Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Book Review: The Burglar's Fate and the Detectives by Allan Pinkerton

This holiday, I was very lucky, at the Great Dickens Fair, to score a beautiful original edition of Allan Pinkerton's The Burglar's Fate and the Detectives. It is a true account of an investigation conducted by the Pinkerton Detective Agency (now a respected security firm) of a bank robbery in Geneva, Illinois.

Modern whodunnits usually try and keep the reader interested by hiding the identity of the criminal until the very end. But this is no ordinary whodunnit; it can be seen more as a stylized journal of an investigation, written by the man who invented the detection methods that would later lay the foundation for the modern FBI, such as shadowing and undercover work. And, as Pinkerton tells us in the preface, "[n]o touch of fiction obscures this truthful recital."

What we get in lieu of a whodunnit is a sometimes dry, sometimes too picturesque account of how various "operatives"--agents working for Pinkerton--are chasing the robbers. They have some very telling clues as to the identity of the burglars right from the start, when they are given reason to suspect that one of the bank clerks collaborated with the intruders. Much of their time from then on is spent on the hot trail of the suspects, befriending their family members and business partners, and on one occasion, even wooing a servant girl in the home of one of the suspects' families. We also get a moderate dosage of racism and antisemitism along the way.

Arrest scene: Wood engraving from the original edition.

The relationship between the detectives and the formal police, nascent as it may have been, is fascinating, too. The detectives operate in an odd space between the law and its shadow. When intercepting letters, they do not open them (doing so would be a federal offense), but when apprehending one of the suspects, they assume arrest powers, avail themselves of the hospitality of the local constable, and even remunerate him ("handsomely") for his services. One assumes that the mythical reputation Pinkerton had at the time provided him with respect and authority that today would be granted to private actors only under unusual circumstances.

The interrogation scene is also fascinating and brings to mind Richard Leo's analysis of police interrogation techniques in Police Interrogation and American Justice. The detectives present the suspects with information about accomplices in their custody--some of it untrue--guilt them with information about their relatives, and promise them judicial leniency if they collaborate. They also reserve the questions for times at which they have more details they can use to persuade the suspect to talk. The stubborn interrogation bears fruit, and the suspect breaks down and confesses.

What makes this book such fun to read, despite the sometimes uncomfortable racism and antisemitism in the description of witnesses and minor characters, is its effort to create an image of uncompromising professionalism to match the sophistication and audacity of the burglars. Two ideas come through, loud and clear: The criminals are serious, planning, cunning, and calculating, and they are deserving of this amount of attention, expense and time from so much trained manpower. This raises a lot of interesting questions about the origins of modern policing and what relationship they bear to the stop-and-frisk techniques, and car patrols, in search of nonviolent drug offenders.

Want to experience a bit of proto-policing yourself? Read the entire thing, from beginning to end, with reproductions of the original artwork, for free, using the Project Gutenberg edition. 

Christmas Behind Bars

Darnell Hill, an inmate at San Quentin, writes about Christmas in prison. We repost his words in full today.

Christmas in prison is like knowing it’s something you’re supposed to do and not remembering what it is. In other words, for those of us that culturally recognize Christmas as a family gathering event, we feel the effects of not being there with our families and there’s nothing we can do to change it, life goes on. As a matter of fact, if it weren't for some of us having TVs and radios, the presence of Christmas probably wouldn't have such a mobilizing effect. Most of the hurt, loneliness, and depression during the Holiday season stems from our own guilt and resentment concerning abandoning our families and now realizing how precious those family moments are. 

There are also those inmates who are socially and emotionally disconnected from the culture of Christmas, because they have done so much damage within the family, they now have no family to go home to. Then there are those of us who realize that Christmas is not only a family cultural event but also even more so the day of Christ’s birth, for those that believe in Jesus Christ.  Here in San Quentin, we have a lot of community support that makes us feel like family; we have candle light service together and even do Christmas caroling around the prison, but we can’t sit at the table and have a family meal. Yes, we have a little ham, turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and dressing with a piece of pie for dessert and yet the guilt of abandoning our families eats away at us. 

The bottom line is although Christmas is a festive orientated event; it’s truly not about the lights, Christmas trees, shopping, and giving of gifts. Christmas in or out of prison is more about honoring those you love and those that love you in spite of where you are, how you got there, and the difficulties that come with bringing families together.

