Monday, September 27, 2010

Castaway - Into Solitary

The time-obsessed character played by Tom Hanks in Castaway became disconsolate when stranded alone on a lush Pacific island, dappled in sea breezes and swaying fronds.

So why, then, do we expect American inmates to make it in solitary confinement for extended periods of time, without becoming mentally inhinged?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Why I Blog

Andrew Sullivan, the former New Republic editor-turned blogger, once wrote an essay entitled "Why I Blog." I read it in The Atlantic Monthly a year or so ago.

Tonight, those three words - why I blog - popped into my head in a rather unexpected setting: deep in the prolix text of Hermann Hesse's strange novel The Glass Bead Game, first published in 1943.

The protagonist, Joseph Knecht, who has risen to be the head of a quasi-monastic order of cultural elites, is concerned about the tendency of many in the order to avoid engagement with the messy, conflict-prone realities of history. He offers the following statement as a counterweight to those who would retreat from the world in order to keep themselves pure.

"No noble and exalted life exists without knowledge of devils and demons, and without continual struggle against them."

Plenty of devils and demons have populated the pages of this blog during its 21-month existence. And they will likely continue to do so. Just today, I heard tell of a 2-year-old toddler killed by an 11-year-old babysitter in Georgia; a woman whose intelligence bordered on mental retardation executed in Virginia; documented cases of prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa; and on down the line.

Angels and demons was a Dan Brown novel - a voyeuristic fantasy. The devils and demons above are all too real, and they are only the tip of the iceberg in a world crying out in pain.

My struggle against such demons is not of the flesh, but of the spirit. I'm not a police officer, a corrections officer, a probation officer, or any of the other first-line reponders. I'm merely a commentator. But I strive, in my own way, to reorient the intellectual structure of the debate in America about what criminal justice policies we should employ.

More specifically, I aim to make not solely a religious case, but also a practical one, for America to free itself from the ideological blinders that have warped our policies in recent years. Of course, this will not be easy. Yet one must try. To quote Spinoza, beautiful things are as difficult as they are rare.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pot, Booze, and Caifornia's Prop. 19

California voters will decide in November whether personal use of marijuana should be legal.

In my previous post, I referred to a film called Saving Grace, in which a character asks a simple question: Does the fact that alcohol is mostly legal but marijuana is mostly not have more to do with the accidents of history than any qualitiative difference in the relative experiences of intoxication offered by the two drugs?

The debate over Proposition 19 in California provides an instructive case in point. Prop 19 would legalize marijuana possession for personal use. Fearing the competition from pot, distributors of booze have made substantial financial contributions to oppose it.

As the blogger Scott Greenfield points out in his post in Simple Justice, the self-interested motivation of such contributions is crystal clear. With only so many dollars-chasing-intoxicants to go around, purveyors of licquor stand to lose by the legalization of cannabis consumption.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Stirring the Pot

Is the fact that alcohol is mostly legal and marijuana is mostly not merely an accident of history that has relatively little to do with the actual effects of each drug?

The amusing English comedy, Saving Grace, poses this question in lighthearted cinematic form, leavened with heavy doses of whimsy and featuring some rather remarkable displays of marijuana plants. The filmmakers stir the pot - pun totally intended - with quirky Cornish characters, dubious London drug dealers, and a sure-fire performance by Brenda Blethyn as a widow left deep in debt by her late husband's fraud.

The question at hand is what will happen when the widow turns to large-scale cannabis cultivation, hoping to get herself out of the financial quagmire. The widow's name is Grace, but the film doesn't really explore the theological implications of the word. Maybe the filmmakers thought calling her Mary Jane would be too bad of a pun.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Glenn Loury, the Town Crier

How did America's astonishingly large increase in incarceration happen? By any empirical measure, the U.S. is a wide outlier in imprisonment rates not only compared to the rest of the world, but compared to our own past. The rate has exploded in the last 40 years, from 100 per 100,000 of the population to nearly 700 per 100,000 today.

And why has this not gotten more attention? To me, it's been the elephant in the room in America since the end of the Cold War. But the economy was so strong that the governing powers could pay for the prisons - and they did, creating a huge industry. Eisenhower famously warned of the military industrial complex. Who could have forseen then that dealing with a prison industrial complex would become an equally daunting challenge?

