Last Saturday, George Zimmerman was acquitted of all state charges related to the death of Trayvon Martin. This marks the latest development in a saga that began on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. On that night, Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, fatally shot Martin after an altercation. Before shooting the teenager, Zimmerman had called the Sanford Police Department from his car to report that Martin was acting suspiciously. While speaking to 911 dispatchers, Zimmerman left his vehicle and got into a physical fight with Martin before shooting him in the chest from close range. In the days after the shooting, a media storm began to develop. Opponents of the shooting alleged that racial discrimination had played a role in the killing while supporters of Zimmerman insisted that he had merely acted in self-defense. Going along with this latter belief, the Sanford Police Department did not initially charge Zimmerman with any type of crime. Public outrage soon led to a special prosecutor being assigned to the case and, in April of 2012, Zimmerman was charged with murder in the second degree.
In a previous post, I addressed the concerns this case brings up with self-defense and the laws that are meant to protect it. Another issue of this case, of course, has to do with race and the role that it may have played in the death of Martin and the charges against Zimmerman. While the prosecution suggested that Martin’s being African American may have encouraged Zimmerman to racially profile the teen, the defense balked at such an accusation. On Monday, one of the jurors went on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” to talk about the trial. In the interview, the juror revealed that race played no role in the jury’s decision. In fact, she contended that the jury did not even address race when discussing the case. Defending Zimmerman, she argued that “If there was another person, Spanish, white, Asian; if they came in the same situation as Trayvon did, I think George would have reacted the same way.”
Others involved with the trial, however, felt differently. Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s who was speaking to him on a cell phone moments before he died, believes that race was an important factor in the shooting. Speaking with CNN’s Piers Morgan after the jury’s verdict, Jeantel proposed a scenario: “If he were white, if Trayvon was white and he had a hoodie on, what would happen?” During the trial, Jeantel took the stand as a star witness for the prosecution. Despite her important role in the trial, some claim that her testimony itself may have been marred by racial tensions as the young African American woman sparred with Zimmerman’s white attorneys. In the media, these exchanges led some to question the intelligence and ability of Jeantel. As she told Morgan after the trial, such concerns gave her a feeling that the jury would come back with a not-guilty verdict.
On the other side of the case, Zimmerman’s attorneys also contend that race played a role in the case. If anything, they say that it mattered in that it hurt their client. Mark O’Mara—a co-attorney for Zimmerman—spoke to journalists after the jury returned its verdict. Had Zimmerman been black, O’Mara insisted, “He never would have been charged with a crime.” His client, the attorney continued, was treated as a scapegoat for those wishing to make Martin’s death a civil right violation. In this sense, O’Mara views Zimmerman as the real victim of racial profiling.
So, thinking about the Zimmerman case, what role do you think race played? Did it impact the initial altercation, the state’s decision to press charges, the jury’s verdict? What about the bigger picture, the current role of race in America. Is racism improving or is it merely becoming more subtle? Do possible civil rights violations get treated appropriately or does the justice system sometimes scapegoat offenders? The Zimmeran trial was a complex case played out on the national stage, but what are its bigger implications for race relations in the US? What do you think?
Chronic conditions are health conditions that have lasted or are expected to last twelve or more months and result in functional limitations and/or the need for continuous medical care (Hwang et al. 2001). In a recent study using data from the 2005 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, Paez, Zhao, and Hwang (2009) found that 43.8 percent of non-institutionalized civilians in the U.S. live with one or more chronic conditions. Among adults, it was found that hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and diabetes are the most common chronic diseases. The data further indicated that the likelihood of having a chronic condition increases with age. Non-Hispanics were found to be more likely to report a chronic condition than Hispanics, whites were found to be more likely to report a chronic condition than other racial groups, and females were found to be more likely to report a chronic condition than males. The associations between having a chronic disease and ethnicity, race, and sex were found by Paez, Zhou, and Hwang to exist even after controlling for age. A comparison of the 2005 data to 1996 data suggests that the prevalence of multiple chronic conditions is on the rise in the U.S.
The growing concern with chronic conditions is not, however, limited to those in the general public. The correctional system, too, is increasingly feeling the impact (Lindquist and Lindquist 1999). Somewhat surprisingly, the research community has only recently begun to systematically study the chronic conditions of U.S. prison inmates (Wilper et al. 2009; Binswanger, Krueger, and Steiner 2009). This is partially because national surveys that track the health of Americans typically exclude those individuals who reside in institutions. While it is generally known that inmates have high levels of chronic medical conditions as well as high rates of substance abuse and mental issues (Freudenberg 2001, National Commission on Correctional Health Care 2002), studies evaluating the prevalence of chronic conditions in prisons are relatively new to the field.
