Posts Tagged ‘prison’

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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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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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 is how great America is at the whole criminal justice thing.

There are a number of people who’ve been put in jail because it was believed they were guilty of a federal crime, but when it turned out that this was not in fact the case, there’s nobody whose job it is to tell anyone that these people shouldn’t be locked up.

If you want to challenge a conviction that’s landed you in prison, there are laws and protocols you have to follow to do that. A minor detail like not having committed any crime doesn’t get around this fact, and the Justice Department don’t consider it their job to let these prisoners know that it’s been officially acknowledged that they’re innocent.

These cases are largely unknown outside the courthouses here, but they have raised difficult questions about what, if anything, the government owes to innocent people locked in prisons.

“It’s been tough,” said Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, N.C. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about issues of fundamental fairness, and what is justice.” [emphasis added]

They’ve spent a lot of time talking about this. I wonder what pointlessly insubstantial waffle they must have been saying, if we’re still debating whether the government owes anything to people it’s locked up in cages for absolutely no reason.

I once worked in admin at a psychiatric hospital for about a year, and noted with interest how much red tape and form-filling had to be done in order to continue justifying the detention of individuals under the Mental Health Act.

Most of the patients had regular recourse to a hearing by a Tribunal or a panel of independent managers, and have the details of their case scrutinised by outside experts and legal advisors. The paperwork giving the hospital the right to detain them was usually only valid for a fixed period, and regularly needed to be formally extended, with a number of qualified staff signing off on it. Occasionally, a deadline would approach while something important hadn’t been signed or dated or faxed through, and we’d have to scurry into action to get it sorted, otherwise we’d be illegally detaining someone against their will and they’d sue. If things were formalised even a day late, it was a big deal.

My point is, in my limited experience with psychiatric treatment in the UK, the authorities were constantly having to work to provide evidence that they were justified in imposing restrictions on other people’s liberty. If they didn’t, their rights to detain anyone would lapse in time, and things would tend generally toward a state of freedom. This seems like quite an important idea.

It doesn’t seem to be one the US prison system places much stock in.

Perhaps they’re worried about the expense of all that extra bureaucracy. In which case, Penn Jillette has a cost-cutting measure they might want to consider.

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2009-2010 (Before new approach)
* 798 suspensions (days students were out of school)
* 50 expulsions
* 600 written referrals

2010-2011 (After new approach)
* 135 suspensions (days students were out of school)
* 30 expulsions
* 320 written referrals

Wow, this school in Washington saw some real improvements with whatever this new policy is that they were trying. 30 expulsions in a year might still sound like a lot, but this is an “alternative” school that particularly seems to deal with troubled kids – some of the students themselves describe the place as a “dumping ground” for kids nobody really cares about.

But this new thing the principal’s doing seems to be doing a great job of keeping them in line. I guess really cracking down on these over-confident, disrespectful teens and their unacceptable behaviour started getting through to them. If you’re stern enough, and make it clear who’s in charge and what kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated, they’ll stop acting like they can get away with anything, and you’ll have far fewer disciplinary problems once the majority have been subdued into meek subservience.

Oh, wait, no. The complete opposite of that.

It turns out, bizarrely enough, that if someone’s angry and frustrated with their situation, and has been dealt a crappy hand by life in general, and they express their anger in a burst of shouting and swearing, and you try to make them stop acting that way by shouting even louder, hurling invective back at them, and punishing them at the first sign of insurrection… then you’re not so likely to win them over to your way of seeing things. Chances are you’ll just piss them off even more and make them keep shouting at you.

And this fairly basic fact of human psychology isn’t magically different just because that person isn’t 18 years old yet.

A lot of this comes back to the fundamental attribution error, and a tragically widespread neglect of compassion as a virtue even in circumstances where it might be a bit difficult. It might be less challenging to respond to some uppity kid swearing and raging by taking a dislike to him, putting him down as a bad sort. But very few among us has never had an experience of losing their temper, and we all know that when it happened to us, there was some understandable reason for it. It might not have been a good reason, and we might not be proud now of the way we acted, but it doesn’t mean we’re bad people just because we got a bit angry that one time. Maybe we were just frustrated by things going on in our lives, and we didn’t deal with it very well.

Well, the principal and teachers at this school have been running with the radical idea that young people, too, are human beings with complex feelings and reasons for their behaviours, who may also have frustrating shit to deal with and be ill equipped to handle it appropriately all the time. And it’s working. The kids are learning perhaps the most important thing school can teach them. They’re being given a chance to experience other ways of interacting with people, and finding out that, if you can control your anger, think things through that are bothering you, and trust people who have the chance to help you, it can work.

