Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Thinking Fast and Slow About Sentencing Policy

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who studies human irrationality, discussed many subjects last night on Charlie Rose. It was an intellectual bonanza for someone who’d tuned in only to hear Charlie’s panel of pundits analyze the Republican primary horse race.

At one point, Kahneman even alluded to criminal sentencing. To illustrate a concept he called the “anchoring effect,” he referred to an experiment involving the sentencing patterns of German judges.

But Kahneman and Rose did not tackle the clear application of Kahneman’s work to the American prison boom of the past three decades. The connection needs to be made, because the correctional behemoth we’ve created is a leading example of irrationality on a gargantuan scale.

On an intuitive level, we somehow think more prisons and longer sentences will always make us safer. Now it's time to consider the consequences of thinking too fast: warehoused lives, squandered public treasures, and problematic effects on public safety.

It’s time to think not only fast, slow.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Sense of a Blog's Ending

I’ve had a good run with this blog. I launched it in December 2008, choosing the domain name on Blogger of Righteous Harvest. The name was meant to signify biblical roots and restorative justice aspirations.

I later inserted the title Piercing the Panopticon. This was intended to take on the issue of America’s excessive reliance on prison as a means of resolving social conflict.

Over the last 3-plus years, I’ve tried to tackle topics of large import. In several posts, I took up California’s prison overcrowding crisis. In others, I delved into Michel Foucault’s analysis of the power dynamics underlying the ascendancy of the modern prison.

In 2009, I eagerly followed Sen. Jim Webb’s efforts to create a national criminal justice review commission. In due course, I commented on the failure of his proposal to go anywhere in Congress.

The reasons for this failure became clearer in 2011, when Daedalus and Wilson Quarterly published themed issues on the phenomenon of mass incarceration.

Since joining the board of directors of Prison Congregations of America in 2010, I’ve increasingly attempted to articulate the value of prison ministry — for people on both sides of the walls. Piercing the Panopticon began to take on a new meaning for me: fostering hope in the light of Christ among those in the figurative darkness of prison.

It’s time for me to reboot my blog to focus more clearly on prison ministry. During Lent, I intend to post a few more times here on Righteous Harvest, seeking to sum up the themes of the last three years. I’ll do so, however, with the sense of an ending.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Horror in Honduras

It shouldn’t take a horrific fire in a foreign prison to make the problem of packed prisons palpable.

But USA Today’s headline is correct, as far as it goes. The terrible conflagration in Honduras that claimed as many as 356 lives should put a spotlight on prison overcrowding.

How strong of a spotlight, though, and for how long?

If the spotlight is strong enough, it will not focus only on Latin America. For the U.S. has struggled for years with its own forms of prison overcrowding.

California has been the most conspicuous case. Many inmates died there due to lack of access to proper healthcare caused by severe overcrowding.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Everybody Loves a Winner, Indeed

“Everybody loves a winner,” sang Linda Ronstadt on her 1973 album Don’t Cry Now.“ But when you lose,” she added, “you lose alone.”

One might add: especially in America.

A current case in point came Sunday night, during the Super Bowl post-game ceremony. After the game ended, and we all came back from commercial break, the public address announcer at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis introduced NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

As a long-time sports fan, I’ve watched such ceremonies many times before. What I expected was for the commish to begin by commending the losing Patriots on their effort. Only then, with the agony of defeat acknowledged and softened, would the winners be congratulated and praised.

Not so, in this case. Goodelll didn’t even mention the Patriots. He started by thanking the league’s fans for their support. This was understandable and appropriate — especially considering that the NFL season began belatedly because the owners had locked out the players in a labor dispute.

From expression of gratitude to the fans, however, Goodell didn’t make the obvious next move. That would have been to recognize the second-place Patriots for a remarkable season that ended one play short of the championship.

Goodell didn’t do that. He ignored the Pats completely and moved immediately to laud the winning Giants for their victory.

What a perverse culture we have to permit such behavior.

And, by extension, what a challenge ex-offenders have, trying to reenter society after being labeled as “losers” because they went to prison.