[thx again to Manna Jo Greene for puttin' bee in our bonnet on this; just got confirmed from Bishop Gause and Ann Perry-- it's a go for this next mtg.]
Come out if you can to join us for our next Jobs Not Jails meeting-- Saturday February 11th at 10:30 am at Holy Light Pentecostal Church at 33 South Clover Street in Poughkeepsie!...
We have some serious work to do-- the pressure literally is mounting daily to waste tens of millions of our county tax dollars on unnecessary jail expansion-- not just from recent statements from County Executive Molinaro and GOP Co. Leg. Rolison (and other Republicans)-- but also from the media...(recall media drumbeat for war to invade Iraq, for instance)...
[see http://www.JobsNotJails.weebly.com and my blog post from last Aug. 18th on what we can push for instead of jail expansion (e.g., truly comprehensive and fully funded re-entry system, supports put back for our youth-- for example, Nubian Directions now only has funding to take 31 youths each year off the streets-- while half of the City of Poughkeepsie High School students drop out in four years)...recall also http://www.FightCrime.org -- SO much more to do for our kids;
[let's not forget-- former Dutchess County Children Services Council Chair Betsy Brockway was forced to admit publicly upon my questioning her during a meeting that only half the troubled teens are in rehabilitative programs now compared to just a year ago-- before county GOP eliminated all county funding for the Youth Bureau's Project Return program; see http://www.petitiononline.com/cobudget ]
So again-- four reasons why we need to get to work now educating Dutchess folks on why jail expansion unnecessary:
[all 4 of these fairly recently came out in local media!]
1. Poughkeepsie Journal editorial from last Saturday pushing for jail expansion
"Jail Crowding Solutions Must Be Found"
2. Jan. 12th Poughkeepsie Journal-- "Jail Panel to County: Learn More" by Larry Hertz [for jail expansion]
3. Article from Monday's Poughkeepsie Journal on jail overcrowding, inmates shipped to other counties [for jail expansion]
4. WAMC interview with GOP Co. Leg. Public Safety Chair Ken Roman from this past Tuesday [for jail expansion]
"Dutchess County Tackles Overcrowding At County Lock-Up"
On the other hand-- the truth is the truth is the truth...
No matter how hard the GOP and media want to ignore it, gloss over it, pretend it's not there-- the facts on how and why we can avoid jail expansion are out there-- at least in some of the media...
Fact: "The rate of incarceration per 100,000 people is: USA: 730, Russian: 534, Iran: 334, China: 122, Iraq: 101, and Germany: 86."
Source: International Centre for Prison Studies, University of Essex.
[from Bill Quigley/Sam Schmitt Social Justice Quiz Jan. 30th: https://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/01/30-5 ]
Also-- recall Michelle Alexander of "The New Jim Crow" and Randall Robinson of TransAfrica on Democracy Now Jan. 13th:
And-- see just below-- huge piece that just came out in the New Yorker magazine from Adam Gopnik-- "The Caging of America: Why Do We Lock Up So Many People?"(!)
Moreover-- just last Thursday, WAMC's Dave Lucas did a piece on the Vera Institute's report on costs of incarceration:
So-- please-- if you can-- read/digest as much of all this as you can-- and be ready to discuss it all (and more)...
...at our next Feb. 11th mtg. of Jobs Not Jails-- that Saturday morning at Holy Light Pentecostal Church!...
And-- please be prepared to discuss (even if just briefly) the possibility of a Jobs Not Jails rally soon (Feb. and/or
March)....to get media attention, rally community asap!...[we should even consider a serious of rallies]
(esp. now that we have that new, wonderful, professional-looking Jobs Not Jails banner that Manna put together!)
[need more convincing we need to put our nose to grindstone now on this?...read those first four pieces above]
And yes-- more forums with experts like Father Peter Young of http://www.PYHIT.com and John Chaney of
[and-- also-- letters to the editor too-- and we should all be posting comments @ PoJo articles on this vs. jail expansion]
Pass it on...
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From new Vera Institute report-- "The Price of Prisons" (yes, pertinent to us here in Dutchess re: jail expansion too!):
Fact: "In fiscal year 2010, the New York Department of Correctional Services (DOCS)
had $2.7 billion in prison expenditures. (In 2011, DOCS merged with the
Division of Parole to become the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.)
However, the state also had $812.5 million in prison-related costs outside the
department’s budget. The total cost of New York’s prisons—to incarcerate an average
daily population of 59,237—was therefore almost $3.6 billion, of which 22.8 percent
were costs outside the corrections budget."
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[note here-- also check out http://www.cases.org -- Joel Copperman from CASES
was interviewed by WAMC's Dave Lucas for this piece-- CASES is amazing;
we need some real funding to make CASES-like program reality in Dutchess County:
a real Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services!]
Prison Costs: Higher Than State Corrections Budgets Reflect
WAMC/Dave Lucas (2012-01-26)
NEW PALTZ, NY (WAMC) - A new report finds New York numbers among 40 states
where prison costs are higher than corrections department budgets reflect.
Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Dave Lucas reports.
The new study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York City-based research
organization that tracks criminal justice trends, calculates New York State's
total costs for its adult corrections and prison programs at $3.3 billion.
