Friday, December 16, 2011

A Tale of Two Joes: Captain America and America's Toughest Sheriff

The Obama-Holder Justice Department's full scale legal challenge to the man who has long called himself "America's Sheriff" (read Marc Lacey's reporting in the NYTimes here) is another indicator that the war on crime is continuing to wane, both in the commitment of federal and state budget to crime control activities, and in the ideological grip of "tough on crime" over the American political imagination. Joe Arpaio, five times elected Sheriff of Maricopa County Arizona (Phoenix) has been fixture on the Republican right in Arizona and nationally for years now, but he has also largely been above reproach from more moderate leaders of either party despite engaging behavior that ranges from clownish (dying the jail bologna green and the underwear pink) to obscene and degrading (jail webcams trained on showers, see Mona Lynch's article on Jail Cam in Punishment and Society here). The fact that the Justice Department is going after him now may be based on convenient timing (the investigation began under Bush and comes at a time when Latino votes are the key to Obama winning Arizona and perhaps the whole election) but it also indicates that the most cautious political team in the business calculates that tough on crime is no longer a shield of legitimacy.

As Sheriff Joe is hustled off the stage of history, let us not mistake this clownish thug for an aberrant example of our demented celebrity political culture (although is his as well). His basic program of cruelty, racism, and entertainment in the name of public safety is one that continues to be defended and practice in most states and by a Justice Department that has arrested and deported more foreign nationals than any administration in recent history (proportionate to its time in office). Nor have we seen the President make even the slightest move to challenge the orthodoxy of mass incarceration in America.

If Sheriff Joe is a comic book character it is reflection of our national decline. Consider Captain America (whose creator, Joe Simon, died this week at 98, read his obit here) whose inaugural issue in January 1940 depicted him punching Adolph Hitler (then romping over Europe)in the jaw. Our hero's used to beat up bullies; in the age of Sheriff Joe they became bullies.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Riots and Respect

In another move that confirms its stature as the most innovative newspaper and news website in the English language world, the Guardian has been collaborating with a team of London School of Economics social scientists, headed up by (friend and) criminologist Tim Newburn, in an extraordinary qualitative study of participants from this past summers riots in London and a few other UK cities (read the series, Reading the Riots). The study confirms that at its core the rioting was a response to long term resentment over police tactics, particularly stop and search and above all the routine disrespect that lower class urban youth experience in their interactions with police. Most newspapers would have felt it sufficient to let right and left wing experts and pundits tell us what the riots meant. Asking rioters why is considered hopelessly naive if not perverse; as their behavior must be punished by silencing even beyond legal sanctions. But as Newburn brilliantly summarizes it (read his column in the Guardian here):

Indeed, we should listen because they have something important to tell us about policing in modern Britain. The concepts that young people – young rioters – referred to most frequently in relation to policing were "justice" and "respect". Their focus was on what they perceived to be a lack of each. Police officers – by no means all, but enough – target them, are rude, and sometimes bully them, they said. Much of what these young people talk about is, for them, just the daily grind of their interactions with "the feds". It is the sense that every time they are out on the streets, they face the prospect of being stopped, challenged and, from time to time, abused.

Newburn notes that the shared anger at the police among lower class urban youth stands in contrast to the "general public" which expresses confidence in the police in standard national crime surveys. Tellingly, however, this sentiment cuts across the behavioral divide that many assume away in their presumptions about such youth. While rioters were predominantly from this group they included many youth who are not part of a gang or criminal life style, they hold jobs, go to school, and operate inside Britain's increasingly exclusionary economy. It doesn't matter to the "Feds" who police them based on demography (and all too often race above all) rather than on the "reasonable suspicion"celebrated by law.

Needless to say this is all of vastly more than academic interest to those of us in the US. We have very much the same long term deficit of respect accumulating among our urban youth and very much the same policing logic as Victor Rios documents in his great book on policing and urban youth, Punished (I don't think this is a case of policy transfer so much as independent paths to the same bad practices, but read Newburn's book with Trevor Jones on Policy Transfer). The Occupy Wall Street protests have documented that the police have plenty of disrespect to pass around, despite decades of training (or at least talk about) in community policing, even to the predominantly middle class young adults that have made up its stalwarts. With the economy very likely in the pits, global warming doing its thing, and Obama and a Republican opponent locked in a campaign for the 5 percent of white suburban voters that are still undecided in July, it could be a long hot summer.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Zombies, Humanitarians, and the Twilight Zone Between Dignity and Security

The shock is palpable. For those of us used to United States criminal justice as a baseline the decision seemed in explicable. According the news that broke yesterday, Norway's prosecutors have decided that Anders Behring Breivik is insane and should not face criminal prosecution (read the AP report here). Breivik was arrested last summer after methodically gunning down scores of Norwegian youths and young adults on an island conference center after allegedly setting off a deadly bomb blast near government buildings in Oslo. He himself described those acts as part of war to save Norway from Muslim immigrants. Prosecutors, based on the evaluation of their own forensic psychiatric experts, concluded that Breivik lives in a “delusional universe,” and should not be held criminally responsible. If their decision is approved by a judicial process, Breivik will go to a secure psychiatric hospital for at least three years, after which he could be released if found to be no longer a danger, rather than to a trial and imprisonment.

