Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Metrodome as a Forum for Recognizing Jackie

As a baseball stadium, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome was notorious for its appallingly poor aesthetics. Built more for football than baseball, it featured a right field fence known as “the baggie” − a plastic wall that looked like a garbage bag. Most Twins fans, including me, look forward to the move next year to Target Field, an outdoor stadium made possible by a sales tax increase in Hennepin County.

The Vikings, meanwhile, continue on at the Dome, still pushing the ball uphill like Sisyphus in their quest to find funding for their own new stadium.

Before the Dome fades into history as a baseball venue, there is one exceptional element in its otherwise flatly functional design that I’d like to record. Among the huge portraits of Twins players hanging high beyond the outfield walls − signature players like Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, and Tony Oliva − there was one non-Twin: Jackie Robinson.

In 1947, when the Twins were still the Washington Senators and Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down racial segregation in schools, was still seven years away, Jackie Robinson was the African-American man who broke major league baseball’s color barrier. Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey made it possible, defying other team owners by bringing a black man to his team. But it was Robinson who carried the endeavor through, enduring racial taunts and persevering with dignity, determination, and grace under pressure.

To its credit, MLB has recognized Robinson’s legacy more and more in recent years. His uniform number, 42, has been permanently retired by all teams, and is worn annually on April 15 by many in a Jackie Robinson Day tribute.

Note to self: Be sure to catch the Twins, at least on radio, on April 15. Get your taxes in early and be ready to recognize a laudable American who continues to inspire.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Killing at Age 8: How Should the Law Respond?

At common law, there was a clear gradation of criminal responsibility based on age. Children younger than 7 were conclusively presumed to be incapable of criminal capacity, and those who were over 14 were treated as fully responsible.

What about those between 7 and 14? The common law created what lawyers call a “rebuttable presumption” of criminal incapacity. In other words, children of that age were not considered criminally accountable for their actions − unless the presumption could be overcome by the particular facts of a given case.

How the common law does or does not match up with current research on juvenile brain development is beyond the scope of this post So is the question of how the common law and brain research relate to modern statuotry schemes. Suffice it to say that, for a real-life application of the interpetive relevance of the old principles, one need only turn to Arizona, where in February a boy pleaded guilty to negligent homicide for killing − at age 8! − his father and a man who rented a room from the family.

The boy has not yet been sentenced. The options under consideration, at the time of the plea in February, included confinement in a county juvenile lockup, probation, institutionalization for treatment, or being sent to live with relatives.

The New York Times account on December 1, 2008 did, however, bring out several salient facts. The boy’s father, Vincent Romero, was actually a stepfather, and the boy had kept a ledger documenting the number of times he had been spanked. The boy told a Child Protective Services worker that when the tally totaled 1,000, he would have reached his limit. And in a videotaped interview conducted the day after the shootings, the boy said that, on the day before the shootings, Vincent Romero had spanked him five times on his mother’s orders.

Regardless of what disposition is right for the son, what about the mom?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reducing Drunken Driving Deaths: Still Miles to Go

States that target drunken driving for tough law enforcement have seen significant decreases in fatal, alcohol-related crashes. Federal data released earlier this month showed fatality rates down in 40 states and the District of Columbia. According to the Department of Transportation, the number of people killed by drunken driving declined from 13,041 in 2007 to 11,773 in 2008.

This was a 7 percent decrease in one year, and a 44 percent drop since 21,1113 people were killed in 1982. The figures have been trending downward since then, in no small part because Mothers Against Drunk Driving did so much to focus public attention − and exert political pressure − on the issue.

But nearly 12,000 deaths is still far too many. As Doug Berman has pointed out, society's response to drunken driving remains flawed on many levels. He argues, for example, that greater use should be made of ignition-interlock devices, which would require drivers to blow into a tube that checks blood alcohol content before starting the vehicle.

Memories of Malik

Former Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders returned to Target Center again last night, this time as coach of the Washington Wizards. Before the game, he told the Star Tribune that every visit back to the place where he coached for a decade was nostalgic, but that the strongest emotion is always looking up to the rafters and seeing the retired jersey of Malik Sealy, who was killed by a drunken driver on May 20, 2000.

On that fateful night, Sealy, a 30-year-old guard who had played college ball at St. John’s, was headed home after attending a birthday party in downtown Minneapolis for his teammate and best friend, Kevin Garnett. On Highway 100 in St. Louis Park, his sport utility vehicle was struck head-on by a truck going the wrong way. The driver of the truck, Souksangouame Phengsene, 43, had a blood alcohol content of 0.19 percent − more than twice the legal limit in Minnesota − at the time he struck and killed Sealy.

Nine and a half years after Sealy’s death, his coach remains deeply affected by the tragedy. “I still wake up now at 4:06 because that’s when the call came from the police station,” Saunders told the Star Trib. “There are still times, even now, when I wake up at that time for some reason. Crazy.”

Crazy, too, is the justice system’s tolerance for chronic drunk driving offenders. At the time he caused Sealy’s death, Phengsene already had one previous drunken driving conviction on his record. After pleading guilty to criminal vehicular homicide in Sealy’s death, he served three years in prison. He was released in July 2003.

In 2006, however, Phengsene was arrested for DUI again − this time in the suburb of Crystal, with a blood alcohol level of 0.21 percent. He was sentenced to less than a year in the workhouse, but was given a 3 1/2-year probation term, on the condition that another DUI violation would lead to prison. Because Phengsene’s 2003 conviction was for vehicular homicide, not DUI, that conviction could not be used to enhance the sentence on the 2006 conviction.

In early April of 2008, when Flip Saunders returned to Target Center with the Detroit Pistons, Phengsene had just been arrested for DUI again. After drinking 10-12 beers, he was arrested on 35W near 36th Street in south Minneapolis with a blood alcohol content of over 0.20 percent.

This time, Phengsene was sentneced to a prison term of 4/1 years, with a requirement of serving at least 2/3 of that time behind bars, as well as 5 years on probation. The sentencing judge also revoked Phengsene's probation on the 2006 DUI sentence and chose to make the 2006 and 2008 sentences consecutive rather than concurrent. Adding 4 1/2 and 3 1/2, the Star Tribune came up with 8 years, though only 2/3 of that will actually be spent in prison. The remaining 1/3 will be on supervised release − followed by the 5 years of probation on the first sentence.

I doubt that any of these numbers run through Saunders’s mind when he wakes up at 4:06. And if the trauma and tragedy of Malik Sealy’s untimtely death are still so tangible for him, what must it be like for Sealy’s wife and son?

Friday, December 25, 2009

From the Margins to the Manger

Shepherds were ritually unclean under Rabbinic law and could not testify in a court of law. But in the Gospel of Luke, it was they, along with the angels, who gave the first testimony to the birth of Jesus.

For it isn't to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums.
- Bruce Cockburn, "Cry of a Tiny Babe"

African Americans, like shepherds, have often been relegated to the margins of society, and an affinity between the two groups is readily apparent in Langston Hughes's Black Nativity. In one version of the play, now in its eleventh year at the Lorraine Hansbery Theatre in San Francisco, wayward shepherds find their way to the baby Jesus singing songs of musicians who have died in the last year.

This year, the shepherds made sure to include songs by Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. Way to go, shepherds! A nice combination of sacred and secular, paying respects to the King of Pop while on the way to honoring the King of Kings!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Imagine growing up in a living hell of abuse and victimization. Raped repeatedly by your father, resulting in two incestuous children. Verbally abused and physically assaulted by your mother, practically 24/7.

You live in poverty, an African American on welfare in Harlem in the 1980s. Because of the violence and neglect in your home, you are practically illiterate, and are also morbidly obese. When you find out you’re pregnant for a second time by your father, there are times you wish you were dead.

But somehow, deep within you, there is a deep capacity for survival and perseverance. You find a caring mentor, who helps you begin to build a new life, beyond abuse and degradation.

This is the story told in “Precious,” a film based on the novel “Push.”

I saw the film yesterday and was very much moved.

Monday, December 21, 2009

2.3 Million and Counting

In 1999, conservative scholar John J. Dilulio opined in the Wall Street Journal that 2 million inmates in jail and prisons across America were enough.

By year-end 2008, it was 2.3 million, according to the annual report released this month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The 0.8 percent rise from 2007 to 2008 was the lowest rate of increase since 2000, but the number of prisoners sentenced to more than one year still increased from 1.54 million to 1.61 million.

The increase is not inexorable. It is the result of specific choices by real human beings in 50 states, the Distict of Columbia, and in the federal system.

How do we turn the Titanic around? Well, the relentless recession has forced a degree of clarity about sentencing and correctional policies across the country. The prison population was actually down in 2o states this year.

Keep an eye on the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States, which is tracking these developments. There will surely be much more to come in 2010.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Tongue Set Free

One of the goals of the Reformation was to communicate in the vernacular, the language of the people.