All communications between inmates and external channels are facilitated by approved volunteers since inmates do not have access to the internet. This program with Quora is part of The Last Mile San Quentin. Twitter:  @TLM

Happy Winter Holidays to all our friends in prison and on the outside, working for a just, parsimonious and humane society.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Goodbye, Matthew Cate

Matthew Cate leaves CDCR and will take over the California Association of Counties. The L.A. Times reports:

Under Schwarzenegger, Cate oversaw dramatic expansion of state prisons in an attempt to keep up with the growing population of inmates. Under Brown, he oversaw state efforts to shift the growing burden on counties. 

 The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation issued a press release quoting Cate as describing his two-year tenure as corrections secretary under Brown as a "time of tremendous progress," notably cuts in prison spending and a reduction in the prison population, achieved by shifting responsibility for low-level offenders to California's 58 counties. 

"In addition to realignment and the accompanying reforms, we have successfully terminated five class-action lawsuits, overhauled the juvenile justice system; improved CDCR's rehabilitative programs and are implementing a legislatively approved plan that will further these reforms and reduce over-all prison costs," Cate said in the agency's prepared statement. 

It now falls on Cate to help counties find ways to cope with the influx of prisoners and parolees.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

New CDCR Chief: Jeffrey Beard

New chief of California's prisons named

Jeffrey Beard, the former head of Pennsylvania's prisons, favors shorter sentences and community treatment. The appointment is subject to Senate confirmation.

Jeffrey BeardJeffrey Beard, 65, the retired former Pennsylvania prisons chief, has been named to run California's prison system. (Pennsylvania Department of Corre, )

By Paige St. John, Los Angeles TimesDecember 19, 2012, 7:51 p.m.
SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday named a vocal advocate of shorter sentences and community treatment to run the state's crowded and troubled prison system.
Brown announced the selection of Jeffrey Beard, 65, the retired former Pennsylvania prisons chief, to succeed Matthew Cate, who stepped down last month after four years as secretary of corrections in California. Cate is now leader of the California State Assn. of Counties.
Beard, whose appointment is subject to Senate confirmation, spent nearly four decades in corrections in Pennsylvania, starting as a counselor and advancing to prison warden, eventually spending nine years as department head. He completed an expansion of that state's prison system, including the addition of 32,000 inmate beds.
He left in 2010, advocating for laws that put more criminals into work-treatment programs instead of prisons, telling lawmakers that an "over-reliance" on locking up non-serious offenders did little to improve public safety.
Though an official start date was not announced, Beard joins Brown's administration at a critical time. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has until Jan. 7 to produce a plan for reducing prison crowding or face the renewed threat of federal orders to release inmates early.
In addition, a federal receiver is attempting to negotiate terms for California to resume control over the delivery of healthcare to inmates. And the parole and healthcare divisions are laying off staff.
In announcing the appointment, Brown said Beard "has arrived at the right time to take the next steps in returning California's parole and correctional institutions to their former luster."
Beard's successor in Pennsylvania says Beard will fit right in.
"I think you guys hit a home run," said Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.
Wetzel, who was appointed eight months after Beard retired, said the former director weighed in frequently with crucial advice and provided input on new legislation intended to reduce prison crowding in that state and on expanding community treatment and diversion programs.
In 2008, Beard lent support to a proposal to ease county jail crowding by sending felons serving more than two years to state prison. But it allowed for medical release and early release of nonviolent offenders who completed treatment and education programs.
Andy Hoover, legislative director for the Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Beard played an active role in developing corrections policies and promoting them before the Legislature.
But Beard has critics as well, some of whom hold him responsible for expanding the use of solitary confinement in Pennsylvania and for a two-month moratorium on parole releases after the murders of two Philadelphia police officers. The moratorium caused such overcrowding that Pennsylvania began sending inmates to serve time in other states.
Hoover said Beard was caught in a political bind, carrying out policies he had not set. "He was in an unfortunate position," Hoover said. "It was very much out of his hands."
Corrections historian Dan Berger, who was working on his doctoral degree at the University of Pennsylvania at the time, disagrees.
"Beard does not have a good reputation on health and human rights in prison," Berger said. "He gives more rhetoric to sentencing reform than believes it."
After retiring in 2010, Beard joined Pennsylvania State University's Justice Center for Research, and he has worked as a private consultant to a number of states, including California. He advised Sacramento on litigation over the care and housing of mentally ill offenders and has toured California prisons.
Beard is not shy about voicing opinions on where the criminal justice system fails. In 2010, he told Pennsylvania lawmakers that heavy reliance on incarceration of low-level offenders "has proven to have limited value in maintaining public safety."
"We must stop treating all offenders the same and move away from the 'get tough on crime' philosophy of locking up less serious offenders for longer periods of time," he told them.
In a 2005 commentary in an industry publication, Beard called for a rethinking of "who really belongs in prison" and an end to the then-popular "scared straight" programs he felt increased the likelihood that freed inmates would commit future crimes. "We must have the will to put an end to feel-good and/or publicly popular programs that simply do not work," Beard wrote.
Corrections officials said Beard was unavailable Wednesday but released a single statement quoting the incoming secretary as saying he was "honored" to be appointed "for this important public safety position.",0,7507985.story


