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Here’s Why I Loved Reading the St. Petersburg Times When I Was in College

The St. Pete Times has recently begun running a “mugshot” feature, like the ones published in cheap tabloid form and sold in convenience stores.  It’s a sad day for that institution (the Times, not convenience stores).

Here is the type of reporting for which the Times used to be routinely known.  It offers real insight into a tragic crime and –unlike so much reflexively pro-criminal reporting, like this disturbing L.A. Times whitewash — explores the price innocent people pay for our collective failure to put criminals away:

Pasco County deputies: 89-year-old Port Richey woman beaten, sexually assaulted

By Erin Sullivan, Times Staff Writer 
In Print: Thursday, April 9, 2009


PORT RICHEY —

Three masked men broke into the home of an 89-year-old woman early Wednesday morning, beat her in her bed and sexually assaulted her. Before they left, they ransacked the house in the Palm Terrace Gardens subdivision.

The woman went to a neighbor’s home for help and was taken to a hospital.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office got a call from the hospital at 6 a.m.

Authorities say the woman was released later that day and is recovering. Her name and address are withheld because of the nature of the crime.

She couldn’t give detectives a good description of the men because they covered their faces. Detectives think there might be a link between this crime and another that happened to the woman.

On April 2, her house was broken into and her red Pontiac Sunfire was stolen. It was later recovered.

Wednesday afternoon, few people on the streets in Palm Terrace Gardens — just north of Ranch Road and east of Zimmerman Road — knew what had happened that morning.

“You have to be pretty low to do something like that,” said Beverly Mills, a petite 17-year-old with glasses and cornrows. She and four other teens stood at the edge of a parking lot on Areca Drive, across from the Palm Terrace Civic Association building. The doors were locked. The phone is disconnected.

“We hear sirens all the time,” Beverly said.

Suddenly, a black Pontiac swerved over to them, missing them by inches.

“Who is that?” said Shakira Merritt, 16.

The driver screeched to a halt, leaned out and screamed an expletive.

“What?” Shakira said.

He sped off.

“Who was that?” Shakira asked.

They didn’t know. The group paused for a moment and then continued their conversation.

It wasn’t yet 5 p.m., but the streets were full. Toddlers in diapers on Big Wheels cycled out on the street in front of cars. Dogs and cats roamed loose, as did ducks from a nearby lake. Kids and adults walked in the road, playing basketball. A woman in an electric wheelchair rode slowly down a street smoking a cigarette, with a toddler in her lap.

At a corner lot home, a 75-year-old woman worked in her yard. She does not want to be named because she fears her neighbors.

“Oh, mercy me,” she said, when asked how the area has changed in the 26 years she’s lived there. She walked to her front lawn, in her robin’s egg blue work gloves, her faded pink sweatshirt with tissues shoved in one cuff, her hair kept back in a kerchief.

“The lawns were beautiful,” she said. “And look at it now.”

Her second husband wanted to move here, so they did. He died 13 years ago. Now she lives alone with her cockatiel, who is 15.

She says she’s had bottles thrown at the house. People steal things, such as her water hose, plants, a frog statue, even her metal address sign with two doves of peace.

She has more than a dozen security lights on the house and driveway. Before she goes to sleep, she checks outside every window and opens the door to look in the courtyard. As soon as the economy gets better, she’s selling her house and moving.

“I’m afraid,” she said.

But when told of the attack on the 89-year-old woman earlier that day, her expression didn’t change. She was not shocked. She talked of 11 and 12 year-old kids who wander the streets at 1 a.m.

“Where are their parents?” she asked.

A few minutes later and a few streets over, a black SUV weaved the breadth of Foxbloom Drive, curb to curb, tires squealing. People got out of its way and watched it as it tore down the street and turned left in a cloud of smoke.

And then everyone went back to what they were doing, continuing their chats and walks and yard work, dogs barking, life as usual.

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this story. 

***

UPDATE: Three teenage boys have been charged with the rape, beating and attempted murder of the 89-year old woman.  They are suspected of having burglarized her home in an earlier crime.  Anyone who believes we should reduce burglary to a misdemeanor crime — essentially eliminating penalties for it, given the realities of plea bargaining, should think about this: breaking into a person’s home is a troubling violation of another person’s privacy.  Once you have become immured to violating others that way, it’s not such a big step to breaking and entering somebody else’s body, especially when authorities start to officially treat burglary as a minor offense.    

