Archive for the ‘Criminal Justice’ Category

Getting Borked – The Origin of Nastiness

October 23rd, 2011 2 comments

Joe Nocera at the NYT had a great little opinion piece, and it resonated with me because I remember the nastiness to which he refers. Especially the lead up to a vote that revealed some vile human beings in our legislature. You expect some nastiness in advocacy groups, but until then, the senate actually was a “collegial round table.” But hey, it’s an anniversary, so let’s celebrate The Nastiness!

On October 23, 1987, “Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court was voted down by the Senate. All but two Democrats voted ‘nay.'” Ain’t it wonderful? 24 years ago today, intellectual midgets in our “collegial” senate torpedoed an intellectual giant. I wanted to bring up Bork for essentially the same reason Joe Nocera did: to highlight where the ugliness started. Just one good paragraph to entice you to go read Joe’s opinion piece… a quick trip that highlights why demorats have no ethical space to bitch about rethuglican obstructionism:

I’ll take it one step further. The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics. For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the “systematic demonization” of Bork, recalls Clint Bolick, a longtime conservative legal activist. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coined the angry verb “to bork,” which meant to destroy a nominee by whatever means necessary. When Republicans borked the Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright less than two years later, there wasn’t a trace of remorse, not after what the Democrats had done to Bork. The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust — the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.

This article is an excellent counterpoint to the horseshit that shows up at “MediaMatters.” A simple reading of the Wiki article shows MediaMatters to be the liars most people believe them to be. Even with the six Republican moral cowards, Bork would have lost the confirmation.

Why bring this up? Well, one reason that sits like a burr beneath a saddle (not that I feel remotely like this blog is a saddle 😛 ), is having Commander Admin over at AmeriKAZAM call me out. Another reason is that writer over at Ameri… wait, I may have mentioned that already. Oh, and that really sharp dude over at Responsibility – Freedom Demands It, yeah him too. Of course, there is also that mouthy broad over at Mad Conservative – she just kind of compels me to jump back in and keep swinging. The clearest reason for bringing this up though, is a question. Do we continue with civil discourse when confronted with brutish uncivil behavior and speech? Or, should one give the offender the deserved poke in the nose and test the claim of pacifism? Seriously though, where do you go from here? This whole getting borked thing is a festering wound that has only escalated. AmeriKAZAM pokes it with a bundle of sticks, er, a stable of Jon Swifts, but funnier. What do we do if we want to win back our country?

One thing is for certain… it ain’t just writing in a blog. How’s that old saw go? “Ya gotta get off yer apathy and do something.” Time to do something – what’s it gonna be??

I once went to seminary and got one of the M.Div. things, and though most would consider me an apostate, I still have some favorite Bible verses… Here’s what we should do next, from Judges, chapter 15:

Samson Badass

For now, let’s just make asses of them. Let’s go with Joe’s concluding thought:

Today, of course, the court has a conservative majority, and liberal victories are, indeed, being overturned. Interestingly, Bolick says Bork’s beliefs would have made him a restraining force. Theodore Olson, who served as solicitor general under George W. Bush, also pointed out that after Bork, nominees would scarcely acknowledge that they had rich and nuanced judicial philosophies for fear of giving ammunition to the other side. Those philosophies would be unveiled only after they were on the court.

Mostly, though, the point remains this: The next time a liberal asks why Republicans are so intransigent, you might suggest that the answer lies in the mirror.

Cheers you wielders of the sharpened word,
The Skald.

The Meme Eater: Bill Whittle

May 12th, 2011 2 comments

Tired of hearing our blue brethren whine about nuanced views of this or that, when what they usually mean is, “let’s obfuscate the issue?” Here’s Bill Whittle on a very nuanced view of several memes that have been offered as retreads lately… concerning the killing of USB ~ no, no, no, not that port in your computer. Oh, alright, Osama bin Laden. The FBI has pretty much stuck with Usama, but either way, this is another devastating little video!

Restricting Freedom of Speech

April 4th, 2011 2 comments

If you haven’t visited The Virginian, take a trip on by for this tidbit: The Virginian: U.S. flag burning: OK…Koran burning: Restricted. I’ll be attempting fuller and richer posts of my own soon, but I had to get back in the swing of this blogging business the easy way… with someone else’s work 🙂  Be seein’ ya!

Rehabilitation and Corrections…

January 15th, 2011 3 comments

Middle management sent out an email recently addressing the concept of rehabilitation with respect to Correctional Officers. One of the ideas equated Oregon’s framework of accountability (within the Oregon Accountability Model) with the concept of rehabilitation. This was in reference to an article by Chris Jones recently published at CorrectionsOne. The article’s title, An officer’s responsibility to rehabilitation, opens a can of worms with well meaning intention. While there is much I’d like to address in this article, I want to keep this post to a reasonable length, so I’ll restrict most of my comments to the first few paragraphs:

I hear this statement from fellow officers all the time: “Rehabilitation doesn’t work.” Those who say it, all of whom are intelligent corrections professionals, cite numerous reasons. Some point to the astronomical recidivism rate. Some say that offenders are wholly uninterested in change. They wonder why we should waste precious time and resources attempting to change a group of individuals who have no interest at all in changing. Who are we, many ask, to question this accepted wisdom?

