Charles Platt on life in prison

In November, Charles Platt wrote a piece for Boing Boing about his zero-gravity flight experience. This month, he submitted this gripping account of his visit with his friend, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence for murder. It's one of the best articles I've read this year.

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Life on the Inside

by Charles Platt

The man by the metal detector looks like somebody’s benevolent uncle. White-haired, folksy and jovial, he could be in a TV commercial selling hearing aids. You’d never guess he controls access to a concrete-walled correctional facility.

Getting into this Texas prison is turning out to be more difficult than I expected. First I had to submit a written application with a photocopy of my driver’s license, for a background check. After I was approved, I had to establish the date of my arrival, and when I drove out here this morning my car was subjected to some truly amazing security theater, as one humorless uniformed guard stared solemnly at all the stuff in the trunk while another peered under the hood at the engine.

Finally I was allowed to park in the visitor lot, after which I walked into a little fortified bunker at one corner of a huge perimeter fence topped with coils upon coils of razor wire. This is where I am now, with white-haired Mr. Friendly asking me—in the nicest possible way—to empty my pockets. Since inmates are not allowed to possess money, I’m not allowed to carry any in—with the exception of two rolls of quarters, which I was advised that I actually should bring with me, for purposes that I do not yet understand.

I’m here to visit a prisoner named Son Tran, who joined a Vietnamese gang in Houston when he was thirteen and was convicted of two gang-related homicides four years later, although he has raised some questions about the validity of his confession. After sitting in shackles on death row for several years he found himself suddenly reprieved, as the U. S. Supreme Court decided that kids who committed their crimes when they were under eighteen should not be given the death penalty.

Forced by the feds to spare a life, the Texas criminal justice system did the next-best thing: It sentenced Son to forty years before he can be eligible for parole. He now spends his days providing unpaid labor, sewing underwear for a garment manufacturer that has contracted with the prison system. Forget about third-world sweatshops; some of the most lucrative ones are staffed by felons here in America.

Probably to most people, forty years would seem a fair punishment for a former gang member convicted of homicide. Most people might also feel that keeping such an individual locked up is a sensible precaution to protect the rest of us. In this text, I will explain why I disagree with both of these propositions. As Exhibit A I’ll offer a personal statement by Son Tran, which I have formatted as a PDF file. You can view it by clicking this link. I think it’s a remarkable piece of work, especially considering that he was brought up speaking Vietnamese at home, and never finished high school.


Across the Free-Fire Zone

Today will be my first opportunity to see my inmate pen-pal face to face. I’ve never spoken to him, because at the time of my visit, Texas still doesn’t permit any of its prisoners to communicate with the outside world by telephone. I found his name on a web site dedicated to establishing communication with inmates via that most archaic system, the U. S. Postal Service, and I’ve been swapping letters with him for more than a year since then.

Mr. Friendly is now waving me through the metal detector, beaming at me and telling me to “have a nice day,” without any perceptible irony. Presumably this cheerful old geezer was chosen for his gatekeeper role to discourage any suspicion that a correctional system might have a dark side.

After I emerge from the metal detector I pick up my two rolls of quarters and proceed to a kiosk enclosed in bullet-proof plastic, which makes the woman on the inside look as if she’s peering at me from under water. I slide my driver’s license through a tiny slit, and she waves me forward, through a remote-controlled door.

I find myself in a holding area the size of an elevator. The door closes behind me, and I have some difficulty controlling my reflexive claustrophobia. But, the license checks out okay, and she returns it to me through another slit before opening a second, inner door, allowing me to proceed into the prison.

Now I walk along a section of asphalt path across a free-fire zone between the outer fence of the prison and the inner fence. Two guard towers are strategically placed to overlook this arid moat, and I have no doubt that men with loaded rifles are watching me with more than casual interest. Probably it would not be a good idea to stray from the path, here.

I pass through a gate that clangs behind me, and I continue across a grassy area toward the central building of the prison—which closely resembles a modern high school, although maybe I should say that high schools, these days, closely resemble modern prisons. Vaguely I wonder when the American school system embraced the slit-windowed concrete-box motif, and why. But then I am inside the main building and I find myself in a spacious lobby, where another official takes my driver’s license, and keeps it, giving me a slip of paper in return.

This I take with me to another armored cubicle, where I present it through another slit to another out-of-focus figure behind bulletproof plastic. I advance into another elevator-sized holding area. The door closes behind me, another door opens ahead of me—and here, finally, I am in the visitor area.


