stepping carefully

Yesterday I had an email exchange with a local conservative politician & blogger. I realized I was concerned to be careful not to say anything that could be pulled out of context. He originally asked (in less than polite language) a not-unreasonable question about whether statements about incarceration rates considered arrest rates, so I sent him the appropriate tables with an offer to explain the data. He responded without even looking at the data with an ill-worded and hostile question asking me to say whether this is all a matter of Black criminality or all a matter of “scapegoating whites.” I responded by complaining about his false dichotomy and inflammatory language and explaining (at length) about the complexity of the issue and the nature of the relevant data. I stressed that assessing the balance of “differential crime” and “unfair treatment” is difficult and that people working on the issue offer proposals both to address the sources of crime and to address the treatment in the system. I got back another less-insulting but still oversimplified dichotomized question about whether it is just a matter of people being punished unfairly or not, so I responded by saying that I believed my previous reply had already addressed that question. I was afraid that any attempt to answer his over-simplified question would just make its way into an ill-informed blog post. Sigh. This whole society has degenerated into slogan-slinging. We’ve reached the point where trying to address issues in a reasoned and nonconfrontational way is, itself, attacked. Ugh.

What makes this so hard is that racism is, of course, one of the central problems. Racism impacts the conditions that foster crime as well as the treatment of people by the criminal justice system. And “crime” is a heterogeneous category. I read the evidence as saying that the racial differences in arrests for serious crimes probably roughly track racial differences in doing the crimes, while there is a huge racial gap in your chances of getting arrested for a drug offense or a lesser crime (like disorderly conduct, vandalism, theft). It is very hard to keep a moral focus about the importance of the issue and the problem of race while also pushing past over-simplified dichotomies about what is going on.

Speaking Truth

We went to a celebration last night of the 81st birthday and retirement-of-sorts of a nun who is a professor of sociology and criminal justice and a social justice activist, who has spent her life working for justice with a special concern for incarcerated women.  He couldn’t stay for dinner, but the Governor (who knew her from back in the day when he was district attorney and teaching part time at her school) dropped by to make a speech about her and give her a an official state plaque full of whereas clauses about her accomplishments. When it was her turn, she said: “So what are you going to do about getting rid of truth in sentencing?”

Ah, those nuns.

Article Equivalents

I went to a reception yesterday for outstanding women of color at the university. This was a lovely event except that we all had to stand for an hour of awards presentations and keynote. The award winners had all done jaw-dropping amounts of service. The keynoter was a Native American professor whose first career was in journalism. She used the occasion to criticize the academy for failing to give adequate credit for service. She said that diversity is not just a matter of getting darker skins in the place, it is a matter of getting people from different communities who have different priorities. She was arguing that diversifying the institution must include giving greater weight to service in the tenure process, making the “three legs” of the academic stool (teaching, research, service) more evenly balanced. For her and for most women of color, she said, what you do is not just about yourself but about what you contribute to your community. I was reminded of other things I’ve been reading/hearing that confirm the difference between the individualism of White professionals and the family and community focus of other groups. Few communities of color need another article in a peer reviewed journal, she said. Then she said something like: “Each board or committee or community project or group of students mentored is another article or book chapter you don’t have time to write.” There really is a finite amount of time and if you are doing a lot of service you have less time to do research and write. You cannot really diversify the institution unless you change the reward structure to acknowledge the importance of service.

(This in turn reminded me of a brief conversation I had years ago with a couple of very prominent woman sociologists. People had exchanged information on the order of “I’m dealing with children now, you know how that is,” and grunts of acknowledgment. Then one woman said, “I was talking about this to X [prominent male sociologist] and he said that each child he had cost him an article.” Eye rolling, exasperated sighs. One article, right. We wish. “Five or six articles at least,” muttered one woman.)

To clarify: I don’t think institutions can or should reward time spent in child-rearing, although they should accommodate it. But institutions can and probably should better reward time spent in community service. How to do this is a hard issue.


