Thursday, February 28, 2008

Record-High Ratio of Americans in Prison

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 28, 2008

More than one in 100 adult Americans is in jail or prison, an all-time high that is costing state governments nearly $50 billion a year, in addition to more than $5 billion spent by the federal government, according to a report released today.

With more than 2.3 million people behind bars at the start of 2008, the United States leads the world in both the number and the percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving even far more populous China a distant second, noted the report by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.

The ballooning prison population is largely the result of tougher state and federal sentencing imposed since the mid-1980s. Minorities have been hit particularly hard: One in nine black men age 20 to 34 is behind bars. For black women age 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 white women in the same age group.

While studies generally find that imprisoning more offenders reduces crime, the effect is influenced by changes in the unemployment rate, wages, the ratio of police officers to residents, and the share of young people in the population.

In addition, when it comes to preventing repeat offenses by nonviolent criminals -- who make up about half of the incarcerated population -- alternative punishments such as community supervision and mandatory drug counseling that are far less expensive may prove just as or more effective than jail time.

Florida, which nearly doubled its prison population over the past 15 years, has experienced a smaller drop in crime than New York, which, after a brief increase, reduced its number of inmates to below the 1993 level.

"There is no question that putting violent and chronic offenders behind bars lowers the crime rate and provides punishment that is well deserved," said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center's Public Safety Performance Project and one of the study's authors. "On the other hand, there are large numbers of people behind bars who could be supervised in the community safely and effectively at a much lower cost -- while also paying taxes, paying restitution to their victims, and paying child support."

About 91 percent of incarcerated adults are under state or local jurisdiction, and the report documents the tradeoffs state governments have faced as they have devoted ever larger shares of their budgets to house them. For instance, over the past two decades, state spending on corrections (adjusted for inflation) increased by 127 percent, while spending on higher education rose by 21 percent. For every dollar Virginia spends on higher education, it now spends about 60 cents on corrections. Maryland spends 74 cents on corrections per higher-education dollar.

Despite reaching its latest milestone, the nation's incarcerated population has actually been growing far more slowly since 2000 than during the 1990s, when the spate of harsher sentencing laws began to take effect. These included a 1986 federal law mandating prison terms for crack cocaine offenses that were up to eight times as long as for those involving powder cocaine. In the early 1990s, states across the nation adopted "three-strikes-you're-out" laws and curtailed the discretion parole boards have in deciding when to release an inmate. As a result, between 1990 and 2000, the prison population swelled by about 80 percent, increasing by as much as 86,000 per year.

By contrast, from 2007 to 2008, the prison population increased by 25,000 -- a 2 percent rise. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has issued decisions giving judges more leeway under mandatory sentencing laws, and a number of states, including Texas, are seeking to reduce their incarcerated population by adopting alternative punishments.

"Some of these [measures] would have been unthinkable five years ago," noted Gelb. "But the bottom line is that states have to balance their budgets."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Monday, February 25, 2008

10% of Americans are former Catholics, 25% are Catholics, 51% are Protestants

San Francisco Chronicle
Matthai Kuruvila
Chronicle Religion Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

Study: 25% of us have left childhood religions

More than a quarter of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised, switching to another religion or no religion at all, according to a national survey of religious affiliation.

In addition, adults who claim no ties to any religious institution have grown into the fourth largest category of religious affiliation, a trend led by California and states in the West, according to a report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Researchers said the large number of immigrants who have come to California from Central America and Asia have had an effect on the question of religious affiliation in the state as well as the makeup of particular denominations, particularly Catholics. While 10 percent of U.S. adults have left the Catholic Church, an influx of Catholic immigrants has kept the church's population stable.

Because the numbers of the unaffiliated have grown, Protestants are on the verge of becoming a minority in the United States. Only 51 percent of American adults describe themselves as Protestant.

In addition to the 28 percent of Americans who have left their childhood faith entirely, 16 percent have switched from the Christian denomination of their childhood to another Christian denomination.

The fluidity of affiliation in the United States underscores the competitiveness of the religious market, in which groups are vying for members, said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum. "If you're going to rest on your laurels, you're history."

The survey of more than 35,000 adults was distinctive in the number of respondents as well as the number of questions posed. It found that 78 percent of the 220 million adults in the United States are still Christian.

Among Protestants, evangelicals are the largest single group, representing 26.3 percent of the nation's adult population. Mainline Protestant denominations - including Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians - continue to see their numbers shrink, currently representing just 18.1 percent of the overall population. Historically black churches, which are increasingly taking on members of other ethnicities, represent 6.9 percent of the overall population.

