Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Somewhere on an Emotional Desert Highway

Kym was frequently high on Percocet at age 16. Her mother knew this, but still left Kym in charge of her four year-old brother Ethan.

Driving home from a park, Kym lost control of the car and it plunged off a bridge and into a lake. She was not able to get Ethan out of his car seat in time, and he drowned.

Years later, Kym is still struggling with addiction. And with God too, like Job before her.

And then there is the utterly broken relationship with her mother. On the eve of her sister’s wedding, Kym finally confronts her with the loaded questions: “Why did you leave me in charge of him? What were you thinking?”

Rachel Getting Married raises many deep issues. To his credit, director Jonathan Demme has the good sense to leave many of them unresolved. The film is fiction, not a documentary. But it points to the raw emotion involved in human conflict, regardless of whether that conflict is addressed by the criminal law.

The fragmented family Demme depicts could have used a restorative healing circle. That was not to be, though the groom's touching rendition of a Neil Young song at Kym's sister's wedding provides a measure of musical therapy.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sensitive About Sentencing Reform

“Maybe I’m too sensitive or else I’m getting soft,” Bob Dylan worried in a 1970s song lyric.

Tonight, I turned this line on myself when I reread an essay that seemed to imply that to call for radical reductions in America’s bloated prison system is to engage in naïve, short-sighted thinking.

In their essay in a special issue of Daedalus on mass incarceration, Robert Weisberg and Joan Petersilia warn of the “dangers of Pyrrhic victories” against it. They acknowledge that America’s incarceration levels make today’s prison system an outrageous outlier both historically and internationally. But they caution that trying to bring down the preposterously high number too fast too soon might be counterproductive.

Weisberg and Petersilia are concerned that reductions in the prison population must be accompanied by a sustained commitment to addressing the causes of recidivism. In practical terms, that means more probation officers, more drug treatment counselors, and so on.

Without these resources, Weisberg and Petersilia fear, a boomlet in new crime by released inmates could occur. And that, in turn, could prompt a visceral policy backlash. Lock ‘em up and throw away the key revividus.

I’m sensitive about this because I interpreted Weisberg and Petersilia to be saying that idealistic citizen-bloggers like me tend to be too naïve. We can let our passion blur our vision and fail to see the full strategic picture involved in systematic sentencing reform.

Am I being too sensitive in suspecting that the two veteran corrections scholars would dismiss this blog as superficial and sentimental? Maybe.

I take heart, however, from the point Glenn Loury makes in his concluding essay in the Daedalus special issue. Loury points out that leaving the decisions about corrections policy to self-appointed experts has had devastating effects on local communities and civic engagement.

To be sure, experts have important roles to play in reshaping sentencing and corrections policy. But if this country is a democracy, so do citizens.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Madness and Civilization II

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, inmates of a mental institution struggle for their dignity against controlling Authority. It was an iconic film of the 70s, with Jack Nicholson in one of his indelible roles.

A generation later, “cuckoo’s nests” are harder and harder to find. Wave of wave of closings of state mental hospitals have left more and more mentally ill people on the streets. Not surprisingly, many of them end up in prison — upwards of 350,000, NPR recently reported.

This is a calamity for all concerned: the mentally themselves, other inmates who encounter them, the staff who try to work with them, and on and on.

If Michel Foucault were still with us, he might be writing Madness and Civilization II.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Doing the Wall Street Shuffle All the Way to Prison

James B. Stewart’s fact-filled essay on the ImClone insider trading case presents a disquieting portrait of Wall Street as a forum for greed, betrayal, and the denial of truth.

The case unfolds in late December 2001 and into 2002, just a few months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. ImClone was only of many financial scandals playing out around this time. Others, such as Enron, the huge energy giant brought down by its own fraud, were far larger in scope.

None of those other scandals, however, involved a celebrity as well known as domestic diva Martha Stewart. The media’s feeding frenzy as the net of incriminating evidence began to close around Stewart was not a pretty sight. David Letterman, for example, joked on late-night TV about Martha handling her subpoena with an oven mitt.

But of course the ImClone case was no joke. And Martha Stewart was not even the central figure in it. That would be Sam Waksal, who had founded ImClone, a biotech company, with his brother Harlan in 1994,

Sam Waksal had trained in immunology and amassed a personal fortune. Yet he had also been forced out of a position at Tufts University for fabricating lab results and fired by New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital for similar reasons.

Though ImClone raised millions of dollars from investors, by 2001 it really had only one promising product: a drug called Erbitux that appeared to offer a treatment for colorectal cancer. The drug’s prospects seemed so encouraging that Bristol-Myers Squibb had offered an astounding $2 billion for a 40 percent stake in ImClone.

That deal was premised, however, on the Food and Drug Administration giving approval for Erbitux to be sold. When word got to Sam Waksal that the drug would not be approved, he and other family members immediately tried to dump their shares before the stock price tanked.

Though Martha Stewart was not a family member, she knew Waksal socially and they shared the same stockbroker, Peter Bacanovic, who had once worked for ImClone.

Bacanovic was eager to make his career at Merrill Lynch by ingratiating himself with Stewart, the superstar client. He was eager even up to the point of encouraging and facilitating insider trading. As ImClone stock faltered, however, he ended up incriminating her — and also his naïve assistant, Douglas Faneuil.

James B. Stewart’s account of the case doesn't only examine individual ethical choices, though. As his title, Tangled Webs, suggests, he’s also interested in the social systems that support or challenge individual decisions to lie. As the financial meltdown of 2008 showed, those systems had more severe underlying problems than most people would ever have imagined.

And we are still dealing with the fallout from them.