Complex trauma ain’t pretty.

It’s when your dad’s in prison AND your mom’s a meth addict AND she’s too drugged out to move in the mornings, so you’ve got to take care of your little brother, get him fed and off to school, AND you’re despairing about being evicted for the third time because she hasn’t paid the rent and the landlord’s screaming at you to do something.

Or your dad’s a raging alcoholic AND he beat the crap out of your mom again last night AND the cops came and took him away at 2 a.m. AND the EMTs took your mom to the hospital and you hardly slept a wink and you’re frantic with worry because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you’ve got to stay cool or otherwise you’ll have a complete meltdown.

Or your fat step-dad’s sneaking into your bed in the middle of the night AND you’re too terrified to move because he says if you say anything he’ll kill you and your sister and your mom, who’s depressed AND doesn’t talk much anyway.

Teens who live with complex trauma are walking post-traumatic stress time bombs, says Turner. They teeter through their days. The smallest incident can push them into a full-blown meltdown. Some kids run away. Some explode in rage. Some just mentally check out.

So, yeah. You could treat people who’ve been through stuff like that with zero tolerance and shout back at them to do what they’re told right now or you’ll throw them out and it’ll be their own fault.

Or you could try and help.

(And don’t even get me fucking started on prisons.)

(h/t BoingBoing)

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This image was being passed around on Twitter a little while back, and it helps to demonstrate several things that are wrong with our modern idea of “criminal justice”. And not just the obvious ones.



If you’re like me, your initial reaction will be one of involuntary outrage and injustice, followed by a more measured skepticism about the authenticity of the reporting.

As for the second point, Snopes fundamentally confirms it and provides some context, and a post at Cornell’s student-run law blog looks into it some more. The basics are legit.

So, back to the outrage.

In the case of both of the above convicted criminals, there are reasons why we might want to punish or censure their behaviour, and there are factors that might prompt us to be more understanding. And in both their cases, I’m compelled to focus on how the compassionate option is overlooked.

The reason I checked Snopes about this in the first place is that Roy Brown’s story could hardly be written to tug harder on your heart-strings. He was homeless, he needed to pay for something to eat and somewhere to stay, he took only a single bill when offered several stacks of money, and he turned himself in the next day because the moral code his mother had instilled in him led him to feel bad. I mean, come on.

His past criminal record isn’t described in the screenshot of the article, and it’s not exactly spotless. But responding to his situation by deciding to incarcerate him for the next decade and beyond is irredeemably fucked.

Paul Allen, on the other hand, seems to have got off lightly. He was sentenced to a little over three years, mitigated in part because the $3,000,000,000 fraud he was involved in was “non-violent”. Apparently the fact that he didn’t punch anyone in the face to illegally acquire all that money means he didn’t harm anyone in doing it? And it’s not as if Roy Brown’s crime involved violence, or threats of violence, or would even have necessarily become violent if he had met with any resistance. So that seems like a pretty crappy reason to only go easy on the rich guy.

But his story is juxtaposed with Roy Brown’s, I suspect, to do more than just highlight the extremely harsh nature of the latter’s sentence.

It’s not enough that we feel sympathy for the homeless guy who made a mistake and felt bad; we’re also meant to loathe the arrogant fat-cat who didn’t get nearly the thrashing he deserved. And, despite my anger at the situation, I just don’t.

For one thing, NPR’s excellent Planet Money podcast featured a fascinating piece recently about Toby Groves, a guy who became involved in some major fraud despite everything about his track record indicating that he was less likely than most to act so dishonestly. They talk about the psychology behind these kinds of crimes, and how Toby Groves’s case is indicative of a fact insufficiently widely understood about human behaviour: it’s not just intrinsically terribly bad people who are capable of doing terribly bad things. The situations people find themselves in are hugely influential on their capacity to act immorally.

And holy crap is the financial system good at putting people in situations where doing terrible things seems like the sensible option and is very easily self-justified.

Paul Allen was sentenced in 2011. The criminal investigation into the company of which he was CEO became public in 2009. The fraud that was being investigated was already going on since before Allen took the CEO job, in 2003. So there were multiple prominent and powerful members of this huge national corporation, who spent years defrauding taxpayers out of billions of dollars without anything being done about it, in ways which suggest that these practices were endemic to the sector as a whole.