Monday, December 17, 2012

On Sandy Hook, Moral Panic, and Legitimate Fear

Map of shooting incidents courtesy Mother Jones;
interactive version on the website.
Much of the commentary on Sandy Hook has highlighted the rise in the number of public shooting incidents in the course of the last few years. Some of the aggregate data on the shootings can be found on Mother Jones or on the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City website. Does the fact that there seem to have been many recent incidents of mass murders and spree killings of this sort mean that we have a phenomenon we need to worry about in a systematic way? We are, of course, saddened, heartbroken, angry--but should we also be afraid?

The answer to that question depends on how one defines "phenomenon" and how one decides what to worry about. Since there is no official measurement for "worrisomeness that merits criminalization/heightened enforcement", the extent to which we take steps to criminalize, police, and curtail rights depends on how severe we assess the threat to be. And that is, generally speaking, a question that involves politicians, the media, and the public.

One criminological concept that pops up in these discussions quite often is moral panic. A term coined by Stanley Cohen in his classic book about the Mods and the Rockers, it is "a condition, episode, person or group of persons [who] become defined as a threat to societal values and interests." Cohen emphasized that the panic is amplified by media reports and often culminates in a call to do something on the matter. Goode and Ben Yehuda identify consensus, a heightened level of concern, and hostility, as important factors in a moral panic.

Unmentioned in the definition, but implied in the literature, is the assumption that the panic is exaggerated. That is, that there is no real cause for concern, or at least not to the extent that justifies criminalization or curtailment of personal rights.

In 1999, Ronald Burns and Charles Crawford published an article on Crime, Law and Social Change about school shootings as a moral panic. The article shows the interaction between politicians, media reports, and public outcry, in the aftermath of Columbine. As they analyze the political and media attention to school shootings, they offer the following to show that the concern was disproportionate:

Were these massive societal responses to what were indeed heinous, threat- ening offenses against schoolteachers and students justified? A closer look at statistics regarding juvenile crime and more specifically school violence suggests that what occurred was arguably an overreaction to the situation. For example, consider the following sample of recent findings regarding juvenile crime in the context of the aforementioned societal responses: 

  • There has been no increase in the number of children under age 13 arrested for homicides in the U.S. In 1965, 25 children under age 13 were arrested for homicides and in 1996 it was 16, a 36 percent decline (Donahue, Vincent and Schiraldi, 1998). 
  • Overall, fewer than 3 percent of the killings in America in 1996 involved someone under age 18 killing someone else under age 18 (FBI, 1997). 
  • FBI data suggest that national youth violence arrests went down both in number and in share of total youth arrests between 1992 and 1996 (“Violent youth . . .,” 1998). 
  • Three of four young murder victims – 90% of them under age 12 and 70% of them agged 12–17 – are killed by adults, not by juveniles (Males, 1998). 

While one cannot discount the substantial increases in juvenile crime during the late 1980s, recent reports suggest that the problem is diminishing. Bernard (1999) suggests that although there exists conflicting trends, the most consist- ent interpretation is that juvenile crime, with the exception of homicide, has declined by about one-third over the last twenty years. In their chapter titled: “Juvenile Superpredators: The Myths of Killer Kids, Dangerous schools and a Youth Crime Wave,” Kappeler, Blumberg and Potter (2000) elaborate upon these and similar findings. There has been a similar, and probably more pro- nounced decrease in the amount of school violence. Consider the following: 

  • There were 55 school shooting deaths in the 1992–1993 school year; 51 in 93–94; 20 in 1994–995; 35 in 1995–96, 25 in 1996–97; and 40 in 1997–98 (Lester, 1998). There are more than 50 million students and more than 80,000 schools across the country (Sanchez, 1998). 
  • A child’s chances of being struck by lightning are greater than the million- to-one odds of being killed in school. The number of children killed by gun violence in schools is about half the number of Americans killed annually by lightning (Byrne, 1998). 
  • According to PRIDE, the number of students bringing guns to school dropped from 6 percent in 1993–94 to 3.8 percent in 1997–98 (“1 million . . .,” 1998). 
  • In Los Angeles, 15,000 people have been murdered during the 1990s. Five occurred at school. Of 1,500 murders in Orange County during the 1990s, none took place at school. Institutions in these areas serve 2 million students, including 700,000 teenagers (Males, 1998). 
  • The United States has approximately 338 million children between the ages of ten and seventeen who attend roughly 20,000 secondary schools. In 1994, there were no school shootings in which more than a single person was killed; in 1997, there were four; and in 1998 there were two (Glassman, 1998).

