Chris Uggen's Blog: December 2005

Saturday, December 31, 2005

media and crime trends, 1973-2005

this time of year often brings media requests regarding trends in crime and punishment. answering such calls is important public criminology, but responding can be tricky. reporters often focus on year-to-year changes in rare events such as homicide, but the percent change in such cases can be very misleading. i see my role as providing some context for the local numbers, putting them in historical, national, and international perspective. reporters typically speak with both law enforcement officials and academics, so i try to offer some perspective. i usually focus on 5-, 10-, and 20-year trends and consider the magnitude as well as the direction of change.

by most measures, crime in minneapolis and st. paul rose from 2004 to 2005. this is cause for concern, in part because serious personal crimes such as aggravated assaults and robberies have increased sharply. that said, the base rate of crime in the twin cities is quite low relative to similar-sized cities and relative to local crime rates in the near and distant past. moreover, some of the bad news is a product of legal changes rather than behavioral changes. for example, a new state "strangulation" statute means that many domestic assault cases once considered misdemeanors are now counted among the aggravated assaults in the violent crime index (i learned this speaking with pete crum of the st. paul police department last week). despite the uptick, my take-home message for reporters who want my opinion this year is that national crime rates are at the lowest levels we've seen in forty years and that these are good times rather than bad ones.

here is my evidence for this assertion. rates of serious violent crime -- murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault -- continue a long decline, at least through midyear 2005. the chart above shows the national picture for violence as measured by both victimization (red dashed lines - - -) and crimes reported to police (solid lines). i plotted these on separate y-axes so you can see the relative change in each measure. note that violent victimization has been dropping like a stone since the mid-nineties, as have police reports of these four serious offenses.

the next figure shows that property crimes of burglary, larceny/theft, and motor vehicle theft also show a decline, although here the rates have flattened since 2002. nevertheless, for both violent and property crimes, victimization levels are at or near record lows, at rates roughly half those of a decade earlier.

of course, none of this makes crime victims or their families feel any better about it, nor does it mean that we no longer need to lock our doors or that we can scale back investments in law enforcement (punishment is another matter). it just means that rates of serious crime are lower today than they were 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and 30 years ago. good news, right?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

choosing projects that mean something

how do you decide which projects deserve your time and attention? i once said that i'd simply like to "contribute to knowledge" but that strikes me as vague and unsatisfying today. around my fourth-year review, i know i would have said "publishability, and step on it." yet there are always opportunity costs in beginning a new line of research, so i've tried to become at least a little more thoughtful about this.

now i ask myself (and the students with whom i work) some basic questions:

(1) does it matter? and,
(2) is it social science?
in practice, i often add
(3) would i work with a cool person? and (relatedly)
(4) what could i learn?

of course, deciding what "matters" and what is "sociological" or "social scientific" are difficult issues -- and let's not even talk about "cool" or learning opportunities. i once said "interesting," but interesting to whom (just me?)? still, the search for meaning in work seems well worth the difficulty. this is why the conversations about public sociology (and, i'm hoping, public criminology) have been so enervating for me.

while linking to the documentary in the previous post, i came across this statement from off-ramp films: "we like to do the kind of work that makes us feel good." nice. me too. their criteria do not mention anything about social science, but they seem to have some general utility:

We approach each project and work with each client with four criteria in mind:
(1) Will the project be of value in the world?
(2) Will the work be of high quality?
(3) Will it make our company more visible and help us achieve things in the future?
(4) Will it help us pay our bills?

i think they strike a nice balance between the idealistic search for meaning (does it matter? will it be of value in the world?) and more pragmatic material concerns. i especially like the focus on quality here, as this seems like a critical consideration that one cannot always take for granted. they are also future-directed, recognizing that a successful project might open doors to other things they'd like to do. in the end, off-ramp nails the sort of compromises that even the most sincere and deliberate meaning-seeker must make on the job:

If we hit on at least two of four, we can talk. Three out of four is a gimme. If it only fits one but things are slow...

wow, does that sound familiar. so how do you choose projects? you might say your choices depend on career stage (easy for you to talk about meaning, old tenured dude. i gotta get a job/promotion, so i'm attendin' to the market and will pick up the meaning down the road). but do you really think your criteria will change after you get a job or tenure or promotion or a nobel prize or a grammy or an emmy or an oscar or a big plaque with a gold star?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

democracy's ghosts

i just screened democracy's ghosts: how 5 million americans have lost the right to vote, an aclu documentary made by off-ramp films.