It’s palpable nonsense to suggest that these businesses will be fine once we get rid of the particular individuals who were in charge, and who just happened to be evil this one time. It doesn’t take a malevolent outlier to monumentally screw things up. I wouldn’t trust anyone with that level of responsibility, and that much potential for wrong-doing.

Roy Brown and Paul Allen can both be sentenced to jail. But we can’t imprison the social problems, drug culture, and other factors that cause decent people to be homeless and desperate. We can’t use threats to keep control over the business culture, the laws, the loopholes, and the complacency within the financial industry which contribute to billion-dollar fraud. The psychology of deterrence doesn’t work on institutional relationships and abstract concepts. (It doesn’t work all that reliably on actual humans.) We need to find some other way to address these things.

Compassion for people suffering from hard times and driven to commit criminal acts is part of the answer. Dredging up hatred for certain individuals, who get swept up in a sea of self-reinforcing greed in a system that makes it so easy for them, doesn’t seem like such a helpful part of the puzzle.

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One legal activist is considering the possibility of an action that might “bring the whole [justice] system to a halt” in America.

That action? Organising people to claim their constitutional rights.

At the moment, most people who are charged with a crime will waive their right to a trial. They’re commonly advised that a full trial could lead them to face serious penalties, whereas agreeing a guilty plea beforehand and getting it all sorted out quickly and efficiently would be better for everyone.

If they took the rights they were entitled to, there’s no way the system could cope. But they’re pressured to plea out, and sometimes they have little choice.

Erma Faye Stewart pleaded guilty, having been told that it was the only way she’d be able to look after her children. As it turns out, if she’d gone to court, the case against her would have been dismissed. But that’s no comfort now that she’s been evicted from her home, made ineligible for food stamps, lumped with court costs and probation fees, and given a permanent criminal record.

I already told them, I’m having a hard time, buying my son medicine. I have to have his medicine for his asthma.

Her son needs medicine for his asthma. Goddammit, if you wrote a character in a movie as heart-wrenching as this woman, people would be vomiting into their popcorn at how schmaltzy and contrived it was. Why the fuck are we not better at helping people?

The fact that the US has a serious incarceration problem is no secret. The idea that the system could be so easily crashed just highlights how broken it already is.

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– So, this NHS reform bill it looks like the coalition government might be inflicting on us. Who thinks it’s a good idea, and who’s against it?

– If you think it’s worth hedging your bets on Pascal’s Wager, you shouldn’t even be in the casino. You’d be much better off having a game of Pascal’s Roulette.

Privatising prisons is all kinds of scary.

– An excellent way to spot comical fundamentalists on social networking sites. My favourite quote: “if there if is a bing bang there needs to be a big banger God”.

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Continued from yesterday’s Part 1, here.

The issue becomes even stickier when you consider mental health issues, and the “insanity defense”. When is it unreasonable to hold someone accountable for their actions if they are not mentally stable?

A recent edition of stats-nerdery programme More Or Less on Radio 4 talked about a man who began making sexual advances to his eleven-year-old stepdaughter. The man was later discovered to be suffering from a brain tumour. He’d never displayed any such behaviour previously, and it stopped immediately after the tumour was surgically removed. Both the tumour and the inappropriate behaviour began to return over time, and it was clear that his personality and identity were being profoundly affected by this unnatural growth intruding on his grey matter.

For someone with a severe medical condition, it seems that the most important treatment offered or imposed may also be medical, rather than simply punitive. But we don’t even need to delve particularly far into the complex science of mind and consciousness to question whether any kind of punishment or criminal justice is warranted in a case like this.

We are our brains, after all, and so there can be no obvious cut-off point at which we’re no longer personally responsible for our actions. If a brain tumour can put sufficient distance between our actions and our “selves” that we can be absolved of guilt, then what about a minor head injury or birth defect? What about mental trauma from childhood abuse, or any other psychological troubles that might induce you to behave irrationally? There’s no easy answer as to when it becomes somebody’s “fault”, even (I suspect) in principle.

But we can still come to useful conclusions about criminal justice without getting bogged down in these difficulties. While we might find child abuse unambiguously unacceptable, can it possibly help anyone, in any way, to lock the perpetrator up in jail, in the brain tumour scenario described above?

It’s not like he needs to be deterred from doing anything terrible ever again. When he doesn’t have an abnormal brain condition, he’s shown no inclination for such acts, and when he does, his inhibitions are so biologically affected that any psychological deterrent will be worthless. And it can hardly be said that we’re “sending a message” that other potential child abusers don’t need to worry about being caught; a brain tumour is something we can check, after all, and there are still systems of punishment in place for those whose behaviours can’t be so easily corrected.