The task force report on addressing racial disparities in criminal justice is now officially done and voted on. Hurrah! There was a sense of euphoria, I think. I felt it . Some of us talked about how we really need a party. The head of the public defender’s office offered her home for this purpose for  next month, although I don’t know whether it will actually happen. The last few weeks have been very intense and conflictual. I’ve drafted several partial posts about some of the conflicts and issues, but couldn’t get them into a state to post, partly because I was too darned busy trying to catch up on everything else I should be doing. The events involved crying, shouting, confrontations between “system” people concerned about being made to sound bad or worried about being told to do things that are just impossible and “community” people wanting their voices and perspectives heard. Also glaring examples of racial/ethnic cultural differences and the huge effect of standpoint. The past three rounds of meetings have involved people proposing changes to the report to bring it into line to something they could vote for. Several key compromises were worked out. I bailed out of the writing committee after the last round — I just had to do my course preparation and other work. The chairs just hung in to the bitter in, accepting and processing proposed changes and trying to get a consensus document pulled together. I’ve worried that the watered down the voices of the oppressed too much, but the compromises saved the “public hearing” section, in which people’s stories are told, albeit with language reminding people that they are unverified stories from particular individuals.

Tonight’s meeting had a different spirit, friendlier, warmer. We’d all gone through intense disagreement and struggle and had ended up with something people are pretty proud of, even the people who voted no on some of the specific resolutions. The conflicts and divisions are still there. After all the votes, some of the people had to hurry away at the official ending time of the meeting. About half of us stayed around for check out, where people took turns saying that the experience was often painful and difficult, but we respect each other and feel like we have grown from the experience. This is a group of people who are mostly White and Black, one Hispanic, a mixture of “system” people and “community advocates.” One of the women, an older Black woman with a 9th grade education (how she describes herself) whose son is in the system and who was on the committee as a community advocate, expressed her pride at having her name in “the book”, the 80-page report (with appendices).

If I ever get time, I’ll try to go back to those partial posts and try to describe some of the dynamics and conflicts. In the meantime, I’m thinking to myself that finally, by the last meeting, we’ve done the work we need to do to be together as a community, and now we are disbanding. Somehow this seems like a metaphor for our society.

In the meantime, I’m behind in course prep and in pulling together the paper for a conference in two weeks.


We are trying to get the task force report done. This is a ton of work. Lots of writing. But the most time-consuming part is the endless pre-meeting meetings and conference calls to discuss what to write, how to hold the meetings. Calls and meetings that seem to resolve nothing. There are some real substantive disagreements about certain key issues. But the biggest problem is language. Statements that seem reasonable and neutral to some of us strike others as strident and offensive. Quotations from public hearing statements by offenders, accused offenders, or the family and friends of offenders about unfair or unreasonable aspects of the criminal justice system are viewed by the system people as unsubstantiated hearsay that should not be included in the report. But the consequence would be to banish entirely the voices of those at the bottom of the system. (I’m going to try to see if we can negotiate language that includes them as perceptions.) Even the claim that a lot of people think the CJ system is unfair or biased is subject to critique — how do we know it is a lot of people? Well, if “people” means “Black people,” you have to be living in a hole not to think a “lot of” people think the CJ system is unfair. But of course the people launching that critique don’t think “people” means “Black people.”

Then we are hassling about whether there are “too many” citations for low level offenses. Citations are better than arrests, we mostly agree. But citations come with fines, large fines on the order of several hundred dollars a ticket. This is no biggie if you have a full professor’s income or a lawyer’s income. But if you have no job or a McJob, the fines are huge relative to your resources. So one proposed recommendation is to give fewer tickets. But the system people are upset at any implication that they are giving “too many” tickets or even a lot of tickets. Should I go back and crunch the older data that shows that this area has an extraordinarily high level of “disorderly conduct” arrests? Would actual data even seem relevant to the people having this argument?

And the planning committee is hassling about voting rules, which were never agreed upon at the beginning of the process. Some people were hoping for consensus, although without a clear idea of how you achieve consensus, not to mention the problem that consensus is the same thing as allowing one person to veto. Some of us are pushing for voting, but even then you have to argue about voting rules. Do you have a vote if you are not at the meeting? How will the opinions of people who can’t get to the meeting be assessed? And I won’t even go into the confusion and disputes about the process we went through in collecting and consolidating recommendations. Or the lack of trust that is making every single part of this process difficult. It is exhausting.

about data

It is happening again. Lawyers who don’t know anything about data analysis make a request (often an official open records request) for information from agencies. Then, because I have gotten a reputation for analyzing public data and making it reveal previously-unseen patterns, they dump it on me and ask me to  analyze it.  Some years ago the request was for information on the racial breakouts of juvenile arrests for misdemeanors and citations — the person making the request assumed without asking that information about felonies already existed. That request yielded a pile of printouts of incomparable information from a dozen different agencies, including hundreds of pages of printouts listing all juvenile arrests in the central city.  (I dealt with that by giving the data entry job to freshmen in a “research experience” program; it was a good experience for them, even though the data was of limited value.)

