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?

Advertisements

Monday’s Mtg: Is Rural v. Urban Our Worst Political Divide?

Since Donald Trump’s election, some observers have declared that a growing “urban versus rural” divide is our worst and most unbridgeable political conflict. Supposedly, a huge cultural, economic, and values gap between cattlemen and sheep-herders Americans in big cities and small town America lies at the root of our partisan warfare. Certainly, it’s well worth an evening’s discussion at Civilized Conversation.

But, let’s be accurate in what “rural v. urban” means and what people are divided about. Small-town voters did not elect Trump. (FYI, nor did White working class voters, ¾ of whom live near cities). He won two-thirds of rural votes, but, they are only 17% of the electorate, ergo not even 10% of his voters. Small-town, “heartland” America is nowhere near a majority of the country, even a silent one.

If we move the goalposts a bit, however, we start to get somewhere. As I will explain on Monday’s opening remarks, evidence is piling up a widening gap between Americans that live and work in (1) large and medium-sized cities and their close-in suburbs, and (2) those cities’ exurbs, small towns and true rural areas. This way of seeing blue/red as city/country doesn’t explain everything in our politics, nor does it fit easily on a bumper sticker. But it sheds a lot of light on some of the forces that are tearing us apart politically, I think.

This geography-based theory leaves a lot out to be sure, notably our racial and religiosity divides. But the poles of these other deep divisions in American society are starting to line up in either rural/small town or urban/cosmopolitan camp, so the metaphor still has value.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Terms: What is meant by rural and urban and country/city? Who are we talking about: How many people, who, where?
  2. Econ: Are there big differences in objective material circumstances between rural and urban America?
  3. Culture: What about culturally, especially family and religious values and comfort with diversity?
  4. Divide: How does all this translate into a partisan political divide? How do race, religion, and immigration get mapped onto it?
  5. Trump as cause and effect.
  6. What can be done?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: What is the purpose of our criminal justice system?

Monday’s Mtg: Is technology ruining our attention spans?

I know, I know. You thought ruining attention spans was my job. Information technology’s effect on human attention spans is just one of those how-info-tech-is-changing-the-world topics we dip into occasionally.  We’ve done porn’s effect on sexuality, cyber security, and Facebook’s influence on friendship.  I remember linking to at least one article for some meeting that said the internet is changing the hardwiring of our brains.

The attention span angle is a new one for us but it is a topic of both general and academic interest.  I don’t know about you, but everybody I know complains the internet has ruined their ability to focus for any length of time on just one thing.  They’ve all but stopped reading books, can’t finish articles they start reading on-line, stop watching videos on-line after 34 minutes, etc.  Academic work on the issue got a short burst of media attention (is there any other kind of media attention?) a few years ago after a major study claimed technology has reduced average human attention span to a mere eight seconds – shorter than that of a goldfish. I don’t know if the study was any good or how it defined “attention span,” but I’ve linked to an article about it, below.

So, on Monday we can discuss the readings and anything else people have read or seen on our allegedly disappearing ability to pay attention. Also, this would be an especially good meeting, I think, to share some personal experiences. Most CivCon regulars grew up before the internet existed at all, and the full-on social media age is new to everybody, everywhere. What has happened to your attention span and those of people you know?  How do you fight it?

We also could get into related issues. For example, how has the information technology revolution affected our memories, how and how much we learn, the capacity for empathy, and openness to opposing points of view?  What about our intimate relationships and social lives?

I’ll see you Monday at 7pm.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Is rural versus urban America’s worst political divide?

Monday’s Mtg Part 2: What Does USA Stand For?

[Authored by Ali, this is our topic for Monday:]

“The US moral divide and How the US defines itself.”

I came up with this idea a few weeks ago when I listened to a TED talk (first link) about how to talk across the political lines by using terms and ideals that the other side can readily accept. This got thinking about how most of our political discussions today are useless because we don’t share a basic moral agreement about what the government and the nation as a whole morally stand for.

This, of course, a philosophical question but it has very real ramifications on the economy, the role of government, foreign policy, healthcare, and cultural themes.

Are we group of people who should aspire to be pure of heart and mind (maybe genes) and try to shut all other “pollutants”? Are we guardians of something? And what is that thing? The weak? Our way of life? Civilization? The survival of the species? Should our society try and imitate nature, and if so then is Nature competition or harmony?
Do we have a moral obligation toward others, and does those “others” include all humans, all living beings, all animals, the entire planet, just “our own people”?
Do we have a role in this world? Or are we just one of many nations and should mind our own business and people, or are we inherently wrong (We’re built upon invasion and slavery) and shouldn’t try to infect any other nation until we fix the problems that we have a home?