Another (Wannabe) California Cop Killer, and Her Apologists: Sarah Jane Olson and Ruben Rosario

As some in Berkley/Oakland and Austin, Texas celebrate the murders of four police officers by child-rapist Lovelle Mixon, the recent release of Sarah Jane Olson, fugitive, murderer, attempted cop killer and Weather Underground activist should remind us of the origins of the sentiment “kill the pigs.”

Well-off radicals like Olson descended on poor communities in Oakland in the late Sixties, when it was hip to do so, and fomented violence there in the name of “revolution.”  When the wretched stakes for real community members wore out their welcome, these itinerant revolutionaries trotted back to their to upper-class enclaves, leaving conditions in the impoverished, urban, minority neighborhoods much worse than they found them.

There is a direct path from the careless radicalism practiced by Olson to those who are celebrating the murder of four police officers today. When someone calling himself the “Prisoner of Conscience Coalition, Minister of Information” posts anonymous internet screeds threatening police sympathizers and mocking the murdered officers, he is mimicking “kill the pigs” rhetoric that should have died out when the last Weatherman traded his dashiki for a pair of Hush Puppies, reinstatement to the family trust fund, and the tenure track.  The Hush Puppy crowd has much to answer for in Oakland this week.  So, too, has the anonymous POCC Minister.  Everything old is new again, as evinced by the instantaneous, postmortem rehabilitation of Mixon himself.

***

Meanwhile, amazingly, a few journalists are still defending Olson.  Last week, Twin Cities Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario fired off a “humorous” column complimenting the post-conviction conduct of both Sarah Jane Olson and Stanley Dean Baker, a confessed cannibal who murdered a social worker and was found with the woman’s hacked-off fingers in his pocket.

Rosario’s column, “Come On, Sarah Jane Olson is not Osama Bin Laden,” starts off as a jokey comparison between Olson and Baker (Which would you rather live next to, the cookie-baking mom or the cannibal?).  But in an apparent warm rush of good feelings about any convicted killer, Rosario abandons this modicum of judgment and spends the rest of the piece paying tribute to the good character of both.

Funny stuff, hacking a social worker to pieces. Rosario cracks a joke about Baker’s nickname (Fingers).  He slavishly praises one parole officer who calls Baker “brilliant,” and claims — as if it matters, or is true – that Baker never killed again. He doesn’t manage to get around to bothering to name Baker’s forgotten victim, but he does take the time to scold the public for not adequately appreciating a parole system that gives men like Baker a second chance. He also expresses outrage that Baker lost a job, once, after people learned of his grotesque crimes.  That “injustice” arouses his slumbering indignation.  Anything for a convict, you see.

Pretty appalling stuff.  But the most dishonest aspect of Rosario’s column is what he leaves out – the facts of Sarah Jane Olsen’s unfunny crimes. Olson participated in the murder of Myrna Opsahl, a mother of four.  She planted explosives under police cars that were parked in public places.  She kicked a pregnant woman in the stomach during a bank robbery, causing her to miscarriage.  Rosario doesn’t mention these facts.  He talks about her cookie-baking instead.

A week and four dead police officers later, Rosario’s whitewash of Sarah Jane Olson’s attempts to kill policemen is even less forgivable.  It’s rhetoric like this, and the unrepentant posture of Olson herself, that lives on, sadly, in neighborhoods in Oakland that can ill afford such self-destructive theatrics.

More On The Oakland Police Killings

In an article purportedly about Lovelle Mixon’s criminal record (he has been linked to one rape through DNA and is being investigated in another), the San Francisco Chronicle inexplicably chose to give the deceased quadruple murderer several column inches to assert his innocence, good intentions, and career goals.  He apparently thought he was a pretty good guy, carjackings, attempted murders, and sundry crimes notwithstanding:

Mixon’s version

Mixon told authorities that in the attempted carjacking, “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and did not act responsible and allowed someone else to act just as bad,” according to the report. “Now I have to take responsibility for it all.”

Mixon also is quoted in the report as saying he planned to move away to “a better area, get a job, and hopefully in about two or three years get my own business, raise my kids in a responsible way.”