The report, entitled, The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers,
found that among the 40 states that responded to a survey, the cost of prisons
was $38.8 billion in fiscal year 2010, $5.4 billion more than what their corrections
budgets reflected. States costs outside their corrections departments ranged from
less than 1 percent of total prison costs in Arizona to as much as 34 percent in
Corrections spending is normally tracked by comparing the budgets for prison
and parole agencies. The Vera Institute study includes additional costs such
as contributions to pension and benefit programs and capital costs.
Nationally, corrections spending is the second fastest-growing budget item for
states, behind Medicaid. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in 2011
that he ordered seven New York state prisons closed, fulfilling his pledge to
consolidate the state's correctional facilities based on a declining inmate
population and providing significant savings to New York state taxpayers.
The decline in prison population is also attributed to New York's investment
in Alternatives to Incarceration or ATI s- which began back in the 1980s.
Staff from the Vera Institute of Justice's Center on Sentencing and Corrections
and Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit developed a methodology to calculate the taxpayer
cost of prisons, including costs outside states corrections budgets. 40 states
participated in the survey, including New York, Connecticut and Vermont.
The New York State Department of Corrections did not return calls for comment
in time for broadcast.
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A Critic at Large
The Caging of America
Why do we lock up so many people?
by Adam Gopnik January 30, 2012
Six million people are under correctional supervision in the U.S.—more than were in Stalin’s gulags.
A prison is a trap for catching time. Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison, but the catch is that American prison life is mostly undramatic—the reported stories fail to grab us, because, for the most part, nothing happens. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich, because the idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible; one day in the life of an American prison means much less, because the force of it is that one day typically stretches out for decades. It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates. The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in “timeless time,” because they alone aren’t serving time: they aren’t waiting out five years or a decade or a lifetime. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.
That’s why no one who has been inside a prison, if only for a day, can ever forget the feeling. Time stops. A note of attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia—anxiety and boredom and fear mixed into a kind of enveloping fog, covering the guards as much as the guarded. “Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yard, / Some of us are prisoners, some of us are guards,” Dylan sings, and while it isn’t strictly true—just ask the prisoners—it contains a truth: the guards are doing time, too. As a smart man once wrote after being locked up, the thing about jail is that there are bars on the windows and they won’t let you out. This simple truth governs all the others. What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment. For American prisoners, huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world—Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teen-agers to life imprisonment—time becomes in every sense this thing you serve.
For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.
The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. Ours is, bottom to top, a “carceral state,” in the flat verdict of Conrad Black, the former conservative press lord and newly minted reformer, who right now finds himself imprisoned in Florida, thereby adding a new twist to an old joke: A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative who’s in one.
The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.) Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized. Though we avoid looking directly at prisons, they seep obliquely into our fashions and manners. Wealthy white teen-agers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration that acts as a hidden foundation for the country.
How did we get here? How is it that our civilization, which rejects hanging and flogging and disembowelling, came to believe that caging vast numbers of people for decades is an acceptably humane sanction? There’s a fairly large recent scholarly literature on the history and sociology of crime and punishment, and it tends to trace the American zeal for punishment back to the nineteenth century, apportioning blame in two directions. There’s an essentially Northern explanation, focussing on the inheritance of the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, and its “reformist” tradition; and a Southern explanation, which sees the prison system as essentially a slave plantation continued by other means. Robert Perkinson, the author of the Southern revisionist tract “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire,” traces two ancestral lines, “from the North, the birthplace of rehabilitative penology, to the South, the fountainhead of subjugationist discipline.” In other words, there’s the scientific taste for reducing men to numbers and the slave owners’ urge to reduce blacks to brutes.
William J. Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law School who died shortly before his masterwork, “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice,” was published, last fall, is the most forceful advocate for the view that the scandal of our prisons derives from the Enlightenment-era, “procedural” nature of American justice. He runs through the immediate causes of the incarceration epidemic: the growth of post-Rockefeller drug laws, which punished minor drug offenses with major prison time; “zero tolerance” policing, which added to the group; mandatory-sentencing laws, which prevented judges from exercising judgment. But his search for the ultimate cause leads deeper, all the way to the Bill of Rights. In a society where Constitution worship is still a requisite on right and left alike, Stuntz startlingly suggests that the Bill of Rights is a terrible document with which to start a justice system—much inferior to the exactly contemporary French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which Jefferson, he points out, may have helped shape while his protégé Madison was writing ours.
The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life. You may be spared the death penalty if you can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong. Even clauses that Americans are taught to revere are, Stuntz maintains, unworthy of reverence: the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” was designed to protect cruel punishments—flogging and branding—that were not at that time unusual.
The obsession with due process and the cult of brutal prisons, the argument goes, share an essential impersonality. The more professionalized and procedural a system is, the more insulated we become from its real effects on real people. That’s why America is famous both for its process-driven judicial system (“The bastard got off on a technicality,” the cop-show detective fumes) and for the harshness and inhumanity of its prisons. Though all industrialized societies started sending more people to prison and fewer to the gallows in the eighteenth century, it was in Enlightenment-inspired America that the taste for long-term, profoundly depersonalized punishment became most aggravated. The inhumanity of American prisons was as much a theme for Dickens, visiting America in 1842, as the cynicism of American lawyers. His shock when he saw the Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia—a “model” prison, at the time the most expensive public building ever constructed in the country, where every prisoner was kept in silent, separate confinement—still resonates:
I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.
