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Recidivism Roulette


I am traveling to Atlanta this week, so I will stick to a subject that comes painfully easy: recidivism.

Research confirms what common sense has been telling us all along: fewer than 10% of offenders commit 70% of all crimes. Some career criminals admit to hundreds, even thousands of felonies. This should not surprise us: does anybody really believe that people go out and rob one convenience store, or break into one house, then spend the rest of their time mowing their lawns and working nine-to-five?

The fact that there are super-predators out there doesn’t mean that the garden-variety burglar can’t be pretty prolific, too. Many criminologists make it their business to deny both types of recidivism (the big kind and the little kind).  They do this in order to promote a philosophy of crime control that can be summarized this way: “prisons cause crime, not criminals, so if you don’t put people in prison, they won’t become recidivists.”  Which is true, at least on paper, for if you don’t put people in prison when they break into one house, they won’t be counted as recidivists when they break into the next house.

Even a passing glance at academic studies comparing recidivism rates reveal substantial flaws: usually, ex-inmates are tracked for very brief time periods after incarceration, and only certain types of incarceration are counted as repeat offenses.  With the prevalence of plea bargaining, the vast majority of crimes simply get shelved, never to appear on anyone’s record. And with the sealing of juvenile records, crimes committed during some of the most prolific years for criminal behavior are intentionally excluded from recidivism statistics. Academic claims about recidivism are almost universally meaningless.  (Here is an interesting article on the subject as it plays out in Canada.)


In Atlanta this week, a particularly horrifying case of violent recidivism is making its slow way to a courtroom. In 2006, Jennifer Ewing was raped and murdered while exercising on the Silver Comet Trail. Michael Ledford, on probation for a previous rape, is charged with the crime: the evidence against him is indisputable.

Defense attorneys don’t like the term “indisputable” unless they can work it to their advantage, which they do by claiming that the mere existence of indisputable evidence means that their client cannot get a fair trial — because “fair” has come to mean “endless tugs at the get-out-of-jail-free card.”  Thus expect a grotesquely expensive jury selection process, then grotesquely expensive hearings disputing Michael Ledford’s mental incompetency, and, throughout, demands for a mistrial because the public happened to find out that Ledford was caught for Ewing’s murder covered in blood, and he has done this before.

How many women has Michael Ledford really raped?  Convicted of rape in Georgia in 1991, he received a heavy sentence for a rape at that time and also served more of that sentence than you usually see, ten full years in prison and ten more on probation.  Ten years behind bars is not unusual today, but few rapists spent that much time in prison prior to the sentencing reform of the mid-1990’s.  So what was the reason for throwing the book at him back then?

I suspect he was a prolific rapist, and police knew it, even though he was only charged with the one crime.  Ledford was 29 when he was sent up for rape; rapists usually start committing sex crimes in their teens.  What was he doing between the ages of 19 and 29?  Who knew about it?  The victim in the 1991 assault told the court that Ledford would doubtlessly rape again.

She was right.  Another question: what was Ledford doing between his release in 2001 and his arrest for Jennifer Ewing’s murder in 2006?  Mowing his lawn?  Working nine-to-five?

The public is being asked to absorb the sure-to-be-excessive legal bill as Ledford’s lawyers attempt to use the strength of the evidence against him to get him off.  The public is also being asked to accept arguments that recidivists belong in the community, not behind bars.  They should not accede to either without receiving full disclosure about many things, including the real criminal histories of people like Michael Ledford: juvenile records, plea bargains, shelved cases, and all.

Criminologists Say the Craziest Things, Part 2: Man Bites Dog. Dow Jones Implicated.

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Yesterday, I wrote about some media reactions to the Binghamton mass killer.   Today, I want to take a closer look at the ways expert opinions play out in one article about recent mass killings from The Christian Science Monitor.  

In “Shootings, Murder-Suicide Raise Broader Question: Is Violence Linked to Recession?”, writer Patrik Jonsson posits the theory that the recent economic downturn may be responsible for the following crimes:

Four Oakland, Calif., police officers shot down. An Alabama man strolling a small town with a rifle, looking for victims. Seven elderly people shot dead at a North Carolina nursing home. And on Sunday, six people, including four kids, died in an apparent murder-suicide in an upscale neighborhood in Santa Clara, Calif.

What do these disparate crimes allegedly have in common?  Jonsson suggests the economy, and he quotes Jack Levin, a much-quoted criminologist from Northwestern University, who enthusiastically endorse the association of these crimes with the economic crisis:

“Most of these mass killings are precipitated by some catastrophic loss, and when the economy goes south, there are simply more of these losses,” says Jack Levin, a noted criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. . . 

The recession in the early 1990s “saw a dramatic increase in workplace violence committed by vengeful ex-workers who decided to come back and get even with their boss and their co-workers through the barrel of an AK-47,” . . . 