The Social Scene

Now I am seriously disoriented. After all the layers of security, this is the ultimate anticlimax. I have entered a large room like a cafeteria, where families are sitting at dining tables. Kids are running around, chasing each other and laughing. The low-security prisoners are allowed to sit alongside their estranged relatives, hanging out and eating sandwiches.

The convicts are utterly unlike the thugs you see in Hollywood prison movies. They’re everyday guys in their twenties, looking no different from people you might expect to see working at the paint counter in Home Depot or servicing cars at Jiffy Lube.

Over the years I have encountered some genuinely violent people—the kind who radiate an aura of menace which anyone with any sense will interpret as a clear warning to stay away. Those dark vibes are absent here, and after a moment’s thought, I realize why: Drive-by shooters and serial killers constitute only a small percentage of the prison population. Drug offenders, these days, are the largest subset. Thus, most of the men I am looking at probably made the mistake of trying to earn a little cash on the side by selling herbal or pharmaceutical products from which the government, in its wisdom, feels we should be protected.

Son Tran, of course, is imprisoned for a much more serious reason, and cannot mingle with visitors. There’s a long, enclosed section for such “violent” types, who have to communicate via telephone handsets from behind more panels of bulletproof plastic. To me it’s ironic that the prison has invested in such an elaborate system of protection, because I’m not sure who scares me more: The inmates, or the system that put them here. Call me paranoid (and indeed, many people have), but the many arms of law enforcement have broadened and strengthened their powers to an extent which would have seemed unbelievable just a decade ago.

The list of ominous indicators is long and getting longer, including warrantless wiretaps, innocent people killed or traumatized during no-knock drug busts based on bogus tipoffs, random traffic stops in search of drivers who have had two beers and will be hauled straight to jail, search-and-seizure of laptops by immigration officers, suspension of constitutional rights for anyone suspected of “terrorist acts,” tasering of citizens who ask why they’re being arrested, harassment of tourists taking photographs in public places, grandmothers fined tens of thousands of dollars because kids used their computers for file sharing, seventeen-year-old boys jailed for having sex with sixteen-year-old girlfriends, men stigmatized for life as “sex criminals” because they urinated in public, photo-radar systems that can track vehicle movements by using character recognition of license plates, naive wives of drug dealers imprisoned for years as “couriers,” and revival of the archaic offense of criminal libel, raising the risk of prison time if you post a little too carelessly on Craig's List. I used to view law enforcement as a source of protection; today I tend to see it more as an instrument of intimidation.

Among the adult population of the United States, 1 person out of every 100 is now behind bars. Thus the unweighted odds of going to jail are greater than the odds of being a crime victim. Of course I am aware of the counter-argument: “If you don’t break any laws, you’ll have nothing to worry about.” Tell that to Governor George Ryan of Illinois, where DNA evidence exonerated so many people who had been placed erroneously on death row, he felt obliged to commute the sentences of the remaining 163 inmates awaiting execution.

No doubt the prison that I am visiting harbors some truly unpleasant characters whom I would not want to encounter while walking alone on a dark city street. But I don’t believe that Son Tran is one of them.


Gas-Station Sandwiches

I sit on a plastic chair and wait for the prison authorities to allow Son to come here to converse with me. Finally he appears behind the bulletproof window, grinning happily, as if this is the highlight of his week—and who knows, maybe it is.

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I ask him why he wanted me to bring two rolls of quarters, and he explains that I can buy food from vending machines in the visitor area. So, I go to the machines, which dispense what I call “gas-station sandwiches”: skimpy slices of Wonder Bread containing a minimum filling of tuna salad or ham and cheese. I buy a few and surrender them to a corrections officer, who places them in a paper sack and passes them through a small hatch to the restricted area behind the bulletproof plastic. In this way, I buy lunch for my inmate friend. I’m suitably sobered by the idea that the sandwiches constitute a treat compared to the regular prison diet. For one such as myself, accustomed to whole grains, organic greens, tofu, and other health-conscious vegetarian staples, eating nothing but prison food for forty years might be the single most awful aspect of being locked up.

Son devours his rations with enthusiasm, and we chat, through the telephone handset, in the same awkward style of a visitor chatting with a patient in a hospital. How are things? How are you doing? Have you seen your family lately? All topics seem trivial compared with the big and basic fact that I am free and he is not, but I can’t think of much to say about this. When he was taken off death row, he lost his court-appointed lawyer who was managing his appeal, and he lacks the resources to get a new attorney. In any event, he can’t talk about his case with me because the connection may be monitored, and our conversation won’t be protected by attorney-client privilege.

