My Facebook newsfeed is filled with petitions to remove Judge Perksy, “the Stanford Rape judge”, off the bench.

And I am pissed.

Here is a judge who listens to a criminal defendant’s story and considers it in sentencing – doing exactly what a judge should do, and progressive America is up in arms about it! Not only did Judge Perksy order an individualized sentence that considered mitigating factors, he offers the same, holistic consideration to the accused in his courtroom regardless of their race or socioeconomic status, according to public defenders who have practiced in front of him.

My question for my progressive friends in outrage: Do you actually care about fair sentencing and mass incarceration or is it just a hip thing for you to latch on to in the age of [media coverage of] police brutality and backlash against draconian drug war polices? If you actually care, I implore that you ditch the petitions to remove this judge and consider the consequences of your demonizing the judge and Mr. Turner.

When I first heard Brock Turner’s sentence for sexual assault I thought to myself:

first time offender…

probably a horrible person but being horrible is not a crime…

did very shitty thing…very very shitty…

his life is probably ruined now that he’s a registered sex offender anyways…

he seems involved in his community…

he probably has support when he’s out of his cage…

this seems right…

wish public defender clients got the same consideration

As an assistant public defender, I represent the indigent criminal accused. My life is in misdemeanor land, so I do not handle serious cases. However, I have clients who have been sent to jail for several months for minor, nonviolent, victimless crimes. Of course, this does not include probation and being branded a sex offender and convicted felon. Additionally, my clients who have pleaded guilty to months in jail often have a lengthy misdemeanor history. My point being that affluent white men (and cops) have it pretty good – all things considered – in criminal “justice” land. I do not want white men to be thrown off their metaphorical pedestal. I would like a larger pedestal that fits my clients too. The solution to criminal justice reform is not to treat everyone like shit; it is to treat everyone – no matter what they do – with fairness, respect, and dignity.

I did not realize until recently that this was not a popular opinion. I live in a bit of a public defender bubble, so my sense of reality is always warped.  My fear is that even progressive America is promulgating a system driven by spite and anger and more focused on throwing people in cages than being fair.

Perhaps the most timely indicator of this misguided opinion that has helped create a mass incarceration crisis (among other things) is the lack of public outrage when Deputy Public Defender, Zohra Bakhtary was handcuffed in open court and chastised by the judge holding her in contempt for zealously defending her client.

Sure public defenders ran to her side –  #solidarity #notguilty – and other lawyers understood how this behavior by the judiciary is a slap in the face to the justice system, but where were you, progressive friends? Where were your petitions?

If we are more concerned about a judge seriously considering mitigation prepared by defense attorneys than we are about defense attorneys advocating for their clients, there is no hope for criminal justice. Criminal defense attorneys are the protective wall between the Government and the individual. If defense attorneys and the judges who listen to them are silenced, the Government will have free reign to use its power and its resources against the accused.

So, I beg of you, my progressive friends: spend a week or even a few days in criminal court and watch the accused walk in. They are shackled and herded like animals. Listen to how they are treated by Government attorneys. Listen to how they are humiliated in open court for their present and past actions. The only person standing next to them in that intimidating courtroom is their attorney. Sometimes it is the only person standing next to them in their life.

Consider the accused when you feel outrage over an unjust sentence. I assure you that treating the accused with dignity and fairness is not a rubber stamp for their alleged actions or the dismissal of a victim. I understand that it is easier said than done, but if we want a justice system that is actually just, we need judges like Judge Perksy and attorneys like Ms. Bakhtary and we need smart, progressive people who understand their importance to a fair criminal justice system.

