About stevebarkan

I am a professor of sociology at the University of Maine and the author of several textbooks in sociology, criminology, and law and society as well as many journal articles in these fields.

Don’t Believe the “Ferguson Effect”

The Wall Street Journal recently had an op-ed that blamed a rising number of violent crimes so far this year in several large cities on a “Ferguson effect.” The idea here is that police have become less proactive (in terms of stopping and frisking people who look suspicious to them) in the wake of attention given to police shootings of young African American men in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities during the past year or more.

This claim of blame is without merit. Crime rates fluctuate, and it is far too soon to know whether violent crime is really rising; a few cities’ worth of data certainly is not enough to indicate a trend. Even if crime were rising, many factors can affect crime rates, and rigorous research is needed to determine these factors, which often remain elusive even after this sort of research has been done. The WSJ op-ed claim also is made without comparable data. Have all the cities discussed in the WSJ op-ed changed their policing? What about other cities? We do not know enough about any changes in policing in enough cities to reach any conclusions about the so-called Ferguson effect.

So please don’t believe the “Ferguson effect.” Jumping to conclusions about crime rate trends and reasons for them does no one any good, least of all the victims of crime.

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Social Class and Educational Inequality

Today’s New York Times (http://tinyurl.com/oaqtm4b) provides new evidence of the impact of social class on educational achievement. The evidence comes from the Educational Longitudinal Study, which began tracking 15,000 high school sophomores in 2002; the students are now in their late 20s. A study using these data divided the students into four “social classes” based on their parents education, income, and occupation. Only 14% of the poorest students have a bachelor’s degree by now, compared to 60% of the wealthiest students. Even among students with similar scores on a math test they took in 2002, the wealthiest students were much more likely than the poorest students to obtain a bachelor’s degree. In fact, as the Times article noted, “a poor teenager with top scores and a rich teenager with mediocre scores are equally likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.”

Because  bright youths from poor backgrounds are less likely to go to college than their wealthier students who are less bright, this study provides compelling new evidence of the impact of social class on educational achievement. This impact becomes a vicious circle: if poor youths do not go to college, they are more likely to have low incomes as adults, and their own children will be less likely to go to college and graduate.

Police Killings of Civilians

Today’s Washington Post (http://tinyurl.com/qej2kpk) reports that police killings of civilians so far this year nationwide number at least 385, or more than two a day. This number is more than twice as high as the number counted by the federal government during the past decade. After adjusting for population composition of census tracts, African Americans were three times as likely as whites or members of other racial/ethnic groups to be killed by police this year. While more than 80% of the victims were armed with a gun or other potentially lethal weapon or object, 13% were unarmed. Most of the victims were poor. Shockingly, dozens of the victims died while fleeing from the police. Although police may use force only when their lives or other people’s lives are threatened, only 3 of the 385 police shootings have resulted in criminal charges so far.

The Post article is essential reading for anyone who cares about the fairness of the criminal justice system in the United States.  One of the hallmarks of democracy is that the police serve the public and must themselves obey the law. The Post article provides ostensible evidence of police out of control and all too ready to use deadly force when it is not justified, especially against African Americans. The police do have a dangerous occupation and are always on alert for their safety, as some classic sociological studies document. They have to be able to defend themselves. But the Post article suggests the police too often (and even one example is too often) exceed with impunity what is appropriate and allowable under the law. This situation must not stand.

Nebraska Repeals the Death Penalty

Today’s vote by the Nebraska legislature to repeal the death penalty was historic. In overriding its governor’s veto of its previous repeal vote, the legislature added Nebraska to the growing minority of states without the death penalty. The legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike, who voted for repeal had various reasons for doing so. But from a sociological perspective, the death penalty does not deter homicide; it is applied in a racially discriminatory manner, especially when the race of the homicide victim is considered; it is applied in an arbitrary manner; it probably has resulted in the execution of innocent people; and it costs more money than life imprisonment. The United States is the only democracy to still use the death penalty, as other democracies decided long ago that capital punishment has no place in modern civilization. Other states that retain the death penalty should follow Nebraska’s fine example.