What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Sun 8 Jul 07 12:30
Welcome, all, to a discussion revolving around Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Sun 8 Jul 07 12:31
We are please to welcome Jonathan Simon, the Chair of UC Berkeley's interdisciplinary program in Jurisprudence and Social Policy program at the School of Law. His first book, Poor Discipline: Parole and the Social Control of the Underclass, 1890 to 1990 (1993), charted the rise of mass imprisonment policies in the 1980s. In Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (2007), Simon argues that this penal logic has now colonized much of how Americans in all walks of life are governed (and govern themselves). Leading the conversation is the Well's own Doug Masson, a 35 year old lawyer in Lafayette, Indiana. He and his wife Amy have a 3.5 year old boy named Cole and a 2 year old girl named Harper. Doug was born and raised in Richmond, Indiana, studied history and political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and then went to law school at Indiana University in Bloomington. He worked as an attorney for the Legislative Services Agency, a non-partisan arm of the Indiana General Assembly that assists in researching and drafting legislation and maintaining the Indiana Code and now works with a small law firm in Lafayette, mainly practicing civil litigation. His interest in the General Assembly has led to "Masson's Blog: A Citizen's Guide to Indiana" which primarily focuses on the state legislature. Doug's private practice also has some small relation to Professor Simon's work in that he represents the Sheriff's Department and frequently defends it against suits brought by inmates of the county jail for a variety of complaints. Thanks for joining us, fellows.
Doug Masson (dmasson) Sun 8 Jul 07 17:07
Thanks for the book Jonathan. This is something of an eye opener for me. As a child of the 70s, this galloping criminalization is easy to take for granted. As I understand the general proposition of your book, in the 60s, there were a number of problems government officials could have viewed as needing solved. "Solving" crime (as opposed to health care or environmental problems, for example) was, as a structural matter, one of the easier things for governments to address. Government was already set up to do this. However, the War on Crime has also enhanced government power, gets politicians elected, and allows social control beyond simply protecting citizens from one another. Perceived risk from crime has risen faster than the actual risk. Democracy has suffered as a result. First, correct me where I've gotten it wrong. Second, please explain how Americans have come to be such pansies. I thought Ben Franklin had warned us about sacrificing liberty for the illusion of safety.
Jonathan Simon (jonathan-simon) Mon 9 Jul 07 14:58
Thanks Doug. Understanding our history and how we got a present where people think its normal to live in gated communities and drive militarized SUVs to the mall (not to mention keeping 2.2 million of their fellows locked up in prisons and jails), has been one of my main motivations in writing the book. But getting the right historical frame has proved trickier than I first thought. One can see elements of governing through crime from the very earliest moments of the white settlement of North America. Unlike Europe, where criminal justice was associated with the power of the King, American criminal justice has always been associated with the self defense of the community (all too often on racial lines) against various others (Indians and slaves as well as roving bandits). That is one reason it has always been hard to draw a clear line between criminal law enforcement and various kinds of private vigilante activity. At various times in our history, crime control has emerged as a particularly salient way to reorganize government more broadly. A good example is the way the post-Reconstruction southern states used their criminal codes to strip freed Blacks of their new legal rights and put them back to work as prisoners on some of the same plantations they had worked as slaves. Some observers, most notably my colleague here at Berkeley Loic Wacquant, have argued that our contemporary war on crime is another such effort to reorganize racial domination in the aftermath of the civil rights movement and the break up of Jim Crow. In the book I develop a somewhat different historical frame for interpreting the present. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal beginning almost exactly 75 years ago this month (it was in his acceptance speech in Chicago on July 2nd, 1932 that he spoke of a New Deal for Americans), helped develop a template for American governance that dominated our political and social life for nearly fifty years (until Reagan helped define government as more the problem then the solution). This template was anchored in the experience of the economic cataclysm of the Great Depression and harnessed a wide variety of government and private efforts to restart and maintain the industrial economy. Over time this model of governing was applied to many other issue from international relations (the Atlantic Charter and later the Marshall Plan was a "New Deal for the World" as historian Elizabeth Borgwardt puts it in her terrific book of that title, to criminal justice, where scientifically guided rehabilitation became the dominant approach to punishment in the 1950s and 1960s. Both parties and liberals as well as conservatives operated within the broad swatch of New Deal governance (Nixon was probably our last New Deal type president) and it came to dominate many state governments as well as the federal government. For complex reasons arising both from its internal contradictions (especially around race) and its external economic environment (especially the growth of what we now call globalization), the New Deal model was in crisis by the 1960s. Much of the politics of that era constituted a series of efforts to