 

Further Reading

“Debriefing and Defending the Brock Turner Sentence”

Transcript of Zohra Bakhtary being held in contempt

“Brock Allen Turner: The Sort of Defendant who is Spared ‘Severe Impact'”

Artwork: Sumi Perera RE (2015) 'White Collar' [http://www.sumi-perera.com/]
Artwork: Sumi Perera RE (2015) ‘White Collar’ [http://www.sumi-perera.com/]

In a 2014 review article for Sociology Compass, David Jancsics outlined a ‘minimal consensus’ on what constitutes corruption, drawn from his survey of literature on corruption in sociology, economics, organizational studies, political science and anthropology. The four poles of this consensus, Jancsics suggests, are that corruption is the “informal/illegal and secret exchange of formally allocated resources”; that “at least one corrupt party has to have formal membership/affiliation or at least a contractual relation with the organization from which the resources are extracted”; that corruption happens between “two or more corrupt parties” (distinguishing it from fraud or theft where there may be only one criminal party); and that “a corrupt act is always a deviation from social rules or expectations of some kind.” But the most widely cited definitions of corruption to be found in anti-corruption policy frameworks – see for instance the UK’s Anti-Corruption Plan – are those given by the World Bank (“the abuse of public office for private gain”) and Transparency International (“the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”). These definitions perhaps fall most clearly into Jancsics’ first pole (the informal allocation of formal resources). For both organizations, however, there is an explicit emphasis on corruption as something that occurs in the public sector. Here, the archetypal corrupt act is the taking of bribes by government officials, in a manner that distorts the functioning of the state, so “enabling leaders to benefit at the expense of the public good”.

With the UK hosting an Anti-Corruption Summit in London next week, and in the wake of the Panama Papers affair, corruption is again in the spotlight. Cameron has attempted to present the UK as world leaders in tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance. To this end he has cited the UK’s commitment to establishing a central registry of company beneficial ownership, and the introduction of the world’s strictest Anti-Bribery legislation (which criminalizes the failure to prevent a bribe being paid to a UK corporation operating anywhere in the world). Leaving aside for a moment the fact that, as Richard Murphy recently pointed out, Companies House has not received any new resources to support the creation of a register of beneficial ownership, it is quite clear that these moves remain for the most part wedded to the idea that corruption consists of the informal exchange of formally allocated resources – or the distortion of state functions as a result of public sector officials accepting bribes. What of the last pole in Jancsics’ consensus definition of corruption, the idea that a corrupt act is always a deviation from social rules or expectations of some kind? On these broader sociological grounds, the UK seems to be less of a world leader. more...

By Runner1616 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Runner1616 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

The depiction of crime in fictional mass media occurs differently for people depending on the color of their skin and what this color has come to symbolize in such a complex system of race, ethnicity, and stratification in the United States. more...

source: http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/prison-reform-florida-louisiana-/51b71aef78c90a03d20005e3
source: http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/prison-reform-florida-louisiana-/51b71aef78c90a03d20005e3

The New York Times recently published an article about one of Norway’s maximum security prisons, Halden Fengsel – i.e. the “world’s most humane” prison.  The article doesn’t seem real.  Flowers, barley, open fields, live cows.  Since 1998, Norway’s sentencing has focused on rehabilitation.  This particular prison model – one that is designed from its inception for rehabilitation – was the first of its kind in Norway.  Even I, with my bright-eyed naiveté and mid-20s progressive agenda can’t help – just for a moment – think that the stars just aligned for Norway.  Maybe things are just different in Norway?

The reality is that’s just not the case.  Magic justice dust was not sprinkled on Norway.  Similarly, America is not too heterogenous or too populated or too developed (and therefore crime-ridden).  It is simply is too broken.

Make no mistake, Norway still faces serious crimes.  Extremist Anders Behring Breivik set off a bomb that killed eight people and systemically hunted down and shot sixty nine others, many teenagers at a summer camp for the Labor Party.  He was sentenced to the maximum 21 years in prison.

Compare Breivik’s story to that of Kalief Browder.  The New Yorker followed Browder’s story to its tragic end.  Mr. Browder was arrested ten days before his 17th birthday for allegedly stealing a backpack.  Since he was unable to pay bail, he spent the next three years at Rikers Island in New York awaiting trial.  The trial never happened and he was released after the government dismissed the case.  During those three years, he spent two in solitary confinement.  In 2015, only 22 years old, Kalief Browder committed suicide in his parents home.

