Category Archives: Criminal justice

Monday’s Mtg: #MeToo – What does sexual harassment mean now?

This is an overdue topic. As everybody knows, in 2017-18 dozens of high-profile American men were accused of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. We all know the big names: Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, comedians Aziz Ansari and Louie C.K., journalist Mark Halperin, and even former President George H.W. Bush. A new social movement arose out of it all – the #MeToo phenomenon – as thousands of women were moved to share their personal stories. We’ve seen the Oscar speeches and saw/read endless opinion pieces on #MeToo. And, if surveys are any guide, some of us probably have direct personal experience with sexual harassment or assault.

But, what if anything has really changed? Are we at a cultural inflection point on sexual harassment and misconduct, or have we just cleaned house in some industries that get a lot of media attention (entertainment, politics news media)? A backlash against #MeToo has sprung up. Do these critics have a point, or are they just revanchist? What turns a moment into a movement? What turns a movement into permanent social change?

Public opinion, for one thing. On cultural change, it’s the whole ball game in the long-run. So, I thought Civilized Conversation could talk about what sexual harassment means now in the workplace and in our personal lives. Our group will never win any awards for its diversity. But, the differences we do have on gender, age, and experience will make for an interesting discussion.

Here are some optional background readings. Thanks to Scott for finding the ones on public opinion and to Gale for suggesting we use the Aziz Ansari incident as case study.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

What and how much –

Case study: Aziz Ansari incident –

What Americans think about –

Critiques of / future of #MeToo –

NEXT WEEK: Deportation nation: Will Americans really let millions be ejected?

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Monday’s Mtg on Guns: Part II

Please focus any reading you do on the next post below.  However, after rereading that post (written in anger, albeit justified IMO) it is fair to make one more point that does more than blame one small group of people.  It takes more than just passionately anti-gun control citizens and politicians to stop all efforts to prevent future horrific mass shootings. It takes a general public that, in between high-profile massacres – places gun safety measures low down on its list of priorities and completely off the list of reasons why they vote how they do.

For more on this point, see here.

Monday’s Mtg: Would serious gun control actually reduce crime/violence?

The madness continues. Yesterday’s massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school was, depending on how you count, the USA’s 18th school shooting this year – and it’s February! – and its 280th or so since the massacre at Columbine in 1999.  (Some estimates are lower.)  About 150,000 American school children in 170 schools have experienced a school shooting during that time, estimates the Washington Post, and this excludes gun suicides and accidents.

At times like this, one purpose Civilized Conversation can serve is to just to be a place to vent a little. That’s okay. But, if we are to live up to our name, it should be constructive venting and, well, civilized. Maybe we should explore at least these three big questions:

  1. Why does American’s immense level of gun violence never get addressed as a problem that has anything to do with guns?
  2. Which particular types of gun violence are better addressed by the mental health, law enforcement, or education systems?
  3. Which gun restrictions likely would work, based on what is known now?

Answering the first question requires us to take a dark journey into the world of the small but highly influential anti-government gun fetishist subculture. These folks are but a minority of gun owners and all gun owners do not deserve to be lumped in with them in liberals’ minds. But, they rule the realm in gun politics.  They are zealous and highly-organized, and the politicians that share their beliefs or fear them are the reason we never can have a serious debate over gun control.  Read one of the first two recommended links if you don’t know about how these people differ from regular gun collectors and folks trying to protect against home intruders.

Questions #2 and #3 are hard ones, too, and debating them was my original idea behind this topic. These days most liberals stop thinking about gun control once they identify the worst villains in our current story (NRA, militia groups, right-wing GOP politicians, etc.) Since serious gun control is off the table we end up moaning about trigger locks and background checks and never seriously consider which kinds of restrictions on firearms might actually be more than marginally effective at chipping away at our gun crime problem – if the political will ever coalesces.

The answers are not straightforward. They depends on things like –

  • Which gun-related problems (mass shootings, domestic violence-related, or violence associated with street crime) deserve to be our highest priority in general.
  • Extent to which easy gun availability causes or aggravates those problems.
  • What the existing evidence says about which (if any) new gun restrictions would do the most good.
  • At what cost (including to 2nd amendment principles, which exist whether progressives like them or not.). and
  • How on earth can NRA and similar opposition can be overcome.

Here is the usual long list of OPTIONAL background readings with the most useful ones highlighted. New topics for March – July will be available on Monday, too. (h/t Gale and Ken for helping select.)

A reminder:  All points of view will be welcome at Civilized Conversation. Participants must be respected.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Political system obstacles –

What (if any) gun control might help?

NEXT WEEK: -gates and domes: Lessons from past presidential corruption.

Monday’s Mtg: What should every American know about the Constitution?

