Thursday, April 29, 2010

One Lewd Act and It's Off to Prison for Life

On April 12, a judge in Nevada sentenced a 34-year-old woman to life in prison for kissing a 13-year-old boy, getting him to touch her breast through her clothes, and asking him for sex.

At trial, the woman admitted to roughhousing with the boy, but said she was intoxicated and did not remember more beyond that. Intoxication is of course not a defense, and committing lewd acts with a minor is no minor thing.

Even if she is released on parole after ten years, however, Michelle Lyn Taylor must register as a sex offender and be subject to lifetime supervision. As her defense attorney pointed out, Ms. Taylor's sentence is longer than if she had killed the boy.

From press accounts, it isn't clear why the district attorney chose to charge her under a statute carrying such a heavy mandatory minimum sentence, and why no plea bargain was offered. The jury was not told that a guilty verdict would carry such a severe sentence, and surely no one in the Legislature anticipated that the statute would be used this way. Too often, the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing in the American criminal justice system - and people's lives are unredeemably ruined as a result.

That's why Doug Berman, in his sentencing blog, notes that this could be a test case to probe the meaning in non-capital cases of the Eight Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Or is it possible, as Berman speculates, that there are additional facts about the case that have not been made public?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Power Dynamics: Foucault and the NLBM

In his chapter on torture in Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault writes of the body as enmeshed in a societal "system of subjugation." He seeks to describe the "micro-physics of power," his term for complicated, dynamic power relations that are always in tension, never fixed. There is indubitably a dominant class, in his view, but its power is "excercised rather than possessed."

Reading this, I couldn't help but think of my recent visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. The NLBM tells the story of how the dominant white society systematically kept African Americans off of white professional teams for roughly half a century. The exclusion ran from the mid-1890s (around the time of the Supreme Court's infamous "separate but equal" decision in Plessy v. Ferguson) until 1947 and beyond. Many teams did not add black players until well into the 1950s (around the time the Supreme Court overruled Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education).

The most fascinating exhibit at the museum for me was a video documenting how the black/white power relations differed between the American League and the National League. Following Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, National League owners were much quicker to integrate black players into their teams. American League owners, particularly those of the Yankees and the Red Sox, were much slower. Amazingly, the Red Sox did not even field a black player until 1959, and the Yankees were not much better.

The result of the American League's foot-dragging was an undeniable talent differential between the leagues that continued into the 1970s. Watching video of Willie Ways, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Lou Brock and others transforming the style of play in the NL, I suddenly realized that the National League's dominance in the All-Star Game for over a decade was completely understandable. Growing up a Twins fan in the 70s, the American League's futility in those games had always been inexpliable to me. Now I realize that it had something to do with Foucauldian power dynamics.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Getting Good at Breaking and Entering

Many exigencies can motivate burglars; often, of course, it's substance abuse. In the throes of addiction, breaking and entering, along with theft, become merely the means to an end of getting cash for drugs.

But what if the reason for the burglary were an unavoidable existential emergency: to wit, a rare genetic disorder resulting in chronological impairment? More specifically, an impairment causing someone to move back and forth between discrete moments of time, leaving their clothes behind when they do - thus necessitating burglaries to cover the ensuing nakedness.

This is the fanciful but intriguing premise of Audrey Niffenegger's emotionally rich novel The Time Traveler's Wife, which was made into a fine film last year starring Rachel MacAdams and Eric Bana. Bana's traveler commits burglary after burglary, just to stay clothed after being chronologically disrobed. I've not seen such repetition of the same crime on screen since Jeremy Irons's Moonlighting in 1983, where Polish laborers stranded on London after the crackdown on the Solidarity movement resorted to shoplifting to survive.