recast or replace this model. Issues like hardened poverty in the midst of affluence, and the rising environmental costs of industrial society, as well as violent crime, offered potentially productive policy arenas for politicians seeking to develop a post-New Deal approach to governing. In the book I argue crime won, not because it was most important or pressing of these problems in any objective sense but because it turned out to raise the fewest obstacles to a broad initiative in a constitutional system generally prone to producing gridlock. Of course crime was emerging as a very real concern to many Americans, but so was the environment, so was poverty, so was the unfinished business of racial reconstruction. In the end it may not be too important why crime turned out to be the winning horse (luck may have had a lot to do with it), because once politics (at the federal and state levels) began to roll down the track of crime control as pathway to reconstructing government, it turned out to be an incredibly productive direction as it opened endless opportunities for politicians at every level of government to act on and in the name of crime control. Much of what the book attempts to do is to chart and describe the rather amazing panoplies of legal and institutional rules that this revolution in American government has produced. As to whether Americans are more cowardly then in the past I would agree that in important ways we cannot be the land of the free, without also being the home of the brave. But I don't think we govern through crime because we are more afraid then we used to be, I think we are more afraid because we govern through crime. The crucial questions are generally not ones of personal courage but of responsible governance toward those you have in your charge. In my chapter on the family I talk about how parents have come to create a virtual "gated childhood" for kids that is making them both obese and neurotic, but I don't think its because parents are more cowardly than they were a generation or two ago. Rather, law and politics have directed their normal sense of responsibility toward a kind of hazard that is inherently limitless and intolerable. Notice that parents are also a lot more cautious about where they let their kids ride in cars (my brother and I used to fight over the ledge above the back seat during long high-way trips), or what they wear when riding a bike, but it hasn't led parents to flip out and confine their kids the way crime fear has.
Doug Masson (dmasson) Mon 9 Jul 07 15:35
Do you have any sense that governing through crime has lost some of its potential post 9/11? The reason I ask is that after 9/11, it seemed to me I started hearing a lot less about the War on (Some) Drugs. And, from my perspective as someone born in 1971, the War on Drugs seemed to gain a lot of steam once the Commies stopped being so scary (about the time Gorbachev took over, I guess.) I suppose leaders have been governing populations through fear of The Other for as long as there have been in-groups and out-groups. Uh, speaking of insufficiently confined children - mine, ages 3.5 and 2, require some attention. More later. (And I apologize for the disjointed composition. That's what I get for doing this at home.)
Doug Masson (dmasson) Mon 9 Jul 07 16:37
And if criminalization has lost some of its political steam, what would be the reasons? To some extent, the easy availability of a more potent Other would be one explanation -- e.g. "terrorists." (I put that in scare quotes, not because I doubt the existence of those who use terror as a tactic, but because it's quite an amorphous term, not very helpful in identifying the people we should be scared of.) Another reason might be that politicians are starting to look at least slightly ridiculous. Here in Indiana, one of our esteemed Congressmen, Mark Souder (R IN-03) is responsible for legislation that denies student aid for applicants who have been convicted on a drug charge. (See here: "http://www.slate.com/id/2139803/"). As of 2005, 1 in 200 Hoosier applicants had been denied financial aid because of the provision. While efforts to get rid of the provision have been unsuccessful, my sense is that Souder isn't getting a lot of credit for being such a hardcore drug warrior. It's not hurting him a great deal either - he's in a district that's heavily stacked in favor of the Republicans. Possibly my sense that the drug war has lost its potency is based on wishful thinking. The idea that governing through crime expanded in the wake of the Civil Rights era has slightly but significantly altered my recollection of the War on (Some) Drugs in the 80s. Before, I immediately thought of Nancy Reagan and "Just Say No". Now, it ties in more deeply with the Reagan era -- going all the way back to Reagan's "state's rights" speech at Philadelphia, Mississippi; the scene of the 1964 murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
Jonathan Simon (jonathan-simon) Tue 10 Jul 07 10:13
Three strands here that are both important, 9/11, the future of the war on drugs (put a fork in it!), and complex interweaving of tough on crime and racial intolerance politics. I'll try to say a bit about the first and then come back for the others. I had written about half the book on September 11, 2001 (don't ask why it took some many years to get the other half done). After the first day of nausea and fear that more planes might fall out of the sky, and sorrow for my friends in New York (ok I don't know to many people at the Pentagon but I felt for them to), as I started thinking about the implications, I wondered if the book would itself become irrelevant (or at least a strictly historical study). It seemed possible that in the face of the terror attacks, much of the matrix like web of crime fear enhancing policies and practices might be exposed as suddenly absurd and damaging. Perhaps squeegee men and Washington Sq. pot dealers weren't the people most threatening New York City. Perhaps our very obsession with crime