Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Limits of Self-Expression

Paging though an old notebook tonight, from reading that I did in 1998, I came upon a quotation from Abraham Joshua Heschel that made me realize the limitations of this blog.

In Idols in the Temple (1962), Heschel wrote: "If self-expression is the only goal, it can never be achieved. The self gains when losing itself in the not-self, in the contemplation of the world, for example. Self-expression depends upon self-attachment to what is greater than the self."

When I read these words, I felt an implicit critique of my creative stance toward this blog in the 2 1/2 years I've been writing it. It's been primarily about my own self-expression, and only secondarily about seeking a viable forum for dialog about criminal justice reform.

Having felt the weight of the great rabbi's words, I shall endeavor to position my blog as a more useful vehicle for engagement with the world. This will include enewed emphasis on sentencing reform, as well as on the work of Prison Congregations of America, on whose board I serve.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bowie's Pilate Makes a World-Weary Case for Deterrence

David Bowe’s postmodern Pontius Pilate, in Scorcese’s film of Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ, is a world-weary, ironic figure. After his half-hearted interrogation elicits little from the arrested Jesus, Pilate sits down on the stone bench next to his prisoner.

Trying to get Jesus to see Roman reason, he points out that any insurrection, real or imagined, is punishable by death on the cross. The accumulating skulls at the execution site, known as Golgotha, are supposed to deter any form of rebellion, whether spiritual or political.

Three thousand of those ought to be enough, Pilate asserts, for the occupied Jews to give up all hope of challenging entrenched Roman power.

Jesus remains unmoved and Pilate does not even both to ask, as in the Gospels, What is Truth? Instead, Pilate allows Jesus to be brutally beaten and taken out to The Place of the Skull.

Fortunately, in this case, deterrence did not work. The death and resurrection of a man condemned as a criminal redeemed the world.

Born Free? Not Here, For Those in Chains

Class consciousness is not Americans’ strong suit. In a country founded by overthrowing royal rule, we like to subscribe to the myth that most of us are middle class.

George Washington and the others did succeed in casting off King George. But of course the country was not born fully free; the slaves remained in bondage, despite the Constitution.

Today, there is another sense in which, to paraphrase Rousseau, people are often born in chains in the self-styled Land of the Free. The mass incarceration of the past thirty years has especially impacted those at the bottom of the economic order and kept them behind bars.

Bruce Western and Becky Pettit discuss this phenomenon in their essay in Daedalus on “Incarceration and Social Inequality.” Mass incarceration, they point out, “deepens disadvantage and forecloses mobility for the most marginal in society.”

In that sense, I would argue, mass incarceration is profoundly anti-Christian. Jesus came to proclaim a preferential option for the poor. But we have come to accept deep, entrenched poverty that tends to perpetuate itself from generation to generation.

To be sure, crime does involve personal choices, not merely social structures. But those choices are exercised in a culture in which the odds are against those from the lower economic depths.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sex Offenders in Minnesota

I have not written often enough about sex offenders in this blog.

After all, sex offenders comprise almost a third (31 percent) of Minnesota’s roughly 9500 inmates. And that percentage is only of the prison population. The substantial civil commitment contingent up at Moose Lake isn’t counted in the criminal numbers.

Recently, the Star Trib has tried to initiate a debate about the sex offender civil commitment program’s effectiveness — or lack thereof. The sticker price is high ($120,000 per year) and the results are questionable (virtually no one has ever been released).

Gail Rosenblum’s column offers illuminative context on the debate. She points out that respected researchers are trying to transcend the typical labeling of sex offenders, Instead, it may make more sense to focus on the commonalties that those convicted of sex offenses share with all other offenders.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Self-Selection in the Suburbs on Sunday Morning

After Daedalus devoted its Summer 2010 issue to the phenomenon of mass incarceration, I decided to start subscribing to the journal.

I did it the old-fashioned way, by sending in a check. So it took a while before my first issue arrived.

Now, however, I’ve received the Winter and Spring issues, a two-part exploration of Race in the Age of Obama. The editors have assembled over 400 pages of learned discussion, by some two dozen authors, on many different aspects of the status of race in American society.

Perusing the titles tonight, I was reminded of just how suburban my life has become. At work, I interact regularly with colleagues from diverse racial backgrounds. Yet in my private life, including my church life, I am so often insulated from a proper awareness of racial dynamics by the lulling effect of white suburbia.

Why is Sunday morning the most segregated time of the week? There is nothing new about this reality. But it's important to keep asking the question.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

CSI: The Cross

On Tuesday in Holy Week, my son Micah and I attended a one-hour class on first communion. Shepherd of the Valley, an ELCA Lutheran congregation in Apple Valley, Minn., aims this class at fifth graders. Others are welcome, however, including children younger than fifth grade who seem ready to receive the Lord’s Supper and have parental permission to do so.

The kids were full of questions about many different aspects of the Eucharist, from the grand-theological (Why did Jesus die?) to the nuts and bolts practical (Where do you get the bread?). After the questions were duly noted on a whiteboard, Pastor Randy Brandt ran through short answers to each one.