Yet these burglaries are completely prosaic in the context of the larger themes. What is it like, in a marriage or any intimate relationship, when, for whateve reason, one's partner is not available? MacAdams's character, the traveler's wife, has been likened to Penolope in The Odyssey, keeping the flame of the relationship alive even amid years of waiting.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Through the Gate(s)

When the author Ted Conover worked as correctional officer at New York’s notorious Sing Sing prison in the 1990s, he sometimes had to pass through ten different locked gates to reach his assigned post.

My visit with other board members of Prison Congregations of America to inmates at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in western Michigan on April 10 did not involve nearly as many doors. But it was far from simple.

The process unfolded like this:

Several weeks before our board meeting, Mary Mortenson, the director of Prison Congregation, collected the names and Social Security numbers of those intending to visit the prison. She passed those along to Rich Rienstra, pastor of Celebration Fellowship, as the congregation at Bellamy Creek is called. Rich in turn provided them to the official prison chaplain, who notified the appropriate security authorities in the prison.

When we arrived at Bellamy Creek, we left our billfolds, belts, cell phones, and virtually all other personal objects in our vehicles. There were lockers just inside the entrance for other miscellaneous items. I tossed my comb in one of those, keeping only my driver’s license.

After a bit of milling around, we passed − in groups of six or seven − through the first gate, into an area that Rich called “the bubble.” There, we had to leave our licenses, remove our shoes as in airport screening, and have our hands dabbed with a substance that was then scanned.

Finally, after more milling around, we were in. Only two gates, not Conover’s ten, but “the bubble” packed numerous security features into an enclosed space.

We were lead down a corridor to the room where Celebration Fellowship meets, to spend a remarkable two hours with the brothers there. The Spirit was moving, animated by a mutual recognition that ultimately there is only one gate that matters: the one Jesus offers in John 14:6, “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Sunday, April 18, 2010


“Let’s play two,” Ernie Banks, the effervescent “Mr. Cub,” was known to say in his playing career. He loved to play so much that sometimes one game wasn’t enough; he preferred a doubleheader.

On Sundays, I often have my own version of this. My wife, Diane, serves a large suburban church with two different worship services going on simultaneously in the same building. During the program year (Sept – June), the traditional service meets in the sanctuary at 8:30, 9:45 and 11. The contemporary service is at 9:45 and 11 in a nearby flex-space called the Great Hall.

Today, at Shepherd of the Valley in Apple Valley, Minn., I felt like Ernie Banks at Wrigley Field. Diane preached in the contemporary service on the parable of the weeds in the wheat. “Let both of them grow together until the harvest,” Jesus urges. A counter-cultural notion, to be sure, especially in a country where juveniles are often treated so harshly in the justice system. (Pennsylvania, for example, is planning to try a 12-year-old as an adult for murder.)

My 7-year-old son, Luke, was with me for this service at 9:45, while his 9-year-old brother, Micah, attended “Godzone,” the SOTV version of Sunday School.

At 11 a.m., Micah and Luke switched places. Luke went to Godzone and I met up with Micah and my mother for the 11 a.m. service in the sanctuary. My St. Olaf classmate Chris Smith preached on John 21, in which the risen Jesus reconciles with Peter, plaintively posing the question three times, “Do you love me?” Peter, who earlier had denied him three times, commits to continuing the ministry.

The work of the church extends to much more than worship. Yet it begins there, as each week people of faith gather to be renewed and praise their Lord before being sent back into the world for acts of service.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bearing the Pain: Alone or Together?

My friend Mary, in South Dakota, sends me weekly essays from Kathy Timpany, a UCC pastor in Sioux Falls.

Tonight, doing a little housekeeping on my gmail inbox, I happened to read Pastor Timpany's meditation for Palm/Passion Sunday. It blew right by me at the time, as our family girded our loins for my wife Diane to be involved in no fewer than 14 worship services in the course of Holy Week at our suburban megachurch.

When I got to it tonight, however, this quotation from Timpany's essay blew me away: "Palm Sunday reveals the passion, the sorrow and the love intermingled at the heart of all our lives. It forces to choose how we will arrive at the Cross: bearing that pain together, or using it to seperate ourselves from others."