Mr. Browder’s story is not an anomaly.  The extent to which this happens, the number of people to which it happens, its disproportionate racial impact on black Americans, and its disproportionate economic impact on the poor is unique to the United States.  I’m not telling you anything you probably don’t already know.  With all of the publicity, change in America’s prison infrastructure has seemed imminent for years, but something seems to be holding back the floodgates.

Policy questions regarding prison reform often focus, first, on money, and then, on balancing rehabilitation and punishment.  However, even before issues of punishment and rehabilitation, there are fundamental hurdles to overcome: what do human beings deserve from the State?  Do prisoners qualify for these entitlements?  Do prisoners deserve something less?  If so, what?  There are of, course, some nuances that warrant consideration depending on the nature of the crime, but let’s start with the basics.

It seems to me that the issue of prison reform distills down to two essential questions:

  1. Once a person does something “criminal,” does that diminish that person’s status as a human being? and/or
  2. What is the bare minimum that a human being is entitled to by the State?

The second question is more complicated, but easier to answer.  We’ll start there.  The caveat with this question is that it requires us to think about we need, regardless of whether we commit a criminal act.  Barring protecting the safety of others or the safety of ourselves, no matter what we do, what resources should we be entitled to as human beings?

Ethical theorists have been ruminating over what human beings need – not what we want, but what we need.  What is the bare minimum that a human being is entitled to?  In its contemporary iterations (and the ones I’d like to apply to prison reform in this post), this conversation has centered around international development.  Two theorists who have changed the face of this field are Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen with their separate works on the “capabilities approach.”  To simplify, they have both argued that human beings are entitled to certain “capabilities” or “functionings.”  A person is entitled to more than just food, water, and shelter but also an environment that enables productivity, creativity, and – dare I say it – happiness.

Their work was revolutionary, not just because it increased international pressure for aid and nation-state funded welfare but because it redefined human dignity.  People deserve to be happy.  It is a matter of human dignity.

The capabilities approach is only one of many frameworks that may be applicable to prison reform efforts.  It certainly resolves some of the inhumane practices present in American prisons.  However, jumping to considerations of rehabilitation/punishment without first addressing the bare minimum that each prisoner is entitled to may result – and I would argue, has resulted – in an inefficient use of resources and slow, scattered policymaking.  Though not a fixture, this concept isn’t foreign to the American criminal justice and prison system.  Correctional facilities have culinary programs, professional certifications, and arts programs.  However, these programs rely heavily on outside funding and volunteers; they are often not a part of prison infrastructure.

Next, once a person does something criminal, does that diminish that person’s status as a human being?  First thing’s first:  If committing a criminal act does diminish a person’s status as a human being, then perhaps it doesn’t matter what resources you give it or how you treat it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that male prison guards watched female inmates while they showered, a 17-year old boy hung himself with a blanket in solitary confinement, or mentally ill inmates were so brutally abused that one was kept in solitary confinement for 2491 consecutive days and another left in his own feces and vomit until he died of a heart attack.

Of course, each of these stories is deeply unsettling.  They can only be written off as a case of mishandling by someone else (much less ethical, much less competent than any of us would ever be) so many times until we must confront the uncomfortable reality that our world – one that we cannot disclaim responsibility for (try as we might) – doesn’t treat human beings as such.  Status as “criminal” and “human being” though perhaps not mutually exclusive are certainly at odds to some degree, enough that the stories I’ve mentioned above are not a mere handful.

Though there are nuances of sentencing and resource allocation to be handled in policy meetings, thoughtful prison reform will remain a distant goal until uncomfortable confrontations are made.  Confrontations about how how our courts and our prisons treat people who commit crimes in terms of (1) their status as human beings and (2) what capabilities and/or resources those individuals are entitled to.

