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Posts Tagged ‘criminal justice’

It takes a relatively short amount of time, and a few fairly well understood psychological techniques, to implant memories in people.

The science is basically in: Your memory is not a camera that faithfully records your experiences in the world and plays them back to you later. It’s constantly re-interpreting and re-writing itself, and can easily be fooled into taking on board fictitious details, treating them just the same as all the memories that originated from actual experiences.

People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened, as one headline puts it.

So, the next time we hear about someone confessing to a crime, and it turns out they were interrogated for eight hours by police first, using techniques known to elicit both false memories and false accusations, can we agree in advance that this confession means nothing, and that we don’t actually have to pay a damn bit of attention to their own opinion on what they did, and that we can thank the cops for screwing up the evidence if we’re unable to bring a case against anyone as a result?

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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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A comedy skit about sex education, put together by a comedian and a small team of writers and researchers for a weekly half-hour comedy show, is way, way more informative, more helpful, more humane, and more truthful about sex, than what millions of American kids are being told by a national education system run by the government.

As much as this clip is great, it was preceded in the show by a horrifying summary of what passes for sex education in the States at the moment, including examples of what many school districts are currently showing to young people, which are virtually indistinguishable from that Mean Girls clip in terms of parodic levels of misinformation and scaremongering.

John Oliver continues to be one of the most important and worthwhile people on TV. I can’t think of anyone doing a better job of highlighting important and appalling things going on of genuine national importance and creating one of very few sources of investigative journalism actually worthy of the name.

Someone who’s pretty close though: David Wong on the Cracked podcast.

I’ve been pretty consistently impressed with that show for a while now, and with David Wong (aka Jason Pargin) in particular. For someone who describes himself as coming from a family with a big background in law enforcement and naturally inclined to lean toward supporting the police for that reason, I just listened to him talk for most of an hour-and-a-half episode, going into great detail and with statistical citations, on everything that is terrifyingly wrong with the US criminal justice system, and the kinds of things research has repeatedly proven it should be doing if it wanted to not be utterly abhorrent.

Okay, obviously I’m exaggerating a little there. He only had an hour and a half, he’d barely got started on how totally fucked up the system is. But it was a pretty damn impressive start.

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This is your not-often-enough reminder that you should all be following Charles Davis. He writes about important stuff, in a way that’s both easy to read and alarmingly effective at slapping you directly in the face with the fucked-up-ness of what he’s describing.

His latest advice is: Don’t pay your taxes.

The revolution can’t come soon enough.

And while I’m at it, Broadsnark is someone else I need in my life, because, well, sometimes I forget to be angry. And then she tells me about how many people get locked up for years without a trial in the US, and then I’m pissed off in a very focused manner all over again. Which is the only sane way to be, really.

Today I may have lived up to my screenname for the first time all month. I plan to have a go at being much more diligent once distractions like moving house have settled down. Until then, please bear with me while I continue to fail at creative discipline.

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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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Jesus Christ the police are the fucking worst.

There is no sense to this. It helps nobody. It makes the world a worse place for everybody it affects.

Not a single individual has been helped or allowed to benefit from this. Not a single aspect of reality has been made lovelier or more conducive to joy or beauty.

People given authority and immunity and powers above those reserved for normal citizens, so that they can keep us “safe”, are going out of their way to actively cause us harm.

This is sad and depressing and heartbreaking and all of it is the direct result of the actions of representatives of the state, for whom there was no need and no justifiable motivation to do any of this, who are devoting massive amounts of their time and our money across the country in situations like this to making things worse and causing misery.

Holy shit do we ever not need to be doing this to each other.

via Reason

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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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Stuff I’m too lazy/tired/dull to write about in any great depth but which is worth mentioning. (Mind you, my 1200 word blarg on Monday was supposed to be one of these, so we’ll see how it goes.)

– Catholic hospitals refuse to perform abortions because a fetus is a person so that would be murder, but also deny that a fetus is a person when being sued for wrongful death. And also demand the right to not offer services like contraception if they decide it goes against their faith. For an organisation calling themselves a hospital, they don’t seem all that bothered about providing medical care, do they?

– In Florida since the 1970s, 74 prisoners on death row have been executed, while 24 have been exonerated. That means for every three people killed by the state, there’s one guy they were totally prepared to kill but who actually should never even have been in prison in the first place. Some people might find this fucking horrifying. Others – like the people who sadly get to make the decisions – think we should stop dawdling and kill more people.

– Speaking of the Criminal Justice system, that whole area seems to be particularly immune to evidence and rationality. We’re still doing shit we know doesn’t work.

– Happier things now. This short article by Penn Jillette on whether atheism should replace religion is the first thing I’ve read in a long while where I categorically agree with every single word.

– If you like meet cutes, this is the meet cutest.

– And the Merseyside Skeptics Society has a new podcast: Be Reasonable. Hayley Stevens and Michael Marshall talk with people holding fringey or “alternative” beliefs, balancing being totally polite and respectful with a proper savvy for skeptical interrogation. You can be nice to someone who’s taken time out of their day to come on your show and defend their ideas, without switching your bullshit detector off or letting extravagant claims go unchallenged. I’ve not heard an interview show that gets the balance this right since the same two interviewers did much the same thing back on the Righteous Indignation podcast.

Phew, none of that got out of control. Time for dinner.

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Blech

I are poorly.

I shall resume sitting quietly and eating unchallenging light meals after this brief message:

Fuck the South African police.

Read the article. The usual sputtering disbelief and impotent outrage from me shouldn’t be necessary. You can fill it in yourself.

(And no, I’m not expecting this to be the first in a 206-part series of sovereign states whose police can go fuck themselves.)

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