Catholics are the second largest group of Christians, representing roughly 24 percent of the population - a relatively constant figure for the past 35 years.

But the constancy of that figure obscures the dramatic and unique way in which immigration patterns are reshaping America's religious identity, the survey found. Unlike in Europe, the majority of immigrants to the United States are Christian. And those immigrants are heavily Catholic, particularly those from Mexico.

Among immigrant adults, Catholics amount to 46 percent, while 24 percent are Protestants. But among U.S.-born adults, Protestants outnumber Catholics 55 to 21 percent.

The departures from the church mean that "roughly 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics," the study found. While 31 percent of American adults were raised Catholic, only about 24 percent describe themselves as Catholic today.

These shifts are seen throughout the Bay Area, said George Wesolek, director of the Office of Public Police and Social Concerns within the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

St. Peter Church in the Mission District draws about 25,000 people every weekend, Wesolek said. The Catholic churches in East Palo Alto, the Bay Area's most heavily Latino city, hold most of their services in Spanish, he said.

The responsibilities of the parishes, the social mission of the church and the needs of the congregants are changing as a result.

"The Latino and immigrant base of the church is now making up the core, especially in California," said Wesolek, noting that Filipinos are a large portion of the archdiocese. "That has implications in almost every way." Priests must be multilingual, for example, and be able to meet the needs of different cultures.

The Western states have long been a destination for immigrants as well as the native-born, said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum and a principal author of the study. That mobility and lack of deep roots also play a role in the region's higher rate of the religiously unaffiliated, Green said, referencing other studies.

"The West was settled relatively late," he said. "It didn't have the tradition of established religious institutions that you have in the East or the South. They didn't have that history to draw upon."

That is compounded by immigration, particularly from Asia, which has brought other religious traditions, and that makes Western states like California distinct, he said.

"The West has always been quite diverse in religious terms and is especially diverse these days," he said. "And that level of diversity has created a group of people who aren't as interested in organized religion. They have other options."

Roughly 16.1 percent of the U.S. population describes themselves as not affiliated with any religious organization or body, a category that includes those who believe in God. In California, the unaffiliated account for 21 percent. Researchers said the numbers of atheists and agnostics - roughly 1.6 and 2.4 percent of the U.S. adult population - have remained consistent over time.
Those who are raised unaffiliated change their beliefs, too: Roughly half of those who were raised without a religious tradition now claim one as adults, according to the survey.

Green said the impact of the unaffiliated has yet to be seen. But it needs to be watched.

"The large size of this unaffiliated group could have a profound affect on the character of American religion," he said.

Online resources
A copy of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey is available at:

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Gay Teen's Killing Labeled a Hate Crime

Gay Teen's Killing Labeled a Hate Crime

The New York Times
OXNARD, Calif.

Hundreds of mourners gathered at a church here on Friday to remember an eighth-grade boy who was shot to death inside a junior high school computer lab by a fellow student in what prosecutors are calling a hate crime.

In recent weeks, the victim, Lawrence King, 15, had said publicly that he was gay, classmates said, enduring harassment from a group of schoolmates, including the 14-year-old boy charged in his death.

“God knit Larry together and made him wonderfully complex,” the Rev. Dan Birchfield of Westminster Presbyterian Church told the crowd as he stood in front of a large photograph of the victim. “Larry was a masterpiece.”

The shooting stunned residents of Oxnard, a laid-back middle-class beach community just north of Malibu. It also drew a strong reaction from gay and civil rights groups.

“We’ve never had school violence like this here before, never had a school shooting,” said David Keith, a spokesman for the Oxnard Police Department.

Les Winget, 44, whose daughter Nikki, 13, attends the school, called the crime “absolutely unbelievable.”

Jay Smith, executive director of the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance, where Lawrence took part in Friday night group activities for gay teenagers, said, “We’re all shocked that this would happen here.”

The gunman, identified by the police as Brandon McInerney, “is just as much a victim as Lawrence,” said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center. “He’s a victim of homophobia and hate.”

The law center is working with Equality California and the Gay-Straight Alliance to push for a legislative review of anti-bias policies and outreach efforts in California schools. According to the 2005 California Healthy Kids Survey, junior high school students in the state are 3 percent more likely to be harassed in school because of sexual orientation or gender identity than those in high school.

'He Was Always Smiling'

King's Friend Comments to
That finding is representative of schools across the country, said Stephen Russell, a University of Arizona professor who studies the issues facing lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual youth.

