State of the Union

Building Conservative Prison Reform

Talk of bipartisan prison form has rallied spirits in Washington in recent weeks, and was a topic of hope at CPAC last month. Though American politics may suffer schismatic divides in many issues, maybe—just maybe—we can find agreement here.

But it’s interesting how many are framing the debate—while the left’s motivation is largely viewed as humanitarian, the right’s motives are seen as decidedly pragmatic: prisons are costing us too much. Let’s change that.

Of course we can appreciate this pragmatism, but where is the principle and conscience in our prison reform views? Do conservatives only think in dollar signs?

In a conversation with Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador some weeks ago, he agreed that prison reform makes fiscal sense—but expanded conservative interests into the ethical sphere. He argued that as a Christian and defender of justice, our system ought not consign so many people to rotting in jail. “Because of the fear of crime,” he said, “We keep making it easier and easier for the state to take away your liberty and your freedom … we shouldn’t be throwing people in jail for long periods of time over non-violent offenses.”

Is this something other conservatives should be on-board with? Take solitary confinement, for instance: as conservatives, should we support it—and to what extent is it also deserving of reform?

A Wednesday piece by Lisa Guenther for Aeon provides some good philosophical reasons to oppose solitary confinement. She argues that, since man is (as Aristotle put it) a “social animal,” it is spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically deleterious for him to be alone. We depend on “the other” to undergird and reinforce our experience, our reality. Without that, the soul and mind are cut loose:

When we isolate a prisoner in solitary confinement, we deprive him of this network of perceptual and existential orientation. He might still have an experience of the table that is bolted in place in his cell, and he might still have the memory of what tables mean for other people. But the lived experience of these objects as both for-me and for-another is, by and large, denied to him. The ‘there’ that would otherwise anchor his experience of the world from ‘here’ has been pulled up, casting him adrift without a clear view of the horizon.

We may live in a rather individualistic society—but we never have to experience life in total solitude. “Only the prisoner in solitary confinement is forced to occupy the position of an isolated individual, and to bear the full weight of his existence alone,” writes Guenther. Traditional conservatism opposes individualism—it upholds the important and reforming nature of community. Should this principle extend to our penal system?

It depends, to some extent, on what you think prison is for. Those who believe in “locking up prisoners and throwing away the key” have a good, strong understanding of human depravity. But their belief in redemption is somewhat lacking. This is, perhaps, the largest problem I see with solitary confinement: it leaves absolutely no room for reform of the person. Instead, it turns the soul further toward its inner depravity, and keeps it locked there, away from “the other.” This may keep the individual from harming others—but it also leaves no room for the soul to grow or emerge from its inner prison.

True conservative prison reform should consider the impact such measures have on the human psyche and soul—not merely their monetary cost.


Posted in , , , . Tagged , . 5 comments

Solitary Confinement’s Horrors Laid Bare for Eternity

Solitary confinement cells at Alcatraz Photommo /  cc
Solitary confinement cells at Alcatraz Photommo / cc

Ross Anderson’s vision of how life extension could change prisons is horrific. In Aeon magazine, he interviews Rebecca Roache, an Oxford philosopher investigating how justice can and should change as humans live longer lives. What if you could punish someone for hundreds of years, she wonders. What if you could do it forever?

Eternal damnation, traditionally an ethical problem for theologians, is a practical problem for Roche. If we’re willing to give out life sentences, what will we do when, due to advances in modern medicine, people’s lives become very, very long? If, at that point, we think it’s just to keep people imprisoned for a hundred or a thousand years, why not see if it’s possible to achieve the same effect now with mind altering drugs? The “artificial hell” she describes sounds like it was torn from the pages of Harlan Ellison’s terrifying short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”

Ari Shulman of The New Atlantis found the idea so repugnant as to not deserve any added publicity. He wrote:

Let’s be frank about the work these discussions are really doing, how they’re aiming to shape the parameters of discourse and so thought and so action. Like Herman Kahn and megadeath, when transhumanists claim to be responsibly shining a light on a hidden path down which we might otherwise blindly stumble, what they’re really after is focusing us so intently on this path that we forget we could yet still take another.

