Go to previous post:
Memory hole.

Go to Electrolite's front page.

Go to next post:
Press releases we never finished reading.

Our Admirable Sponsors

July 2, 2003

This could be you. If you have any doubt that our prison systems are out of control, contemplate this: California bans prisoners from receiving any information from the Internet even via hardcopy mail. Yes, that’s right; you may not mail a printout of an email message to a California inmate, much less a printed-out web page. If it’s information from the Internet, it’s out of bounds.

Notes an EFF attorney, Lee Tien: “Even the California Department of Corrections refers people to their website, although it is apparently off limits to California prisoners.”

Here’s some of the information that the State of California forbids its prisoners to see.

One of the bright lines dividing any society is that between people who worry about prisons, because with enough bad luck any of us might wind up in one; and those who don’t, because they’re convinced it’ll never happen to them. We often hear that “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.” On the other hand, a liberal is sometimes a conservative who’s been arrested. Advice: Do some caring in advance. Life has surprises in store. [07:39 AM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on This could be you.:

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 09:58 AM:

I've been both mugged and arrested (the former via stupidity, the latter via mistaken identity).

I'm a liberal. (Actually I'm a socialist, but...)

Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 10:08 AM:

I used to be rather conservative, until I spent two years as a Fed Ex driver in some of the poorest, most third-world counties in rural Arkansas. Such things change your world view.

Chuck Divine ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 10:18 AM:

This story in the Washington Post of June 21st should scare the hell out of even the most law and order conservative:

Mistaken Arrests Leave Pr. George's Murder Unsolved

Why do some people take the police so seriously?

Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 11:17 AM:

I think a lot of conservative policies are based on a firm belief in social non-mobility and security in life circumstances.

If you think poor people are always going to be poor (I mean real poor people, not under-earning young adults of higher classes) then there's no point writing tax policy in order to lighten their load. It's no big deal if poor people are working all the time just to get by, and unable to improve their education in order to get ahead. They won't get ahead anyway.

On the other hand, if you think poor people can move out of poverty, through education, then it makes sense to lighten their load so they are more likely to have the time and money required to go to school and get a better job or career. Taxing wealthier people more heavily in order to make this possible only makes sense, because society is better off if you can move people from poverty to higher income levels. That also produces people better able to consume, so it's good for business.

Granted, not every poor person is going to bother to improve their education, but they won't even try if it's difficult to even get started.

The other side of the coin is that conservatives seem to think they'll never get arrested, never go to jail, never lose their job and have difficulty finding a new one of similiar pay and benefits, never lose their insurance coverage, etc, etc, etc. Thus they have no use for the 'safety net' social programs, no conception of how universal health care might be better than the current system, etc. (If you can't conceive of ever lacking medical insurance, I'm sure it's easy to see nationalized health care as a more dangerous threat than lack of coverage.)

I suppose it's partially the lack of empathy so often seen in conservatives, an inability to consider the circumstances of other people.

Daniel J. Boone ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 11:57 AM:

It's odd how empathetic liberals never seem to have any empathy for the people who are going to have to pay their higher taxes. That's the mugging that turns people away from modern liberalism. Some people just just can't tolerate the pain or indignity or moral outrage of being relieved of their goods at gunpoint, whether it "only makes sense" or not.

Veering back toward the subject of the post, I very much agree with Patrick. When you live in a society where prison rape is considered a humorously piquant enhancement of justice, it only makes sense to do some caring in advance.

Nick ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 11:59 AM:

That's one of the strangest rules I've heard, not least because it seems so loose that it could be used to pretty much ban anything on the grounds that 'it's on the net somewhere'.

But I've been lucky and been neither mugged nor arrested...so I should be just a wishy-washy centrist.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 12:07 PM:

I've been mugged, by two recidivist reprobates. I've also paid income taxes. I think I'd rather stay a liberal, if it's all the same to everyone.

Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 12:29 PM:

Hmmm. A guy tried to mug me back on Christmas Eve in 1999, but I beat the crap out of him. Does that make me a liberal hawk?

Sylvia Li ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 12:51 PM:

I promise I won't get into an extended argument with Mr. Rugged Pioneer there, but I do have to mention that having paid taxes now at both American and Canadian rates, I am convinced that you get what you pay for. And calling current American tax rates a "mugging" is hyperbole so ludicrous that... well, it is about like puffing a Japanese post-cyberpunk novel as "terrorism".

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 01:05 PM:

Well, I've never been mugged -- beiing 6'4", over 300 lbs and looking like an grizzly bear with a bad haircut generally results in various types choosing to cross to the other side of the street. (How little they know . . . I'm a teddy bear).

But I know prisons in California -- that's where my wife and I spend some of our weekends. We work in detention ministry for the Diocese of Fresno (south/central San Joaquin Valley), the Roman Catholic diocese with more prisoners than any other on earth (tens of thousands in dozens of facilities). We generally work in a particular state prison, but I have filled in at a new federal high max facility nearby. We do the usual things, hold classes, work with the inmate choir, help with Mass or communion services. Mostly, it's just being present, there to talk to, there to bear witness that they are not forgotten. (Detention ministry also works with corrections staff -- in my experience they are a pretty decent bunch, by and large, and they are affected by being inside much as prisoners are.) Quite simply, it's the time we treasure most, and it is also exhausting. It also leads to some interesting experiences.

I'm not familiar with this particular measure, but it does not surprise me, and I am not surprised that there is a lawsuit over it. Everything in a prison system is driven by explicit rules, which are driven by (in order):
- physical security (always #1)
- cost
- balancing interests and desires of inmates, employees, and the public (often spelled out explicity in state law -- and remember, the prison guards union is one of the biggest lobbies in CA)
- practicality and convenience.
In particular, they are extremely careful with communications to and from inmates from anyone but a lawyer, and they have good reaons for that -- again, physical security is #1. You can screw up a lot of ways working in a prison and get by, but if you are in some way responsible for a prisoner getting lose, you are likely gone.

