24 July 2017

Hedge

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finger

And though I be little, I am fierce.

I haul many pallets of food at work – 1600 pounds of frozen chicken or apple slices. The pallets weigh more than 11 times my weight but I can do it myself. I use a jack, of course, but when I pull it, it leaves me parallel to the ground as I tow with my legs.  If the pallet is really heavy – like 3200 pounds – I ask another work to push from the back. It makes it move more easily.

She uses only one finger.

One.

She – there’s one in every crew – refuses to lend her considerable weight or even a full hand when I ask for help. She’ll put one finger on the back of the load to push, as if that even registers. I might think she’s trying to piss me off but that would require intention and effort and she’s just too goddamned lazy to pull it off.

She used two fingers to bring into work a flyer, provided by her counselor, about the Federal Bonding Program, the Department of Labor’s insurance program for companies that hire ex-offenders. If you hire one of us, you can get six months’ worth of coverage for losses up to $5000. She showed it to me.

“So, like, these people will pay if I steal from my job, right?” she asked gleefully.

“Well, I guess. I mean, it depends.”

“Yeah, but, like, I wouldn’t have restitution, right? I’d just, like, do a tiny bid [sentence] and I wouldn’t have no probation.”

“I’m sure they’d order restitution to Travelers,” I guessed. Why did I not just tell her she’s wrong?

“Who’s Travelers?”

“The insurance company that pays out on the policies.”

“How’d you know that?”

“It’s listed right here on the paper.” I doubt she read past the reimbursement part. Goddamned lazy. 

“OMG, I’m telling people!”

Expending more energy than she has the whole time she’s been here, aggregate, she bounced over to the break table in the corner of the kitchen.

“Yo! Listen! Listen up, yo! Just want everybody to know…they have this program, right? Where they pay for your restitution if you steal, but it’s gotta be from a job. Bosslady says all you do is a skid bid when you use this program,” she announced.

“I did not say that. Ever.”  And I added. “Don’t steal. You’ll get caught.” The lesson sounds as powerful as it was.

We complain that they’re isn’t more help for incarcerated people but we forget that any well-intentioned plan is no match for a mind so nimbly criminal that it can easily dance and slip through any possible loophole or policy flaw.

“Ma, this shows that they believe in us, right, if they willin’ to pay for our shit? Right?” another worker asked me.

I’ve seen this a lot in here. Women who’ve been denied so much see any expenditure devoted to them as a sign of respect, or desire, or support.  Sex workers think that any guy who pays them thinks they’re hot.  They think SNAP [food stamps] exists because other taxpayers are chipping in to help them out with favors they’ll never have to repay. I hate having to break it to them that, even though they’re people, they’re just business as usual for others. Winning isn’t getting people to fork over money, regardless of what they think of you.

“No,” I sighed and tried to stifle my savage surliness. I failed.

“You don’t insure what you trust. They should call it the ‘This-Will-Probably-Be-A-Disaster-But-We’re-Asking-You-To-Give-This-Unreliable-Person-A-Shot-And-We’ll-Pay-You-When-We’re Wrong-Program.’ They don’t believe in us at all.”

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I miss it a little.

 

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM JULY 17 – 23, 2017

Former NFL football star O.J. Simpson appears with his attorney, Malcolm LaVergne, left, via video for his parole hearing at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Lovelock, Nev., on Thursday, July 20, 2017. Simpson was convicted in 2008 of enlisting some men he barely knew, including two who had guns, to retrieve from two sports collectibles sellers some items that Simpson said were stolen from him a decade earlier. (Jason Bean/The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP, Pool) ORG XMIT: NVREN404

After a lengthy hearing where his victim offered to pick him up if needed (which is illegal since most states enter a standing order that people convicted of crimes cannot contact their victims, even with their consent) OJ Simpson was granted parole. After he secured four out of four parole board members’ votes, Simpson was moved within Lovelock Correctional Center, to another cell, “away from other inmates,” in protective custody. Let me be clear here: OJ is in solitary confinement. If you think the use of solitary is reserved for those inmates who break the rules, then let this be a lesson. OJ behaved enough to make parole and they still packed him in.

And my favorite part of the national obsession with his hearing on Thursday was when his attorney told reporters not to listen to the C/O, Jeff Felix, who wrote the book Guarding the Juice because the guard has a mullet. Watch it here.

In the Whole Truth, published in The Sun magazine, law professor Richard A. Leo draws attention to the problem of false confessions in this interview, saying “the real trial [takes] place in the interrogation room,” where lying to suspects about evidence or possible sentences is perfectly legal (even though police have nothing to do with sentencing), and tapes of interrogation proceedings are rarely viewed by prosecution if they’re even made. Leo theorizes that unlimited overtime pay incentivizes police to conduct prolonged interrogations that increase the probability of errors and  false confessions.

And yes, any discussion of criminal justice policy continues somehow to connect itself to our country’s president who has been looking into pardoning himself, family members and close associates.  Donald Trump’s lawyers denied he will pardon anyone because no crimes have been committed and they had better hope so, since everyone Trump-connected is still vulnerable to state charges. It’s amazing that an administration opposed to justice reform might actually need it personally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 July 2017

Proof Through the Night

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gireworks

An elderly inmate walked by. Wiry greys. Careful gait.

LH:                   Fuck that old bitch.

Chandra:         Who? Linda? You know, she’s a pretty good writer. She’s in my poetry class.

LH:                   What‘s she write about?

Chandra:          Umm, a pretty good one about memory, longing and a red watering can.

LH:                   A what?

Chandra:         A watering can.

LH:                   What the fuck is that?

Chandra:          It’s a container that people use to water flowers. Has a spout.

LH:                   You know what she did?

Chandra:          Her crime? No. I don’t.

LH:                   Her cats. She put firecrackers in they assholes.

Silence.

LH:                   She lit them shits, too.

I’ve spent the last six hours unable to sleep, in deep introspection, trying to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with me that I assumed they were lit because not lighting them would be crazy.

 

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM JUNE 26 – JULY 2, 2017

Does-Vivitrol-help-with-cravings-22

Vivitrol is the big buzz now with ProPublica’s recent attempted take-down of its manufacturer, Alkermes, because of the money the company makes ($1000 per shot) and the money it’s spends on lobbying ($430,000 so far). I would estimate that a third of all methadone and suboxone goes to people who don’t have prescriptions, sold by people who do have scripts. The bottom-line is that, to the extent that Vivitrol doesn’t get anyone high and can’t be passed around, it’s probably preferable to any other opioid antagonist.

A study out of England found that treatment programs for people convicted of sex offenses actually increased the rate of offending, particularly when it came to images related to children, i.e. kiddie porn. It was actually group therapy that was the problem; collecting people with these problems in one area and requiring them to talk about it allowed them to exchange tips on dirty deeds. This study might get some attention in attempt to make sex offenders look incorrigible but where it definitely won’t get attention is the fact that it shows that keeping criminally-minded people together – in jail, in prison, in some mandated group therapy session – you run the risk of expanding their criminal horizons, not correcting them.