For Martin Luther, nearly 500 years ago, this meant translating the New Testament into German.

Today, at the large suburban church I attend, it meant putting the classic Christian song "Amazing Grace" to the tune of the Eagles' 1970s hit "Peaceful Easy Feeling."

The freedom of expression fit with the day's Gospel text, which was Zechariah's impassioned appropriation of his place in the coming Realm of God. After nine months of silence, John the Baptist's father finds his voice at the infant John's circumcision ceremony. The angel Gabriel had struck Zechariah mute, after Zechariah doubted the angel's prophecy that Zechariah's wife, Elizabeth, would give birth to a son. Zechariah's speech would return, Gabriel said, when the prophecy had come to pass.

And that, in Luke's account, is what happens. When relatives gathered for the circumcision express doubt that John is the right name, Elizabeth responds unequivocally that the child's name is John. The relatives then turn to the still-mute Zechariah, who asks for a writing tablet − then suddenly finds his tongue set free.

"You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High
For you will go before the Lord, to prepare his ways
To give knowledge of salvation to his people
By the forgiveness of their sins

By the tender mercies of our God
The dawn from on high will break upon us
To give light to those who sit in darkness
And in the shadow of death
To guide our feet into the way of peace."

John Newton, the former slave-ship captain who wrote "Amazing Grace," had an epiphany akin to Zechariah's when he repented of his role in the slave trade, received grace, and wrote a song in response that is sung over and over again in Christian communities around the world. How sweet the sound to hear it combined with a well-liked pop song so familiar to baby boomer ears.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Office of Faith-based and Community Partnerships

When Joshua Dubois visited St. Paul last May, the website for the White House's office on faith-based intiatives was still under construction. It's now up and running. And significantly, its name speaks not only of faith, but of community partnerships.

This led me back to Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith (1957), which I first read with Prof. Vern Faillettaz at St. Olaf College. If faith is understood as "the state of being ultimately concerned," Tillich says, "love and action are implied in faith and cannot be separated from it."

An implicit stamp of approval from the thought of Tillich, one of the foremost theologians of the twentieth century, won't insulate Dubois' efforts from right-wing attacks. But it certainly can't hurt.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Say It Ain't So, Sheriff Joe

I’m no fan of Sheriff Joe — Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America.”

I first heard of him n 1997, when I was researching alternatives to incarceration for the Idaho state legislature. He was making headlines then for housing jail inmates in tent cities, outside the traditional jailhouse walls.

Twelve years later, he’s still doing that. In army surplus tents originally manufactured for the Korean War. These days, he’s also added pink underwear, pink handcuffs, and cutbacks on calories (from 300 to 250 per day) for prisoners to his tough guy toolbelt.

Martin Bashir’s Nightline segment on December 14 was not primarily prompted by these practices, which by now are somewhat old hat, at least in the Phoenix area. Nightline’s interest seemed to have been piqued by Sheriff Joe’s recent skirmish with the U.S. Justice Department over the tactics his office uses against illegal aliens. Bashir went out on a raid with the sheriff, and the glimpses of the faces of 18 would-be immigrants from Mexico being busted by sheriff’s deputies when their van was pulled over for speeding were poignant.

The stylized colloquy that followed between Bashir and Appaio was all too predictable. Appaio disclaimed any use of racial profiling; it was simply a matter, he said, of enforcing the law. After all, entering the U.S. illegally IS a Class IV felony under Arizona law.

Bashir, an experienced practitioner of in-your-face interviewing, broadened his faux, camera-ready attack. What about deaths and injuries in your jail? What about that off-track crusade against prostitution that ended with a sheriff’s volunteer having a sexual encounter with a prostitute. Didn’t Joe know his “brutal regime” set the tone for all this?

I don’t think Bashir really expected Joe to cave. The sheriff merely corrected him, with the requisite brusqueness, pointing out that the proper term was correctional “officer,” not “guard.”

Instead of the fruitless and largely pointless staged-confrontation, why didn’t Bashir provide any background on what makes Sheriff Joe tick? Herein lies a story on the business model of television journalism that is beyond the scope of this post.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas in Prison

My friends Mark and Jen periodically host “hootenannies” at their house in St. Paul. Friends gather in the living room or, in summer, on the back porch, to make music together.

Friday’s edition quite naturally had a holiday theme. The numbers ranged from traditional religious (“We Three Kings”) to seasonal secular (“Run Run Rudolph”) to contemporary country (Alan Jackson’s “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas”). So clearly we covered the waterfront, with each contribution adding something to the mosaic.

Yet the moment that really stood out for me was when someone sang John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison.” Just the title itself is enough to give one pause — and the lyrics? Well, give them a listen.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Intimate Partner Violence

Leslie Metzen, a former district court judge, spoke about domestic violence to a men's group at my church, Shepherd of the Valley in Apple Valley, Minn. To provide context for the scope of the problem, she cited figures from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). One of these was that, according to the CDC, 1200 women a year are murdered by their domestic partners.

Seeking to verify this, I went to the CDC website myself. If anything, the scale of the problem may be even worse than Judge Metzen described. A violence prevention factsheet posted on the site states that intimate partner violence (IPV) resulted in 1510 deaths in 2005, which presumably was the most recent year with solid data available. The CDC reported that 78 percent of those deaths were females and 22 percent males.

Some of those male deaths are probably police officers, such as Richard Crittenden of Noth St. Paul, who was killed last September when responding to a domestic call. The gunman in that case had been stalking his ex-wife and entered her apartment despite a no-contact order.

Another recent victim in Minnesota was Pam Taschuk, a 48-year-old juvenile probation officer and social worker who was fatally shot by her estranged husband. This occured only a month after he had posted $5000 bail to gain release from jail after assaulting her - and despite an order for protection from the court.

Following Pam Taschuk's murder, several Minnesota law enforcement agencies have been working to revise their policies for responding to domestic violence calls. The goal is to ask questions that will better identify people who are likely to commit lethal violence.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Inspiration From Citizen Havel

Vaclav Havel, a playwright by profession, spent five years in prison for resistance to the Communist regime in Czechoslavakia. But in 1989, when waves of change swept Eastern Europe, he became one of the leaders of the "Velvet Revolution," and the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia.

A remarkable documentary film, Citizen Havel, follows his career as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992, and of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.

At one point, the dissident-turned-president explains why it is necessary to speak out against a particular political practice that is based on false premises. When lies are not confronted, he argued, they can become the truth.

In the context of this blog, which is largely devoted to criminal justice issues, my question is this: Is America's off-the-charts incarceration rate (2.3 million in jail or prison) based on the false premise that this level of incarceration actually improves, rather than harms, public safety?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tiger Woods and the Language of Confession

“Human, All Too Human,” was one of Nietzsche’s book titles. For all his heroics on the golf course, Tiger Woods is no exception.

As the human drama behind his car accident continues to unfold, the purely legal aspects have reached closure. The Florida Highway Patrol cited Woods for careless driving for crashing his car into a fire hydrant and a tree at 2 a.m on November 27. The formal penalty (civil, not criminal) was $164 and four points against his driver’s license.

There was also the matter of cooperation with the investigation into the crash. Woods refused to speak with the patrol’s accident investigators, but he did provide his driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance, as required by Florida law. After consulting with the local prosecutor’s office, the patrol concluded it lacked sufficient evidence to subpoena records from Woods’ hospital visit after the crash, which briefly knocked him unconscious.

The jarring images remain, however. Woods’ wife, Elin Nordegren Woods, had to smash the vehicle’s back window with a golf club to help get him out. And the facts of the accident seemed to suggest a marital argument. The plausibility of this possibility has only increased in the last few days, amid speculation of sexual impropriety by Tiger Woods.

I’m reminded of the youthful Augustine and his epic indiscretions. “To Carthage then I came,” Augustine wrote in his Confessions — and went on to describe the “cauldron of lust” in which he found himself.

Compared to Augustine, Tiger Woods has offered only — to use the old Watergate phrase — a “limited modified hangout.” In a statement released to the press, he admitted to unspecified “indiscretions” and apologized to his family for “personal sins and failings.”

Sounds like Augustinian language. Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato. One might equally say that the language of confession consists of footnotes to Augustine.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Fugitive's Facebook Friending Folly

In Italy, it was the Facebook burglar - caught after accessing his profile from the computer of the house he was burglarizing.

In Cancun, it was the Facebook absconder - who met a similar fate: arrest.

Maxi Sopo is a 26-year-old man who came to the United States in 2003 from Cameroon. Settling in the Seattle area, he supported himself by selling roses in nightclubs.

Think about that occupation for a moment. Selling roses in nighclubs, presumably to couples immersed in romance. It was as if the Greek god Hermes were his patron saint.

The American dream, however, tends to want more and more. Mr. Sopo apparently moved on to bank fraud. According to federal prosecutors, he and an acquaintance falsely procured over $200,000 in loans from Seattle-area banks and credit unions. The AP account I read did not state exactly what the pitch was, but clearly Sopo was, as they say, "living the dream."

