Category: The politics of crime

A house divided still

By Alan Bean

Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” pulled in $34 million over the Thanksgiving weekend, third best behind the new Twilight and James Bond movies.  When I saw the film over the weekend, the audience  applauded as the credits rolled–something you don’t see very often.

The film,  loosely based on Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, is relentlessly historical.  Lincoln is portrayed as a bucolic Christ figure, but Spielberg stops short of turning The Great Emancipator into a comfortable citizen of the 21st Century.   Constitutional equality applied to Negroes, said Lincoln; that meant abolishing the slave trade in every corner of the Union and little else. (more…)

Slandered couple vindicated

Mark and Rhonda Lesher

By Alan Bean

This is a story about the limits of free speech on the internet, but it is goes much deeper than that.  This is also about what happens when a small town defense attorney challenges the local power structure.

Vergil Richardson, a basketball coach in nearby Texarkana, lost his job the moment charges were filed.  He hired Mark Lesher, a local attorney with a reputation for independent judgment, to represent him.

The following year, Robert Bridges, the man responsible for arresting the Richardsons, made a run for sheriff.  Mark and Rhonda Lesher supported Bridges’ opponent, Royce Abbot, and used the Richardson raid as an example of the cowboy tactics routinely employed by Bridges and the rest of the local law enforcement establishment.

That’s when the nasty emails began to appear on Red River County’s Topix site.  The Leshers were accused of every low down, nasty deed imaginable. The message was simple: Do you want to vote for Royce Abbott, the man who pals around with drug-dealing rapists? 

The tactic was as successful as it was vicious; Bridges won the election.

The Richardsons were vindicated almost exactly three years after their ordeal began.  The delay was created when Judge John Miller, a close friend of County Attorney Val Varley, refused to recuse himself from the case.  Only when the Texas Attorney General’s Office took over the prosecution from Mr. Varley was Miller forced to step aside.  Eventually, an obvious injustice was belatedly averted.  (more…)

The American vigilante myth

By Alan Bean

In an illuminating weekend piece, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday addresses America’s love affair with the lone wolf vigilante.  “Of the countless stories we tell ourselves,” she writes, “the American myth of the solitary enforcer of justice may be the most tenacious, beloved and — as the story of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin has so grievously demonstrated — distorting.”

In the movies, the vigilante takes the law into his (occasionally her)  own hands because “the system” has dropped the ball.  If they can’t get me some justice, the vigilante thinks, I’ll make my own.  This stark sentiment drives the narrative arc of dozens of blockbuster Hollywood films every year.  “Do you feel lucky, punk?” Dirty Harry asked forty years ago, and thousands of films are resolved in similar fashion.

For every lone wolf hero there must be a corresponding villain, a punk, a thug, a gang of thugs, or the favorite of prime time television dramas, the pathological serial killer.  In this sense, Hornaday writes,  “the fatal encounter” in a gated community in Florida, “played out like an all-too-real clash of iconographies: Zimmerman’s idea of the property-defending hero Standing His Ground vs. the hoodie-wearing youth who has symbolized menace and urban violence in everything from “The Wire” to last year’s comic teen-thugs-battle-aliens satire “Attack the Block.”

The racial dynamics shift from plot to plot, but the man who takes the law into his own hands is normally white and middle class while the punks and thugs, regardless of race, are heartless incarnations of evil.   We can’t know if Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin was racially motivated, Hornaday says, but he clearly saw himself as a stand your ground vigilante protecting his neighborhood from the forces of evil.

The American gun culture is inspired by a similar iconography.  Charlton Heston’s “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!” applause line worked because his audience identified with the man-against-the-world hero trapped between human evil and an unresponsive and bureaucratic system.  This may explain why Zimmerman ignored the request to remain in his vehicle.  “If you want the job done right . . .”

But, as Hornaday points out, the real world never adapts to the cathartic demands of a Hollywood script:

It’s easy to understand the enduring appeal of the vigilante archetype, whose hard-charging moral certainty jibes perfectly with this country’s sense of exceptionalism, not to mention the narrative constraints of a 90-minute action movie. It’s far more difficult to reconcile complicated reality with the simplistic, comforting fictions we crave.

Here’s the big problem.  American’s on both sides of the black-white color line are traumatized.  A sober reading of American racial history does little to enhance the self-esteem of white people, and this is particularly true of the civil rights narrative.  White Americans can face the simple facts of our national history, or we can feel good about ourselves.  There’s no third alternative. 

Maybe that’s why Hollywood has a hard time telling civil rights stories that don’t involve white protagonists.  White people want to feel good about themselves, but history keeps getting in the way.

At the same time, it’s hard for black Americans to reckon with history and come away feeling good about their country.  Whether we’re talking about the era of slavery or the Jim Crow period, the same question arises: Do I want to be part of this country?  An affirmative answer is possible, but only with conditions attached.  At the very least, the truth of the historical record must be acknowledged. 