the 34-minute film features some persuasive interviews with former felons and activists, as well as lani guinier and alex keyssar of harvard, marc mauer of the sentencing project, congressman/civil rights icon john lewis, evangelist/watergate icon chuck colson, and actor charles dutton. the dvd also includes a 10-minute short version, 5 "expert perspective" segments (where i pop up briefly -- i did a quick interview in dc on my way to maryland this spring), 5 issue-specific pieces, a graphic video, and a short trailer, which you can see in quicktime or windows media player. the film is designed as an "advocacy tool," so it doesn't give much time to the perspectives of disenfranchisement defenders such as roger clegg. florida governor jeb bush is shown in clemency hearings, but i doubt he'll be using this particular footage for campaign ads.

that said, i think it could be useful in provoking classroom discussion in criminology or political sociology or racial and ethnic studies courses. i'm too close to really judge whether students would find it interesting, but the film seems lively and well-informed to me. it was nice to see some research on the issue put to use, albeit without the caveats that we always try to include in the articles. the dvd touches on the racial history and impact of disenfranchisement, the numbers affected, recidivism and reentry, and other issues that jeff, and melissa, and angie and i have studied. my quick google search couldn't find a site for the film yet, but should be online anytime now. i got my copy of the dvd through rachel devaney at

Monday, December 26, 2005

analog reverie

sister kathy and j.d. from nyc are famous for cool and thoughtful gifts. this christmas, they sent me analog man's guide to vintage effects: the ultimate analog stompbox reference book. it brought back warm fuzztones for this guitar geek, with color pictures of the beautiful boxes, interviews with their brilliant knob-twisting creators, and helpful advice on keeping them humming.

today's digital modeling amps squeeze myriad sounds out of any guitar, but early stompboxes were a revelation to me. i liked to play "clean," but i loved to dirty up the sound with preamps, phase shifters, wah pedals, and the like. of course, purists derided such gizmos, but that never bothered me and jimi.

kathy and j.d. might have gotten a hint while staying in my den over thanksgiving, where i'd left the non-working bad stone unit above. i don't play well enough to have a distinctive "sound," but i employ this yellow box to make a recognizable skronk both fat and smooth. i just run a '70s iceman through the '70s DOD overdrive preamp and a '70s alamo tube amp just like the one below. [hey, it was the 70s, okay?]

my favorite gifts often seem to inspire such reverie and i'll read and re-read the book for years. my tastes are pretty unusual (that is, "deviant") but you might know someone who'd be similarly inspired by this sort of gift. i doubt you could find intact versions of the alamo or the iceman anymore, but a reissue of the DOD 250 can be had on amazon for $39.95. through magic or coincidence, amazon sells the inspiring analog man guide to vintage effects for exactly the same low price. spooky, huh?

kiwi camara and racist speech

volokh reports a strange tale involving the yale law journal's decision to publish an author who used racist speech in his online notes. kiwi camara posted notes from his property class in a harvard law outline bank, complete with a "disclaimer" noting that they "may contain racially offensive shorthand."

on shelley v. kraemer, a case involving racially restrictive covenants, camara wrote: "Nigs buy land with no nig covenant; Q: Enforceable?"

yep! that counts as "racially offensive shorthand" in my book. when the notes came to light, yale law students circulated a petition that began as follows:

We, the undersigned students of Yale Law School, request that the leadership of the Yale Law Journal reconsider its decision to publish the work of Kiwi Camara and to have him speak at its Symposium this Spring...

yale law journal nevertheless decided to publish, writing a lengthy response in defense of its decision. as social scientists who've written for such outlets know, law reviews operate way, way, way differently than american sociological review or criminology. law faculty submit the same article to dozens of journals simultaneously. then, student-run editorial boards read them all and make offers to those deemed worthy. after the faculty ruthlessly exploit the free labor of the law students, however, the students exact vengeance by obsessively critiquing every footnote. here's the sort of email exchange that plays out over a few weeks:

journal: please provide a citation to your assertion on page 1 that "criminologists study the life course."
author: no problem. please cite as "sampson and laub 1993."
journal: i will need a page number for this citation.
author: ok, let's go with page 8.
journal: sampson and laub make a related point on page 8, noting that the life course "is studied" and that criminologists study "crime" but they do not indicate that "criminologists study the life course." please provide a proper citation. with page numbers.
author: i tell you what -- let's just strike the sentence and any other references to criminologists studying the life course.
journal: we will strike the sentence if you really think that is best.

but i digress. there are all sorts of distracting digressions to this case. for example, the precocious mr. camara was age 17 when he wrote the notes, which led some lawprofs to the "adolescent racist boys will be adolescent racist boys" defense. the very clever but slightly-less-precocious students, in contrast, think that the doogie howsers of the world should be held to the same standards as any other students. finally, mr. camara has issued something sort of like an apology. still, this doesn't address the larger issue of whether to publish work by known or suspected racists (or sexists, or homophobes...).