When it comes to what we do know about inmate health, a gloomy picture is often painted. Due to circumstances that occur before, during, and after incarceration, prisoners are often at an increased risk for poor health outcomes (Binswanger, Krueger, and Steiner 2009). Compared to the general public, the prison population is more likely to have experienced disadvantaged backgrounds; to have low levels of education; to have a history of smoking, drinking, and illegal drug use; to have poor nutrition and limited physical activity; to have mental health and neurological disorders; to have been exposed to infectious diseases; to have high levels of stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and depression; and, to have low levels of self-efficacy (Condon, Gill, and Harris 2007; Mumola 1999; Massoglia 2008; Fazel and Danesh 2002; Baillargeon and Black 2000). Studies have further found that released prisoners often have worse health and higher risks for death than those in the general public. Such findings indicate that the existence of chronic condition may be higher in inmate populations than amongst the general public (Binswanger et al. 2007; Farrell 2008; Loeb and AbuDagga 2006).
And, in fact, recent research does suggest that chronic conditions are more prevalent in prisons than in the outside world. Binswanger, Krueger, and Steiner (2009) quantified the difference in the occurrence of major medical conditions among inmates within the non-institutionalized U.S. adult population. After running their analyses, it was found that chronic medical conditions were more common in the prison inmate population than in the general population. Even after controlling for various sociodemographic factors and alcohol consumption, prison inmates were found to be more likely to suffer from hypertension, arthritis, asthma, cancer, and hepatitis. Similarly, Wilper et al. (2009) also evaluated inmate health. Results of their research indicated that of the over 1.35 million state and federal inmates in their study, over 570,000 inmates reported suffering from at least one chronic health condition. Age-standardized prevalence estimates found that these inmates had higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, myocardial infarction, persistent asthma, and HIV than the general U.S. population.
As Binswanger, Krueger, and Steiner (2009) as well as Wilper et al. (2009) attest, we need to learn more about prison populations if we are to properly address this group’s growing needs. Considering that chronic conditions and morbidity are often only treated post-release, Binswanger, Krueger, and Steiner suggest that correctional centers should become more involved in local and national health quality improvement efforts. Wilper et al. further note that better managing inmates’ chronic health conditions is crucial for community health since, in the vast majority of cases, inmates are eventually released. Addressing such issues is further expected to assist in the reintegration of former prisoners back into family and employment roles. To achieve these goals, the researchers compiled a variety of recommendations including decreasing incarceration rates, making health care systems in prison nonprofit and autonomous from prison authorities, increasing communicable disease education, prevention, and treatment, providing targeted cancer screening, maintaining Medicaid eligibility for inmates, and improving the planning of inmates’ discharge and facilitating their reintegration into the community.
Considering such recommendations, what do you think? Will the U.S. become better at addressing the health concerns of its prison population? What could be done to attend to the fact that so many people in the prison system suffer from health problems? And, what does the poor health of this population suggest on a broader, deeper level? What do you think?
In May of 1985, 15-year-old Paula Cooper and three of her friends decided to steal some money. After drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, the group of teenage girls went to the home of Ruth Pelke in Gary, Indiana. At 78, Pelke was no match for the teens who gained entrance to the house after proclaiming their interest in receiving Bible lessons. Pelke was attacked and died after Cooper hit her with a vase, cut her legs and arms, and then proceeded to stab her in the chest and stomach 33 times. The teens then ransacked the home and stole Pelke’s car before being caught by police. Following her arrest and conviction, Cooper was sentenced to the death penalty. At 16, this made her the youngest person on death row in the United States. While the story could have ended here, it did not. Over two million people, including Pope John Paul II, would cite Cooper’s young age at the time of the crime to argue that her sentence should be reduced. But it was Bill Pelke, Ruth Pelke’s grandson, who was perhaps the most surprising advocate for Cooper. Saying that Ruth would have wanted him to feel love and compassion for someone like Paula Cooper, Bill Pelke would eventually form a friendship with his grandmother’s killer. Following an intervention by the Indiana Supreme Court, Paula Cooper would go on to be released from prison on June 17th, 2013.
While Bill Pelke’s ability to start a positive relationship with Cooper may seem astounding, it is but one example of restorative justice (RJ). Essentially, RJ is the idea that victims and offenders need to come together and talk about what happened in an effort to achieve peace and restoration (Walker 2013). Rather than being a new way to deal with crime, restorative justice was actually a common way for handling offenses in the pre-modern era (Braithwaite 1999; Walker 2013). Over time, however, crimes in the West became increasingly regarded as issues solely between the state and the offender. Somehow, victims were more and more excluded from the entire process. Things began to change, however, once Howard Zehr stumbled upon the benefits of what he called “victim-offender reconciliation” in the late 1970s. In the years that have followed, Zehr’s adovcacy has helped RJ to pick up steam as an alternative to a retribution-focused response to crime.