Mr. Davis said “more and more kids are coming out in junior high school and expressing gender different identities at younger ages.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “society has not matured at the same rate.”

Prosecutors charged Brandon as an adult with murder as a premeditated hate crime and gun possession. If convicted, he faces a sentence of 52 years to life in prison.

A senior deputy district attorney, Maeve Fox, would not say why the authorities added the hate crime to the murder charge.

In interviews, classmates of the two boys at E. O. Green Junior High School said Lawrence had started wearing mascara, lipstick and jewelry to school, prompting a group of male students to bully him.

“They teased him because he was different,” said Marissa Moreno, 13, also in the eighth grade. “But he wasn’t afraid to show himself.”

Lawrence wore his favorite high-heeled boots most days, riding the bus to school from Casa Pacifica, a center for abused and neglected children in the foster care system, where he began living last fall. Officials would not say anything about his family background other than that his parents, Greg and Dawn King, were living and that he had four siblings. Lawrence started attending E. O. Green last winter, said Steven Elson, the center’s chief executive. “He had made connections here,” Dr. Elson said. “It’s just a huge trauma here. It’s emotionally very charged.”

Since the shooting, hundreds of people have sent messages to a memorial Web site where photographs show Lawrence as a child with a gap in his front teeth, and older, holding a caterpillar in the palm of his hand.

“He had a character that was bubbly,” Marissa said. “We would just laugh together. He would smile, then I would smile and then we couldn’t stop.”

On the morning of Feb. 12, Lawrence was in the school’s computer lab with 24 other students, said Mr. Keith, the police spokesman. Brandon walked into the room with a gun and shot Lawrence in the head, the police said, then ran from the building. Police officers caught him a few blocks away.

Unconscious when he arrived at the hospital, Lawrence was declared brain dead the next day but kept on a ventilator to preserve his organs for donation, said the Ventura County medical examiner, Armando Chavez. He was taken off life support on Feb. 14.

Brandon is being held at a juvenile facility in Ventura on $770,000 bail, said his lawyer, Brian Vogel. He will enter a plea on March 21.

At a vigil for Lawrence last week in Ventura, 200 people carried glow sticks and candles in paper cups as they walked down a boardwalk at the beach and stood under the stars. Melissa Castillo, 13, recalled the last time she had seen Lawrence. “He was walking through the lunch room, wearing these awesome boots,” she said. “I ran over to him and said, ‘Your boots are so cute!’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ ”

She raised her chin and arched an eyebrow in imitation. “ ‘If you want cute boots,’ ” Lawrence had told her, “ ‘you have to buy the expensive kind.’ ” His boots had cost $30.

“So, for Lawrence,” Melissa said to five girls holding pink and green glow sticks, “we have to go get the expensive kind.”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?

Susan Jacoby, author of “The Age of American Unreason.”

Published: February 14, 2008

A popular video on YouTube shows Kellie Pickler, the adorable platinum blonde from “American Idol,” appearing on the Fox game show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” during celebrity week. Selected from a third-grade geography curriculum, the $25,000 question asked: “Budapest is the capital of what European country?”

Ms. Pickler threw up both hands and looked at the large blackboard perplexed. “I thought Europe was a country,” she said. Playing it safe, she chose to copy the answer offered by one of the genuine fifth graders: Hungary. “Hungry?” she said, eyes widening in disbelief. “That’s a country? I’ve heard of Turkey. But Hungry? I’ve never heard of it.”

Such, uh, lack of global awareness is the kind of thing that drives Susan Jacoby, author of “The Age of American Unreason,” up a wall. Ms. Jacoby is one of a number of writers with new books that bemoan the state of American culture.

Joining the circle of curmudgeons this season is Eric G. Wilson, whose “Against Happiness” warns that the “American obsession with happiness” could “well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation.”

Then there is Lee Siegel’s “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob,” which inveighs against the Internet for encouraging solipsism, debased discourse and arrant commercialization. Mr. Siegel, one might remember, was suspended by The New Republic for using a fake online persona in order to trash critics of his blog (“you couldn’t tie Siegel’s shoelaces”) and to praise himself (“brave, brilliant”).

Ms. Jacoby, whose book came out on Tuesday, doesn’t zero in on a particular technology or emotion, but rather on what she feels is a generalized hostility to knowledge.

She is well aware that some may tag her a crank. “I expect to get bashed,” said Ms. Jacoby, 62, either as an older person who upbraids the young for plummeting standards and values, or as a secularist whose defense of scientific rationalism is a way to disparage religion.