We have talked about the Constitution many, many times and in many detailed and abstract ways. We have never asked what should the average citizen know about the Constitution, both in terms of what’s in the document and why it matters.

What they do know is not much. The level of public ignorance of our founding document is astounding. Forget bills of attainder, living constitution versus original meaning, and substantive due process.  More than one-third of Americans cannot name a single right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, and one in six believe Muslims are not entitled to equal constitutional rights and equal protection!

So, or our purposes assume that the average American is a tabula rasa on this stuff. What are the most critical, basic things about the Constitution that they need to know? Do they need to be familiar with anything other than the bare basics of the Bill of Rights and the basic powers of government?  What about the history of how and why the Constitution was written and/or a teeny little bit on how judges and SCOTUS interpret it? What do people probably need to unlearn that is wrong?  You get the idea.

Below are some optional readings. They include a quiz for YOU to take on basic Constitutional knowledge; discussions of public ignorance and its importance; and links to some old CivCon meetings. You might want to peruse the two meetings that dealt with progressive versus conservative methods of constitutional interpretation if you are not familiar at all with the subject. The one on the liberal POV had the better links.

Also, at Monday’s meeting I will pick which two volunteers will help me pick our next round of topics (March – June). Send me your topic ideas!

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Related CivCon meetings:

Your knowledge of the Constitution –

What they teach kids about the Constitution –

  • In California: What kids learn, by grade.
  • There is a “National Constitution Day” every September 17, by law. School kids must spend an hour on it with.  DavidG has been a guest speaker in local high school classes.
  • California is trying to promote/recognize constitutional and civic knowledge.
  • The Simpsons version of Schoolhouse Rock explains it all.

What the public actually knows –

NEXT WEEK: US foreign policy – How do we know we are the good guys?

Monday’s Mtg: What is the purpose of our criminal justice system?

Criminal justice reform stays perpetually under the Media radar, but not CivCon’s. We have debated juvenile justice, the death penalty, mass incarceration, marijuana legalization, and other topics. This stuff can get complicated and it is not my area, so I usually like to tackle it one issue area at a time.

But, Linda had an interesting idea: Go back to first principles. What should our criminal justice system be trying to do? Is the goal punishment, vengeance, public safety, rehabilitation, or something else? Who sets those goals and how do we know which purposes are the priority?

The Trump Administration sure acts like it knows. And you’ll applaud if your idea of reform is to reverse Obama-era reforms that made the system a little less punitive. As promised, law and order is back. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expanded use of mandatory minimum sentences and local police departments’ asset forfeiture powers. He probably will refuse to enforce the many consent decrees that the Obama DOJ negotiated city-by-city to clean up systematic police mismanagement and abuses. There’s more, and more coming. See the links.

Liberal reforms still have momentum, however, because a fragile but bipartisan consensus has emerged at the state/local levels that the current mass incarceration-producing system needs a big rethink.  It is unsustainable financially, politically, and morally.  It probably has passed the point of net marginal benefit (to society, individuals) and it is no longer necessary as crime rates have dropped.

So, despite events in Washington, D.C., Linda’s question fits the times. Specifically, Linda asks whether the true purpose of America’s criminal justice system is:

  1. Punishment,
  2. Retribution, or
  3. Rehabilitation.

To those goals I might add:

4. Incapacitation (warehousing so they can’t commit more crimes),
5. Deterrence,
6. Restoration (reconciling with their victims and communities).

We also can debate more controversial notions about The System’s real intentions, such as whether it is a deliberate system of racial control and/or increasingly just a big stream of cash to be privatized for a profit motive. I have other theories that I will raise. This is a big topic.  But, how can we judge the need for criminal justice reform without knowing what the current system is trying to do?

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. In whose eyes? Who sets the purposes of justice? Legislatures/courts? Bureaucrats? The police? Experts? The public (which public)?
  2. Motives/Incentives: What motivates each of the above actors? Different interests/preferences or different biases?
  3. The System – Purposes: Which ones matter overall the most and how do you know this?
  • Punishment
  • Vengeance
  • Rehabilitation.
  • Incapacitation.
  • Deterrence.
  • The precautionary principle or the inertia of decision accretion. Important concepts!
  • Others: Racism, fear, profit, etc.
  • JUSTICE? What does that mean?

    4.  The System – Evolution: How have purposes evolved since 1980? Why?
5. Future: Which way will reform go? How can your preferred direction be realized?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING – 

Purposes

Trump’s Reforms –

Stuff you may not know –

NEXT WEEK: Is Africa’s future a bright one?

Monday’s Mtg: Why is American culture so violent?