We are corrections professionals with minds of our own, and the ability to see past the single-minded ideas presented by those — some even within our own ranks — who think that punishment and security are the only things with which correctional officers need to concern themselves.

I’ve also heard time and again, “I’m not a guard. I’m an officer.” I couldn’t agree with more that sentiment. We are not guards, we are correctional officers. We work in security, but we are not security officers. We are not punishment officers. We are correctional officers. Because of that, the things we do — or should be doing — every shift contribute to our departmental and institutional mission of rehabilitation. After all, what is rehabilitation other than correcting attitudes and behaviors?

Even within these first few paragraphs there is much to discuss concerning diction, or the precision with which words are chosen to convey meaning. Moreover, Jones immediately calls into question what he perceives as received wisdom, i.e., “rehabilitation doesn’t work,” and justifies challenging that “wisdom” with the idea that we are “corrections professionals with minds of our own….”

If you have the time, read the whole article, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll be focusing on the words rehabilitation, corrections, and accountability. I realize that what I’m about to say may seem obvious, but typically, when we challenge the meaning of words by challenging the way in which they are used the common defense is – “I’m not going to argue semantics with you.” Now then, I’m going to define four words.

First, semantics is the study of meaning. Saying, “I’m not going to argue semantics with you” when the challenge is about meaning is nothing more than a cowardly retreat or copout. Semantics focuses on the denotation of a word without forgetting its possible connotations. Let’s be honest, meaning is important to effective communications.

Second, rehabilitation isn’t nearly as easy to define! Unless of course, we do without the connotations and focus on denotations, then rehabilitation means the action of restoring something to a former state or capacity. When we go into rehabilitation for alcoholism, we hope to be restored to a sober state. The very word rehabilitate assumes the existence of a prior and preferred state of being. For many inmates there really isn’t a prior and preferred state of being. Still, the idea of rehabilitation carries the seeds of our modern notions of restorative justice, i.e., restoring the offender to an amicable relationship with his community.

Third, being accountable means being subject to giving an account, being answerable for, being responsible for ones actions. Think in terms of money, accounts payable. Holding a party accountable for damages should give us a good idea of what accountability means.

Finally, the word corrections is probably a word that should not have been used for a penal institution unless some very radical changes were orchestrated. Think of this in terms of correcting a math paper, and then corrections are the act of altering or adjusting the problem to some standard or required state. In terms of our penal system, according to Webster’s, it is the act of punishing or disciplining with a view to reforming or improving one’s behavior.

While the last three words are used in the corrections field (our old penal system), they are not synonymous and we do a disservice to our chosen profession when we are not clear about the terms we use to communicate to each other and the public. On Oregon’s Department of Corrections website, there is a page devoted to the mission, vision, and core values of the department – no mention of the word rehabilitate. Look up the Oregon Accountability Model (OAM); you’ll be hard pressed to find the word rehabilitate or rehabilitation. Accountability and restoring the inmate to the community (re-entry) figure large in the OAM, but not rehab. I think this is a good thing, because it isn’t just “old time guards” that doubt the claims of rehabilitation programs; the public tends to share those doubts. Accountability, restoration, and reformation are good words to use within the framework of correctional professionals.

Feel free to tear me up here – after all, I did give short shrift to Jones’ article to keep this one manageable. My primary focus was to correct the notion that you can equate the concepts of rehabilitation and accountability, and that no, rehabilitation really isn’t simply correcting attitudes and behaviors.


Crime and Punishment: Our Legal System

October 29th, 2010 No comments

Equal Treatment?

This post is a result of a post by my blogger buddy, Tom, over at Responsibility – Freedom Demands It. There were a series of topics he listed – all relating to things we should look for in our representatives – to choose from to help Tom finish off a list he started near the beginning of the year. I chose numbers five and fifteen… then figured I’d better combine the two. I’m not certain I’m the “expert” he suggests, but I’m sure happy to at least address a portion of our legal system and crime and punishment. So then, here goes:

I learned early that it is sometimes imprudent to “volunteer” oneself for anything. In fact, when I joined the Navy (thinking “navy” was actually a word describing an armed fleet) I discovered that the word navy is actually an acronym! Never Again Volunteer Yourself. Though that was often said tongue-in-cheek, the underlying thought that bad things happen when you volunteer never strayed far from our minds – especially in troubled waters.

That’s where I find myself here, trying to write something on crime and punishment and our legal system… troubled waters. First, it’s a huge subject with a wealth of material when it comes to deciding where to place one’s vote. Second, our country has strayed so far from the “Common Law” of our country’s birth that discussing any portion of contract, tort or criminal law is often fraught with built in misunderstandings because of several differences: education, ethnicity, and birthright to name a prominent few. Third, and last, the consequence of the criminal law in our country is almost a taboo subject… Prisons.

