Gates Update

All charges against Skip Gates have been dropped. In the scheme of the country’s prison colossus, this is a tiny case, but in this post, one of Gates’ former students mines it for significance. Also see this David Chapelle skit, which may contextualize the incident best.

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Rival narratives in “angry while black” arrest

A great deal of politically charged chatter will break out in response to the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates outside his home on Thursday. It’s impossible to know what precisely went down: Is conventional racial profiling at work here or did Gates go ballistic after a long flight with no pillows or food service? Still, it’s instructive to read the documents associated with the case that have gone public so far. First, there is the unusually detailed police report that presents a menacing portrait of Gates the Terrible badgering  a doe-eyed police officer and virtually forcing the arrest. (Even in this one-sided version, it’s notable that the officer admits he acted only when scolded in front of fellow officers, only when his honor before peers came into question). This represents only the first word, of course, but it’s worth remembering that in most criminal cases (especially those involving low-income defendants), the police report represents the first and last word. Every day, such incident reports undergrid plea bargaining negotiations between prosectuors and court-appointed counsel; in some cases, defense counsel doesn’t even have full access to the reports. Imagine what a fix Gates would be in in such conventional circumstances. As it happens, the professor is more-than-capably represented by his friend and colleague Charles Ogletree, who has already released a counter-narrative of the altercation with a very different emphasis. As the case develops, pause for a moment to think what this country’s criminal justice system would be like (and look like) if all criminal defendants were capably represented by counsel. Sadly, Gideon’s trumpet scarcely sounds in most court rooms, and our prison cells thus continue to fill up with nary a protest.

California Dreaming to California Nightmare

In the postwar period under Gov. Earl Warren, California built the most rehabilitation-oriented penal system in the country. Despite its many flaws, it represented a progressive counterweight to the hardline control model in Texas. Since the 1970s, however, all that has changed. In response to the rise of the right and reaction against the prison branch of the civil rights movement, California politicians launched and relaunched wars on crime with ever greater ferocity. Because of Prop. 13, there was no way to pay the bills, and because of the state’s highly effective guard union, the bills are whoppers, $10 billion a year. Combine that with a severe economic downturn, and Cali has a first-class human-made disaster on its hands: California Budget Held Captive By State Prisons : NPR.

Prison population plateau

Having led the country’s prison buildup for a generation, the Texas legislature, in the last three sessions, has managed to push through various reforms, chiefly related to probation and diversion, that have helped contain the growth of the prison population. For a basic overview, see: States Seek Less Costly Substitutes for Prison – washingtonpost.com.

Ray of Hope?

I’m somewhat dubious of the treatment protocol championed here, but it’s a thoughtful piece and includes a useful collection of statistics on the severity of racial disparity in the prison system. America’s Prisons: Is There Hope? – The New York Review of Books.

Bad Means to Bad End

Not only did the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance program trash the constitution, it did so for naught. U.S. Wiretapping of Limited Value, Officials Report – NYTimes.com.

Convict Apartheid

Miami convict camp

A peculiar artifact of the severity revolution in criminal justice is that the United States has returned to a two-tiered model of citizenship, a sort of legally inscribed segregation in which convicted felons are permanently denied basic rights. We see this in extremely long sentences meted out to juveniles, felony disenfranchisement, and in the myriad legal restrictions placed on ex-cons upon their release. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of sex offenders, who in some jurisdictions are effectively banished from the free world forever, long after the expiration of their sentences. In the case of Miami, profiled in this New York Times piece, many ex-felons returning to society find they are permitted to reside only in an encampment under a bridge: a convict Bantustan in post-civil rights America.