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Posts Tagged ‘crime’

Here’s one of many, many available stories of someone the US government really, really wanted to murder. He was 17, and ended up on death row.

He was pretty clearly innocent, and it’s hard to imagine the gross extent of the incompetence and misconduct responsible for letting the case go as far as it did. Which is a great place to hang the argument against capital punishment: the system is completely unreliable, as evidenced by the fact that the government were preparing to execute a teenager, despite flimsy details like prosecutors knowingly lying about the evidence and airtight alibis being bizarrely ignored and the clear unreliability of witnesses being suppressed.

So we really can’t be sure innocent people won’t be killed unless we just stop killing everyone. The Innocence Project has counted 330 exonerations of convicted criminals in the last 25 years, through DNA testing, including some who were days away from being put to death. How many others weren’t caught in time?

All that’s still a good argument to make. But this is a reminder, to me as much as to anyone else, that I’d oppose the death penalty even if somehow those objections were utterly resolved.

The problems in any one particular case, with dishonest prosecutors and unreliable witnesses and so forth, are all basically moot. The end result was, you killed someone, or you were going to. I’m not okay with that, and it doesn’t really matter how you got there. No human system of establishing guilt will ever be reliable enough that it deserves to be granted that much trust – but even if it somehow were, let’s still not murder each other over it.

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“The FBI encouraged and sometimes even paid Muslims to commit terrorist acts during numerous sting operations after the 9/11 attacks,” begins an article which gets no less fucking appalling as you read on.

Not for the first time, and to the surprise of nobody who’s paying attention, the FBI are exacerbating and assisting violent and destructive extremism, under the guise of fighting some sort of ideological war against it.

And, as is also frighteningly common, it’s not hard to imagine how few people need to be actually evil for it to get like this. The way their incentives were set up, it just made sense at the time for everyone to behave in destructive, damaging, hurtful ways. In which sense the feds in question really aren’t very different from the fanatics against whom they claim to stand in opposition.

I wonder what it takes to allow this sort of structured and systematised monstrousness to come into being under your watch. Whether it requires a special kind of incompetence or malice somewhere near the top of the chain, or whether this is just how things will inevitably turn out for any society that fetishises law enforcement as much as the modern USA.

When society has decided that an entrenched institution of authority must be respected, and revered, and paid homage to, because of its position at the top of the hierarchy, rather than continuously scrutinized, criticised, satirised, and questioned, in an effort to counteract the further concentration of power lest said power be deployed against us – maybe you don’t need to add outright evil or incompetence to the mix to end up with an organisation indistinguishable from terrorists.

Fuck the police. Fuck the feds. And no apologies for picking a title for this post which would fit better on some hipster douchebag pseudo-rebel’s t-shirt.

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So this guy’s convicted for his involvement in an armed robbery when he’s like 23. Sentenced to thirteen years, which the system expects him to sit out mostly inside a small cage in a secure building somewhere with lots of other people convicted of similar crimes. While he’s appealing the conviction, he’s bailed and gets to go back home, to wait and see if they’re going to come get him and put him in that cage until he’s 36.

By some bizarre quirk of admin, he slips through a crack. These cogs of the bureaucratic machine over here get the wrong idea about what those gears over there are doing, and vice versa. Nobody comes to take this guy to jail. Nobody tells him he’s off the hook, either, because he’s not, but a clerical error means it never becomes anybody’s job to take him to prison.

Thirteen years go by. This guy starts to relax a little, never completely, just a little. Starts to think maybe they’re not going to come for him. He gets married, has four children, learns a trade, starts a business, builds a house for himself and his family. He’s a guy in his mid-thirties now, living a decent, unremarkable, commendable life. Insofar as he was ever a renegade tearaway in his early twenties, he’s a reformed character. A model citizen.

Then a piece of paper or a spreadsheet somewhere comes along, tells a bemused clerk in an office that it’s time to release this guy from prison, where (so the system understands) he’s been quietly serving a thirteen-year sentence.

After some confusion, the local police department realise they’ve got a rather overdue errand to run. They turn up at this guy’s house, and take him to jail.

He was allowed to phone his mother-in-law first, so that his two-year-old daughter wouldn’t be left alone in the house.

Some people are suggesting that this is all pretty fucked up. That whatever administrative cock-ups might have been made in the past, nothing is served by following through on this rigmarole to the bitter end of the dotted line now, and punishing a man who’s worlds away from the person who, back in the 90s, may have let someone borrow his car who then committed a crime – let alone depriving a mother and four children of their husband and father.