Not roused up to stay—that was the point. Once the procedure ends, the penalty begins, and, as long as the cruelty is routine, our civil responsibility toward the punished is over. We lock men up and forget about their existence. For Dickens, even the corrupt but communal debtors’ prisons of old London were better than this. “Don’t take it personally!”—that remains the slogan above the gate to the American prison Inferno. Nor is this merely a historian’s vision. Conrad Black, at the high end, has a scary and persuasive picture of how his counsel, the judge, and the prosecutors all merrily congratulated each other on their combined professional excellence just before sending him off to the hoosegow for several years. If a millionaire feels that way, imagine how the ordinary culprit must feel.
In place of abstraction, Stuntz argues for the saving grace of humane discretion. Basically, he thinks, we should go into court with an understanding of what a crime is and what justice is like, and then let common sense and compassion and specific circumstance take over. There’s a lovely scene in “The Castle,” the Australian movie about a family fighting eminent-domain eviction, where its hapless lawyer, asked in court to point to the specific part of the Australian constitution that the eviction violates, says desperately, “It’s . . . just the vibe of the thing.” For Stuntz, justice ought to be just the vibe of the thing—not one procedural error caught or one fact worked around. The criminal law should once again be more like the common law, with judges and juries not merely finding fact but making law on the basis of universal principles of fairness, circumstance, and seriousness, and crafting penalties to the exigencies of the crime.
The other argument—the Southern argument—is that this story puts too bright a face on the truth. The reality of American prisons, this argument runs, has nothing to do with the knots of procedural justice or the perversions of Enlightenment-era ideals. Prisons today operate less in the rehabilitative mode of the Northern reformers “than in a retributive mode that has long been practiced and promoted in the South,” Perkinson, an American-studies professor, writes. “American prisons trace their lineage not only back to Pennsylvania penitentiaries but to Texas slave plantations.” White supremacy is the real principle, this thesis holds, and racial domination the real end. In response to the apparent triumphs of the sixties, mass imprisonment became a way of reimposing Jim Crow. Blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites. “The system of mass incarceration works to trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage,” the legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes. Young black men pass quickly from a period of police harassment into a period of “formal control” (i.e., actual imprisonment) and then are doomed for life to a system of “invisible control.” Prevented from voting, legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives, most will cycle back through the prison system. The system, in this view, is not really broken; it is doing what it was designed to do. Alexander’s grim conclusion: “If mass incarceration is considered as a system of social control—specifically, racial control—then the system is a fantastic success.”
Northern impersonality and Southern revenge converge on a common American theme: a growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible. No more chilling document exists in recent American life than the 2005 annual report of the biggest of these firms, the Corrections Corporation of America. Here the company (which spends millions lobbying legislators) is obliged to caution its investors about the risk that somehow, somewhere, someone might turn off the spigot of convicted men:
Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.
Brecht could hardly have imagined such a document: a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.
Yet a spectre haunts all these accounts, North and South, whether process gone mad or penal colony writ large. It is that the epidemic of imprisonment seems to track the dramatic decline in crime over the same period. The more bad guys there are in prison, it appears, the less crime there has been in the streets. The real background to the prison boom, which shows up only sporadically in the prison literature, is the crime wave that preceded and overlapped it.
For those too young to recall the big-city crime wave of the sixties and seventies, it may seem like mere bogeyman history. For those whose entire childhood and adolescence were set against it, it is the crucial trauma in recent American life and explains much else that happened in the same period. It was the condition of the Upper West Side of Manhattan under liberal rule, far more than what had happened to Eastern Europe under socialism, that made neo-con polemics look persuasive. There really was, as Stuntz himself says, a liberal consensus on crime (“Wherever the line is between a merciful justice system and one that abandons all serious effort at crime control, the nation had crossed it”), and it really did have bad effects.
Yet if, in 1980, someone had predicted that by 2012 New York City would have a crime rate so low that violent crime would have largely disappeared as a subject of conversation, he would have seemed not so much hopeful as crazy. Thirty years ago, crime was supposed to be a permanent feature of the city, produced by an alienated underclass of super-predators; now it isn’t. Something good happened to change it, and you might have supposed that the change would be an opportunity for celebration and optimism. Instead, we mostly content ourselves with grudging and sardonic references to the silly side of gentrification, along with a few all-purpose explanations, like broken-window policing. This is a general human truth: things that work interest us less than things that don’t.
So what is the relation between mass incarceration and the decrease in crime? Certainly, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, many experts became persuaded that there was no way to make bad people better; all you could do was warehouse them, for longer or shorter periods. The best research seemed to show, depressingly, that nothing works—that rehabilitation was a ruse. Then, in 1983, inmates at the maximum-security federal prison in Marion, Illinois, murdered two guards. Inmates had been (very occasionally) killing guards for a long time, but the timing of the murders, and the fact that they took place in a climate already prepared to believe that even ordinary humanity was wasted on the criminal classes, meant that the entire prison was put on permanent lockdown. A century and a half after absolute solitary first appeared in American prisons, it was reintroduced. Those terrible numbers began to grow.