You can watch what Washington Post writer Radley Balko  calls the “rise of the warrior cop.” With words from Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker posted video from police training that aims to create a “conditioned response” amongst police officers to kill. If you’re not law enforcement, this is what you’re up against.

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5 June 2017

Hello, Newman

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We call ourselves the incarceration nation because the United States accounts for 5% of the world’s population yet we house 25% of the world’s prisoners. We must also be the intoxication nation because 80% of painkillers in the world are prescribed and consumed here.

Every nineteen minutes someone dies of a drug overdose. We’re losing this war on opioids because we’re fighting it like we did in the original War on Drugs, taking out the cornerboys and the runners instead of the real kingpins.

war-on-drugs-nixonFor the past thirty years, justice reform advocates have agreed that supply-side strategy has been ineffective. Both supply and demand stayed high so there’s no point to dedicating resources to plans that don’t work, even if it might have been the right thing to do.

With all the criticism leveled at the War on Drugs, it’s surprising how few people know why it doesn’t work. They don’t even realized that it isn’t being fought according to plan.

William Fine, an owner of the former New York department store Bonwit Teller, had a son suffering from opiate addiction. At a dinner party, he was very open with the then-Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, about his son’s problem and mentioned that Japan had very low rates of addiction. Rockefeller told him to go to the Land of the Rising Sun and find out why its addiction rates were setting.

Fine found that Japan recognized that the vein of vicarious liability courses through the head of any crime organization. war-on-drugs-nancy-reaganThe country’s plan to attack the supply side of drugs was successful because the kingpins in Japan served mandatory life sentences. No deals. Japan’s low level of addiction at the time was attributed to the fact that fewer and fewer people made the career choice of dealing drugs because the consequence of getting caught as a kingpin outweighed the profit to be derived from it.    It was true deterrence in action.

Governor Rockefeller drafted his drug laws to imitate Japan’s penal code and the federal government copied them.

If the drug laws enacted in New York and the United States Congress wanted big dealers and suppliers to be held most responsible for any drug epidemic, not the corner boys or the users, then I live smack-dab in the evidence that this isn’t happening and probably never did.

seinfeld-cosmo-kramer-junk-mail-postmaster-general-wilford-brimleyThe right way to understand the failed War on Drugs is to look at the way Kramer tried to cancel the mail in the Seinfeld episode where he’s getting too many catalogs. Kramer didn’t go to corner-boy Newman for a definitive end to the flow. He tried at the counter of the local post office – a mid-level dealer – to cancel his mail but it didn’t work. Eventually Kramer ends up face to face with the Postmaster General (even though the General captures him), the Kingpin of Canceled Stamps. Kramer had the source of all of the ‘evil’ right before him and…like our criminal justice system, he didn’t do shit and instead buckled, as low-level distributor Newman gets led away for punishment, cuffed and with a pail on his head. The message in that episode is that you can’t stop the mail; the mail has to be motivated to decide to stop itself. Substitute ‘drugs’ for ‘mail’ and you see why supply-side policy worked in Japan but not here. You have find the chokepoint. And attack that, not someone else.

Carly, the talker down the hall, isn’t the millionaire mastermind behind Waterbury’s drug trade like she claims, much less all of Connecticut, but someone else is.  (Note to Carly: kingpins don’t splurge on rims like you did; they buy the whole luxury car). Kingpin’s probably not even suspected of any criminal activity, much less does he fear a life sentence for the dough he rakes in for peddling death through underlings. We punish and confine that guy’s minions rather than releasing them and following them to track back to the kingpins whom Japan didn’t fear and didn’t settle until they were caught. Carly’s no General in the war; she’s just a Newman.

war-on-drugs-bill-clinton-300x499But the Carly’s, the low-level street suppliers, end up being the victims the mandatory-minimums that were designed for their bosses. Prosecutors give them very little incentive to turn on an upper level suppliers: snitch and do some time or don’t snitch and do a little bit more time. With the way we’ve corrupted our war strategy, there’s little downside to being the CEO of an outfit that enables people to get high. Our country is happy to make less fortunate, less educated people take the rap for you. It’s not drugs that have intoxicated us, it’s inequality. We’re addicted to imbalances of power that have normalized these unjust and ineffective responses to a black market.

The War on Drugs failed in the United States because we let our country’s indelible inequity get in the way of the plan. Dealers walk while runners serve mandatory-minimum sentences. We’re too loyal to the American tradition of letting the powerful off the hook while making the 99% pay for their crimes. If attacking the supply side doesn’t work, then it’s because the United States hasn’t looked high enough on the supply chain. You have to take out the Generals, not the Newmans, to win a war.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM MAY 29 – JUNE 4, 2017

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Three California jail guards were found guilty of murder in a detainee death. I haven’t been able to confirm that this is the first murder conviction for the death of an inmate but it looks like it might be. Think about that: of all the inmates who die at the hands of prison staff, the first murder conviction happened in 2017. It’s hopeful and hope-dashing at once.

The New Yorker ran a piece that showed the ravages of the opioid epidemic in West Virginia that’s a worthy read. It also bears noting that West Virginia is a deep-red state and over performed for Trump in the 2016 election. The Feds have jurisdiction over every single drug crime (that’s the aforementioned ‘War on Drugs’) so all the addicted Trumpers have a greater chance of arrest and prosecution with the person they elected to run the country. And if they get saddled with a felony conviction, they won’t be able to vote for him or any Republican. Trump’s policies are a war on his base.

The Bureau of Prisons’ educational programming took a hit from an investigation by The Marshall Project which found that they’re teaching more crocheting than critical thinking skills.

 

 

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22 May 2017

No Chaser

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spicoli

No other inmate believes me when I tell her I’ve never smoked a cigarette or pot. They all accuse me of trying too hard to appear pure.

“I think the fact that I’m telling you this in a maximum-security prison makes a Snow White schtick a little difficult for me,” I defended myself. I use so many words that I sound like Mr. Hand talking to a Spicoli.

It’s not like the potheads here are badasses. In a Connecticut criminal courtroom, the word “marijuana” couldn’t be uttered without the phrase “low-level” accompanying it in the sentence so it’s been decriminalized. I haven’t, but weed has been freed.

I may be the only person who favors prison reform yet hates any type of permissive attitude towards pot.  I can’t deal with stoners. Talk to a daily smoker and tell me that they haven’t dumbed down. While it is true that there’s scant evidence of marijuana-induced violence, I live in a vat of anecdotal evidence that potheads are screw-ups and lumps.

