Tag Archives: criminal justice system

Great expectations

There are a whole lot of things that contribute to America’s crazy prison population. One of the many nutso things that we do is throw tons of people back into prison for parole violations. These violations include breaking a 9 pm curfew, leaving the state without getting permission, drinking alcohol, and other things which sound more like things your parents would get pissed about than things for which you should go to jail.

On my first day at the transitional housing facility where I worked, there were eleven people living in the house. That was Friday. When I came back the following Monday, there were five people left. What happened? Six of the residents decided to pick up a couple of six packs. The residence supervisor called the cops, and the six parole violators were scooped up and deposited back in jail. They were only in for a couple of days, but by then they had lost their chance to live in the place where I was working, which meant that they were stuck renting a room in one of several rooming houses in the area. Those places were far more expensive and offered none of the support resources that my place did, and they were notorious hotbeds of drug activity to boot.

Definitely stupid to have the little party – they knew it was against the house rules and the parole regulations – but don’t you think those consequences are out of proportion to the action?

New York State recently shifted their policy a wee bit in this area: as of Jan. 1, parole violators are no longer subject to mandatory jail time for their errors. Now the judge or parole board can take various criteria into consideration, such as mental health and access to stable housing. This is a step in the right direction, but it means that judges or parole boards have the option to forego jail time, not that violators have any real protection.

Like so many other aspects of the prison system, it’s easy in this situation to imagine that people are just asking for it when they violate. But what if instead of looking for the best way to punish people for their mistakes, we started looking for the best way to help them not screw up? My guess is that jail time would fall out of the equation real fast.

Check out the NYT piece on this issue here.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

Fruit for thought: The War on Drugs

It’s comforting to think that the War on Drugs is fought something like the Civil War: an army of American cops and judges and politicians bands together to take down a rebel army of foreign and domestic meanies who are bringing drugs and trouble into this country so that they can afford in-ground pools and classic cars. Each army hauls out their  muskets and as long as we keep throwing money at the War on Drugs our criminal justice system shall prevail.

Tragically, I don’t believe that there really is a neatly organized Drug Army out there just waiting for some tricky-ass general to take them by surprise after a nice long Christmas bender (or something like that). As Kentucky State Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown put it:

“I don’t think we’re getting the worst drug lords into the prisons. We’re just getting the people who went out and got caught. It’s the low-hanging fruit.”*

So much for the Civil War model. Maybe the War on Drugs looks more like this:

Charming illustrations aside, I would be one sour grape if I was the low-hanging casualty in the War on Drugs. Since we haven’t figured out a great way to stop drug use or drug-related violence through penalizing the fruit, mayhaps it’s about time to try something different?

*I pulled that quote from the Pew Center’s wonderful report “One in 100: Behind Bars in American in 2008.” Check it out for terrific facts and figures.

Tagged , ,

To (selectively) serve and protect

18-year-old Ramarley Graham was shot and killed by a police officer on Thursday, after police pursued him into his home. Apparently when he was shot he was in the process of flushing a small amount of marijuana down the toilet.

I bet being a police officer is some scary shit. Your whole profession – especially if you work in high crime areas – revolves around being in (potentially) dangerous situations.

One time I was in a potentially dangerous situation. A friend and I were walking home one evening when three people mugged us, one of whom pointed a gun at us to ensure cooperation. I knew that the chances that that person would shoot me were pretty slim (I sure wasn’t going to put up a struggle), but it occurred to me that there was a really small chance that I might get shot, and frankly that really small chance was utterly terrifying. If I had had a gun and if I had thought it would maybe save my life to use it, it isn’t impossible for me to imagine that I might have.

So – did the police officer think that there was a really small chance that Mr. Graham was looking for a gun he had stashed behind the toilet? Or was he so full of adrenaline that he wasn’t thinking at all?

Police officers are awesome a lot of the time, but it does seem like they’re more likely to be awesome with someone who looks like Nancy Drew than someone who looks like Ramarley Graham.

The shooting of Ramarley Graham was the third time this week that a police officer shot a suspect – in New York City. Which makes me think that although it must be really scary to be police officers, it must also be really scary to be afraid of police officers.

Check out the NYT article for more details here.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,