In the US insanity is also a possible basis for dropping a prosecution or acquitting a defendant with a similar result; only it rarely happens and certainly not in high profile cases. Consider the on going prosecution of Jared Lee Loughner, who killed several people at a Tucson store last Spring and critically wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords; and who everybody agrees was deeply psychotic, but where the prosecution is fighting to the keep the case on track for a criminal trial and possible death sentence. By strange coincidence, yesterday also brought news that John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan in 1981, is seeking leave a psychiatric hospital for visits of up to several weeks at his mother's home, more than 30 years after being acquitted by reason of insanity. News that Hinckley would escape "punishment" and "prison" led to popular outrage and a significant shift in state and federal law to narrow the grounds on which a person may be acquitted by reason of insanity. Now even people who both prosecution and defense agree are and were deeply psychotic, and who killed in the midst of severe delusions, are likely to be convicted of murder and sent to prison for life or perhaps even executed (so long as they are not insane at the time of execution). In the meantime the suggestion that, Hinckley who has been in remission for decades and has apparently threatened no one since being hospitalized, be released is raising strong opposition from present and former prosecutors.

The contrast between the two nations should shock us. But the question is what kind of conclusion to draw about which nation is extreme. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders offers in vivid terms what I suspect many of my fellow citizens (and possibly even readers) think (read her column here):

So why do I think Oslo's chosen experts have decided that Breivik was insane? They're so sublime, they don't know how to recognize evil.

Saunders sees Norway as epitomizing a perverse and elitest commitment to humanitarian values like dignity,while no non-sense American justice delivers security to ordinary citizens by dealing harshly with those that would harm them. In Saunder's view, admittedly drawn from the nightmare world of US popular media, people like Norway's prosecutors or Americans who oppose capital punishment and mass incarceration, are practically allies of the evil doers.

In AMC's zombie series "The Walking Dead," tensions build between an old-fashioned veterinarian farmer named Hershel Greene - who thinks zombies have a disease that may be cured someday - and a caravan of gun-packing refugees led by Deputy Rick Grimes. Because Hershel wants to protect the zombies he has hidden in his barn, he orders Rick and company to leave his property - even though leaving could make Rick, his family and friends easy pickings for the undead.

It's disturbing how self-congratulatory humanitarians can be willing to endanger the lives of others in order to maintain their worldview.

As a columnist Saunders often has the lonely task of defending conservative views in admirably witty style, to liberal San Francisco, but on this note I suspect she's singing with the chorus not only here but in most of California, and thus her logic is worth a closer examination for what it tells us about our penal imaginary. Saunders sees people who commit violent crimes, or may be all criminals, as zombies, monsters who have forfeited all claim on our humanity, and who can never change their instinctual drive to kill innocent humans. Those who think they can change them are not only pathetic, but dangerous themselves, because they can use their cultural and legal power to stop righteous avengers from using violence or permanent imprisonment to destroy or incapacitate the monsters.

It is all too tempting as a criminologist to dismiss columnists like Saunders as, well, delusional. But her vision accurately reflects a culture of fear in the Golden State, built up by a variety of social, media and political trends over the past four decades and which has produced nearly a thousand people on death row and a prison system holding more than four times the portion of Californians incarcerated in the 1970s (when serial killers were actually common in the state). The prisons, whose overcrowding and humanitarian crises shocked even the US Supreme Court in Brown v. Plata hold tens of thousands of seriously mentally ill prisoners, most of whom probably committed their crimes due to untreated mental illness and who are not receiving adequate treatment to control their disease while in prison.

For not only Debra Saunders, but many Californians, prisons are acceptable (despite their obvious failures) because they contain monsters who would otherwise be in your community or house. In this view, it is civil rights lawyers and and hapless humanitarians who endanger Californians by demanding dignity and human rights for prisoners. In reality, security is more of a twilight zone, where extreme efforts to punish and incapacitate our way to safety regularly backfire (remember Abu Grhaib) and where creating real security requires both courage and dignity. Consider San Francisco where Saunder's lives or at least writes from. There in 2008 a teenage girl was almost beheaded by a knife wielding man. The girls family sued the state for failing to protect her. Was he released early by some naive humanitarian parole board? Hardly, according to Saunder's newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle (read it here):

The suit claims Scott Thomas, who was suffering from bipolar disorder, was never treated during his months in solitary confinement in San Quentin. After he was released without supervision on May 18, 2007, Thomas randomly stabbed Loren Schaller, now 16, and 60-year-old Kermit Kubitz at a bakery near Miraloma Park.

Thomas, 26, who was sent to prison nine times for nonviolent crimes between 2000 and 2007, has been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial and is incarcerated at Atascadero State Hospital.

Dealing with those who commit terrible acts of violence, whether psychotic or not, will always pose the gravest of problems for government committed to law and human rights. Punishment as an expression of social solidarity, as well as to provide a guaranteed minimum of incapacitation has its place. People may be responsible for buying into hateful beliefs about others, even when their disease leads them to make deranged judgments based on those beliefs that no healthy person would make. Norway has chosen a strikingly different path to the ours. I'm not sure its the right one. Did the prosecutors give enough weight to his racist ideology? But I do respect Norway's sense of penal restraint. As Saunder's notes, even if Breivik was convicted he could not have faced either the death penalty or life without parole, sanctions which are both inhuman and unnecessary but common in California. But he is also likely to spend a lot longer than three years in secure psychiatric confinement, where Norwegian authorities can hold him for the rest of his life if they deem it necessary for public safety. In the meantime in California, where both Debra Saunders and I live, we have proven that abandoning your humanity and dignity in in the name of security, cannot make anybody safe.