When it comes to defining RJ in modern times, it seems as if the only consensus is that there is no consistent definition (Walker 2013). In his attempt to define the concept, Braithwaite (2004:28) writes that “restorative justice is a process where all the stakeholders affected by an injustice have an opportunity to discuss how they have been affected by the injustice and to decide what should be done to repair the harm.” In other words, since crime hurts, it should also have a chance to repair the damage that it has caused. Beyond attempting to restore the victim and the community to their pre-crime conditions, RJ is also concerned with assigning to the offender active responsibility as opposed to assigning passive responsibility. This means that rather than being told they committed a crime and then being punished for their indiscretions, offenders are asked to acknowledge their crime and attempt to atone for it. From this viewpoint, RJ may be understood to be a third option beyond conservative retribution and liberal rehabilitation. It is essentially an attempt to provide restoration to victims, communities, and offenders.
As for Paula Cooper and Bill Pelke, Pelke says that he now wants to help the former death row inmate readjust to the free world. He plans on meeting with her in the upcoming days to take her shopping for her new life. Realizing that Cooper made a grave mistake back in 1985 that she would certainly take back if she could, Pelke wants to see Cooper help at-risk youths avoid the pitfalls that forever altered her life.
So, considering the unlikely friendship between Cooper and Pelke, what does this relationship have to say about the power of restorative justice? Was this story unique or does restorative justice really have the potential to bring forgiveness and understanding to even the most heinous of crimes? Does RJ deserve a bigger role in our criminal justice system? Why or why not? What do you think?
A one-time mogul of cable television, John Rigas found himself sentenced to 12 years in federal prison following his convictions for bank fraud and securities fraud. His company, Adelphia Communications Corporation, had been the fifth largest cable company in the U.S. before it filed for bankruptcy in 2002 following allegations of internal corruption. The collapse of Adelphia and the subsequent conviction of its founder represented a monumental fall from grace. Rigas had started Adelphia in 1952 while he was still in his late twenties. At his sentencing in 2005, Rigas was 80-years-old. Leaving behind his previous life of luxury, Rigas was about to become an octogenarian living behind bars.
While Rigas’ case certainly garnered much media attention, his story is illustrative of more than just greed and dishonesty in corporate America. His story also helps to highlight the problems associated with the aging prison population in the U.S. As a recent Human Rights Watch report highlighted, aging inmates are now the fastest growing subset of the prison population in the United States. From 2007 to 2010, the number of prisoners aged 65 and older increased 94 times faster than the rest of the prison population. Furthermore, whereas the number of state and federal prisoners almost tripled from 1982 to 2006, the number of inmates aged 55 and older more than quadrupled (Williams, Sudore, and Greifinger, and Morrison 2011).
Because of the aging of America’s prison population, prison officials are finding it increasingly challenging to provide adequate housing and medical needs. Health care costs are becoming especially worrisome. Williams et al. (2011) found, for instance, that the costs of imprisoning the approximately 80,000 inmates aged 55 and older in the U.S. is nearly three times as much as it is to imprison younger inmates. Much of this difference, the researchers noted, is related to health care expenditures. Part of these expenses can be blamed on the fact that prisoners are generally in poorer health than their counterparts in the free world. As an illustration, Binswanger, Krueger, and Steiner (2009) found that even after controlling for important sociodemographic variables and alcohol consumption inmates were more likely to suffer from chronic medical conditions than those in the general population. Such findings thus suggest that older inmates can oftentimes be expected to experience chronic, disabling, and terminal conditions sooner than other members of their age cohort.
Unfortunately, the problems associated with caring for an aging prison population are not likely to be allayed any time soon. As the Human Rights Watch report notes, “tough on crime” policies including lengthy mandatory minimum sentences and reduced opportunities for parole mean that many older prisoners will remain locked up even after they become too old and too infirmed to threaten public safety. In response, the report suggests that the U.S. needs to alter its policies so as to reduce the number of older inmates who do not threaten public safety, develop realistic plans for the housing needs, medical needs, and programming needs of older prisoners, and modify prison rules so as to mitigate unnecessary hardships on older inmates.
As for Rigas, he remains in prison as he approaches his 90th birthday. Although he has served over half of his sentence, it seems somewhat unlikely that he will live long enough to fully complete his prison term. His prospects seem particularly dim considering that he has already battled cancer and had triple-bypass heart surgery. But, beyond Rigas’ story vividly demonstrating the dangers of law breaking, what else can be learned from his mistakes? For one, his downfall seems to emphasize the need for the U.S. to find ways to divert older people from the prison system when possible and to better accommodate those older people who are incarcerated. While coming up with better policies for older offenders should lead to more humane living conditions and (hopefully) financial savings for prisons, such policies will also involve considerable debate and decision making. So, considering these issues, what suggestions do you have for dealing with the graying of America’s prisons? What do you think?
