. . . . Here's a harsh critique of private prisons, as they get consideration in AL (Alabama, not Alaska). For those of you considering private prisons yourself, I'd recommend talking to states that use them extensively. Here in OK, 25% of our inmates are in private beds and have been for years. Experience is there to draw on. One thing the article didn't touch on, amazingly, was that, with the growing national need among states for bedspace, competition for private beds is driving their price up. That's bad enough, but the worst part is the willingness of the private vendors to kick out inmates from one state when they get better offers from other states. (Not that that's happening in OK with CA and CO inmates available or anything.) (h/t Real Cost of Prisons, again) . . . . From Real Cost of Prisons, we learn that St. Paul (the city, not the saint) has decided to stop requiring job seekers to reveal their criminal records. There are jobs and situations where this is necessary, but not to the extent we do it, not if we want to give these offenders the chance of the Prodigal Son. Reentry dies and recidivism lives if there are no jobs worth having for those who try to turn their lives around. Wouldn't think it's rocket science, but apparently it is.

News of the Day 12-12-06

A kind reader pointed us to this Stateline report I missed this weekend on the state efforts on child sex offender residency restrictions and the movement that is growing to bring some sense to the process in different states. KS listened to IA folks and turned its back on the trend, and other challenges are in the courts. As a researcher for the Center for Sex Offender Management explains, "People are very, very fearful of strangers being near their children, and most of these laws are based on a knee-jerk reaction to that fear." . . . And it looks like IA folks may be listening to IA folks as well, with possible easing of the state's hallucinogenic zoning restrictions. The agenda that may replace it is still very tough, just more do-able. . . . Catch-22 for sex offenders? To get parole, you have to get the therapy but to succeed in therapy, you have to admit you're a sex offender, which, unless prosecution of sex offenders is miraculously different from other offenses, some inmates might not really have done anything but will have a confession on the record. Cases in MN are testing whether and how it will all play out. . . . And in VA, you might soon be able to exchange e-mails with sex offenders. That could be a good time. No potential at all for abuse of that. And evasion that will once again render it superfluous. (Hadn't said "superfluous" in a while. Thanks for your patience.) . . . Brain scans are finding that the brain really does function abnormally when people have "hysteria," just like Freud said, usually brought on by trauma. I realize this only has direct relevance to corrections sentencing in diagnosing people, dealing with abuse victims or qualifying for a mental health court, but you long-time readers will see it as yet one more example of a future possible application for technocorrections and various legal strategies. No word yet on brain scans and cigars. . . . Teens do such idiotic things because they're so impulsive, they just act without considering consequences, right? Well, no. Turns out that they actually spend more time than older people, who have more experience and get to judgments about courses of action more quickly. Surely that would be a useful piece of info in crim just. But that's not really why I'm pointing out this article. As a throwaway at the end, it also notes that the same researcher has found, relatedly, that "doctors make better decisions by processing less information and making sharper black-and-white distinctions among decision-making options." She adds, "This leads to better decisions, not only in everyday life but also in places like emergency rooms where the speed and quality of risky decisions are critical." Here's my question--does this also apply to other judgment situations? Like when judges sentence? Does it mean that quick decisions are better than longer ones, that having more info and spending more time considering will actually lead to poorer decisions? Shouldn't we find this out before we invest tons of money in data and info systems to improve sentencing? Does it verify that we really only need one or two pieces of info about most offenders to reach decisions that will turn out to be about as good as they can be? Does this female researcher realize that she's potentially messing us up really bad???? . . . Headline: "Queen Bee Promiscuity Boosts Hive Health." Not really related to anything here, but sounded cool. (Here's the link if you really want to read it.) . . . A fed judge in CA has delayed slapping a cap on the state's prison population . . . for 6 months. Not a real subtle ultimatum. Like I've said, the state needs to slice its Gordian Knot and judges have the sword to do it. Not a good long-term resolution, but it might give everyone the scapegoat they need to take the necessary action but not the resulting blame. We'll see. Court orders don't implement themselves, and past court prison decisions in states have taken very long times to effect change, even with judicial power. . . . CO next year will be the first state to launch a version of Canada's Lifeline program for "lifers," giving them a second chance and the state its own chance to start whacking at its own prison population problem that would rival CA's if the states were the same size. . . . Our next new crime? Distracted driving does as much damage as driving under influence, it appears. I'll join any posse hunting these annoying and dangerous idiots off the road and into prison for the rest of their . . . sorry. Better stop and lie down now.