What you get is bureaucracy, a system designed to prevent mistakes, not necessarity to get anything done. There's a whole world of groups trying to influence the behavior of prison administrations, from vendors to unions to advocacy groups. Lobbying and lawsuits are not uncommon, and prison regulations are commonly written in reaction to those pressures. I haven't been doing this long, but I could already tell you stories.

Two important points though. When someone says "This could be you", don't laugh -- the difference between many of us and those inside is that they got caught. One experienced prison chaplain told me that inmates fall into three groups. There is generally a very small group that should not be inside at all, and that you have to deal with that or leave. There is a larger group that is simply evil (no better word), and are just where they need to be. (Yes, I have been scared silly inside. It happens.) The majority of inmates have been found guilty of being stupid. And most of us have been just as stupid, on one occasion or another. If you are honest, you can probably think of some incident in your life that could have put you in front of a judge if things broke differently.

The other thing is that more people need to be involved with this, in all sorts of ways. If nothing else, visit. In this state, these days, there is a prison near just about everyone (how special) and there are groups that arrange for visits with inmates that do not get visitors regularly. Regular contact with the outside is strongly associated with staying out.

zizka ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 01:21 PM:

America's enormous prison population is the 500 lb. gorilla of American politics. It isn't an issue and it isn't talked about. Knee-jerk tough-on-crime slogans is all we get from anyone but the Libertarians.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 01:29 PM:

Hey, "Daniel J. Boone" is a decent guy, on the evidence of his blog, and perfectly welcome around here, whatever pseudonym he wants to use.

I suspect his response to the charge that "mugging" is an overwrought way of talking about taxation would be to point out that, you know, if you don't pay your taxes, eventually force will be used on you, up to the level necessary.

I'm not a libertarian and I think the differences between being taxed and being mugged are pretty significant, but I don't exclude this point of view from my compass of arguments worth considering. To reiterate an old Electrolite position, I think liberals and libertarians have worthwhile things to say to one another. (I would include conservatives in that as well, except that there don't seem to actually be any conservatives any more.)

Hey, Scott, so far the closest I've come in my adult life to being mugged is when a teenager pinched my wallet in an open market in London. I actually felt the wallet leave my pocket and saw him dart away, and I was so completely pissed off that I actually managed to catch up with him, grab him by the coat, and punch him until he dropped my wallet. (Due credit to the very large transvestite who helpfully stuck a leg out to trip the malfeasant as he ran. See, Londoners can be public-spirited!)

Claude, I think I have a pretty good sense of the real considerations that underly a lot of prison regs. (At one point Teresa was the assistant to a lawyer who had a contract to provide routine legal services -- divorce, etc. -- to inmates of the Washington state system. Opening his daily mail rapidly led to the epiphanic realization that most of these people are [1] bad and [2] dumb.) But it's not just hard to see how banning printed-out email and web pages contributes materially to anything except petty control. It's hard to see even how such a rule can be rationalized.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 01:49 PM:

My apologies, Patrick, if I managed to sound like I agreed with this rule. It doesn't make sense to me either -- but it does not surprise me at all. It's not rational, it's a bureaucracy. Maybe I am just getting too used to it . . . an ocupational hazard of this work. You get so used to just ignoring it or finding a way around within the rules.

(Side issue. Considering some of her, well, magisterial posts lately on vanity publishers and that ilk, I wonder if Teresa is reminded of those former legal clients from time to time. Compare and contrast -- hmmm.)

Daniel J. Boone ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 02:01 PM:

Patrick, thanks for the kind word. But please don't tell the State Department that the name on the passport they gave me is a pseudonym. They were quite convinced by the birth certificate I presented, and I'd hate to have them chasing me for documents fraud.

As for mugging, I'm also one of those tall heavy guys that get left alone on the streets despite being perfectly harmless. However, I did once have my way barred by a huge man with prison muscles who said very roughly "How about some money." (Note lack of question mark.) Without conscious thought, and without breaking stride, I shouldered him aside (he was blocking the sidewalk of a busy street by standing in the narrow passage between the wall and a utility pole) and proceeded on up the street.

My walking companions say he just stared after me with a shellshocked expression on his face. Apparently that had never happened to him before. As for me, I just had a habit of ignoring aggressive panhandlers, and rightly or wrongly that's the subroutine he triggered.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 02:12 PM:

Daniel, I have never had quite that experience. Not being particularly nimble while growing up (and I am well on my way to a brace and a cane now) I became overly sensitive to hitting things and people when moving around. I would have stopped earlier -- your approach might be better. Depends on the kind of day the guy was having . . .

Sylvia Li ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 02:16 PM:

Well, yeah, the "force will be used" argument is technically true enough, but then, it applies equally to any level of taxation at all, down to a tenth of a cent.

I do apologize to Daniel for thinking his name was a blog handle intended to be some sort of position statement, and being, mm, more than a little bit snarky in referring to it. Sorry, Daniel - I ought to have known better.

But I repeat: with government as with anything else, you get what you pay for. Even libertarians don't advocate abolishing government entirely; that's anarchism. (BTW, I just re-read Romain Gary's "Lady L"... greatly recommended, if you can find a copy. An elegant little book, beautifully structured, works on lots of levels, and it stands up well to multiple re-reads. It includes a fine satiric portrait of early anarchists.) So even with libertarians, the debate is really about which level of taxation is justifiable, not about whether taxation inherently equals robbery at gunpoint; the "backed with force" argument tries to prove too much, and ends by proving nothing.