In a post from last July, I wrote about Patricia Spottedcrow. In January of 2010, when she was 24-years-old, Spottedcrow was arrested for selling $31 worth of marijuana to a police informant at her residence in Kingfisher County, Oklahoma. Although she had no prior criminal record and the amount of marijuana sold was small, Spottedcrow was sentenced to 12 years in prison and assessed approximately $2,740 in fines. Following public outcry, the governor approved the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation for parole. Spottedcrow was released from prison in November of 2012.
With this earlier post, I used Spottedcrow’s case as an illustration of Oklahoma’s long history of being overly punitive, especially against women. The state with the largest female prison population per capita, Oklahoma incarcerates nearly twice as many women as the national average (134 per 100,000 female residents in Oklahoma vs. 69 per 100,000 female residents in the U.S.). Considering the relatively low recidivism rate of women released from prisons in Oklahoma as well as the state’s emphasis on fiscal conservatism and family values, I questioned why Oklahoma elects to incarcerate so many of its women. In an attempt to answer this question, I proposed that Chesney-Lind’s (2006) idea of “vengeful equality” could be at work in the state. Essentially, vengeful equality supports the notion that “bad” females deserve to be treated the same—if not worse—as “bad” males. By seeing the world through this mindset, I contended, it becomes easier to understand why states like Oklahoma have such a penchant for punishing law-breaking women.
When recently thinking back on Spottedcrow’s story and how Oklahoma treats its female offenders, I began to better appreciate the importance of the factors that lead to females offending in the first place. As many feminist criminologists have argued, one factor that prominently predicts crime involvement for females is having a history of maltreatment. Consider sexual abuse, for instance. Compared to men, women have been found to be much more likely to report being sexually abused at some point in their lives (Gaarder and Belknap 2002). For those females who experience sexual abuse early in life, research suggests that they are at risk for dealing with their experiences in ways that can bring about a host of new problems. For minor females without the skills and resources needed to cope with their traumas, they are in danger of running away from home and consequently being exposed to violence, delinquent peers, and drugs on the street (Chesney-Lind and Shelden 2004). If caught, run-away females further risk being returned to an abusive home or being placed in a juvenile detention facility. Adult female victims of sexual abuse have likewise been found to be more likely to be involved in deviant behaviors and to have higher levels of strain than those women who were not sexually abused as children (Mullen et al. 1996). As Agnew (2006) notes, exposure to chronic strain, negative emotionality, and low levels of constraint may even allow deviance to become a desired lifestyle. In fact, the feminist pathways perspective contends that there is a link between early abuse and offending later in life (Widom and Maxfield 2001).
As can probably be surmised, then, females involved in the criminal justice system often arrive after experiencing abuse. In a recent study, Sharp (forthcoming) looked at the frequency of adverse childhood experiences for women prisoners in Oklahoma. She found that while about 21% of women from the general population reported experiencing sexual abuse as a child, well over half (56.1%) of the women in Oklahoma prisons reported such abuse. Other forms of childhood abuse and childhood neglect provided similar findings. For emotional abuse, 11% of the general public reported experiencing it in childhood versus 64.5% for the sample of women prisoners; for physical abuse, 28% of the general public reported it compared to 49.8% of the prison population; for emotional abuse, it was 15% for the public and 69.4% for the inmates; and, lastly, for physical neglect, 10% of women in the general public reported experiencing it in childhood versus 46.5% for the sample of women prisoners. Consistent with the feminist pathways perspective, females who report being mistreated in childhood are seemingly far more likely to end up in prison.
So, what does this mean? To me, the most important implication is that female victims of childhood maltreatment are often unable to acquire the types of assistance that they need to cope with their traumas. When they do not receive the appropriate level of help, these victims are at risk for developing mental health problems and/or substance abuse addictions that may then increase their likelihood of future criminal offending. As such, it seems essential (1) to work towards eliminating childhood abuse and neglect and (2) to provide child victims of maltreatment the assistance and services they need to become successful survivors. In the midst of budget crunches and political fighting, however, reaching these goals can seem rather elusive. Considering such obstacles, what are some practical approaches that we can use to prevent childhood maltreatment and to help child victims of maltreatment? What do you think?
In Julia Serano’s (2007) Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, the author writes about transsexuality. In particular, she writes about living as a trans woman in today’s society, the immense challenges faced by those in the trans community, and the inability of femininity to rise above the inferior status placed upon it by masculinity. Beyond explaining transsexuality to the reader and detailing the fallacious stereotypes that are often used against trans people, Serano separates herself from others in the field by carefully and smartly noting how the negative perceptions afforded to trans women illustrate the wide-range of misogynistic and pro-masculine attitudes that are still held in American culture. She explains that the preference for trans men over trans women is but one example of our society’s preference for masculinity over femininity. From her unique perspective, however, Serano sees trans women as being in a distinctively powerful position because of their experiences with living as a male and as a female. Using her life story to vividly elucidate this and other ideas, the author is able to advocate for the strengths of transsexuality. Considering such an argument, I will use this this post to analyze Serano’s book by critically evaluating its strong and weak points.