To me,  even in their resting states, they’re as craven as heroin addicts but very few people will recognize that, especially since everyone in here treats pot like it’s Diet Coke, simply because it’s not crack. Many of them have sworn off harder drugs, at least in word if not in deed, but still fantasize about rolling a blunt the day they leave prison. They don’t dream of reuniting with their kids, reconciling with victims, or even walking down a street as a free person. Fatties are all they want.

When your top thought is how you can chemically alter your interface with reality, you’re an addict. Does it really matter that scientists say you can’t be physically addicted to pot? I see women who are psychologically addicted to getting high. Several of them have been inside for several years. Now with reform underway, they’ll emerge to a society that will make it easier for them to find this chemical release. In fact, the most common question I hear is “Can you help me get a medical marijuana card so I won’t violate probation when I get out?” Even if possessing it is legal now, smoking it can get them packed back into prison if they are under supervision that requires drug-testing.

I support what the Connecticut General Assembly just did to marijuana for one reason only: decriminalization will unclog the courts. Most people don’t realize that it’s not just lazy lawyers or pompous prosecutors or cuckoo cops; the size of our criminal justice system contributes to wrongful convictions. Any system manned by human beings has a margin of error. When that system grows larger, the percentage of errors may not necessarily increase but the number of errors does. The fewer criminal cases we have crowding our dockets, the less likely people are to be confined for something that they didn’t do. I don’t support legalization because I want everyone lighting up.

I’m the adult child of an alcoholic. As a kid, I never understood why my parents needed to alter their realities. A child can’t understand why temperaments change; they always blame themselves for what appears to be a parent’s unhappiness. When you’re the child of an alcoholic, booze can ruin your life even when you never touch a drop.

From watching my parents suffer from substances, I learned to like my dysphoria straight up. And I think everyone else should take it that way, too. At least if they want their lives to get better.

Almost every other woman I’ve encountered has a history of substance abuse so the mostly-discredited claim of  ‘marijuana’s a gateway drug’ actually works in here. So many of them are turnstiles already; they’ve used and been used in every way possible and their gateways are several thousand miles behind them. There’s no drug user in this prison who skipped an intoxicant grade. If they’ve used drugs – heroin to dust to an excess of Merlot –  then they’ve smoked pot.   All that anyone needs to know about disenfranchised women and drugs, legal or not, is that they’re a bad combination.

Don’t even attempt to convince me that potheads are generally content people who just relax with a toke. Anyone who gets high with anything is just trying to hide their unhappiness. No one who’s that happy needs to take the edge off their bliss.

No herb, no drink, no smoke can erase emptiness. Even if it’s legal, smoking pot won’t cure what ails them. After pot, it’s just a matter of time before they move to something else. They just won’t get arrested before that now. Only after.

Getting stoned will drain their ambition to rise out of the situations they live in and make it easier for inequality to chase them back into oppression. When poverty, a lack of education, and ever-present violence surround you, it’s just dumb to get high so you can be “mad chill.” No one who’s really on these women’s sides – like the decriminalization people claim to be – would want them stalled where they are with a dime bag, even if it’s outside of prison and can’t get them admission. When you chill, you stay where you are. That’s the last thing I want for the women here.

Of course, there are brilliant, ambitious people who use pot. Bill Maher, who I love, admits enjoying ganja and he’s not leaning on everyone else to get his work done. But for every Bill Maher, there are hundreds of stoned women around me who can’t Google what ailments would qualify them for a medical marijuana permit. They have to ask me, Mr. Hand, and can’t read my clear disdain for all of this.

I fully acknowledge that I would be a significantly duller pain in the ass if I were a bit more relaxed. I’ve wondered if pot would make me more socially-lubed and not the mass of high-strung seriousness I’ve been since the third grade. Just thinking about abandoning my self-imposed duties as monitor and arbiter of all things around me gives me flutters of panic. Who would do what I do? Just the thought of how out-of-control that scene would be scares the shit out of me. Pot’s dangerous if it threatens my imaginary presidence over daily life.

I know there’s evidence that marijuana has benefits for people’s health. I don’t doubt these scientific stats and I double my support for any effort to expand access to medical marijuana. If a remedy exists for someone’s physical illness and pain, we shouldn’t deny them what can make their lives both safe and livable. That’s as cruel and stupid as these life-without-parole sentences in federal courts for possessing a pound of the stuff. When it comes to the wacky-tabacky, we can act a little whacked. It’s better for you to get caught possessing a dead body, bloody fingers and a DNA match than a 20-pound brick of weed and a plan to sell it. If turning a hundred people into semi-responsive slackers is really worse than slaughtering someone, then everyone who teachers psychology would be doing life.

I think everyone’s lives should be safe, livable, and, quite frankly, at least a little bit happy, but not happy because their souls have been marinated or smoked or peppered with herb. I mean happy in the raw, and none of these stoners has ever been anything close to that. That’s why they’re here.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM MAY 15 – 21, 2017

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Rumors are that President Trump wants to name former Connecticut senator and Al Gore-running mate Joseph Lieberman to head the FBI, which is an unconventional choice for top G-Man to say the least. Lieberman, who would be 85 at the end of his term as director if he were appointed, currently works at a law firm that has represented the president for more than a ten years. He also has no experience in federal police work or criminal law. So he’s compromised and potentially incompetent. Sounds like a fit for law enforcement.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, the supervisor of a jail where four inmates died within six months, including one man who dehydrated to death after guards shut off the water to his cell as well as a newborn baby, says he is joining the Department of Homeland Security although the department hasn’t confirmed that. Even though people perished on his watch, Clarke has remained silent on the matter. There are two ways to look at this: either abusing and neglecting inmates to the point that they died in his jail was okay with Clarke or it wasn’t. If it was, then I really don’t want him guarding anyone’s life. If he disapproved of how his employees behaved, then that’s just as bad because it shows they didn’t respect him enough to follow the policies and ethos he established. Either way, he’s unfit to lead.

For the first time ever, the murder of a transgender person was prosecuted as a federal hate crime. Joshua Vallum pleaded guilty to violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and was sentenced to 49 years in prison for the murder of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, a transgender woman who was his ex-girlfriend. “Today’s sentencing reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions, like he cared that the victim was transgender. The New York Times, I think, made a bigger deal of this than it is. It’s not that killing trans people was legal before. It’s just that no federal court took jurisdiction and considered it an act of hate when a victim was transgender. I fail to see how this is a victory for criminal justice; it’s not as if someone will think twice about murder because the potential victim’s gender identity is not what’s expected. There’s no boon here for public safety or defendant’s rights.  It’s a victory for identity politics, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it won’t change courtrooms or police investigations all that much.

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1 May 2017

Throw Scissors

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imageedit_34_5429272107

 

Scales symbolize justice because interests compete; one consideration can outweigh others.