i'm guessing that most sociology journals "pre-ject" papers by known or suspected racists, sending them out for external review but reading them and their reviews with a jaundiced eye. if such sentiments came to light following formal acceptance, however, they would likely abide by their publication decision unless (and this is an important 'unless') such sentiments had some plausible bearing on the article's findings or conclusions. what about your favorite sociology and criminology journals? would they, could they, withdraw their acceptance on the basis of offensive speech that came to light? is racist speech different than other forms of offensive speech in this regard?

now that i think about it, i remember writing racist speech in my first year sociology notes --quotes taken verbatim from durkheim and weber.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

babies and the two-step process

it has been slow blogging since thanksgiving, but i'm energized after stumbling to the finish of another semester. my new nephew leif visited and i showed him the chord changes to a cowboy junkies-esque version of ben lee's catch my disease. most babies love music, but really cool babies seem partial to guitars.

on the day i noted riley wakefield's arrival, julie barrows was welcoming althea kay (shown here with sister lily) into the world. so now my other advisees are looking around nervously wondering who's next. my kids were born during years 2 and 5 of grad school and i've always shared my story with students. i doubt that my experiences have any impact on their weighty decisions, but many have been quite procreant. is it just my imagination, or do professors who have kids during grad school tend to have advisees who have kids during their grad school years? is this due to self-selection, modeling, or meddling/advising?

well, here's the story i tell. in '91 i was broke and nervous about fatherhood, given my luxurious ta/ra/fellowship earnings and my partner's new job. when we asked, "should we have kids now?" the answer was pretty clearly "No!" then, i distinctly remember breaking the decision into the infamous two-step process that led to a different answer.

we asked,
step 1. "do we ever want kids?"
step 2. "conditional on #1, is there really a better time to have kids than now?"

o.k., that was easy. we had enough money to survive in madison, i was looking ahead to a long tenure run, and i doubted i'd have any more time or energy at 36 or 46 than at 26.

for kid #2, the same thing happened. we asked "should we have a second kid now?" and again returned "No!" then, the two-step got us again:
step 1. "do we ever want to have a second kid?"
step 2. "conditional on #1, is there really a better time to have a second kid than now?"


whoa! that was too easy. at this point we placed a moratorium on further two-stepping. i don't know whether you do the two-step, but it might offer a fresh perspective on big decisions.

Friday, December 16, 2005

castro overthrows batista

so my twins dipped their toes into the shallow end of the free agent pool, signing tony batista this week. it looks like an upgrade at third base, even if mr. batista only put up jacques jones-like numbers last year with the fukuoka softbank hawks.

still, i'm a little nervous about clubhouse chemistry, especially with late-inning defensive replacement juan castro on the roster. picture it: castro fields a one-hopper at short and overthrows batista trying for a force at third. batista flees to the dominican republic, castro nationalizes the metrodome, and the united states suspends trade with the mall of america. all this for a guy with a .298 lifetime on-base-percentage?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

see you, mike

today mike massoglia defended a spine-crushingly good dissertation on the health consequences of incarceration. he leaves for the pennsylvania state university next week, where he will surely bring glory to the sociology department, the crime, law, and justice department, and the PSU softball team.

i'm always happy to see grad students finish and get jobs, but have learned the past few years how much i'll miss having true friends and colleagues around for conversations. oh sure, it is great for them, but what about my needs? when melissa left for portland, i stopped by her empty office for weeks. how could she leave me during baseball season? with the twins in a pennant race, no less. amy and jeremy both left huge voids. we still cook up long-distance projects together, but i miss the day-to-day conversations. amy talked running and patiently taught me a little soc of gender. jer would give me a heads-up on crim literature and slide me an old husker du tape or supersuckers tickets when we both needed a break.

there's talk of darren accepting an offer soon, but at least he'll be here through summer. mike is leaving now, however, and the loss of dr. massoglia will certainly be profound. in fact, he claims to be the time-varying-covariate responsible for whatever research productivity i've had in the seven years since his arrival at the minnversity. he's got a point: i published virtually nothing before he arrived, a fair amount during his time here, and now, who knows? fortunately, other smart and interesting minngrads are writing spine-crushingly good dissertations right now.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

teachers, students, and the smokin'-est cat

every teacher wants to make a difference. at semester's end i often wonder whether and how i'm reaching people. were they inspired the way that my teachers inspired me? sometimes they tell you, sometimes they don't. one of my favorite odes to a teacher is from duane allman, the guitar virtuoso who died on his motorcycle at 24. here's allman on his first guitar teacher:

The cat that taught me to play guitar ... Jim Sheppley, Ol' Lightnin' Fingers. The first number one, taking care-of-business man in Daytona Beach, Florida; The cat that had it all together if you wanted to learn anything. If you wanted to play something right, you'd go to him and learn it. The baddest cat. A very influential cat in my life, also. He's dynamite. The smokin'-est cat. I can't even talk about him, he's so hip. He glows in the dark. He hung the moon and tells the sun when to come up. Shepp is smokin'.

dang. i've gotten some decent teaching evaluations, but nobody ever said i was so hip that i hung the moon. i've never heard jim sheppley play, but the quote reflects as well on mr. allman as it does on "ol' lightnin' fingers." i was lucky to have some very influential cats in my life too. one can only hope to pay it forward.

