Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reason #326 why prison should be last resort

Aramark serves food from the garbage to Michigan prison inmates.
Despite threats to terminate its contract, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) won’t let go of the company, which claims it will save taxpayers $12-16 million.
Saving $12-16 million? Imagine how much we could save if we closed prisons, instead.

My husband, who is not in Michigan, tells me of meat served long past its expiration date at the prison where he is assigned.

Prisons are a punishment because inmates are separated from their friends and family. That is the punishment. Piling poor treatment--extreme cold, extreme heat, spoiled food, sleep deprivation--on top of that is egregious.

We have a moral imperative to consider--and thoughtfully reject--a long list of alternatives before we put someone in prison.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

prison is a "deep wound"

Jean Trounstine, professor at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Massachusetts, writes about taking her class to visit a prison. 
...the students take a tour of Billerica House of Correction, where they experience confinement to some degree and listen for an hour to an incarcerated man talk about his life and what it is like to be behind bars.
...to some degree.

The tours are perfunctory, showing the students what a prison looks like on the inside and letting them feel what it is like to be there, though a short visit where all the students know they are free to leave cannot possibly convey that.
This time, when the twenty of us entered, there were only a few men in their brownish beige uniforms sitting at tables. Another two were talking to the guards who policed the room, two perched at a computerized station at one end. The students all took turns entering a cell to see what it is like, a rather disturbing experience on many levels for most of them. One student, we’ll call her Sofia, suddenly turned toward me as Spanish was heard above us. She pointed up at a window where a man smiled widely and pressed his face against the [window]. 
“That’s my brother,” Sofia said, her eyes filling with tears. 
I looked up and he waved at me, his sister’s teacher. Sofia looked away. 
I asked the young woman if she had known he would be here, and yes, Sofia said, she knew he was in this  facility but no, she had no idea she might see him. She seemed torn, wanting to look, wanting to hide. She said under her breath as others continued their entrance into cells, as far as she knew, he had no hope of ever not doing drugs. She’d lost touch, she said. She couldn’t imagine he might be doing OK.
This tour was suddenly anything but perfunctory.
Prison became about loneliness, about being apart, about the kind of pain that happens when families break up. It was no longer just about this space or this room or that hallway. Sofia’s brother, as close as he was, was nowhere near his sister. And would not be for a long time, perhaps never. She understood that and so did I.
Prison incorporates all kinds of discomforts--punishing a man for complaining about the cold by confiscating his thermal underwear for the winter, turning on lights that shine into each cell all night long.

People think of that kind of discomfort and try to decide how they would withstand those challenges. Could I deal with strip searches? Could I keep my mouth shut when a guard calls me a faggot? Could I get used to sleeping on a mattress only a couple of inches thick? Could I stay sane crowded into a cell with five other men?

The real misery, though, is being apart from family and friends. A prison tour usually cannot even touch that fact.
When we exited Billerica that day, Sofia told the other students about her brother behind bars. Now, after walking through Billerica, and after being with Sofia, they understood why prison is not just a physical place, but a deep wound.
Families who have someone in prison too often cope with that deep wound alone. Those who know we have a family member in prison don't know what to say, so they say nothing. We say nothing because--...wanting to look, wanting to hide...-- letting on that we are hurting can elicit the simplistic and cruel "if you do the crime, you do the time". If anyone understands the true meaning of that breezy platitude, it is prison families.

Prison sentences are handed out like candy at a classroom Valentine party. We should be sure the sentence is worth a broken family.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

