Sunday, June 27, 2010

California's Prison Visit Moratorium

California staggers on with its intertwined correctional and fiscal crises.

In the latest episode, the state suspended virtually all visists to inmates, except for those by attorneys, for the weekend of June 26-27. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation asserted that the suspension would save $400,000 for the cash-strapped state.

Regular visits are supposed to resume in July, when the new fiscal year begins. That is some consolation, I suppose, for inmates and their families who were denied visits this weekend. But it certainly does not justify creating such an unsustainable prison system in the first place and repeatedly failing to fix it, despite a plethora of federal court orders to do so.

Pennywise, poundfoolish.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Missouri Bar, July 1986

When I read the results in the Kansas City Star, on the first Sunday in October of 1986, I felt a profound sense of relief. I had passed the Missouri bar exam, administered six weeks earlier in Jeff City − as Missourians are wont to call their tiny, rather obscure state capital,

The drive from Kansas City on a 100-degree day in late July was stressful. I had picked up my little hand-me-down 1980 Olds Omega in the parking lot of Rockhurst College in KC, after flying down from Minneapolis-St. Paul. The BAR/BRI course hosted by Rockhurst had ended a week or so earlier, so I’d gone back to my parents’ home in Minnesota for the last week of study before the exam.

In such heat, I was concerned that the decidedly-not-young Olds would boil over, and indeed it was making problematic noises as I made my way down I-80 toward Jefferson City. Somehow it held together, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I pulled into the Ramada Inn where the exam was being held and checked in without incident.

The two or three days to follow were a blur of exam taking and coping. The two news stories catching my attention were Antonin Scalia’s nomination to the Supreme Court and the outcome of the United States Football League’s antitrust case against the NFL. Never before or since, even during the Iowa bar in February 2000, have I experienced such 24/7 immersion in the law.

Interesting as the USFL’s anguish was, the Scalia story really stood out. Only a little over a year later, Robert Bork let it all hang out in his confirmation hearings and − it became a verb − got borked, Scalia was able to play it coy as coy can be. Any question that might raise even the most reticent of ideological eyebrows was met with the same, on-message response: “I’m sorry senator, I can’t answer that because it implicates an issue that might come before me on the Court, if I am privileged to so serve.”

When I finished the exam, I drove the Olds back to KC and caught a flight to Chicago. From there, I got a shuttle to Valparaiso, Ind., where I had graduated from law school two months before. My parents were waiting at my apartment, after driving out from Minnesota. My mom saw my crestfallen face and feared the worst.

As it turned out, however, I had stayed strong throughout the exam. My multistate (nationally applicable multiple-choice) score was so high that, a year later, I was admitted in Minnesota on motion, without having to take the Minnesota exam. I was sworn in as a member of the Missouri bar in the fall of ’86 by the Honorable Charles Shangler, the judge I was clerking for at the Missouri Court of Appeals.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

BJS Compiles the Numbers, Year-end 2009

The report released today by Bureau of Justice Statistics on the 2009 year-end prison population was a mixed bag.

The remarkable news is that, for the first time since 1972, the total state prison population went down. The decrease was not large − slightly less than 3,000 inmates (2,941) in a total state inmate population of 1.4 million. But the first drop in 38 years, even if small, is notable evidence of the Great Recession, if not necessarily of a rethinking of the underpinnings of sentencing policy.

And yet, despite the state decline, the overall U.S. prison population still kept going up, as the federal figure increased by 6838 to 208,118. The federal increase was 3,897 more than the state decrease, putting the combined state and federal total at 1,613,656 on December 31, 2009, according to BJS.

As Doug Berman noted in his sentencing blog, it’s scarcely a surprise that the one jurisdiction constitutionally able to run a deficit went in the opposite direction from budget-strapped states.

I would add a further thought, with a nod to Jim Webb’s ongoing effort to initiate a real dialog about fundamental sentencing reform. If reform is driven only by fiscal realities, and not also by a revisiting of the mass-incarceration model itself, the results are not likely to amount to much.

To be sure, cost is important. The more important question, however, is what purposes are served by mass incarceration? Intoning the words “public safety” endlessly is not an answer. It is a tautology − maybe even a boondoggle.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Parents in Prison

Over 1.7 million minor children have a parent in prison, according to a 2008 estimate by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The overwhelming majority of those parents are dads. BJS data showed 744,200 fathers and 65,600 mothers in prison at midyear 2007.