Anderson has a possible answer to Shulman’s critique at the end of his essay. He writes: “When we ask ourselves whether it’s inhumane to inflict a certain technology on someone, we have to make sure it’s not just the unfamiliarity that spooks us.”

If it’s a horror to make a 10-year sentence feel like an eternity, is it any less so to assign a sentence that lasts a prisoner’s entire life? Particularly for prisoners given over to the penal system in their twenties?

But perhaps the unique horror of Roche’s idea is the way that it would set a prisoner out of synch with his surroundings. After all, a prisoner whose subjective experience of a ten year sentence lasts an eternity, or even the easier-to-imagine one hundred years, can’t be able to communicate with other prisoners or guards. Like a rapidly accelerating astronaut, the prisoner would be moving too fast, according to his internal clock, to belong to a community.

We’ve already sentenced people to that desperately lonely fate without any technology more complicated than four walls and a windowless door. Prisoners in solitary confinement may be running at the same timescale as the rest of us, but the overlap is irrelevant, as they’re allowed almost no fellowship or human contact. Read More…

Posted in . Tagged , , . 2 comments

CPAC: The Conservative Case for Criminal Justice Reform

If only Nixon could go to China, then, in the opinion of Grover Norquist, only conservatives can reform the criminal justice system.

The president of Americans for Tax Reform joined Texas Governor Rick Perry and former New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik to speak against mandatory minimum sentences and in favor of a criminal justice system more focused on rehabilitation than simple retribution. As Perry put it, “We’re not a soft on crime state, but I hope we get the reputation of being a smart on crime state.”

Kerik has experienced the criminal justice system from both sides, first as a cop, then as an inmate when he pled guilty to eight felony tax and false statement charges. He spent three years in jail, but was able to resume his life and his consultancy work when he was freed. That opportunity isn’t available to most felons, he pointed out. In his experience,

I was sentenced to three years, I knew men who were sentenced to a year and a day, but it’s not really a year and a day. A felony conviction is a life sentence. … You can’t punish people for life for making a mistake

Perry agreed with Kerik, saying that the mandatory minimums and other sentencing guidelines are “a really bad concept.” Long jail stays are costly to the state (which must feed and house criminals) and to the prisoners themselves (who spend more time adrift). He’s worked to shorten sentences where it’s safe to do so, and, as a result, Texas closed two prisons last August.

Perry may seem like an unlikely spokesman for criminal justice reform, having come under fire from reform groups like the Innocence Project, which has repeatedly petitioned to commute death penalty sentences without success. But Perry draws a distinction between death penalty or life without parole sentences, which are intended to sunder a criminal permanently from civil society, and shorter sentences, which, due to a dearth of rehabilitation programs, leave criminals unprepared for reintegration and force a de facto separation. Read More…

Posted in . Tagged , , , . 7 comments

An Unsettling Death in Ohio

It’s difficult to verify whether an execution is botched, since there is no opportunity to interview the victim after the fact, but it’s beginning to look like something went seriously wrong with the execution of a man on death row in Ohio.

Because the state was low on the conventional lethal injection cocktail, the executioner injected Dennis McGuire with a combination of chemicals that the state hoped would be approximately equivalent. But Mr. McGuire’s death took longer than usual and his struggling and choking suggested that the new combination was painful and might have constituted cruel and unusual punishment. As reported in The New York Times, Mr. McGuire’s daughter witnessed her father’s stomach spasm, and his hands contort into fists, “He started making all these horrible, horrible noises, and at that point, that’s when I covered my eyes and my ears.”

There’s no mystery as to why Ohio found itself running low on the traditional three-drug lethal injections. Many of the components of the cocktail are manufactured outside the United States and several international companies have refused to allow their drugs to be shipped to the United States if they will be used to end a life. As a result, the US has been experimenting, most recently in Mr. McGuire’s case, but also by using drug combinations approved to euthanize animals, but not intended for humans.

The real mystery is why Ohio, faced with a shortage of drugs, found it so urgent to put Mr. McGuire to death that they turned to an experimental, poorly-tested combination of drugs. Pharmaceutical companies will make “compassionate use” exemptions to allow patients dying of cancer to take a chance on a drug that might save their lives when all other hope is gone; but why would Ohio find killing on schedule as desperate a need as saving a life?