Tina ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 03:11 PM:

"It's odd how empathetic liberals never seem to have any empathy for the people who are going to have to pay their higher taxes."

Well, except the people proposing things that involve higher taxes also have to pay them, so it's possible they've already considered this and simply find it worth the price. I also note that some people simply feel taxes should be apportioned differently to begin with, so it's less of a "pay more overall to fund x" as "pay less for y in favor of funding x" mindset.

That having been said, on this specific point, two other things occur:

1. The object of supporting better prisoner education is at least in theory a lower rate of recidivism, which in turn presumably would lower prison maintenance costs overall; it's quite possible it would pay for itself or even further reduce the tax burden.

2. This particular instance involves forbidding something the state wouldn't have to pay for to begin with (at least in the case of individuals mailing printouts), and IMO it's kind of strange it's forbidden for several reasons. The first is that widespread refusal of Internet material just seems rather draconian, of course, but also the fact is it's so easily worked around. How would they know if I picked up information on, say, the SRA via the Internet or via word of mouth?

Jon Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 03:33 PM:

Must just be my insubordinate mind, but would that mean you could mail a California prisoner a letter that had originally been an email (or include information from a web page) if you just stripped out all immediate evidence that would ID it as coming from the Internet? Extra work involved, but still.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 04:08 PM:

Jon, that would just mean you could get away with it. It wouldn’t make it legal.

Mr. Boone, I’ve never voted for a tax I wouldn’t be willing to pay myself, and I’ve voted for very few — an increase in luxury taxes that among other things covered cigarettes is about all I can think of — that I haven’t ended up paying myself. My compassion for those who have to pay such taxes is pretty much limited to the people who have a harder time paying them than I do.

Jon Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 04:16 PM:

Wouldn't necessarily make it illegal either. I was under the impression that this wasn't a law, but simply a regulation put in place by the prison system. Breaking a regulation isn't illegal (possibly immoral, unethical, and unwise, but that's not the same).

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 04:33 PM:

IMO the key thing needed for prison reform is the enfranchisement of prisoners. I know that denying convicted felons the vote is a long American tradition, but if they got the vote everything else would fall in line.

Yeah, there are problems with it. And privatizing the prison industry has made some problems nearly insurmountable. But it's worth a try.

As for taxes: I'm not sure if it's still true that Americans pay the lowest tax rates in the industrialized world. If it is, we should be ashamed.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 04:45 PM:

I will not not not get involved in this libertarian anti-tax thing again. Not not not.

I have never been mugged, but I have been arrested. I'm pretty darn liberal but I have my conventional moments. I'm pretty much convinced, from conversations with, you know, actual people that those who think people in prisons don't deserve to be treated as human beings are firmly convinced that all those people are actually guilty of serious crimes, that punishing them will reform them. that they are, in fact, animals and not human beings, that treating them badly will not damaged either those being so treated nor those doing the treating, and nobody 'nice' would ever end up in prison or jail to start with. How can one have empathy with those one considers not human? Why even try?


Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 04:57 PM:

I suppose it is possible that some prisoner in California will be caught up in a court case in another state, where the Courts have started using the internet to send documents to lawyers -- if I remember right it's happening in Oregon.

Of course, if it is printed out it can go through the same system as any other paper mail. This sounds like a piece of sloppy legislative drafting.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 05:35 PM:

Mary: Yeah, we get that some. My wife once said, "Some people just don't understand when you say one of your best friends is doing 25 to life." I am not sure if some of these people are afraid or just thick -- the only thing that will change them is the direct enounter with someone inside that they, for some reason, must see and know as a real person, not as some "other" that can be dismissed or denied. Then they have to wrestle (along with the rest of us) with the conflict between the person in front of them and what that person has done, and perhaps might do again. I'm not sure if anything short of that will work.

Dave: that would be the one almost absolute exception. There is a ton of case law on legal papers and correspondence of prisoners.

Daniel J. Boone ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 06:04 PM:

Sylvia, no problem about the name thing. I've got a pretty thick skin about it; you pretty much have to start singing the racist version of the Daniel Boone song ("But the bear was bigger so he ran like a....") to make the needle of my annoyance meter tick on that score.

As for "even libertarians don't advocate abolishing government entirely; that's anarchism" -- correct. I am an anarchist; pleased to make your acquaintance. I believe it was our host who used first used the l-word here.

As to the pointless tax debate, I didn't mean to start that and don't want to fan the flames here when I have a perfectly good blog of my own. I just wanted to make a mildly funny crack that would remind people that some folks are just as genuinely aggrieved about taxation-at-gunpoint (please pardon the redundancy) as liberals famously are about poverty. It's not so much a lack of compassion as it is a difference in values.

Tuxedo Slack ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 06:37 PM:

"taxation-at-gunpoint (please pardon the redundancy)"

If there were a redundancy there, I'd consider pardoning it.

Sylvia Li ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 06:52 PM:

Ah, well that's different, then; at least you're self-consistent. Tell you what, Daniel, I'll wander over and read your blog, and stop bothering the nice folks here like Mary Kay.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 08:31 PM:

LOL. Why, thank you Sylvia. I started to say in my earlier comment that I agreed with you about having thought about it and decided it was worth it. That was after I said I wasn't going to get involved. So I deleted it. But, psst, don't tell okay, I *do* agree.


andrew ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2003, 02:36 AM:

..."Do some caring in advance. Life has surprises in store"...

Rawlsian social justice? If we could be asked, before knowing how the lottery of birth will pay out, and where life will ultimately take us, we would probably try to ensure a certain level of well-being and security to those in the lowest position, the worst-case scenario. Unfortunately, in most cases we do know where we will end up, making empathy an exercise, rather than innate.