The subject might seem a little too overreaching, and I agree, but we should try and keep it about morality and its role in our personal and political choices.

https://www.ted.com/…/robb_willer_how_to_have_better_politi… (How to talk across the Moral divide_

https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/morally-what-does-the-us-_b… (What is scientifically speaking is the moral divide)

https://www.scientificamerican.com/…/how-science-explains-…/ (The moral divide and how it can affect the political conversation and discourse)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/morally-what-does-the-us-_b… (our moral standing in the world and how it’s changing)

Monday’s Mtg: What does the United States stand for?

[Update Saturday:  See above for Ali’s suggested readings for this topic.]

[DavidG’s original post follows]

Ali had this great topic idea for the day before Independence Day. At least I think it’s great. It seems to me like fundamental and long-standing notions of what America stands for are up for grabs.  A lot of it is Trump’s election, sure. But I think it goes much deeper than just him.

 

We just seem to be re-litigating bedrock principles these days. Should the United States remain a world leader and provider of expensive global public goods? Does the 20th century American social contract need to be junked or expanded? Are we still a nation of immigrants? Arguably, even very basic aspects of our democracy are in doubt, like voting rights and federalism.  I guess the exact meanings of even basic principles are always in flux in a modern democracy like ours.  Still, something sure seems different to me.

Luckily for all concerned, I have no time this weekend to over-think this topic, so I won’t give much of any opening presentation.  Instead, I will give Ali first crack at opining.  So we don’t just have everybody pontificating all night on their broad (uselessly vague?) vision of America, I will step in from time to time during the discussion to bring up specific points for us to debate.  Happy 241st birthday to us.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

 

NEXT WEEK: Is technology ruining our…attention spans?

Monday’s Mtg: Sanctuary Cities – Legal, Moral, Sensible?

President Trump seems to have backed down on many of his most controversial promises on immigration. There will be no big “beautiful” border wall. No brand new paramilitary deportation force prowling the country. No flat out ban on Muslim immigration (h/t The Judiciary). The same is proving to be the case on his pledge to defund and thus eliminate “sanctuary cities.”

What are those? As the links below explain, there is no formal legal definition of what a sanctuary city is. But basically, a large number (400+!) of cities and towns across the USA have pledged not to turn over certain undocumented immigrants (UIs) that the local governments come into contact with, or even to notify the Feds that they are in custody. These places are not literally sanctuaries in the medieval-Quasimodo sense. Local authorities cannot physically interfere to stop federal agents from seizing a UI in local custody if they learn about it and want to do so.  But, sanctuary cities do refuse to (1) spend resources arresting and holding ever person they encounter they suspect might be here illegally, and (2) inform ICE/DHS and hold the person until they Feds come to take them away.  Sanctuary cities say they need to spend scarce law enforcement resources on serious crimes, not enforcing federal immigration law.

But, I don’t think this is over. The idea of sanctuary cities really, really infuriates many conservatives. They think it’s unconstitutional. Plus, the idea of big blue cities defying law and order to protect people who are here without permission (and are disproportionally  violent criminals, our President said) hits all the conservative outrage sweet spots. Since I’m seeing progressives going all-in to support the undocumented and defy the GOP’s push to reduce illegal immigration, I think this now almost totally partisan issue will be with us for a long time.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What are sanctuary cities? Different meanings of, history of.
  2. Moral and policy pros and cons.
  3. Constitutional and legal pros and cons
  4. Trump’s actions and their legality.
  5. Bigger picture on immigration.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: July 3 fireworks – What does the United States stand for?

Monday’s Mtg: What Should Americans Be Nostalgic For?

Candidate Donald Trump’s explicit appeal to nostalgia, to “make America great again,” was one of the keys to his victory. We never “win” anymore and he alone (!) knew how to return us to our former greatness. It would be essay to do, actually, since the only thing keeping us from a restoring this glorious past was weak leaders. Political sophisticates laughed it all off, confident that, like other populists, he was just telling folks what they wanted to hear, that the best of a gauzily-recollected past could be easily restored through force of will.

Who’s laughing now?  More specifically for Monday’s meeting, what did President Trump mean about making “us” “great” “again?” What did the voters that responded to it hear? Why are so many Americans so nostalgic suddenly and why? A sea of ink has been spilled already trying to answer those questions, so I thought we should take our best shot.

I imagine our main focus will be trying to understand why and how Trump marshalled a vague nostalgia and those beliefs’ ongoing role in our current political crisis.  But, I think a close look at the phenomenon could be enlightening in other capacities.  The study of nostalgia appears to be its own little sub-field in social science these days. According to Professor Google, experts believe that feeling nostalgic about the past (whether a real or imagined past) is common.  It’s normal and even healthy. Every generation pines for the good old days.  Even these kids today, with the hair and the clothes and the Mary Jane.