In regards to the strong points of the book, there were certainly many ideas that stood out. Firstly, it seems important that this reading takes a unique approach to discussing transsexuality. That is, rather than simply writing about the nitty-gritty of sex reassignment surgery or supplying the reader with an autobiography, Serano writes a book that takes a hard look at the discrimination faced by MtF (male to female) individuals as well as our society’s preference for masculinity over femininity. By taking such a perspective, she is able to challenge traditional sexism (i.e., the belief that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity) as well as oppositional sexism (i.e., the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories). Secondly, it was essential for Serano to address the stereotypes of transsexuals, especially those stereotypes propagated by the media. The media plays a huge role in how the cissexual public (i.e., those whose sex and gender are aligned) sees trans people, and so it was crucial for her to talk about and dismiss many of the ideas put forth by misguided TV shows and films. Thirdly, I found it helpful that Serano made the connection between the resentment felt toward trans women and the existence of traditional and oppositional sexism in our society. If even self-proclaimed feminists can be viewed as being misogynistic based on how they treat trans women, then this suggests that we have only scratched the surface on achieving gender parity. Lastly, I liked that the author concluded her book by discussing one final topic: gender entitlement. Regarding gender entitlement as being the next roadblock to achieving gender and sexual freedom, Serano (2007:362) concludes her book be arguing that we need to challenge gender entitlement if we are to “take the next step toward a world where all people can choose their gender and sexualities at will, rather than feeling coerced by others.”
Despite these strong points, however, there were a few issues that I had with the book. Most noticeably, it was a lengthy read that sometimes seemed repetitive. Secondly, the author occasionally came of as very (if not understandably) angry. As an example, she strongly berated feminists, especially those who she viewed as espousing transphobic views. To her credit, though, Serano still seems to retain hope that feminism will come to fully realize that trans women are an ally in the fight against gender inequality. Lastly, she could sometimes be very dramatic. As an example, Serano (2007:273) writes the following: “When I was a child, I was sexually assaulted, but not by any particular person. It was my culture that had his way with me. And when he was through, he carved his name in my side so that I’d always have something to remember him by.” While I understand that Serano must feel great pain about her experiences with an intolerant society, I worry that such statements may be so unrestrained that they may discourage the reader from critically evaluating Serano’s bigger point.
As is probably evident, I had mixed feelings about this book. I liked that Serano took the topic of transsexuality somewhere that it rarely gets to go and that she challenged us to be more accepting of people who stand on the margins of society, but I also had issues with some of the directions that Serano chose to take. Still, this is but a cursory evaluation of Serano’s work, and I’m certain that there are many different opinions on the positive and negative aspects of Whipping Girl. In your opinion, what are the best parts of the book? What would you change, if anything? What has Serano’s work done to our understanding of transsexuality? What do you think?
In recent years, there has been a push for research to focus on prisoner reintegration. In response, researchers have begun investigating a number of important topics such as how to use theory to inform policy and practice, how to determine which prison programs work best to aid in reintegration, how to minimize the impact children face from having an incarcerated parent, how to acknowledge the important link that exists between sentencing and release, and how to take a holistic yet individualized approach when it comes to prisoner reentry. In this post, I will briefly summarize five recent research articles that deal with prisoner reintegration before briefly discussing which directions appear to be especially promising.
To begin, Bazemore and Stinchcomb (2004) take a community-based approach. More specifically, they contend that reentry often requires a commitment on the part of communities to weaken barriers, to develop pro-social identities of released people, and to provide them with informal social support. The authors suggest that the community can ease the reintegration process by embracing restorative justice principles, promoting civic community service, and allowing voting enfranchisement and democratic participation. As for Petersilia (2004), she is highly concerned with the programs that prisoners are offered. Although there is a paucity of valid research on reintegration, she suggests that we focus on those programs that appear to be most successful. She notes that such programs tend to be community-based, intensive, mostly concerned with high-risk offenders, embracive of cognitive-behavioral treatment techniques, and dedicated to matching therapists and programs to specific individuals. Travis (2005) challenges the criminal justice system to consider the impact of incarceration on parent-child relationships, childhood development, and families. Considering the challenges faced by children with incarcerated parents, he contends that we must offer multiple services and programs to help children, their families, and prisoners cope with their experiences. In another article, Travis (2007) applauds the recent efforts to improve the reentry process. While he is pleased with the progress that is being made, he also reminds us to consider the important yet often ignored linkage between sentencing and reentry. Lastly, Visher and Travis (2003) point out the influence of pre-prison circumstances, individual, family, and community influences, and state policies on the transition from prison to the community. According to these researchers, a holistic approach that is capable of considering the situations of specific individuals is needed to truly improve the reintegration process.