There are so many forces pulling us apart, in this fragmented, bowling-alone American life. Yet we are called into community.

As I reflected on this, I was reminded of St. Paul's account in 1 Corinthians 11 of the institution of the eucharist. "This is my body that is for you," he quotes Jesus as saying in verse 24. In the original Greek, the word "you" is plural. Communion is personal, but it is not private; it extends the means of grace to all who share a common life.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Roethlisberger and Prosecutorial Discretion

Barhopping with friends in Milledgeville, Ga, to celebrate his 28th birthday, Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger apparently picked up a 20-year-old woman and may or may not have sexually assaulted her in a bathroom.

On April 12, about five weeks after the March 5 incident, Ocmulgee Circuit District Attorney Fred Bright announced he would not bring rape charges against Rothlisberger. The young woman told police she had been sexually assaulted, and a medical examination showed evidence of vaginal bleeding, as well as a cut and bruises. There was insufficient DNA to make testing viable, however, and Bright was concerned about the challenges of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

"We do not prosecute morals. We prosecute crimes," the prosecutor plausibly told the press. In some ways, that is a valid distinction. It's very difficult to convict a star athlete, past or present, in this type of case. The Kobe Bryant case in Colorado in 2004, which turned on whether the sex was consensual, was ultimately dismissed by the judge amid concerns about revictimizing the alleged victim. A year earlier, former Minnesota Twins star Kirby Puckett was acquitted of groping a woman in the bathroom of a restaurant in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Unlike those two incidents, however, the Roethlisberger case could conceivably be distinguished because the woman involved may not even have been of legal drinking age. According to the facts made public, Roethlisberger paid for shots of alcohol for the young woman and her sorority sisters. And that alcohol could in turn have undermined her ability to give full consent to whatever acts occurred in the bathroom with Roethlisberger.

Though the DA chose not to bring charges, Roethlisberger has not escaped consequences entirely. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, ever vigilant in protecting the league's image, quickly met wtih Roethlisberger and is considering a possible suspension or mandated counseling. Goodell takes his disciplinary role seriously, as he showed last season in insisting on a proper show of remorse from Michael Vick before reinstating him after Vick served a federal prison term for involvement in an egregious dog-fighting operation.

And then there's the court of public opinion. Roethlisberger may not be in for a public shaming by the Steelers' owners, as Tiger Woods was at the hands of Augusta National Chairman Billy Burke. But he would do well to consider the message his alcohol-fueled actions are sending to the thousands of boys who follow football so faithfully.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What Went Up Can Come Down

Correctional populations have gone up so steadily for so long that it had come to seem almost like a law of nature.

Over a decade ago, when the total number of people in jail or prison reached 2 million, the conservative scholar John J. Dilulio opined that this was (finally) enough. Further increases were not likely to enhance public safety and might even diminish it, as wholesale incarceration decimated the social stability of so many neighborhoods.

Yet the number of inmates continued to go up - from 2 million in jail or prison in 1999 to 2.3 million in 2009.

In several states, however, the relentless budgetary pressure wrought by the Great Recession is forcing a rethinking. Indeed, in some states the numbers are actually starting to come down.

Michigan is a case in point. On my recent trip to Grand Rapids for a board meeting of Prison Congregations of America, I learned that the statewide prison population has gone down from 51,000 to 45,0000 in a matter of months. State officials have prioritized reentry for ex-offenders (or, as one prison ministry volunteer called them, "returning citizens"). As a result, what once seemed immutable is now in a condition of rapid change.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sex + Text Message = "Sexting"

Is it true, as a Florida criminal defense attorney asserted in an interview aired on Nightline on April 2, that 20 to 30 percent of American teens engage in "sexting" - i.e., sending or receiving sexually explicit messages, including highly provactive pictures of themselves, over the Internet to friends?

