Archive: Oct 2010

Flopped. That is what the men in prison call it when they go in front of the parole board and get back a disappointing decision. Essentially, the board defers a decision but the men will be allowed to petition and be heard again in 2-10 years.

In July, I wrote about my day with the parole board where I observed two “Murder Review” hearings.   As I wrote then, the stated purpose of such hearings is to:  ”determine whether or not the inmate is likely to be rehabilitated within a reasonable period of time so that the offender’s sentence may be converted to life with the possibility of parole, post-prison supervision, or work release.”

To give a quick summary, the cases I sat in on were both for aggravated murder; the question was whether the convicted men could prove themselves “rehabilitatable” so that they might have the possibility of parole at a future date.

The first man presented over 100 pages of records, proof, and testimony that he has worked hard in his 20-years in prison to change and grow.  He has “programmed” persistently and thoroughly, participating in many educational and cognitive courses and experiences over the years.  His crime was a truly horrifying case of domestic violence – there really is no excuse for that crime and no making up for it, and the man acknowledges that.  Members of the victim’s family came to testify at the hearing, and their grief and pain was readily apparent.  They fear his possible release 10 or more years in the future, and they hope that he will serve natural life in prison.   The district attorney who attended the hearing called this man “a monster” and also asked that he be found “not likely to be rehabilitated in a reasonable amount of time.”

Three months later, the decision is in and the man was flopped.  He can petition to go in front of the parole board to attempt to prove himself “rehabilitatable” again in two years.  I’m told it could have been worse; he could have been flopped for 10 years.

He has about 9 years left on the mandatory part of his sentence, so he had no hope of getting out any time soon.  But I’m left to wonder, what does it do to one’s psyche when you are told you are not rehabilitatable and given a list of reasons why the parole board believes that is the case.   It’s hard to imagine a more negative label.

The man just got the decision from the parole board this week and he is still processing it.  He’s trying to figure out what more he could have done and what more he can do over the next years to prove himself worthy of the possibility of a second chance.  I don’t know what it will take for him to get a more favorable decision; it’s obviously difficult to prove and judge change and possibility.  I am very glad that I was simply an observer in this process.   I would hate to have to go in front of a board every 2 years to prove my possible future worth or to have to sit in judgment on someone else’s.

Poker-themed t-shirts available from Lush T Shirts.

Marc Jenkins gave a terrific lecture titled “How the Immune System Remembers Infections” this week. As a sociological criminologist, I’ve long been fascinated by immunology and its connection to the social organicism of Spencer, Durkheim and others. The immune system wondrously learns to quickly recognize and neutralize pathogens in the body, even as the pathogens quickly evolve and adapt to overcome the immune system. He used this trunk monkey* video to introduce immune functioning (body=car; pathogen=thief):

By analogy, some argue that communities exercise social control in the same way. One hears such analogies when people describe how a social group is brought down by a nefarious “virus” or “cancer.”  For example, when the Patriots traded Randy Moss to the Vikings, a commentator was asked whether Patriots Coach Bill Belichek considered him a “cancer” in the locker room (“more like a polyp,” was the clever response). Such social organicism can be carried way too far, of course, perhaps even to genocide.

More positively, I’d compare immune response to the sort of rapidly mobilizing and self-sustaining resistance that a good school might develop in response to, say, a sudden rash of fights breaking out at the Friday night football games. The destructive behavior can either take root or it can be brought under control pretty quickly, once the fans in the bleachers learn to recognize and take the collective responsibility to stop it.

Professor Jenkins closed with another video, and I couldn’t help but identify with the host’s completely ineffectual efforts to ward off the pathogen in this one. Reminds me to boost the ol’ immune system before winter hits….

* No, that doesn’t look like an actual “monkey” to me either, but “trunk monkey” makes for a clever name.

In a few weeks, California voters will consider Proposition 19 — The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. This measure (1) legalizes various marijuana-related activities, (2) allows local governments to regulate these activities, (3) permits local governments to impose and collect marijuana-related fees and taxes, and (4) authorizes various criminal and civil penalties. As the national Gallup data indicate below, support for marijuana legalization has risen dramatically over the past quarter century, to the point where such ballot referenda now have a strong chance of passage in states like California.

I’ve gotten a few calls on the subject and wish I knew more about it. At this point, I defer to my California colleagues because I simply do not feel sufficiently informed or qualified to render an opinion as either an expert or a private citizen on this issue. But I do know this: should Proposition 19 pass, it would likely portend a Very Big Change in past practices and policies with respect to marijuana. Some excellent researchers at the RAND Drug Policy Research Center (Beau Kilmer, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Robert J. MacCoun, Peter H. Reuter) have made heroic efforts to model the likely effects of such a Very Big Change, based on estimates of current and future consumption, likely price changes, taxes levied and evaded, and nonprice effects (such as a change in stigma), but they acknowledge that we are in uncharted waters. Their best guess? 

(1) the pretax retail price of marijuana will substantially decline, likely by more than 80 percent. The price the consumers face will depend heavily on taxes, the structure of the regulatory regime, and how taxes and regulations are enforced;
(2) consumption will increase, but it is unclear how much, because we know neither the shape of the demand curve nor the level of tax evasion (which reduces revenues and prices that consumers face);
(3) tax revenues could be dramatically lower or higher than the $1.4 billion estimate provided by the California Board of Equalization (BOE); for example, uncertainty about the federal response to California legalization can swing estimates in either direction;
(4) previous studies find that the annual costs of enforcing marijuana laws in California range from around $200 million to nearly $1.9 billion; our estimates show that the costs are probably less than $300 million; and
(5) there is considerable uncertainty about the impact of legalizing marijuana in California on public budgets and consumption, with even minor changes in assumptions leading to major differences in outcomes.

So, marijuana will become significantly cheaper in California, but we cannot tell for certain whether the increase in consumption will be correspondingly large (say, to the peak marijuana levels of the late-1970s).  We also can’t say for sure how much will be collected or evaded in taxes, saved or spent on treatment and law enforcement, or how neighboring states and the federal government will respond. The RAND report is helpful in showing both the kinds of factors to be considered before casting one’s ballot and the limits of our current knowledge base.

On balance, will we be better off or worse off in a post-Prop. 19 world? At this point, responsible experts, including  the RAND team, are pointing to an unusually large gap between the change voters must consider and our knowledge about its likely impact.  Call me gutless, but under such conditions my personal preference would be for a gradual phase-in and limited pilot period before attempting to flip such a Very Big Switch in a state of 39 million people.