But can I share some anecdotes? You wouldn't believe the trouble that a working-class white kid could get into: Mugged at knifepoint, in downtown Pittsburgh. My 16 year-old, 130 pound frame shoved into a narrow alley and slammed against the wall. Money quote, "First, I'm gonna stab ya"...He didn't, but I'll never forget that line. Still a liberal though.

Been in jail myself over ten times. Most of the people there just can't keep their sh*t together, as it goes. Drugs, drunkenness and financial transgressions (vehicle registrations, licenses suspended, unpaid tickets will all get you warrants and arrested) Baloney sandwiches, psychotic cellmates, screams of the completely insane or those withdrawing from drugs. Just true, not melodrama. As a trustee, I've cleaned blood and feces smeared on the walls of the isolation tanks.
...but what lands most people in jail is simply an inability to control the chaos in their lives. It's a common human condition, but most of us have more of a buffer - financial, family, or class. Whether the chaos or poverty comes first, causing the other, who can say?


Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2003, 11:26 AM:

Am I missing something here?

I suppose I can understand prisoners being banned from using the internet (real-time censoring isn't feasible, let alone the logistical nightmare of arranging for access that didn't introduce physical security issues). However, what's the point of this ban?

I don't mean, "what could justify this ban in the face of the overwhelming free speech issues". I mean "why would the DoC bother to ban printed internet material?" Isn't enforcing this ban more of a hassle to them than treating all incoming mail the same? What does the DoC gain from this rule? I don't see this behavior as rational, let alone justified.

Is there something inherently different about internet-originated content that makes this ban meaningful? Was this a reaction to prisoners being mailed whole printouts of the spr website? Were they having to daily throw out tons and tons of printouts from white supremacy sites? Do they have reason to believe that imposing this ban will significantly reduce their workload in terms of sorting and censoring incoming mail?

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2003, 12:35 PM:

...but what lands most people in jail is simply an inability to control the chaos in their lives. It's a common human condition, but most of us have more of a buffer - financial, family, or class. Whether the chaos or poverty comes first, causing the other, who can say?

From what I've seen (and it isn't near as much) I think you are spot on, Andrew. What frustrates me and my wife is that we see people we work with who go home with none of that resolvced, and we know that there is a good chance if we stick it out, we will see them again. We talk about this all the time, and we look at some the programs that are out there, and we still don't know what to do beyond what we are doing. Prison can only, at best, provide an exremely controlled and stable environment, pushing down that chaos for a while. Some people do great inside, and when they get out, start having problems even before they get home.

Andrew, some would say that what is needed is an essentially internal transformation, and point to some of the faith based programs such as Prison Fellowship (which others have serious problems with) as an answer. What is your experience with that?

John Boston ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2003, 02:07 PM:

Daniel Martin asked, in substance, what rational basis there was for the California prison policy banning all material downloaded from the Internet. The answer is apparently none. The lower court opinion is not on the Web. However, in the course of my job I make notes on federal court prison decisions, and here is my summary of the relevant part of that case. References to Turner and the Turner standard mean the 1987 Supreme Court case of Turner v. Safley, which provides the analytical framework that lower courts must use in deciding challenges to prison policies.

"The plaintiff complained of a policy barring prisoners from receiving any information downloaded from the Internet. At 1108: 'A prisoner's constitutional right to receive information by incoming mail is undisputed.'
9"Applying the Turner standard, the court finds that the defendants have not established a valid, rational connection to their legitimate interests. If their concern is the volume of mail, they can limit the volume of mail; prohibiting all mail from the Internet is as arbitrary as banning particular postage classes. They fail to articulate any reason to believe that Internet-produced materials are more likely than photocopied or handwritten materials to contain coded, criminal correspondence or that they are harder to trace than other correspondence, since the mail is sent by identifiable correspondents, and e-mail is generally easier to trace because there is usually an IP address in the header. In any case, defendants screen the content of prisoner mail, not the identity of the sender, in their existing procedures.
9"Plaintiffs have no reasonable alternative means of exercising their rights because there is information of particular interest to prisoners that is only available on the Internet. Defendants' argument that the information could be transcribed--which would require the availability of individuals willing to write all the stuff down--is not a practical alternative.
9"Defendants' claim of burden from voluminous materials can be addressed by directly regulating the quantity of mail, which responds both to the 'impact on prison resources' and the 'available alternatives' prongs of Turner."

If anybody wants to read the actual opinion and has access to a law library, Westlaw, or Lexis, it's Clement v. California Dept. of Corrections, 220 F.Supp.2d 1098 (N.D.Cal. 2002).

John Boston

Daniel J. Boone ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2003, 07:07 PM:

I can help with that. Here's a temporary link to the Clement opinion; download it now because I don't propose to keep this up on the web very long.


doggo ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2003, 03:14 PM:

I used to be very liberal. Then I spent some time in Cabrini Green. Then I was a lot less liberal, but not quite moderate.

Recently I had a very special friend murdered in a botched purse snatching. The guy choked the life out of her for $10 and a credit card.

I have a cousin in jail for murder. I've never visited him.

I'll tell you what, it not quite as simple as you might believe. Maybe if we'd quite wasting our resources on the "war against drugs", and use our justice system to prosecute murderers, rapists, and thieves, epecially corporate thieves, then maybe the resources of the justice system could be used to ensure guilt and prevent the conviction of the innocent.

And prison is prison. I don't give a damn if they can't get information from the Internet. They shouldn't even have television.

I'm all for the death penalty too. If the justice system isn't overloaded by recidivists, and petty drug offenses, then the liklihood of bad convictions would be lessened.