“I wish I could fix or make up for what happened,” Mixon was quoted as saying. “But I can’t, so I am going to attempt to make the best out of it and learn as much as possible to help me when I get out.”

At the time, Mixon had a 1-year-old son but was not paying child support because he was unemployed, the probation report said.

In 2000, he worked for six months as a grocery packer for Webvan in Oakland, making $10 an hour, the report said. The next year he spent three months as an inventory worker for another Oakland company and made $9 an hour.

How, precisely, do you call arming yourself and committing a violent carjacking “being in the wrong place at the wrong time”?  How do you “make the best” of the fact that you have beaten and could have killed an innocent victim?  How do you “take responsibility” for a crime by denying that you intended to commit it?

The real problem isn’t that Lovelle Mixon said these things.  The problem is that so many of the people who are entrusted to keep the Lovelle Mixons of the world from harming others say and believe the types of things Mixon said about himself.

A judge believes the lies of a recidivist burglar who claims he has stopped offending (with some exceptions, of course) and shouldn’t go to jail for his latest crime because he might lose his (probably imaginary) job. Naive activists buy (with your tax dollars) into the idea that violent recidivists will change their ways if only they get the chance to read a good book, and recidivists are set free to read books with them.   

And a publicly-funded radio station gives a cop killer his own show.  Did Lovelle Mixon listen to Mumia Abu Jabal’s taxpayer-subsidized cop-hating ravings on Bay Area radio before gunning down four police officers?

Pushing back against all of this pro-criminal, anti-victim sentiment is hard.  Being a cop-killer on death row gets you your own radio show and endless cachet with academicians and media types, the people who set the terms of debate about criminal justice in America.  Being a crime victim gets you silenced, first by the criminal, then by the opinion-makers.  But to the credit of the San Francisco Chronicle, they do preface Lovelle Mixon’s words with the words of the man he car-jacked.  They’re worth reading carefully:

Victim’s story

The victim, Francisco Cardenas, told police that Mixon was holding a gun as the three “got me out of my car, telling me to shut up,” court records show. As he tried to run, the assailants hit him.

“Then I saw one of them shooting his gun at me,” Cardenas said. “After that, I don’t remember any more.”

Cardenas required 16 stitches. The men drove off in a car without stealing the truck, and police arrested Mixon and the others a short distance away. He was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.

In a sentencing report, San Francisco probation officer Yvonne Williams wrote that Mixon’s juvenile record was that of a “cold-hearted individual who does not have any regard for human life.” She said state prison was the only way to “to rein in this man’s proclivity for violence.”

Somebody needs to promote Yvonne Williams and let the rest of us see what she saw in Mixon’s juvenile record.  If Williams’ words had been taken seriously, four men might be going home to their wives and children tonight.  

And somebody else needs to ask the question: why wasn’t Mixon charged with attempted murder?  Is bad aim a murder defense?

“What Went Wrong” in the Murder of Four Oakland, CA Police [Update #1, Below, 3/24]

Yesterday morning, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about “what went wrong” in the quadruple murder of police officers in Oakland, California.  The focus of that story was police procedure — an understandable line of inquiry with four policemen’s lives lost at two crime scenes.  Today, both the Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times ran stories covering the problems that arise when violent offenders like Lovelle Mixon, the man who killed the officers, are released on parole.

The Chronicle, however, starts every story by stressing how rare it is that parolees resort to violence.  And, of course, killing four officers is a thankfully rare tragedy.  But, as the Chronicle itself notes, fully two-thirds of California parolees are returned to prison for violating parole.  That’s two-thirds of the state’s 122,000 parolees.  Is violence really “rare” in this vast group of offenders?  Why do some newspapers reflexively minimize such horrific numbers, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the murder of four policemen?  There are more than 16,000 parolees in California currently wanted for parole violations.  12% of parolees in California abscond immediately upon leaving prison.  

There is nothing “rare” about these events.

When hashing out what went wrong in a violent crime, it’s also easy to lose sight of the most important thing that “went wrong”: a criminal chose, of his own free will, to violently victimize others.  No discussion of the details of the crime should distract from this fact.  Denial-laced justifications for Mixon’s choices and behavior — ‘parolees need more re-entry services,’ or ‘it’s prison that makes people more violent,’ or (my favorite) ‘he didn’t want to go back to jail,’ — are offensive yet predictable commentaries in the aftermath of violent crime.  Here are some factors other than Lovelle Mixon’s own choices that enabled Mixon to kill four innocent public servants over the weekend:        

Factor #1:  Lenience in sentencing.  In 2002, Mixon was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and armed robbery.  He was out on parole by 2007.  Assault with a deadly weapon + armed robbery = five years in prison?