Unfortunately for Sopo, there's no free lunch, even in America. The U.S. attorney's office began investigating him, and he decided to head for Mexico in a rental car.

Did he choose to lie low, as any pragmatic, old-style fugitive would have done? No, he put up Facebook posts about his high life partying in Cancun - then "friended" a former Justice Department official.

The Secret Service contacted the "friend," pinpointed Sopo's whereabouts, and arrested him. When the AP picked up his story, he was in a Mexican jail, awaiting extradition to the U.S.

What was he thinking, when he logged in to Facebook?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mandatory Minimums: An Overdue Review

In 1980, the federal prison population was 24,000. By November 2009, it was 209,000.

To what degree was this nearly ten-fold increase due to mandatory-minimum sentences, especially for drug offenses? And what sorts of outcomes did the mandatory sentences produce? We may be getting closer to better answers to these questions.

When the Senate voted in October to expand the federal definition of hate crime, it added yet another mandatory minimum — for a crime directed at military personnel because of the person’s service. But the legislation also required the U.S. Sentencing Commission to conduct a study of the impact of mandatory-minimum sentencing.

Why wasn’t this being done all along? It surely has a lot to do with the sheer amount of money (or lack thereof) to carry out the research.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Roman Polanski: Art, Life and Extadition

The two sets of horrific murders carried out by Charles Manson and his besotted followers in August 1969 were nightmarish — yet all too real. Among the seven victims was 26-year-old actress Sharon Tate, the wife of film director Roman Polanski. She was 8 ½ months pregnant when she was stabbed to death, and the child she was carrying — posthumously named .Paul Richard Polanski — was later buried with her, in her arms.

Roman Polanski, then 35, had been in London at the time of the murders. After returning to California, he was questioned at length by police and endured a tense period of waiting before a boast to another jail inmate by Susan Atkins, a member of the Manson gang, led to the arrest of the killers.

Polanski resumed his directing career, working mostly in Europe, though in 1974 he returned to Hollywood to direct the iconic film noir Chinatown. Five years later, he directed a haunting version of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. According to Wikipedia, the idea for the film had come from Sharon Tate not long before her death, when she left a copy of the book and a note on Polanski’s nightstand. Tess starred Nastassja Kinski, with whom Polanski was romantically involved at the time.

Art and life entwined again in 2002, when Polanski directed The Pianist, based on the autobiography of Jewish-Polish musician Władysław Szpilman. Like Szpilman, Polanski evaded the ghetto and concentration camps while many family members perished there.

The Motion Picture Academy awarded the Oscar for best director to Polanski for The Pianist, but he did not attend the ceremony in Hollywood because he feared arrest. In 1977, he had been charged with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles and eventually pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Before he could be sentenced, however, Polanski fled to London and then France. From then on, he was careful to live and work only in countries where he was not likely to be arrested and extradited to the United States.

One of those countries, Polanski thought, was Switzerland, where he owns a home in the resort town of Gstaad. But in September 2009, at the Zurich Film Festival, Swiss police arrested Polanski, now 76, at the request of U.S. authorities.

On November 25, a Swiss judge granted Polanski’s request to be released on $4.5 million bail until the question of his extradition to the United States is resolved. He will be on electronic monitoring, confined to his home in Gstaad. The bail decision surprised several American commentators, one of whom (Laurie Levenson) likened it to giving bail to O.J. Simpson in 1994 after the infamous Bronco chase.

Levenson’s reasoning is eminently logical: once a flight risk always a flight risk. But there are also elements that tend to distinguish the two cases. O.J. wasn’t on electronic monitoring, he wasn’t 76 years old, and he was facing murder charges, not a 32-year-old conviction for statutory rape.

As elements of tragedy swirl around Polanski’s life yet again, the law’s long arm makes for an underlying irony. In the aftermath of Sharon Tate’s murder, her mother was determined to make herself heard within the judicial system regarding the sentencing of those responsible for her daughter’s death. In the early 1980s, this played an important role in inspiring what we now know as the victims’ rights movement. And yet in continuing to pursue the case against Polanski, the California authorities may be ignoring the wishes of the victim, who is now 45 and could very well just want to move on with her life.

One other note about the case: The Huffington Post reported that after Polanski was arrested in September, an “edit war” broke out on Wikipedia, the free, reader-edited online encyclopedia. The editors had to freeze further editing of Polanski’s entry, because reader-editors could not find their way through the controversy to common ground. As empowering and informative as Wiki is, sometimes it’s necessary to have an old-fashioned editor after all.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mens Rea: Hate Crimes

A remarkable number of Republicans have voted against the bill to expand the federal definition of hate crimes to include those committed because of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Is this because they viscerally oppose anything the Democrats propose, or is there a legitimate policy difference?

In the House, the Republicans claimed that the legislation would create a new category of “thought crime” that would require problematic inquiries into the motivation of the attacker. Their leader, John Boehner of Ohio, said it this way: “The idea that we’re going to pass a law that's going to add further charges to someone based on what they may have been thinking, I think is wrong.”

Rep. Boehner’s statement borders on the nonsensical. Responding to violent crime is, and always has been, about weighing an offender’s motivation and mental state (mens rea). To be sure, this is not always easy. The crooked timber of humanity (as Kant put it) comes in many forms, and even psychologists don’t have all the answers. But making distinctions based on a factual inquiry into the offender’s mens rea is what our criminal justice system is set up to do.

Though I’m not privy to the deliberations of the Republican caucus, their use of the rhetorical term “thought crime” seems like a shameless and cynical attempt to invoke Orwell’s 1984. This isn’t about jackbooted agents of a faceless state arresting someone because brain scans have shown disloyalty to Big Brother. It’s about people who do things like torture and murder a young man just because that young man happens to be gay, as Matthew Shepherd was in Wyoming in 1998. Or people who tie a black man to a truck and drag him to death because he’s black, as James Byrd Jr. was in Texas that same year.

Hate crimes like these strike against human dignity in a way that other offenses do not. Instead of obsessing about Orwell, Republicans and others opposed to the expanded hate crimes bill would do well to consider the philosophy of Kant — specifically, the importance of showing respect for each person and the immutable characteristics that form identity.

The crooked timber of humanity will never be completely straightened in this life. But failing to recognize hate crimes for what they are leaves a rottenness at the core of society that threatens to infect the whole forest.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mens Rea

"Mens rea" is Latin for mental state. I learned the term from Professor Bruce Berner at Valparaiso University School of Law in my first-year criminal law class. In the law, he taught, punishment typically depends on an actor's degree of culpability - and culpability in turn depends on an actor's mental state.

Prof. Berner was masterful in explicating the implications of this. The hypotheticals were of this type: Which would be worse?

(1) Planning to kill someone by shooting them and doing so; or
(2) Cleaning your gun while preparing for a hunting trip and handling it so carelessly that it went off and killed someone in the room

Many students would say (1), but Berner pointed out that, in important respects, the second scenario is the scarier one. At least in the first, the person knew what he or she was doing. In the second, the incompetence is so extreme that no one is really safe.

My courses with Prof. Berner were in 1984 and 1985, before mandatory minimum sentences became so prevalent. It would have been interesting to study with him in more recent years, to see how he may have attempted to integrate those into his traditional common law schema.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Watch Out For That Pothole!

It’s scarcely surprising for California’s correctional system to be hard-up for cash. Most voters are resistant to spending much money on offenders, and politicians know that. When I served as a legal counsel to the Iowa legislature in the late 90’s, I heard then-director Kip Kautzky of the Department of Corrections describe his agency’s budget request as a multi-million dollar “incursion into other needs.”

One would think, however, that California’s car culture would somehow survive the budgetary pressures. Just think of all the vintage pop songs set on those famous freeways — “Ventura Highway,” for example, by a group calling itself America (1972).

Well, that was all before Proposition 13, which limited property taxes, passed in 1978. The Golden State has been on a precipitous financial descent for years. The toll has been cumulative and relentless, like a progressive disease. Fun, fun in the sun, yes, as the Beach Boys crooned — but now financial realities are, to a great degree, metaphorically taking the T-bird away. If you have one, you can still drive it, but be prepared for a gauntlet of potholes.

NPR reported today on a study rating California as next-to-last among the states in the quality of its pavement, and dead last in road quality in urban areas. It’s not only cars that are affected, either. In San Francisco, bicycle riders’ organizations have taken to using chalk to mark out potholes in the pavement.

Is this what it’s like to live in a developing country — what used to be called, before the Cold War ended, the Third World?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

He Stayed Not For An Answer

Today is Christ the King Sunday, with the lectionary text taken from John 18: 28-38.

The leaders of the Jewish Temple have arrested Jesus and brought him before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, for interrogation. The charge is treason, and they are angling for the death penalty. The Jews have a certain degree of autonomy over their own religious affairs, but only the Roman occupiers have the authority to put someone to death for political insurrection.