Besides, what's the ratio of innocents executed in death penalty cases to innocents executed by criminals on the street?

Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2003, 03:55 PM:

Aren't we supposed to be better than criminals, or are we just aiming for parity with them now?

doggo ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 11:19 AM:


Absolutely not aiming for parity.

My point about the death penalty is that I'm willing to accept a small number of failures in conviction (that is, innocents sentenced to death), in order to reduce the larger number of innocent people killed by murderers.

But at this point, our justice system is mired with people in jail for socially archaic crimes.

This is not to say that I don't support efforts to reduce the causes of serious crimes. Things like an economy that produces jobs. Healthcare that works, including support for mental-healthcare and addiction treatment. And other programs which reduce elements in the society which produce criminals and crime.

But I admit, I personally don't have the answers. I'll leave that to people who're much smarter than me.

pericat ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 09:26 PM:

I am not willing to accept a small number, a tiny number, a miniscule number of innocent people put to death ritualistically in an effort to reduce the numbers of innocent people done to death casually.

Even if it were proved to have that effect, which it is not.

Innocents done to death by the judicial system signify other than an "acceptable rate of failure"-- they are people this self and same judicial system exists to protect. That it may at times fail to protect innocents is one thing. For it to then sink to the depths of randomly murdering them for any reason, including incompetence, is monstrous.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 09:56 PM:

Doggo, let's reduce this a bit in scale. What if you were told that the sacrfice of a single non-criminal could give each of fifteen other non-criminals a 10-40% chance of living another ten to fifty years, when they other wise might have been killed in the next decade. (These figures are pure proctonumerology.)

Oh, let's make it a bit more interesting: The sacrifice is someone near and dear to you -- spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, child, best friend, whoever you love best (No, you personally don't get sacrificed; you don't get off that easy.)

And the fifteen other folks? You never get to be sure if they would have died otherwise.

Now would you go for it?

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 10:24 AM:

Not to mention the fact that it's generally pretty clear that a murder occurred; and once the wrong person is put to death for it, the case is almost certainly closed (unless the executed person's family is persistent in "clearing hir name"). What's that mean? It means that executing the wrong person lets an actual murderer get off scott free.

I don't think you'd support that, Doggo. But since you have openly condoned the judicial murder of innocent people, I'm not sure.

doggo ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 01:41 PM:


"Oh, let's make it a bit more interesting: The sacrifice is someone near and dear to you -- spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, child, best friend, whoever you love best"

Okay. Done. Someone near and dear to HAS been sacrificed. Murdered to be exact. May 10th as a matter of fact.

Let me give you a clue, until you've lost someone you love to violent crime you have no idea how evil criminals really are. Nor do you understand the impact it has on the lives around the victim. Murder destroys the lives of the survivors as well. It's like dropping a stone into a pond.

I'll say this, anyone who values life so little as to kill someone else for $10 & a credit card, and brag about it to his "homies", doesn't deserve all the compassion you all espouse.

You guys forget, the people we're talking about would snuff you out if you so much as inconvenienced them. And I resent my taxes going feed and clothe and house them.

I still believe it's worth the risk of wrongly executing a small percentage of innocent people in order to exact vengeance, justice on those who aren't innocent. To rid the world of people who would pass on either genetically, or socially the kind of values that believe that taking someones life casually is acceptable.

And your point is well taken Avram, the risk is very high at this point, the justice system being the way it is. I would want the percentage to be very low. How low? I have no idea.

And let's "make it a bit more interesting", I was the number one suspect there for a while. Imagine how that feels.

Believe me, I don't think of the death penalty casually in any way. I understand the consequences of innocent people being executed, it could have been me. I understand the consequences of guilty people being executed. They have families, and loved ones too. I just believe the price to be paid for breaking society's laws and taking a life should be harsher than allowing someone to have a life, even if it is in prison.

Like I said, I don't have the answers. I know the justice system needs to be reformed. I know that it needs to work better to prevent innocent people from being incarcerated and executed. A lot better. I just don't know how to do that. But I do support capital punishment.

And Xopher, I don't believe execution is murder. It is killing a person to be sure, but not murder.

doggo ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 02:35 PM:

Let me just add one more point and I'll trouble you no further.

The experience of losing a loved one to murder is unlike losing someone in any other way. Many of us have lost loved ones to old age, illness, accidents, war, maybe even execution. Murder is different. The closest is probably accidents, but death by accident doesn't have the element of malice and intention. But it has the same suddeness, the unexpectedness, the unreasonableness.

For those of you on your moral high horse I suggest to you that your feelings might change when you see the dead body of a girlfriend, mother, father, best friend, etc., and you realize that someone stood over them in their last moments and actively made it their business to take your loved one's life. Or when you examine the crime scene or autopsy photographs. Or read the police report. Or attend the trial.

And for those of you who remain faithful to your God and moral principles and decry capital punishment even after the brutal murder of a loved one. Well, you people are saints. And bless you.

"a conservative is a liberal who92s been mugged." "liberal is sometimes a conservative who92s been arrested." These are very trite cliches, but they do hold some truth. Our life experiences change the way we think, what we believe. This is why so many young people are so ardently one way or the other. They see things in black and white. They have yet to experience the things that will cause them to question their beliefs.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 03:56 PM:

Doggo, you're playing bait-and-switch. You were talking about executing innocent people, and my example was about executing innocent people, and then you swapped in "how evil criminals really are". Who cares how evil criminals are; we were talking about killing non-criminals.

What you're doing, in a very literal sense, is hating the sinner more than the sin. You're talking about letting your zeal for revenging yourself on murderers control you to the point of committing murder yourself -- which is what the execution of an innocent is. Of course, you're not talking about actually doing the dirty deed yourself; you want the state to do it for you, so you can distribute the blame over all the rest of us.