So here’s the problem.  Black America has a therapeutic need to tell a story that white America needs to ignore.  That was then, white folks say.  “That is now,” black Americans reply.

Which explains why the Trayvon Martin case divides public opinion along racial lines.

Hollywood’s vigilante myth gives white Americans (the majority of movie goers) a therapeutic myth they can live with.   If we can’t talk about us, let’s talk about me.  How we explain the dramatic spike in gun sales following the election of Barack Obama.  Why did a black man who avoids the race issue whenever possible stir such profound emotion in so many white people?  “I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure,” our black president says, “that it will prevail, that the dream of our founders will live on in our time.”  What could possibly be threatening about that?

America is a nation with two foundational dreams.  There is the Manifest Destiny dream of steadily expanding white hegemony, and there is the Nation of Immigrants and Opportunity dream of radical inclusion.   From the beginning, these two conflicting narratives have been fighting for the upper hand.  The Civil War was simply the most bloody encounter in an ongoing war. 

Even when the president talks about American greatness, everybody knows he’s evoking the Nation of Immigrants narrative.  Obama doesn’t denigrate the myth of white hegemony; he doesn’t have to.  His mere existence constitutes a ringing denial of an old, old story that dare not speak its name.

We are drawn to the Americam vigilante myth because we can’t talk about who we are as a nation.

The demands of the 90-minute movie plot and the therapeutic needs of the majority of movie fans combine to give us a narrative that celebrates radical individualism.  We can’t talk about who we are as a people without making everybody uncomfortable.  So Dirty Harry singlehandedly rids Los Angeles of punks and Mr. Heston dares the government to pry his firearm from his cold, dead hands.

George Zimmerman is the product and the victim of the American vigilante myth.  We can’t escape his fate unless we decide what makes America exceptional.  Is it the ability of white patriots to enforce their will on inferior races; or is it our ability to move from apartheid to radical inclusion?  So long as we avoid the “us” question, the lone wolf vigilante will fill the void.

Beyond the New Jim Crow?

By Alan Bean

When a book about the criminal justice system sells 175,000 books, something is afoot.  Something big.  As this article in the New York Times observes, the initial hardcover release of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness was only 3,000 copies.  That’s a realistic sales target for this kind of book. 

Nobody who has read the book is surprised to find it on the best-seller list.  Many of the facts professor Alexander cited were familiar to criminal justice reform advocates, but she writes better than most academics and her argument transcended the normal drug war critique.  This clip from the article says it best:

Today, Professor Alexander writes, nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. That is a familiar argument made by many critics of the criminal justice system, but Professor Alexander’s book goes further, asserting that the crackdown was less a response to the actual explosion of violent crime than a deliberate effort to push back the gains of the civil rights movement.

Was the drug war a response to crime (as folks like Bill Stuntz and David Kennedy argue) or was the real goal to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement?

Yes.

In a journal article called “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow“, professor James Forman Jr., son of the famed civil rights leader, makes two primary points.  First, Ms. Alexander doesn’t say enough about the relationship between urban crime and support for the drug war, and second, The New Jim Crow ignores the fact that civil rights leaders initially endorsed the idea of ramping up the drug war because drugs, and drug-related violence, was having a disastrous impact in poor black neighborhoods.

Forman makes some powerful arguments.  The war on drugs has always been a bipartisan disaster.  As Bill Stuntz suggested in his excellent The Decline of American Criminal Justice, liberal politicians had three choices when conservatives like Richard Nixon started demagoguing the drug war.  They could offer a progressive drug policy alternative, they could cede the drug issue to the conservatives, or they could out-tough the tough guys.  Democrats like Bill Clinton chose option number three and the drug war was transformed into a bipartisan bidding war. (more…)

Scalia: Fed courts flooded with “nickel and dime” cases

At an American Bar Association meeting in New Orleans this month, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia claimed that federal courts are increasingly bogged down with “nickel and dime” criminal cases as a result of  new criminal statutes enacted by lawmakers. The increase in criminal cases, Scalia argues, is turning the federal court into a “court of criminal appeals.” At the meeting, Scalia also offered his opinion on abortion, but avoided the topic of same-sex marriage. Check out coverage of the meeting by The Associated Press below. MWN

Scalia: Routine criminal cases clog federal courts

The Associated Press

The federal courts have become increasingly flooded with “nickel and dime” criminal cases that are better off resolved in state courts, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said Saturday.

Scalia told an American Bar Association meeting in New Orleans that he’s worried that the nation’s highest court is becoming a “court of criminal appeals.”

“This is probably true not just of my court, but of all the federal courts in general. A much higher percentage of what we do is criminal law, and I think that’s probably regrettable,” he said. “I think there’s too much routine criminal stuff that has been pouring into the federal courts that should have been left to the state courts.”