It’s a classic problem in here: pitting an offender convicted of a serious, violent crime who has completely rehabilitated herself and poses no risk versus a repeat offender convicted of non-violent crimes who clearly will never reform herself. It’s all good to spank the shoplifter and bury the one who opportunes the use of a body bag, except when the shoplifter leaves a trail of failed deterrence and she lands in lockup for the same thing again and again. Eventually over 100 times.

Who do we let out? The Career Girl, someone who guarantees her promise of more victims or the woman with a single Whopper crime who will never do so much as change lanes without the proper turn signal if she were released? On paper,  Career Girl seems to win. But on scales, Whopper weighs in strongly.

imageedit_1_2643827904I see it every day. Whoppers stand-by as recidivists sing “I’m on a count-down!” – nearing the last day of her sentence. Everyone on this compound – including herself – knows she will screw up again. She worked while incarcerated because she was required to, but she did nothing to edify herself  – college courses, trade certification, nothing. She attended an accountability class on victimization and emerged believing that ripping off big-box stores hurts no one because she “doesn’t steal from people.” In fact, she considers shoplifting not only victimless but noble.

“I steal from the rich and give to the poor,” she declares, proudly defending a ream of a rap sheet and her choice of fences.

“Who do you give the money to?” I asked her once.

“Myself.” She was indignant.

The guards agree with her; they know her from her numerous returns over the years.

stone_PNG13573“You’ve never hurt anyone,” they reassure her and come together into de facto defense teams, talking each other out of writing her tickets to accomplish her early release as early as possible.

And she leaves behind the Whopper, convicted of felony murder for a burglary in which the homeowner died. She took college classes, has become certified in safe food service, commercial cleaning, cosmetology, all of the prison school’s meager offerings. Whopper acknowledges her direct and collateral victims and admits:

“My crime is horrible. I would do anything to rewind my life to that day.”  Remorse and regret tug her face downward each of the fourteen thousand, six hundred days she’s serving. She’ll never be released even though her supporters and critics agree she’d never reoffend. Wouldn’t she be a better candidate to be cut loose?

Crumbled-Paper-Ball-psd102642We never anticipate a fall in perfect balance, like this, a total tie, like a flipped coin that lands and stands on its edge. The method we use to make decisions is looking, watching for the essential tip that indicates Lady Justice’s favor, the way things should be. When we don’t get a glimpse of it, when we do land in equilibrium, we’re supposed clear off both sides, let them both out. But we don’t do that in corrections.

We need to chuck the scales and come to understand justice is like Rock-Paper-Scissors. Punishment is the rock, deterrence the paper because – examples are made big and wide not in courtrooms but in newspapers – and rehabilitation the scissors that sever an offender from old ways. In the game, none of the three trumps both of the others; it’s the nature of the game that each one’s power matches its vulnerability. Punishment can thwart rehabilitation just like the rock breaks the scissors. Rehabilitation can reform someone, cut through the paper, to the point that she’s an example to follow, no longer a cautionary tale. And deterrence should be able to counteract punishment the way paper covers rock, but it doesn’t.

Scissors-PNG-FileIn real life, when paper covers rock, it just blows away in a few minutes. Rock always wins, definitely against scissors – that’s the plan – but also against paper. And in the game, you never know how other players’ fingers will gather. In real life, though, you know who’s shooting what and who will win. No matter how sharp – or, in the case of Career Girl, how dull –  your shears are, punishment overtakes the game. Rock busts the scissors, punches through the paper, and shatters the scales. Everything else in the system breaks but retribution never even gets chipped.

I see Whopper when Career Girl discharges and say:

“Rock always wins.”

I have no idea whether she understood what I mean. But she throws scissors:

“Oh, they got crack up in here? I don’t want no part of that shit. My dirty days are over,” she says, losing again.

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THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM APRIL 24 – 30, 2017

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President Trump attended a 100-day rally in Pennsylvania where his supporters chanted, again, LOCK HER UP! Since the election is over and Hillary isn’t going anywhere, let’s look at three cases from this past week for real-life examples of women who are about to get locked up.

In Louisiana, two teachers were arrested for bullying one of their own students – even telling her to take her own life – encouraging classmates to fight each other and threatening to fail other children who complained. For that, the two women are charged with “malfeasance in office, intimidation and interference in school operations.” I don’t know about you. but I didn’t even know that ‘interference with school operations’ was a crime. The statute that made it so was undoubtedly designed to be used to charge students who didn’t really commit a crime on school grounds but whom administrators wanted to expel, and a criminal charge could underpin that administrative action. These teachers might run into students who have flowed through the school-to-prison pipeline, aided by the same penal law that landed them in cuffs.

In North Carolina, an Army vet was arrested for shooting her dog, five times at close range, after tying her pet to a tree. The video was posted on Facebook. The dog was her emotional support animal, assigned to her for a diagnosis of PTSD and other mental health complications stemming from her service to her country. The State of North Carolina includes “Veteran’s Courts” in its judicial system. They’re designed to handle crimes committed by veterans who have been traumatized by military service.

A woman in Maryland was arrested for first and second degree assault after an argument broke out in front of her house and she went inside, retrieved a machete, and came out and allegedly threatened someone until the arguers dispersed. She didn’t touch anyone with the large knife. If she had come out with a gun, Second Amendment supporters would have been on her side. Is it acceptable to come out one’s home with another weapon to create one’s own peace?

If you were a prosecutor on these cases, how would you proceed? What if you were the judge? Those decisions you envision now happen in the hundreds every business day around the country.

 

 

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10 April 2017

Joovee

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Anyone who has ever shopped for children’s clothing knows that there are different sizing schemes. “T” denotes a toddler size.  “6X,” a size unheard of in adult clothing, is slightly bigger for the child growing out of size 6 and “juniors” departments offer sizes for adolescents. Without an exact fit, parents try to find the best fit for the meantime until their children outgrow their clothes and need new ones.

We respond more to children’s fitting rooms than their needs in courtrooms. We drape adult laws over juvenile offenders, always expecting a perfect fit that will last a lifetime. Now scientists and policymakers agree that juvenile sentences are like children’s clothes: one size doesn’t fit all.

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The “Second Look” legislation that just came out of the [Connecticut General Assembly’s] Judiciary Committee would change the sentence modification laws for juvenile offenders,  allowing them the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed without the approval of a prosecutor after they’ve served a certain amount of time. many times children as young as 14 receive sentences of fifty years or more. Second Look legislation provides the opportunity for tailoring our punishments once we realize that juvenile offenders’ sentences either never fit or don’t fit any more.

The way they treat juvenile and youthful offenders in here shows they’re different. The C/O’s escort girls under 18 years old wherever they go: school (mandated for young inmates), meals (they eat alone in the large dining hall and return to their unit before adult inmates are released for chow). Little girls aren’t treated like adults in the big house, but they are in the place that gets them here: the courthouse.