And then, a decade later, crime started falling: across the country by a standard measure of about forty per cent; in New York City by as much as eighty per cent. By 2010, the crime rate in New York had seen its greatest decline since the Second World War; in 2002, there were fewer murders in Manhattan than there had been in any year since 1900. In social science, a cause sought is usually a muddle found; in life as we experience it, a crisis resolved is causality established. If a pill cures a headache, we do not ask too often if the headache might have gone away by itself.
All this ought to make the publication of Franklin E. Zimring’s new book, “The City That Became Safe,” a very big event. Zimring, a criminologist at Berkeley Law, has spent years crunching the numbers of what happened in New York in the context of what happened in the rest of America. One thing he teaches us is how little we know. The forty per cent drop across the continent—indeed, there was a decline throughout the Western world— took place for reasons that are as mysterious in suburban Ottawa as they are in the South Bronx. Zimring shows that the usual explanations—including demographic shifts—simply can’t account for what must be accounted for. This makes the international decline look slightly eerie: blackbirds drop from the sky, plagues slacken and end, and there seems no absolute reason that societies leap from one state to another over time. Trends and fashions and fads and pure contingencies happen in other parts of our social existence; it may be that there are fashions and cycles in criminal behavior, too, for reasons that are just as arbitrary.
But the additional forty per cent drop in crime that seems peculiar to New York finally succumbs to Zimring’s analysis. The change didn’t come from resolving the deep pathologies that the right fixated on—from jailing super predators, driving down the number of unwed mothers, altering welfare culture. Nor were there cures for the underlying causes pointed to by the left: injustice, discrimination, poverty. Nor were there any “Presto!” effects arising from secret patterns of increased abortions or the like. The city didn’t get much richer; it didn’t get much poorer. There was no significant change in the ethnic makeup or the average wealth or educational levels of New Yorkers as violent crime more or less vanished. “Broken windows” or “turnstile jumping” policing, that is, cracking down on small visible offenses in order to create an atmosphere that refused to license crime, seems to have had a negligible effect; there was, Zimring writes, a great difference between the slogans and the substance of the time. (Arrests for “visible” nonviolent crime—e.g., street prostitution and public gambling—mostly went down through the period.)
Instead, small acts of social engineering, designed simply to stop crimes from happening, helped stop crime. In the nineties, the N.Y.P.D. began to control crime not by fighting minor crimes in safe places but by putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened—“hot-spot policing.” The cops also began an aggressive, controversial program of “stop and frisk”—“designed to catch the sharks, not the dolphins,” as Jack Maple, one of its originators, described it—that involved what’s called pejoratively “profiling.” This was not so much racial, since in any given neighborhood all the suspects were likely to be of the same race or color, as social, involving the thousand small clues that policemen recognized already. Minority communities, Zimring emphasizes, paid a disproportionate price in kids stopped and frisked, and detained, but they also earned a disproportionate gain in crime reduced. “The poor pay more and get more” is Zimring’s way of putting it. He believes that a “light” program of stop-and-frisk could be less alienating and just as effective, and that by bringing down urban crime stop-and-frisk had the net effect of greatly reducing the number of poor minority kids in prison for long stretches.
Zimring insists, plausibly, that he is offering a radical and optimistic rewriting of theories of what crime is and where criminals are, not least because it disconnects crime and minorities. “In 1961, twenty six percent of New York City’s population was minority African American or Hispanic. Now, half of New York’s population is—and what that does in an enormously hopeful way is to destroy the rude assumptions of supply side criminology,” he says. By “supply side criminology,” he means the conservative theory of crime that claimed that social circumstances produced a certain net amount of crime waiting to be expressed; if you stopped it here, it broke out there. The only way to stop crime was to lock up all the potential criminals. In truth, criminal activity seems like most other human choices—a question of contingent occasions and opportunity. Crime is not the consequence of a set number of criminals; criminals are the consequence of a set number of opportunities to commit crimes. Close down the open drug market in Washington Square, and it does not automatically migrate to Tompkins Square Park. It just stops, or the dealers go indoors, where dealing goes on but violent crime does not.
And, in a virtuous cycle, the decreased prevalence of crime fuels a decrease in the prevalence of crime. When your friends are no longer doing street robberies, you’re less likely to do them. Zimring said, in a recent interview, “Remember, nobody ever made a living mugging. There’s no minimum wage in violent crime.” In a sense, he argues, it’s recreational, part of a life style: “Crime is a routine behavior; it’s a thing people do when they get used to doing it.” And therein lies its essential fragility. Crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.” Conservatives don’t like this view because it shows that being tough doesn’t help; liberals don’t like it because apparently being nice doesn’t help, either. Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.