centered risk had caused us to miss greater threats among us. After all the 19 who murdered our brothers and sisters that day didn't look like the usual criminal suspects, they weren't from broken families, didn't use drugs, celebrate gangsters, or fail in school. May be preventively locking up hundreds of thousands of people who met that crime profile for non-violent crimes wasn't keeping America safer. If those insights had become common sense on September 12th I probably would have turned back to my many other (and more academically respectable) interests. Sadly for me as a citizen and parent (if not author) almost the very opposite happened. In the terrible glow of the fire balls, Americans seemed to recognize their remarkably locked down society, as if for the first time, and embrace it as a necessary response to the threat of terror. Its true that the war on crime (and drugs) would now disappear below the fold of the morning newspaper, to be replaced by the war on terror. But take a look at that war, from top to bottom it has reflected the script of the war on crime. Our enemies are evil doers who can only be killed or incapacitated. In the name of victims we have to adopt laws without reading or debating them, that give the executive boundless power to go after those evil doers. We must build prisons to incarcerate as many of the enemy types as possible (don't worry to much about what they actually did). We must rely on professional informants to discover or perhaps produce the low skilled terrorist cells the FBI has "caught." We must secure Iraq by putting more US soldiers on the streets to fix the "broken windows" of Baghdad. I could go on.. Actually I think this is a disastrous way to fight terrorists. If we are in for a long struggle with militant Political Islam, we need to push this war on crime recipe for disaster out of the way and begin a new and more effective way to fight them (hint: it will look a lot more like fighting cancer, well targeted efforts to eliminate existing cells combined with broad political efforts to prevent further "mutations." more later
Jonathan Simon (jonathan-simon) Tue 10 Jul 07 14:55
Whether the war on crime is winding down rather than just morphing into a war on terror is an important question. There are signs of real fatigue with its logic, including less support for harsh penalties, more support for alternatives, rehabilitation, etc.. Most importantly, growing public alarm about other risks (I want to return this substitute risks theory Doug raised, cold war for crime war in a moment) like global warming, obesity, health insurance (just watch the reform plus entertainment documentary genre for examples). On the other hand there is plenty of evidence that the governing through crime fear is potent and just seeking other targets. The latest one is sex offenders. States are passing insanely harsh rules about sex offenders that often ban them from living almost any where (and certainly not near treatment and control institutions). Some of these imagined Hannibal Lecters are teenagers that had sex with someone below the age of consent (and often of the wrong race, or gender). Moreover, law makers keep enacting laws and policies that keep us tuned into crime fears. The Amber Alert law of a few years ago means that our smart highway signs sometimes flash ominous words about child abduction (or even murder, which I saw flashing from giant smart sign recently on I 80 here in the East Bay). After Virginia Tech, many universities are offering students to receive email updates any time there is a crime or other emergency on campus. Keep in mind, some of these measures may make some sense, but collectively they constitute a kind of political-neural network designed to keep crime risk on your brain, regardless of your own first hand experience of the world (thats why for years respondents have been telling surveyors that they think crime is going up even though they mostly feel safe in their own neighborhoods). So on balance, I'm afraid that governing through crime is likely to remain a very influential framework for our lives and institutions for a long time unless we take some concerted effort to replace it. The cold war example Doug brought up is a good one. Cold war politics did not drive American politics in every election cycle between 1947 and 1989, but it was constant influence on culture, science, and institutional life. The war on crime has worked much the same way. We've had spike's of interest like 1968, 1988 (the Dukakis/Bush election), 1994 (when the Republican congressional surge happened around the crime bill), but lots of other cycles where it remains in the background. One more point about risk substitution. Although I find it handy myself as a shorthand, I think it is a mistake to treat risk too functionally as if America just always needs an enemy (Indians, freed slaves, anarchists, communists, criminals) and who it is just moves around depending on external changes. This treats the need for an enemy as if it was independent of the political formations that generate the enemies, but I view the two as deeply intertwined. Moreover, by addressing problems in a robust way, like FDR did during the New Deal, the society can become altogether less focused on enemies period. Finally, a further thought on race. Yes the war on crime has been wonderful for supporters of white supremacy who needed a new way to justify keeping Blacks out of neighborhoods, schools, and jobs. Dixie-crats and their wooers in the Republican party, did play this card quite effectively (see Katherine Beckett's brilliant book, Making Crime Pay). But to treat governing through crime as simple strategy of white supremacy, is to miss how deeply it grips people (like most of the white people reading this post, and many people of color as well) who belong firmly to the anti-racist camp in American politics, and yet have been led by policies and practices to prioritize crime risk in ways that perpetuate racial division and disadvantage.