"Voices from Juvenile Detention: Kids in Prison" It sounds harmless: Òpre-trial detention.Ó But the reality is far different. In a squat block building in Laredo, TexasÑand in similar places around the nationÑchildren await trial or placement in concrete cells while the underlying issues that led to their behavior fester. Some are addicts who need treatment; others are kids battling mental illnesses. Many are angry and have been virtually abandoned by absentee or irresponsible parents. Some spend a few days, others months, but despite the efforts of a small corps of dedicated professionals, few actually receive treatment for the issues that brought them to Juvenile. /// The Youngest 10-year-old Alejandro is shown to a holding cell where he'll await booking at Webb County Juvenile Detention following his arrest for marijuanna posession. Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.

But the Second Look legislation is cut too small; it helps only those offenders who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offense. The age limitation flies in the face of the most recent neuroscience on the subject, specifically the fact that the part of the brain that governs judgment and impulse does not fully mature until someone reaches the age of 25. In their arrest warrants, police investigating crimes committed by women under  25 – particularly serious and violent crimes by those women – usually tell the stories against backdrops of adolescently dysfunctional behavior:  a co-defendant loser boyfriend who seduced them and induced them into criminal behavior, a complete and total devotion to him during the prosecution of the case, even though her “Co-D” is foisting his responsibility on her.

Even though most of the frontal lobe research embraced by the American Psychological Association indicates that every offender under 25 merits the same consideration in sentencing because their brains are still not completely developed, all offenders between 18 and 25 are left out of it. The law ignores the totality of the science it depends on. Despite this data, using an arbitrary cut-off, a numeric construct, namely the age of 18, perpetuates the practice of fashioning one punishment for a population based only on their ages and not what’s appropriate for the individual offender.

"Voices from Juvenile Detention: Kids in Prison" It sounds harmless: “pre-trial detention.” But the reality is far different. In a squat block building in Laredo, Texas—and in similar places around the nation—children await trial or placement in concrete cells while the underlying issues that led to their behavior fester. Some are addicts who need treatment; others are kids battling mental illnesses. Many are angry and have been virtually abandoned by absentee or irresponsible parents. Some spend a few days, others months, but despite the efforts of a small corps of dedicated professionals, few actually receive treatment for the issues that brought them to Juvenile. /// The Youngest 10-year-old Alejandro has his mug shot taken at Webb County Juvenile Detention following his arrest for marijuanna posession. Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.

Connecticut isn’t alone in being kind of wrong in doing the right thing for juvies. This new law would follow the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States who, in their 2010 opinion in Graham v. Florida, declared the death penalty unconstitutional for 15 and 16 year-olds because their adolescent brain development lessened their culpability. But for 17-25 year-olds, execution is fine, even though the research findings say it isn’t.

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Juvenile justice considerations are usually pretty theoretical to me because I came to the can an old biddy. Neither I nor anyone I associated with was in trouble when I was a teenager. No boyfriend of mine brought me to criminal behavior on a date. However, I ran with a different crowd than these women. My friends, the boys I met, were all from the upper-middle class and were fixated on their futures, even the iconoclast on an opposing debate team who called in a bomb threat to a local school; he’s supposedly a lawyer now. Redistricting ambition into the less affluent neighborhoods, the subsidized housing and the elusive culture that the inmates call “the streets” rarely happens. If I sprang from those circumstances, boys could have easily led me into bad business. Everyone credits her judgment for her clean history but, most of the time, it’s just luck and economics.

"Voices from Juvenile Detention: Kids Behind Bars" It sounds harmless: “pre-trial detention.” But the reality is far different. In a squat block building in Laredo, Texas—and in similar places around the nation—children await trial or placement in concrete cells while the underlying issues that led to their behavior fester. Some are addicts who need treatment; others are kids battling mental illnesses. Many are angry and have been virtually abandoned by absentee or irresponsible parents. Some spend a few days, others months, but despite the efforts of a small corps of dedicated professionals, few actually receive treatment for the issues that brought them to Juvenile. /// Inmates, ages 10-16, wait in line to march back to their cells in the exercise yard at the Webb County Juvenile Detention facility. This is the world of young felons, of kids gone astray, of children who cry for their mothers from behind bars. Some have skipped class too much, some have murdered in cold blood. At least half of the kids have been incarcerated before. And, if society's attempts at rehabilitation ultimately fail--or if the parent can't or simply won't do anything to turn around years of neglect and abuse--just a few more visits to juvenile detention will harden some of these kids into full-fledged adult criminals.

Adolescent stupidity plays out differently in different dioramas – one with government cheese instead of Chili’s quesadillas, one with a fire hydrant instead of a swimming pool, one with parents who wait in line for housing vouchers rather than stand on sidelines of field hockey fields – and will wreak different results. But even someone from the wealthiest, most stable family can make a sufficiently long list of stupid mistakes they made before age 25; an eighteenth birthday doesn’t cut the list off.

In fact, I did most of my dumbest, most barely legal shit in college  – when I was 18 through 21 – the exact ages that this law wouldn’t cover. Even if I had been arrested for any of my alcohol-fueled dalliances with the thought that I was edgy and cool for pulling reckless capers, my family would have reeled me out of this pit in the same way that legislators are trying to help the girls who are here now.

If I had suffered consequences for my stupidity and my family hadn’t had the resources to help me, I’d have been as fucked as the young women in this place are. The kids are goofy but these young ladies are extremely focused on appearance: making uniform jeans tighter, wearing elaborate cat-eye black on their lids, erecting mazes of hair on top of their heads with curls, yet they’re a little dour because, I think, they know that no one’s coming for them. At 19, they’re already too old to attract the right kind of attention.

Update: Photos here depict real juvenile offenders, the last four are pictures of 10 year-old boy who was arrested in Texas for marijuana possession, caught while copping for his mother who has a substance abuse problem and couldn’t post his bail. AN ACT CONCERNING LENGTHY SENTENCES FOR CRIMES COMMITTED BY A CHILD OR YOUTH AND THE SENTENCING OF A CHILD OR YOUTH CONVICTED OF CERTAIN FELONY OFFENSES was passed into law in Connecticut after I left prison, in 2015. It still left out offenders aged 18 to 25.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM APRIL 3 – 9, 2017

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It was another numbers game last week, with some shockers.

The Washington Post reported that ninety percent of criminal charges brought by the IRS were false, based on an overbroad definition of “structuring” – the practice of splitting deposits, supposedly in order to dodge reporting requirements. Many of the deposits were made for legitimate business purposes. Makes you wonder if Jersey Shore reality star Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino who was hit with more tax fraud charges this week, including splitting deposits, is one of those victims of the IRS.