The possibility of the tumour recurring is of concern. The extent to which we’d be justified in detaining someone who might someday develop a medical condition that could lead them to unacceptable behaviour is an important question, and one largely informed by the current state of our medical science.

But this is a real scenario, and it really shakes the foundation of any punitive deterrent-based system of justice. It’s entirely possible that somebody could commit a horrible crime, and yet the response that would accomplish the most good – fewest children molested in future, smallest reduction in individual freedoms, etc. – is not to punish them at all.

If that’s the case, there are staggering numbers of non-violent and casual drug offenders whose prison sentences may urgently merit reconsideration. And that’s just a start.

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There’s very little about any modern system of criminal justice which isn’t controversial. Even cautiously suggesting something like “Crime is bad and it would be good if there were less of it” raises questions about what should constitute a crime, and how good a job the current state of our laws is doing at representing the things we consider socially unacceptable.

One way to reduce crime, as well as to stop people from doing unquestionably criminal things, is to stop labelling certain things people do as “criminal”. In the case of, say, murder, the latter option isn’t really practical; on the other hand, homosexuality and blasphemy have both been considered crimes deserving of harsh punishment in the past, but are widely agreed to be acceptable today.

But even when it comes to acts that we all agree cannot be socially condoned, there are major disagreements in how to respond.

One primitive view of what our criminal justice system is for is that it’s for punishing bad people. A slightly more sophisticated approach might suggest that it’s for punishing people for doing bad things. But if this is really our deepest goal, then the criminal justice system’s implicit intent, regardless of its motivations, is to make things worse.

You stole someone’s wallet? We’re going to steal several years of your freedom. Same if you violently attack someone in the street. If you go far enough, we might even kill you. We’re also doing bad things, but only to people who deserve it, because of the bad things they did.

Obviously this isn’t how we want to see ourselves. We’re acting as noble moral arbiters, stamping out evil in others where we find it. We’re making the world better.

So, maybe the criminal justice system should in fact be for minimising the number of bad things that people do.

You can see why punishing bad people seems to follow from here. It’s an intuitively obvious way of preventing them from doing bad things. If someone does something bad and gets punished, they’ll want to avoid being punished again, so they won’t do so many bad things. It’s one of the most important things we can think of to teach our children. Fear of punishment will also stop many bad things from being done in the first place. Whether it’s flogging, incarceration, or death, people will presumably adapt their behaviour to make sure it doesn’t happen to them.

But just because we’ve had one obvious idea, and it seems to have some merit, that’s no reason to just stop thinking. Are there other things we could do besides punishing criminal acts, which would reduce the amount of bad things people do?

It’s widely accepted that there are. Some of them are pretty far outside the box. But if the only reason we want to punish people is to reduce crime, then we have to consider other things that might also reduce crime.

It’s possible, I suppose, that we have some other reason for wanting to punish people who commit crimes. Maybe it’s fun for us, or we just can’t stand the idea of people who do bad things not suffering any vengeance for it. But that doesn’t sound like something we’d want to accept. We’d be kidding ourselves that our motives were in any way noble and good, if that were the case. We’re not sadists. We only want to punish people when there’s a useful purpose to it.

This is something that’s often lost sight of. Whenever those who make or enforce the law talk about crackdowns or zero-tolerance policies, against criminal behaviour that’s out of control, the justifications are expected to be self-evident. But the leap of logic leaves an important gap. These harsher policies against crime depend on the idea that resolutely cracking down will reduce the amount of crime.

Is that true?

Well, a lot of the time, it seems like you’re not even supposed to ask the question. The way politicians often talk about it, we’re encouraged to make a direct link from our abhorrence of a crime to a demand for harsher retribution, and skip over the question of whether anything will actually be improved by such a policy. In many cases, it evidently won’t be.

Put aside any kneejerk reaction against the idea of criminals getting some kind of “free ride” for a moment. For certain crimes, the numbers clearly show that sending someone to jail makes them more likely to commit more crimes in the future when compared against other options. There are things that we know work better than jail for some offenders.

I’m sure a lot of people who insist on “no free ride” for criminal offenders are acting with society’s best interests at heart. But the fact is, a lot of the policies intended to make sure criminals don’t get a free ride do exactly the opposite of helping.

So, what’s more important: Satisfying our innate, emotional sense of what feels like enough punishment for wrong-doers, or actually reducing the amount of wrong that gets done, and looking at the data scientifically to figure out what will most effectively accomplish that?

To be continued tomorrow, once I’ve figured out exactly where I’m going with this.

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