Doug Masson (dmasson) Tue 10 Jul 07 18:19
I had a couple of real life run-ins with governing through crime today that I thought I'd share. 1. I got a call from a reporter seeking comment in my capacity as county attorney. Apparently the prosecutor and the sheriff have been sued due to their attempts to enforce a law passed by the General Assembly prohibiting certain types of sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school. There is apparently some dispute in interpretation as to whether this law applies to those convicted of sex offenses before the law was passed. I haven't seen the lawsuit, so I couldn't comment intelligibly. The prosecutor and the sheriff are professionals who don't really have an axe to grind on this topic, they're just enforcing the law as best they can. And, to be candid, I'm fairly mercenary in my law practice. I'm there to represent their interests, so I'll put aside my personal thoughts to do my job as effectively as possible. I realize this is how the machinery of governing through crime clanks along, grinding people up in its treads. 2. In a county council meeting today, the sheriff was reporting on long term budget projections having to do with the jail. About 5 or 6 years ago, we had to build an expansion onto the jail. We have the 5th largest county jail in Indiana. At the moment, we have enough capacity to subsidize some of the county's operational costs by housing some of the State's prisoners. The question came up as to when the sheriff thought we might need more capacity. He thought it would happen, but hopefully not for quite some time. Apparently our county courts are making a greater effort to be "problem solving" courts -- meaning they're trying new programs for nonviolent offenders, focusing on increased monitoring in lieu of having the individuals in physical custody at the jail. This has kept the county jail population down, allowing for more State prisoners to be held in the county jail, resulting in more revenue to the county. I'm not sure if it's positive, negative, or neutral to have what amounts to a profit motive to seek alternatives to custody for nonviolent offenders.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 11 Jul 07 09:18
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Jack King (gjk) Wed 11 Jul 07 11:12
Putting the legality of residency restrictions for former offenders aside for just a minute, one might suppose that this type of legislation is the current pinnacle of victim-class constituency politics. The whole community is "victimized" by the presence of a former offender -- cast him out! If he isn't over the county line by sundown, lynch him! (Or rather, throw his ass behind bars, so we can be "safe" again.) It fits one of Simon's observations, the rise of victimhood as a class to be protected, to a T. The cool thing about victim politics (from the politician's POV) is that ANYBODY can be a victim now. The politician who can bring more into the victim fold (usually through mere fearmongering) is likelier to gather more votes for himself.
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Wed 11 Jul 07 14:59
Victims are an artifical constituency?