Twenty-nine cops killed themselves during the first quarter of 2017. Over 100 took their own lives in 2016. If suicides are just the tip of the mental illness iceberg, then how many more are psychotically depressed, chronically depressed, anxious to the point of jumpiness or traumatized to the point that they’re dangerous to the rest of us, discharging their weapons when shooting isn’t justified? It might explain why they want only cops to serve on juries in trials of cops accusing of assaulting or killing people by shooting them.

One of the 8 men scheduled to be executed in an 11-day death penalty bonanza in Arkansas has been spared. One of the remaining seven wrote for Vice News and the Marshall Project what it’s like to wait for your execution date. Here’s a hint: your death row neighbors call dibs on your belongings and prison staff actually cares that the clothes you wear to get killed fit your properly. I think it’s a disgusting end to any life, even if it did end another’s, if you ask me.

 

 

 

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11 April 2016

You Are What You Own

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It must be easy for women who end up in prison to forget their pasts. So many of them come here after an unexpected arrest and all of their family photos, important documents, letters from parents before they passed – all of their momentos – get chucked along with their cookware, clothing and furniture.

When they leave the facility and track back to the angry landlord who evicted them they find out that all the pieces of their lives have fallen victim to a court order and incineration. Lady Justice just vacuumed up the only trail left of their lives.

This, of course, applies to the women who owned these items in the first place. Many don’t. The only evidence of their existences is rap sheets, bad debt and victims, not christening gowns and photo Christmas cards.

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The extent of prison property.

Prison’s like a dry run of You-Can’t-Take-It-With-You lesson because you can’t have anything from home. I’m reasonably attached to my possessions, as well as keeping track of them ever since my father threw out a twice-worn pair of Joan and David loafers when I was in high school. The reason? They were on the stairs and I wasn’t wearing them. He wasn’t punishing me for abandoning them on the passage between the floors of the house. He saw them and noticed that I wasn’t wearing them – two very good reasons to discard any useable article of clothing – so he tossed them. Unlike his eldest daughter, he is thoroughly unsentimental – as well as disorganized – and will bulldoze any living quarters to the local dump without hesitation, like landlords do to the other inmates.

Going to seg is a dry run of the dry run because other inmates pick at your things, taking what they like before anything reaches a property officer’s hands.  Then she culls out everything you’re not allowed to have, all your contraband. It’s like having someone pack up everything in your home while you’re away and, when you return, everything that remains fits in a shopping cart. Even when inmates leave the facility, departure distills years, even decades, into baggies. Sometimes all you own after eighteen years can fit into a purse, like a small Prada mock-croc that had better be in my closet when I get home.

Because I can’t see my life in possessions from here, I spot check over the phone.image

“Where are my yearbooks?”

“Is all of my field hockey stuff still there?”

“Did you take all the papers out of my car when you picked it up [from the parking lot behind the courthouse when I was sentenced surprise party-style]? DON’T FORGET THAT’S EVIDENCE!”

My parents always promise yes, but the proof of the pudding is in the actual inventorying. Which I won’t get to do for years.

Having all of one’s possessions swooshed away is standard for natural disaster victims, but for woman-made disasters, the guilt and the trauma that flow from telling your children that you have none of their school pictures – and all because your boyfriend was selling heroin out of your living room to an undercover cop – must be overwhelming and indelible.

No one saves mementos of dark times. The baby clothes, the wedding albums, the Christmas ornaments corroborate our memories, our knowledge that our lives were good once. And might even be good again one day.

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“Where’d she go?” “Dunno. I think she got arrested.”

That’s why sentimentally-valued stuff probably means more to a prisoner than to others. We’ve grown accustomed to evidence against us. But those mementos are evidence for us, in our favor, proof of why we should start liking ourselves again. When someone tampers with that tangible witness of our worth, we can’t even make a case for ourselves to ourselves. Even less can we do it to others.

For me, it’s one of the worst scenarios to witness when an inmate comes in. The hiccuping sobs and wailing about all the tender belongings that can’t be saved. With some confidence I can assure a crying inmate, tears falling on denim pants so news they’re still waterproof, that her lawyer will call, that she has a chance at trial, that her kids will come to visit, that she’ll be home one day.

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Welcome home.

But the holdings that make a home will be gone, I know. She knows, too. It’s futile to attempt to convince her that her landlord will save her property. He’ll sell what has real value and chuck whatever has emotional value. The support for the idea that a third party values your life enough to save your property is flimsy, especially here, in a place that, by its very purpose, devalues your life.

All I can do for these women is pat their backs and serve a generic “It will be alright.” An acid-like burn spreads in my chest when I have to say that because I know that I wouldn’t be able to handle the knowledge of that kind of loss. I also hate having to admit that I am lucky that my parents hold my stuff and allow me to call and ask questions like:

“All of my awards and my Princeton sweatshirts are still there, right?”

And they answer:

“Yes, Chandra. Where would they have gone?”

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THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM APRIL 4  – 10, 2016

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I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children…You are defending the people who kill the people whose lives you say matter. Tell the truth!” is what former President Bill Clinton yelled at Black Lives Matter protesters on Thursday in Philadelphia where he was campaigning for his wife. He #sorrynotsorry-ed the next day. I disagree with this whole Blame-the-Clintons attitude when it comes to the country’s incarceration problems. The former president’s 1994 crime bill could not have predicted trends in the black market of illegal drugs and how privatization would impact them. Sometimes even well-intended policies go wrong. The challenge is to correct those policies when the evidence of their impact appears.

President Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any other president, usually because they have been convicted of aggravated felonies. But the deportation always comes after we spend thousands to incarcerate these people. Why don’t we deport them before we spend all of this money on housing and feeding them? This never made sense to me.

Does it make sense to raise the “felony theft threshold” – the amount that needs to be stolen for the crime to be considered felonious? As someone who bunked with several serial “boosters” (shoplifters) I don’t think the threshold matters. Unless rehabilitated properly (which no one, including me, knows how to do) they will continue to steal small items and get their sentences enhanced under persistent offender statutes. It won’t make difference if you ask someone who’s been inside.

 

 

 

 

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4 January 2016

Lest Ye Be

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“Jesus. How long does she have?” I asked my cellmate as I nodded toward a woman with one arm at her side, lifeless, as if every nerve had been cut. She didn’t have a cast or a bandage. Whatever happened to her arm was permanent. She seemed like the hanging appendage wasn’t there  and walked like nothing was wrong.

“I dunno, six months?” TL guessed.

“So whatever she did wasn’t that serious,” I concluded out loud.

“Guess not. Why’s it matter?”

“The judge just absolutely had to send her to prison? A six-month sentence is like, for what, drugs, minor stealing? Someone could have sentenced her to probation so she didn’t have to come in here and be subjected to possible assaults, never mind how people taunt her for her disability. That’s all I’m saying.”

“She’ll be fine,”  TL assured me.

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Fisticuffs over one of these.