“Social isolation is a huge factor” in a country as large and transient as America, which places big emphasis on personal results, Levin says. “If you look at where many of these mass killings have occurred lately, they’re in states that have lots of strangers, transients, and drifters, who don’t have support systems to get them through tough times.”

Or maybe none of these things are true.  

The murders in Oakland were precipitated, by all accounts, by felon Lovell Mixon’s desire to avoid returning to jail (the only “loss” Mixon was facing was the loss of his freedom to rape children in his neighborhood with impunity).  The well-off shooter in Santa Clara was reportedly not experiencing financial troubles when he killed his own children and other family members visiting from India.  The gunman in North Carolina was hunting down his estranged wife, who had recently left him and was working in the nursing home where he killed eight people.  The man who killed ten in southern Alabama, Michael McLendon, had spoken to friends about his disappointment at not being able to stay in the Marines or the police academy, but it was personal failings, not economic trends, that caused his dismissals from both, and these events, like Jiverly Wong’s much commented-upon departure from a computer industry job, happened years before the current recession. 

Of all the men mentioned in the article, only Michael McClendon seems to fit the profile of somebody feeling job-related resentments. He kept lists of people whom he felt had wronged him at work.  But when he began killing, he targeted family members, starting with his mother, grandmother and other relatives.  He did not kill former co-workers or employers.     

Nor were any of these men “strangers, transients, [or] drifters” lacking “support systems,” as Levin claims. Precisely the opposite seems true: they all appear to have been deeply entrenched in insular communities and extended families.  Lovelle Mixon was no stranger in a strange land; instead, he was sheltered from authorities by community and family members alike, at great danger to those who helped him.  Even after destroying four innocent lives and being identified as a child-rapist, he retains the unconditional support of his family and some in his community.  The Santa Clara killer opened fire during a housewarming party, surrounded by family members.  The nursing home shooter was trying to kill his wife; the number of “transients” or “drifters” in the small town where he lived is irrelevant.  And Kinson, Alabama, where Michael McLendon lived and killed, can hardly be characterized as a highly mobile environment where people live lives disconnected from each other.

What is the point of saying such things, if they fly in the face of every available fact?  

What is to be gained, or obscured, by claiming that social alienation and the economy drove these men to kill, when the reality appears to have far more to do with the fact that they were entrenched in, not detached from, social and family relationships — and the economy played no role at all?

The main thing being downplayed by blaming the economy is the fact that these men (except Mixon, who was not a spree killer at all, but a common criminal eluding arrest) harbored murderous rage towards their own families.  All of their crimes began as domestic violence.  Pointing to factors beyond “He hated his mother/wife/brother-in-law enough to kill them” is therefore difficult, and blaming the economic downturn is simply propaganda of a sort designed to lift some blame from the murderers’ shoulders and place it on us all.  

By now, it should not surprise that criminologists automatically default to blame-spreading when confronted with any violent (or non-violent) crime.  Seeking the “root causes” of crime anywhere but in the hearts and minds of criminals has been the common currency of criminology for fifty years now.  

So is it even really true, as Jack Levin puts it (in oddly emotional language), that there was “a dramatic increase in workplace violence committed by vengeful ex-workers who decided to come back and get even with their boss and their co-workers through the barrel of an AK-47” during the 1990-1991 recession?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the percentage of murders involving multiple victims remained steady from the late 1980’s to well beyond the time of economic recovery around 1993.  

In sharp contrast, the percentage of murders involving multiple offenders between the ages of 14 and 17 shot up dramatically during the same time.      

Did these 14 to 17 year old gang members possess special insight into the market conditions of 1991?  Of course not.  14 to 17-year old gang members were killing each other, and others, in record numbers through the early 1990’s, but they weren’t walking into former workplaces and blowing their former co-workers away because they got laid off and couldn’t pay the mortgage.  They kept killing each other so long as we let them keep killing each other, through lenient sentencing, and when we finally got around to imposing mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes, many fewer young people died from the consequences of living at one of the two wrong ends of a gun.  The problem was the illegal drug trade, and the solution was minimum mandatory sentencing.  But you won’t hear criminologist saying that, especially as they collude with the current administration to decriminalize the actions of younger offenders and overturn minimum sentences for recidivists. 

All crimes peaked in the early 1990’s.  But it was urban gang activity that accounted for the vast majority of the carnage that coincided with the last recession. The vengeful loner, armed with a pink slip and an AK-47, is merely a type cherished by criminologists and journalists.  