To try and pull these disparate parts together, and to focus our attention on “what we’re looking for in a representative,” I’m going to jump in to the middle of things and hope for the best… in other words, “let the chips fall where they may.” Up front full disclosure – I am a correctional officer working for the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) and the views expressed here are mine alone. Additionally, much of the material I’ll draw from is found in the links at the end of this article. So then, here is the first jump into the middle of things:

Let’s try a definition or three.

Rule of Law: “The rule of law does not have a precise definition, and its meaning can vary between different nations and legal traditions. Generally, however, it can be understood as a legal-political regime under which the law restrains the government by promoting certain liberties and creating order and predictability regarding how a country functions.  In the most basic sense, the rule of law is a system that attempts to protect the rights of citizens from arbitrary and abusive use of government power.” [6&7]

Now this next definition may draw the ire of some fellow conservatives – so be it. A common wailing in the conservative ranks is that the legislature, not the judiciary, creates law. Our legal heritage derives from the English common law, and for circumstances not covered by statute, judges did indeed create law in what was known as a “court of equity.” So let’s be careful with our hand wringing when it comes to judicial decisions, and be reasonably certain that a situation is either covered by statute or is unconstitutional.

Common Law: That which derives its force and authority from the universal consent and immemorial practice of the people. The system of jurisprudence that originated in England and which was later adopted in the U.S. that is based on precedent instead of statutory laws. [8]

Common Law, also known as case law, or precedent, is law developed by judges through decisions of courts and similar tribunals rather than through legislative statutes or executive branch action. A “common law system” is a legal system that gives great precedential weight to common law, on the principle that it is unfair to treat similar facts differently on different occasions. [9] (emphasis mine)

And third, the notion of fairness (I greatly admire Thomas Sowell, and the notion of fairness is covered in links 1-4 below) as it commonly gets thrown around is NOT how I will be using the word myself.

Fairness: equity, conformity with rules or standards, or the ability to make judgments free from discrimination and dishonesty [10]. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), definition #4, being fair connotes behaving “equitably, honestly, impartially, justly: according to rule.”

In other words, according to philosopher John Rawls, I believe in merely “formal fairness.” That’s right. In his book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls popularized the notion of “social justice.” Now some may quibble here, but Rawls’ notion of “distributive justice” focused on outcomes… and he ruined the word fairness for an entire generation and beyond. What do I mean?

Professor Rawls advocated “a conception of justice that nullifies the accidents of natural endowment and the contingencies of social circumstances.” He called for a society which “arranges” end results, rather than simply treating everyone the same and letting the chips fall where they may [3].

When we speak of “leveling the playing field,” let’s make sure our representatives mean that when the ball field gets leveled, it is so anyone playing is running on the same grade! We do not mean handicapping a superior athlete so he’ll be “equal,” or run only as fast as the slowest member of the team. With these thoughts in mind, watch the following video, please! I think you’ll appreciate just how important Bill Whittle’s reiteration of Richard Maybury’s “Two Laws” is: it occurs at about 6:10!

The foundation of our model is the two laws that make civilization possible: do all you have agreed to do and, do not encroach on other persons or their property. The first is the basis of contract law, the second, the basis of tort law and some criminal law.  ~Richard Maybury

That should boil the big mess of our legal system down to a few elements worth looking at when reviewing candidates for office. Now let me take the time to quote Tom on his very concise thoughts on questions for Topic #5 – Law/Legal System:

We have too many laws. We would do well to have candidates who campaign on the basis of laws they will repeal more than on those they will write. If we do not fund the enforcement of a law, what is the point of passing the law? That only breeds more scofflaws. I think we should look at our court system and consider courts as a tool of last resort, after mediation and arbitration. I would welcome incentives towards mediation and against going to court.

Yup. Equal Treatment Under the Law.

What a word! Scofflaws. The OED reports that there was a contest “…for a word to characterize the lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor.” Ahhhh, a law that wasn’t obeyed for reasons best left to the reader (yeah, I’m talking about prohibition). The OED then provides this: “One who treats the law with contempt, esp. a person who avoids various kinds of not easily enforceable laws.” Both Tom and Bill state the obvious problems with too many laws… so, let’s not defund laws. Let’s get them off the books if they’re not worth the considerable amount of paper they’re printed on!

Phew!! Crime and punishment anyone?! Considering what we’ve just covered, I am only going to mention a few things. The Duke Rape Case. Beer Summit. Panthergate. In all of these, some element of the rule of law, the common law, or fairness was obviously violated. Worse, they were violated for the very reasons our political masters campaigned to fix… oops, I meant political servants of the people of course. How much really needs to be said here? Crime and punishment? Seriously? The cartoon and the Washington Post quote say more than enough and provide a starting point for anyone interested in the lack of justice in the Obama Department of Justice.

The WaPo quote??