I guess if you’re the sort of communist who refuses to venerate the blindly consistent following of arbitrary rules regardless of the individual circumstances, and places greater value on distracting and confusing concepts like humanity and compassion, I can see how you might think like that. But if you don’t want jobsworths robotically enforcing whatever’s written down in black and white, allowing lists of checkboxes to define the way the world is, then what do you think the whole criminal justice system is even for?

I guess the point of prisons, besides keeping criminals locked up where they can’t keep hurting the rest of us, is to serve as a deterrent. Leaving aside whether or not this works even slightly, the idea is that people will be persuaded not to commit crimes because they don’t want to be locked in a cage – but for those people who do nevertheless live their lives in a way that society has deemed unacceptable, presumably something similar is supposed to happen to them. Unless you run a private prison, you don’t want former convicts to commit more crimes and have to be locked in a cage again. They’re meant to be put off that experience, and steer clear of a life of crime in the future. They’re meant to be shaped into better people, who do productive and valuable things, like raise children, learn a trade, start a business, build a house. You know. Model citizens.

Is prison meant to turn Cornealious Anderson into a model citizen? Is it meant to instil in him a respect for authority, a fear of punishment by the system, which will keep him on the straight and narrow in future? Is the life he’s been building and living for the past decade insufficiently virtuous, and is putting him in prison while his children grow up going to improve it?

Of course, even if locking this guy in a cage almost until he’s 50 does no actual good to anybody, and only damages and destroys relationships and things that currently exist, and rectifies nothing that happened in the past – even then, we should probably lock this guy up. If we just let him get on with his productive, valuable life as a husband and father, it might set a precedent. Other criminals might end up going free, instead of serving their time – and we’ve seen what kind of nightmares ensue when we let that happen. Precedents are important.

Cornealious Anderson is currently sitting in jail. Here’s hoping this convicted criminal fails in his latest appeal, and can finally be brought to justice. Because some principles are just too important too abandon, even when they make literally everybody worse off.

(h/t This American Life)

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If you’re in favour of the continued criminalisation of drugs, and you support law enforcement’s efforts to punish those people you’re defining as criminals, be aware of something.

People are doing what you want, in your name, on your mission, in a way that is cruel, unconscionable, vicious, and should make you feel ill.

A New Mexico woman claims she suffered for weeks after a Bernalillo County corrections officer strip-searched her and sprayed mace in her vagina.

Sadism” is exactly the right word, in fact.

This isn’t an unfortunate side effect of a necessary policy. This isn’t a tragic but unavoidable consequence of a general strategy which it’s important we maintain. And this sure as fuck isn’t an isolated incident.

This is just abuse. There’s not even a morally commendable goal being worked towards in unpalatable ways. If anything’s evil, this is.

Now, if you support drug criminalisation policies, you didn’t do this. You haven’t assaulted anyone. You didn’t ask for any police officers to sexually assault anyone on your behalf.

But you really should look into some ways of supporting the policies you want to see enacted, which won’t tacitly endorse the whimsical torture of the innocent.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Is it conceivable, even in theory, that a “war on drugs” might be effective in its goals without shit like this being commonplace?

2. How many individual instances of hard drug use do you think lead directly to physical effects more traumatic and unpleasant than being subjected to a forced anal probe or being pepper-sprayed in the vagina?

3. What the fuck is wrong with America, seriously, I mean, Jesus, you know?

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If you’re arrested in the USA, you’re entitled to certain rights.

Being arrested’s not the same as being formally found guilty, after all. Once you’ve been convicted, you become a convict; if they just suspect you’ve committed a crime, you’re a suspect.

I’m tempted to embark on an etymological tangent about how the noun forms of those two words both have the emphasis on the first syllable, but the verb forms place it on the second, but that’s beside my point.

Closer to my point: When the authorities are still trying to figure out whether there’s any evidence that you’ve done anything wrong, they can’t just start throwing you in jail for as long as they like, or treating you like inhuman terrorist scum. You’re still just a person who they suspect.

If you don’t want every suspect to have full access to all these basic rights until the point of conviction, then you’re granting the police and the criminal justice system a large amount of power over literally everyone. Being arrested isn’t just for the guilty. Even convictions are often overturned when it later becomes clear they got the wrong person; merely suspecting some totally innocent people is, even more regularly, a necessary step on the path to investigating a crime and finding a guilty party.

If you want to start taking away people’s rights as soon as they’re a suspect, before any due process has found them guilty, then you want to give police the power to arrest anyone they like, on suspicion of a crime, without having to prove that they’re guilty of anything, and start refusing them the rights specifically granted them under the law and the Constitution. You basically want a police state.