Jonathan Simon (jonathan-simon) Wed 11 Jul 07 15:38
Let me ramble a bit about each example which Doug described before picking up the strand on victims. On 1: As far as I can tell law enforcement hates these new sex offender laws. For one thing, some of them, California for instance, mandate GPS enforcement of existing prohibitions on offenders being within a certain distance of a presumably vulnerable target. While funding insufficiency will probably delay it for years, someday police and sheriff's deputies may have have to respond to these "alerts" much as they do 9-1-1 calls now (and be disciplined and sued when they do not respond in ways that can be retroactively justified). That could be a nightmare. Moreover, there is little confidence that these potentially incredibly expensive laws will do anything to reduce the already relatively low odds of an offense by a stranger sex crime recidivist (since the overwhelming majority of such crimes occur between an offender and victim who know each other). After all, not "living" within 1,000 feet of a school does not guarantee you will not go there. Note that law enforcement, correctional officers, sometimes even prosecutors, do find themselves opposed to efforts at escalating fear and governing more through crime; either out of rational self interest or deep understanding of the futility of the policy based on their own experience. For example, the Correctional Officers union in California, often viewed as supporting endless growth in imprisonment, has recently joined prisoner plaintiffs in asking federal judges to set actual caps on population in the state's shockingly overcrowded prisons. This is one of the flaws of the more conspiratorial version of the Prison Industrial Complex argument. While it is true that particular industries, work forces, and interest groups, have found ways to benefit from the increased fear of crime in our society, the larger structure of action created by governing through crime often goes well beyond their interests to create perverse effects. Those of us who want to move America away from governing through crime need to identify these fractures and develop ways of exploiting them. Lets also talk about the nature of these fears that are mobilized about sex offenders and particularly with respect to children as victims. I have a daughter of ten years and a son of seven. I can't read newspaper stories about kids getting hurt without thinking of them. The fact that the objective risk of a stranger sexual assault on a child is very small does not necessarily matter if the resulting harm is terribly alarming. Sometimes are worst fears do come to pass. For example, right here in Berkeley a year or so ago, an apparently deranged and disheveled person walked onto a popular soccer field and attempted to grab and carry off one of the seven or eight year old players. He was quickly subdued by the parents on hand, but its just the kind of event that people fear the most. Rather than dismissing these fears as irrational, we need to examine how they become intertwined with our own choices and the ambivalences we feel about them. The recent movie Little Children did a great job of capturing the vague but persistent fear of pedophiles that seems to hang over suburbs and other "nice" neighborhoods in America. Set as the background to a plot about adultery, it also highlights how many other things we could do to protect our kids from existential risk that are actually in our own power to abate, like not engaging in extramarital affairs, or choosing to work (and consume) less, in order that we might be more physically present in the lives of our children. Does fretting on those "monsters" out there make it easier to ignore our own moral and ethical choices? We also need to consider how we might collectively act to address these fears rather than look to the law enforcement tooth fairy to make them disappear. I was cheered by the fact that parents on the soccer field subdued the deranged stranger. If we must face existential risk, let us choose to do it together in a pro-active positive forms that encourage our larger sense of trust and effectiveness, soccer leagues are just one example. Indeed, the Political Scientist Robert Putnam, in his famous study of Italian governance, found that communities with lots of civic organizations relied much less heavily on formal law enforcement to impose order and security. More brief on 2. I know Doug is probably limited in what he can say about the Jail he consults for, but jails are a fascinating microcosm of the whole governing through crime pattern. The more we seek to address social problems like mental illness and homelessness, through criminalization, the more the jail becomes the be all form of government, especially for the poorest communities and the most marginal residents. If you are interested in learning more about them, read John Irwins classic, The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society. Today, many jails function as defacto asylums, housing and may be treating the mentally ill. Mary Beth Pfeiffers new book, Crazy in America, profiles six mentally ill people who died needlessly in police or jail custody. The rise of the crime victim as idealized citizen is one of the defining features of governing through crime. It helps us to understand that this American version is really a variation (a perversion in my view) of democracy rather than an innately authoritarian agenda (even though its consequences may be authoritarian). So when the Chinese execute somebody like they did the other day, they speak about protecting the people but only as a secondary theme to the main event, which is the state reasserting its authority. As my colleague Frank Zimring argues in his 2003 book, The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, the death penalty in America is increasingly a kind of civilized lynching, done in the name and sometimes quite precisely at the behest of, the victims. Of course, crime victims are real, and there is a real truth to the potential of all of us to become victims (directly or indirectly). The problem is when this vision of the needs of the people crowds out all other visions. An example is that when workers or members of discriminated against minorities want to seek rights, they increasingly have to do so by fitting their situation into the crime victim box. We can honor victims of hate crime but not integrate our schools. We can demand protection for workers from sexual harassment but not provide them unions. Victims are not artificial, but the sense that there is a victim's rights movement needs to be probed much more than the media typically does. Often correctional officers unions and prosecutors have played key roles in organizing and advising such "movements" and they tend to exclude lots of victims who don't fit the profile (especially people of color).