Such men do exist, as do “alienated school shooters,” but with the exception of crimes which are more accurately defined as pure cases of domestic violence (Patrik Jonsson does address domestic violence at length in his article), they are so rare that we can remember the incidents by name and place — perhaps fewer than one hundred spree killers in the past quarter-century, among nearly 500,000 murders and millions of violent gun crimes.  Spree killings are exceedingly rare: they tell us nothing about the economy, and they tell us nothing about American society, save that we need to stop denying the fact that some mentally ill people do turn violent because they are mentally ill, and we must never be less than vigilant in cases of domestic violence.

Yet criminologists are far more likely to appeal to overseas audiences by depicting American society as some explosive inbred offspring of the Wild West, where “going postal” is an everyday occurrence.  They cherry-pick rare cases of mass murder and find in them a convenient narrative for blaming “us all” and a subtle shorthand to impugn things they find suspect — rural men, gun-owners, blue-collar laborers.  Blood lust, they claim, lies at the heart of every American.  

Such generalized (yet selective) contempt is barely concealed — “vengeful ex-workers who decided to come back and get even with their boss . . . through the barrel of an AK-47” is hardly academic argot.  But the deeper you look into academia, the less surprising this type of language seems.

Should Judges Assign More Community Therapy For Recidivists?


LAST MAY, the wired world was treated to an unpleasant, yet hardly unique, slice of Atlanta’s public transportation system via “MARTA GIRL,” a video that showed a deranged young woman berating and threatening an elderly train rider.  The older woman dealt with the barrage of threats by doing what any sane consumer of public transportation knows to do instinctively: stare straight ahead and pretend that some screeching lunatic or addict isn’t threatening to harm you.

Awful things were made visible on the video.  In a train filled with physically able passengers, nobody stepped forward to shield an elderly woman from an aggressive assailant who was inches from her face, screaming that she was going to “beat [the elderly woman’s] ass.” 

Men who could have contained the young woman (“N.Z.”) did nothing.  The person who videotaped the assault did something, I suppose, by recording and posting the video.  But how do you justify taping an incident like this instead of trying to stop it?

Were these people afraid to intervene, lest the situation escalate?  Dressed as she was, if N.Z. had a concealed weapon, it was concealed creatively.  But instead of stepping in, a few men merely called out from their seats, telling the girl to calm down.  “Chill, it’s an old lady, man,” said one lackadaisical observer.

N.Z. continued down the train’s aisle and lashed out at another passenger.  He rose up and grabbed her by her hair, and a short slapping match ensued.  Now there was physical violence in addition to the assault on the elderly woman: two crimes.  Yet nobody made a move to call the police.  Even after they exited the train, it appears that none of the witnesses contacted authorities.  N.Z. was arrested and charged with a crime only after the video was circulated on-line. 

Were these people afraid to report N.Z. because they anticipated sharing a future train with her?  Were they even afraid of drawing attention to themselves by calling police from the station?  Did they expect (reasonably) that their complaints would be dismissed?  (And were they?)  Or did this incident simply seem ordinary and not worthy of action?  

Whichever is true, such are the terms of the new, negative social contract: I will ignore your abuse of someone else if you do not abuse me next.  The man who reared up from his seat and grabbed N.Z.’s hair only after she started lunging at him may be seen as merely exercising the soft terms of this contract.

BUT AFTER SHE WAS ARRESTED, of course, the N.Z. story became a story about something else: this time, the controversy over releasing mentally ill and drug-addicted defendants to “community treatment” centers instead of incarcerating them.

Like so many defendants — drug-addicted, mentally ill, youthful or not — N.Z.’s needs and problems became the sole focus of the judiciary as soon as she set foot in court.

As reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, N.Z. was already on probation for a previous attack on a transit officer when she attacked the elderly train rider.  According to the solicitor in her most recent case, N.Z. had “a lengthy criminal history of violent outbursts” and “never showed up for the mental health diversion program in another case.”   

She had faced no consequences for failing to perform the requirements of probation in the officer’s assault – seeing a probation officer and performing community service.  Even though she further violated the requirements of probation by committing another assault (or two), DeKalb County State Court Judge Barbara Mobley chose to halt the criminal case against N.Z. and refer her to a “pretrial diversion program for mentally ill people” instead of allowing the state to prosecute her.

By “dead-docketing” N.Z.’s prosecution, Judge Mobley told the public that their safety simply did not matter – because N.Z. has a mental illness.  In other courtrooms, other judges are delivering the same message to other communities: “your home being broken into doesn’t matter because the defendant has a drug addiction,” or, “your car being stolen doesn’t matter because the defendant is a youthful offender.”  

N.Z. seemed aware of this double standard, if little else, as she stood hollering on the train.  Out of all the people there, only N.Z. felt comfortable asserting her rights to legal protection.  On the video, you can hear her shrieking it:

“I’m pressing charges.  I’m pressing charges.  I’m pressing charges.”