I’m titling this post “CSI: The Cross” because one question the children asked was, “How did the Cross cause death?” Pastor Randy’s answer was that, with the arms nailed to the cross-beam, it becomes increasingly impossible to breath. It is a slow death by asphyxiation — a form of torture that the Romans intended as a brutal deterrent to any rebellion against their occupying rule.

Palestine, under Roman rule, had no prohibtion against cruel and unusual punishment.

A Police Presence at a Suburban Target

A suburban SuperTarget, at 8 p.m. on a week night. My son and I pull up in our minivan, listening to the baseball game on the radio.

We’ve parked in this large lot countless times before. This time, however, the scene is a bit different. Three Apple Valley police vehicles are parked in front of one of the two entrances to the store.

Presumably the police presence was to investigate a report of shoplifting?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Turn the Titanic Around

The term “turn the Titanic around” is a curious one. After all, the original Titanic famously didn't get turned around in time.

The phrase implies, however, a sense not necessarily of impending fatality, but of hope. Thus the pop singer Amy Grant, imploring her lover to remember that “it takes a little time to turn the Titanic around.”

What’s true of an individual romance is also true of a major societal problem, Humans alone, among all the animals, have the capacity to imagine a different future. A future in which the Sword of Damocles does not fall, in which the Titanic does get turned around in time.

So it will be, I hope, with the problem of mass incarceration in America. The ridiculous, life-crushing extent of our prison predilection — and the need to reform it — is the constant theme of this blog.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Minnesota: Land of 10,000 Ponzi Schemes?

For years, Minnesota styled itself as the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Not surprisingly, there were numerous humorous variations, such as Land of 10,000 Potholes or 10,000 Mosquitoes. But there really are a multitidue of lakes, and the slogan still signifies the abundance of water in this state.

Do we also have an abundance of financial crime? Eric Wieffering, an astute financial columnist for the Star Tribune, wrote a piece last month exploring the notion that Minnesota has become the Land of 10,000 Ponzi Schemes.

The names that came up, as Wieffering briefly summarized a dozen or so high-profile cases, started of course with Tom Petters and Denny Hecker, both of whom are now serving lengthy prison terms. But the list also includes Trevor Cook, Charles E. Hays, Kalin Dao and many others.

Is there really more fraud in Minnesota than elsewhere in the country, or does it just seem that way? Hank Shea, who led the U.S. attorney’s financial crime unit for many years, thinks not. In his view, the level of fraud in Minnesota doesn’t differ markedly from mo0st other places.

In fact, Wieffering concludes, our relatively clean image is what led out-of-state interests to set up companies called St, Paul Venture Fund, Minnesota Venture Capital, Inc., and Real Estate of Minnesota, Inc. Those companies are now facing civil charges brought by federal securities regulators. But the companies have to do with Minnesota in name only.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Spending a Fortune to Incarcerate, But a Pittance to Rehabilitate

The scale of the correctional Leviathan in California is truly staggering.

Joan Petersilia recites some of the round numbers in her essay in Wilson Quarterly’s recent issue on mass imprisonment. 170,000 prisoners being held, at about $50,000 per prisoner per year, leading to $10 billion in annual costs.

In some ways, however, the most disturbing figure is one that is small, not large. California spends less than $3,000 per inmate per year on rehabilitation. Only half of released inmates have participated in any type of program during their time in prison.

To be sure, prison programming cannot be expected to work miracles, especially when broad sociological trends are at work. After all, with skills at a premium in the global economy, it becomes harder and harder for low-skilled ex-offenders to get jobs.

Yet governments have added to the challenges of prisoner reentry into society by passing broad laws excluding all ex-offenders from certain fields, such as education and health care.

Understandably, no one wants a dangerous ex-felon working as a home health aide, or a convicted sex offender taking care of children. Unfortunately, though, the laws impacting ex-offender employment have not been narrowly tailored to achieve those ends.

All in all, these are ingredients in a recipe for recidivism. It should scarcely be surprising that so many people return to prison after release, either for parole violations or new crimes. It’s the well-worn path of least resistance.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Socrates, Martha Stewart, and the Definiton of Right Conduct

Plato composed The Republic nearly 2500 years ago. Yet the questions about right conduct that it raises are as timely as today's headlines and Twitter feeds.

In the first section of the dialog, Socrates takes aim at the ethical inadequacy of conventional views of justice. The first of these to be explored is the notion that justice consists in telling the truth and paying one's debts.

Socrates finds much lacking in this view. But even the minimal conception of justice it expresses is at odds with major trends in an American landscape littered with failed Ponzi schemes and a compendium of ethical lapses.

To catalog the scope of the contemporary problem, financial journalist James Stewart has published a book called Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff.

Socrates, one suspects, might have found a way to talk Martha Stewart out of her plans for insider trading. He would surely have also been impervious to the pecuniary lures of Madoff's investment fraud.