This time the request vaguely asked for information on the racial breakouts of arrests and traffic stops and was sent to the two dozen law enforcement agencies in the county.  They sent me the responses yesterday. Six agencies responded with spreadsheets that are all in the same format, which includes the breakouts  by race for 64 offense groups and five citation/stop categories. The two biggest agencies responded with dumps of all charges: to turn them into the appropriate counts, you first need to collapse the charges down to incidents (as the same person can have multiple charges in an arrest or traffic stop) using the date and time of the contact and the date of birth of the offender, following some sort of protocol for which offense to treat as the “most serious” offense, and then collapse the zillions of specific offenses into a smaller number of categories.  Of course there is no crosstalk file for linking the specific offenses into either the 64 standard categories used by the six agencies that used the same format nor the Uniform Crime Reports categories nor the severity code, nor did the agencies include these fields in their data dump, even though they must have that information for their own needs. The most passive aggressive agency did not even include the offense description field, just the statute number. The rest of the agencies responded in a wide variety of ways, including PDFs of pie charts of the racial breakouts of traffic stops, counts by race that summed across arrests and traffic stops, or emails that said “everyone we arrested was white” (no counts given).

UPDATE 7/29: One agency actually sent a VIDEO with slides of their report that rotate in 3-D space and a voice-over describing was was on each page. I am not kidding!

The lawyers don’t understand why I’m saying it isn’t worth my time to try to “analyze” this mess. They say, “We asked for it, it will look bad if we don’t include the results in the report.” And they can’t understand why I can’t get it done by next week, when the draft report is due.

enforcing immigration law

As I mentioned in a previous post, there is a concern in my area about ICE (immigration) raids and about the sheriff’s policy of telling ICE about possible illegal immigrants. Stated policy is to send ICE the name and birth date of any non-citizen who has been arrested and is processed into the jail, regardless of reason, even for unpaid parking tickets. People are also being grabbed by ICE when they come to court as witnesses or to collect child support. Our task force had a pretty intense discussion of this the other day. The task force combines “system” people (sheriff, police, district attorney, judges) with community activists and social service providers. Several system people have objected to a draft recommendation to change the policy and to some of the assertions the draft makes about what is happening based on one task force member’s conversations with some bailiffs. We know we don’t agree about what should be done – there are deep social conflicts about the immigration issue itself, and about the proper role of law enforcement. So we have to figure out what the report will say.

At first we were going to defer the discussion to the next meeting, as we knew it would be  controversial. But as a member of the writing subcommittee, I said I really needed to know what the policy actually is, so that it could be correctly characterized. I offered to talk to the head of the jail privately later, but the group decision was to take “five minutes” to get this clarified. The five turned into thirty, but it was a very instructive thirty minutes. I asked, “so what is the policy, exactly?” Answer: Information about all immigrants is sent to ICE. “So how do you know whether someone is an immigrant? What about Canadians?” Answer: They tell us. We ask if they are a citizen. ” So if someone with a Spanish accent tells you they are a citizen, you believe them, and that’s that?” Answer: Yes . . . [voice trails off, the rest is quieter and the sentence is incomplete] . .  unless there’s other information . . .  The sheriff says: Look, the policy has been the same for thirty years, we ask everyone place and date of birth, citizenship status. “So if someone with a Spanish accent says they were born in El Paso, that’s it? They are OK?”  [No clear answer . . .]   Later in the discussion, people ask why if the policy has been the same for thirty years, it is only in recent years that people are getting arrested when they come into the court house as witnesses or to report to drug court. The sheriff’s answer is that the change is the creation of ICE and ICE policies, not his policies. The DA says it is part of the post-9/11 anti-terrorism policies. But this implies there are two policies: what you ask people, and what you do with the information. ICE was created in 2003, so the sheriff couldn’t have been sending information to ICE for the last thirty years. The sheriff implies that there is no choice about sending information to ICE, other people think there is.