Friday, December 09, 2005

bringing human rights back home

tomorrow night i'll be participating in bringing human rights back home, a minnesota human rights center conference. i'm excited about the free evening performance of i voted for gummi bears, ochen k.'s one-person multi-media show on the history and impact of felon disenfranchisement. i've seen a preview of ochen's show and it is truly amazing -- surprisingly funny and personal, but also well-informed by the social science literature. his performance is at 7 pm friday in mondale hall of the university of minnesota law school, 229 19th ave s., minneapolis. i'll be on a panel of discussants immediately following the performance from 8-9 pm.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

curtiss a lennon show tonight

one of my favorite voices will be singing john lennon tonight at first avenue. an impromptu tribute 26 years ago has become a heartfelt tradition. i remember curtiss a. as the legendary "dean of scream" and the man flat puts out live. sort of a mix between james brown, howlin' wolf, and an overcaffeinated paul mccartney. doors are 5:30 and tickets are $10-12 at 701 1st ave. n. in minneapolis (612.332.1775). i'll show up late, after the big guy in back battles the stillwater heavyweight tonight.

still don't think its worth venturing out on a cold minnesota night? just imagine this voice doing lennon with love. 'nuff said.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


a dvd entitled "stop snitching" features armed men threatening those who would roll over on others as police informants (e.g., "we got a lot of rats up here we wanna expose ... it ain’t too many of ‘em, cause we deal with them”). stop snitching dvds and t-shirts quickly fanned outward from baltimore to pittsburgh, boston and elsewhere, fueled in part by the appearance of basketball player carmelo anthony in the video and entrepreneurs publicizing the phenomenon with sites such as

i haven't seen any t-shirts in the midwest, but the dvd has been a very hot topic on the east coast for the past year. in fact, the baltimore police even put together a short video response to stop snitching, titled keep talking.

volokh reports on the constitutionality of seizing stop snitching t-shirts and the ejection from courtrooms of those wearing them. the story also raises sociological questions about the use of informants, police-community relations, and violence as "self-help." the phenomenon seems to be driven in part by law enforcement practices that rely increasingly on the use of informants. as the police have upped the pressure on informants, the "inform-ees" have applied countervailing pressure: violence and the threat of violence.

so, what's the solution? large-scale use of snitches can be divisive to a community and jailhouse informants are notoriously inaccurate. still, witness intimidation and "street justice" can be absolutely debilitating (in iraq as in baltimore). with regard to the video's popularity, it has clearly tapped into the strained relationships between young african american men and law enforcement, as well as the continuing popularity of thug iconography.

on the latter point, i was struck by a recent picture of mr. anthony posing in what appeared to be his home office. he had distanced himself from stop snitching, saying: "I'm completely against violence and drugs — that's not me... I've lost friends to violence. I would never support anybody harming anyone... I just want to help." fair enough for the nba role model, but his role models appear to be a little more comfortable with violence. anthony was seated before two enormous framed mugshot portraits of john gotti and al capone. the photo was a mirror image of former madison police chief david couper's office. couper, a minnesota sociology ph.d., had large posters of mahatma gandhi and martin luther king in his office. leave it to a madison cop to spruce up the office with the iconography of non-violence.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

telly's lovin' feeling

april winchell maintains a killer collection of inexplicable musical curiosities. you've heard the shatner, of course, and you may know the brady bunch's do the hustle. but have you experienced telly savalas' version of you've lost that lovin' feeling? really puts one in the mood... well, in a mood, anyway. There are ESL songs, such as the temps' mein girl and eilert sundt's svensk hound dog. you'll also find a nice selection of classic novelties in the stairway to gilligan and "kfc training tape" vein. of necessity, her posts have gotten more serious recently. still, if you have a squirrelly bone in your body (and who doesn't?), ms. winchell's site and radio show are highly recommended.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

so that's the matter with kansas

from yahoo/a.p. news:

a university of kansas course devoted to debunking creationism has been canceled after the professor slated to teach it sent an e-mail mocking Christian fundamentalists.

in an email to a student organization, the professor and chair of the religious studies department referred to religious conservatives as "fundies" and said a course depicting intelligent design as mythology would be a "nice slap in their big fat face."

i've probably said and written some unwise things about students and citizens/taxpayers/parents before, but don't think i've ever uttered the words "nice slap in their big fat face." the phrasing seems petty and vindictive, not to mention a little ... soft. plus, shouldn't it be "their big fat faces"?

i'm thinking of proposing a course to debunk the flying spaghetti monster theory -- my reading of the fossil record says it just can't be true -- but will take care to avoid such inflammatory language.