Three Justice Department lawyers, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from their supervisors, described the same tensions, among career lawyers as well as political appointees. Employees who worked on the Brown case were harassed by colleagues, they said, and some department lawyers anonymously went on legal blogs “absolutely tearing apart anybody who was involved in that case,” said one lawyer.

“There are career people who feel strongly that it is not the voting section’s job to protect white voters,” the lawyer said. “The environment is that you better toe the line of traditional civil rights ideas or you better keep quiet about it, because you will not advance, you will not receive awards and you will be ostracized.”

Cheers all!


The Links:

  1. The Fallacy of Fairness: Part I
  2. ‘Fairness’ in Education (The Fallacy of Fairness: Part II)
  3. Rawls and Fairness (The Fallacy of Fairness: Part III)
  4. Innate Superiority: An Inferior Idea (The Fallacy of Fairness: Part IV)
  5. Washington Post confirms politics comes before justice at Obama DOJ
  6. Wiki: The Rule of Law
  7. University of Iowa: What is the Rule of Law?
  8. LectLaw: Common Law
  9. Wiki: Common Law
  10. Princeton Wordnet: Fairness

Courage, Ebony, and Ivory

July 26th, 2010 8 comments

The courage to get it right?

Last year, during black history month, Eric Holder, our first black AG, called us “a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing race. That was the single phrase seized on by many in the media, on both the right and the left, and it was the phrase used to praise or denigrate Holder’s speech and the current state of racial affairs in the United States. The speech itself was lengthy and only somewhat nuanced, but there was a lot more there than most people were willing to discuss – black or white… or any other color for that matter. Let me use a part of the same sentence where the offending phrase was found: I believe that “in too many ways,” Eric Holder was right. Whether you agree with him or not, I’d urge you to listen to the entire speech in context, or of course, read the text of the speech – much faster results.

Part of his point is that while Americans have moved to the point of working, lunching, and attending functions together, on weekends, we pretty much self segregate… and that isn’t good in his view. I am more sanguine about our progress than Holder, but I do believe he is right about our general unwillingness to discuss racial matters in an open and honest manner. Lots of reasons for that little problem, but I’d like to open up this can of worms… because “in too many ways,” not many people are willing to expose themselves to the consequences Holder so blithely suggests we all should risk.

I had several people at work try to dissuade me from heading in this direction (I often bounce some of my more controversial ideas off of several folks I know), but I thought, “Hey, screw it. This blog has had me on the carpet more than once.” And, as some of you know, I have often argued that courage is a thing to value.

Rather than throw a rant on why I think the AG is full of it, I’ll just throw out a few facts, a few statistical certainties, and wait for the charges to fly. Keep in mind here, that I am NOT offering explanations at this point, nor am I making any allegations or interpretations of the facts I’ll be laying out. I’d really like to hear what you have to say – providing you can keep the conversation civil, accurate to the best of your ability (in other words, be prepared to back it up), and really aimed at affording all of us the opportunity to get a better grasp of the realities involved.

In addition to the Bureau of Justice Statistics site, you can also find some of this information at Heather Mac Donald’s Weekly Standard article, Excusing the Oakland Rioters: Looting is not a form of civil rights protest, and the city of New York’s crime statistics.

  • Blacks commit nearly 6,000 murders annually (most of whom are black), and whites & Hispanics commit a little more than 5,300 murders a year (most of whom are white or Hispanic). Whites & Hispanics comprise about 81% of the population, while blacks comprise about 13% of the population. Since the US has just over 300,000,000 people, the math is pretty straight forward. Blacks murder almost 154 people per 100,000 of their own population. Whites & Hispanics murder almost 2.2 people per 100,000. The murder rate for blacks is 70 times higher than the murder rate for whites and Hispanics.
  • The 73rd precinct in New York is mostly black, and “the per capita rate of shootings there is 81 times higher than in the mostly white 68th precinct…”
  • The police stop rate of vehicles in the 73rd precinct is 15 times higher than in the 68th precinct.
  • In New York City, blacks “commit 80 percent of all shootings, whites 1.4 percent, though blacks are 23 percent of the population, and whites 35 percent.”
  • At the beginning of 2009, there were nearly 1800 whites on death row and there were just over 1300 blacks on death row (both the white and black numbers include some Hispanics).
  • During 2008, there were 20 white and 17 black people executed.

As I said earlier, at this point I’m not trying to explain these numbers, nor will I offer any interpretations of the meaning in these numbers. I’ve got questions about these and other numbers. Why are these kinds of numbers rarely if ever mentioned when discussing race in America? Especially on the “big three” news stations, PBS, NPR, CNN when their prolific little series on race air on national television? For the elites that are concerned with the brutality of the police and their unnecessary taking of black lives, why are they not equally concerned with the unnecessary taking of black lives in the inner city? Why don’t these victims get the same care and concern from our nation’s elite, the media, and the professoriate? Especially when they are so obviously more numerous?? Why doesn’t the unnecessary taking of white lives by the police rate the same air time and outrage?