Each of these articles makes important contributions. Firstly, it seems so incredibly vital to realize the significance of the community on release. Even for those who receive community supervision post-release, this is not enough to ensure a successful transition. Not all communities are made alike, and only by adopting the suggestions espoused by scholars such as Bazemore and Stinchcomb can communities become more hospitable and therapeutic to those leaving the prison system. Secondly, several authors, especially Petersilia, have noted that there is a lack of research on prison programs. In order to learn what works and how to improve programs, we must be concerned with their evaluation. Calls for such research have certainly contributed to the current emphasis placed on evidence-based programming. Thirdly, it is crucial that—like with the community—we consider how the family is affected by incarceration and what can be done to alleviate the damage that it necessarily endures. Too often the challenges faced by the children of prisoners are ignored; it’s not their fault that their parents are sent behind bars, and so we need to be sensitive to their needs, especially since doing so will decrease the probability of these children following in their parents’ footsteps. Lastly, it is good that Visher and Travis push for us to take a holistic look on the factors the precede imprisonment and the factors that help to determine success post-release. Since all of these elements work together to determine who goes to prison and who stays out of prison, it seems foolish to not consider them collectively.
In all five of these articles, the authors are very much concerned with how we can increase the probability of a successful transition from prison to the community. That is, beyond merely looking at recidivism statistics, how can we help people leaving prison to become successful members of society? Obviously, this is a challenging question that has been a major topic of discussion in recent years. There is no simple answer, but it seems likely that these authors are all on the right track. I would, however, suggest that we go a step further. Like Travis, I believe that the factors that contribute to future imprisonment start to arise in childhood. So, while it is great to offer programs to people both during and after prison, it seems that we should really be concentrating our efforts on children long before they become involved in the criminal justice system. Helping to teach parents how to parent, offering free educational and daycare services to all children, and improving financial assistance to poor families would seem to be helpful endeavors. Really focusing on improving the life chances and life qualities of those kids with incarcerated parents may be especially fruitful. After all, if an ounce of prevention is really worth a pound of cure in the medical sense, then it would seem that doing so when it comes to preventing future social problems would make a lot of sense, too.
Over the past 400 years, the Western criminal justice system (CJS) has greatly evolved. Like virtually all social institutions, its evolution has been highly impacted by the wider social environment. Along with the arrival of new technologies, philosophies, and aspirations, the Western CJS has altered its policies and practices. One very important change that has taken place over the past few centuries has been the birth of the modern prison system. Strongly inspired by factors related to capitalism, the prison system has continuously oscillated between focusing on incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution. Beyond economic reasons, part of this fluctuation has taken place because of the West’s increasing desire to punish offenders mentally as opposed to physically as well as its vacillating theories regarding the true “nature of man.” In response to such ideas, it is important to consider exactly where and how the modern prison was born as well as what factors contributed to its creation.
The birth of the modern prison is traced by Foucault (1995) in his examination of discipline and punishment in the West. In this analysis, Foucault notes the strong influence of a location’s general environment on its criminal justice system. He explains, for instance, that industrial interests paired with Enlightenment-era ideas led to the creation of the French penal code of 1810. While some of the original goals of this instrumental code were to have punishment become less arbitrary and to act as a form of deterrence against law breaking, he notes that prison soon became a preferred method for dealing with a variety of offenses. In Foucault’s opinion, this coercive, corporal, solitary form of punishment was chosen over a more representative, signifying, and collective form of punishment because the former was much more amenable to elites than was the latter. That is, those with influence could directly benefit from the imprisonment of those with less power. And, in fact, members of the elite have become so effective at promoting incarceration that Foucault eventually came to see prisons as being immovable, natural-seeming fortresses that can only be changed, never removed.