The United States is one of the most violent countries in the developed world. For example, here is how we compare with other OECD countries in deaths rates from assaults.

assault-deaths-oecd-ts-all-new-20131

[Source: OECD See here for identities of the other countries.]

Wow.  And it it’s not just homicide and it’s not just crime. Just thinking out loud I suppose we could identify four kinds of societal violence:

  1. Domestic violence (home/family);
  2. Public violence (crime, racial/sectarian/communal strife);
  3. State violence (repression, war/pseudo-war, criminal justice system); and
  4. Recreational violence, both simulated (TV/movies/gaming) and real (violent sports, hunting, gun hobbyists).

I haven’t looked up whether we lead in all four of these. But, we certainly do on #2, and maybe on #3 and #4. Of course, many poor/non-democratic nations have much higher levels of violence us, and much of our war fighting is as head of the Western alliance system. Still, the American people and its institutions are really, really violence-prone.

For this meeting I thought we could tackle the very unnerving idea that the main cause is cultural. Is there something, er, exceptional in American culture that makes us this way? The 300 million guns? The high poverty rates? Racism and segregation? Mass incarceration? Hyper-individualism?  A Wild West mentality or Southern culture (the South is by far our most violent region)?  Do conservative explanations hold any water, like declining religiosity/respect for moral authority or self-destructive “culture of poverty” values?  Violent entertainment?   Drugs?  You get the complexity idea.

Also, has a high tolerance for violence always been a part of our society, or has something changed recently? One of the links below is about the growing paranoia of U.S. gun culture.  Also, we just elected a president at the very least despite of – or more likely IMO – because of the way he reveled in violent rhetoric and promises to inflict actual violence. His message of an “American carnage” terrorized by violent crime and foreign exploitation and his unveiled threats of vengeance against foreign and domestic enemies deeply resonated with tens of millions of Americans. What does that alone say about our culture’s normalization of violence, or, perhaps more benignly, about voters’ beliefs that the violence is out of control?

Here are some different points of view on whether and why American culture is distinctively and excessively violent.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Who runs San Diego – and for whose benefit?

Monday’s Mtg: The Elderly Prisoner Problem

Linda, who’s a criminal defense attorney in private practice, suggested this topic. Since 1995, the number of U.S. prison inmates over age 55 has roughly quadrupled. They now comprise one-sixth of the entire U.S. prison population.

Why so many aging prisoners?  One cause is the sheer size of violent crime wave that roiled the United States from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Another is that the country is aging in general, including those that commit serious crimes. But most notoriously to blame are all of those harsh sentencing laws passed by state legislatures and Congress in response to the crime wave and the War on Some People That Use Certain Drugs. Civilized Conversation has discussed both mandatory minimum sentences and racism in sentencing on separate occasions.

Having so many aging prisoners is a problem for a lot of reasons. As one of the links below says, older prisoners “require special attention in prison, as they often suffer from chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart failure, cognitive impairment, and liver disease, as well as age related disabilities. They are also more vulnerable to victimization in prison.” Just providing their health care costs a fortune.  Many prisons have expensive geriatric wards. Nearly 80% of all deaths in prison are older (55+) prisoners.

Recently, the Obama Administration and some state governments – including California’s – have tried to devise programs to speed compassionate release for the least dangerous elderly prisoners whose further imprisonment makes little sense. This has proven harder than you might think, both administratively and politically. I imagine that the Trump Administration will end all federal efforts and that bipartisan criminal justice reform of any kind is dead. But, who knows?

Below are some rather duh-level discussion questions and a few straightforward readings on the elderly prisoner problem and on mass incarceration. On Monday I will skip my usual opening presentation, except to briefly summarize the issue for any new members that might not have read the background materials.

Linda, with her many years of experience as a defense attorney, will then have the floor.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How big is this problem and what makes it a problem?
  2. What caused it? Whose “fault” is it? Was anybody thinking of this eventuality 30 or 20 or 10 years ago?
  3. Solutions:  What’s being tried, including by the USG and in California?
    How are those going? If not well, why, and what else should be done?
  4. Mass incarceration: Is the elderly prisoner problem another one of the consequences of America’s disastrous mass incarceration experiment? Or, is it a sad but inevitable consequence of our vast but in-the-past crime wave?
  5. CJ reform: Is there any hope for federal criminal justice reform now that Trump is president and the GOP controls USG?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  White male privilege – How real? How important?

Prop. 64: Some arguments opposing it – Two good articles.

I don’t have time this week to do separate posts on any of this year’s gazillion ballot propositions.  So, I’ll just link to a few good articles I come across that give info/perspectives you might not get otherwise.

First up, two that oppose Proposition 64, the legalize marijuana initiative.  I strongly urge you to read the first one if you are considering voting for 64.

