Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Grinch: A Robber Reforms

He famously stole Christmas.
And for well over 50 years,
The Grinch has carved a niche
Among America’s fondest fears.

From the Dr. Seuss original to Chuck Jones’s animated movie in the 60s to Jim Carrey’s full-length feature film, the tale of the redemption of this peculiar looking malefactor has fascinated audiences of all ages.

Tonight, as my family, flipped channels, we focused for a moment on the Chuck Jones version on ABC television. The scene we saw showed the Grinch at his seemingly irredeemable worst: taking the very last Christmas present from a tiny Who child — and blatantly lying to her about it.

Ah, but what a turn of events is his eventual transformation. The fearsome, nearly solitary creature who swooped in seeking to steal others’ tangible expressions of joy is redeemed by intangible expressions of joy.

Interestingly, for purposes of this blog, his change did not come from incarceration. It came from finding a social community whose love of life saved him from himself.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Few Factoids From the Life of Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham’s remarkable life and work included much more than a sketchy design for a “panopticon” prison.

A cursory glance at Bernard Crick’s lengthy entry on Bentham in Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture* immediately yields some eye-opening facts.

To wit: Young Jeremy was 13 when he began attending Queen’s College, Oxford. And he was only 16 when he graduated. Such ages were normal for schooling at the time. Yet they seem downright strange to contemporary American sensibilities.

If he lived in our day, one suspects Bentham would be all over the scientific research on brain development among juveniles. If he were American, he would be insisting that the Supreme Court apply this research to the interpretation of cases on “juvenile lifers” and other related issues.

Consider also the glimpse Crick’s essay provides of the provenance of Bentham’s panopticon plan. The model for the panopticon, Crick says, began as a plan for cooperative settlements created not for prisoners, but for the unemployed.

Bentham worked on the panopticon idea off and on for twenty years. He was, Crick comments, a relentless perfectionist about this work, always struggling for definitive precision before considering it in finished form. It took a concerted effort by a host of followers to eventually apply and popularize it.

About Bentham’s famous donation of his skeleton to the University of London for scientific study, Crick has not a word to say. But if he had included a mention of this, I’m sure he would have included a telling detail or two.

*Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture, 1800-1914, ed. Justin Wintle (London, Boston, Melbourne and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

When Does a Life Become No Longer Worth Saving?

A 16-year-old boy drinks alcohol, gets behind the wheel of a pickup truck and crashes. The boy survives, but a friend of his who was a passenger is killed.

How should the law respond?

An Oklahoma judge decided that the boy, now 17, deserved a break. Though the boy pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter, the judge sentenced him to an unusual probation arrangement. Some of the conditions are pretty standard, such as wearing a monitoring bracelet and participating in counseling.

But Judge Mike Norman, 69, also sentenced the teen to attend a church of his choosing every week. From the ABC News account, the duration of this requirement was unclear. Presumably, however, it is for 10 years, as that is the length of the deferred sentence.

Naturally a sentence like this raises constitutional eyebrows about violation of the separation of church and state. Prof. Doug Berman, for example, casually implied as much when noting the case in his sentencing law blog.

A legal challenge is not likely to be coming from the defendant, though. “I usually represent outlaws and criminals,” his attorney told a local paper. “This is a kid that made a mistake. I think he’s worth saving.”

These words are very telling — not so much for what they say about this case, but for what they imply about most of the others. For most of the others are not saved. The common pattern is for them to become enmeshed in the justice system, with the chances of getting out diminishing with each repeat offense.

Yet if a 17-year-old with an otherwise clean record is worth saving, then what about an 18-year-old? What about a 17-year-old with a few blemishes on his or her record? And so on.

Questions like this remind me of the dialog between Abraham and God presented in Genesis 18. God is poised to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for wanton sinfulness. Abraham intercedes, arguing that is would be wrong to do so if a certain number of righteous people can be found there.

Abraham eventually gets God to agree to forego forsaking the two cities if ten righteous people can be found there. Eventually Sodom and Gomorrah met fateful ends anyway. But Judge Norman would surely approve of Abraham’s attempt to intercede.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Empty Chairs

Why was criminal justice not an issue in the presidential debates? After all, there are over two million people in jail or prison in America. Add in probation and parole, and the total number under some form of correctional supervision is, in round numbers, a whopping seven million.

And in a John Donne, no-man-an-island sense, it doesn’t stop there. The families of inmates and probationers are also greatly affected by sentencing and corrections policy.

Indeed, so are we all, because we, as a society, set the sentences. Correctional officers and other justice system professionals are merely our proxies on the front lines.

Yet, as a recent column in the Huffington Post put it, on the issue of mass incarceration, there were two empty chairs at the presidential debates.

There are also empty chairs around many family tables because so many people are in prison.