And she was fine. For the next few hours. Until her cellmate beat her up over a Goody hair elastic, ones that sell for 99¢ for 20 of them off the commissary.

“Jesus, is she okay?” I asked when TL informed me.

“Well, she’s in seg.”

“Why?” I was pissed.

“Well, she, ya know, fought back. You know them deadarms don’t feel no pain. She probably got a few good shots off,” TL explained.

“What have we become that one of us is beating the shit out of a handicapped girl for a hair tie?!” shouted LD as she overheard us. She used to be a correction officer before a drug addiction derailed her life.

“What have we become that we think ‘them deadarms’ are an advantage, a weapon?! Jesus.” It was all I could say.

When I see inmates walk around the compound with canes and severe limps, women who are missing eyes and legally blind, ladies with dwarfism or in wheelchairs, I think to myself: Wow, Lady Justice really doesn’t see any difference in defendants. What a cold-hearted bitch.

imageCrime really is equal opportunity so individuals with disabilities are allowed to break the law, too. Fairness dictates that people should be punished uniformly. But when I see an inmate, a Little Person, get cut down even further by guards who make fun of her size like she’s an exhibit, or a woman who’s paralyzed on one side because she was shot in the face and unable to carry her tray and no one helps her, I don’t think this is fair at all.

The only living person who can put someone in a correctional facility, at least in Connecticut, is a judge; police and prosecutors can’t do it alone. Accused persons can be held in police stations before arraignment but that’s considered “lock-up,” not prison. To get to a prison, a defendant must be officially remanded which means that a judge orders her into custody.

imageYou can argue that it’s someone’s behavior that sends her into correctional control. Even those completely bent on self-destruction cannot get here without a final push from someone in a black robe.

To me, judges are like mothers who drop their kids at a day-care center. They have the power to determine where another human being lives, even if it’s just for a number of hours. If a mother left her child at a day-care where that double-edged razor blades came with the juice boxes and the place was staffed with convicted sex-offenders, we would call her a bad mother, possibly kick her into prison for endangering her child. The mother’s not knowing what happens in the day-care doesn’t lessen her culpability; it was her decision and discretion that sent the child there. The kid has no choice and is powerless to collect all the blades safely and fend off dangerous adults.

Disabled inmates are a bit like those day-care kiddies. Harsh words and taunts from C/O’s slice up their self-esteem and they are, very often, unable to fight off violence from sociopathic prisoners.

The judges who place them in these positions should be ashamed of themselves, especially since sentencing alternatives and diversionary programs exist that can prevent exposing vulnerable people to peril.

imageSometimes the environment is so hostile that the danger it poses reaches constitutional violation levels. A judge in Nebraska caught flak when she thought that the defendant, convicted of sex offenses, was too short  and his obvious size disadvantage subjected him to potentially cruel and unusual punishment in the Dog-Beat-Dog culture of a men’s maximum-security prison. Apparently, critics of the judge thought that defendant Pip Squeak should suffer the death penalty at the hands of other violent offenders. That was a punishment they considered fair.

If judges really want to dispense justice tempered with mercy, they would familiarize themselves not only with prison conditions but prison culture. At the very least, the emotional and mental torment that a different-looking or different-walking inmate experiences in prison should factor into sentencing decisions. The physical risk put to many disabled inmates is, quite frankly, enough to justify putting them on house arrest and letting them stay home.

But judges will never comprehend prison safety problems because they never experience them first-hand. “That’s DOC. That’s not my territory,” is a common judicial punt whenever prison perils appear in the arguments before them.

imageBut it is the judges’ territory which is why every new jurist should have to spend one week in prison as an average inmate. The judges’ one-week stopover will be most defendants’ stays, so even one week won’t constitute a full meal of correction, only a mouthful.

But then judges will be able to put their money where their mouthfuls are if they willingly subject themselves to the confinement conditions they inflict on defendants who quake before their benches, terrified about what might happen to them when prison walls envelop them.

Only when a real Do-Unto-Others ethic appears in the decisions judges make will we have true fairness in our courtrooms and the only way to impart that context to judges is to send them to the slammer, only for a little while. I think we’d see that they’d call Lady Justice a bitch when she deadarms them. She, too, is in here now, sent by a judge for a misdemeanor even though she’s blind.

 THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 28, 2015 – JANUARY 3, 2016

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Hacktivist group Anonymous claims to have evidence that clears Steven Avery, the prisoner who is the subject of the hit Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.”  Okay…we’re waiting…and a man you say is innocent is languishing in prison. A little less conversation and a little more hacktion, please.

The State of Washington’s Department of Correction’s computer glitch has been releasing people early in error. Now two people released early have been charged with homicides. These people probably would have re-offended anyway when they were released properly because rehabilitation is clearly not taking hold in Washington prisons.

Buzzfeed reports that Cleveland Judge Calls Prosecutor’s Approach in Tamir Rice Case “Unorthodox” after the prosecutor instructs a grand jury not to indict two policemen in the shooting death of a 12 year-old boy. Is what Judge Ronald B. Adine calls “unorthodox” really just standard operating procedure?

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19 October 2015

Stoners

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Written October 23, 2011

No one in Washington fears throwing the first stone, especially Senators. They accuse each other of crimes and cover-ups – usually requesting prosecution by the Justice Department – regardless of the Senate Ethics Committee’s investigative results.

imageWith the Senate chamber hanging off a rockledge of criminality, it’s most puzzling why the entire Senate didn’t back Senator James Webb’s (D-VA) National Criminal Justice Commission Act. After all, if each of the stones stuck, many senators would land in the criminal justice system themselves.

Ironically, the senators who stonewalled the bill the most are the ones most likely to end up in the slammer: Tom Coburn (R-OK) for violations of lobbying laws, John Ensign, (R-NV) for crimes committed in pursuing the wife of a staffer, one involved in Colburn’s woes, and Larry Craig (R-WY), who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for his toe-tapping toilet routine in a Minneapolis airport, are among the people who are against reform.

imageSenators have stalled Webb’s legislation for his entire term and without good reason. Comparatively speaking, the cost of the commission to be established by the law – $14 million – broke no beltway banks, so money was an unlikely barrier to support. The law’s goal – establishing a blue-ribbon panel of experts to conduct a complete, top-down scrutiny of the nation’s criminal justice system – shouldn’t have been too politically polarizing.

imageBy itself, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act did nothing to the prosecution of criminal defendants except seek to understand the present system since the last nationwide analysis occurred more than 45 years ago. The Commission Webb wanted to establish would have been a stepping-stone to reform, not the change itself. All that Webb’s law wanted to do was to know what to do. It wasn’t much more than a study bill.