We talk about current events, and everyday life with other prisoners (most of whom he feels are harmless), and about the pencil drawings that he has been creating. Since Texas prisoners are not permitted to earn money or possess money, donations for them are placed in an Inmate Trust Fund account, from which the balance may be applied to purchases from the prison commissary. And since #2 pencils are the only drawing implement stocked by the commissary, Son Tran’s opportunities for self expression are limited.

Still, he has been creating painstaking portraits, which he has sent to me as gifts from time to time, leaving me wondering what to do with them. If I try to sell them on his behalf I’ll place him in a risky position, since he is not allowed to indulge in anything that could be considered a business activity. If he violates this regulation, he may be punished by losing his opportunity to further his education. In other words, if a Texas prisoner tries to make himself useful by selling something that he has made, the system may respond by preventing him from educating himself.


Money, Fear, and Politics

I guess I’m beginning to sound like a bleeding heart, here; but this is not entirely accurate. Let us suppose, for a moment, that Son Tran was guilty of the crime of which he was convicted. I fully accept that homicide should entail the most serious consequences. The question is, what exactly should those consequences be? From a strictly rational point of view, does incarceration for forty years make good sense, or would something else be better?

Let’s start with the concept of deterrence. I’ll ignore the death penalty, since the Supreme Court has already eliminated it for people under 18. Thus, we are left with incarceration. Has any study ever proved that the prospect of forty years without parole is a better deterrent than, say, thirty years, or even twenty years? It seems utterly implausible to me that the actions of a teenager in an inner-city gang will be affected by such a distinction. In fact I don’t believe that deterrence is either the effect or the purpose of the long, mandatory sentences that have become endemic in the United States during the past two decades.

It’s important to understand just how extreme the situation is. We now incarcerate a larger proportion of our citizens, and a larger absolute number of them, than any other nation in the world. The United States has less than 5 percent of the global population yet has almost one-quarter of all the world’s prisoners. (Source: New York Times, April 23, 2008.) The Land of the Free has become the land of the confined.

Prison Population

Now here’s the interesting part. From 1925 through 1975, the American incarceration rate remained around 110 prisoners per 100,000 population, not far from the current world median of approximately 125. (Source: New York Times, as above.) What happened since then? How could the rate increase by a factor of 7 during just three decades?

I can suggest an answer in three words: Money, fear, and politics.

Money is an issue because the United States is one of the few nations that can afford to build enough prisons and keep millions of people locked up. Most other nations are unwilling or unable to spend so much money unproductively.

As for fear and politics:

Back when Ronald Reagan was the Governor of California, growing discontent among conservatives encouraged the state to lead a movement toward tougher sentencing. When Reagan reached the White House in 1981, with his wife promoting the “war on drugs” and chanting “Just say no!” with her vapid grin, conservatives gained the power to encourage changes on a national level.

This trend reached its culmination in 1988, as Reagan’s reign was ending and Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush was looking for an edge over Michael Dukakis, his Democratic opponent. Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, and his media consultant, Roger Ailes, found their opportunity in the story of a convicted murderer in Dukakis’s home state of Massachusetts who had served 12 years in jail before being released on a weekend furlough, at which point he proceeded to commit a particularly unpleasant rape and other associated crimes.

Atwater and Ailes believed that one disturbing incident of this type, involving a heavy-set black rapist, would matter far more to voters than any reasoned debate about policy issues. It would capture the imagination, regardless of statistics showing that the event was a rarity or even a singularity. They didn’t seem to care whether the furlough policy had been a good thing or a bad thing. They simply knew that Dukakis had been in favor of it while he was governor, and it could smear him as damagingly as possible.

After the story was circulated via The Reader’s Digest, Bush started hammering away relentlessly at Dukakis for being “soft on crime.” This issue became probably the biggest factor enabling him to win the election. For more information about the propagandists who facilitated the rise of the Bush dynasty (leading by extension to the rise of Bush Junior) you can check the Wikipedia page for Willie Horton, the rapist who was at the center of the controversy. It makes depressing reading.

Many other politicians were quick to notice Bush’s successful exploitation of public anxiety, and followed a similar strategy, calling for harsher penalties while denouncing their opponents for being less punitive than they were. In other words, they followed the ancient practice of whipping up fear while simultaneously promising to alleviate it.