Both the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole remove a prisoner from ordinary life, and neutralize the threat he or she could pose to fellow citizens. Death is reserved for the gravest crimes, but it is not applied in the spirit of Hammurabi; we do not torture prisoners or try to balance the scales of suffering.

The current lethal injection protocols were inspired by the euthanasia of pets and could be interpreted in the same spirit. Here are the people who couldn’t be saved—who like Old Yeller had somehow become rabidly dangerous—and who we needed to let go, since a cure was out of our reach. But that peaceful image is contradicted by the medical reality of the effects of the injection.

The normal drug cocktail is intended more for the comfort of the spectators than the victim. One of the component drugs, Pancuronium bromide, is a muscle relaxant. It is meant to hasten death by paralyzing the respiratory muscles, making it impossible to breath. However, the paralysis is not limited to the chest, so the muscle relaxant masks any signs of agony that might alert the observers, as in Mr. McGuire’s case, that something is amiss.

The guillotine looks monstrous and savage, and leaves spectators bespeckled by blood, but is believed to be more merciful to the victim and is even favored by the inventor of the three-drug legal injection. Mr. McGuire’s uncomfortable death exposes the illusion that we can usher criminals out of this world simply and peacefully. If we design our execution protocols to obscure the reality of the death we are inflicting, we must ask whether we can honestly endorse a sentence we can’t stand to see unveiled.

Posted in . 25 comments

How the Right and Left Are Revising “Tough on Crime”

America has 5 percent of the world’s population but one-fourth of its prisoners. Nearly one-third of Americans are under correctional facilities’ control at a yearly cost of $60 billion. Imprisonment has grown 400 percent over the past twenty years, the great majority for non-violent crimes. And two-thirds of criminals are back in jail for similar crimes three years after they are released. Our current correctional policy is a national shame and it simply does not work.

Both Edwin Meese and Eric Holder, the attorneys general for presidents as different as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, have criticized this status quo. So have uber-liberal E.J. Dionne Jr. and New Right founder Richard Viguerie. The American Civil Liberties Union and Right on Crime agree. Holder’s plea to limit sentencing for non-violent offenders can be questioned coming from one who is otherwise criminalizing new civil procedures and is blunt that his motivation comes primarily from the “shameful” fact that black male perpetrators receive longer sentences than whites. Likewise, while calling for bipartisan agreement, Dionne also emphasized the need for gun control and ending “stop and frisk” laws, a sure means to derail agreement. Caution is called for but the fact that both left and right have expressed doubts is significant.

Even Dionne concedes the crisis began in the 1960s when an “anything goes” leftist counterculture romanticized illegal behavior as glorious acts of self-fulfillment and independence, all beamed to the public by a sympathetic media and popular culture. A liberal Supreme Court responded with decisions expanding criminal rights, limiting confinement and the death penalty, and restricting police response. Crime exploded with murder and willful manslaughter doubling from 5.1 per 100,000 population in 1960 to 10.2 by 1980. The people responded by demanding a narrowing of rights and tougher penalties. The politicians complied.

The right became identified with “tough on crime” even though the leading voice of this frustration was President Richard Nixon who was anything but conservative in most of what he did, overseeing large increases in welfare spending, environmental regulation, racial preferences, and even wage and price controls. More principled conservatives supported Nixon’s program out of outrage that the Supreme Court had acted so arbitrarily by overriding Congress, the Executive, and the states without the least consideration of public opinion. As the right gained politically for supporting tougher policing and punishment, the more pragmatic left led by then Senator Joe Biden claimed equal toughness on crime by applying the death penalty and longer sentencing to many less violent matters. Tough-on-crime turned bipartisan.