Finally, in closing this post, remember, please keep the comments and email civil, and as important, let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt about our honesty and earnestness in seeking out the truth. I’ll be using the replies to guide some of my follow up posts – posts aimed more at our nation’s intellectuals than at everyday Americans.

Cheers – all of you!

Another PJTV Entry – On Violence…

June 27th, 2010 4 comments

Riots in 1965 and 1992

In the latest Left Exposed, Sonja takes us on a walk down Memory Lane…at least the parts that weren’t destroyed in the fiery wakes of the 1965 & 1992 Los Angeles riots, which destroyed, not just homes and businesses, but the notion that liberal politics could lift black neighborhoods to economic prosperity.  As Sonja poignantly notes, liberalism did just the opposite.

Click the image at right and take a visit through an interesting bit of Sonja’s personal history – and why she’s worried about future possibilities. I’ve written often, and some might say heatedly, about who is actually responsible for the continuing racial divide, i.e., who continues to pick the scabs and fan the flames… Here’s a calm and piercing look at this issue. Take a look at the video and tell me what you think! But please, do it before this video gets shifted to the archives out of the reach of non-subscribers.

What if the Congress of 2008 had Rewritten the Constitution?

June 20th, 2010 1 comment

A solicited guest column by Jeff Begley:

The Outdated, Outmoded, Old... Oh, never mind!

Revised Constitutional Preamble

We the people of the cities and academic centers of the United States, in order to form a more perfect labor union, establish social justice, insure non-traditional domestic situations, provide for the common defense fund for the legally challenged, promote the welfare system, and secure the blessings of liberalism to ourselves (we’ll let our posterity pay for it), do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Bill of Wrongs

Amendment 1 – Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression.

Congress shall make laws disrespecting established religions, and prohibiting the free exercise thereof in public areas; and abridging the freedom of speech by calling certain speech “hate speech”, and of the press through the hilariously named “fairness doctrine”; but not the right of the people peaceably to assemble for these assemblies will simply be handled through media outlets and labeled violent, racist extremists in order to dismiss them rather than address them.

Amendment 2 – Right to Bear Arms.

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall be infringed.  We will also hedge on the definition of the word militia, ignore the original intent of the founders, and make certain that once liberal hegemony is established it will be impossible to disrupt through force of arms.

Amendment 3 – Quartering of Soldiers.

Soldiers shall, in time of peace-keeping, be figuratively drawn and quartered for any mistakes made in front of a journalist.  We shall also attempt to quarter soldier pay, benefits, and at least put a dent in any honor once felt in serving the nation by claiming people only join as a last resort.

Amendment 4 – Search and Seizure.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable or even reasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause as defined by the current administration, supported by oath or affirmation of a federal judge appointed by a Democratic president, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.  Under no circumstances shall the possibility of the person being an illegal, er, undocumented… um – insufficiently-naturalized citizen be broached.

Amendment 5 – Trial and Punishment, Compensation for Takings.

Amendment 5 shall be phased out to make room for the implementation of an adult day-school for the reeducation of those with a diminished capacity to follow laws.  These poor souls simply need dignity and love.  Kumbaya.

Amendment 6 – Right to Speedy Trial, Confrontation of Witnesses.

In all criminal prosecutions, if we must, the accused shall enjoy the right to a supportive and closed trial  so as not to impinge upon their sense of dignity, by an racially diverse jury with as few privileged, bigoted white people on it as possible, of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed unless we want to move it for political posturing.  It should be noted that, as in the case of the 5th Amendment, trials are to be avoided as much as possible due to self-esteem issues they appear to cause in the accused.

Amendment 7 – Trial by Media in Civil Cases.

In cases where political opponents disagree, no civil discourse shall be initiated.  Instead, agreeable media outlets shall be engaged in order to impugn the character of said opponents in order to dismiss them as some sort of crackpot, whichever is considered the lowliest type at that particular time.  If the term “racist” can be used without fear of reprisal, it shall.

Amendment 8 – Cruel and Unusual Punishment.

Being that punishment is considered mean by those being punished and the term unusual is vague, we shall pretend to rehabilitate those poor, misguided souls who asserted their wills over the wills of others.  Only if a crime personally affects us shall we even consider punishment as an option because, hey, it’s us and not you that are suffering at that point.

Amendment 9 – Construction of Constitution.

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall be construed as the absolute limits of rights retained by the people.  If the people need more rights, we will determine what they are and grant them.  Maybe.  Ok, not really.

Amendment 10 – Powers of the States and People.

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people… LOL!  Okay, we were really just yanking your chain here.  Gotcha!  Seriously, the central government shall retain all the power.  States are for hillbillies clinging to their bibles and guns.

Vietnam… On Crime (Part 4)

January 21st, 2010 1 comment

Black Market... Crime?

In the last few posts on crime, a few ideas were presented that made me “kick the can” around in the empty recesses of my mind. Posing a question on the causes of crime (in the neighborhood of poverty) Mr. Grim felt compelled to comment on “rule breakers,” Tom from Responsibility chimed in with a killer thesis concerning our American heritage, and Jeff provided insight from personal experience in a corrections environment with juveniles. All the discussion topics held a certain resonance for me – simply because elements of each are found in the various theories on crime. It also feeds my curiosity about crime and punishment.