Doug Masson (dmasson) Wed 11 Jul 07 17:32
Your description of honoring victims as having opportunity costs triggered thoughts of Jared Diamond's description of Rapa Nui in his book "Collapse." The way he tells it, the islanders wasted their resources building their stone monuments, ultimately deforesting and depopulating the island. (My understanding is that Diamond's analysis has been challenged.) But, the point remains, that if your society is squandering its resources in unproductive ways, the results can be disastrous. The second thing that occurred to me is that the risk of a molester hurting your child resembles Pascal's Wager. Regardless of whether the evidence supports the existence of God, the downside if one guesses wrong is too horrific to contemplate. Similarly, no matter how unlikely a molester is to attack your child, the downside if it happens is too horrible to contemplate rationally. (A more rationally accessible downside to failing to take extraordinary measures to protect one's child is condemnation from other membes of society who feel the need to be judgmental about your choices.)
Jonathan Simon (jonathan-simon) Wed 11 Jul 07 22:40
Your second thought strikes to the heart of why violent crime (of which child sexual abuse is along with homicide itself, perhaps the most feared) has such power to rework our expectations of how we should be governed (and govern those we are responsible for, like kids). Some risks come to seem intolerable and precisely as you suggest, to ignore them is to court social disgrace as well as personal guilt. But which ones? Some of my earlier work was on work and car accidents in the early 20th century. Thousands of people died each year in industries like steel making and railroad yard labor back in the 1900s. By the late 1920s the automobile was slaughtering tens of thousands of mostly pedestrians. In both cases, many observers found this outrageous and criminal, but in time we have come to accept as moral and honorable both work place and high way deaths. New governance systems like workers compensation and liability insurance helped "tame" the disastrous side of these casualties in the eyes of the public. The benefits (dubious as they may now seem) of cheap industrial products and fast personal transportation, made these deaths more acceptable as part of the social contract. Perhaps one of the reasons violent crime has come to seem such a problem for government is that so many of the the terms of the mid-20th century social contract, security of employment, insurance, social security and corporate pensions, etc., seem to have come undone and the middle class finds itself facing many kinds of risk with far less protection from big government, big labor, or big business. Diamond's model of collapse might be analogized to the micro level as well. The contemporary middle class family, compelled to send both parents into the labor force to sustain mid-century consumption patterns, finds itself paying an increasingly unsustainable cost to honor a largely inapt commitment to securing their kids through a segregation in communities that require long automobile commutes and 24/7 lock down control. BTW since we do this for our kids the costs to us will never seem a sufficient reason to stop. Its only when we recognize the harm this kind of regime is doing to our kids that we will begin to really question this commitment. They are clearly becoming more obese as their potential for free range exercise is grotesquely limited (in practically all sectors of society). I am no psychologist, and welcome the views of those who are or have insights into this, but I fear they are becoming more neurotic from the being so often indoors or in managed outdoor activities so much of the time.
Jack King (gjk) Thu 12 Jul 07 12:27
There's a fine example of governing through crime in today's WashPost metro section: 19 Face U.S. Firearms Charges Anti-Gang Task Force, Local Police Helped Build Cases By Ruben Castaneda Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, July 12, 2007; B03 Nineteen people from Prince George's County have been charged with federal firearms violations, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said yesterday. Fifteen of the defendants were indicted or charged directly by federal prosecutors in the past three days, Rosenstein said. The other four were charged within the past two weeks. The suspects are charged with a variety of gun crimes, including unlawful possession of a firearm, unlawfully selling firearms, being a felon in possession of a firearm and being a felon in possession of ammunition, federal prosecutors said. One defendant is also charged with possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, authorities said. [ . . . ] Defendants who are convicted of a federal gun crime, without an accompanying crime of violence, are more likely to receive longer prison sentences than those charged and convicted of similar crimes in state court, Rosenstein noted. Many defendants convicted of similar illegal gun possession crimes in state court receive probation or a few days in jail. "The reality is that too many criminals who are charged in state court with illegal gun possession end up with very light sentences," Rosenstein said. By contrast, in the federal system, defendants who are convicted of gun crimes often receive sentences of five to 20 years in prison, depending on their history of criminal convictions. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp- dyn/content/article/2007/07/11/AR2007071102054.html>