Conservatives began having second thoughts as laws exploded to criminalize vast new areas of social life. Today there are 4,000 federal laws elaborated by 300,000 national regulations with thousands more at the state and local levels. Even lawyers do not know the law outside their own narrow field. Most of the additions were for nonviolent offenses, now representing 90 percent of federal prisoners. Violent crimes such as murder, assault, robbery, rape, and battery are widely acknowledged as the most serious, with the guilty being rightly placed where they cannot hurt society again. But imprisonment for non-violent crime is another matter—especially considering that a 2009 Associated Press study found that 60,000 inmates were sexually assaulted that year. Read More…

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , , . 23 comments

Global Slavery Index: Measuring Millions

Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves and well-known human trafficking expert, first estimated there to be 27 million slaves worldwide. This was an approximation offered in his 1999 book Disposable People. Since then, the topic of human trafficking has garnered international attention—yet for the past 14 years, the estimated number of slaves worldwide rested at Bales’ original approximation. But now, with a team of researchers at the Walk Free Foundation, Bales has introduced a new number: 29.8 million. The new “Global Slavery Index 2013” seeks to measure international slavery and human trafficking, and to provide informational tools for institutions fighting the problem.

Two potential weaknesses of such a report lie in its definition (how broad or specific it is, how easy to measure) and its methodology: how does one measure the global population of slaves worldwide, when slavery is an illegal and clandestine activity? The report’s authors explain their methodology, which focused primarily on secondary collection (via both governmental and non-governmental reports) and representative random sample surveys. Nick Grono, CEO of the Walk Free Foundation, told The Guardian, “Measuring a hidden crime is very challenging, but there are efforts to measure domestic abuse and drug trafficking. A lot of it boils down to taking the best data on reported issues and then looking at the scale of the unreported or ‘dark’ problems.”

The index’s definition of slavery and human trafficking has received some skepticism. Bridget Anderson, Deputy Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society at Oxford, told The Guardian this report gathers “unjust situations” around the world and labels them as “slavery.” “You have a definitional problem, everything depends on the definition and if you use tricky words like ‘forced’, you are already straying into difficult territory,” she said. Here is an excerpt from the report’s definition section:

In 2013, modern slavery takes many forms, and is known by many names. Whether it is called human trafficking, forced labour, slavery or slavery-like practices (a category that includes debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, sale or exploitation of children including in armed conflict) victims of modern slavery have their freedom denied, and are used and controlled and exploited by another person for profit, sex, or the thrill of domination … The chains of modern slavery are not always physical – sometimes escalating debts, intimidation, deception, isolation, fear or even a ‘marriage’ that is forced on a young woman or girl without her consent can be used to hold a person against their will without the need for locks or chains.

One can see Anderson’s point. Not only does this definition include a plethora of hidden, illegal criminality—it also includes criminality across a broad variety of platforms: the trafficking of persons across borders, private commercial labor, sex slavery, child soldier kidnappings, and forced marriages. Also, from reading Bales’ books and a variety of other books on the subject, I have learned “coercive labor” situations often do involve pay. But they involve pay in ridiculously minuscule amounts, offset by mountains of employer-determined debt. Thus, the “bondage” described is of a tricky and hidden nature.

The report’s definition is not necessarily wrong. It is good to have some broad (albeit sketchy) statistics on the issue. But Grono himself admitted “the data is not that strong; we want to be open about this. If a government says they don’t agree [with the data], we will say great, let’s work with a national statistics office to do a study across the country to try and analyse the scale of the problem.”

While child and forced marriage are awful human rights abuses, should they be included in the Global Slavery Index? Perhaps so—but consider, we now have a conglomeration of commercial, domestic, and sexual exploitation in the same dataset. How does one begin to parse a number so large? The index’s inclusion of basic law information for the top 10 worst countries in the index could be helpful—if one fights trafficking in Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan or India. But this is a limited contribution.

This is not meant to be harsh—the report’s authors are working for a noble cause. But one hopes they can improve the index with time. Perhaps a next step would be to specify data according to definitional groupings. What if one was to apportion the numbers for each nation according to commercial, domestic, and sexual slavery (perhaps another category for child soldiers, as well)? It would require more work, of course, but this division would allow for more practical data offerings. 29.8 million is a horrid and shocking number. But it is also, unfortunately, a rather useless one at this point.