Scalia said civil dockets in some federal jurisdictions are lagging behind because criminal cases take precedence. He attributed the trend to lawmakers enacting new criminal statutes and bogging down the federal courts with “nickel and dime criminal cases that didn’t used to be there.” (more…)

Major article on crime and mass incarceration in the New Yorker

By Alan Bean

Adam Gopnik is an art critic, not an expert on mass incarceration.  But he has read widely on the subject and this major piece in the New Yorker offers an extended commentary on ideas recently shared by Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), Robert Perkinson (Texas Tough), William Stunz (The Collapse of American Criminal Justice), and Franklin Zimring’s book on New York City (The City That Became Safe).  No book can say everything that needs to be said about the American Gulag, so a carefully-crafted piece that combines the best insights of leading authorities is extremely helpful.

Following Stuntz and Zimring, “The Caging of America” notes that major improvements can be enacted without revolutionary reforms.  The crime rate of New York City has fallen by 80% (twice the national average) without significant poverty programs.  People are no better off, by and large, they are just less likely to transgress.

If Gopnik had added the ground-breaking insights of David Kennedy (Don’t Shoot) to his mix, he would be less inclined to believe that crime, especially violent crime, falls of its own accord.  But Kennedy, like Stuntz and Zimring, isn’t waiting for the New Jerusalem to descend from heaven anytime soon.  These authors believe that utopian dreaming can be just an inimical to real reform as the tough-on-crime politics that created the problem in the first place.  

Gopnik’s piece concludes like this:

“Oh, I have taken too little care of this!” King Lear cries out on the heath in his moment of vision. “Take physic, pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” “This” changes; in Shakespeare’s time, it was flat-out peasant poverty that starved some and drove others as mad as poor Tom. In Dickens’s and Hugo’s time, it was the industrial revolution that drove kids to mines. But every society has a poor storm that wretches suffer in, and the attitude is always the same: either that the wretches, already dehumanized by their suffering, deserve no pity or that the oppressed, overwhelmed by injustice, will have to wait for a better world. At every moment, the injustice seems inseparable from the community’s life, and in every case the arguments for keeping the system in place were that you would have to revolutionize the entire social order to change it—which then became the argument for revolutionizing the entire social order. In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away. Prisons are our this. We need take more care. (emphasis added)

Has common sense made our problems “just get up and go away?”

If the problem is violent crime, a case could be made.  Even so, as Kennedy demonstrates in Don’t Shoot, violent crime rages on in cities like New Orleans and Baltimore with no solution in sight.  Common sense isn’t all that common.

If the problem is mass incarceration, no big-time fix is in sight.  Prison populations have leveled out, and in some places incarceration rates have actually dropped; but America still locks up over 2 million people, and it will take more than common sense to change that fact.  As Michelle Alexander argues, when careers and corporate fortunes are dependent on the status quo, change requires something akin to a revolution.

Gopnik believes that a massive drop in the American crime rate means mass incarceration was a mistake.  Not everyone agrees.  In fact, it is frequently argued that crime rates have fallen because we have locked up so many criminals.  So long as the American mainstream believes this (and it does) mass incarceration, with all its attendant woes, will flourish.    

The Caging of America

Why do we lock up so many people?

by

Prison is a trap for catching time. Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison, but the catch is that American prison life is mostly undramatic—the reported stories fail to grab us, because, for the most part, nothing happens. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich, because the idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible; one day in the life of an American prison means much less, because the force of it is that one day typically stretches out for decades. It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates. The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in “timeless time,” because they alone aren’t serving time: they aren’t waiting out five years or a decade or a lifetime. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock. (more…)

Has mass incarceration given us safe streets?

By Alan Bean

Charles Lane is excited.  Crime rates have been falling across America and, if present trends continue, the safe streets we enjoyed in the 1950s will soon return. 

Lane sees mass incarceration as a curious paradox.  It’s too bad we had to lock up 2.3 million people to “take a bite out of crime”, he seems to say, but that’s the way the corn bread crumbles.

You get the impression that Lane, like most moderate liberals, has formed his conclusions about crime and punishment after reading a single book, in Lane’s case Franklin Zimring’s The City That Became Safe.  How did America solve its crime problem?  We rolled up our sleaves and fixed it, Zimring says.

Fine, but how did we solve the crime problem?  What sort of tough, decisive political decisions did our leaders make?  There can be only one answer: we locked up millions of poor black males.

If Zimring and Lane think that’s a viable solution they need to read Michelle Alexander’s description of the post-prison experience in The New Jim Crow.  Have we solved the crime problem by creating (intentionally or by accident) a new racial caste? 

Lane’s self-congratulatory column explains why William Stuntz finished The Collapse of American Justice on a somber note:

The disaster that is contemporary American criminal justice does not look so disastrous in most places, which is why there has been no sustained political demand for large-scale reform of the justice system. Major changes in the system’s structure . . . require a critical mass of voters (also legislators and appellate judges) to support a program that carries little benefit for them.

Why should Charles Lane worry about problems that are largely invisible from the gentrified and suburban neighborhoods of Washington DC or New York City?  If the streets of the Big Apple are safe again, what’s the problem? (more…)