Public Hearing

My recent posts may make it appear that all I’m doing is writing Stata code. That would be only half true. Apart from some personal issues I can’t write about (because they involve other people) and trying to remember how to write sociology, I’ve been at a LOT of meetings for the disparities task force. One of the public hearings was last week. Away from the computer and out into the heartbreak of real life. As I expected, we heard stories of unfair police treatment, including mass ticketing of Latinos for playing music in the park, A Latino guy who says he has been here 20 years but things have gotten much worse in the past two years, and one guy who was basically claiming he had been framed by police on a drug charge (his story was quite specific about what he said happened) whose testimony led a lawyer on the panel to caution him that he should be careful about what he said about a case that had not been adjudicated yet. I had not expected to hear about ICE [immigration] raids here: I guess I have not been paying attention.   People saying they are police knock on the door and ask to come in; once in they announce they are ICE and haul people off to the ICE holding center 90 miles away to be held for deportation hearings. Tearful women speak in English and Spanish (there is an interpreter): we are here, we have been here twenty years, we are working, we are law abiding, we pay taxes, what about our children who were born here and went to school here, what will happen to them if we are deported, if their fathers are deported? There is also concern that any Latino picked up for any law violation (no matter how small) is taken downtown and run through ICE. Many minor offenses turn into deportations. Suggestions from public officials that they are holding closed-door negotiations trying to deal with these issues and a lot of “could you talk to us privately later?” statements from activists.

Most of the testimony was less about racial disparity per se and more about the Kafka-esque nature of the criminal justice system and the way it perpetuates economic hardship. We heard from a young White woman whose father was imprisoned for sexually assaulting older siblings, whose complaint was that the family was left without a breadwinner and no social support for her now-single mother and a family of young children. We heard from a number of people, both Black and White, about the arbitrary rules and restrictions of probation and parole supervision, including GPS monitors that malfunction and lose signal indoors (one malfunctioned at the hearing while a high-placed official watched it), forcing the person monitored to leave what he is doing (even if he is at work and being watched by a boss) and go outside, or face incarceration for escape. They also complained that supervision is all about keeping track of you and making you show up for meetings, and not at all about helping you get a job or housing. If you miss an appointment or a meeting or violate the terms of supervision (perhaps go to a party at your boss’s house where alcohol is served and a condition of your supervision is no contact with alcohol), you can be charged with felony bail jumping and there you are, incarcerated. A middle-aged White guy (imprisoned several times for drunk driving) complained that he had a job waiting for him in a city 50 miles away with a boss who said he’d accept responsibility for his housing etc., but the parole officer would not authorize the move out of town.

If you are on “community supervision” (probation before prison, parole or extended supervision after), you are under constant surveillance. Community corrections officers have almost complete discretion to tell you what your conditions of supervision are, including a high level of reporting. The basic rule is that you cannot violate any law (federal, state, or municipal) nor do anything that would threaten the public good or your own rehabilitation in any way. Ninety percent of the people revoked from probation or parole and sent to prison in this state have no new prison sentence – they are what is called a “technical violation.” If you get revoked, the clock starts over. There are many folks who will be on community supervision basically for the rest of their lives. People on supervision also get thrown in jail periodically for short periods on “holds” for things that are not bad enough to justify a revocation, but the corrections officer thinks you need to be taught a lesson, or perhaps you are alleged to have done something and they want to hold you until they figure out whether you did it. These don’t count as revocations, but a typical result of a hold is that you lose you job and your housing and thus start the spiral toward revocation and prison.

There was also a lot about child support, which you might not think connects with criminal justice, but does. For one thing, the meter keeps running on child support while you are in prison, so when you get out, you are automatically in arrears and in danger of being incarcerated for failing to make payments if you fall behind. (The money is actually owed to the state for welfare payments to the family, so only about half of the child support actually goes to the children.) When you have a prison record, it is hard to get a job and make the payments.  People told stories of being incarcerated for non-support just at the point at which they had finally gotten a job and were going to be able to make payments. Or another said he’d gotten a good job, was making payments and doing fine, but then lost job and complained that he was being threatened with incarceration for non-payment even though (he said) “they are withholding half of my unemployment check, they know I’m unemployed.” Oh and another penalty for non-support is losing your driver’s license. Then you get to choose between losing your job because you can’t get to it or risking arrest and incarceration for driving without a driver’s license. On a side note, this was the first time I’d actually heard a man use the phrase “baby mamas” non-ironically to refer to the mothers of his children.

And there was testimony about tickets: tickets for noise, tickets for smoking a joint, tickets for retail theft, tickets for parking or speeding. These seem like pretty minor things for those of us with money, but a $200 ticket is unpayable if you are poor. So the tickets pile up. And then one day you get arrested and incarcerated for failing to pay the tickets.

We now return to our regular programming: Stata files and trying to figure out how in the heck I’m going to turn all these graphs and tables into a massively-overdue book. Oh, I forgot the part where my task force subcommittee is behind on getting our recommendations together, largely because we don’t actually agree on what to recommend and have not done a very good job of working through our differences. That would be another story, if I could figure out how to write about it discreetly.

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

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