One fact stands out. While the rest of the country, over the same twenty-year period, saw the growth in incarceration that led to our current astonishing numbers, New York, despite the Rockefeller drug laws, saw a marked decrease in its number of inmates. “New York City, in the midst of a dramatic reduction in crime, is locking up a much smaller number of people, and particularly of young people, than it was at the height of the crime wave,” Zimring observes. Whatever happened to make street crime fall, it had nothing to do with putting more men in prison. The logic is self-evident if we just transfer it to the realm of white-collar crime: we easily accept that there is no net sum of white-collar crime waiting to happen, no inscrutable generation of super-predators produced by Dewar’s-guzzling dads and scaly M.B.A. profs; if you stop an embezzlement scheme here on Third Avenue, another doesn’t naturally start in the next office building. White-collar crime happens through an intersection of pathology and opportunity; getting the S.E.C. busy ending the opportunity is a good way to limit the range of the pathology.
Social trends deeper and less visible to us may appear as future historians analyze what went on. Something other than policing may explain things—just as the coming of cheap credit cards and state lotteries probably did as much to weaken the Mafia’s Five Families in New York, who had depended on loan sharking and numbers running, as the F.B.I. could. It is at least possible, for instance, that the coming of the mobile phone helped drive drug dealing indoors, in ways that helped drive down crime. It may be that the real value of hot spot and stop-and-frisk was that it provided a single game plan that the police believed in; as military history reveals, a bad plan is often better than no plan, especially if the people on the other side think it’s a good plan. But one thing is sure: social epidemics, of crime or of punishment, can be cured more quickly than we might hope with simpler and more superficial mechanisms than we imagine. Throwing a Band-Aid over a bad wound is actually a decent strategy, if the Band-Aid helps the wound to heal itself.
Which leads, further, to one piece of radical common sense: since prison plays at best a small role in stopping even violent crime, very few people, rich or poor, should be in prison for a nonviolent crime. Neither the streets nor the society is made safer by having marijuana users or peddlers locked up, let alone with the horrific sentences now dispensed so easily. For that matter, no social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two. Would we actually have more fraud and looting of shareholder value if the perpetrators knew that they would lose their bank accounts and their reputation, and have to do community service seven days a week for five years? It seems likely that anyone for whom those sanctions aren’t sufficient is someone for whom no sanctions are ever going to be sufficient. Zimring’s research shows clearly that, if crime drops on the street, criminals coming out of prison stop committing crimes. What matters is the incidence of crime in the world, and the continuity of a culture of crime, not some “lesson learned” in prison.
At the same time, the ugly side of stop-and-frisk can be alleviated. To catch sharks and not dolphins, Zimring’s work suggests, we need to adjust the size of the holes in the nets—to make crimes that are the occasion for stop-and-frisks real crimes, not crimes like marijuana possession. When the New York City police stopped and frisked kids, the main goal was not to jail them for having pot but to get their fingerprints, so that they could be identified if they committed a more serious crime. But all over America the opposite happens: marijuana possession becomes the serious crime. The cost is so enormous, though, in lives ruined and money spent, that the obvious thing to do is not to enforce the law less but to change it now. Dr. Johnson said once that manners make law, and that when manners alter, the law must, too. It’s obvious that marijuana is now an almost universally accepted drug in America: it is not only used casually (which has been true for decades) but also talked about casually on television and in the movies (which has not). One need only watch any stoner movie to see that the perceived risks of smoking dope are not that you’ll get arrested but that you’ll get in trouble with a rival frat or look like an idiot to women. The decriminalization of marijuana would help end the epidemic of imprisonment.
The rate of incarceration in most other rich, free countries, whatever the differences in their histories, is remarkably steady. In countries with Napoleonic justice or common law or some mixture of the two, in countries with adversarial systems and in those with magisterial ones, whether the country once had brutal plantation-style penal colonies, as France did, or was once itself a brutal plantation-style penal colony, like Australia, the natural rate of incarceration seems to hover right around a hundred men per hundred thousand people. (That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get lower in rich, homogeneous countries—just that it never gets much higher in countries otherwise like our own.) It seems that one man in every thousand once in a while does a truly bad thing. All other things being equal, the point of a justice system should be to identify that thousandth guy, find a way to keep him from harming other people, and give everyone else a break.
Epidemics seldom end with miracle cures. Most of the time in the history of medicine, the best way to end disease was to build a better sewer and get people to wash their hands. “Merely chipping away at the problem around the edges” is usually the very best thing to do with a problem; keep chipping away patiently and, eventually, you get to its heart. To read the literature on crime before it dropped is to see the same kind of dystopian despair we find in the new literature of punishment: we’d have to end poverty, or eradicate the ghettos, or declare war on the broken family, or the like, in order to end the crime wave. The truth is, a series of small actions and events ended up eliminating a problem that seemed to hang over everything. There was no miracle cure, just the intercession of a thousand smaller sanities. Ending sentencing for drug misdemeanors, decriminalizing marijuana, leaving judges free to use common sense (and, where possible, getting judges who are judges rather than politicians)—many small acts are possible that will help end the epidemic of imprisonment as they helped end the plague of crime.
“Oh, I have taken too little care of this!” King Lear cries out on the heath in his moment of vision. “Take physic, pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” “This” changes; in Shakespeare’s time, it was flat-out peasant poverty that starved some and drove others as mad as poor Tom. In Dickens’s and Hugo’s time, it was the industrial revolution that drove kids to mines. But every society has a poor storm that wretches suffer in, and the attitude is always the same: either that the wretches, already dehumanized by their suffering, deserve no pity or that the oppressed, overwhelmed by injustice, will have to wait for a better world. At every moment, the injustice seems inseparable from the community’s life, and in every case the arguments for keeping the system in place were that you would have to revolutionize the entire social order to change it—which then became the argument for revolutionizing the entire social order. In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away. Prisons are our this. We need take more care.