Factor #2:  More Lenience in Sentencing, and Parole:  Mixon violated parole in 2008 and served nine more months in prison but was released to parole again.

Factor #3:  Lenience in Granting Parole.  In the Chronicle: “[t]he  California’s parole system has been thrust into the spotlight by the killings, but, in fact, experts say, it has been deteriorating ever since 1977, when the state’s determinate sentencing law went into effect.  Determinate sentencing means that when a prisoner is given a parole date, he must be released. Nuances about past offending behavior and whether someone is really suitable for parole go by the board.”      

Of course, the main factor remains this: Lovelle Mixon was a monster.  

To their credit, several in Lovelle Mixon’s family have reached out to the officers’ families with condolences.  But his sister is urging sympathy for Mixon.  “I don’t want people to think he’s a monster,” she said, “He’s just not. He’s just not.”    If murdering four people doesn’t make you a monster, what does?  Assault with a deadly weapon?  Rape?  (Mixon’s DNA was identified in a rape kit the day before he went on a killing spree).  Is it really too much to ask that the rehabilitation of Mixon be deferred to a later date?  

Of course, families say such things.  Mixon was hiding in this sister’s apartment: he murdered two of the officers in the room where her four-year-old slept.  

ABC News reported that a crowd of people “taunted police near the scene of the first shooting.”  The print media has not commented on this report.  Why not?

***

Update #1: Victor David Hanson writes about the “Therapeutic Impulse” of excusing criminals’ actions and the Oakland police killings in an article in Pajamas Media titled “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Part One.”

Outrage of the Week: Crayons and Gym Memberships, or Incarceration? Which Actually Costs Less?

A really interesting article in U.S.A. Today on the national push to get prisoners out of jail and into community programs.  

In a hushed conference room overlooking the town’s main drag, eight convicted felons, including an aspiring amateur fighter, brandish bright Crayola markers.

Their goal is to match their personalities to one of four colors. Tim Witte, 27, on probation for evading arrest, eyes the task as if sizing up a fellow middle-weight on Kansas’ gritty cage-fighting circuit. Witte and two drug offenders settle on orange.

The color, indicative of a restless, risk-taking personality, is the hue of choice for most offenders, says Michelle Stephenson, the corrections officer leading the unusual exercise. . . .

The class is part of a state effort to save millions of dollars in prison costs by changing how criminals are treated. Kansas is closing some prisons, boosting support for offenders on probation and declining to return them to prison for every probation violation. . . .

Probation officers now help offenders find work, health care, housing, counseling, transportation and child care.

During the past several months, for example, the office spent $110 to cover an offender’s utility payments; $500 for a rent payment; $600 for six bikes the office loans to get to job interviews; $77 for a YMCA membership to help an offender improve his physical condition and $320 for eight anger-management counseling sessions.

All of the assistance is aimed at keeping offenders out of costly prison cells, although Kansas officials say they are only beginning to review whether the offenders who received the assistance have committed new offenses.

Note that very little of this long article actually addresses the “against community sentencing” side, compared to the well-funded and well-placed “pro-community sentencing” activists.  The outspoken Joshua Marquis, alone, is quoted speaking in favor of incarceration. 

Note, too, that in the article, the Pew Center Study is quoted uncritically — even though their analysis of “cost savings with alternative sentencing” leaves out the cost of additional crimes that are committed by probationers and parolees who could be in prison at the time.  

Anti-incarceration advocacy groups like The Sentencing Project have deep pockets to fund their efforts to reduce prison sentences, free offenders to the community, and roll back the clock on the fragile gains made by victim advocates against recidivists over the last two decades.  The Sentencing Project’s “research” is advocacy-based, not objectivity-based, yet it is often reported as fact.  No sooner did we get some teeth into sentencing laws that removed repeat offenders from the streets than push-back began to free even the most prolific criminals.  