If you only want to save that kind of thing for the worst offenders, the terrorists who want to destroy your whole freedom-loving country (and maybe the child molesters too because they’re terrible and frightening and definitely not human), then you still want the police to be able to decide, before any kind of trial or impartial assessment, who those worst offenders are, and how guilty are the people they’ve taken into custody. You still want to give the unelected guys with guns and badges a police-state level of power to take other people’s rights away.

And that is not a good thing to do.

This really isn’t that hard. I get that finding deep compassion for people and understanding their humanity after you’ve confirmed with certainty that they’ve done terrible things is a bigger pill to swallow, but “don’t call down the lynch mob on the first guy you slap handcuffs on, before there’s been any kind of hearing or arraignment let alone a fucking trial” is Basic Humanity 101, people. This stuff almost comes in the same lesson as the thing about not throwing bricks through paediatrician’s windows.

Some of the reaction to the arrest of a suspect in the Boston bombings has made it hard not to start shouting “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT DUE PROCESS IS FUCKING FOR, YOU GODDAMN NUMBSKULLS”. So hard, in fact, that I couldn’t hold back from shouting exactly that, in the sentence immediately preceding this one. The whole point is to put systems in place that rein in those baser instincts in us that call for immediate, eye-for-an-eye vengeance when we are wronged. It’s about recognising that we’re all made of meat, and we all fuck shit up. It’s not about making a token gesture to the ideas of accountability and transparency and individual liberty, and then chucking even that out the window once you’ve got someone who you just know is really bad.

And it’s not just from easily ignored extremists, either. Lindsey Graham’s been in the Senate for a decade, and has declared that letting this particular suspect have his rights is the last thing we may want to do. So, there you go. You can trust the cops to know who’s guilty and doesn’t deserve rights. Hardly even seems worth the hassle of a trial.

Hi again, new followers. You may also notice that, as well as a devout atheist, I’m kind of a crazy libertarian. (And even more of a crazy socialist. But we’ll get to that later.)

Anyway, I’ll be back on atheism tomorrow, in response to some questions from my last post and some other recent Twitter interaction. This is just something that bugged me today.

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A guy in prison is suing for being forced into slave labour.

He’s been offered the choice of working for 25 cents an hour, or suffering a condition known to be injurious to mental health.

And he hasn’t been convicted of any crime.

He’s awaiting trial because he can’t afford bail, and is one of a thousand such inmates in this one county alone, who are deemed to pose “little to no” danger to the public. But even if it had been established that he’d done anything wrong in his life – which, bear in mind, it hasn’t – this is the kind of retributive attitude to criminal justice which only serves to further distance the least advantaged from the rest of us.

Initially, a judge dismissed his case on the grounds that none of this man’s rights were being violated by this self-evidently inhumane treatment. The case was based on the 13th Amendment, and the judge said that what was going on here was “nothing like” the slavery of 19th century America which prompted the law in question.

Obviously, there are ways in which this guy’s situation is importantly different from the ownership of other human beings as property. But while the distinctions are important to remember, the similarities are too significant to ignore. An appeal court later decided:

Contrary to the district court’s conclusion, it is well-settled that the term ‘involuntary servitude’ is not limited to chattel slavery-like conditions. The amendment was intended to prohibit all forms of involuntary labor, not solely to abolish chattel slavery.

Whether this is true or not, you don’t need to be a constitutional scholar to observe injustice in the modern world. The way America’s system of crime and punishment treats those people who fall into its domain – whether wrongdoers or innocent bystanders – is a prime example.

(h/t BoingBoing)

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This right here is what I mean about the police.

If you’re a cop and you sexually assault a kid in Texas, you will serve less time behind bars than if you are a woman who has consensual sex with adults; you’re better off having a badge and a rape conviction than a vagina and consent.

It’s not that the police are all terrible people who do bad things. The fact that a particular police officer sexually molested a young girl is, I suspect, largely independent of his career choices.

But the police, as an institution, have a role of particular power and privilege in society which isn’t questioned enough. The prevailing attitudes around them seem to be such that they get off lighter for serious abuses of trust and power than the rest of us would.

Their authority makes it harder for accusations to be made against them, and for prosecutions like this to be successfully brought. There needs to be a sea change in the relationship between cops and everyone else. Part of that change is saying fuck the police, without losing our humanity.

Hey, remember when I was mostly just interested in how a lot of other people believe in God?

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