A few of the ideas that meshed and stood out were Tom’s notion of losing trust in democratic institutions and Jeff’s observations that the vast majority of the juvenile offenders he supervises are poor. I think part of the appeal of “cultural criminology” is that it attempts to take into account the past and current cultural milieu. A theory of crime is unconvincing if it fails to function in a broad variety of conditions when it is attempting to explain the same basic phenomenon. I tend toward an eclectic view in theories of crime, but I kept kicking around Tom’s ideas that were centered on a lack of trust in democratic institutions – and changed it to government institutions. How far does the lack of trust have to go before I would commit a crime? Two ways of approaching crime are asking why people commit crime, and of course, why do people NOT commit crime.

Part of what lead my thinking here was establishing that it could be any government and those two questions apply. What if the reason to commit and not to commit a crime were essentially the same, i.e., a concern for self and for my fellow man? The other part of what lead my thinking here was remembering all the black market economies I’ve seen in totalitarian economies. How far does the lack of trust have to go before I would commit a crime? P.J O’Rourke wrote All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty. It’s an excellent book because it actually is funny; however, O’Rourke forces you to walk away thinking much harder about the things he gets you to chuckle over. In fact, sometimes the thinking afterward upsets the stomach as much as the drinking water in Viet Nam. A currently, at least nominally, Marxist country, O’Rourke interviewed several people in government concerning price fixing and central planning and… you get the idea. Here’s one short story:

Next I interviewed Le Dang Doanh, deputy director of the Central Institute for Economic Management. He was even more emphatically against economic management being centralized in things like institutes. He told me a story about a fisherman who was a Communist Party member and the head of local fishing cooperative. The government-set price for fish was less than the cost of catching them. The other fisherman sold their fish on the black market and made a living. But the party member felt the dignity of his office and couldn’t bring himself to break the law. He lost money every time he went to sea. Finally he cut off his thumb so he’d never have to fish again (O’Rourke, 1994).

Part of O’Rourke’s point – his argument for market capitalism and that freedom is almost essential to its correct functioning – is the tension between government and trade and all the trouble in the world. I’d sell my fish on the black market, I am virtually certain, because like Tom said, when it moves from disenchantment to disdain to a complete lack of trust – well, there are many things I’m willing to do to feed my family. And so, a last bit for the persons who commented whether in the comments sections or email:

Money is preferable to politics. It is the difference between being free to be anybody you want and being free to vote for anybody you want. And money is more effective than politics both in solving problems and in providing independence. To rid ourselves of all the trouble in the world we need to make money. And to make money we need to be free. But, oh, the trouble caused by freedom and money.

I’d like to end this book with a clarion call to all the peoples of the earth…. Is a clarion some kind of very large clarinet? I don’t know. And how would clarinet music solve our problems? I’d like to end this book a lot of ways. Except I don’t have any answers. Use your common sense. Be nice. This is the best I can do. All the trouble in the world is human trouble… We can fix it all and we’ll still be human and causing trouble (O’Rourke, 1994).

That’s the best that I can do today, I’m tired and confused.

Cheers All!

Friends… on Crime (Part 3)

January 15th, 2010 3 comments

Once, there was only one...

Yikes! Ok, soup for you! I had initially planned to respond to comments on Friends… (Part 2) with return comments, and in fact started that process with Jeff’s comment, but *sigh* it worked itself into something a little more extensive. Part of the reason is the sheer number of journal articles everybody’s comments called to mind. I can’t say how pleasant I found it that everybody was courteous enough to be concerned about offending someone – on the other hand, I was also a little down on the fact that the concern was necessary at all in a rational discussion. If you haven’t read the above post’s comments, they are all worth the read! …and of course, reading these comments is at least in part necessary to make sense of this post.

A small caveat before we get going here – if I can find a link to the journal articles I’ll provide it, otherwise I’ll just provide the journal citation. Now then, part of what caused this excursion is a journal article entitled Boredom, Crime, and Criminology (Ferrell, 2004) and the way its contents triggered a quote Jeff gave me quite some time ago:

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.

~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Why? It’s part and parcel of some of the ideas expressed in the journal article. Part of the point is that when a society/government impoverishes human experience then a response of some sort isn’t a real stretch to expect:

So, for example, when Reclaim the Streets illegally shut down London’s M41 motorway in 1996, the subsequent ‘festival of resistance’ featured booming music, street dancers, carnival figures and a big banner warning of enforced boredom’s apocalyptic consequences: ‘The Society that Abolishes Every Adventure Makes Its Own Abolition the Only Possible Adventure’ (Ferrell, 2004).