As federal funding for law enforcement begins to trickle down to the states, expect much of it to be diverted into efforts that actually release larger numbers of offenders into communities.  Those who feel that their money should not be spent on “alternatives to incarceration” will need to stay on top of grants coming to their cities and stay vocal with their legislators.  It’s clear that the media — even U.S.A. Today, which usually features thoughtful crime coverage — is not doing a very good job of covering both sides of this debate.

The Pew Center Study, Repeat Offenders, and the Real Price of Crime

From The Tennessean

Cons commit crimes after early release

Sentencing guidelines enable repeat offenders

A college student is kidnapped, brutalized and murdered. A mother looks up from changing her baby’s diaper to find a gun pointing in her face. A 62-year-old man is bludgeoned with a baseball bat in a mall parking lot.

The crimes share one trait, aside from their brutality. In each case, the person charged with the offense was an ex-convict, out on probation or parole — a situation Tennessee prosecutors and law enforcement leaders say is all too common because of how the state sentences its convicted criminals. . . .

Amanda Sue Kelley, 19, was arrested seven times last year on charges that ranged from drug possession to domestic assault and theft. In January, police say, she wrenched open the door of a parked car, pointed a gun at a woman changing her 13-month-old daughter’s diaper in the back seat, and demanded cash. . . .

It costs about $63.90 a day to keep someone behind bars in Tennessee. A day monitoring someone’s probation or parole costs $2.95.

“We really need to do a better job of sorting our offenders by risk,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project. “This is less and less an issue of being tough on crime or soft on crime and more an issue of giving the taxpayers a better return on their dollars.” 

The Pew Center study, “One in One Hundred,” has attracted a lot of attention — but less obvious is the Center’s ideological anti-incarceration bias.  The Center did not include what is known as the “Aggregate Burden of Crime” in its analysis of the price of incarceration versus the price of community sentencing.  The aggregate burden of crime, which measures the total economic effect of crime on victims, communities and the offender, offers a picture of the real cost of incarcerating convicts versus letting them go free — not a one-line argument comparing the day-to-day cost of probation to the day-to-day cost of incarceration.

There is no excuse for excluding the other costs that inevitably arise when people who should be in prison commit additional crimes — unless the study is simply designed to sway public opinion towards letting convicts back on the streets.  

In 1996, the Department of Justice issued a far more comprehensive, less ideological study called “Victim Costs and Consequences: A New Look”  which placed the cost of crime for victims at $450 billion dollars per year.  And in 1999, Professor David A. Anderson published another study, titled “The Aggregate Burden of Crime,” which placed the annual cost of crime at 1.7 trillion dollars a year.  Here is a description of his study:

Anderson takes into account all costs which would not exist in an ideal society totally free of crime. That includes the cost of private preventative measures such as locks, safety lighting, alarm systems, fencing and private security guards. In addition it calculates the cost of crime-related injuries and deaths, including medical care, lost workdays, pain, and fear, and the opportunity costs of time spent preventing, carrying out and serving prison terms for criminal activity. Finally, it mentions a $28 billion decrease in property values of real estate and buildings that are cheaper than similar facilities because they are located in high-crime areas. The costs associated with living in the suburbs to avoid crime in the city center are also discussed, since there are significant costs for activities such as commuting and parking. 

If the Pew Center had really intended to quantify the difference in cost between incarcerating offenders and releasing them to the community, they would have had to first figure out the number of crimes committed each year by offenders who could have been sentenced to prison, or kept there without parole, but who were instead released to commit more crime.  Then they would have had to plug in the price of this additional victimization.  Absent that, they are operating on the assumption that no parolees or probationers ever commit crimes.  

Victim and community expenses appear nowhere in the Pew Center report.  When you focus narrowly on the price differential between daily incarceration expenses and parole/community control expenses, you are intentionally excluding the bulk of expenses born by innocent people — victims, bystanders, and neighborhoods — who have been impacted by illegal activities.  That’s not just bad public policy: it’s dishonest public policy.

Semi-Open Thread Friday

Following is a list of the books convicts might read in Boston’s “Changing Lives Through Literature” program to avoid incarceration for their crimes.    

I have a hard time imagining convicts settling down to read Anne Tyler, or Sylvia Plath, or Annie Proulx (maybe this is punishment), or Anna Quindlan, or Jane Hamilton, or Anita Shreve.  Yet the thought of car thieves settling in with Edith Wharton is weirdly . . . comforting.