Statistics on crime and punishment are just like those newsy health bulletins that confuse everyone. Caffeine good for you. Caffeine bad. Premedicate with antibiotics before dental visit. Or don’t. Up to you. Alcohol is bad but wine, which contains alcohol, is good for you. But only one glass. Maybe two. But a Big Gulp in Manhattan will kill you. That’s why we hear things like: Crime’s up. No, it’s down but prison populations are up, because they’re potheads. I mean, dope fiends.image

Public health researchers reconcile these competing claims with studies call meta-analyses; a meta-analysis is a study that studies other studies and attempts to synthesize conclusions into one universal truth. Or maybe a couple.

The National Criminal Justice Commission Act was poised to be the meta-analysis of the criminal world, synthesizing sentence durations, corrections data, foster care trends (for children of inmates), substance abuse research and re-entry strategies into one answer for reform. All we have now is a trend herd, out of which emerges a promising number here, a sluggish rate change there. We have no idea what to do.

imageWebb’s legislation rolled away from the Senate without gathering any moss, not because we couldn’t find answers, but because, once answers reveal themselves, the answers must lead us. No one knows what a criminal justice meta-analysis will unearth. Maybe longer sentences for certain crimes. Sentence reform advocates wouldn’t like that. What if the “treatment” everyone wants instead of jail works only on the fourth or fifth try, like so much research suggests? Do we make three or four futile attempts at taxpayer expense? What happens if it looks like the draconian Rockefeller drug laws might reduce crime and prison populations if we gave them a few more years to work? Every mass incarceration protester would have to drop his sign.

Revealed by meta-analysis, certain answers will devalue someone’s entire life’s work. Certain answers we just don’t want because theyimage end questions, stone-cold. If questions remain, so does uncertainty and uncertainty is the perfect way to justify doing nothing.

The reason why Webb’s bill failed is the same reason why our prison’s are filled: once you know the right thing to do, you’re obligated to do it. To avoid obligation, you simply ignore what you’re expected to do which is easier now that the Senate has erected a gravestone on Jim Webb’s legislation. R.I.P. – Reform Isn’t Probable.

 

 

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10 August 2015

Probable Pause

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The “probable cause” standard for arresting someone dips lower and lower each year.  The legal standard used to be that it was as likely that a suspect committed a crime as it was that she was innocent, a 50-50 split on the cops chances of catching the right woman.  Now what you have on – or have on you – can collar you for prostitution without money or sex in the offing.

imageIn five-plus years of incarceration, I have encountered hundreds of women accused or convicted of prostitution.  Even though they all wear the same outfit as I do when I interact with them – “uniform of the day” of baggy blue jeans and a burgundy T-shirt – I always envision them wearing the same thing when they work:  a sequined miniskirt, thigh-high stiletto boots and a cropped jacket made of faux fur.  I have succumbed to the celluloid stereotype of the streetwalker myself, as broadminded as I pretend to be about depictions of prostitutes painted with a broad brush.

Ginia Bellafante’s April 7, 2013 “Big City” column in The New York Times reminded me just how much we rely on clichés to make decisions.  Bellafante reported the story of Yhatzine Lafontain, a man falsely arrested in Queens, New York for prostitution simply for wearing “a jacket, a short dress and heels,” attributing Lafontain’s false arrest to the stop-and-frisk vortex circling New York’s five boroughs.  It’s no slippery informant tipping off NYPD to make these prostitution arrests, but people’s clothing ensembles.

imageEveryone is guilty of depending on stereotypes whether we cop to it or not.  We expect terrorists to be swarthy, turban-wearing Middle Easterners.  We assume dorky-looking Asians to be brilliant.  Every spurned woman is a stalker and any poor soul afflicted with mental illness and messy hair is planning a rampage killing.  Anyone walking a New York City street in the middle of the night with heels, a mini and a furry windbreaker?  That’s a hooker in our minds.

The truth eventually wanders into our minds and aborts our pre-conceived notions, isolated examples like Mr. Lafontain that remind us that not only are these exceptions not the rule but sometimes the rule is not the rule either.  The thoughtful among us retain this information and prevent our stereotypes from taking action but police, those people discouraged from thinking and pushed toward profiling, march lockstep with careless classification when they make arrests for prostitution like Mr. Lafontain’s.

POL-ProbCause-2That 50/50 split that is probable cause is so easily influenced by our preconceptions and prejudices. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if an arrest wasn’t the kick-off it is to a years-long ordeal that includes arraignment, definitely pre-trial, possibly trial, probably conviction and unfortunately incarceration. Our country’s crisis of mass incarceration has been set off by our misperceptions. Millions of people lose their freedom and billions of dollars are spent because of mistakes.

The question of whether or not to arrest someone for prostitution based on what s/he wears does not blend well with debates about profiling for terror or rampage killings because, regardless of profiling’s efficacy, the events that police seek to prevent by profiling are deadly.  Collaring someone for prostitution doesn’t save lives like that; at best, it’s cock-blocking.  At worst, it is the most insidious mode of judgment, bumping the contents for the cover and it corrupts every constitutional protection belonging to a dude in heels.

Transsexuals in Brazil by Pep Bonet / NOORSome might say that preventing consummation of the deal between a prostitute and her customer can save lives because it prevents transmission of deadly sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, but people in the sex trade don’t tote condoms like they used to, ever since police in large cities across the country used the number of rubbers someone carried with her as probable cause for a prostitution arrest.  Up to three prophylactics in your pocket when you’re trying to cross the street?  You’re just a slut.  Four or more?  You’re a paid whore.  It’s this ugly math that causes prostitutes – and everyone else – to leave the Trojans at home so they don’t end up in cuffs.  So no, prejudice and profiling in prostitution save no lives; they just imperils them, even if several large cities’ police forces have entered moratoriums on condom-counting as probable cause.

imageBesides, the streetwalker went inside years ago.  Prostitution transactions occur on the internet and then are consummated at truck stops, casinos or motels.  Or they happen in day spas that are really brothels with a steam room and a few manicurists.  See?  Stereotypes again.

Fifty years ago this year, two treatises on prejudice and stereotypes emerged as alarms about how we view gender and race:  Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  One essential message contained in both was that reality – and justice and fairness – was beneath the surface.  Confining people – in jails or in society’s imposed roles –based on appearances makes a mess and a mockery of every good thing we do.

These wake-up calls have sounded in our ears for half a century and, if Yhatzine Lafontain’s arrest for his clothing choice serves as any indication, we still slap the snooze button to silence these alarms every time we charge someone with prostitution for what they wear.

 READER POLL

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From feministing.com: Stay in Your Lane: We Don’t Need Rich White Actresses’ Comments on Sex Work

Advocates for LGBTQI sex workers basically told wealthier white women to shove it when they registered their opinion on Amnesty International’s recommendation that sex work should be completely decriminalized. The reasoning? Rich white women can’t really know the risks and realities of having to sell sex.

Do you agree that privileged people have no say in debates over social problems they have never experienced?

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