Posts Tagged ‘systemic injustice’

Prison Bars

Short one today, because Flint’s crisis has exhausted every last bit of my brainpower.

In general, prison should have five goals, as described by criminologist Bob Cameron: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, restoration, and rehabilitation.

We look at prison as punishment here.  We treat this as revenge.

We just sentenced rapist Daniel Holtzclaw to 263 years in prison.  My first thought is “TAKE THAT, STUPID RAPIST.”

Who lives for 200 years?

Revenge is not an appropriate way to run a country.  Revenge is why we have more of our population incarcerated than any other nation.  Revenge is why we perpetuate racist, classist systems and wonder why we have a racist, classist society.  Revenge is why children become adults behind bars.  Revenge is why sexual assault is so prevalent in prison that it is treated as a joke and becomes part of the punishment.

Revenge is why people come out of prison traumatized; more trauma = less ability to cope with negative life events = recidivism.

And we wonder why our country is so messed up.  We’re destroying our mental health and our society in the process.

There’s got to be another way.

A 70 year old man in Oklahoma is making headlines.

So is an 11 year old boy.

The first has been imprisoned since age 16, when he murdered a police officer.

The second murdered his 12 year old neighbor after she refused to show him her puppy.  Prosecutors are apparently considering charging this child as an adult.

The US Supreme Court ruled that children who commit crimes must have their circumstances considered.  In 2005, it ruled the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment.  In 2012, life sentencing was limited.  However, many young people are still locked up for life, over 3000 in the US alone.  This is absurd!  Here’s why.

The Biological Argument

The American Bar Association recognizes differences between adults and adolescents, based on new information coming from scientific advances in understanding brain development and function.

A brief explanation of brains.  Most of what we consider “common sense” and “adult choices” come from the frontal lobe; this is where our organization, planning, and impulse control are centered.  Juvenile brains are different; let’s get that out of the way right now.  Frontal lobe development doesn’t stop until the mid-twenties; to expect a teenager to make decisions as an adult isn’t accurate.  While the abstract reasoning in teenagers is likely the same as adults, the emotional maturity is much different.Hormones also differ as we age.  Adolescent boys have an enormous amount of testosterone to deal with, which is associated with increased aggression.  Behavioral changes, like hating your parents and demanding more privacy, also start around this time.

The biology of teenagers may serve to diminish their capacity/responsibility for crimes committed, but is still being debated.

The Behavioral/Environmental Argument

Children are products of their environments; few are bullies without violence at home, or delinquents without poor parental supervision.  Over 30% of juvenile offenders on death row had experienced 6 or more traumatic events in childhood.  Adult offenders are far more likely to come from traumatic backgrounds than normative samples.

Witnessing or being the victim of violence in the home can spark violent behavior in children and adolescents; what teachers or adults read as a “bad seed” is likely the result of a bad environment.

Labeling behaviors as criminal also serves to mask other underlying concerns, such as low IQ, mental health issues, and social struggles (i.e. living in poverty, having a parent in prison, living in a violence-prone neighborhood etc).

Criminalizing children through the school-to-prison pipeline reinforces structural inequality, especially for children of color; it makes it more likely people with mental illness will not seek treatment, that trust in authority is reduced, and that violence festers in neighborhoods.

When we put children in jail, we also put them at risk of further victimization. A traumatic history increases vulnerability for future trauma, and prison itself can be traumatizing.  Many children are assaulted by jail/prison staff and other inmates; over 13% suffer sexual abuse while incarcerated (mostly from staff members).  We are making it more likely these children will have future problems, or even stay in prison longer, in the name of punishment and protection.

The Rehabilitation Argument

At its heart, juvenile justice needs to focus on changing and improving a mind that is still malleable and developing.  Juvenile courts have an excellent qualitative track record of success, though recidivism data is gathered by individual states and is difficult to analyze.  We do know that the more times someone is incarcerated, the lower the chances of rehabilitation.  There are a number of alternatives to incarceration that have shown promise, are based on research and data, and show promise to improve outcomes for incarcerated youth as well as the communities they live in.

(Plus, incarceration is EXPENSIVE.  We shouldn’t forget the dollar dollar bills)

Nationally, our recidivism rates are abysmal.  Over 67% of people who are released from prison are re-arrested within three years; the number rises to over 75% after five years.  Obviously, what we’re doing isn’t changing minds, changing lives, or changing attitudes.  We shouldn’t subject children to broken systems that aren’t even effective for adults.