Yeah, if someone I love were brutally murdered, I'd want to murderer dead. I wouldn't want him executed by the state, I'd want to take him apart with my own hands and choice of tools. I'd be insane with grief and rage. But right now, I'm calm and rational, and that's the condition we expect people to be in when carrying out justice. That's why we wouldn't, say let a murderer's trial be presided over by a judge who was the spouse of one of the victims.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 04:32 PM:

Avram, I don't think you understand Doggo. He thinks murderers are so evil that it justifies killing anyone, especially anyone who can be mistaken for the murderer. "...and everyone who looks like you."

And Doggo, "executing" a person who did not do the crime is just plain old murder. That's what you're advocating, and that puts you in a category...with at least one member you wouldn't care to share a category with.

I realize that somebody being put to death for that crime would make you feel better, but don't you care that it's the right someone? I guess not. The fact that the real murderer would also be getting off doesn't appear to bother you, either.

Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2003, 05:02 PM:

Doggo, you wrote (Quote A): I still believe it's worth the risk of wrongly executing a small percentage of innocent people in order to exact vengeance, justice on those who aren't innocent.

But you also wrote (Quote B): Let me give you a clue, until you've lost someone you love to violent crime you have no idea how evil criminals really are. Nor do you understand the impact it has on the lives around the victim. Murder destroys the lives of the survivors as well. It's like dropping a stone into a pond.

I agree. Murder is a terrible thing. So why are you prepared to murder even "a small percentage of innocent people" for the sake of vengeance? If you really think murder is so terrible, if you really mean what you said in Quote B, you could not possibly write so casually about murdering innocent people as you did in Quote A.

One or the other represents the real you: Quote A, in which you are happy to murder "a small percentage of innocent people", or Quote B, where you recognise the real horror of murder. Which?

Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 12:52 PM:


I apologize for responding to you at length on a topic that is painful, but you are touching on some of the vital and difficult issues facing the United States today, and I'd like to try and present a more liberal viewpoint in a practical, rather than fanatic, fashion.

Let me start with this quote from John Adams. A part of it will be familiar, and was a watchword for our justice system for a very long time.

It is more beneficial that many guilty persons should escape unpunished than one innocent person should suffer, ... [W]hen innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, the subject will exclaim, ?it is immaterial to me whether I behave well or ill, for virtue itself is no security.? And if such a sentiment as this should take place in the mind of a subject there would be an end to all security whatsoever.

Many differences of opinion about how the laws and prisons should work revolve around exactly what the legal system is supposed to do. You can divide it, roughly, into punishment versus rehabilitation. However, both of those views are centered on the criminal, and so I think that both of them are flawed. The thing that a fair and just legal system should do is protect society, never forgetting that those accused of a crime, and even those who have committed one are part of society.

Many people dispute that last point. However, society is not, in this usage, those people of whom we approve. I am not talking about "polite society." Rather, I am talking about the people we live with who can and do affect our lives. Criminals are most certainly a part of our community. They affect us in many ways, both by their acts (legal and illegal) and by our responses, including the cost of incarceration.

Most prisoners we plan to release. Generally, it is agreed that depriving someone of their freedom is a bad thing, a punishment. We expect that the unpleasant experience of incarceration will cause prioners to behave better, so that they won't end up in jail again. However, recidivism is 80%. People come out more inclined to commit crimes than when they went in. The system is broken.

And prison is prison. I don't give a damn if they can't get information from the Internet. They shouldn't even have television.

That's the strictly punishment model of penal corrections. It doesn't work. There's some pretty scary stuff from the 18th and 19th centuries that make it pretty clear that the worse you make it for prisoners, the more vicious and dangerous the criminals become. And in terms of sheer practicality, the wardens don't want television removed. It performs a vital role as a pacifier. It reduces violence, both between prisoners and against prison guards. It provides a non-destructive focus for many inmates. It's not very expensive.

If you remove every pleasure and sweet thing from a person's life, they become bitter, angry, vicious, and misanthropic. These are not characteristics that you want to encourage in people whom you will be releasing into a "less structured environment" in the future.

I still believe it's worth the risk of wrongly executing a small percentage of innocent people in order to exact vengeance, justice on those who aren't innocent. To rid the world of people who would pass on either genetically, or socially the kind of values that believe that taking someones life casually is acceptable.

I'm with John Adams on this one. If innocence is no defense, then there is an end to security. In every oppressive state I can think of, criminal trials were often used to punish people for crimes that they did not commit. The justice system must not be a tool by which the government can oppress its people. Our elaborate and carefully balanced judicial system is designed to protect against exactly that problem. That is why the burden of proof is on the state, not on the defendant. If we become casual about the innocence or guilt of capital crimes ... I'm sorry, but it appalls me. Texas recently argued before the Supreme Court that proof of innocence was not sufficient reason to stay an execution of the innocent man because the state of Texas had followed all the rules and touched all the bases before running to home. I don't remember the outcome. The argument alone left me dumb-struck.

Let me give you a clue, until you've lost someone you love to violent crime you have no idea how evil criminals really are. Nor do you understand the impact it has on the lives around the victim.

I am certain that is true. I'm sorry that such a horrible thing has happened to you, and what good my sympathies are I don't know, but you certainly have them.

I must point out, though, that this is why we have a legal system. This is why vigilantism is illegal. People who have been so very badly wronged are not in the best position to review the evidence, assuming there's any doubt about the identity of the murderer, nor are they in good emotional shape to decide upon an appropriate punishment.