On the other hand, how can people who have just skirted jail (and any responsibility for their crimes) in the warm, supportive bosom of “alternative sentencing” find anything of relevance to their condition in Animal Farm or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Aleksander Solzhenitsyn?  Many of these entries beg the question: what, precisely does this book teach other than contempt for the criminal justice system and society in general?

And Down and Out in Paris and London?  The autobiography of an Old Etonian who clocked time slumming in Paris between the Wars?  Are there many comp lit. students on probation?         

Comments welcome, though still moderated.

 

Novels Used in Changing Lives Through Literature

James Agee, A Death in the Family

Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven

Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

Russell Banks, Affliction 

Russell Banks, Rule of the Bone

Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter

Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street 

Chris Crutcher, Ironman 

Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory

James Dickey, Deliverance

Janet Fitch, White Oleander 

Alexandra Flinn, Breathing Underwater

Jack Gantos, Hole in My Life

Jane Hamilton, Map of the World

Kent Haruf, Plainsong 

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea 

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God 

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees 

Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

Francess Lantz, Fade Far Away

Billie Letts, Where the Heart Is

Jack London, Seawolf

Jack London, The Call of the Wild 

Lois Lowry, The Giver

Bernard Malamud, The Assistant

Bobbie Ann Mason, In Country

Joyce McDonald, Swallowing Stones

Ben Mikaelsen, Touching Spirit Bear

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye 

Toni Morrison, Sula

Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Tillie Olsen, Tell me a Riddle

George Orwell, Animal Farm

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

Gordon Parks, The Learning Tree

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

Anna Quindlen, Black and Blue

Daniel Quinn, Ishmael

J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

Esmerelda Santiago, When I was a Puerto Rican

Anita Shreve, Strange Fits of Passion 

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Scott Smith, A Simple Plan 

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men 

John Steinbeck, The Pearl

Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant 

Larry Watson, Montana, l948

Tobias Wolff, The Barracks Thief

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome

Richard Wright, Black Boy

Reading With Felons, Part II: A Blog is Worth a Thousand Words

The people over at “Changing Lives Through Literature” in Boston want you to read their blog.  They feel it will offer insight into the significance of running book clubs for people who commit crimes and have had their prison sentences deferred or reduced by participating in a book club or other taxpayer-funded, higher-education initiatives.

I think it’s a great idea to take a hard look at their blog.  After all, your federal Education Department dollars and Justice Department dollars doubtlessly support this reading experiment, either directly or indirectly (never believe anybody who says that their prisoner outreach is “funded exclusively by private resources”: the Justice Department and the states pony up tax dollars to support every prisoner initiative in some way.  Many of these programs would not exist without funding from the Justice Department’s Weed and Seed grants — federal tax dollars that are spread among the states.  All of these programs require oversight from corrections departments.  And public universities are public entities, as are the courts — it’s all on your dime, one way or another).  

The blog is very informative: in fact, it’s a roadmap of romanticized ideas about “rescuing” prisoners while having meaningful personal experiences along the way.  It also makes my point, better than I could, about the denial of crime victimization practiced lockstep by such activists.  In post after post (and article after article on the organization’s main page), convicts are “citizens” and victims are nonexistent, untouchable, unmentionable — surgically excised.  If you step back from the professionally-designed pages and contemplate the absence of any mention of crime, there is a sort of horror in this systematic erasure of the victim’s experience.

The blog’s first entry neatly encapsulates both the doublespeak of prisoner “outreach” and the shameless fixation on “enriching” volunteers’ lives, while pretending crime itself is not part of the equation:

Much has been said about the difference that Changing Lives Through Literature makes in the lives of criminal offenders who attend the program. . . . What’s not so easily measurable, however, is the impact of CLTL on the lives of the facilitators, probation officers, judges, and other visitors who attend the sessions. In the absence of statistics, personal accounts of one’s experiences with the program are the only measure our organization has to analyze the powerful sway that extends beyond the probationers. . . . In one session, I could see the magic of the program at work through the insights and realizations offered by the participants. I was most astonished, however, to notice the two-hour discussion had changed me as well. I became more engaged in this discussion than in any of my past literature classes. . .