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Thu 12 Jul 07 12:40
Recently, at a coffee shop I frequent in Minneapolis, a woman shouted down a man and drove him out of the shop because, apparently, he was a convicted sex-offender. She passed around printouts from an internet site showing the man's picture and conviction details (according to which, he had served his sentence and gone through his parole, etc. so had essentially paid his debt). There are no schools in the vicinity, the man apparently is under no restrictions, yet the woman felt justified in driving him out of the coffee shop to protect "our children." (Of course, what safer place for a sexual predator to be than in a busy public area with lots of eyes? Ostracizing him would seem to increase the danger rather than reduce it.) I wasn't present at the incident but showed up a few minutes later. I was somewhat taken aback by how much support the woman had, even from people who I know to be very reasonable and committed to due process etc. I spoke against the woman's behavior but felt I had to be very careful how I talked and who I talked to, otherwise I might be tagged as someone who supports sexual predators. I guess my question is what can we do, not just specifically in such situations, but generally to nudge things away from the culture of fear.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Thu 12 Jul 07 13:44
That is a concern of mine, as well, Mark. Jonathon, great book. I've been devouring every word. It seems to me that "governing through crime" as a concept hits the chord of fear in all of us. As a mother, I do not take the safety of my children lightly. However, as an American (and a thinking human being) I take civil liberties and freedoms to live and choose very seriously, as well. I don't take lightly the loss of freedoms to those who are deemed criminal, either. I am incensed that ours is a nation of lock-ups rather than a nation of education and support. I am not fool enough to believe that there is good to be found in even the most hardened criminal, but I am hopeful enough to believe that if we choose to govern through mental health or education, rather than through crime, our collective existences would improve. The problem I see with governing through crime is that it insists there is a win/lose situation in every instance, rather than looking for and working towards win/win results. A real life example in the workplace is illustrated in the Workplace chapter of Jonathon's book. In Cody v. Cigna, the behavior of all of the parties was through a crime lens. Cody acted as the victim, as did Cigna, in response to her accusations of the company. In another galaxy, Cody could explain her concerns to her supervisor in a non-accusatorial manner and the supervisor would respond by admitting that a solution to the problem is necessary.
Jonathan Simon (jonathan-simon) Thu 12 Jul 07 17:05
Imprisonment for gun crimes has become a major way that people are sent to prison in the US, and for long terms. Its easy to see that liberals and gun right conservatives have found common ground in making the equation, "criminal" + "gun" = exile to prison. There is usually no need the to show the gun was or was going to be used to commit a crime. You go to prison for years. Who could be against it? Problem is that lots of people now find themselves in the first category through participation in the drug economy even if they pose not threat of armed violence, so the "criminal" part of the equation creates lots of racially skewed results. Second, once you are in that economy, carrying a gun is part of your tool kit. Solution? Hold people accountable for committing crimes with guns but do not exile people from the community for long prison terms just for being a felon with a weapon. In the meantime, I'd govern guns through stiff financial responsibility laws. If you want to own a gun, especially the kind that real criminals are likely to use in committing armed crimes like robbery, you should be financially responsible for any crimes that are in fact committed by that gun. Strict liability, compensate the victims. In the meantime. If we really want to end the sickening cycles of youth homicide in cities like SF, Oakland, Richmond, and across America, legalize all illegal drugs now under a robust regime of civil governance and strip the profits from the whole lifestyle. Gangs may be cool as social performance, and they may survive in smaller and more benevolent forms, but without profits they will not have the staying power over our kids in poor communities that they now do, and which the war on crime has just consolidated.
Jef Poskanzer (jef) Thu 12 Jul 07 17:21
I don't have the slightest problem with long prison terms for posessing a gun while doing non-gun crime.
Doug Masson (dmasson) Thu 12 Jul 07 17:30
If the gun was a non-factor in the crime, I don't understand why it ought to be a consideration in the sentencing. Back to the topic of perception of risk for a moment. I played golf with one of our county judges today. He was asked whether he had been harassed because of his position. He said that, in the 4 years he's been on the bench, he's gotten one crank phone call that seemed to be judicially related, despite having a listed phone number. I'm coming to the conclusion that our society is simply not as dangerous as we've been lead to believe. You might end up being one of the unlucky ones to whom something horrible happens. But, statistically, the likelihood is that you'll be all right.