reporter, dazzled by pastel eggs, shows no interest in facts

In Greensburg PA, a man hired to be the Easter Bunny was fired when his status as a registered sex offender was disclosed. 
Parents are demanding answers after learning that a registered sex offender worked as the Easter bunny at a Pennsylvania mall.
When the sex offender label is given to an entire category of crimes without regard to what the actual offense was, and when the media continues to sell the idea of scary sex offenders, people do not think straight.
He was fired after three days on the job, and now he’s speaking out about what happened.
Brave man, speaking out.
“I can understand, you know, where they’re coming from, about them being upset. But what a lot of people need to realize is, you know, I wasn’t put in jail for touching little kids,” said Michael Paul Jacobs. 
Jacobs, spoke about his jobs here at Westmoreland mall as the Easter bunny and his conviction as a Megan’s law violent child sex offender.
Violent! Will no one think of the colorful plastic eggs?
“My case — it revolved around having consensual sex when I was a teenager myself, with another teenager,” Jacobs said. 
But records show that Jacobs was convicted in two different cases of having sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 19.
Oh, the reporter relishes that fact. Two different cases of "having consensual sex when I was a teenager myself."
An adult having sex with a minor is a crime, no matter how you slice it.
Smug self-righteousness will not allow the reporter to question whether it makes sense to make a crime of consensual sex.
“Because I’m on Megan’s Law, everybody looks at me different, and this is where I have trouble getting a job. And just, didn’t touch no kids or anything like that,” he said. 
He is right: everybody looks at him differently because he is on the registration website, not because he had sex with a girlfriend or two. Think about that.
Jacobs said he never hid his convictions when he applied for the Easter bunny job.
It just never came up. 
“They didn’t ask for my background on the application that I filled out. It didn’t say anything about a criminal background,” Jacobs claimed. 
So who dropped the ball?
The ball dropped when no one stopped to wonder if this young man poses a danger to children.
A spokesman for Westmoreland mall tells us Cherry Hill Photo Enterprise leases space to take Easter photos in the mall and said. “It is regrettable that one of their local employees failed to follow their stringent background screening procedures.” 
As for Michael Paul Jacobs, he’s out of work again.
That happens too often to sex offenders.
“I think it’s messed up that people judge me for me just being on that site, basically,” Jacobs said. 
It is definitely messed up. To label a young man a violent sex offender for having consensual sex is messed up.

To pretend that he is a danger to small children when he has no history of harming children is patently dishonest.

Don't open those plastic eggs, kids. They were filled by dishonest people who are happy to pretend there is no difference between chocolate and rabbit droppings.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"some of the most lethal terrorists are prosecutors"

Norm Pattis talks about prosecutors employing dark arts at trial:
Trial, some say, is a search for the truth. That’s specious tomfoolery. In fact, trial, at least a criminal trial, is guerilla warfare. Some of the most lethal terrorists are prosecutors. Fear and the dark arts of intimidation are common tools.
Fear and intimidation, indeed. Only a small number of criminal cases ever go to trial because of those dark arts. Who would risk being tried on the most severe of charges and a much longer sentence when the plea agreement offers lesser charges and a shorter sentence? After seeing the prosecution's enormous power to force the outcome it wants, not many will risk a trial.
The dark arts of witness intimidation pit prosecutors against defense counsel. The accused wants to avoid prison and a felony record. The government wants testimony sufficient to convict as many as possible. 
A grant of immunity from prosecution is a homerun for the defense, but the government doesn’t like giving free passes to those it believes to have broken the law. For one thing, jurors are wary of immunity agreements, especially in white-collar cases. “How come he gets to break the law with impunity?” are not the words a prosecutor wants to hear about a witness. 
So an elaborate charade is constructed, a game designed and intended to keep jurors from learning as much of the truth as possible. The government enters into cooperation agreements with those prepared to testify against co-conspirators. 
Here’s how it works: A witness pleads guilty, typically to reduced charges. But his sentence is deferred until after the main event. ... 
Deferring sentence permits the government to deny that the witness has been promised leniency for his cooperation. The witness is reduced merely to saying that he hopes the judge will take into account his assistance to the government when his own sentencing occurs.
Read the whole thing. Pattis outlines an actual trial to show how it works.
In other words, the government, not the jury, decides what is and is not true; those who disagree with Uncle Sam get clobbered.
When the prosecution routinely forces a plea agreement and bypasses any trial, the prosecution rarely has to prove its case.

So, yes: the prosecution decides what is true.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ohio Supreme Court argues that the registry can be cruel and unusual punishment

From Nebraskans Unafraid, comes a link to a video of arguments in the Ohio Supreme Court about whether a young man convicted of a sex offense could be excluded from the sex offender registry.

He was 21 when he had consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl. His public defender argued that a psychologist had found that he is "not a sex offender" and so should not be required to register. The psychologist had evaluated him using the Static 99, a checklist that purports to show recidivism risk. It is not a psychological evaluation.

The Court clarified with her that he is a sex offender because the law and his conviction are what make him a sex offender, not his psychological condition nor his recidivism risk no matter the level.

The Court gently nudged the attorney along the way to saying that the registry would be cruel and unusual punishment. The Ohio Supreme Court had already found that the registry is punitive in nature, so arguing whether the punishment of being on the registry is proportionate is a natural question.

When the prosecutor blithely said that the young man does deserve to be on the registry for having sex with a 15 year-old, the justices asked him to explain why the registry should not be considered cruel and unusual punishment. His answer? There are cases of worse punishment that the courts have said are not cruel and unusual. 

That's like telling a kid to eat his peas even if he doesn't like them because the kids down the street have to eat brussel sprouts which taste even worse.

Strange arguments from a public defender who seemed unclear about what a sex offender is (hint: it is not something discovered by a psychologist) and strange arguments from the prosecutor who said the young man should be on the registry because, well, because the law says he should. 