Think about it for a minute, on this eve of Father's Day. We live in a country where three quarters of a million dads are separated from their families by incarceration.

What does this do to the social outcomes of the children? And to the souls of the parents behind bars?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

In February 2000, I was seated at a writing table in a ballroom at the University of Iowa, waiting tensely along with dozens of others for the Iowa bar exam to begin.

Before we could start, the examiners asked us to write something in our test booklets - as a writing sample, they said, in order to avoid fraud. Wouldn't want someone borrowing someone else's ID and taking the test for them under false pretenses.

The two sentences we wrote have stayed with me ever since.

"Don't sweat the small stuff," went the first sentence. "What a good reminder," I thought.

The second sentence went even farther: "It's all small stuff."

Really? Three years of law school study, thousands and thousands of tuition dollars spent, seemingly a career on the line - and it's small stuff?

Well, in a way, yes. Though the words "dont sweat the small stuff" weren't nearly as eloquent as the serenity prayer, to me they hinted at a similar idea.

After the exam, I tried to take this notion to heart as I awaited the results. Easier said than done, to be sure.

Finally, one day in early April, I walked over to Drake Law School from the duplex my wife and I were renting a couple of miles away. Thankfully, the posting on the door of the law library showed I was among those who passed. A few days later, I was sworn in to the Iowa bar in a ceremony held in a grand old auditorium in Des Moines called Hoyt Sherman Place.

Hoyt Sherman Place is about a mile from Methodist Hospital, where - almost ten years ago now - our first son, Micah, was born.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Paul Family and Libertarian Slogans

Taxation = theft?

It's a provactive assertion, to be sure, in a sophomoric sort of way.

I went for it myself, on a purely intellectual level, when reading Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia as a college junior. A year later, I even followed up by reading Ayn Rand's libertarian panegyric, Atlas Shrugged.

That was then, this is now.

When I was growing up, the old saw used to be that anyone who wasn't a communist at twenty had no heart, while anyone who was still a communist at forty had no head.

That hoary old maxim is now a relic of the Cold War world.

But let's give libertarianism its due. The recent New York Times profile of Rand Paul, the 47-year-old upstart candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, showed the consistency of the political philosophy to which everyone in his family of origin apparently subscribes. Rand's father, Ron Paul, is a former Libertarian candidate for president. In the Times piece, his brother, Ronnie Paul, claimed to speak for all of them when making this assertion:

"We believe that stealing from people is not good, whether you're the government or whether you have a mask on."

A clever, clearly well rehearsed, line. But how, one wonders, can Ron Paul serve in Congress in good conscience if he believes this to be true, and why does Rand Paul want to serve in the Senate, if all the government is is a gang of thieves?

At least there was one surprise in the Times article. Rand Paul was NOT named after Ayn Rand; his name is short for Randall.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Death in the Family, on the World Cup's Eve

On her way home from a celebratory concert to kickoff the 2010 World Cup, Nelson Mandela's 13-year-old daughter, Zenani, was killed by a drunken driver in a one-car accident, according to press reports. The driver probably faces vehicular homicide charges.

To mourn Zenani's loss, Nelson Mandela did not attend the opening ceremonies.

He is no stranger to family tragedy. In 1969, as he began to serve a life sentence for subversion, Mandela received a telegram informing him that his eldest son had died in a car crash. Prison authorities did not allow Mandela to attend the funeral.

Yet gaining his release and becoming the first president of post-apartheid South Africa did not insulate him from personal pain, either. In 2005, he announced that his last surviving son had died of AIDS-related medical problems.

Life gives no free pass, even for one of the most lauded citizens of the world.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Conspiracy of Hope: 24 Years and Running

It's getting rather thin, but I've still got the t-shirt - from the Conspiracy of Hope benefit concerts for Amnesty International, twenty-four years ago. I bought it from a student at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, where I studied for the Missouri bar exam in the summer of 1986.

Though I didn't see any of concerts, even on TV, I'm grateful for the glimpses still available, courtesy of You Tube.

When Peter Gabriel took the stage at the New Jersey Meadowlands in May of 1986 to sing his anthem "Biko," Nelson Mandela was in prison and apartheid was still very much in place in South Africa. Mikhail Gorbachev was only just beginning his reform efforts in the Soviet Union.

Much has changed for the better in the world since then. South African apartheid is gone, as is the Soviet Union. Yet so much remains to be done.

What is the ongoing legacy of the concerts and the aspirations to which they gave voice? To paraphrase Peter Gabriel at the Meadowlands, it's up to us.