Pilate asks Jesus point-blank whether he is the King of the Jews, an assertion the Jewish authorities claim Jesus is making. When Jesus answers that his kingdom is not of this world, Pilate repeats the question. Again Jesus refuses to provide a "gotcha" answer; he came to testify to the truth, he says, and those who belong to the truth hear his voice.

"What is truth?" Pilate famously asks. The text does not say whether Jesus replied, and if so, what he said. All we know is that, in John's account, after posing the question, Pilate went out to tell the assembled crowd he could find no case against Jesus. My father, a philosophy major, had a nice way of summarizing the dialog. "What is truth," Pilate asked - and didn't stay for an answer.

Of course, that is only one reading of the text. Another could be that Jesus did respond, but that the text does not record his answer. It's not a modern-day trial transcript, of the type we've come to know in America.

Isn't it remarkable, however, how contemporary-sounding the account John presents is? The handover to the Romans seems almost akin to what today is called "extraordinary rendition" - turning a suspect over to another government, seeking to obtain a penalty one's own laws do not permit.

The Romans were relentless in adminstering their ruthless brand of justice. Choosing the cross as the means to carry out public executions to crush and deter dissent is only the most obvious example of this. Yet in John's account, even the Romans, as hardnosed as they were, did not flog Jesus until after he is interrogated by Pilate.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Why Protect the "Worst of the Worst"?

After 13 years on the bench, and two more before that as a court-appointed referee, Michael Fetsch, a district judge in Ramsey County (St. Paul), reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. He agreed to an interview with the Star Tribune before transitioning to senior status.

Reflecting on his background as a public defender before he became a judge, Fetsch described the judicial system’s role in protecting the constitutional rights of the accused this way:

“[B]y protecting the worst of the worst, we protect all of us.”

That is indeed the way our system is supposed to work. At the federal level, however, something went terribly wrong after 9/11. The Bush Administration indisciminately arrested and often brutally interrogated thousands, many of whom were not by any measure "the worst of the worst." Even for those who pose a genuine threat, flouting the Constitution and international human rights law was a completely counterproductive way to proceed. It has left us, as a book by David Cole and Jules Lobel is titled, Less Safe, Less Free.

How well is the Obama Administration doing, in working to close Gitmo and turn the abusive ship of state around? The Nobel committee's award of the Peace Prize to President Obama shows how hungry the world is for a chnage in America's role in the world.

Yet picking up the pieces after the Bush debacle is no easy set of tasks. The dustup yesterday in the Senate about the plan to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in federal court in New York is only the latest skirmish in a hard-fought course correction.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Unrule-ly Behavior

"Unrule-ly Behavior" is a subsection in a book called Dangerous Wonder by Michael Yaconelli, the pastor of a small church in northern California, published in 1998. Somewhere along the line, my wife, Diane, picked it up, and I’ve dipped into it occasionally − including tonight.

Here’s a question Yaconelli poses that has me pondering:

“[I]n the process of socializing our children to follow the rules, do we rob them of the discernment needed to know when to follow the rules and when to break them? Have we robbed our children (including those of us who have grown out of childhood) of the childlike intuition that caused us to know in our hearts how to recognize the Rule Maker?”

Wow! Yaconelli is surely right that following Jesus is infinitely more important than following the rules of Jesus. But how many such rules are there, really? As a philosophy professor named Howard Mueller quizzically adked a class in my freshman year at St. Olaf, how do you follow the one who followed no one?

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Coldest of Cold Monsters

Allan Megill, a historian with whom I almost studied, rightly called Friedrich Nietzsche a “prophet of extremity.” Within the torrent of over-the-top aphorisms that is Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche included a stunning denunciation of excessive state power:

“The state is the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies, too; and this lie creeps from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”

(Staat heist das kaelteste aller kalten Ungeheuer. Kalt luegt es auch; und diese Luege kriecht aus seinem Munde: “Ich, her Staat, bin das Volk.”)

Nietzsche wrote these words over a century before the Berlin Wall came down. For forty years, the wall had symbolized the Cold War — then, on November 9, 1989, it was breached for good, with a sudden abruptness that had scarcely seemed possible. Twenty years have now passed since that momentous night.

One could easily cast the Stassi, the East German secret police, as the type of cold monsters whom Nietzsche so abhorred. Yet as the acclaimed film “The Lives of Others” suggested, even within the Stassi, weren't there human beings struggling to hold on to their humanity?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Reaction to Eric's Forgotten Fifth Entry

The model of prison ministry set forth by Prison Congregations of America is among the healthiest out there. This is not about good hearted people coming in for a revival and then leaving, even though there is a place for this kind of faith expression as well. The PCA model is the difference between the mountain-top and the plain. In prison, there are all kinds of opportunities for the mountain top experience - events with lots of music and energy and food. I remember such experiences in my own life. I remember going to Bible camp and being filled with the Spirit to the point of tears. Then I would come home and within a week some of the excitement had started to wear off - I was tumbling off of the mountain onto the plain. So it is in prison. What happens when the event is done, and the reality of prison sets in? Too often the inmates feel as though, not only have they disappointed people they loved and society in general, but they must also be a disappointment to God because they can't seem to keep the fire burning. In those post-Bible-camp-tumbling-unto-the-plain days of long ago, I found my renewal in my congregation. It was there I was reminded that the Spirit is alive and well in me and in those around me. So it is in prison IF the inmates are lucky enough to have a real denominationally organized congregation to which they belong. The PCA model is healthy and offers opportunities for inmates to build skill sets that will serve them well on the outside, for 95% of them WILL be one day on the outside. For more information about this ministry model, contact me or check out our website,

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Dangerous Mix: Meds, Alcohol, and Childcare

There are no perfect caregivers for children. No perfect parents, no perfect grandparents, no perfect babysitters, nannies or others.

Taking care of a child is an awesome and often challenging responsibility. Some of us don’t experience it until we pull the car out of the hospital parking ramp with our first baby on board. Others take it on far earlier, perhaps as teenagers, working for a few dollars an hour. No matter what the circumstances, it’s a truly humbling experience, knowing a vulnerable person’s life is in your hands.

Infants who are only a few weeks old are among the most vulnerable — and sometimes things go horribly wrong, as happened in Lakeville, Minnesota, last May.

Tina Louise Miller-Steiner, a 46-year-old grandmother who was on medication for depression, anxiety, and hypertension, was taking care of her six-week-old grandson, Evan, in her home. Despite a doctor’s orders not to consume alcohol while on medication, she drank two martinis and some wine when Evan was in her care. Becoming drowsy, she lay down on a bed, placing Evan next to her. Tragically, when Evan’s aunt awakened Miller-Steiner, Evan was not breathing. Miller-Steiner had fallen asleep on top of him and he suffocated.

Lakeville police, who investigated the death, pushed for a manslaughter charge. They pointed out that Miller-Steiner’s blood alcohol content almost four hours after the police were called was still 0.08 percent, the threshold for driving while intoxicated.

Longtime county attorney James Backstrom, who tends toward a hard-nosed approach, was unsure about the appropriate charge. He took the rather unusual step of convening a grand jury to seek citizen input, and the grand jury indicted Miller-Steiner in August on two counts of manslaughter.

On November 2, Miller-Steiner pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree manslaughter. In return, prosecutors dropped the second count. Judge Timothy Wermager sentenced Miller-Steiner to 10 years of probation and 45 days in jail. She must also pay restitution for the cost of Evan's funeral. Her probation conditions will include remaining sober and not being allowed to take care of children under 10 without supervision.

The sentence followed an emotional courtroom scene between mother and daughter. Davina Louise Miller, Evan’s mother, asked the judge for leniency for her mother.

After the sentencing, the county attorney remarked that in a case like this, the criminal justice system can inflict no punishment harder on the offender than what has already happened. That is probably true, but I wouldn’t describe the way this case was resolved as “mercy,” as the Star Tribune reporter did. Defense attorney Joe Friedberg was closer to the mark, I think, in calling it “equitable.”

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The World Wide Web as a Forum for the Unfolding of Spirit

Meeting in Seoul, South Korea, the board of the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) voted to make it possible for Internet addresses to be written entirely in non-Latin alphabets. Though a few security experts raised concerns that internationalization of names might make cyber-attacks more likely, Icann did not see the additional domain diversity as having a substantial effect on the threat level.

Both practically and symbolically, this clears the way for the Web to emerge more fully as a connection point within and between cultures. Thirty thousand years after the invention of human language, the remarkable evolutionary process continues.

Looking to put Icann’s decision in a theological context, I pulled my wife’s copy of Peter Hodgson’s Winds of the Spirit off the shelf. In a chapter on “The Liberation of the World,” I read about the importance of having “a universal horizon of encounter” (p. 310) when engaging in religious dialog.