But, a lot of people have commented on the dark undertone of today’s highly-politicized nostalgia. Trump’s vision of an American Carnage is of a glorious past betrayed by domestic traitors and rapacious foreigners.  It’s zero-sum and divisive, authoritarian, and pretty much unobtainable the way he promised it.  Still, in my opinion voters’ desire to go back to happier times should not be haughtily dismissed as only a desire for restored White supremacy or U.S. hyper-dominance and imperialism.  I think we could have a great discussion on many aspects of this topic, not just the worst ones.  Maybe using these questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is nostalgia? Are there different kinds of it or motives for it? What psychological and sociological functions does it perform?
  2. Are Americans really more nostalgic than usual these days? Why? Who is the most/least nostalgic and what does that tell us?
  3. What specifically do (some) people want back? (e.g., personal/physical security? Economic opportunity/independence? Societal respect? Societal morality or hierarchy? Racial, ethnic, or gender privilege? National prestige/domination?)
  4. Who and what do they blame?
  5. How did nostalgia get weaponized for our current political era?
  6. Can politics really restore any of these things? What do people want our leaders to do?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK:  Sanctuary cities.

Monday’s Mtg: Lessons of the Six Day War, 50 years later

It started on June 5, 1967, and was all over by June 10. In response to Egyptian military mobilization and naval blockade, Israel’s air force attacked Egypt pre-emptively. Syria and then Jordan joined in, backed by other Arab countries, and Israeli ground forces fought and won on three fronts. An armistice (not peace) was signed on June 11.

As you know, the Six Day War transformed the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. To quote a 50th anniversary NYT retrospective the war “tripled Israel’s landmass overnight and gave it dominion over the lives of more than a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” It also gave Israel control of the Sinai desert and Golan Heights, killed off pan-Arabism, and set the stage for five more decades of war and strife.  Just for starters.

I don’t really have an agenda on this one. I know there is a lot of historical controversy concerning a number of revisionist histories of the Six Day War and its immediate aftermath. I just don’t follow these issues closely enough – nor do I have the time – to link to all of the major POVs and arguments. I just thought it would be interesting to try to take a half-century perspective on the war’s legacy. Perhaps some of you are well-versed in this particular era.

Here is some general background on the Six Day War and a few retrospectives.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  What should Americans be nostalgic about?

Monday’s Mtg: Does Foreign Aid Work?

As most of you know, U.S. foreign aid is one of the least understood – and despised — government endeavors. Most people wildly exaggerate how much we spend. Most people think foreign aid is about 25%- 30% or more of the federal budget. The real figure is one percent, and more than one-third of that is security assistance, not economic aid.

There are also lots and lots of misconceptions and anachronisms in public perceptions of where the money goes and for what purposes. Forget sacks of grain for starving Ethiopians and well-digging in quaint little villages. We still do that. But American developmental assistance abroad is much more sophisticated and strategic than it used to be. We help to improve education, energy and food security, financial stability, regulatory regimes, gender equality, and much more. We also try to coordinate our assistance worldwide development goals, other countries’ aid, and private and non-profit sector developmental aid. Which countries receive the lion’s share of aid might surprise you, too

Yet, surely foreign aid’s small size and public ignorance about it do not by themselves justify the aid or prove that it works, for us or the recipients. Measuring success can be tricky and depends on the objectives, the performance measure, the available data – and the eye of the beholder. All of these were thorny issues back when I followed development issues slightly closely a few decades ago. I am looking forward to learning what’s new in measuring results. (I know there is now one office that coordinates our foreign aid.)

Since this is one of those some-details-needed topics I will open our meeting with a brief tutorial on (1) what we spend our foreign aid money on and (2) what the big goals are. Here are the questions I will focus on and some background readings.

A new schedule for June – Sept will be available.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What: What does the USG spend its foreign aid funds on? Who spends it, doing what, and in which countries?
  2. Why: Goals, objectives, strategies.
  3. Context: How does our foreign aid fit in with other countries’, UN/World Bank/other IGOs, and private sector aid?
  4. Benefits: How do they measure success? Benefits to recipient countries. Benefits to USA including strategic/political. Which aid is vital versus elective v. obsolete/harmful?
  5. Alternatives to aid: Aid v. trade. Private charity and its limits. Etc.
  6. Public support and future: Why is foreign aid so unpopular? Does/should it matter? Will the need for it ever fade away?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Lessons of the Six Day War, 50 years later.

Topic ideas for a crazy June – Sept 2017

Very soon Ali and Linda will help me select topics for the next 3-4 months.  Any ideas?  Add them in comments or contact me.

Politics, foreign relations, religion, philosophy, history, science, culture, or anything else that makes for a good conversation.