This is a simplification of a complicated national trend, but I believe it does help to explain how the general U. S. prison population increased by a factor of 7. Many conservatives see no problem in this, since long sentences have been accompanied by a reduction in violent crime. On the other hand, in Canada, violent crime went into a similar decline without a massive increase in the prison population; and in some states (notably, New York) the crime rate didn’t go back up even after authorities relaxed their previous punitive policies.

Therefore the linkage between longer prison terms and a lessened crime rate remains a matter for debate. One conclusion, however, is indisputable: Tough sentencing does reassure anxious voters.


Adjusting the Consequence to Fit the Crime

Let’s suppose that protecting the general public is the fundamental issue. The question then becomes: How much protection is enough? Logically, to reduce the risk to zero, all violent offenders should be imprisoned for life or executed. Since this may be unethical and is certainly unaffordable, we have to find a reasonable compromise, balancing the risk that a released criminal may repeat his crime against the social advantage of enabling the majority of prisoners to resume productive lives.

Traditionally, the parole system is supposed to serve this purpose by assessing each prisoner on a case-by-case basis to determine which ones are safe for release. Parole can be especially appropriate for juvenile offenders who may have been immature or unduly influenced by their peers.

This gets me back to the case of Son Tran. Imagine yourself aged thirteen, feeling angry and estranged from your fellow students because you’re Vietnamese-American. Imagine that you are approached by some older kids who are themselves Vietnamese. They invite you to join their club, and for the first time in your short life, you are freed from your feelings of alienation. You find acceptance.

Of course, there’s a price to pay. It’s like joining the army: You go through a process of indoctrination and desensitization, during which you bond with your comrades-in-arms and learn to obey orders.

The scenario that I’m outlining does not excuse the crime. It merely suggests that someone who was not yet an adult, and became infatuated with gang culture at a very impressionable age, should not be judged as harshly as, for example, a serial killer who has committed multiple crimes over ten or fifteen years. After a decade in prison, the serial killer may still represent a severe risk to the general public while the younger man may not, and a system that refuses to take this into account wastes human potential and wastes our money. Even when the state reaps some income on the side by forcing prisoners to do menial work for no pay, incarceration remains an expensive proposition.

There is of course the point of view that punishment should be administered for its own sake; that criminals should be made to suffer. This bothers me, because aside from deterrence (already discussed above) I see no social benefit from punishment. Very often, it seems to be simply an outlet for revenge, and revenge is not a very highly evolved impulse. It receives mixed reviews in the New Testament, does not ennoble anyone, and certainly doesn’t enrich anyone. I prefer the concept of restitution, requiring the guilty party to earn money to compensate a victim or his family. That at least is useful—and, incidentally, may still serve as some deterrent.

I also refuse to give up on the idea of rehabilitation, because I know people who have successfully decided not to repeat past mistakes. Prisons are properly referred to as “correctional facilities,” implying that they should be capable of correcting bad behavior. If there’s a chance to redeem someone rather than execute him or take away his liberty for half of his life, wouldn’t that be a more constructive option?

Most of all, I am dispirited by the simple-mindedness of imprisonment as a social tool. Our remedies for most social problems have evolved over the past couple-thousand years; people who are mentally ill, for instance, receive medical treatment instead of just being shut away in lunatic asylums. But the ritual of incarcerating criminals survives basically unchanged. Really, we need a smarter and more creative alternative that doesn’t cost so much. If it can also be less destructive of human lives, so much the better.


Contact Info

One thing on which everyone can agree, regardless of their political orientation, is that prison is a depressing place. Based on my experience in Texas, merely visiting it is extremely depressing, even when the facility is modern and relatively humane.

As I leave the barbed-wire fences behind me I feel the same kind of sadness that I experience when someone dies. It’s a similar situation: A loss of human value which I am powerless to prevent. That’s why I continue to send letters to Son Tran from time to time.

Other prisoners have suffered greater injustices, other prisons impose harsher conditions, other nations subject their prisoners to crueler treatment, and millions of people—drug offenders, especially—are incarcerated for reasons that make no sense to me at all. Son Tran just happens to be the guy I know, and so, he’s the one I am telling you about. If his life story interests you, you can write to him yourself, while remembering that he has to buy postage stamps, envelopes, and paper from the commissary to reply to you, and therefore, even very small donations are appreciated. The trouble is, you cannot send money to him directly. It will be returned by the authorities, and will rouse suspicions that he is soliciting assistance, which he is not.