Hodgson was writing in 1994, quoting another theologian (David Krieger), who had written in 1991; surely neither man had the Net much in mind. Fifteen years later, however, it’s become a truism to observe that if Martin Luther were posting the 95 Theses today, he’d be posting them on the Web, probably using a Blackberry. Two years ago, in its Reformation Day cover, the Lutheran magazine riffed on this fact by showing one of Luther’s theses on a Blackberry that had been rechristened a Wittenberry.

Of course, the Web is also a crowded marketplace where display ads constantly clamor for attention, no matter what the primary content is on the page. The tension between the respective roles — universal horizon of encounter vs. universal emporium of wares — is nothing new. But with the Word Wide Web, it’s taking place on a bigger stage than ever before, in, as they say, “real time.”

The First Things Have Passed Away

John’s soaring vision of the new Jerusalem coming down from Heaven in Revelation 21: 1-6 is packed with powerful imagery: Bride and bridegroom, Alpha and Omega − and God himself dwelling with his people, wiping away every tear. Death will be no more, the passage promises, “for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

When I read the phrase “first things” (τά Πρωτά), I thought of the journal of that name founded by Richard John Neuhaus. “So that's where he got the title,” I thought. I’d always assumed it was a synonym for faith, or things of the spirit, with an implicit rebuke to secular folks who may have their priorities wrong. The journal definitely carries those connotations, but it does so, I belatedly discovered, with a biblically based title.

For me, Neuhaus and his journal were very nearly synonymous. Before encountering First Things, I’d read the commencement address he gave at Valparaiso University in 1987, a year after I graduated from the law school there. It was a challenging call to measure one’s life in transcendent terms, in the context of the death and Resurrection of Christ.

A few years later, someone gave my dad, a Lutheran pastor, a gift subscription to First Things. Dad used to save the back issues for me, and I’d peruse them at leisure on Saturday nights while my wife, also a Lutheran pastor, made ready for worship the next morning.

Neuhaus’ polemical bent could be tiresome, and the direction he was heading was the opposite of my own. He became increasingly conservative and ended up as a close spiritual adviser to George W. Bush, opposing stem cell research and advocating the withholding of communion from Catholics who support abortion rights.

In the run-up to the Obama inaugural, I missed the news of Neuhaus’ death. It was not until I checked the Wikipedia article on him that I learned that he died of cancer on January 8, 2009.

First Things is still being published, but it is not a significant source for my own reflection on First Things. I am drawn instead to N.T. Wright’s call to reshape the church for mission by living in a way pointed toward the transformation of this world. After all, in Revelation 21, it’s not the elect going UP to the new Jerusalem; it’s God bringing that reconstituted city right down here.

Somehow I was not surprised to discover that the ever-strident Neuhaus, less than a year before his death, had attacked Bishop Wright’s book Surprised by Hope for supposedly being anti-Catholic. Given the biblcal passage from which First Things takes its title, it was with some sense of irony that Wright asked in his response whether Neuhaus had actually read the book of Revelation lately. That’s one trouble with endless polemics; they keep one from the source.

Monday, October 26, 2009

God Grows Tired - of Same Old Same Old Christmas

Nearly fifteen years after fleeing Sudan in a harrowing exodus of biblical proportions, a number of the Lost Boys made their way to America. A deeply moving documentary film, God Grew Tired Us, follows three of their stories in particular: John Bul Pai, who settled in Syracuse, New York, and two others, Daniel and Panther, who went to Pittsburgh.

Of all the memorable scenes, I’ll focus here on only one. Spending his first Christmas in America, only two months removed from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where he spent ten years, John Bul seeks to understand the role of Santa in the American celebration of the holiday.

Santa doesn’t make sense to John Bul on any level. Quite rightly, he asks what a kitschy photo op prop for sales in the shopping mall has to do with the birth of Christ. After all, there is no Santa in the Bible. John Bul contrasts the preoccupation with the bulbous, bearded caricature of our commercial imagination with the experience of Christmas Eve at Kakuma, where the whole camp pulsed with dancing expectation of the imminent birth of Christ in each person’s heart.

And they really did dance at Kakuma − in a joyous, vibrant way that broke down the separation between people, what some philosophers call the principium individuationis.

In America, our experience of Christmas is highly privatized. Even those who venture out for worship do so for little more (or even less) than an hour before returning to the exclusivity of their private presents and expected foods of feasting.

At Kakuma, by contrast, the shared experience seemed to be more than the sum of the individual parts. Surely we have much to learn from our African brothers and sisters in this regard. Wouldn’t it be something, this Christmas Eve, if we not only reenacted the ageless story of the birth in the stable, but also linked arms in a more systematic way than we’re used to doing? Yes, we’re dealing with H1N1, but still . . . .

A place to start might be by recalling that St. Nicholas of Myra, the primary inspiration for Santa Claus, was a 4th-century bishop in what is now Turkey who was known for his generous gifts to the poor. What are we doing, for our part, for the many people struggling in this tough economy?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Unsuccessful Sanctimony at Sentencing

A man convicted of mortgage fraud addressed the judge and others in the courtroom before being sentenced. Instead of expressing remorse, he self-righteously claimed that the world really needed a good Christian person like him.

The sanctimony was not a success. Judge Steven Lange sentenced Marlon Pratt, 34, to 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine for 17 theft-by-swindle and two racketeering convictions. Pratt was a mortgage loan officer who blatantly inflated the true value of property on loan applications and pocketed the difference between the sale price and the loan as a kickback. There were numerous properties involved in the scheme, and Pratt may have obtained as much as $700,000 for his role.

The judge called it greed with a capital G, justifying a sentence above the eight-year guideline. Pratt may also face additional charges involving straw buyers.

The far-reaching fraud, conducted between 2004 and 2007, led to $3.2 million in foreclosures on 17 properties. It affected Minneapolis and two suburbs, but hit north Minneapolis especially hard. Five others besides Pratt have been convicted or pled guilty in connection with it.

What was Pratt thinking, given these facts, when he stood up and told the judge to go easy on a good Christian? He should have taken a look first at Mark 10: 17-18, in which a man comes up to Jesus and address him as Good Teacher. Before answering the man’s questions about what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus corrects him emphatically: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Bonhoeffer. Just that one word, to those who know of his life and work, speaks volumes. Executed at 39 for his role in resisting Hitler, the German theologian's work continues to resonate across the decades.

Tonight, readying my house for a milestone birthday party, I happened to open a box of books. Inside was A Year With Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a selection of excerpts from his writings for daily mediation, published by HarperSanFrancisco in 2005. On the flyleaf was an inscription from Bishop Craig Johnson of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wishing my wife, Diane, well on her acceptance of a call to Shepherd of the Valley, in Apple Valley, in 2007.

Jim Walllis’ excellent forward describes the Sermon on the Mount as a manifesto for a brave new world order called the Realm of God.

So I reread the Sermon on the Mount. And given the primary focus of this blog, I reread it with American criminal justice policy in mind.

The verse that jumped out at me was this: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Why do we so rarely hear this word mentioned, in what passes for discussion of the proper response to crime in the U.S.?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Can Kevorkian Comment?

Seemingly a bit giddy that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had climbed back above 10,000 for the first time in a year, National Public Radio offered an unusual historical montage of the top stories from ten years ago, when the Dow first exceeded that level.

Suddenly one heard the voices of Linda Wertheimer and Noah Adams running through headlines from 1999: The story about whether NATO-led bombing in Kosovo would put sufficient pressure on Serbian forces to avoid a ground war was rather eerie, as the Obama administration weighs whether to increase ground forces in Afghanistan.

Another story dominating the news ten years ago was the trial of Jack Kevorkian, the defrocked doctor and self-styled apostle of euthanasia whom a Michigan jury convicted of second-degree homicide. Sentenced to an indeterminate 10-25 year term, Kevorkian was paroled in June 2007 after serving only 8 years and 2 months. It was essentially a form of compassionate release, with Kevorkian seemingly terminally ill due to Hepatitis C.

Since his release, Kevorkian has regained a measure of health. In recent months, he has begun to flirt with violations of a condition of his parole requiring him to refrain from commenting publicly on issues involving assisted suicide. One wonders what types of internal discussions parole authorities in Michigan are having about this, particularly after Kevorkian addressed a sold-out audience at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania in September.

With or without Kevorkian, issues involving assisted suicide are as timely as ever. Today, the Star Tribune reported that the Minnesota Board of Nursing had made public its revocation of the license of William Melchert-Dinkel, a male nurse who used international online suicide chat rooms to urge others to take their own lives. The evidence showed that on two separate occasions Melchert-Dinkel entered into suicide pacts, saying he would die at the same time as another person − then watched on his webcam as the victims killed themselves.

One victim was Nadia Kajouji, an 18-year-old college student in Onatario who was struggling with depression. The other was a 32-year-old man in England, according to the investigation in Minnesota that preceded the revocation of Melchert-Dinkel's nursing license.