Jennie

And so on.  Comments continue in the breathless voice of personal discovery and ritualistic self-deprecation, spiced with a bit of braggadocio at the thought of close contact with convicts:    

Univ. of Illinois English Department has a program that sends books to prisons, but this sounds much more powerful. It puts us academics in our place!

Libbie

 

We had chosen 10 men with really long records. We had a room full of violent thiefs, with substance abuse problems. Unlike the characters in “Greasy Lake”, they were “bad guys”. . . . I had a lagitimate fear for my own safety. It was a roller coaster of emotion, as by the end, we left shaking hands, and we all knew we had stumbled on something special. 

Wayne

The blog is all about the outreach worker, or rather the quasi-religious (magic) expectations such people bring to the experience of interacting with convicts.  It takes an impressive degree of hubris to imagine that a program that arises from someone’s else’s experience of crime is actually about your own personal growth (even the prisoners slip away beneath the urgent prose of self-awareness).  

But this is hubris with a high social return: this is Boston environs, where prisoner chic never went out of style.

Outrage of the Week: Read A Book, Get Out of Jail

An unholy alliance between politicians and bureaucrats who want to keep prison costs to a minimum, and liberal intellectuals who pretend to see in crime a natural and understandable response to social injustice — which it would be a further injustice to punish — has engendered a prolonged and so far unfinished experiment in leniency that has debased the quality of life of millions of people, especially the poor.

                                             Theodore Dalrymple, in Not With A Bang But A Whimper

THE NOTION that criminals are merely people who have been misunderstood, or mishandled by society, and therefore need only to be understood, not punished, is so predominant in the criminal justice system that it barely needs to be mentioned, let alone discussed. That discussion ended in the 1970’s, when “alternatives to incarceration” were presented as both a solution to prison crowding and to “the problem of incarceration” itself.

Today, community service, drug courts, half-way houses, Outward Bound programs, boot camps, and mental health diversionary programs are all part of the “treatment continuum” replacing incarceration. Also replacing incarceration are: plea bargains, parole, probation, electronic monitoring, early release, and cases where judges simply “dead docket” charges or otherwise decline to prosecute. There are so many venues for not incarcerating defendants that it is a wonder anyone goes to prison anymore, though prisons are overflowing. And talk of overflowing prisons leads seamlessly into talk of new ways to release prisoners early. Victimization – and crime itself – barely register as a bump in the road.

ALL THIS is bound to affect the perspective of the courts. Alternative sentencing is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can quickly become bad when judges forget that it is their job to protect the public, not merely address defendants’ needs.

In far too many recent courtroom decisions in Atlanta, it is hard to detect any cognizance of public safety on the part of judges. Victims and criminal acts seem to disappear from the record: narcissistic displays of bonding between judges and defendants take their place.

In some cases, the outcome is merely insulting, as when DeKalb State Court Judge Barbara Mobley permitted “N.Z.” (aka “MARTA Girl”) to read her poetry aloud in the courtroom before refusing to rule on the state’s case against her. Through dead docketing the case, Mobley silenced the public. She then turned the people’s courtroom into another platform for “N.Z.’s” artistic expressiveness.

Expression, not remorse, mind you. In the therapeutic courtroom, it is untoward to suggest that a defendant show remorse, and they generally do not. Is there any evident remorse in these lines performed in Mobley’s courtroom by “N.Z.”:

“Bipolar is up and down mood swings, and when it affects me I dance and sing”?

Was that what she was doing to that elderly woman on the train? Dancing and singing for her?

OTHER incidents of therapeutic jurisprudence have ended in tragedy, as when DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia J. Becker let soon-to-be murderer and serial con man Shamal Thompson walk free instead of imposing the mandatory ten-year sentence required for his burglary conviction. The judge was impressed by the “beautiful designs” on a bridal gown website Thompson claimed as his own. So she released him back onto the streets, apparently placing his artistic ambitions and self-esteem over the burglary victim’s experience or Thompson’s prior record or Georgia’s very clear sentencing law (there is no word yet on whether Becker will face consequences for refusing to assign the mandatory sentence in that case).

In an horrific irony, Becker’s inattention to Thompson’s criminal history enabled him to murder Emory cancer researcher and bride-to-be Eugenia Calle, in cold blood, in her apartment, when he should have been in prison.