None of these arguments are meant to excuse those who commit crimes – we have to consider our response.  If a teen can choose to do wrong, they need to pay the consequences, but it’s our responsibility to ensure the consequences are appropriate to the crime.  With the new information at our disposal, it’s now up to us to create sane and humane punishments that will help protect society by rehabilitating these children, rather than locking them up without hope of redemption.

Children can do horrible things.  This doesn’t mean we should also do horrible things to them.


I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately, both because of the upcoming presidential election, and because of some bad luck I had recently with property crime. Detroit Today had a segment yesterday about criminal justice; host Steven Henderson pointed out this might be one of those rare issues on which things actually get done, as liberals’ and conservatives’ views align.  It’s like seeing a unicorn.

The BIG ISSUE with criminal justice is the purpose and the results.  Or at least, that’s what I take from the endless debates about costs and treatments and outcomes and recidivism.  We need to know what we’re putting people away TO ACHIEVE, and if we’re actually achieving our goals.


As so often happens, I was reading an article in the Metro Times, one which advocated for marijuana dispensaries as legal business within the city of Detroit (and Michigan, in general).  Read it here.

Right now in Detroit there are about 180 dispensaries all over the city; Weedmaps has a service allowing users to locate their nearest dispensary, much like a yellow pages for pot.

You may have already guessed I’m an advocate of legalization; honestly, I’d like to see all drugs at least decriminalized, so we can stop filling up our jails with simple users and non-violent drug crimes.  But the dispensary issue is a bit murkier.

Since the end of prohibition in the 1920s, liquor has been widely available for purchase and subject to government regulation.  Like it or hate it, we have an age where use is legal and we have standards for how to sell it (by looking at an ID, bartenders aren’t supposed to over-serve, we have a legal limit for driving etc).  Even though we know parents buy for kids, teenagers sometimes get a ‘fake’, we still (generally) see the rules being followed.

There aren’t real, concrete rules for marijuana dispensaries or who they can sell to, where they can be located…it’s a bit of a mess.

I love the idea of stores because it’s a safety issue; it’s safer to go into a business than to talk to some dude on the street (or, more likely, to trust that the guy your friend uses has safe, quality product and isn’t working for the police).  I love the idea because it moves us one step closer to that state of legalization and of decreasing stigma of use.  It just worries me, because we’ve seen alcohol be used as a means of oppression in poor communities, and I’d hate to see this go the same way.

Poor areas are wayyyyyy more likely to have an abundance of liquor stores.  WayMoreLikely.

Easy availability of alcohol is associated with increased rates of neighborhood violence.  Alcohol advertising is targeted toward people and communities of color (l think we all remember the Colt 45 ad with Billy Dee Williams, now ironically appropriated by rich white hipsters).  Liquor stores take up space that could otherwise be used by local businesses, schools, religious organizations, etc (or even grocery stores to increase food availability).  Liquor ensures poor communities stay poor, and contributes to lack of safety and economic decline.  When liquor stores are less prevalent, youth homicide drops and median income rises.

Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a plea to make booze (or weed) illegal again, but we can’t deny the impact adding liquor and weed to the environment has on our vulnerable communities (including the perpetuation of racism against and within communities of color).

So we’re seeing enormous numbers of weed stores popping up all over Detroit.  When I look at the map of dispensaries, I’m not seeing them ONLY in poor areas, but perhaps concentrated in areas of vulnerability.  District 1 is home to 13 stores; District 1 has some of the lowest employment rates in the city.

We don’t need rules and regulations to protect us from ourselves – we need them to ensure corporations and single-minded businesses aren’t allowed to create negative environments just because they can, because we haven’t said no.

Weed might be safer than other drugs, but if we don’t pay attention, it will be added to the oppressor’s toolbox.

Ever since Ferguson, I’ve been hopeful that we’re living in a historical turning point.  I keep thinking and hoping the greater culture is finally going to open up a bit, to acknowledge systemic oppression.  Hell, just to acknowledge basic inequality here in the states.  And maybe to look at the function police serve.