When Camus said that suicide is the only serious philosophical question, he was not thinking of this.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bhopal and the Absence of Remorse

The massive toxic chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, on December 3, 1984, killed several times the number of people as the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda did in the United States on September 11, 2001.

At least 2,000 people died in Bhopal on the night of the leak, according to the Indian government. Aid organizations estimated that 5,000 people died in the fist 72 hours, and another 15,000 in the next few weeks. Tens of thousands more may have died over the years from lung cancer, kidney failure, liver disease, and other gas-related illnesses, with countless victims still chronically ill.

When the Bhopal leak occurred, I was taking exams for the fall semester in my second year of law school. Though I subscribed to the Chicago Tribune and watched the news on McNeil-Lehrer (not yet called The Newshour), the tragedy seemed so far away. The main thing I remember about it, beyond the raw number of 10,000 dead (a gross underestimate, it now seems), was that numerous American personal injury lawyers headed to Indian in the aftermath of accident, seeking to sign up clients.

I hadn’t thought about the case in years, until I read a brief item last summer about the warrant issued by a magistrate in Bhopal for the arrest of Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide. Anderson was briefly detained in India at the time of the lethal leak, but was quickly released. The magistrate reissued the arrest warrant and ordered the Indian government to initiate extradition proceedings against Mr. Anderson.

In late July of 2009, reporters seeking comment about the arrest warrant and possible extradition showed up at Anderson’s home in the Hamptons. His wife, Lilian, offered a rather incoherent defense of her husband:

● Warren Anderson is 89 and doesn’t remember so well, she said − but she still tried to garner sympathy for him by saying he has been haunted by the incident for nearly 25 years.
● CEOs were not paid all that much back in her husband’s day, she asserted − as a silver Cadillac sat parked in their driveway in the prosperous Hamptons.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that an 89-year-old man who may be in poor health should be sent halfway around the world for trial. But Warren and Lilian Anderson would do well to not merely defend themselves, but to come to terms, at least in their own hearts, with the devastating cascade of death and disease unleashed by the negligence of the company Warren headed.

In India, that pain is not some historical footnote; it is a real and present ongoing grievance that continues to afflict tens of thousands of people in body and soul. Although Union Carbide paid $470 million in compensation to the Indian government in 1989, victims groups claim that the money was never properly distributed.

A crowd gathered outside the court in Bhopal and cheered the news of Mr. Anderson’s arrest warrant. A few of these people beat a hooded effigy of him with a stick. A nasty image, to be sure. Yet the Andersons, if they are of sound mind, should not look away. Not wanting to be a scapegoat is understandable, but has Warren Anderson ever really acknowledged the immense scale of the suffering in Bhopal and his role in it?
Generationally, the Andersons are probably too old to be attuned to Bob Dylan’s music. But they might benefit from considering the lyrics to his song What Good Am I?

"What good am I if I know and don't do.
If I see and don't say, if I look right through you.
If I turn a deaf ear to the thundering sky,
What good am I?"

Nearly 25 years after the Bhopal sky filled with toxic fumes, one suspects that the head of the corporation that caused the carnage is still looking right through the victims. If he really is haunted, why did he make no act of expiation?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Facebook Burglar

National Public Radio treated it as one of their humorous snippets, leading into the hourly news headlines. Someone burglarizing a house outside Rome used the victim’s computer to post Facebook messages before stealing cash and jewelry. He left the computer open to his Facebook page, however, and was quickly apprehended by Italian police.

After hearing about this episode from a friend, I went to the Web looking for more details. Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported that the burglar is 26 and the victim, who is not on Facebook, is 52. Though the burglar did not actually post anything about the crime he was committing, he did post several messages on his wall.

One wonders why the burglar didn’t also steal the computer. NPR joked that maybe his next post will be from jail, but that is not likely. Even in the age of seemingly ubiquitous Internet usage, online access for the incarcerated is severely limited.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Michael J. Fox Soldiers On Despite Parkinson's

The Twins defeated the Royals 5-4 in an exciting penultimate regular season game at the Metrodome. In the post-game interview with Michael Cuddyer, who hit the game-winning homerun, the final question from the television broadcaster was about the quality time Cuddyer had spent before the game with a young boy suffering from an incurable disease, a visit made possible through the nonprofit organization Make a Wish.

The Make a Wish question changed the tone completely, from reveling in ephemeral sports victory to the hard reality of a child dying young. It immediately affected even my perception of the figure of Cuddyer on the screen. Suddenly I saw the shadows underneath his baseball cap, as it shielded his face from the glare of the Dome lights. Rembrandt lighting, I thought . . . . maybe even Caravaggio.

Then we went to commercial. But instead of some silly screed for Geico or The Colonel’s Grilled Kitchen, it was Michael J. Fox, earnestly urging donations to his Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. The Rembrandt lighting took on an even more serious tone, and the Caravaggio shadows got even deeper and more complex.

For many years, Michael J. Fox has been one of the most well known people in America living with Parkinson’s. When my dad was diagnosed in 2003, Fox, Pope John Paul II, and Muhammed Ali were among the highest profile people suffering from the disease. John Paul died in 2005, and my dad in 2007 − partly from complications of Parkinson’s.

Michael J. Fox soldiers on, patiently and passionately making the case for more research into the causes and possible cures for Parkinson’s, a nasty, progressive brain disease that insidiously robs people of much of their capacity to perform even the most basic tasks.

The Twins won the game, pulling within ½ game of the Tigers on the next-to-last day of the season. The true hero of the day, however, was Fox, still hanging in there, after losing so much to Parkinson’s, still trying to raise the money to fund the research to find a cure.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Markets and Moral Reasoning

Tonight I happened to catch the end of an interview with the philosopher Michael J. Sandel on the public radio program “Marketplace.” He was being asked how idealistic abstractions about justice can apply to the seemingly amoral hustle and bustle of a dynamic capitalist economy.

In other words, Professor Sandel, what is an ivory tower academic like you doing on a show called Marketplace, even if you are about to take your wildly popular Harvard course on moral reasoning to a national stage through a partnership with PBS?

Without mentioning Adam Smith (he of the often-invoked claim about the market’s “hidden hand) by name, Sandel essentially said that the market simply is what it is − and what it is isn’t necessarily moral. As humans capable of asking questions about justice, we cannot really look to the market to settle questions about right and wrong.

After the financial meltdown and extended recession, are more Americans ready to hear this?

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Greatest

On the way to Capernaum − naively thinking he was out of earshot − Jesus’ disciples argued about who was the greatest.

Jesus would have none of it. The disciples were thinking exclusively in human terms, with a conception of greatness epitomized by Muhammed Ali in his mid-70s heyday: external victory, worldly fame, and existential self-aggrandizement (leavened only partially by a hint of ironic self-deprecation).

They should have been thinking of the type of character shown by Ali in coping with his Parkinson’s disease.

Or, better yet, of his fourth wife, Yolanda (“Lonnie”) Ali, for her humble service in taking care of him.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

One Way To Break An Addiction

After smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for nearly forty years, my mother-in-law quit cold turkey, after only one session of hypnosis.


She began smoking in the early 1950s and kept right on going, undeterred by the 1964 Surgeon General report. The possibility of serious consequences from a behavior counts for little, if anything, when the continuation of the behavior is due to an addiction.

(In the criminal justice context, this is why harsh penalties, particularly for drug crimes, so often have so little effect. When addiction gets in the way, deterence is a non-starter.)

By 1991, Wynne knew it was time for a change. A work colleague gave her a referral to a hypnotist, who was able to help cure her nicotine addiction in one fell swoop.


Addictions are not usually broken in single, scales-from-the-eyes sessions. But, thankfully, this one was. Wynne is still with us, at age 76, doing the crossword every day, patronizing the public library, singing in her church choir − and much else besides.

She surely wouldn’t be doing these things if hypnosis hadn’t enabled her to stop smoking.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Forgotten Fifth

In the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion, Jesus is put to death with a criminal hanging on either side of him.

The two criminals’ responses were very different, according to Luke (23:39-43). One of them derided Jesus, taunting him and mocking his unwillingness to come down from the cross if he were truly the Messiah. The other criminal − called Dismas (or Dysmas) in Christian tradition − answered the first, pointing out Jesus’s innocence.

After this exchange, Jesus turned to Dismas and said "today, you will be with me in Paradise."

Fittingly, ministry to and among prisoners has embraced the Dismas name. One group engaging in this important work is Prison Congregations of America, which helps to develop congregations within prison walls. Several of them have taken the St. Dismas name, including congregations in Maryland, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania.

In July, I had the chance to spend a few days at Outlaw Ranch in the Black Hills with Ed Nesselhuf, a Lutheran pastor who was instrumental in founding Prison Congregations. He spoke movingly of how prisoners are so often “the forgotten fifth” among the injunctions given by Jesus to his followers in Matthew 25:

Feed the hungry
Welcome the stranger
Clothe the naked
Care for the sick
Visit the prisoner

Inmates, in other words, are an integral a part of Jesus’ ministry. They have been right from the start, when Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in his hometown of Nazareth and chose a passage proclaiming release to the captives.