  1. One of the country’s foremost experts on marijuana policy decries 64 as “promoting cannabis use disorder in CA.”
  2. A group makes what it says are “14 progressive arguments against 64”  It’s long and a few of the arguments seem weak.  But note arguments 3, 4, 6, and 13.

Monday’s Mtg: Will America’s Death Penalty Fade Away? (inc. Props. 62 and 66)

On November 8, Californians may abolish the state’s death penalty. Proposition 62 would ban capital punishment outright, including retroactively by converting all 746 prisoners on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If Prop. 62 passes, we would become the 21th state to ban capital punishment outright. Four other states have governor-issued moratoria on executions.

But, it’s not a done deal in CA. I have not checked how 62 is polling yet.  But, a similar proposition failed in 2012, although by just a 52-48 margin. Also, death penalty proponents thought of a clever tactic this time around. They qualified a rival proposition, Prop. 66, to address the worst procedural problems in our state’s death penalty process. By increasing the number of defense lawyers eligible to represent death row inmates and reducing the number of permissible appeals to help speed up the decades-long (and thus arguably cruel and unusual) process, Prop. 66’s backers hope to split the queasy-about-it-all vote and stop repeal.

How big a deal would death penalty abolition be in California? Yeah, it’s the Left Coast. But, some serious people are starting to argue that the USA is near a tipping point on the death penalty. The number of U.S. executions has been declining for years (only 28 in 2015). Botched ones keep making big news. The 2016 national Democratic Party platform called for outright abolition for the first time. Nebraska just became the first red state in modern times to end the death penalty. One major recent poll showed nationwide public support for the death penalty has fallen below 50% for the first time.

On the other hand, 51% does not magically change policy (okay, except on the ballot in CA). I’ve read that the Supreme Court has never had more than two justices willing to declare that capital punishment inherently violates the 8th Amendment’s cruel and unusual standard. Absent such a ruling, abolition will remain a state-by-state issue, guaranteeing the death penalty’s survival for a long, long time, at least in deep red states.

So, what will happen? Here are some questions we might want to get into on Monday evening, plus some background readings that focus on the chances of abolition. (We did a meeting on whether capital punishment should be abolished in 2014.)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Props: Discuss merits of Propositions 62 and 66.
  2. Arguments: Why do people support death penalty (e.g., vengeance, deterrence, religious belief, inertia)?   Why oppose it (morality/religious, cruel/unusual, racial disparity, cost…)?  Is there a difference between the reasons people cite and their real reasons? What would it take to change people’s minds? Your mind?
  3. Public & politicians: Why has public opinion changed? Will it keep moving against the death penalty? What might it take to reverse or accelerate that trend? What incentives do lawmakers have to take risks versus avoid this issue?
  4. Courts: Will SCOTUS ever ban the death penalty outright? On what basis? Or, will it keep slowly restricting its use (minors, intellectually-disabled, murders only, etc.)?
  5. Alternatives: Can the “machinery of death” (Justice Blackman’s phrase) ever be reformed enough to eliminate its inequities? Regardless, would either side ever be satisfied?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Oct 24): The other 15 ballot propositions, or maybe we’ll just read War and Peace instead.

Monday’s Mtg: Are There Better Ways to “Police the Police?”

This group’s ability to time its topics so well with breaking events is starting to scare me. We’ve discussed issues related to police use of violence several times recently, including in September 2014 on the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But, there have been some big developments in the field just in the past few days.

Today (Friday 6/3), the Chicago city government released previously undisclosed information on 101 controversial instances of officer-involved shootings and violence, including 68 dash/body cam videos. This was just the latest effort to respond to public outrage over that city’s police department’s use of force. A mayoral task force recently condemned the CPD’s “code of silence” and “institutionalized racism.” Public protests are ongoing and the USDOJ is investigating the CPD as it has many other municipal police departments. Here in San Diego, the SDPD just recently released videos of several controversial use of force.

More broadly, police use of force and racial bias have been on the front burner nationally for 3+ years now, and different types of reforms have been tried in at least some of the USA’s 18,000 (!) law enforcement agencies. Things like increased use of body/dashboard cams, revamped officer training, greater transparency, and civilian oversight boards.

Yes, change is hard. The police have difficult and complicated jobs. Police culture is notoriously slow to change. Law enforcement has powerful political protectors and allies (inc. unions and politicians) that resist change.  Still, I agree with Linda.  We should not let this moment in the spotlight pass without reflecting on what we’ve learned about how to make the police in this country both more effective and humane.

I’ll see you on Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

The problem, if you want background:

Reforms Are Happening:

Of special interest – Civilian Oversight boards:

Next Week: Bernie, (The) Donald, and the meaning of populism.