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From http://www.democracynow.org/2012/1/13/on_eve_of_mlk_day_michelle ...
On Eve of MLK Day, Michelle Alexander & Randall Robinson on the Mass Incarceration of Black America
On this eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, we host a wide-ranging discussion with TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson and author Michelle Alexander about the mass incarceration of African Americans that has rolled back many achievements of the civil rights movement. Today there are more African Americans under correctional control, whether in prison or jail, on probation or on parole, than there were enslaved in 1850. And more African-American men are disenfranchised now because of felon disenfranchisement laws than in 1870. Alexander, whose book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" is newly released in paperback, argues that "[n]othing less than a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America or inspiring a recommitment to [Martin Luther] King's dream... My view is that this has got to be a human rights movement. It’s got to be a movement for education, not incarceration; for jobs, not jails; a movement that acknowledges the basic humanity and dignity of all people, no matter who you are or what you have done."
Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate and the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which has just been re-released in paperback.
Randall Robinson, founder and past president of TransAfrica and a law professor at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of several books, including An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President. His most recent book is Makeda, his second novel.
AMY GOODMAN: On this eve of Martin Luther King’s birthday, you write about King in the book. You write about how he once shows up in Richmond and the inspiration of Gray when he saw him speak. Did you meet Dr. King?
RANDALL ROBINSON: He came to my high school. And he walked down my aisle. This was just after the beginning of the bus boycott, and he had become a national figure. And my brother Max and I were sitting on the aisle. And my father, who taught history at the school, was back behind us. And he shook our hands, and I looked back at my father. I looked back at my father. It was a special, special and memorable moment. But even Dr. King is said to have said about this lost memory that, to quote him, "The Negro knows nothing of Africa." I think he said that with some pain and some distress.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip of Dr. King. This is from the famous address in 1963, August 28th.
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
JUAN GONZALEZ: On this eve of Martin Luther King’s birthday, we want to bring Michelle Alexander into this discussion and talk about Black America. Today there are more African Americans under correctional control, whether in prison or jail, on probation or on parole, than there were enslaved in 1850. And more African-American men are disenfranchised now because of felon disenfranchise laws than in 1870.
AMY GOODMAN: A legal scholar and civil rights advocate, Michelle Alexander has argued in her recent book that although Jim Crow laws have been eliminated, the racial caste system it set up remains intact. It’s simply been redesigned, and now racial control functions through the criminal justice system. Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, former director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, now holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Michelle Alexander.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: As you join with Randall Robinson in this discussion, it’s also the hundredth anniversary of the ANC in South Africa. And you have talked about how there are more African Americans percentage-wise imprisoned in the United States, more black people, than were at the height of apartheid South Africa.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, yes. You know, I think we’ve become blind in this country to the ways in which we’ve managed to reinvent a caste-like system here in the United States, one that functions in a manner that is as oppressive, in many respects, as the one that existed in South Africa under apartheid and that existed under Jim Crow here in the United States. Although our rules and laws are now officially colorblind, they operate to discriminate in a grossly disproportionate fashion. Through the war on drugs and the "get tough" movement, millions of poor people, overwhelmingly poor people of color, have been swept into our nation’s prisons and jails, branded criminals and felons, primarily for nonviolent and drug-related crimes—the very sorts of crimes that occur with roughly equal frequency in middle-class white neighborhoods and on college campuses but go largely ignored—branded criminals and felons, and then are ushered into a permanent second-class status, where they’re stripped of the many rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, one of the fascinating things in the book, which has now been reissued in paperback, is you talk about your own sort of journey of realizing this, that even as an activist, a civil rights legal activist, that you were not clearly aware of the depth and the extensiveness of this mass incarceration.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yeah, I admit in the introduction to the book that I was blind for a long time. Even as a civil rights lawyer, someone who cared deeply about racial justice and who thought I knew, as a lawyer, how the criminal justice system functioned, I was blind. It was really only after years of representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color and attempting to assist people re-enter into a society that had never shown much use for them in the first place, that I had a series of experiences that really began my own awakening.
I began to see that our criminal justice system does in fact more—operate more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control and that so many of the myths that we are fed about why our prison system, you know, has exploded in the past 30 years, why we now have the largest—the highest rate of incarceration in the world, you know, just don’t even pass the laugh test once you take a close look at them. It is not the case that our prison population has exploded due to a surge in crime or crime rates. It is not true that people of color are more likely to commit drug-related crimes than whites. So many of the excuses that have been offered actually just aren’t true, once you dig a little deeper. And my book is an effort to do just that.
AMY GOODMAN: And let’s talk about what happens when you have a person going to prison, how that affects the rest of their life. First of all, just the astounding figures. It’s something like half the young black men in this country have been incarcerated or on parole, probation. Half?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. Well, you know, in large urban areas, half or more than half of working-age African-American men now have criminal records and are the subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. In some cities like Chicago, it’s been estimated that nearly 80 percent of working-age African-American men have criminal records and are now part of this undercaste, a group of people, defined largely by race, that are relegated to a permanent second-class status by law.