Available data from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control, National School Safety Center, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Depart- ment of Education, and The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics support the suggestion that the recent school shootings were idiosyncratic events and not part of any recognizable trend. Ironically, the shootings may have received such intense coverage because of the infrequency of these occurrences rather than their frequency (Donohue, Schiraldi and Ziedenberg, 1998).

Similar arguments can be made today. While there has been an uptick in the number of these murderous incidents, crime, and violent crime in particular, is on the decline nationwide. And while the prospect of falling victim, or losing a loved one, to a mass shooting is terrifying and horrible, the odds of this occurrence are still very, very low.

Does that mean that the concern is unjusfied? Disproportionate? I don't think so. I think that fear of crime is an entirely real and reasonable response to such an incident. We respond strongly to experiences and events not just on account of their frequency, but also on account of their magnitude and meaning. So, yes. We are sad, and heartbroken, and angry, and have every right to be sad, and heartbroken, and angry.

The next question to tackle, after we dry our tears and sit at the policymaking desk, is how do we want the odds of another horrific occurrence to shape and affect the architecture and organizational culture of our schools. Do we want more metal detectors? More armed guards? More search points at the entrance to schools? How would that affect the learning experience, intellectual growth, and social interactions of the nation's children? All of those balances will have to be done delicately and carefully, because, by contrast to a horrifying mass murder scene, their effects will be subtle and intangible. And we should keep in mind, that it is okay to be sad, and heartbroken, and angry, and at the same time, wise and thoughtful in our policymaking reactions.

Sandy Hook, Gun Control, and Situational Crime Prevention

Image courtesy
Among the information that has come to light in the last few days was the fact that the innocent children and adults who were slaughtered two days ago were shot with guns owned by Adam Lanza's mother--and murder victim--Nancy. This is one more data point consistent with the bulk of peer reviewed research confirming that gun ownership, and keeping guns at home, significantly increases the odds of household members dying of accidents, suicide, and homicide.

The hoarse calls for Second Amendment freedoms, and the ludicrous suggestions that teachers keep guns in the classroom "for protection", I set aside here. I find them tasteless, misinformed, and impossible to reasonably interact with. But I do want to express some surprise not at private citizens and internet commenters, but at situational crime prevention criminologists. For all the advice on how to make crime more difficult to commit, not a word about gun control?

I learned about situational crime prevention in the early 2000s from David Weisburd, one of the world's foremost experts on it. After learning many lofty theories about the etiology of crime in grad school--free choice, medical pathology, difficult childhood, racism, patriarchy, deprivation, labeling, strain--there was something almost disappointing about delving into a theory that advocated keeping CDs locked behind the counter at the record store, displaying only one shoe of a pair  at the sports store to prevent theft from the shelves, and placing armrests on park benches to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them. Figuring out why people commit crime is a big enterprise, said David at the time; "crime" is a general name for a family of diverse and unrelated phenomena, and there is no shame in manipulating the non-offender factors to reduce its occurrence.

In grad school, and as a postdoc, I confess I looked down on this literature, but I've since become wiser and grateful for the time I got to spend with David and read this stuff. Having done some fieldwork on open drug markets, I've realized that even the most constrained situations--rife with social inequalities, municipal indifference, and racial injustices--offer offenders some measure of rational choice, however confined it might be. Even within the tough and distressing realities of the Tenderloin drug market, drug traffickers sell their merchandise not under the private SRO surveillance cameras, but away from there, near the municipal cameras they know don't work. I don't really buy Ron Clarke's adherence to rational choice as the principal model explaining human behavior--I find its poverty disturbing--but denying agency and ascribing everything to social ills is equally disturbing and simplistic. To some extent--when done in concert with an effort to understand more deeply what is going on--manipulating the environment to make crime less appealing or more difficult to commit is not a bad idea. Displacement is a problem, of course, but that can be addressed, as David Kennedy reminds us, with tough enforcement at "hot spots".

But for all the grants, contracts, and consulting that situational crime prevention experts do, their efforts are mostly addressed at quality of life crime and at property crime. Take a look at the advice offered on the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing website, for instance, and click on all the squares. It is geared toward vandalism and petty theft. I expected to see a word about gun control in their "control tools and weapons" tab. Instead, we are told to manufacture "smart guns" and to restrict spray-paint sales to juveniles.