Here’s what you can do, if you are interested. Send me a blank email at this account that I have set up: sontranfund@gmail.com. In return I’ll tell you how to write to him and how to make a small donation if you so wish. Your email address will not be used for any other purpose.

—Charles Platt

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  1. But what about punishment??

    How do you think the families of his victims feel?
    How would YOU feel if someone you loved was murdered, and the person who did it was not severely punished?

    It’s not just about deterrence and rehabilitation.
    It’s also about delivering justice to the victim.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the first part of your article.
    And I am in no way defending our prison system or denying that our society is going down in flames.

    But, when someone has hurt someone else, they should be punished.
    And seeing as we, at least in theory, pride ourselves on not being savages, we can’t just lash criminals, we have to deprive them of long stretches of life.

  2. Wonderful, moving article. Is there any possibility of getting a link to the website you found Son Tran on?

  3. @Dequeued

    I agree that those that cause harm to other should face some consequence. But I feel more strongly that rehabilitation, on a whole, is much better for our society than abandonment. It works in other countries, it should work here.

  4. dequeued:

    punishment doesnt really seem to be working. in fact, behavioral science makes a pretty solid case that punishment is probably the worst way to modify someone’s behavior. no, really. go look it up. i’ll wait.

    if you can set aside your own desire for revenge long enough to realize that we are all safer when appropriate and effective behavior modification techniques (to wit: “corrections”) are employed in these institutions, then you might understand how the “victim’s rights” canard is just that.

  5. @5

    If history teaches us anything it is that we (as a species) cannot seem to put aside our desire for revenge – even in our own best interests.

  6. “But, when someone has hurt someone else, they should be punished.”

    Why?

    When I see family members demanding the death penalty for someone who killed a loved one, I find it deeply disturbing. How will an additional death help them? It looks to me as if the family members would really like to kill the killer themselves, in which case, how are they better than he is?

    I knew a very nice man who was killed during a robbery. I felt extremely saddened, and still do. But all I care about it that the people who did it should never do the same thing to anyone else.

    This becomes a practical issue. What is the most effective and cheapest way to prevent repeated crimes? The death penalty is proving to be unaffordable, regardless of the ethical issue of the state killing its own citizens. I continue to feel that the key is to evaluate the risk that prisoners pose to society. In my ideal world, people who are trained to do this would be highly paid, but their pay would fluctuate depending on their track record. They would have a very powerful financial and career incentive to evaluate prisoners accurately.

    Let’s allow as many people as possible to resume earning money in the outside world, so that they can make financial restitution. As for those who are too dangerous to be released, let’s educate them so that they can make more money doing useful work in prison instead of stitching underwear. Then take a large percentage of their earnings and direct that to victims or their families.

    Personally I do not like to live in a punitive society.

  7. pity the system keeps him from discussing his case. That bit of writing by him makes me wonder how much truth has been buried.

  8. I was thinking just the other day that isolating offenders can’t be helpful to rehabilitation. Surely isolation will only breed more Anti-social criminals.

  9. If that’s truly one of the best articles you’ve read this year, I’m getting you a subscription to The New Yorker for Christmas; you’ll be blown away.

  10. Is revenge justice? Victims do need to be addressed and punishing the offender is not really helping the victims. Some form of restorative justice needs to be implemented, for the victim and the offender.

  11. I have a subscription to The New Yorker, Nicheplayer. It’s just that you are so much more sophisticated than me.

  12. Dequeued @2, you’re not talking about justice, you’re talking about revenge.

    There are four goals supposedly served by the criminal justice system: quarantine (the separation of the criminal from the public, to keep him from committing more crimes), rehabilitation (the attempt to make the criminal into a better person), deterrence (the belief that would-be criminals will refrain from committing crimes if they know they’ll be punished), and revenge (satiation of the desire of other people to see the criminal suffer).

    No possible system can fully serve all four goals, because the goals interfere with each other. But of the four, revenge is the least noble, and the one we should indulge in the least.

    While it’s terrible to have a loved one killed, the grief of the victims’ families doesn’t justify further terrible acts. If my girlfriend was killed, I’d be the last person in the world you should ask for his opinion about what to do to the killer, because my rationality would be distorted by grief and anger. That’s why we don’t allow the victim’s family to serve on the accused killer’s jury, or as judge.

  13. I sat here for a bit considering how my white blood cells are at this very moment systematically destroying “pathogens” inside my body, pathogens that are simply trying to survive. I sat considering all the different ways various systems seek to maintain their equilibrium.