"Appropriate punishment" is the problem, of course. Is the death penalty ever appropriate? If it is, then when is it appropriate? How much vengence should the law extract? How much rehabilitation should it try for? What works, what doesn't, and how do you measure it?

I cannot accept the death penalty because 1) the risk of executing an innocent man is too high -- it might happen once. (Has already happened, and more than once, but move along, move along.) 2) the consequences of the death penalty on the society that uses it is unacceptable to me. We are not omnicient, so if we choose to uses the death penalty, we must accept that there will be an error rate, maybe very low, but there will be errors. See point one. We have proven that we are incapable of applying the death penalty fairly. It falls disproportionately on minorites and poor men. This leads us to accept such inequities in other areas of society as just part of "the way things are." It creates a type of callousness towards other human beings which we deplore in the criminals we execute. We redefine human beings as trash, scum, good for nothing, better off dead. This is not much different than a criminal redefining a victim as trash, scum, in my way, doesn't deserve to live. The fact that we do it collectively, rather than individually, and that we do it for reasons that we believe are just does not change the base fact that we are redefining people as non-people.

Criminals, even the worst of them, are people. It's an uncomfortable thing to accept. It's like facing the fact that prison guards in Auschwitz lived otherwise normal lives, and were not special or vicious, they were just doing their jobs. As a society, we have responsibilities towards criminals, just as they have responsibilities towards us. They have failed in their responsibilities, which is why they are in jail. We should not fail in ours.

The conclusion that rehabilitation is impossible is based on faulty data. The rehab programs in the 60s and 70s were designed poorly. Thirty years later, we have a much better understanding of human motivation. Rehab should not be built on the idea that all people are good. Instead, it should be built upon the foundation of giving the inmate a stake in "straight" society. He needs to have reasons to not break the law. However, the types of projects which create those opportunities are usually the first to be cut. GED and college courses. Trade skills, that sort of thing.

I think that we also need to rethink how we sentence people. I disagree with many things about the sentencing guidelines, and especially with "three-strike" laws. We need to start thinking about the justice system in terms of how it interacts with our lives, as well as the criminals lives, and we need to work with those concepts with the understanding that we're in it together.

After all, Doggo, it might have been you.

I was the number one suspect there for a while. Imagine how that feels.

One of the reasons people have moved to a punishment model of justice is because they were dunned by the media in the 70s (about as liberal as Barry Goldwater) about the technicalities and loopholes that criminals were using to get out of convictions. Those "technicalities and loopholes" are our protections against false conviction. They are what protect us from the police and from the state. Nor do they work perfectly, or even well. The amount of information coming out, just now, about forged evidence and false testimony should make anyone afraid.

I know you said you didn't have any answers. No more do I. However, I agree with you that rolling back the WSD would be a good first step. Re-establishing our rights, putting those technicalities and loopholes back into their proper place as civil rights which should be protected, is another.

Forgive me for the terrible length of this piece. It's another one of those "put a quarter in the soap box" sorts of issues, for me.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 01:40 PM:

Lydia, you may think my point of view is "fanatical," but I think your essay is the best I've read on this topic in at least a decade. I agree with everything in it.

doggo ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 02:49 PM:

Okay, I lied. I am back.

Well Lydia, it's certainly hard to swallow, but of course you make a lot of sense.

This is why it's difficult. This 17 year old kid who allegedly killed my girlfriend(a more complicated relationship than that, but for brevity's sake) had a long history of criminal behavior. Which is disturbing when you consider his age. Not only that, he had just been let out of juvenile detention a few days earlier after being held for some other violent crime.

And I suppose I could accept as justice that he would get a life sentence, but if he got anything less, then he still gets a chance for a life. Something he deprived a hard working, coming up in the world, just starting to live HER OWN life, young woman. But anything less is unthinkable.

For what it's worth Lydia, you've appealed to my more liberal nature. But as you say, our system of justice in the US is terribly flawed.

And I have to say using Texas as an example is just not fair.

Here's a question for the rest of you: do you believe that killing someone in self-defence if your life is in imminent danger is acceptable? If you do, how can you be sure that person is really going to kill you? Do you not protect yourself and potentially die?

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 03:42 PM:

I'd completely agree with a life sentence. THAT can be fixed if the person is later shown to be innocent (we can't give the time back, but we can release and compensate hir).

I believe that the legal standard for self-defense is also ethically acceptable. It's something like "a reasonable belief that the person intended to take your life or do grave bodily harm" -- close to that, anyway.

And if the assailant is "just trying to scare you," tough shit.

That said, I'd use whatever means was most efficient to make myself safe. If I could break his knee and run, I'd choose that over breaking his neck. I understand self-defense classes are a great boon in making such calls on the fly.

But there's a big difference between the immediate danger situation (a combat scenario), and the state electing to put someone to death. There's no clear and present danger from a person locked up and in leg irons. It's a little too coldblooded for me to stomach.

Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2003, 05:09 PM:

Okay, I lied. I am back.

Welcome. :-)

This is why it's difficult. This 17 year old kid who allegedly killed my girlfriend(a more complicated relationship than that, but for brevity's sake) had a long history of criminal behavior. Which is disturbing when you consider his age. Not only that, he had just been let out of juvenile detention a few days earlier after being held for some other violent crime.

So, we're talking about someone for whom the justice system has already failed. A victim of what Joel Rosenberg would call "the catch and release program." Along the way, his parents, his school, his neighborhood, and his friends have probably also failed him. Poverty and injustice, all that noise. I'm sounding like a rabid liberal. I don't think that he should not be held accountable; if he's guilty (he's not yet been convicted, I gather) then it is important that he be held accountable.

