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.


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.

Public Sociology in Farmtown #9: Reflections on the Experience

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I’m not sure who (if anyone) has stuck with this series, so I’m not sure what your interests are in wrap-up. Drop comments if you want me to address other issues. Here are my thoughts. This was an overwhelming experience in many ways, and there are many threads one could pick up from the things that happened at the conference. I’ll discuss three themes: the content of what people talk about, the importance of listening along with talking, and cultural differences in public talk. I tried to provide a lot of details about what people said and how they said it because I’m very interested in how people talk as well as what they talk about. I have been struck before how the whole tone of interaction shifts when a meeting is dominated by people of color instead of whites. Although the two day conference in Farmtown was a kind of immersion experience, I have had many similar experiences before. As a White person watching the interactions, I’m most struck by how deeply personal and painful these issues are for Black people.* Continue reading “Public Sociology in Farmtown #9: Reflections on the Experience”

Public Sociology in Farmtown #8: Ideas and Wrap-Up

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The final session of the two-day conference I’ve been describing in the “Farmtown” posts is supposed to be reports from the small groups that met in the morning. These reports get longer and the discussion gets more animated with each successive speaker. As with the sermon, I’ve tried to capture the flavor of the longer speeches. Again what interests me is the way people weave different themes together when they talk. Continue reading “Public Sociology in Farmtown #8: Ideas and Wrap-Up”

Public Sociology in Farmtown #7: Inspiration and Challenge

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(This continues a series. See the earlier posts in the series for context.)

Our lunch speaker is a Black man I code as about 40 plus or minus 10 years. He has a staff job with a college in another state and is also a Baptist minister. His style is passionate Black ministerial oratory interweaving politics and God, interweaving joking and anger and challenge, ranging broadly across a lot of issues and pulling in quotations from many writers. He says his goal is to challenge and upset people. The talk is free-flowing but planned out; there are extensive quotations from religious and political sources. I’ve tried to capture the feeling of the speech/sermon in my notes.

My goal is to make you upset and angry today. People need to stop being PC and talking about “institutional racism” as a cover and being afraid to call out individual racists. We should demand justice. But instead of demanding, we are sitting complacent and saying we are doing something, but we are not doing something. We should demand drug treatment and job training. Socially responsible businesses should offer training at their own cost, benefits to community. We should go back to Operation Breadbasket, when leaders demanded businesses to sponsor jobs. Continue reading “Public Sociology in Farmtown #7: Inspiration and Challenge”

My week in public sociology

We have to make choices. As part of trying to convey what it really means to do public sociology (whatever that is), here is the list of what I’ve things done in the past nine days (Written Saturday):

(1) Thursday. I forgot to go to the meeting I was supposed to be at for Unitown’s disproportionate minority confinement project. My bad. It is summer, I got my days mixed up, and was mowing the lawn when my spouse asked me why I was at home.

(2) Friday. Spent time pulling together tables & memos from previous reports relative to American Indians in my state’s criminal justice system for the American Indian activist who asked me to do this last May; I press hard on it because I know I’ll see her at tomorrow’s meeting, so this seems like a good time to do it. She’s older than me, a retired social worker, and does not use email. I also start, but do not finish, reworking the code written by a former grad student so I can access the information from the lastest DOC file I have to meet her request and also update my slides for presentations I’m giving in September and October. (8 hours) Continue reading “My week in public sociology”