Jonathan Simon (jonathan-simon) Thu 12 Jul 07 21:41
Right. So if we are interested in solutions, Doug (and others like Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine), point to one very important direction of solution, stop acting afraid. May be its not too late to go back to giving kids home made candy and fruit for Halloween, to having them ride bikes till dusk through autumn streets, or attend public schools in cities where they will share classrooms with people of very different economic backgrounds. A good direction for solutions is generally toward the local. Crime is almost always a local phenomena and its solutions lie locally. Governing through crime has involved a projection of some very selective images of crime across the screen of the national imagination. Mistrust laws and policies (like all the recent sex offender policies) that have been circulated through a national policy establishment. Demand local solutions designed to abate real harms at the lowest possible costs to all involved. Another place to look for solutions is toward new problems. Cancer, terrorism, global warming, all call for a recasting of governance toward new priorities. There is a chance here to reappraise the role of security based on segregation in favor of other kinds of security. But it could also get worst. Many experts believe that next quarter century will see a massive revival of central cities as people with means seek to escape the high costs of automobile dependency. Rebuilding America's cities could be a once in a multiple life times chance to create a diverse and economically resilient kind of community. But if fear guides the rebuilding, we are likely to get something more like a high tech urban gated communities with pervasive surveillance and efforts to exclude those perceived as deviant or dangerous.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Fri 13 Jul 07 06:03
I hope central city living sees a revival. Back in the day (when my father was a young boy in Brooklyn), city living was safe because of the sheer number of people paying attention. Dad couldn't walk down the street without a half a dozen mothers asking him where he was going, what he was doing, and if his mother knew where he was. No cell phones, just neighbors. The shop keepers knew him, as did the vagrants, the cops, well, you get the idea. I grew up in suburbia, and with the freedom to go just about anywhere I chose as long as I was home by dark and called if I was going to be late. I live in a very small city in a very large (and stupid) state, Lake Worth, FL. We do send our kids to the public school with the diverse population. I do let my kids walk to their friends' houses nearby (within 10 blocks). I leave my kids in the house for 10 -15 minutes while I run to the store or the post office. And, if they want, I'll let them walk or ride their bikes to school starting this fall (Graham will be in 1st grade, Emma in 4th). The neighbors know who my kids are, where they belong, and how to reach me in the event they need to do so. Even before I read this book, I have tried to act in a way that defied this GTC trend. It bothers me on a visceral level. I think one punishment per crime is plenty. Creating a criminal class that is believed to be non-rehabilitative destroys our communities. I am disgusted by this ridiculous rule which is decidedly a GTC phenomenon: No home baked cakes or cupcakes or cookies are allowed to be distributed at school for parties. The district passed this rule because they can't be certain of the cleanliness of the kitchens in which the baked goods would be cooked, nor the freshness of the ingredients, nor the ingredient list (think allergic children). So, it's better to give them store bought crap then the really good and healthy baked goods of the handful of parents who would choose to go out of their way to bake for the kids.
Jonathan Simon (jonathan-simon) Fri 13 Jul 07 15:17
Yes, how about a campaign for real cupcakes in school. In Berkeley that wouldn't draw laughs. While the rule that Lisa Harris writes about may not be a "criminal law", it clearly works from the same false promise of a risk free school zone that governing through crime has promoted. The resulting sterilization of education is about as nourishing for the brain as those Safeway or Publix brand cupcakes they want you to buy. One evening trying to imagine a non homophobic alternative to the Boy Scouts that I could enroll my seven year old son Avi in, I began fantasizing about a group that would be called "Free Range Kids". Led in small sized (but not necessarily neighborhood defined) groups by parents trading off being scout leader, the FRK's would bring boys and girls not only to the woods, but to urban neighborhoods and parks that too many of them never see. Growing up I remember seeing my parents interacting with all kinds of people in all parts of Chicago where we lived. It gave me a sense of confidence in the existence of a common civic life that cut across the patch work of ethnically defined neighborhoods. In an age of gated communities where even commercial interactions are mediated by automated systems, what will give our kids that kind of confidence?
PLEASE GOD, DO NOT GIFTWRAP YOUR ASS (vard) Fri 13 Jul 07 22:43
I love the idea of Free Range Kids! I'm so glad to see someone paying attention to the climate of fear that's been created all around us and is being nurtured by those who want to keep us obedient. It's particularly painful for me to observe the residual effects of the 9/11 attacks on some of my friends in New York. Those were ballsy people before! They prided themselves on their fearlessness. They were intrepid New Yorkers. Now some of them go on and on about terrorism as if there were an attack on New York at least once a month.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 14 Jul 07 06:39
That is such a great name.
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