The importance of these preliminary issues is paramount.  The consistent to failure to confront them has left a broken prison system that has harmed our friends, families, and communities.  Behind the cages of America’s prisons are human beings just like you and me.  People who are entitled to our respect and, indeed, their own happiness.

Future Readings

Satanic Temple holiday display, Florida Capitol Rotunda
Satanic Temple holiday display, Florida Capitol Rotunda

For the second year, Florida hosts a variety of religious displays in the rotunda of the state capitol.  This year, for the first time, the Satanic Temple erected their seasonal exhibition of an angel falling from Heaven into a fiery pit.  The Sataic Temple presentation complements a Christian nativity scene as well as other anti-religion and atheist displays with seasonal depictions including a “Festivus” pole constructed from Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans and a Flying Spaghetti Monster with the sign that says, “A closed mouth catches no noodly appendages”. more...

Source: AP Photos
Source: AP Photos

 

I have been reading the most recent posts on Sociology Lens and I was surprised to see that there has not been a post on the recent grand jury decision in not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. For weeks, a large portion of news coverage has been on the death of the unarmed 18-year-old black teen. Then Wednesday, a grand jury declined to indict another white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, in the death of unarmed Eric Garner. There seemed to be so much to discuss but many of us remained silent.

Many bloggers, reporters, scholars, and writers will tell you there is an obvious problem in our society; a society where black men and boys are perceived as such a treat that they are being handled with deadly force by our police department. However, I feel there is another epidemic that is equally problematic in our culture, white men and women disengaging from this topic and failing to understand how race relations impact everyone of our daily lives, albeit in different ways.

more...

 

Photo by: Gabriel Flores Romero Found on: Flickr Creative Commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode
Photo by: Gabriel Flores Romero
Found on: Flickr Creative Commons
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

 

“You put me in charge of Medicaid…”, the vice president of Arizona’s Republican Party and former state senator, Russell Pearce quipped on his weekly radio broadcast The Russell Pearce Show “the first thing I’d do is get Norplant, birth-control implants or tubal ligations”.  Medicaid is a program designed to provide health-related services for people who cannot afford healthcare in the private sector.  As Amanda Kennedy of Sociology Lens points out vividly here, “being valued as a parent is a white privilege…” and I would add, class privilege. more...

 

Photo by: Howard Gees aka. Cyberslayer  Found on: Flickr Creative Commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode
Photo by: Howard Gees aka. Cyberslayer
Found on: Flickr Creative Commons
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

 

 

If you operate in a world of “market forces” well, then you should probably leave the social research to the social scientists.  An August 23rd commentary in the Science and Technology section of the Economist magazine anonymously summarized an elegantly designed longitudinal quasi-experimental study in less than 500 words.  Their summary concluded with two very basic possibilities (because as we know the range of human possibility is exactly two!) to explain the correlation between criminality and socio-economic status:  either 1) the environment traps people in a culture of crime or 2) there is a genetic predisposition to being both poor and criminal.  That is, the criminal gene prefers to hang around in the bottom 20% of income earners.  Apparently, the “journalists” at The Economist are trying to revive the long dead nature vs. nurture debate as Sociology Lens addresses here and here. more...

Source: COPS
Source: COPS

 

In my last posting, I wrote about my concerns as I prepared to travel abroad to volunteer for a NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal. Today, I have settled in and completed three days of my volunteer assignment. In the past few days, I have learned about trafficking in one of the most powerful ways possible, through day-to-day interaction with survivors of the human trafficking trade. more...

Bayer_Heroin_bottle

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman triggered a national awareness that heroin had cycled back as a prominent drug in the United States. His death brought forth questions that challenged many people’s notions of a drug user—poor and unsuccessful. Many people asked how a person who had so much could get addicted to heroin. The reality is that Hoffman was one of many people throughout the United States using heroin. According to the National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, 335,000 people used heroin in 2012 up from 239,000 people in 2010. more...