Probably a lot of this hope comes from my online reading and research.  Sometimes, I think we lose sight of how insular online communities, forums and opinions can be; it’s very difficult to judge how well a viewpoint translates to the wider world if we’re constantly surrounded by agreement and similarities.  Even when we think our views are the best and clear and should be obvious to anyone with a brain.

My parents and I have been growing steadily different, like two paths branching out from a fork in the woods.  Sometimes it feels like miles of darkness between us, with no clear path to connect.  Neither of us is bad or stupid, and we still function and love each other (which is often a rarity in families, I’m very lucky).  And because we still love each other, it’s sometimes difficult to even attempt the long slog through the woods towards each other – what if we end up with only hate and vitriol that will forever stain our relationship?  A film of anger over our love for each other?

Today I figured out what’s been bothering me, niggling away in the back of my brain, about Darren Wilson and Michael Brown.

Someone close to me characterized Brown as a “thug.”  This is a person whose father was a (white) Detroit police officer in the 1960s, and left a few years after the rage and destruction of the 1968 riots.  He was by all accounts a good man and a good cop, although I doubt we ever truly know a person after the fact, or know everything about them from one role they play in their life.  Lineage informs our development and views, and it makes sense to me to support police if your experience was with a family member on the force who was good and decent.  Even if we don’t agree, we can understand why this person might not want to look at bad police behavior.

Now, my favorite documentary is American Hardcore, the movie about the hardcore punk scene in the late 1970s and 1980s; love it or hate it, it’s a nice little slice of the music and attitudes from that period.  In it, there’s a moving scene of Mike Watt and Henry Rollins (separately) talking about police beating up kids at shows.  I can’t describe it, it must be seen.  (watch it here, at 1:19:23, I could not find a youtube of the right part).

Rollins talking is what reminded me of Ferguson.  He looks at the camera incredulously, saying “The police always started it.  It’s not like we go up to uniformed, armed men and say ‘come on’!”

If nothing else, talk with your parents about this.  In my experience of white, middle class, suburban people, which is admittedly not a random sample nor representative of all families, older folks identify with the police.  They understand the fear, the need for protection, the concern that our world is falling apart with violence at every corner and beneath the skin of every person, and feel the police are doing well, acting ethically.

Your job is to bring up the other side.

Without empathy we cannot move forward.  If our job as white people to get our own people; if they cannot hear the words of people of color, they should be able to hear us.  I don’t know if they’ve never known fear of authority (because it looks like them) or if they’ve simply forgotten what it’s like to move in a hostile world.  It really doesn’t matter; people can remember, they can see. they can learn.

If we can get them to feel just a fraction of the fear our communities of color experience, we’ll have gotten somewhere.

A kid doesn’t charge a uniformed, armed officer in a vehicle.

And working to change (or better yet, abolish) a system must be understood as a movement because it’s not working.  It is not working to have 70% of our population constantly living in fear.  It is not working to incarcerate 2/3 of young men of color.  It is not working to act surprised when police act how they are taught to act, and acknowledging this does not condemn the good people who are attempting to function in a broken system.  It’s not working to blame songs like “Fuck Da Police” when police make you feel scared rather than safe.

An act by one person of is enough to condemn the group, then why isn’t an act by one cop enough to condemn the system?

Not all cops, sure.  But then you HAVE to understand – not all [black, brown, young, poor, angry, female] people.

(image via)

La belle France!

In reading Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, I have been consistently surprised and delighted to share in her unique and fresh perspective on the world around her. She was open to experience and lived for adventure; of course, we all have a rosy glow when reminiscing about the past, but in her retelling, the reader is transported to the streets of Paris, the fish markets of Marseilles, the countryside spotted with orange flowers, all tied together by mouthwatering descriptions of French food and wine.


Paul Child, Julia’s husband, worked in government service for many years, beginning before World War II and continuing in various embassy posts (which is how they ended up living in Paris in the first place).

the best picture, in my opinion. this is what marital bliss is like.


He was serving the US Government in the Marseilles post during the era of Senator Joe McCarthy, most known for his 1950s communist witch hunts. At one point, Paul was called to Washington, DC to be interrogated by the McCarthy commission; Julia recounts how the feeling of betrayal and anger remained with them “like ashes in our mouths.”

Making my bed (okay, laying in my bed) after reading this passage, I caught myself thinking “the government always screws you.” This is both somewhat correct and wildly inaccurate.