Foucault’s ideas are certainly not lost on Shelden (2008). Like Foucault, Shelden is very much aware of the impact of a society’s economic structure on how it handles criminal justice. For him, capitalism has encouraged the growth of the prison population because of its financial incentives and its ability to contain the excess population, especially the “dangerous classes,” through state-sponsored social control. To support this contention, Shelden argues that prisons did not exist in the West before capitalism; rather, jails were merely used to temporarily house offenders. By the early days of capitalism, however, things began to change as offenders were increasingly likely to be imprisoned and forced to work in institutions such as workhouses. While some reformers called foul, little was done to separate the prison system from the influence of capitalism. Although mentally taxing and work-focused approaches like the Pennsylvania and Auburn systems were discarded, the reformatories that were adopted during the first half of the 19th century weren’t much better. Convict labor and convict leasing just became new ways to profit from prisoners. Even as the prison system moved away from reformatories, the role of prisons as warehouses for unneeded (and especially non-white) workers remained. In fact, the recent arrival of the crime control industry—particularly the advent of private prisons—encourages Shelden to contend that the CJS is now unabashedly cashing in on crime. Ultimately, the role of capitalism on the CJS leads Shelden (2008:304) to conclude that “literally thousands of businesses make huge profits off the misery of others. The blood of millions of victims drips from the rafters of Wall Street and all who profit.”
In sum, and as Foucault and Shelden both contend, it appears that capitalism has been instrumental on the Western criminal justice system. That is, the influence of those with power and moneyed interests has greatly impacted how we approach corrections. The crime control industry is but a clear example of the merging between punishment and profit. If anything, then, the development of the Western CJS over the past four centuries shows itself to be a testament to the power held by capitalism and capitalist elites in Western society. But, if this is true, what does this mean for the supposed fairness of our criminal justice system? Does capitalism really play the most important role? What other factors may matter? What do you think?
As explained by Walker (2013), modern restorative justice (RJ) began in the 1970s with the revitalization of the idea that victims and offenders need to come together and talk about what happened in an effort to achieve peace and (hopefully) restoration. While such a thought seems somewhat revolutionary in our day of overly punitive justice, RJ was the primary method used to handle offenses in pre-modern times. In fact, it was not until the Norman Conquest in 1066 that RJ was overcome by new techniques to deal with criminal events (Braithwaite 1999; Walker 2013). In the centuries that have passed since restorative justice was dismissed in much of the Western world, crimes have increasingly been regarded as an issue between the state and the offender. Somehow, the victim has been almost completely removed from the equation. In the late 1970s, however, Howard Zehr—who, at that time, worked as a director of a halfway house for recently released inmates in Indiana—stumbled upon the benefits of what he referred to as “victim-offender reconciliation.” Since that time, restorative justice (a term coined by psychologist Albert Eglash) has grown in popularity as it has become progressively more apparent that true restoration requires input from the offender as well as from the victim. While it may have taken nearly a thousand years for us to come back around to this idea, RJ is once again picking up steam as we attempt to overcome the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of our oft overly retribution-focused criminal justice system.
When it comes to defining RJ, it seems as if the only consensus is that there is no consistent definition (Walker 2013). In an attempt to broadly define the concept, Braithwaite (2004:28) writes that “restorative justice is a process where all the stakeholders affected by an injustice have an opportunity to discuss how they have been affected by the injustice and to decide what should be done to repair the harm.” That is, since crime hurts, it should also have a chance to heal. Beyond attempting to restore the victim and community to their pre-crime conditions, RJ is further concerned with assigning to the offender active responsibility as opposed to assigning passive responsibility. This means that rather than being told they committed a crime and then being punished for their indiscretions, offenders are asked to acknowledge their crime and attempt to atone for it. From this viewpoint, RJ may be understood to be a third option beyond conservative retribution and liberal rehabilitation. It is essentially an attempt to provide restoration to victims, communities, and offenders.
While coming from the same background as restorative justice, transformative justice (TJ) takes a bit of a bolder approach. Instead of simply seeking to restore the actors, TJ sets out to transform them for the better. As expressed by Wozniak (2008), TJ seeks to change the larger social structure as well as the personal structure of those involved. Realizing the unjustness of our current criminal justice system, transformative justice wants to be productive by providing victims with answers for why they were victimized, recognizing the wrong that has occurred, providing restitution, and restoring/establishing peace and security. Highly influenced by Richard Quinney and his writings regarding critical criminology and peacemaking criminology, TJ is aware of the injustices of the world as well as the need to spread peace. As Braithwaite (1999:2) explains, “Crime is an opportunity to prevent greater evils, to confront crime with a grace that transforms human lives to paths of love and giving.”
As for deciding which term is more appropriate (restorative justice vs. transformative justice), it is likely that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. This is because both concepts are essentially reaching for the same goal. Still, there is reason for debate. While TJ more plainly states its objective of achieving social-level and individual-level transformation, the less ambitious term restorative justice necessarily leads to questions regarding what we want to restore. If one poor neighbor steals from another poor neighbor, are we just seeking to restore the victim to his previous level of poverty? With the term transformative justice, it is more blatantly clear that we wish to not only provide restitution to the victim, but that we want to improve the overall situation for the victim, the offender, and the community. Still, despite these battles with semantics, I am apt to side with Zehr (2011). In a blog on the subject, he explains that he prefers to think of RJ and TJ as being essentially the same concept. Realizing that although they may lead to some differences in practice, Zehr sees each as aiming to lead to positive social transformation no matter the terminology employed. For the most part, I agree with this perspective. I like to view RJ and TJ as two ways to describe the same concept. If forced to choose, however, I would prefer the field to adopt the term of transformative justice. To me, this moniker more appropriately and clearly describes the goal of transformation. But, what do you think? Is one term “better” than the other. Does one more clearly state the goal? Does this terminology even matter? Also, how do you feel about RJ/TJ and its implications?