AMY GOODMAN: What it means, for example, for housing?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. Well, you know, I think most people have a general sense that when you’re released from prison, life is hard, but, you know, if you work hard and apply self-discipline and stay out of trouble, you can make it. But that’s true only for a relative few. You know, when people are released from prison and have a criminal record, they are discriminated against for the rest of their life in employment. For the rest of their life, they’ve got to check that box on employment applications, knowing that application is likely going straight to the trash.
AMY GOODMAN: Sometimes not even convicted, you have to say you were arrested.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, absolutely. And in public housing, you can be barred from public housing just based on an arrest. You don’t even have to be convicted. People returning home from prison who want to return to their children or their families, their families risk eviction just by allowing their loved ones to come home to them. Under federal law, you’re deemed ineligible for food stamps for the rest of your life if you’ve been convicted of a drug felony. Now, fortunately, many states have now opted out of the federal ban on food stamps for drug offenders, but it’s still the case that thousands of people can’t even get food, food stamps, because they were once caught with drugs.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to bring Randall Robinson into the conversation. When you were at TransAfrica and you were working in Washington, the climate in Washington in the ’80s and ’90s was just more incarceration, more incarceration. Did any of the political leaders that you dealt with realize the long-term impact of what was happening?
RANDALL ROBINSON: I recall that when we were first being arrested at the embassy and I went to jail that first night, everyone in the lock-up with me was black.
AMY GOODMAN: This was—you were being arrested for protesting apartheid South Africa.
RANDALL ROBINSON: For protesting at the embassy. Everyone was black. And I had some sense of this. I think at the time I was told that one out of every three young black males in the District of Columbia was under one or another arm of the criminal justice system. And what stunned me about it, and what continues to bother me about it, is that when we were struggling during the civil rights movement, some of us were in better positions to benefit from this change that was coming than others were. And so, while we had all been in the same boat during segregation, when change came, we weren’t all in the same boat anymore. Some of us could escape, but others of us were bottom-stuck. And I don’t believe that those of us who escaped worked as hard, as tenaciously, since, to remember those of us who could not.
And the result is that we now see our future as a people in America being warehoused. How can we not be concerned, in some relentless way, about the fate of all of these young black people who are being imprisoned? Because we are indissolubly bound up with them. Their future is our future. Our future is their future. And we have to be mindful of that. But it doesn’t so much penetrate if we don’t have news of it every day. So many people don’t know.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes.
RANDALL ROBINSON: In the same way that you said. And you have done an extraordinary work.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thank you.
RANDALL ROBINSON: I mean, I am so impressed by the work that you have done. And it is so needed to get us to understand that it is a harness that we all have to get in and pull in.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion, on this eve of Martin Luther King weekend. We’re speaking with Randall Robinson. His latest book is his second novel. It’s called Makeda. It is set in the dawn of the civil rights era. And we’re joined by Michelle Alexander. Her book has just come out in paperback. It’s called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. When we come back, we’re also going to talk about what it means in this country, mass incarceration, when it comes to voting and determining who are the representatives of the people of this country. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: On this eve of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, a federal holiday—the last two states to acknowledge it were New Hampshire and Arizona—we are having a discussion about the state of Black America. Michelle Alexander has written extensively about the mass incarceration in the age of color blindness, and we want to talk about what that means in terms of voting. People died for the right to vote in the United States. And yet, today, what happens to people who are imprisoned? Just a figure: Human Rights Watch says African-American adults have been arrested at a rate of 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white adults in every year from 1980 to 2007, yet African Americans and whites have similar rates of illicit drug use and dealing. And then how that plays out right to deciding who will vote for these laws?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, absolutely. You know, felon disenfranchisement laws have now accomplished what poll taxes and literacy tests, you know, ultimately could not. People in the United States are stripped of the right to vote in many states if they have a felony conviction, including a minor drug conviction can, you know, wind up labeling you as a felon for life. And when people are released from prison, they can be stripped of the right to vote for a period of years, or in, you know, a few states, for the rest of your life.
And I find that many people kind of shrug their shoulders at that when I, you know, remark on the fact that so many people are denied the right to vote because of criminal convictions. But in other Western democracies, people who are in prison have the right to vote. But here, we deny the right to vote not only if you’re in prison, but once you’re released.
AMY GOODMAN: I think in maybe two states, you’re allowed. One of them is Vermont—
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —where you can vote in prison.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Maine and Vermont, yes, absolutely. But we just don’t seem to take democracy as seriously here in the United States, particularly if you’re poor and of color.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And this whole emphasis in recent years on—by many police departments on quality-of-life arrests and stop-and-frisks. In New York City, for instance, 600,000 people stopped and frisked by police, with 90 percent of them black and Hispanic. And increasingly, the militarization of the schools, arresting students in schools, police departments actually functioning within the schools. The impact on the underside of the building of this Jim Crow system at that level, at the street level and at the school level?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. You know, that is the engine of mass incarceration, is the stream of people who are fed into the system through these kinds of aggressive policing tactics like stop-and-frisk. And, you know, think about that. You know, in one year alone, 2010, more than 600,000 people were stopped and frisked in the city of New York. And in less than 15 percent of those cases was there any kind of suspect description involved. The overwhelming majority of those stops and frisks were police stopping, frisking people on their way to school, on their way to work, on their way to church. And inevitably, people are fed into the criminal justice system in that fashion and labeled criminals or felons for engaging in extremely minor, nonviolent offenses. Drug use and sales is about as common in middle-class white communities and college campuses as it is in the hood, but it’s poor folks of color who are doing time for these kinds of offenses.
AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Alexander, you’ve talked about the war on drugs as a counterrevolution against the civil rights movement.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, absolutely. You know, numerous historians and political scientists have documented now that the war on drugs was part of a grand Republican Party strategy, known as the Southern Strategy, of using racially coded, "get tough" political appeals on issues of crime and welfare in order to appeal to poor and working-class white voters who were resentful of, anxious about, fearful of many of the gains of African Americans in the civil rights movement.
And, you know, to be fair, I think we have to acknowledge that poor and working-class whites really had their world rocked by the civil rights movement. You know, wealthy whites could continue to give their kids all of the advantages that wealth has to offer, but it was poor and working-class whites who were faced with the social demotion and whose kids might be bused across town to go to schools inferior. And affirmative action programs created this sense that, you know, black folks were now leapfrogging over them on their way to Harvard or Yale or fancy jobs in corporate America. And this state of affairs created enormous amount of anxiety, fear and resentment. But it also created an enormous political opportunity.
Pollsters and political strategists found that these thinly veiled promises to get tough on a group of people, not so subtly defined by race, could be enormously successful in persuading poor and working-class whites to defect from the Democratic New Deal coalition and join the Republican Party in droves. So the war on drugs was really an effort by the Reagan administration to make good on campaign promises to get tough on a group of people defined largely by race.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you and then Randall Robinson about solutions, informed by your research and your life, movements. We see the Occupy movement today and how it has shaken this country. Now, even the Republicans are going at each other for the kind of capitalism that they practice, the Republican presidential hopefuls, Rick Perry calling Romney a vulture capitalist. What movement do you think needs to take place now?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, there absolutely has to be a movement. Nothing less than a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America or inspiring a recommitment to King’s dream. You know, if we were to return to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, before the war on drugs and the "get tough" movement kicked off, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today. You know, a million people employed by the criminal justice system would lose their jobs. So this system isn’t going to just fade away without a major social upheaval, a fairly radical shift in our public consciousness.
So, my view is that this has got to be a human rights movement. It’s got to be a movement for education, not incarceration; for jobs, not jails; a movement that acknowledges the basic humanity and dignity of all people, no matter who you are or what you have done, so that we don’t view it as normal and natural to strip people of basic civil and human rights following their release from prison.
AMY GOODMAN: Randall Robinson, talking about movements, you spearheaded the anti-apartheid movement in this country, getting arrested numerous times, among other places, in front of the South African embassy. You fasted almost unto the death to stop the—to fight the U.S. government—President Clinton, I think, at the time—to allow Haitians to come into this country at the time of the bloody coup of 1991 to 1994 in Haiti. Talk about the power of movements and what you see, from your perspective now living in St. Kitts, having quit America—the name of one of your books—what you think needs to happen in this country.
RANDALL ROBINSON: Just 12 percent of the people who commit nonviolent drug infractions are black, I think 56 percent of those, nonetheless, who are prosecuted, and something on the order of 75 percent of those who are imprisoned. I mean, we can see the striking unfairness of it. But we have to find a way to get that information to people. Outrage has to be informed by information to go anywhere. South Africa worked because everybody knew about the apartheid system when we went to jail. And so, it was instant. This is a little bit more difficult.
We’re backward in the world in so many ways. We find ourselves in bed with China, Iran and two or three other nations in our embrace of the death penalty, when the rest of the world is moving in the other direction. But 75 percent of those executed are black and Hispanic. And so, the unfairness of it is seen in the statistics of who pays and who doesn’t. We get sentences twice as long for commission of the same crime. It’s just fundamentally unfair.
And the question, Amy, is how we can put this together in a way that is consumable and inspiring to people to let them know that this is not just a black or racial issue, it’s an issue for all Americans who care about democracy and equity and fair play and decency. And that’s what we have to do. We are killing our own country’s future, is what we are doing. And we’re killing genius in jail cells that does not have a chance to blossom and to flower.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you’ve written some amazing books in terms of impacting on social policy—your book on the debt that the Unites States owes to Black America. But now you’ve moved more into fiction. Your sense of the role of fiction and of creative writers in helping to shape the consciousness and understanding of reality by readers?
RANDALL ROBINSON: I read a lot of fiction. I read both fiction and nonfiction. But there are some people who read only fiction. And I think you can write meaningful fiction for people who would be concerned about the kinds of issues that we’re discussing here today. And nonfiction is not as multi-layered as fiction is. Fiction not only conveys information, but it conveys other dimensions of the human personality and the capacity to care and think and to puzzle out problems.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I thank you so much, both, for being with us. Randall Robinson will be speaking tonight at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem from 6:00 to 8:00. Randall Robinson’s latest book is a novel; it’s called Makeda. The latest book of Michelle Alexander, just out in paperback, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.