Last year, my friend Mary Mortenson took over as director of Prison Congregations after Ed Nesselhuf retired. The challenge is not only to create congregations inside the walls, but also to link them to those outside the walls to renew and make strong the body of Christ.

Dear reader, do you feel called to get involved in this profoundly Christian mission? Contact Mary at Prison Congregations to ask how you can get involved.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Atul Gawande, Truth-teller

Clay Shirkey’s book Here Comes Everybody is about the current rage for online social networking, not prison conditions. But in asserting that humans are social by nature, he illustrates the point by asking us to consider the consequences of completely depriving someone of social contact during incarceration.

“One of the most severe punishments that can be meted out to a prisoner is solitary confinement; even in a social environment as harsh and attenuated as prison, complete removal from human contact is harsher still.”

Sharkey published these words in 2008. Early in 2009, Atul Gawande probed the soul-destroying experience of long-term solitary confinement in prison and concluded that it amounts to torture. The March 30 issue of The New Yorker contains his disturbing essay “Hellhole,” which should be required reading for all Americans. The depth of the degradation it depicts will not leave you unchanged.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Where Two or Three or Gathered - In a Cuban Prison

The Cuban government has decided to allow group worship for Catholicis and Protestants in its prisons.

How long will it take before other groups are allowed to organize as well? Even in Cuba, after decades of repression, religious expression surely takes many forms beyond Catholic and Protestant. If Will Herzberg's Protestant, Catholic, Jew, a notable book of the 1960s, were to be updated today, it would need a much-expanded title: Protestant, Catholic, Jew - and Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Native American, Animist, Wiccan, and so on.

For me, the opportunity for dialog that this religious diversity represents is welcome. As Peter Hodgson noted in Winds of the Spirit, it is one of the important challenges of our time.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

California's Calamitous Corrections Crisis Continued

The Sacramento Bee’s account described the U.S. Supreme Court’s order as “terse,” and having read the Court’s order I can understand why.

“The application for stay presented to Justice Kennedy and by him referred to the Court is denied. In denying the stay, the Court takes note of the fact that the three-judge district court has indicated that its final order will not be implemented until this Court has had the opportunity to review the district court's decree.” Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, No. 09A234, 9/11/09.

Behind this banal order, an ugly human tragedy has been unfolding for years. California was once the Golden State, to which − paraphrasing Paul Simon on Joe DiMaggio − the restless eyes of the nation turned, In recent years, however, it has become a state that has inmates triple-bunked in gymnasiums, hallways and other unlikely places, with their medical records in chaos, resulting in a sad succession of suicides and preventable illnesses over the past decade − all fully documented in evidence admitted in federal court.

When inmate groups proved their case in a grueling legal ground game, it became clear that things had to change. Finally, on August 4, a special 3-judge district court imposed a population cap. California’s 33 prisons hold more than more than 148,000 inmates today, in a system designed for 80,000. The cap is intended to bring the population to 110,000 within two years, or 137.5 percent of design capacity.

Even with this constitutionally mandated cap being imposed by the courts, the California General Assembly failed yet again to pass a bill to address the endemic crowding problems in any realistic way. A proposal to allow lower-risk, seriously ill or elderly prisoners to serve the last 12 months of their sentences under house arrest with electronic monitoring was defeated, as were many others. The General Assembly adjourned having done little more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, with a bill to cut the prison population by 7,500 inmates over two years – a fraction of the 38,000 needed to pass constitutional muster.

In its two-sentence order on September 11, the Supreme Court turned down the state’s attempt to further delay fixing the problems. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has until September 18 to submit a prison population reduction plan to the court that imposed the cap. With or without the governor’s help, the court will act, with the U.S. Supreme Court likely to decide the ultimate constitutionality of the federal intervention into California’s prison system.

As the justices are researching their decision, one wonders whether any of their clerks will have Kate Wolf’s song “Here in California” loaded on an I-pod:

“There's an old familiar story
An old familiar rhyme
To everything there is a season
To every purpose there's a time
A time to love and come together
A time when love longs for air
A time for questions we can't answer
Though we ask them just the same
Here in California fruit hangs heavy on the vines
There's no gold I thought I'd warn you
And the hills turn brown in the summertime.”

When it comes to California’s prisons, it’s passed the time for questions the state can’t answer. With its own state government having failed to do so, the Supreme Court is posed to provide an answer for them.

Monday, September 14, 2009

They do all this when the arrest is on video?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had it easy compared to Derryl Jenkins.

Gates, the Harvard professor arrested for disorderly conduct after forgetting the keys to his house and berating a police officer responding to a 9-1-1 report of a break-in at Gates’ house, ended up sharing a beer with President Obama and arresting officer James Crowley.

Derryl Jenkins, a 42-year-old African American man on his way to a riend's house in north Minneapolis last February, was beaten by six Minneapolis police officers after he was pulled over for allegedly going fifteen miles over the speed limit. When he raised questions about the stop, the officers punched and kicked Jenkins repeatedly while he was facedown in a snow bank, breaking two of his teeth and opening a wound above his left eye that required seven stitches to close. They also tasered him three times before placing two sets of handcuffs on him and jailing him for four days.

Neither of the charges brought against Jenkins stuck. Prosecutors dropped assault charges in March, and in July a Hennepin County judge dismissed the charge of refusing to submit to a chemical test.

In August, after obtaining police video of the incident from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, Jenkins and his attorney released the video to the press.

Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan has sent the video to the FBI for review and ordered that all videotaped use of force incidents resulting in injuries be reviewed by internal affairs. “Punching or kicking for passive resistance is not appropriate,” the chief said. Like President Obama, it seems that Chief Dolan wants to at least make this “a teachable moment.”

Meanwhile, Derryl Jenkins continues to have frequent nightmares and has become fearful of the police. No beer summit here; Jenkins has not brought suit against the Minneapolis Police Department, but he has not ruled out the possibility, either

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Solzhenitsyn: From Samizdat to Required Reading in One Generation

Several Western media outlets reported last week that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's once-banned writings are now required reading in Russian high schools. The press accounts speculated that with a reconstituted communist party gaining strength, using The Gulag Archipelago to call out the epochal crimes committed in the name of communism had become a timely political card for the Putin/Medvedev regime to play.

Will this work as intended? One suspects that "the cunning of history" (Hegel) may show itself again, in ways Putin and Medvedev cannot even remotely conceive of. Indeed, one could quote Marx himself (from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte ) on the gap that can exist between cause and effect: "Men make their own history, but not just as they choose."

Gratitude and Readiness

On September 18, countless Christians and others of good will around the world will mark the commemoration day of Dag Hammarskjold, the U.N. Secretary-General who was killed in a plane crash in 1961 while attempting to negotiate a cease-fire in a civil war in what was then called Rhodesia.

After Hammarskjold’s death, his remarkable spiritual journal was published in Sweden in 1963, then in English the following year under the title Markings. The English poet W.H. Auden assisted in the translation and provided an introduction.

Markings first came to my attention in the summer of 1977, when it appeared on a list of recommended books in a recruiting brochure from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. It was not until 1994, however, when I was working at Holden Village, an ecumenical retreat center in the Cascade Mountains, that I finally read the book. The timing was right – and in a sense it saved my life.

My vocational direction at the time was unclear. I had just left my graduate program in European intellectual history at the University of Iowa, after the adviser I had gone there to study with, Allan Megill, left the U of I for the University of Virginia. Should I follow Megill to Virginia? Should I return to the legal profession, which I had left to pursue my studies at Iowa? Should I do something something completely different? I was in – to employ a Dylan phrase – a state of “mixed up confusion."

Hammarskjold’s poetic musings, combined with the experience of the Holden community, gave me the traction to transcend my trilemma. (If there can be a dilemma, why not a trilemma, as Prof. Guenter Zoeller pointed out in a German philosophy class I took at Iowa.) Night after night, after finishing my six-hour shift in the kitchen and attending Vespers, I would repair to the library and pour over every word of Markings, taking copious notes.

The phrase that kept echoing for me was this: Gratitude and Readiness. With these two words, Hammarskjold helped me completely reframe my entire internal debate. The right question was not why things hadn’t played out differently in the past. It was, rather, what I was ready to do in the present to affirm the many gifts God had given me - and act on them in the service of others.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Empathy at School

School-age children across the country are back in school. It’s an annual ritual that, depending on the school district, comes either shortly before Labor Day or on the day after it.

The behavior expectations for students at the elementary school my sons attend are expressed in the acronym CARES:

● Cooperation (Work together with staff and students.)
● Assertion (Do your best and stand up for what is right.)
● Responsibility (Be prepared to learn. You are in charge of your own behavior.)
● Empathy (Treat others the way you want to be treated.)
● Self Control (Make safe choices.)