Combine these feelings with those of “oppression,” and a certain sense of “entitlement” we might have at least a little explanatory power with crime. The reason I put entitlement in quotes is because it represents a bit more specialized use of the word. When a person or group perceives that they have been deprived of something that another person or group possesses, this is referred to as relative deprivation in a theory by the same name. Although it is commonly associated with poverty, it need not be – it can be a comparison of relative possessions in economic, political, or social deprivations. More to the point, it “sensitize[s] us to the process and emotion of crime” (Webber, 2007). Like I said, I tend toward the eclectic view of crime explanation because specific theories rarely have the explanatory power to encompass all crime. Boredom (and risk taking), oppression (and risk taking), and entitlement (and risk taking) all have some utility in explaining crime, and pretty much all have some foundation in criminological studies.

Given these elements so far, I’ve got to start this the way Jeff did in a follow up post to Tom in the comments section of Friends… (Part 2): “For someone who claims to ‘know nothing, repeat, nothing about crime theory,’ you have some very interesting ideas.” That was an excellent post, Tom. I really enjoyed your take on a synthesis of your own observations and those of your professor’s. I wonder if your professor was a professor of sociology or political science (perhaps even a history professor). The theory placing more emphasis on why there is “more” crime in America rather than what “causes” crime is interesting in itself, and it has as its presupposition about causal factors specific cultural traits or patterns (including cognitive patterns). While this does run contrary to a lot of popular crime theory, it doesn’t run contrary to many well established but less popular theories. Like Jeff’s post, I imagine your thoughts on this might offend some people, but I think many people, both in and out of the field, would find your take on it worth a good look.

There are a number of excellent studies out there concerning voluntary risk taking behavior in terms of crime, as well as an emerging (re-emerging) group of studies choosing to call itself cultural criminology. While cultural criminology pays attention to historical narrative (Tom’s list of reasons for coming to America), it also emphasizes current cultural influences; for example, media representations of what one should believe. I am fairly certain that elements of these theories would be found “objectionable” or “offensive” to some people. Despite that, elements of these reflect Tom’s thinking about risk taking and our own histories.

The antecedents of cultural criminology lie within the longstanding recognition of the importance of cultural ethnographies and artifacts in understanding human social behaviour. This ongoing tradition acknowledges that what is important is the analysis of the way in which humankind makes sense of and, at times resists, existing and developing social structures. Such privileging of ‘culture’ enables cultural theorists to view behavior as dynamic rather than determined and opens up the possibility of other ways of ‘seeing’ transgressive and therefore criminal behavior (Presdee, 2004).

Finally, both Tom and Mr. Grim point out something that is worth quoting to introduce the last “theory” associated with their comments. First, Tom wrote:

I also believe that the breakdown of society is a big factor in crime. Most societies are constructed to maintain a certain order. Much of this is done through peer pressure. But, peer pressure will affect crime in two ways, in my opinion. One, when there is sufficient peer pressure as in small towns where everyone knows one another; it is more difficult to break the societal norms (laws). Also, in big cities, there is more anonymity and fewer peers to apply the pressure to adhere to societal norms. Two, is the situation when there is peer pressure to break down societal norms (break laws) as occurs in gangs. As Jeff, above, comments, this can be a very big cause in antisocial behavior, law breaking.

And second, Mr. Grim put it this way:

I would like to back things away from those who actually broke rules of sufficient stature to deserve punishment through our criminal justice system for a minute. Instead, I would like to point my pudgy finger at what I term “the rule-breakers”.

“Who are the rule-breakers,” you may ask?

Why, it is all of us. You, me, Hell just about anyone you may know qualifies as a “rule-breaker”.

Little things, like parking in a fire zone while you jump out to use the ATM. You know you’re not supposed to, but you do it anyway. Or driving 70 MPH on a 65 MPH zone. Bah, it’s a stupid rule anyway. Or throwing that candy wrapper in a nearby bush instead of shoving it in your pocket until you can find a garbage can. Meh, it’s paper, sort of, it’ll biodegrade.

Each of these can be seen as expression of James Q. Wilson and George C. Kelling’s ideas that came to be known as the “Broken Windows Theory.” I’ll focus less on risk taking and more on “societal breakdown” for reasons of space, but both elements are expressed in current criminology theory.

First, the broken windows concept focuses on neighborhoods and communities rather than “cities at large.” In other words, it focuses on logical patrol areas. More important, it focuses on precisely what Mr. Grim called “rule breakers.” The idea with the community policing concept was to establish the “informal rules” as well as formal rules for the neighborhood and enforce them as a community. While the reason for breaking the rules (stupid rule, lemmings, or being inconsiderate) is less important than the fact that they are being broken, the primary idea is that the community as individuals must have the moral courage to support their rules. Littering, jumping subway turnstiles, harassing passersby, etc. are all examples. It’s worth a portion of the article here:

The people on the street were primarily black; the officer who walked the street was white. The people were made up of “regulars” and “strangers.” Regulars included both “decent folk” and some drunks and derelicts who were always there but who “knew their place.” Strangers were, well, strangers, and viewed suspiciously, sometimes apprehensively. The officer – call him Kelly – knew who the regulars were, and they knew him. As he saw his job, he was to keep an eye on strangers, and make certain that the disreputable regulars observed some informal but widely understood rules. Drunks and addicts could sit on the stoops, but could not lie down. People could drink on side streets, but not at the main intersection. Bottles had to be in paper bags. Talking to, bothering, or begging from people waiting at the bus stop was strictly forbidden. If a dispute erupted between a businessman and a customer, the businessman was assumed to be right, especially if the customer was a stranger. If a stranger loitered, Kelly would ask him if he had any means of support and what his business was; if he gave unsatisfactory answers, he was sent on his way. Persons who broke the informal rules, especially those who bothered people waiting at bus stops, were arrested for vagrancy. Noisy teenagers were told to keep quiet.