Ms. Jacoby, however, is quick to point out that her indictment is not limited by age or ideology. Yes, she knows that eggheads, nerds, bookworms, longhairs, pointy heads, highbrows and know-it-alls have been mocked and dismissed throughout American history. And liberal and conservative writers, from Richard Hofstadter to Allan Bloom, have regularly analyzed the phenomenon and offered advice.

T. J. Jackson Lears, a cultural historian who edits the quarterly review Raritan, said, “The tendency to this sort of lamentation is perennial in American history,” adding that in periods “when political problems seem intractable or somehow frozen, there is a turn toward cultural issues.”

But now, Ms. Jacoby said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.

She pointed to a 2006 National Geographic poll that found nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t think it is necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. So more than three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map.

Ms. Jacoby, dressed in a bright red turtleneck with lipstick to match, was sitting, appropriately, in that temple of knowledge, the New York Public Library’s majestic Beaux Arts building on Fifth Avenue. The author of seven other books, she was a fellow at the library when she first got the idea for this book back in 2001, on 9/11.

Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

At that moment, Ms. Jacoby said, “I decided to write this book.”

Ms. Jacoby doesn’t expect to revolutionize the nation’s educational system or cause millions of Americans to switch off “American Idol” and pick up Schopenhauer. But she would like to start a conversation about why the United States seems particularly vulnerable to such a virulent strain of anti-intellectualism. After all, “the empire of infotainment doesn’t stop at the American border,” she said, yet students in many other countries consistently outperform American students in science, math and reading on comparative tests.

In part, she lays the blame on a failing educational system. “Although people are going to school more and more years, there’s no evidence that they know more,” she said.

Ms. Jacoby also blames religious fundamentalism’s antipathy toward science, as she grieves over surveys that show that nearly two-thirds of Americans want creationism to be taught along with evolution.

Ms. Jacoby doesn’t leave liberals out of her analysis, mentioning the New Left’s attacks on universities in the 1960s, the decision to consign African-American and women’s studies to an “academic ghetto” instead of integrating them into the core curriculum, ponderous musings on rock music and pop culture courses on everything from sitcoms to fat that trivialize college-level learning.

Avoiding the liberal or conservative label in this particular argument, she prefers to call herself a “cultural conservationist.”

The rest of the article is at:

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

13-year-old killed his favorite teacher

Teen guilty of second-degree murder in teacher killing
May 16, 2001
Nathaniel Brazill is convicted of second-degree murder, and now faces a sentence between 25 years and life.
CNN's Mark Potter reports

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- A jury Wednesday found 14-year-old Nathaniel Brazill guilty of second-degree murder for killing his middle school English teacher last May.

The verdict was a lesser charge than first-degree murder, which was sought by the prosecution and would have carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The jury of nine women and three men, many of them parents, had deliberated since Monday afternoon.

Brazill's attorneys conceded that he shot and killed Barry Grunow, a popular language arts teacher, on May 26 last year, but they insisted it was an accident. Brazill was 13 years old at the time of the shooting.

The teen had a quizzical look on his face when the verdict was read in the hushed courtroom. His attorney, Robert Udell, placed his head on Brazill's left shoulder and closed his eyes.

Udell said his client turned to him and said, "Not too bad," after the verdict was read.

A second-degree murder charge -- which means jurors believed the shooting was spur of the moment and not premeditated -- carries a minimum 25-year prison term up to life in prison. Brazill was also found guilty of aggravated assault for pointing the gun at another teacher as he fled the scene.

But Kurt Grunow, the slain teacher's brother, said he was "very disappointed" with Brazill's conviction on the reduced charge.

"If you want to say you're not going convict him because of his age, that's one thing. But it's clearly first-degree murder," Grunow said. "He said he was going to do it, and he went back and did it."

A sentencing hearing was scheduled for June 29 at 8:30 a.m. EDT.

Brazill's attorneys said that the judge has a lot of discretion in deciding the teen's sentence.

"I think the judge has leeway from zero time in prison to life," Udell said.

Udell said he had mixed emotions because he felt a manslaughter verdict was merited. But he was pleased a first-degree verdict was not returned.

"Apparently, (the jury) believed Nathaniel that he didn't go to school with the intent to assault and/or kill Mr. Grunow," he said. "We won a little battle today."

"I agree that it was a fair verdict. Let's see if we get a fair sentence," Udell said.

Prosecutors said the jury did a good job and delivered a "just verdict."