Watch the video, though, and you'll be encouraged by the questions and reasoning followed by the Ohio Supreme Court justices.

Friday, March 6, 2015

another search, another death...and no effect on supply or demand

Radley Balko the author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces, tells yet another story like many others he has told. He quotes from a news story about the killing of Derek Cuice:
A deputy shot and killed an unarmed man while attempting to serve a narcotics search warrant in Deltona, according to the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office.
Investigators said deputies were entering the home on Maybrook Drive when Derek Cruice, 26, allegedly advanced on a member of the SWAT team around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. 
“Volusia County Sheriff’s Office narcotics investigators and the Street Crimes Unit were attempting to serve a search warrant at a residence. They were met with resistance and a shooting occurred,” Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said. 
 Balko writes:
It seems likely that Cruice was dealing pot. The police say they found a ledger book, a scale, about a half-pound of marijuana and some cash. It also seems likely that if the police had simply knocked on the door and waited, or apprehended Cruice as he was coming or going, Cruice would be still be alive. This insistence on serving drug warrants by barreling into homes creates needless violence, confusion and confrontation. They’re designed to do this. I doubt that Cruice knowingly decided to take on a raiding police team armed only with his basketball shorts. It seems far more likely that he thought they were criminal intruders and was either trying to confront them, or was trying to escape. But there is no room for errors in judgment for the people on the receiving end of these raids — even though sowing confusion and disorientation are the stated aim. But it is only the suspects, the targets of the raids, who are expected to do everything right. When the police screw up and kill someone, they’re generally forgiven, owing again to the volatility of the situation.
Those who have been through a home invasion by the cops will recognize the truth in this. When law enforcement shows up wearing Kevlar and with weapons drawn, they are not protecting anyone but themselves. The chaos, no matter how unnecessary, is intentional.
So judging from the many, many prior incidents similar to this one, it’s probably safe to say that this officer will be cleared of any wrongdoing. It’s also probably safe to say that any investigation will determine that there’s nothing wrong with the police department’s warrant service policies. At least that’s how these investigations usually go. And if it is determined that the cops in these cases are following policy, and that there’s nothing wrong with the policies themselves, then the only conclusion we can draw is that the police agencies believe unarmed men getting shot in the face is an acceptable consequence of the effort to stop people from getting high on marijuana. [My emphasis.]
Balko sounds frustrated, angry. But after hearing so many stories like this, who isn't? 
Of course, even that is an illusion. If there’s one thing we can say with near-absolute certainty, it’s that it is no more difficult to buy pot in Volusia County, Fla., today than it was before Derek Cruice was gunned down in his own home. And so we add another body to the pile.
It is no more difficult to buy pot...than it was before Derek Cruice was gunned down... 

Violent, chaotic searches, arrests and convictions, long prison sentences. None of those have slowed down the supply or demand for recreational drugs.

The story is the same with child pornography. As I said here, discussing an interview of a man who had a collection of a million child porn images:
It is important to know that putting people in prison for possessing, receiving, or distributing illegal images does nothing to reduce the availability of child porn. 
Those million images? Still freely available on the Internet.

Monday, March 2, 2015

the registry does no good but we must have it anyway, says MA state rep

Paul Heroux, a Massachusetts State Representative, asks the question, do sex offender registries reduce recidivism?

He answers the question immediately.

No. Or at least that is what the empirical evidence and research on this issue shows. 
Seems clear enough but Heroux is a lawmaker with a constituency that could turn on him so he tries to hedge his bets. 
But that doesn't mean we should not have them. The fact is that the registries don't really do anything to improve public safety. They just make people feel safer and in control; unfortunately this is a false sense of security.
To restate his first paragraph: sex offender registries don't improve public safety; they offer only a false sense of security.

Can he balance those facts against "but that doesn't mean we should not have them"? He tries.

His arguments against the registry are a bit murky but the basics are there.

  1. Sex offenders are not all the same and we should not treat them as if they are.
  2. Because sex offender recidivism is very low, we can't use past behavior of a sex offender to predict his future behavior.
His arguments for keeping the registry?
There is more to policy than just evidence-based practices. In politics and government administration, there is ever present concerns with effective policy and the optics of policy. 
Ohhh. Optics of policy. That sounds so...important. Notice, though, that he separates the optics of policy from effective policy.

That separation earns him points for honesty. 