Then other people ask questions. So how is it that people who come in as witnesses or to collect their child support get arrested? One task force member has talked to bailiffs and says they told her that they go over the names of people coming in and routinely send immigrants’ names to ICE. But the head of the jail says that people are not doing that, he has talked to his supervisors and that just isn’t happening, she is just relying on hearsay. I point out that she talked to some people and he talked to some people: it’s the same thing. More tension. Then he says, well of course in some cases you have to run people through the computer, you have to make sure there are no restraining orders or outstanding warrants. That is part of the job of keeping the court safe. You don’t want people fighting at court. Sometimes an ICE warrant shows up in the national computer, they did not know it would be there, but when it is there, you have to execute the warrant. I say “There are lots of warrants. You can have a warrant out for unpaid parking tickets.” The DA sort of starts to object and the sheriff says that our area is sending parking tickets to collection, not to court orders. I insist: “I know a white guy who was, in fact, arrested and taken downtown for unpaid parking tickets.”  The rest of the story – which I don’t go through – is that he got out quickly when arrangements were made to pay the tickets, but if he had not had a friend who put up the money for the tickets, he would have been sitting in jail for unpaid parking tickets. That is a fact. And the DA knows it is a fact, as he acknowledges when we chat later: the vast majority of warrants are for “failure to appear” in court, which can be for anything. It turns out that legal procedures require running criminal background checks on anyone who will appear as a witness, so it does happen that people come in to be interviewed as potential witnesses and get arrested for outstanding warrants. Although ICE arrests are the current concern, this also happens for other kinds of warrants.

But law enforcement officers vehemently say they do not get to choose which warrants to execute, a warrant is a warrant, that is their job. If they know there is a warrant out for the arrest of a person, they are duty-bound to arrest that person. There is no choice. And so we are back again to the question: when do you run someone’s name through the computer to look for warrants? Do you run the name of every single person who enters the court house through the computer? Well, no, that is impossible. There are too many people going and coming every day, and there is no central list of everyone who is scheduled to come in as a witness or to make an appearance for some reason. So how is it that some people get arrested by ICE when they come to court? Why is ICE waiting for them? Well, we may get a tip or information about someone . .  . [voice trails off . . .]  Hmmm. I think to myself, this ties in with complaints we heard at the public hearing about ICE sending spies into the Latino community. SOMEBODY could well be running the name of every single local Latino through ICE computers and then looking for opportunities to nab the folks who are identified as illegal.

I find it very instructive to hear the law enforcement people and the district attorney insisting that if there is a warrant you have to arrest, this is non-discretionary, this is central to who they are as part of the legal system. This is just non-negotiable. There is a lot of emotion when they say this. It is a very deeply held value at the core of a worldview about what it means to be an officer of the court.

Next people ask whether there is a way for people to find out whether there is a out warrant on them. The DA says that it is not considered good police policy to tell people in advance that they are going to be arrested. Folks pretty much go along with this (although I’m thinking to myself that there are circumstances in which people are allowed to turn themselves in rather than be arrested). But people repeat the question: not necessarily warning people they will be arrested that day, but telling people that they should find out whether there is a warrant out for them, and some way of being able to find this out. After all, the vast majority of warrants are for missing a court date, and the most likely reason for missing the court date is that you forgot it or you never read or understood the summons in the first place  or you didn’t go because you didn’t have the money to pay your fine anyway. I remind people that there are faulty warrants out there – the warrant for the kid who was tasered at the high school when he tried to run away from the police was actually a mistake that shouldn’t have been in the system in the first place. (We all know about that case because both the tasering and the fact that police were arresting a kid at school were big controversies that got a lot of news play.) Law enforcement and the district attorney are looking pretty dubious about the idea of giving ordinary people access to the national law enforcement databases.

The community activists say: OK, we get it that arresting someone if you know there is a warrant out on them is non-negotiable from the point of view of law enforcement. So the community needs to know this and needs to know exactly what the policies are. Can you give us written policies? The sheriff and the DA say the policies are straightforward and clear-cut. But it will take them a while to write them down.

This was a very good discussion, even as it was very intense. I learned a lot. I’m thinking later again about the radically different ways you can look at the same thing. I respect the rule of law and the police view that you don’t choose which warrants to execute, and I can respect the people who feel that violation of immigration law is a violation of law and as long as the law is on the books, they are obligated to uphold it. The real problem is the immigration policy and the disconnect between the formal immigration policy and the reality that Mexican people have always worked in the US. But then I am reminded that the police who helped arrest the Jews in Europe under Hitler were also following orders, and that the US was party to trials that said that following orders is not an excuse, that citizens have a positive obligation to refuse to follow immoral orders. Such discussions were very common in the 1960s regarding citizen obligations about the Vietnam war.  Ivan Ermakoff is working now on a project showing that police in different places actually varied in the zealousness with which they carried out the orders to arrest all Jews. I know that many people would take deep offense at my even bringing this up. Killing and torturing people isn’t the same as deporting them. But I do think the people who want the police to be less aggressive about running people’s names through the computers think that the immigration policy is immoral and that it is the duty of moral people to work around the policy.