Chris Uggen's Blog: January 2012

Sunday, January 29, 2012

why haley barbour employed and pardoned convicted murderers rather than car thieves

CNN's Anderson Cooper has devoted several recent crime and punishment reports to the pardons meted out by former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. In several segments, Mr. Cooper seemed incredulous that convicted murderers were allowed to serve as "trustees" in the governor's mansion prior to their release. In one report, for example, he and attorney Jeffrey Toobin dismissed Governor Barbour's claim that murderers convicted of a single crime of passion were somehow better suited for such positions than inmates serving time for lesser offenses.

I will not comment here on the uses and abuses of the trustee (or "trusty") system, except to note that the practice was once widespread but waned considerably after the prisoners' rights revolution that began in the 1960s. Instead, I'm here to explain why Governour Barbour and his staff preferred employing convicted murderers rather than, say, convicted car thieves.

The chart below is taken from an excellent large-scale Bureau of Justice Statistics recidivism study (Langan and Levin 2002). Overall, 67.5 percent of prisoners were rearrested within 3 years of their release and 25.4 percent were returned to prison for committing new offenses (others were returned to prison for violating the terms of their release). If you click on the chart, you can see that people convicted of homicide have the lowest rate of recidivism as measured by rearrest -- 40.7 percent -- and the second lowest rate of return to prison for a new offense (10.8 percent). At the other end of the chart, about 79% of those convicted of motor vehicle theft were rearrested and about 31 percent were returned to prison after being convicted of a new crime.

This doesn't mean that a 20-year-old murderer is less dangerous than a 20-year-old car thief, of course. It just means that by the time we see fit to release people convicted of homicide, they are unlikely to pose a significant threat to public safety. Many have spent decades in prison and are much older than other inmates when they are finally freed. Convicted murderers make good candidates for pardons precisely because their sentences are soooo long relative to the risk that many of them pose at the tail-end of those sentences.

But aren't those convicted of killing especially likely to kill again? I mean, a 10.8 percent recidivism rate would be awful if half of those offenses turned out to be new murders. Contrary to all we've learned from Quentin Tarantino movies, however, homicide offenders tend not to specialize in killing.

The chart below uses odds ratios to represent the degree of specialization among people convicted of various crimes. Here, the 1.4 for homicide is the ratio of the odds that a homicide offender will be rearrested for another homicide (that's the numerator in the ratio) relative to the odds that prisoners released for other offenses will be arrested for a homicide (that's the denominator). You can see some evidence of specialization among those convicted of motor vehicle theft, where the odds of rearrest for a new auto theft are about 1.9 times greater than those for non-car thieves (2.9-1=1.9). There is an even greater degree of specialization for rape and other sexual offenses, with odds ratios of 4.2 and 5.9, respectively, corresponding to rates of new sex offenses that are 3-to-5 times higher than those for people convicted of non-sex crimes. For homicide, however, the odds ratio of 1.4 suggests comparatively little specialization.

I might also add that a great proportion of homicides are "cleared" by arrest, relative to the other offenses on the list, so it doesn't seem likely that rampant homicide recidivism is somehow going undetected by the system.

In short, there is much evidence that recidivism rates for people convicted of homicide tend to be particularly low. While it may be politically unpopular to pardon convicted murderers or to place them in positions of trust, they tend to do well when, at long last, they are afforded such opportunities.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

impossible research

Jesse Wozniak jets off to a job interview this week, where he'll talk about his research on state reconstruction and the new Iraqi police force. Jesse is an advisee, Contexts student board member, and frequent contributor to the Office Hours podcasts. All dissertations demand sacrifice, but this one posed particular challenges.

In fact, Jesse's project calls to mind what Pierre Bourdieu called "the craft par exellence of the researcher: investing a theoretical problem of far-reaching implications in an empirical object that is well constructed and controllable with the means at hand, that is, possibly, by an isolated researcher, with no funding, limited to his[her] own labor power." Doug Hartmann loves this passage, as it simultaneously conveys both the enormity of our task and our power and capacity to get it done.

The "theoretical problem" of civilian policing and state reconstruction certainly has far-reaching implications. I couldn't be 100% sure, though, that the "empirical object" of contemporary Iraq training academies was quite so "controllable with the means at hand." And, despite a fine academic record, Jesse had a tough time securing funding for his ambitious dissertation plan -- observations at training academies, interviews with officials, surveys and interviews with recruits in training, extensive archival research, and some very costly plane tickets and living expenses.

While he put in several grant and fellowship proposals, most reviewers and funders simply viewed the project as impossible. How could a single graduate student possibly secure human subjects approval, gain clearance from the Department of State, learn a new language, live and travel extensively in a war zone, and gain repeated access to the officials and recruits he planned to interview and survey?

Well, now he has done the impossible and returned with data in hand. When he didn't get funding, this "isolated researcher" was undaunted – he simply took on extra teaching and all manner of additional work so that he could self-fund the project. The proof, of course, will be in the pudding that Jesse is still preparing. Having seen the materials he brought back from Iraq, however, I'm confident that the hard work and fearlessness will pay off in a terrific dissertation and book.

In some ways, we're fortunate to work in a field where isolated researchers can still learn so much by the sweat of their brows. And while a couple years of cushy dissertation funding would have made Jesse's life a whole lot easier, I'm guessing that something real and true has been gained in the struggle.

* The quote is from page 156 of Pierre Bourdieu's 1988 "Program for a Sociology of Sport" in the Sociology of Sport Journal 5:153-161.
** The photo is from Ben Brears' photostream, licensed as Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) under creative commons.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Stale Records

Criminologists Al Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura offer a powerful New York Times op-ed this week, arguing that "stale criminal records" should expire when they can no longer distinguish criminals from non-criminals.

But this isn't just a couple of bleeding heart academics advocating on behalf of a stigmatized group -- there's a solid research foundation supporting the argument. Several smart and creative studies have now followed people arrested or convicted of crimes to watch how long it takes before a criminal's risk of a new offense drops to the point that it is indistinguishable from those with no record of past crimes.

Several teams of social scientists have designed really elegant studies to answer this important question. Most use some variant of event history or survival analysis -- a semi-fancy but straightforward set of statistical tools. Based on their own research, Blumstein and Nakamura now conservatively estimate the “redemption time” at 10 to 13 years. Megan Kurlychek, Bobby Brame, and Shawn Bushway came up with about a 6-year window using somewhat different data and methodology in 2006.

While the specific "time-to-no-crime" varies across studies, the best evidence is now calling into question standard "lifetime" bans on employment, voting, and other rights and privileges. This doesn't mean that the laws will be changed or even that they should be changed. But it does show how good social science can challenge old assumptions and inject much-needed evidence into public debates. And, for those of us who like to put our semi-fancy statistics to good purpose, the op-ed and the research beneath it offer a fine example of public scholarship.