It may be so. One mainstream journalistic source, Parade magazine, which comes with your (old-fashioned print, if you get one) Sunday paper, citing "recent studies," reported on April 4 that the number is one in five. Signifying the sex saturation in our society, the print story ran opposite an ad for bra straps.

Alas, most states' child pornography laws were written long ago - often in the 1980s - when today's technological topography was inconceivable.

Which state will lead the way in rethinking these archaic laws? A teen who breaks up with his girlfriend and, in a fit of adolescent rage, sends nude pictures of her out over the Internet, certainly deserves serious consequences. Sending that teen to prison for several years, however, and branding him as sex offender (through the registry) for upwards of 20 years, seems draconian.

In a revolution - this one technological -it's important to minimize the casualties. This principle surely applies to teens who sext, when undeniable scientific research shows that the judgement-conrol centers in their brains are not fully formed.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bad Pun, Ubiqitous Subject

Here’s a joke from an individually wrapped yogurt container designed for kids.

Q: What do police use to arrest pigs?

A: Ham-Cuffs!

Does this country have cops and robbers on its mind or what? It starts early.

In America today, incarceration is so ubiquitous it's iniquitous.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Denny Hecker Goes to Jail

Denny Hecker, the former Twin Cities auto mogul, is experiencing a perfect storm of legal needs. His businesses fell apart in the wake of the Great Recession, amid allegations of fraud concerning his dealings with lenders. His personal finances went Way South - resulting in bankrupcy proceedings. And his marital money matters took on the trappings of farce; last week, he faced lawsuits by his second ex-wife, for nonpayment of alimony, and soon-to-be ex-wife number four, for withholding key information and hiding assets.

Groucho Marx, Rodney Dangerfield, or any comedian worth his or her salt, take it away.

It's hard to find much empathy for someone who lived the high life for so long, and seems so unwilling to take responsibility for his actions. So it was perfectly understandable when Judge Jay Quam decided to give Hecker a taste of jail, to remind him of the importance of candor before the tribunal.

Four days in the Hennepin County workhouse left Hecker gasping for air. Sentenced to 90 days for civil contempt, after failing to comply with numerous court orders, Hecker was released after only 72 hours. The experience of jail for that long, he told the judge, was something "one would not want to experience in a lifetime."

If I were Judge Quam, I might recommend to Denny Hecker that he read Ted Conover's book Newjack, about working as a guard at Sing Sing prison in New York State. Connover recounts how, in the original prison building - built in 1826 by inmate labor and used until 1943 - two prisoners shared a 3 1/2 by 7-foot cell, at first with no central heating, open sewer channels, and little light.

Might Denny, by that standard, be a little pampered?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Gardy as Submissive Husband

Ron Gardenhire, the Minnesota Twins' manager, has very little in common with Madonna, the long-running pop music celebrity. Like her, however, he now often goes by only one name.

Tonight, as the Twins played at Target Field for the first time, I heard Gardy do a hilarious radio commercial for a hardware store chain. It turned on the premise that the man who has the final say about on-field decisions for the Twins is perfectly prepared to defer to his wife's decisions on matters domestic - including, of course, which hardware store to patronize and what to get there.

In other words, a case of separate spheres, as feminist scholars might put it.

As I smiled about Gardy's willingness to be guided by his wife on household purchases and projects, I had to recall my dad, who was equally comfortable with a division of labor of that type. In particular, it reminded me of a sermon I heard him preach in the 1970s on Ephesians, Chapter 5.

Ephesians 5 contains passages that can easily be misinterpreted. "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior,"it says in verse 22. Pretty heady words to hear, if you're a husband on a power trip.

Instead of male superiority, my dad offered a persuasive and biblically grounded interpretation calling for mutual submission between partners in a marriage. After all, the much-invoked verse 22 is preceded by this one: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."

My dad would have been amused by Gardy's commercial. He might even have used it in a sermon on Ephesians 5, if he were still preaching today.