In Jennifer Baumgardner’s (2007) work on bisexuality, Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, the author writes about her own experiences as well as recent pop culture events in an effort to discuss the common misconceptions (and hidden benefits) of bisexuality. One of the public’s biggest misconceptions, Baumgardner explains, is that bisexuals do not really exist. Straight people sometimes regard bisexuals as going through a “phase” while gay people sometimes regard bisexuals as being “part-time” homosexuals who want the best of both worlds. In reality, the author remarks that bisexuality has an interesting and potentially revolutionary position by being located between the entitlements associated with heterosexuality and the predicaments associated with homosexuality. By being able to bridge this gap, Baumgardner (2011:222) contends that bisexuals could be a source for positive transformation since “it takes someone who has known relative freedom, who expects it and loves it, to help ignite social change.” Using her life story to vividly illustrate the very realness of a bisexual identity, the author cites being able to look both ways as an indication that sexuality is fluid and, oftentimes, strongly impacted by one’s environment. Considering such an argument, I will use this post to critique Baumgardner’s book by critically evaluating its strong and weak points.
In regards to the strong points of Baumgardner’s work, there were many. Firstly, I found it important that she speaks to the biases surrounding bisexuality. Among other charges, critics of bisexuals argue that they are going through a temporary phase, seeking attention, only doing it because it’s trendy, or suffering from a pathological disorder or weakness. Rather than accepting such claims, Baumgardner repeatedly reminds the reader that sexuality is fluid and should not be disregarded just because it challenges conventional norms. Secondly, I thought it was interesting that she highlights the discord that can sometimes exist between female bisexuals and lesbians, particularly in reference to the idea that some lesbians feel that bisexual women want to have it both ways by getting to enjoy the privileges of heterosexuality and the pleasures of women. This bias harkens back to the lines that were drawn within the lesbian community during the second wave of feminism. Thirdly, I found it noteworthy that the author argues that many women go into heterosexual relationships with “gay expectations” by expecting their male partners to want to share strong emotional connections as well as a sense of egalitarianism. Often finding this to not be the case, Baumgardner explains that bisexuality may be attractive to women since it offers them a chance to bond with someone who also values deep relationships and equality. Lastly, I liked that Baumgardner has a problem with the term “bisexual.” She writes that while she does not feel heterosexual or homosexual are appropriate descriptors for her and others like her, the term bisexual is equally incomplete and unable to allude to the flexibility that is sexuality. Baumgardner suggests that the problems inherent with this term signify that it has unfinished political business.
Despite these strong points, though, there were a few concerns that I had with Baumgardner’s work. Most glaringly, Baumgardner spends very little time discussing men’s bisexuality. While I realize that she was writing about her own experiences and was primarily concerned with women and their sexuality, I feel that she could have really taken the book a step further by looking at the bisexuality of men. It would have been interesting for the reader to learn about the similarities and dissimilarities faced by male and female bisexuals. Another issue I had with the book is that Baumgardner was often quite dismissive of men. I understand her point that men are often not as emotionally sophisticated as women, but it seems unfair to paint most of the male species as being unable to form lasting emotional bonds. While Baumgardner was critical of women, too (e.g., she contends that women need to be more direct and clear about what they want and expect from a relationship), much of her ammunition was saved for men. The final problem that I had with Baumgardner’s book is similar to an issue noted by Norah Vincent (2007). In her review of the book, she writes that Baumgardner is misguided in her view that bisexuals can overcome common biases by being sexually active and open about their sexuality. As Vincent writes, “We will have won the battle against puritanism in America not when sexuality is run up the flag pole, but when it is irrelevant.”
In conclusion, Baumgardner’s work provides the reader with a discussion on an interesting topic that has historically been dismissed by American society. While there are a few things about the book that I wish Baumgardner would have expanded on/wrote about, it seems to have more strong points than weak ones. Still, this is but a cursory evaluation of her work, and I’m certain that there are many different opinions on the positive and negative aspects of Look Both Ways. In your opinion, what are the best parts of the book? What would you change, if anything? What has Baumgardner’s work done to our understanding of bisexuality and sexuality in general? What do you think?
Sociology Lens aims to offer a lively and informative venue for faculty, graduate students and the wider public to discuss current issues in sociology. The site is a companion to the online review journal, Sociology Compass.