Posted in , , , , . Tagged , , , , . 4 comments

Obama’s Odd Theory of ‘Creeping Resignation’ Over Gun Violence

Secretary of Defense / Flickr.com

Secretary of Defense / Flickr.com

From the New York Times report on President Obama’s speech at the memorial service for the 12 victims of last week’s mass shooting at Washington’s Navy Yard:

The question is not, he said, “whether as Americans we care in moments of tragedy. Clearly we care. Our hearts are broken again. The question is do we care enough?”

“It ought to be a shock to all of us, as a nation and a people,” he said. “It ought to obsess us. It ought to lead to some sort of transformation.”

I’ll admit it: after absorbing the facts about Aaron Alexis—he passed two background checks and legally purchased a gun; his job as a military contractor had furnished him with secret-level clearance to enter the Southeast D.C. installation—I did feel something like a sense of resignation: While the red flags look obvious in hindsight, this one would’ve been hard to prevent.

Yet this is not to say that I, or anyone else who reacted as I did to this terrible tragedy, am “resigned” to gun violence in general. It strikes me as curious that President Obama would lament a lack of hysteria over violent crime. (And despite the shocking nature and national trauma of mass shootings, they are a subspecies of violent crime.) This is a man whose party suffered nationally for years due to law-and-order Republican politicking. Concern over violent crime, the stoking of fear of violent crime, used to be a big winner for the GOP—that is, until crime rates did this crazy thing throughout the ’90s and steadily declined.

In fact, they’re still declining—despite the economic downturn of recent years. Gun violence, in particular, is down sharply since 1993. Indeed, the Washington Post reports: “Before last Monday’s mass killing at the Washington Navy Yard, the District’s homicide count was about on pace with 2012, a year that ended with 88 slayings, the fewest in a half-century.”

Could more have been done, institutionally, to prevent the Navy Yard massacre? Absolutely. I’m open to establishing a universal federal background check in the fashion described here. But it would be an odd thing indeed if Americans were in a panic over a threat that is, empirically speaking, gradually subsiding.

That’s not “creeping resignation.”

It’s realism.

Posted in , , , . Tagged , . 14 comments

Shut It Down, Mr. President

Trayvon Martin was an unarmed teenager walking home from a convenience store with Skittles and iced tea, when he was shot to death by a racist, profiling wannabe cop named George Zimmerman.

In the Big Media, which has relentlessly sought out the voices of those most incensed by the verdict in Sanford, Fla., that is how the Saga of Trayvon Martin is being told. And from listening to TV reports of the rage across black America, that is what is widely believed there.

But is that what happened? Well, not exactly.

Trayvon Martin was not shot while walking home.

He was shot after sucker-punching George Zimmerman, breaking his nose, knocking him down, jumping on top of him, beating him martial arts style and banging his head on a concrete walk, while Zimmerman screamed again and again, “Help me, help me.”

This is what George Zimmerman said happened.

It is what the sole eyewitness to the fight, John Good, says happened. It is what Sanford police believed.

It is what the defense proved beyond a reasonable doubt. It is what that jury of six women came to believe.

Why, then, do so many in the black community believe Trayvon was profiled and murdered, when even most of the analysts on the cable news shows were saying in the last days of the trial that the prosecution had failed completely to make its case?

Answer: Many had convicted George Zimmerman in their hearts before the trial began. Here, as this writer noted a year ago, are some of the voices that had declared Zimmerman guilty of murder before a witness had been called.

“Blacks are under attack,” railed Jesse Jackson. “Killing us is big business.” Trayvon was “shot down in cold blood by a vigilante … murdered and martyred.”

“A hate crime,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said Trayvon had been “executed.”

The Grio compared his killing to the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. The New Black Panther Party put Zimmerman’s face on a “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster, called for 5,000 black men to run him down and said Trayvon had been “murdered in cold blood.”

Spike Lee twittered Zimmerman’s home address.

And President Obama? Did he calm the waters? Hardly. He signaled whose side he was on. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” he said.

Not only did they all inflame the black community into believing a racist atrocity had occurred, others still do so, even after the weeks of testimony that raised far more than a reasonable doubt.

Read More…

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , . 45 comments

Prison Reform a Model of Conservative Reform?