His arguments for keeping the registry continue:

Now, while I already discussed that registries are a false sense of security, that they take time away from what does work, and that there is no evidence that they reduce recidivism, there is reason to keep them. Parents and the public want to know who have committed sex offenses. And since all criminal records are public information, this information should not be suppressed. However, the public needs to start to understand that sex offender registries don't keep people safe. And the public also needs to realize that not all sex offenders are pedophiles. Most are people who will never re-offend ever again. The statistics are very clear about this. [My emphasis.]
His pro-registry arguments...
  1. People want to know who committed sex offenses.
  2. That information is already public information and shouldn't be suppressed.
...are neatly sandwiched between two restatements of his arguments against the registry.

Heroux knows the truth: registries do no good. I'm glad he sees that.

He continues with a handy list of ways to guard against sex offenses, which does not include consulting the registry.

Then comes this muddled paragraph:

In addition to the person, the individual and the guardian being the first and best line of defense against sex offenders, we need to include who is a pedophile in our classification of the Sex Offender Level. In some states, pedophilia as a DSM diagnosis, is not included as a variable when determining who is a level 1, 2 or 3 sex offender. We need to make sure that we empirically evaluate the effectiveness of correctional treatment programs aimed at reducing sex offending. There is a lot that can and should be done. The point of this article is not to get into all of that; that point of this article is to highlight that sex offender registries don't reduce sex offender recidivism.
He mentions two specific measures he thinks should be taken--we need to keep track of the pedophiles on the registry and we need to figure out if treatment programs are effective--right before saying he doesn't want to get into all of that.

Researching existing sex offender treatment programs is an excellent idea. We ought to get into all of that.

According to Heroux himself, registered sex offenders--including any who might be pedophiles--are very unlikely to commit another sex offense, so why the special attention to pedophiles? Probably because there is no easier target than the fearsome pedophile and the suggestion that pedophiles get extra-special treatment on the registry is a sop to his pro-registry constituents.

That constituency must make him wary about flat-out stating the obvious: 

We could abolish the registry with no effect on public safety.

Seeing Heroux write that the registry has no effect on recidivism is gratifying. Imagine how gratifying it would be if he could say that without adding to the restrictions imposed by the registry, that same registry that he says "[doesn't] really do anything to improve public safety."

Either it helps prevent further crimes or it doesn't. It doesn't.
Either it protects the community or it doesn't. It doesn't.

If only Heroux had gone a step further and talked about what the registry does.

It is used to keep registrants from finding employment.
It is used to keep registrants from finding housing.
It is used to encourage fear of people who are very unlikely to commit a sex offense.
It is used to keep parents from attending school events with their children.
It puts families in danger. Real, physical danger from vigilantes.

Sex offenders and their families are routinely affected in those ways by the registry and none of that helps to keep our communities safer.

Perhaps if State Representative Heroux hears from those who appreciate him saying as much as he did, he might find the moral courage to stand up for sex offenders and their families.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

two stories of witnesses protecting the bad guy

Two interesting stories about witnesses to a crime.

In the first story, a young man was murdered and no witnesses are coming forward with information.
“Detectives are not receiving much, if any, cooperation or true and accurate information from neighbors and subjects they believe, through their investigation, to be witnesses,” Sgt. Chris Snyder wrote in a news release Thursday, Jan. 8.
Snyder urges anyone with information to come forward. 
It must be frustrating to know there are witnesses who could help to solve a murder but that none of them are willing to help find the killer.

The second story, from Radley Balko, tells of a cell phone video serving as a witness, saving a man from a conviction.
In order to help out his family and earn a quick $50, [Douglas] Dendinger agreed to act as a process server, giving a brutality lawsuit filed by his nephew to Chad Cassard as the former Bogalusa police officer exited the Washington Parish Courthouse. 
The handoff went smoothly, but Dendinger said the reaction from Cassard, and a group of officers and attorneys clustered around him, turned his life upside down.
That group of officers and attorneys did not react well to Dendinger serving the papers. Balko says:
He was not only arrested, he was also charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor. A prior drug charge on his record meant he was potentially looking at decades in prison. Seven witnesses backed up the police account that Dendinger had assaulted Cassard.
Seven witnesses to the crime of false reporting. 

A cell phone video of Dendinger handing the papers to Cassard proved that all seven witnesses lied.

But here’s my question: Why aren’t the seven witnesses to Dendinger’s nonexistent assault on Cassard already facing felony charges? Why are all but one of the cops who filed false reports still wearing badges and collecting paychecks? Why aren’t the attorneys who filed false reports facing disbarment? Dendinger’s prosecutors both filed false reports, then prosecuted Dendinger based on the reports they knew were false. They should be looking for new careers — after they get out of jail.
The connection between the two stories? In both, the bad guy is protected by his community.

When cops protect bad cops, and often with no consequences for doing so, why are we surprised when the broader community does the same?