The reason to note how he came to be in his position is two-fold. First, it gives us information on how to prevent other kids from growing up into vicious teen-agers like this guy. Second, it gives us information about what kind of expectations we might reasonably have of him, given the types of damage he's already experienced.

The juvie justice system seriously, seriously sucks. It picks children up for progressively greater offenses, gives them minor punishments for serious crimes, and suddenly, when they turn 18 and have gotten used to the system, they are subject to the adult penalties for crimes that they've been committing for years. (Catch and release.) It takes kids from completely unstructured environments and thrusts them into highly structured environments, and the only assistance to acclimatization offered is verbal and physical abuse. It takes kids away from what very few positive relationships they have, and leaves them in the company of people who are not going to treat him well, and with whom they will not form healthy relationships. Then, we bounce them out, again, usually back into the same disatrous life as before.

Kids, especially kids under the age of 14, aren't the same as adults. No sane society treats them as such, and subjecting them to adult penalties is cruel and inappropriate. Unfortunately, what we do now is also cruel and inappropriate. We make it more likely that the kids will grow up to be violent criminals, not less. The whole juvie justice system based on an important insight into human beings, but the way it actually functions creates more problems than it solves.

The murderer that you are most concerned with is 17. Given his age and his history and the current political mood, I assume he will be tried as an adult. I think that's completely reasonable and fair. Assume he's found guilty. What sentence is appropriate? Is life in prison the only appropriate sentence?

It's so hard, and this is the reason that we don't let victims choose the sentences. However, I think that there may be reasons for him to receive something like 25 to life, rather than life without parole. Maybe. So much depends on the particular circumstances.

Most men stop committing violent crimes around the age of 35. An interesting statistic, and one that I think might be useful in sentencing. Rather than sentencing someone to X number of years for a violent crime, perhaps it would be more constructive to sentence criminals to the age of 37, with additional time tacked on for violent behavior after the age of 30.

People change as they age. Since the state has them right in hand, it can have some influence on the types of changes that take place. Once someone is a very different person (and a socially responsible one), the only reason to continue to incarcerate him is revenge. There isn't enough revenge in the entire world to pay for your dear friend's murder, is there? Is life in prison a reasonable downpayment on the vengence you are owed? If it were me, I suspect I would think it was so out of proportion to my loss it would be insignificant. I'm told that God said, "Vengence is mine." Well, I don't believe in God, but it works for me. He's got access to the infinite, and I don't.

I'd like to see more outcome-based sentencing. Sentences which take into account age and patterns of behavior and likelihood of the perpetrators response to various types of incarceration. I absolutely do not want a slap on the wrist for any violent crime. What I want is that the sentence and the incarceration be used as tools to keep the criminal from hurting someone else (including himself), and that if in doing so it's possible to let the criminal out of jail, that is preferable, regardless of his crime. We need better tools and techniques for doing this, but right now we seem to have, as a society, adopted the 19th century attitude that there is a "criminal class," a group of people who are naturally inclined towards crime and violence, and so must be treated differently than the way we treat people who are not from that class -- say, the middle-class white people, for a start.

I think that most people underestimate the enormity of the experience of being imprisoned. My best friend got busted on a drug charge in Oklahoma six or so years ago. He ended up doing 90 days county, less some time for good behavior. He came home an emotional and psychological wreck. I'd talked to him on the telephone frequently while he was there. I could track his downward spiral. He's still not the same guy I remember. He's doing much better, these days, but I can see the damage that was done. 90 days were enough to leave deep, deep scars. On top of that, imagine how tough it is to get a job in this economy with a felony (however old) on your record. That exacerbates the damage. It batters his ego. What kind of damage does 10 years on the inside do, I wonder. People talk about how easy people in jail have it. They don't. Most jail and prison experiences are miserable, boring, lonely, despairing, violent, terrifying, and humiliating. If I had my druthers, I'd make the experience considerably more pleasant, because I think that treating men like vicious animals turns them into vicious animals. Those that were already vicious animals have no reason to change. It's a net loss.

Doggo, I don't think you can get Justice, not Justice with a capital J, the type of Justice that balances the books. I think that what's happened is too enormously wrong for there to be any meaningful balancing. What we can work for is peace. I don't think your sweetie's murderer should be let out of jail at some liberal whim, just because he had it rough when he was a kid. If it takes a life without parole to assure us that he's not a danger to someone else, then that is what it takes. However, I also believe in redemption, and I think that denying it, or attempting to take its possibility is destructive to our society in the long run. No, I'm not a Christian. I've been a rabid anti-Christian for more than 20 years. But I know grace, forgiveness, and redemption when I see them, and I have seen them in the real world, quite separate and apart from any religious context. They are part of the motar of our society.

Justice without mercy is not justice, just as mercy without justice is not merciful. One of the things that being raised a Fundamentalist taught me is that there are no straight lines and no simple answers, no clear black and white places in the real world. The real world is wobbly and sticky and untidy, and when you try to measure it with a ruler, either the ruler breaks or the subject you are trying to measure breaks. We live in a world where straight lines are an illusion.

dave heasman ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2003, 01:34 PM:

In England a conviction of 2 years or less is considered "spent" after a number of years spent out of trouble. Doesn't have to be declared on job applications except for "sensitive" jobs. And the minute you're released you can vote. I don't understand banning released prisoners from voting - it's saying they'll never be members of society again. Where's the sense in that? And in England anyway their votes would go to the most right-wing candidate, so it's even odder...

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2003, 02:15 PM:

It's not that you don't understand, Dave. It's that it MAKES NO SENSE.

Though in the US, it's considered a leftie commie pinko thing to even TALK about prison reform. So the released prisoners wouldn't be voting for right wing loonies like the ones currently in power nationwide.