Friday, August 31, 2012

Brubaker and Tough Love

Robert Redford's portrayal of a crusading prison warden in the 1980 film “Brubaker” is far from his best known role. That is scarcely surprising. Even with a bona fide box office star on board, an often gritty (if increasingly melodramatic) prison movie is a tough sell to the public.

Still, the film remains noteworthy. It was based on the experiences of a real warden, Tom Murton, in the Arkansas prison system in the late 1960’s. Murton’s efforts led to federal litigation that helped validate the constitutional rights of inmates concerning the conditions of incarceration.

As depicted in the film those conditions were horrific, with beatings and bribery only the tip of the festering iceberg.

Is it possible that love could melt that iceberg and offer a new paradigm for criminal justice? Two authors from the American friends' community, Laura Magnani and Harmon L. Wray, explore that question in their 2006 book “Beyond Prisons.”

It's a book worth reading, even for those more comfortable with the word "tough" than the word "love."


Status Offenses

In the age of Facebook, the word “status” has had a remarkable new lease on life. Two millennia removed from its Latin roots, the word pours forth over the Internet, a vessel into which millions pour their expressions of self.

There are, however, other specific uses for the word. In criminal justice vocabulary, “status offense” is a term of art for conduct that, though not criminal, carries consequences because the offender is a juvenile.

Examples of status offenses include:

• Underage drinking

• Skipping school (truancy),

• Running away from home

• Curfew violations

Behaviors such as these can bring juveniles under the supervision of the courts. If the problem is persistent enough, a judge may find that the juvenile is delinquent. This, in turn, can trigger placement in a custodial setting that has most, if not all, of the elements of incarceration.

A glance at the entry for “status crime” in the Fifth Edition of Black’s Law Dictionary (1979) points to a time when open-ended offenses were used against adults as well. A “status crime,” according to this edition of Black’s, is “[a] class of crime which consists not in proscribed action or inaction, but in the accused’s having a certain personal condition or being a person of a specified character.”

The example given in Black’s is vagrancy. I’m reminded also, though, of Otis the Drunk in reruns of the “Andy Griffith Show” that I saw in my youth.

Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barnie Fife did not have a systemic procedure in place for testing Otis’s blood-alcohol level. But that did not stop them from using their discretion to put him behind bars when they deemed it appropriate.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Bitter Irony of Mass Incarceration

"A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Winston Churchill coined this  phrase in 1939 to describe Russia. It became widely known during the Cold War.

Could it be applied to America's prison boom?  For there is a mysterious element to how the U.S., in only one generation, become an international outlier on incarceration rates.

To be sure, there are many reasons for the unprecedented increase in inmates.Two years ago, a special issue of Daedalus on mass incarceration probed them in considerable depth.

The irrationality of America's entire epic jailing exercise, however, cannot be denied. To paraphrase Churchill, American mass incarceration is a riddle wrapped in a bitter irony. The nation that says it loves liberty so much takes so much of it away from its own citizens.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Length of Stay: No, Not in a Hospital

The sheer size of America's incarcerated population isn't due only to sending more people to jail or prison. It is also due to keeping them there longer.

To be sure, there have been plenty of people sent. In the last twenty years, the number has shot past 2 million. It currently still stands at 2.3 - despite intense financial pressure on state budgets to reduce the bloated corrections tab.

The size of the prison population would come down significantly, though, if offenders did not stay so long. Length of stay is an important driver of the overall incarceration increase. Yet as legislators have continued to lengthen sentences and tack on enhancements, the cumulative effect has been inescapable.

As a result, length of stay is a well-established term in criminal justice discourse.

To search engines, however, the term still seems to connote length of stay in hospitals, not prisons. A simple Google  search tonight for "length of stay" yielded a search results page consisting entirely of medical sources, such as this one from the Centers for Disease Control.