Chris Uggen's Blog: September 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

contexts, creem, and sports illustrated

New post on today's Editors' Desk with Doug.

Monday, September 20, 2010

downward trend in f.b.i. uniform crime report data, 1990-2009

The FBI has released their Uniform Crime Report Crime in the United States numbers for year-end 2009 and, once again, the rate of crimes reported to police continues to fall.

I've just begun to explore the new report, but researchers can easily download spreadsheets to show long- and short-term trends in both population-adjusted rates and raw numbers. The chart above shows the crime decline since 1990 in murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, motor vehicle theft, burglary, and larceny-theft. This chart makes it apparent how much the overall crime numbers are driven by larceny-theft -- and the comparative rarity of violent crimes such as rape and murder.

But crime is dropping across each of these categories. The purple bars show the magnitude of the drop in the past 20 years, comparing 1990 rates with 2009 rates, or ((2009-1990)/1990). The green bars show the most recent change from 2008 to 2009 ((2009-2008)/2008). I'd normally compare these numbers with those from the National Crime Victimization Survey before drawing any big conclusions about crime trends. With regard to the FBI's official crime index, however, it seems pretty clear that there has been a significant drop in crime reported to police over the past year and, for that matter, over the past twenty years.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

interim report on toxic substances control act

In keeping with the Toxic Substances Control Act provision of the 2009 Mojo Reclamation Project, I've been teetotalin' since January 1. Though I'd abstained throughout my graduate school years, there were still a few surprises. Five observations at the nine-month mark:

1. I don't miss it. I substitute drinks like diet A&W for beer and pomegranate juice for wine. Pom juice always seemed too expensive for everyday use, but it is far cheaper than good wine and far more drinkable than cheap wine. There is no substitute for Knob Creek bourbon, but fresh apple pie might come closest.

2. Restaurants suddenly seem tired and boring. I still enjoy hanging in taverns with friends and colleagues, but restaurant meals seem absurdly protracted. A teetotalin' friend actually brings books to help pass the long hours that precede the appearance of food. I'd rather just get up and do something.

3. The Interim Pants Elimination Program suddenly became more successful. After nine months, I've lost twentysomething pounds and the last brigade of interim pants has been withdrawn from the upstairs closet. I'm a spectacularly unsuccessful dieter, but finally got decent results after kicking up the exercise and cutting out the alcohol.

4. A bit stronger physically. My running miles increased about 10 percent and the max lifts are up a bit at the gym. I probably shouldn't work out at night, but those long runs under the stars serve as an effective non-toxic stress-buster.

5. A happy brain? It took a few months, but I started feeling a little sharper, quicker, and more clear this summer, especially when puzzling through geeky-fun research problems (e.g., trying to apply a new logit decomposition technique to a discrete-time hazard model with experimental data). I wouldn't make any claims without pre-test/post-test data, but I sure feel sharper.

Teetotalin' hasn't solved every problem, with insomnia and the email inbox proving especially resistant to attack. I'd like to think that my judgment is improving -- as dad or department chair. I'm doing a better job with the late-night father/son and father/daughter chats these days, but there's really little evidence that I've become a better father, scholar, or administrator. Overall, though, I feel good enough about how things are going to continue the experiment. The costs are low and the benefits are tangible.

Monday, September 13, 2010

reentry in black and white

Despite a new wave of programs and research, people still write about reentry using the stylized tropes of old James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart movies. Either the ex-prisoner is portrayed as a noble witness to this cruel world, as a predatory menace to be gunned down, or (in more sophisticated variants) as a gangster with a heart of gold.

Given these cultural reference points, it takes courage to say something real and true about the lived messiness of reentry -- especially when one's freedom or livelihood depends on telling convincing narratives of success. Josh Page tipped me off to a short piece by Jody Lewen of the Prison University Project, who describes the sort of reentry experience I see played out in my research and in everyday life.

In the latest issue of the PUP Newsletter, Dr. Lewin writes about a former client who hadn't committed any major new crime but had nevertheless violated the conditions of his release.

Derek Meade had been an exceptional student while in the program at San Quentin, had enrolled in school immediately after paroling to continue his studies, and had also managed to find a part-time job. He had sounded great for quite a while. When he didn’t respond to one of our messages, we sent another, and he finally wrote to say that he had recently relapsed, and was close to being sent back to prison as the result of two positive drug tests. He said he hoped to send us the letter soon, with some better news.

Derek’s assumption was, of course, that his current news was “unfit” for the newsletter. It was as if he had absorbed the pressure we often feel to provide nothing but upbeat success stories and clear evidence of our “results.” And yet how many of our former students – or other people in recovery, for that matter – experience the same thing he was going through? What impact does it have on those individuals never to see their experiences reflected in publications about our programs? And equally important: how does this absence affect the public’s understanding of our work – whether in terms of the value of education for people in prison, or the role education can play in the process of recovery?

Of course, there are two layers of courage here. Unlike Mr. Meade, many clients will remain silent about their struggles and only share stories of unadulterated success or extreme hardship that justifies their actions. Unlike Dr. Lewin, many program directors will select and highlight only those narratives that celebrate the transformative power of their programs or justify a claim to greater resources. In challenging such biased and selective pictures, they give us a glimpse of what reentry is really like -- and it is rarely as black and white as those old movies.

ps. If you'd like to support the Prison University Project, you can make a donation in any amount.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

grinning like a ...

Friends met me with concern at the national sociology meetings, asking why I've blogged so little this summer. Nobody said they missed my trenchant observations on crime and society, but Tina, Ryan, and other friends wanted updates on life, health, and kids. I've been putting more professional online energies into The Society Pages and Public Criminologies lately, but I'm eager to keep this li'l personal rowboat floating a bit longer as well.

Things seem to be going pretty well. Living with nocturnal returning college students became a challenge once school let out (Why do they cook spaghetti at 1 am on a Tuesday? Because they can), but I enjoyed a happy summer and actually had some productive conversations with the progeny.

At least I think it was a happy summer. I'm an interactionist who generally trusts others' appraisals as much as my own on such matters. For example, I know I must be feeling real good when one of my kids commands that I "quit grinning like an idiot." I seem to suffer from excessive involuntary grinning in the worst possible social settings for them -- driving in the car with buddies, taking a campus tour with Tor, or enjoying a meal with Hope. I always thought they were exaggerating until I walked into a gym with Hope and caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. Yeesh, what a chucklehead. I was actually embarrassed for her.

I rarely grin so broadly at work (though the phrase "big a** smile" once popped up on my page), but summer is Happy Research Funtime for department chairs. And, it turns out, there's not much that makes me happier than diving into tough research problems with killer graduate students. I realized this after I'd scheduled meetings with three current and former students (who happen to share the same first name). Afterward, our department administrator came by to say, "I was going to interrupt for our appointment, but you just looked so happy meeting with your Sarahs." And, lest it look like I'm playing favorites, she said the same thing about my summer meetings with the Mikes, Heathers, and other students passing through my office.

I've always felt it was a privilege to work with the grad students I advise, but I hadn't realized how much I enjoyed it until somebody else pointed this out to me. And while the joys of parenting are far different than the joys of advising grad students, both roles come with daunting responsibilities -- and ripping good fun.