Any survey of the criminal records of murderers would reveal multiple instances of therapeutic jurisprudence enabling an escalation of violence, and finally, the most violent crime.

THE TERM “therapeutic jurisprudence” is not merely descriptive of a mindset: it is an academic theory and social movement with its own website and academic journals. The definition of therapeutic jurisprudence (searchable on the website) in criminal law (other types are mentioned) makes for lengthy but illuminating reading — illuminating not so much for its clarity but for its studious avoidance of admitting what it is: the latest effort to justify replacing incarceration with community-based rehabilitation as often as possible. One of the cornerstones of therapeutic jurisprudence theory is that the special relationship between the judge and the defendant — the quality of the communication between the two — can positively affect the outcomes of probation and parole. Here is how it is supposed to work:

[T]he judge might say, “I’m going to consider you but I want you to come up with a type of preliminary plan that we will use as a basis of discussion. I want you to figure out why I should grant you probation and why I should be comfortable that you’re going to succeed. In order for me to feel comfortable, I need to know what you regard to be high risk situations and how you’re going to avoid them or cope with them.

If that approach is followed, courts will be promoting cognitive self-charge as part and parcel of the sentencing process itself. The process may operate this way: “I realize I mess up on Friday nights; therefore, I propose that I will stay home Friday nights.” Suddenly, it is not a judge imposing something on you. It’s something you are coming up with so you should think it is fair. You have a voice in it, and presumably your compliance with this condition will also be better. [footnotes excluded]                                                                      

                                 Professor David B. Wexler, “TJ, An Overview” 

Of course, it could be said that it was precisely “cognitive self-charge” that enabled Shamal Thompson to talk his way out of Cynthia Becker’s courtroom. Yet, apparently, it is still not enough that many defendants are able to bypass prison for therapeutic settings: their experience in the courtroom must be self-empowering as well.

WHICH brings us to the first Outrage of the Week, featuring an extreme form of community-based therapeutic jurisprudence and extremely unsettling over-valuing of the judge-offender bond. As the New York Times approvingly reports, some felons in Massachusetts may “choose between going to jail or joining a book club,” a choice, one would imagine, not so difficult to make (and made, one presumes, without input from the victim, who would surely choose differently). This is the landscape of fulsome judge-offender interaction:

In a scuffed-up college classroom in Dartmouth, Mass., 14 people page through a short story by T. C. Boyle.

Of the 14 people, a dozen are male. One is an English professor, one is a graduate student, two are judges and two are probation officers. The eight others are convicted criminals who have been granted probation in exchange for attending, and doing the homework for, six twice-monthly seminars on literature.

Professor Robert Waxler (Waxler this time, not Wexler), who founded the reading program, believes “[t]he stories serve as a mirror for everyone, not just the offenders — the professors, the probation officers, the judge.” On cue, the New York Times reporter raves: “[t]he average court official is more literate than the average convict, but not necessarily more literary: for the judge, too, classroom discussion can be a revelation.”

She cracks the following joke:

Led by literature professors, the program has brought thousands of convicts to college campuses even as the withdrawal of Pell grants from prisoners (who were ruled ineligible for federal college financing in 1994) drove a wedge between the two state-funded institutions where young adults do time.

Get it? Being in college is like being a felon. Especially if there are thousands of them on your college campus, I suppose.

She cracks another joke:

Picture “Remembrance of Things Past” as a literary ankle bracelet that keeps you chained to the desk for months.

Before admitting this:

It’s easy to dismiss the program as utopian, or worse. Waxler reports being berated by parents paying college tuition for the same classes that felons receive free. If the program works, its economic logic is unassailable: running it costs roughly $500 a head, Waxler says, as opposed to about $30,000 for a year of incarceration. But that’s a big if. The most conclusive study, which shows program participants achieving half the recidivism rate of a control group, involved fewer than 100 people. More important, the literacy level needed to participate makes its population a self-selecting one, and even among those students with the skills to participate, many never make it to the final session. On the day I attended, one man missed class because his halfway house had imposed lockdown, another because a new conviction had landed him back in jail.

“ON the day she attended.” The program has been running since 1991, bringing “thousands of convicts to college campuses,” and the best they can do is a limited study of 100 offenders.

I wonder why. Perhaps because it’s best not to look too closely at these things.

“When it’s working,” Waxler says, “this discussion has a kind of magic to it.”