Monday, November 28, 2011

The Subjective Factor in Time Measurement

Doing time.

That’s one way to refer to serving a jail or prison sentence. For sentences to a term of incarceration, even indeterminate ones, are measured in numbers of months or years.

In an indeterminate sentencing system, the assigned number of years is typically a range. For example, on a certain offense the range could be from one year up to as many as five. It’s up to the parole board whether to let someone out before the maximum term is up.

In a determinate or structured sentencing system, what you see is generally what you get. If someone is sentenced to a five-year term, that’s what they are supposed to serve.

In some states, this is slightly qualified by assigning a certain percentage of the sentence to be served in the community on supervised release. In Minnesota, this percentage is one-third. Other structured sentencing states use different percentages.

These raw numbers, however, are merely the quantifiable, objective side of sentencing. There’s also the subjective experience, for the person sentenced, of what it feels like to serve the time.

I know, I know: “If you can’t do the time / don’t do the crime.” That simplistic mantra from the 80s has been used to try to justify a lot of heavy-handed sentencing over the years. It should really be the subject of a future post.

The point I want to make here is that, perhaps inevitably, the subjective experience of serving time — how long or short a sentence seems — will vary from inmate to inmate.

I was reminded of this while rereading a John D. MacDonald detective novel from the 70s called The Scarlet Ruse. MacDonald’s hero, Travis McGee, is trying to fend off a likely assault by a mob figure that could come at any time.
Awaiting the attack, McGee consults his watch: “Every ten minutes I looked at my watch and found that one more minute had gone by.”

In other words, in certain circumstances, the subjective experience of time can stretch out to be much longer than what the objective measure might imply.

Is that what it is often like for inmates doing time in jail or prison?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Everyone Loves a Krimi

Everyone Loves a Krimi.

Well, at least many people do. Krimi is German for crime genre. And the appeal of this type of “literature” or television is virtually universal.

In the 70s, in the U.S., it was Kojak and Columbo and McCloud. Today, and for the better part of the last decade, it’s CSI.

The bottom line is crime sells. Or perhaps we should say the investigation and prosecution of it sells. Either way, it sells.

There’s no use bemoaning this fact. To do that would be to miss important clues to the baser but nonetheless vital elements of the human personality in cultures that allow crime fiction to flourish.

James Hillman wrote about the importance of attending to basic (and seemingly base) intincts in The Soul’s Code. Before that, Hillman's intellectual preceptor, Carl Jung, wrote about it in Christ: A Symbol of the Self.

An integrated, wholly developed self isn’t only about the high road. It’s about the low road as well.

Monday, November 21, 2011

An Eye For Eye Doubles the Blindness

Vitality and directness.

Pastor-turned-seminary professor Eugene Peterson felt his students were frequently missing these qualities when they encountered the New Testament through the prism of traditional English translations. So easy to hear and read familiar words, but not really understand.

So Peterson translated the original Greek into a radically contemporary English version and published it as The Message in 2002. Through Lutheran circles, my mom and spouse became aware of the book, and I learned of it from them.

Consider a sample:

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look. “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: “Don’t hit back at all.” If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

This rendition of Matthew 5 provides a point of departure for a new potential paradigm in American criminal justice.

As I’ve argued repeatedly in this blog, we’ve been stuck for too long in the prison paradigm. This has come at great cost in broken lives and emptied treasuries, with little if any good to show in improved public safety from mass incarceration.

Indeed, one can plausibly argue that excessive reliance on prison as a response to social conflict actually reduces public safety. After all, almost all offenders get released eventually. And prison tends to make them more, not less, likely to reoffend when that happens.

In other words, tit-for-tat doesn’t work, if the justice system has goals that go beyond simple retribution. Could we try, as individuals and as a society, to summon the generous spirit that Peterson’s paraphrase of Christ counsels?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Byzantium's Epic Survival and the Balance Between Force and Persuasion

At the public library last night, I happened upon a book called The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. The title immediately reminded me of taped lectures by Edward N. Luttwak that I heard in 1982, when I was a senior at St. Olaf College.

It was still very much a Cold War world back then. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan only three years before. The Berlin Wall seemed as impassable as ever. Gorbachev was a rising Soviet official, but glasnost (openness) was at best a glimmer on a far-off frozen horizon.

In the spring of 1982, my Russian history professor at St. Olaf, Robert Nichols, lent my roommate and me a tape containing lectures by Luttwak on “The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union.” This topic became the subject of his book by that name the following year.

A generation in later, in 2009, Luttwak published his long-planned follow-up book on the Byzantine Empire. In it, he explores the divergent fates of the two halves of the old Roman Empire. How was it, he asks, that the militarily stronger western half succumbed so soon to encroaching tribes, while the far more vulnerable eastern half survived for over 800 years?

His answer is thought provoking. The eastern empire adapted and persisted while Rome was overrun because Byzantium devised a strategy that used:”a minimum of force and a maximum of persuasion.” Rome, by contrast, relied on what the George W. Bush administration, on the eve of the Iraq War, called “shock and awe.”

Shock and awe, however, was little more than a propaganda phrase for excessive reliance on force. And it led to a devastating cascade of calamities in Iraq for Iraqis and Americans alike.

One of those calamities, of course, was the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. In an upcoming post, I’d like to examine what happens when the relationship between force and persuasion gets out of balance in the criminal law.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dominique Strauss-Kahn's Reversals of Fortune

Reversal of Fortune was title of a book and movie about a trial for attempted murder that yielded a surprising outcome. Claus von Bulow, an Austrian aristocrat-turned socialite husband, was eventually acquitted of charges that he tried to kill his wife Sunny by injecting her with an overdose of insulin. High-profile Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz defended van Bulow and wrote a book about it.

A film version appeared a few years later. Jeremy Irons played Claus van Bulow and Glenn Close was cast as Sunny. Ron Silver was in the role of Dershowitz. I saw the film at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis on a very cold December night in 1990.

It is unclear whether there will be a film version of the Dominque Strauss-Kahn story. But the events that have unfolded since May of this year contain multiple reversals of fortune.

In May, New York police arrested Strauss-Kahn, the powerful chairman of the International Monetary and likely French presidential candidate, on charges that he sexually assaulted a hotel chambermaid. After being pulled off of an Air France jet and jailed, Strauss-Kahn was paraded past the press — as any other defendant in America could be.

Many French people reacted with anti-American suspicion and considerable disgust at this treatment. After all, Mr. Strauss-Kahn may have been accused of rape, but he had not yet been proven guilty.

Within a little over three months, prosecutors in New York had dropped the charges entirely. They had completely lost confidence in the truthfulness of the testimony of the maid who leveled the charges against Strauss-Kahn. This was certainly a reversal of fortune for the prosecutors, who were left with the proverbial egg on their faces.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn returned to France, but did not step right back into his former, power-broker life. For one thing, he still faces a civil suit brought by the maid, Nafissatou Diallo, who has made her name public.

Diallo's civil case is scarcely Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s only concern. There is also, well, the state of his soul. Could this have been on Strauss-Kahn’s mind when confessed in a television interview to “moral failing” in his hotel room encounter with Ms. Diallo?

Yet even as Strauss-Kahn seeks to reassert his moral self, the swirl of moral degradation increasingly seems to surround him. Various press reports have tried to link him to the operation of an alleged prostitution ring in the city of Lille. This alone may be lurid enough to attract movie interests, and indeed the Internet contains unbounded speculation about a possible porn film based upon these events.

For Dominque Strauss-Kahn, then, there have been numerous reversals of fortune in the last six months. And there are probably many more to come.