During the trial, the teen testified that he pointed the gun at Grunow because he would not let him speak to two girls in his class. Brazill, who was sent home earlier that day for a water balloon fight, testified that he cocked the .25 caliber pistol because he wanted Grunow to take him seriously, and the weapon went off. He said he thought the safety was on.

Prosecutors argued that Brazill brought the gun to school because he was angry about being suspended by another teacher for throwing water balloons. They said he was also upset because he was failing Grunow's class.

In his closing argument, assistant State Attorney Marc Shiner repeated his opening statement that a "storm was brewing" inside Nathaniel Brazill the day of the shooting last year.

Kurt Grunow said he was "very disappointed" with Brazill's conviction on the reduced charge

"This is first-degree murder anyway you look at it," he said. "You don't point a gun at someone and when it goes off ... call it an accident."

Prosecutors called a number of students who saw the shooting and a girl who said he made death threats just hours before the shooting. The most dramatic testimony came from Brazill himself during two days on the stand last week.

At one point, he clutched the handgun used in the shooting, showed jurors how he cocked the weapon and put a bullet in the chamber.

Brazill showed little emotion during his testimony, but shed tears when asked if Grunow took him seriously "after you shot him."

Brazill said he pulled the slide back on the gun to cock it and told the teacher to get out of his way.

"I was aiming at his head."

"Where did you hit him?" Shiner asked.

"In the head."

"Did he take you seriously after you shot him?"

Brazill did not respond.

"What did Mr. Grunow do when he fell to the ground?"

After a long pause and with tears welling up in his eyes, Brazill said, "What do you think he did?"

Udell, Brazill's defense attorney, told the jury during his closing arguments that Brazill was morally responsible for the shooting.

"We never said and I will not tell you that Nathaniel is not responsible for what happened here. His parents aren't at fault, the school is not at fault, the gun is not at fault. Nathaniel is at fault and only Nathaniel is at fault," Udell said in his summary statements.

He said Grunow was Brazill's favorite teacher, and that the teen did not intend to hurt him.

Udell urged the jury to consider Brazill's age.

"Any of you who have dealt with 13 year olds, or have one, know that they get stupid on us," Udell said.

One of the key pieces of evidence in the case was a videotape of the shooting from the school's security system.

The tape shows Brazill pointing the handgun at Grunow for about 11 seconds before cocking the weapon and then shooting the teacher. The tape also showed Brazill pointing the gun at another teacher as he ran away.

Jurors also saw Brazill make a videotaped confession to police after he was arrested.

Parent drinking influences teenagers

Parents' drinking influences teenagers
Feb 12, 2008
07 Dec 2007

By Amy Norton

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - When it comes to alcohol, many teenagers may take a cue from their parents, new research suggests.

In a study of more than 4,700 teenagers, researchers found that parents' drinking habits appeared to influence their children in both direct and indirect ways.

In the first case, teenagers seemed to simply follow the example of a parent who drank excessively, the study found. In the second case, many teens seemed to view parents' drinking as a sign of lax parenting, and this, in turn, affected their likelihood of drinking.

Past studies have found that parents can be a strong influence on their children's odds of drinking. The current findings shed light on how this plays out, according to the researchers, led by Dr. Shawn J. Latendresse, of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

"I think that this is an important finding for parents in that it raises an awareness of their multifaceted influence on the drinking behaviors of their adolescents," Latendresse told Reuters Health.

Knowing how they influence their kids, he noted, may encourage parents to seek help for their own drinking problems, or in improving their parenting skills.

Latendresse and his colleagues report the findings in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

The study included 4,731 Finnish teenagers and their parents; all were part of an ongoing health study of twins born between 1983 and 1987. Parents were asked about their past and present drinking habits, as well as any alcohol problems. Their children were asked about any drinking at the ages of 14 and 17, and about their views of their home life.

That included whether they thought their parents were "warm and caring," "indifferent" or "unjust." They also described their parents' tendency to monitor or punish them.

Overall, the researchers found, parents' drinking levels correlated with those of their teenagers. But it was more than a matter of the teenagers simply copying their parents.

Instead, the link was partially explained by the teens' perceptions of their parents as monitors and disciplinarians. Parents who drank heavily tended to be lax in monitoring their children's comings and goings, but tended to punish them more often. Those tendencies seemed to influence their teenagers' odds of drinking and getting drunk, particularly at the age of 14, the researchers found.

The findings, according to Latendresse, suggest that parents who monitor their children may lower their odds of drinking. On the other hand, he added, excessive discipline might have the unintended effect of pushing teenagers to drink.

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, February 2008.