Richard Viguerie had an outstanding op-ed yesterday in the New York Times on the conservative case for prison reform.

An excerpt:

Conservatives known for being tough on crime should now be equally tough on failed, too-expensive criminal programs. They should demand more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety and the well-being of all Americans. …

In the past several years, there has been a dramatic shift on crime and punishment policy across the country. It really started in Texas in 2007. The state said no to building eight more prisons and began to shift nonviolent offenders from state prison into alternatives, by strengthening probation and parole supervision and treatment. Texas was able to avert nearly $2 billion in projected corrections spending increases, and its crime rate is declining. At the same time, the state’s parole failures have dropped by 39 percent. …

By confronting this issue head on, conservatives are showing that our principles lead to practical solutions that make government less costly and more effective. We need to do more of that.

Viguerie is exactly right here, and he offers a template for talking about policy that all conservatives, not just the fledgling reform movement, can agree on. “Compassion” doesn’t have to mean spending more money; it can mean saving money (which, to be sure, often means the elimination of waste-driven jobs). Getting government “out of the way” is not the end of the conversation; local governments and communities may have to remain “in the way.” Liberals don’t—or shouldn’t—have a monopoly on ideas that materially improve people’s lives.

And here’s the kicker: It’s okay for politicians to promise to improve people’s lives—especially the unfortunate and disadvantaged.

Here’s hoping more conservatives will follow Viguerie’s lead and begin to apply this template to issues like healthcare and tax reform.


Posted in , , , . Tagged . One comment

Rand Paul Learns to Love the Drug War?

Yesterday’s Post carried this story on Senator Rand Paul’s attempts to reach out to the evangelical community, and carried this choice, heretical-by-libertarian-standards, quote:

In an interview a day before his Iowa trip, Paul, 50, also tried to make clear just what kind of politician he is. “To some, ‘libertarian’ scares people,” he said. “Some of them come up to me and they say, ‘I kind of like you, but I don’t like legalizing heroin.’ And I say, ‘Well, that’s not my position.’ ”

Paul said he believes in freedom and wants a “virtuous society” where people practice “self-restraint.” Yet he believes in laws and limits as well. Instead of advocating for legalized drugs, for example, he pushes for reduced penalties for many drug offenses.

“I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” he said. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The evangelicals, at least according to the story, seem to be buying it:

[Pastor Brad] Sherman got that chance Friday when he joined other clergy members at the Cedar Rapids lunch to pose pointed questions to Paul. He said he came away liking what he heard. “He made it very clear that he does not support legalization of drugs like marijuana and that he supports traditional marriage,” Sherman said.

Not so much the libertarians, if Reason’s take (“I can’t help but wonder how Paul would be different from any other Republican president”) and my Facebook feed are any indication. Just like the flap over his position on drones, the outrage seems to be over a less elegant statement of the same position he’s held the whole time. Fair is fair, of course, and it’s entirely reasonable to take a politician at his word, but I have two thoughts.

First, many of the people now denouncing Paul for not wanting to end the drug war also share a sense that he’s concealing his radicalism. Second, assuming Rand Paul were to run in 2016, it’s highly likely that he’ll come out in favor of marijuana legalization, which a majority of voters now support—my guess would be by endorsing state-level initiatives rather than saying he’ll reschedule it at the federal level—but that probably won’t happen until he gets the nomination.

Comments made in the context of buttering up religious-right leaders shouldn’t be overinterpreted, especially given the American Family Association’s signal that they wouldn’t fight Paul on the marijuana issue. And there’s reason to doubt the assumption that the social conservative position is to favor an endless, wasteful drug war that is anything but Christian. Among religious leaders there’s more consensus about its failure than ever before, but radicalism isn’t going to get them to warm up to reform.

It’s also worth mentioning Rand’s carte blanche states’ rights position isn’t very different from his father’s, who, in the GOP presidential debate, didn’t actually say he’d legalize heroin, but that he’d leave it to the states. Despite some sloppy AP reporting to the contrary, the younger Paul believes basically the same thing; it works as rhetorical cover. I guess I part with a lot of libertarians in thinking it’s wise for him to be using it for the time being.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 17 comments
← Older posts