Finally, however, the wall of silence around the incarceration escalation is starting to crack. In 1999, the conservative scholar John J. Dilulion opined in the Wall Street Journal that 2 million prisoners was enough. Two years later, in The Culture of Crime Control, David Garland described the spread of ever-wider coercion exercised through the correctional system.

More recently, Glenn Loury, a sociologist at Brown University, has taken up the role of - in his words - town crier, warning of the dangers to our society of mass incarceration.

The sheer numbers numbers are huge - 2.3 million in jail or prison on a given day, and nearly another 5 million on probation or parole. So it absolutely is, in the term used in the current issue of Daedalus, mass incarceration.

And yet, as Loury remarked to the privileged, predominantly white kids he teaches at Brown, it is also not really mass incarceration in the sense that it affects everyone equally. It is hyperincarceration of certain elemoents of the population, particularly racial minorities.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Judge Rosenbaum and the Guidelines Dust-Up

As James Rosenbaum's tenture as chief U.S. district judge in Minnesota wound down, the Star Tribune lavished considerable attention on the respected jurist. A glowing article in June 2008 lauded his wit and wisdom. A little over two years later, in August 2010, with his retirement near, the Strib sent the judge on his way to private practice with abundant praise for his Renaissance man qualities.

In the August 2010 piece, a prominent Twin Cities criminal defense attorney named Joe Friedberg recounted a story about the way Rosenbaum handled the sentencing of a defendant who was facing 121 to 141 months under the federal sentencing guidelines. Rosenbaum gave Friedberg's client an even ten years. "The last thing a defendant should have to do while doing time is divide," he told Friedberg.

Though I don't know whether this story is apocryphal or not, it does point to the most controversial episode of Rosenbaum's career on the federal bench: his dust-up with the Republican Congressional leadership over the status of the federal sentencing guidelines. For years, federal judges had been appallaed by the unfairness of the guidelines. The guidelines, or sentencing rules, were commonly thought to be mandatory, taking away judges' discretion and forcing them to impose sentences that were often terribly unjust in individual cases.

Rosenbaum was not alone in speaking out against the guidelines. But in 2002 he became a target for the Republican leadership of the House Judiciary Committee, which threatened to subpoena his sentencing records. This was a surprising turn of events for a Reagan appointee who had once been active in Republican politics. Rosenbaum's long-time colleague Ann Montgomery told the Star Trib that these were dark days for her friend, but that the experience made him a fuller, more compassionate person.

In 2005, Rosenbaum was vindicated when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Blakely case that the federal sentencing guidelines are advisory, not mandatory.

Now, he's riding off into the sunset, ready for more world travel and able to command fees as an arbitrator that will help pay college tuition for his grandchildren. Renaissance man, indeed.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Revisiting Atul Gawande's "Hellhole" Essay

It's been almost a year and a half since The New Yorker published Atal Gawande's provacative essay Hellhole, an eye-opening account of the overue of solitary confinement in American prisons. More than 25,000 American inmates are in solitary at any given time, according to Gawande's figures. Another 50,000 to 80,000 are in administrative segregation, which often involves isolation. Despite evidence showing that a stay of more than 10 days in solitary has no real benefits in imposing compliance with prison discipline, many offenders are subjected to solitary for years at at time. And because the human self is social, the deprivation of social contact is a recipe for driving people into psychosis. Gawande contrasts British and American approaches to offenders classified as "the worst of the worst." Beginning in the 1980s, British correctional officials gradually moved toward providing more, not less, opportunity for social interaction to the highest risk inmates. Meanwhile, the United States began to build supermax prisons, where inmates have virtually no human contact on a daily basis. Two paths diverged in a dark wood - and one has led straight to hell for tens of thousands of people.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Daedalus and Mass Incarceration

Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, has devoted a special issue to "mass incarceration."

The classical connotations of the journal's name are not without irony when the topic is America's bursting-at-the-seams prison population. For it was Daedalus, the prototypical craftsman, who designed a peculiar form of prison (the labyrinth) to contain a a very particular fearsome creature (the Minotaur - half man, half bull).

Can Daedalus, the journal, turn the tables on its namesake and provide a forum for solutions that will help unlock the labyrinth of America's correctional system?