Sunday, March 28, 2010

Don't mess with Texas

From today's NYT book review of "Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire," a new book by historian Robert Perkinson:
As Perkinson sets out to tell the story of America’s movement from, in his words, “the age of slavery to the age of incarceration,” with the latter period beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing to the present day, he concentrates on Texas in part because the modern surge of its inmate population has far outstripped even the spike in national numbers. Between 1965 and 2000, the number of prisoners in the country rose by 600 percent; in Texas, the growth was twice that. The state ranks near the very top for the percentage of its people kept behind bars. And for well over a century, Texas has held to a perspective on penology — an outlook devoid even of the goal, let alone the reality, of rehabilitation — that now dominates the nation. The state, in Perkinson’s eyes, has provided a “template for a more fearful and vengeful society,” for a country that no longer aims, with its inmates, “to repair and redeem but to warehouse, avenge and permanently differentiate convicted criminals from law-abiding citizens.”

The template was mostly formed, according to “Texas Tough,” by slavery and its aftermath. Defeated in the Civil War, Texas and its Southern confederates were desperate to retain as much dominion as possible over their former slaves, and they found a way through law enforcement. Blacks seized for low-level crimes faced severe punishment with little chance of defending themselves in court. Perkinson tells of a black man sentenced to two years for stealing a pair of shoes and another sent away for five for snatching a bushel of corn. In the three years following the war, Texas’ inmate population nearly quadrupled — and darkened considerably in skin color, with former slaves soon outnumbering whites. Over the next few decades, these new black prisoners were rented out to an array of private businesses under a system known as convict leasing, which replicated slavery for its brutality and may well have exceeded it in disregard for human life....

Much as emancipation brought on a penal backlash against Southern blacks, so did the civil rights movement — except that this later reaction was national. Equal protection, desegregation and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty were quickly followed by tougher drug laws and crackdowns on crime that, with conscious intention or not, made blacks a target. Since the triumphs of the civil rights movement, the disparity between black and white incarceration rates has almost doubled. In the early 21st century, the country, Perkinson suggests, has in a sense become the late-19th-century South.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Perverse incentives for law enforcement, at home and abroad

With help from the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, the Washington Post today has a disturbing story today about ICE laying out perverse incentives for running up the numbers when it comes to deportations. Contrary to previous statements by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICE chief John Morton that DHS would prioritize deportations of the most violent illegal immigrants, these reporters got their hands on some internal memos and spoke with anonymous employees detailing the new guidelines:

Since November, ICE field offices in Northern California, Dallas and
Chicago have issued new evaluation standards and work plans for enforcement agents who remove illegal immigrants from jails and prisons. In some cases, for example, the field offices are requiring that agents process an average of 40 to 60 cases a month to earn "excellent" ratings.

Such standards present a problem, said one San Francisco area agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal. Instead of taking a day to prepare a case against a legal resident with multiple convictions for serious crimes, agents may choose to process a drunk driver or nonviolent offender who agrees to leave the country voluntarily, because it will take only hours.

This reminds me of the numbers game that DEA and FBI agents working in Colombia are encouraged to play when working on extradition cases, as noted in a policy brief published last December by the Bogota-based Fundacion Ideas para la Paz (FIP). And their reporting was also based on interviews with former DEA and FBI agents:

“The DEA has statistical fever,” the same former DEA agent said. “You need to get those numbers.” By numbers he means arrests and extraditions. He added that during the reviews, his superiors would frequently ask him about why he did not have a higher number of arrests. “You won’t see it written down anywhere, but that’s what they care about,” the former DEA agent said, referring to the number of arrests.

A former FBI agent agreed with this assessment and said at times it applied to his agency as well, often for the budgetary reasons mentioned above. “Extradition of low level members of a drug trafficking organization, it’s a gimmee, it’s a bump in the stats. You got bodies. It doesn’t necessarily mean the investigation was particularly successful realistically speaking, but it looks good on paper. It looks good as far as the number of indictments and subsequent extraditions that came out of a particular case. Where again it’s easy. And if somebody happens to fall into that network that dragnet at the local level can be lumped into the conspiracy
they are. And the government agencies both in the host country and the US look all the more better for it. There’s a justification by numbers that needs to be demonstrated to hold on to whatever’s left of the counternarcotics portion of law enforcement’s budget because everything else is being diverted to national defense and counterterrorism.”