After the various fulminations against it by Republicans opposed to President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomajor to the Supreme Court, it was good to be reminded that empathy is a basic building block of civilized behavior − in schoolchildren, in judges, and in us all.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tax Evasion is Still a Crime

In 1846, noted writer Henry David Thoreau went to jail for unpaid poll taxes, which he had refused to pay because of his opposition to the Mexican War and to slavery. His aunt paid the taxes for him, and Thoreau was released against his wishes after only one night in jail.

Al Capone, the quintessential Chicago mob figure of the roaring 20s, was famously convicted of tax evasion after government authorities were unable to get him on racketeering charges. He served seven years in prison, much of it at Alcatraz, before being paroled in 1939.

On September 3, 2009, a federal judge sentenced former major league pitcher Jerry Koosman to six months in prison and a year of supervised release for willfully failing to pay taxes. By his own admission, Koosman allowed himself to be influenced by extreme anti-tax rhetoric, and did his own spurious research into the applicability of federal tax laws. He pleaded guilty in May to a misdemeanor charge for willful failure to file in 2002, and he still owes the government about $65,000, according to prosecutors.

The money involved in Koosman’s case is relatively small compared to Wesley Snipes’s. Snipes was sentenced in April to three years in prison for failing to pay federal taxes from 1999 to 2001, a period in which he made over $18 million. At trial, Snipes had argued that he relied on the advice of co-defendant Eddie Ray Kahn, who was also found guilty. Kahn’s organization, American Rights Litigators (later renamed Guiding Light of Guide Ministries) told hundreds of people that they could completely avoid federal taxes.

The Justice Department and the Southern Poverty Law Center clearly have their hands full in tracking and confronting hardcore anti-tax ideology and the groups that promote it. But the Koosman and Snipes sentences should have at least a degree of deterrent effect. Why go to prison like Capone, just because you fancy yourself a modern-day Thoreau?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Unemployment and Crime Rates

On the last workday before the Labor Day weekend, the official unemployment rate hit 9.7 percent, the highest since 1983.

What effect does protracted economic hardship have on crime rates? Inuitively, one might think crime would go up as more people become desperate. At least in Minneapolis, however, serious crime rates have fallen, even as unemployment has risen. For the month by month statistics from January 2006 to February 2009. see this post on the Smart Politics blog.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Puppies Behind Bars

Fresh Air, the long-running interview program on National Public Radio, is very well named.

Tonight’s broadcast (originally aired on August 12) featured a segment on a remarkable program in New York State in which an nonprofit organization called Puppies Behind Bars enables prison inmates to train dogs for work in explosive detection or as service dogs. Many of the service dogs work with severely wounded veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury.

The guests who appeared on Fresh Air to talk about the program were its executive director/founder (Gloria Gilbert Stoga), a former inmate who trained dogs in Puppies for Peace and now works there (Laura Moran), and a wounded veteran of the war in Iraq (Paul Bang-Knutson), who brought his service dog to the interview.

The bond between the inmates who train the service dogs and the wounded veterans who receive them is astonishingly strong, the guests said. Stoga spoke of a meeting between vets and inmates in one of the participating prisons in which both groups were weeping openly. Through the dogs, those imprisoned in response to crime and those relegated to the margins of society by their injuries could come out of solitude.

Why do inmates tend to be such good trainers for the dogs? According to Stoga, the emotional fragility of inmates makes them well suited to the work. A dog offers unconditional love, 24/7, no matter what crimes the inmate may have committed. Caring for the dog − “being fully responsible for a live being,” as Stoga put it − helps the inmate deal with what is otherwise an often incredibly isolating experience of incarceration.

The impact on the wounded veterans is no less profound. The Fresh Air guests told of veterans who, when suffering from a PTSD episode, can end up on the floor in the fetal position. Puppies Behind Bars trains service dogs to intervene in these situations by literally calling 9-1-1 on an oversized phone originally designed for the visually impaired.

For many of us, thinking of dogs in prison implies harsh images of command and control. I'm referring here not just to the excesses of Abu Ghraib, but to ordinary American prisons like the one I visited with a legislative delegation in Clarinda, Iowa, a decade ago. It is truly inspiring to hear about how Puppies Behind Bars has turned this image on its head, making dogs into agents of healing.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Mothers of the Disappeared Get a Database

The BBC reported tonight that the Chilean government is creating a DNA database to help identify (living or dead) people who disappeared (and were probably murdered) during the repression of the Pinochet era.

It reminds me not only of U-2's song, but of a speech I heard Cornell West give at Boise State University in 1997. One of the most deeply human desires is to be able to bury our dead. With the creation of the new database, Chileans will have a better chance to do that, for loved ones taken from him during the terrible violence unleashed by the Pinochet government.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Whole Armor of God

Christians are supposed to turn the other cheek all the time, right? Well, it's true that Jesus says this in two of the gospels (Mt. 5:39, Lk. 6:29). And certainly the Christian fold is big enough to include those of a quietist persuasion. Their watchwords are “Resist not evil,” lest by fighting evil they end up emulating it themselves.

Yet Scripture also contains a clear call to confront evil. The concluding passage of Ephesians, summoning the faithful to put on the armor of God, is a stirring call to fight the good fight.

How does one equip oneself for this struggle? Ephesians 6 prescribes a spiritual toolkit covering tip to toe.

● Belt of truth around the waist
● Breastplate of righteousness
● Shield of faith
● Helmet of righteousness
● Shoes conducive to proclaiming the gospel of peace
● Sword of the Spirit (the only weapon mentioned)

By insisting on the truth, faithful people (Christian or not) can help defeat ideologies that rely on lies. A generation ago, isn't that what we did to win the Cold War?

Today, on the issue of health care reform, let’s start with this: There is no such thing as “death panels” in the proposed legislation. For corroboration, see the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s fact check service.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

9-1-1: Anything Can Happen

If I were on Twitter, I’d have to keep this to 140 characters. Let me try (6:40 p.m.):

Approaching Co. Rd. 38 in AV, going south on Zoo Blvd, I heard sirens. One police car passed, going north on Zoo Blvd. Then another turned left onto Zoo Blvd off of 38.

Wow, 140 characters aren’t many! Geting the missive above down to 138 took a little doing. Thankfully, the blog format offers more room to maneuver.

It’s been seven years since I had a ride-along with a Carver County Sheriff’s deputy, while working as a program coordinator for the Minnesota Criminal Justice Resource Center. Yet I still recall the giddy feeling of zipping past and through the usual traffic limitations.

First responders do sometimes get into accidents in the course of their duty. On June 20, for example, an ambulance hurrying to the site of a car crash in St. Paul struck and killed a pedestrian. Tests showed that the veteran firefighter driving the ambulance had no alchohol in his system, and a Fire Department spokesperson described him as devastated by the fatality.

Accustomed as they are to dealing with demanding situations of extreme urgency, first resonders can also overeach and overreact. The recent case of Kerra Cameron illustrates this.

Cameron was filling out her wedding registry at Target in a Minneapolis suburb along with her fiance. She suffers from low blood pressure, which causes her to pass out occasionally, but is able to recover on her own within a few minutes without medical intervention. When she passed out at Target, however, someone called 9-1-1 and EMTs forced her into an ambulance, even though she had already regained conscoiusness and said she'd be fine in a few minutes. A police officer signed an "emergency hold" to force her to be taken to the hospital for tests, which revealed nothing wrong.

The case attracted the attention of the press when both the ambulance company and the hospital tried to collect for the unwanted services. A state ombudsman was quoted as saying that using Minnesota's "temporary hold" statute to force medical treatment on someone who is not suffering from a mental illness was not a proper use of the law. I'd go farther; it seems like a form of false imprisonment.

It's remarkable how relatively infrequent incidents like these are, however, given the degree to which − under the exigencies of an emergency − police, firefighters, and EMTs stretch the limits of what’s humanly possible. They do this initially in getting there so quickly, and then in dealing with the unpredictable, often highly dangerous situations awaiting them upon arrival. Bruce Springsteen's song "Into the Fire," about the firefighers and other first responders who entered the burning Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, epitomizes this can-do spirit at the highest level .

The one personal encounter I've had with EMTs was very positive and unforgettable. My father was dying of cirrhosis of the liver and complications of Parkinson's disease. In August 2007, my mother realized that she could not take of him at home any longer. We made arrangements for dad to be transferred to The Pillars, a hospice affiliated with the Health East system. Two young EMTs - both women - came to my parents' house to transport him.

Before the EMTs arrived, dad had been largely unresponsive, slumped in his chair. But they helped him muster himself, so that by the time he went out the door a conversation enlivened by the kind of light repartee that he loved was underway. My mom and I drove right behind the ambulance on the twenty-five mile trip from Apple Valley to Oakdale and helped dad get settled into his room at the hospice. The EMTs and the hospice staff were all like angels, taking on a burden of care that had caught us unawares.