These rules were defined and enforced in collaboration with the “regulars” on the street. Another neighborhood might have different rules, but these, everybody understood, were the rules for this neighborhood. If someone violated them the regulars not only turned to Kelly for help but also ridiculed the violator. Sometimes what Kelly did could be described as “enforcing the law,” but just as often it involved taking informal or extralegal steps to help protect what the neighborhood had decided was the appropriate level of public order. Some of the things he did probably would not withstand a legal challenge (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).

Second, it is worth an extended quotation to explain where the broken windows idea originates because it describes Tom’s notions of societal breakdown in terms of Mr. Grim’s rules:

…at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in run-down ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)

Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by “vandals” within ten minutes of its “abandonment.” The first to arrive were a family – father, mother, and young son – who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began — windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult “vandals” were well dressed, apparently clean-cut whites. The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the ‘vandals” appeared to be primarily respectable whites.

Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder, and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding. Because of the nature of community life in the Bronx — its anonymity, the frequency with which cars are abandoned and things are stolen or broken, the past experience of “no one caring” — vandalism begins much more quickly than it does in staid Palo Alto, where people have come to believe that private possessions are cared for, and that mischievous behavior is costly. But vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers — the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility — are lowered by actions that seem to signal that “no one cares.”

We suggest that “untended” behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers… (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).

Now those are the two elements associated with Tom and Mr. Grim’s ideas in their posts. An important element of Tom’s, and the last major idea in this post, is Tom’s statement:

He made the assumption that a very large part of our Society was made up of those who lacked a respect for ruling authority and law. Hence we had more people willing to risk going against that law and the society that supported the law. I tend to believe he is onto something.

I agree. So do Wilson and Kelling. The corollary of course is that people don’t simply pay lip service to the support of law and order. It needs to be tangible. Respect for the ruling authority and law is important. Why? In keeping with Mr. Grim’s rubric, well, a certain friend of mine once said something to the effect, “I hate cops. I have absolutely no respect for them, and if they don’t like that they should find another line of work.” Same caveat goes: “please note that the quotes are to indicate dialogue and are not meant to indicate the statement is verbatim.” Whether it’s laws, rules, police, judges, etc., that we think are stupid or useless, should we not, make use of our democratic processes to change the nature of the laws, rules, police, judges, etc?

For the most part I would say yes. Of course, like any other problem solving exercise, it’s important to start isolating those elements most in need of change and those that really won’t make a difference for each community. Also, for the most part, I would suggest that Tom and Mr. Grim have the best take on what to fix first – the broken windows in our part of the neighborhood. That was my primary reason for writing this – to note that people thinking about crime and its causes tend to bring up elements or pieces of existing theory – knowing part of the problem gets us on the way to answering: “What do we do to fix it?”

“Crime seems to me to be as complex as any other human emotion, action, or desire. That is why it deserves study.” And that “…we want our neighbors to act as we do and want to understand how to keep them from acting out against societal norms.” Mostly, it seems like many people agree, and yet we tend not to want to talk, debate, and argue over these elements that would help us produce change.

Huge thanks to you guys for an excellent discussion of the causes and correlates of crime. I really appreciate the discussion and I hope it provides some inspiration for some of the many ways we can each do our part. So a little anecdote/story about a mutual person of interest between Mr. Grim and me.

I was returning to work from lunch one day, and parked near the back of a full parking lot. As I turned toward the street I heard and saw two things that occurred in swift succession. First I saw a pop can leave the hands of a male on a BMX bike. Second, about the time I heard the full pop can strike the street, I heard my boss bellow, “HEY! Pick that up!” The teenager (I think), obviously embarrassed, stopped his bike and picked up the pop can.

Cheers All!

Ferrell, J., “Boredom, crime, and criminology,” Theoretical Criminology, Vol. 8, No. 3, 287-302 (2004)

Webber, C., “Revaluating relative deprivation theory,” Theoretical Criminology, Vol. 11, No. 1, 97-120 (2007)

Presdee, M., “Cultural Criminology: The long and winding road,” Theoretical Criminology, Vol. 8, No. 3, 275-285 (2004)

Wilson, J.Q. and Kelling, G.L., “Broken Windows,” The Atlantic, March (1982); there is also a PDF version of this article at the Manhattan Institute.

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