Friday, December 31, 2010

DWI in MN: 1 in 7 Drivers

The holidays are a notoriously grim time on America's roads. Too many people drink too much and then drive without giving proper thought to the logistics of getting home safely.

Law enforcement agencies and safety advocates such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving try their best to respond to the challenge. Here in Minnesota, MADD is teaming up with the Department of Public Safety's Office of Traffic Safety and the State Patrol as part of a national effort called Tie One on for Safety. Members of the public are encouraged to tie red ribbons to their vehicles to signify a commitment to safe, sober, buckled-up driving.

The statistics cited in the Star Tribune news item announcing the annual campaign speak of a culture with a drinking problem. In Minnesota alone, there were 3,931 alcohol-related crashes last year. These crashes killed 141 people and injured 2,592.

Of course, the problem isn't only alcohol; it also includes other drugs. The I in DWI stands, after all, for impaired, and drivers can be impaired by drugs as well as alcohol. Sometimes, sadly, they are impaired by both.

It's pretty scary to consider how many impaired drivers are out on the roads - not just at the holidays, but throughout the year. One in seven Minnesota drivers has a DWI conviction.

1 in 7!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rebelious Youth DID Exist in Sanitized Switzerland

Rebelious youth in Switzerland?

Yes, they existed, as they always have. From the 1880s to the 1980s, however, Swiss authorities were lightning quick to incarcerate them. The prextext was "education," and the imprisonment included a fat fee charged to the family - like it or not.

NPR reported today on the widespread practice in Switzerland - for a full century - of jailing juveniles with any sort of issues. The youth were held indefinitely in adult prisons or labor camps, alongside the worst adult offenders. The Swiss cantons not only got sanitized streets out of the deal; they got cheap labor for logging and other work camp activities.

A shameful era in Swiss history, now being brought, belatedly but devastingly, to light.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Rereading Real Presences, George Steiner's probing essay into the metaphysical underpinning of aesthetic expression, reminded me why I'm doing this blog.

"All serious art, music and literature," Steiner wrote in 1989, "is a critical act." It is critical because it makes a statement that runs counter to the usual way of the world. Art offers a critique of life; "it says that things might be (have been, shall be) different."

So true! American incarceration rates have not always been so stratospherically high. They will probably not be so high in the future. They certainly do not have to be so high. They should be lower because, as Senator Jim Webb says, we are not such an evil people that we need to keep over two million of our fellow citizens in jail or prison at a given time.

If, then, incarceration rates should be lower, what should they be? And how do we get from here to there? To my mind, the answer that could be taken from the title of an old REM song - Can't Get There From Here - simply will not do.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The U.S. Goes After a Child Soldier

American troops arrested Omar Khadr, a fifteen-year-old boy from Canada, in Afghanistan in 2002. The allegation was that he threw a grenade that killed Christoph Speer, a U.S. medic.

The military held Khadr in prison at Guanantamo Bay for over eight years. He was the youngest detainee. But he was held so long that by the time he stood trial in a military commission, the boy had become a man.

Khadr continued to protest his innocence, claiming that he did not throw the grenade. His attorneys prevailed upon him to accept a plea bargain, however, telling him that the military officers were likely to convict him - with a likely sentence of life in prison.

The sentencing panel was not told of the plea agreement, which purported to cap the length of the sentence at eight years. Instead, the panel deliberated nearly nine hours before sentencing Khadr to 40 years. After one more year in U.S. custody he will have the right to petition to be returned to Canada.

Such a return could potentially result in an incongruous gap between the symbolic and the real, depending on how Canada chooses to treat the American sentence. A murky end to a troubling case that could have used more "truth in sentencing."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

C. Cuomo Plays 'Gotcha" at a Pill Mill

Nightline reported tonight on “pill mills,” in which unscrupulous clinics allow unsupervised staff to sell mass quantities of heavy-duty painkillers and other prescription drugs to anyone who can pay and is willing to fake a semi-plausible story of medical need.

The director of the Texas Medical Board calls this crime, not medicine. And the dubious outlets have lead to numerous deaths by overdose in the last three years.

Nightline reporter Chris Cuomo, the brother of New York’s new governor, went to one such clinic to confront the operators with their nefarious ways. In a classic investigative journalism gesture, Cuomo knocked on the clinic door, ready to pounce. The trope is, I believe, called “gotcha.”

The respondent who opened the door initially responded that anyone who did what Cuomo alleged should go to prison, should to jail. (The terms were used interchangeably, as they so often are in American parlance.)

Then he closed the door, leaving Cuomo to spin the story.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Posthumous Pardon for Jim Morrison?

Charlie Crist, the soon-to-be-former governor of Florida, is considering a posthumous pardon for the late rock star Jim Morrison. Morrison was convicted of indecent exposure after a chaotic concert in Miami forty years ago. He died the following year, in the most famous Parisian bathtub this side of Marat.

The decision is not Crist’s to make unilaterally. Two other members of the state’s clemency board must sign off. According to the New York Times, that seems likely.

Why are governors and presidents typically so parsimonious with pardons until their administrations are practically over? Exoneration would mean more if its executive sponsor were willing to face the political consequences, as Gerald Ford did in 1976 for his pardon of Richard Nixon.

Or maybe there are enough old fans of the Doors living in Florida that it might actually have helped Crist politically to have thrown this olive branch to Jim Morrison’s legacy?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Newjack Numbers

When Ted Conover guarded Sing Sing over a decade ago, the total population of New York's sprawling prison system was over 70,000. In an early chapter of his book Newjack, Conover cites this figure and notes the six-fold increase from the 12,5000 that the system held 25 years before.

Data from the Bureau of Justice statistics confirms the figure of 70,000. According to the BJS, New York State's prison population was 70,199 at the end of 2000, the year Conover's book was published.

What is it today? Though year-end figures are not yet available for 2010, BJS counted 58,687 prisoners at the end of 2009. So the total has gone down since Conover's time, by an average of about two percent per year. The figure remains quite high, however, in historical terms, at over four times what it was in the 1970s.

Could it be that our society is turning the Titanic around? Several states are feverishly trying to do just that before the oceans of red ink wash over them.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Terminal Litigation on California Prison Crowding

Does a federal court have the authority to order a large-scale release of prisoners in a state prison system? “Large-scale,” in the case from California now before the Supreme Court, means upwards of 46,000 inmates.

In the abstract, it seems like a breathtaking extension of federal power. But the question can be posed in a more specific way: Does a federal court have the authority to direct a state to grant early parole to relieve overcrowding so severe that it poses drastic risks to the health and safety of inmates and the state has systematically refused to build additional facilities?

The question was argued in the Supreme Court this week. The SCOTUS blog – a remarkable resource for the Internet age – has comprehensive coverage.

Litigation over California's overcrowded prisons has been playing out in the courts for years. It's been like Bleak House meets the Big House.

And as with any long-running series, sometimes the cast has to change. Arnold Schwarzenegger may have played the role of The Terminator in his movie career, but he won't be ending this messy saga. Jerry Brown won the election last month and will be replacing Arnold in the governor's chair, Whatever the outcome in the Supreme Court, Schwarzenegger v. Plata will be in need of a new caption.