Spray-paint sales?

I think what is happening here is that criminologists who have been dealing with municipalities and police departments don't want to rock the boat. The minute they make recommendations that might require someone, God forbid, to appear to be pro-regulation or what Americans mistakenly refer to as "socialist", police chiefs and politicians will stop listening. Sit-lie ordinances, or making benches uncomfortable, do not make politicians tremble. But take something on which there is basically a professional consensus - more easily obtained guns mean more deaths - and everyone is suddenly very quiet.

I want my friends who have given such excellent advice to retailers and housing project managers (I say this with appreciation and admiration, and without a shred of cynicism) to grow a backbone and tell the people who work with them that some government regulation might be necessary. If they are genuine in stating that situational crime prevention is wholly apolitical, and not merely an incarnation of criminological conservatism, isn't this a good time to argue for gun control? I want my friends to do more than quality-of-life architecture. Research is on their side. All it takes is for one respected scholar in the prevention field, not a shrill-voiced lefty, to say words of reason and science. Who is it going to be?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On Sandy Hook and Violence Prediction

Photo courtesy
In the aftermath of the dreadful Sandy Hook tragedy, much of my Facebook wall is the arena of political debates about gun control and about national mental health care. But what of the human factor? Can we predict such horrific violence?

A recent story in the New York Daily News provides a profile of mass murderer Adam Lanza as described by former classmates and neighbors. He's described as having either Asperger's syndrome or some other disorder, and there are abundant details about his parents' amicable divorce and generous alimony arrangement. What is interesting to me is that many of the commentators on the piece express lack of surprise at the identity of the murderer.

 . . . 

 A “longtime” family friend said Lanza had a condition “where he couldn’t feel pain.” “A few years ago when he was on the baseball team, everyone had to be careful that he didn’t fall because he could get hurt and not feel it,” said the friend. “Adam had a lot of mental problems.” 

 . . . 

 Lanza walked the halls of his middle school carrying a black briefcase while most students lugged their belongings in backpacks. “That stuck out,” said Tim Lalli, 20, who graduated with Lanza in 2010. “It was different.” Lalli said Lanza wasn’t a total outcast, but he didn’t speak much. “Everyone just assumed he was a smart kid and that’s why he didn’t like talking to people all the time,” he said. “He hung out with the smart crowd.” 

 . . . 

 One family friend described Adam Lanza as a gamer who “rarely spoke.” “He was weird,” said the friend, who asked to remain anonymous. “He was quiet.” 

 . . . 

 Do these remind you of anything? In the aftermath of the Columbine shooting, the media and the public were quick to blame and label Goth youth who wore trench coats to school. Dave Cullen's 2009 book Columbine debunked these stories. The killers' personal journals reveal that Eric Harris was a sophisticated psychopath, while Dylan Klebold was deeply depressed and captivated by Eric. But it was much easier to look for external signs of not fitting in than for the killers' personal psyche.

And so, after every senseless tragedy that claims the lives of innocent people, we are subjected to these generalizations. The price we pay is much more intangible and less noticed. And that is the stigmatization of entire populations of youth who may not fit in at school, who carry a briefcase in lieu of a backpack, whose hobbies involve gaming. Fortunately, the vast majority of these people will never kill. And this is true for the many harmless, kind, nonviolent people many readers probably know who have Asperger's or other personality disorders.

So how can we tell who might do this? The answer may be more situational than anything, really. As Gavin de Becker reminds us in The Gift of Fear, watching a situation attentively and paying attention to our feelings is important, and it is equally important not to let fear paralyze us so much that we stop paying attention in the situations in which it is there as a friend, to warn and alert us. If we now fear and loathe all our fellow human beings who behave eccentrically and suffer from mental illness, we will lose our valuable, precious instinct for predicting a violent situation near us. Because we will start stereotyping and hating, and we'll stop watching and paying attention.

And after all that is said and done, the only thing left to do is cry for the many lives that were lost, for the potential squandered, for friendships and toys and notebooks and story time, for fish fingers and peas and coloring books, for a love of learning and a love of teaching. And maybe to remind ourselves that these incidents are horrific, but uncommon. And that love wins over fear. Most of the time.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

NYT on Mass Incarceration

In case you missed or skimmed yesterday's New York Times article by John Tierney, go back and read it -- Tierney eloquently and compellingly restates all the points we've collected here over the years with a poignant case study:

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sentencing Project data on prison closures

States closed twenty prisons in 2012, check out the Sentencing Project's new report, "On the Chopping Block 2012: State Prison Closings" -- the largest was the California Rehabilitation Center at estimated savings of $160 million annually!