    The greatest tragedy of human existence is that every human does not get the optimum opportunity to exploit their amazing and unlikely existence. Of course, it’s not just humans; today I saw a picture of a lovely baby bird being eaten alive by a lovely snake. To be alive is hard for every living thing.

    In the long view, prisons will be viewed as sad, hard chapter in our evolution. We currently lack the ability to quickly and finely tune and re-tune our minds, and we certainly lack a popular culture that celebrates and nurtures every cell of every living thing.

    Each mind is a universe processor; recording, processing, and acting in our local cloud of condensed space dust. We struggle with how to manage “out-of-sync” minds alongside the struggle of determining what “sync” means, but we have found that sync doesn’t mean absolute freedom. Son killed a mind, and the penalty for that trespass will always be significant as long as minds can be killed.

  14. restorative justice seems to work better than many realize. There are sufficient cases of the family of a murder victim forgiving the killer. Enough anyway to make it significant.

    Revenge? I always thought I would take personal revenge if the killing took enough of me to take away my life anyway. We can always have revenge if we are willing to pay the price. Never trust the state with life and death, too many Cheneys out there.

  15. Charles, thanks for making the time to experience and then write about your observations on our prison system. It’s always a dilemma if one has any conscience and often, it depends a lot on which side of the bars you’re looking from. As much as one might decry capital punishment publicly, the entire equation generally gets turned on its head when it becomes personal. I’ve often wondered how I would react if someone close to me were killed. I’m not sure that I would be one to turn the other cheek or forgive the killer. More likely, I’d volunteer to pull that switch.

    That said, the old axiom, “The older I get, the less I know” rings true with every day I’m alive on this planet. With each passing new experience, situations become less clear as one ponders the nuances of a particular situation. It is with this confusion that I find myself now helping a friend who is imprisoned in Raiford Penitentiary in Florida (the original home of Old Sparky BTW). My friend did not deny shooting his little girl as she walked in the front door after stepping off the school bus. But the loss turned out to be deeper than anyone could possibly have imagined. No one locally had any idea that my friend, Laine Jumper, had been a national hero in the 80’s during the Reagan years. And unfortunately, much of the damning evidence that his lawyers wanted to present in his case was repressed and so he now sits in prison with a life sentence, dying from the poison that drove them from their family home in Times Beach, Missouri. His wife has already succumbed to the cancer and his two surviving sons are also slowly dying of leukemia.

    There are thousands of stories in our prisons and too many of them are never what they seem.

  16. @#5 rageahol


    punishment doesnt really seem to be working. in fact, behavioral science makes a pretty solid case that punishment is probably the worst way to modify someone’s behavior. no, really. go look it up. i’ll wait.

    if you can set aside your own desire for revenge long enough to realize that we are all safer when appropriate and effective behavior modification techniques (to wit: “corrections”) are employed in these institutions, then you might understand how the “victim’s rights” canard is just that.

    Maybe it doesn’t modify someone’s behavior, in the correct way, but why is that the only issue?
    I am not comfortable with the government casually trying to “modify our behavior”.
    Social engineering usually has unintended consiquences, and it should not be taken lightly.

    Why do you view incarceration only in terms of it’s effect on society?
    What about crime’s effect on the victim?

    Charles Platt also equates any kind of punishment as “petty revenge”, before dismissing it completely because it isn’t “helping society”.

    Why should some vague idea of improving our society trump victims right to feel safe? Or be safe?

    If you only look at things in terms of how they affect society, could we have crimes against society?
    Think of all of the horrible ways that logic could be applied…

  17. It’s arguable that controlling the revenge impulse is a valid part of what the justice system does. And we do have a revenge impulse. When someone wrongs us, we want them wronged back so we’ll feel better. We call the socially approve form of doing that “justice”, but in essence, it’s revenge, controlled by the state. Giving individuals freedom to take violent vengeance for personal slights is not in the interest of any state.

    This year, I was violently attacked by someone who tried to rob me. I don’t have much of a choice in his sentencing. My options are either taking him out of society by imprisoning him, or not pressing charges, which releases a violent offender back into my neighborhood. Both choices suck. But given that I have to live here, and he chose to attack me, I’d rather he be in jail than out here living a few blocks form me and knowing what I look like.

    It’d be a lot better if we didn’t lock up drug offenders, and some reasonable attempt was made to rehabilitate him. But my choice is about my safety, and the safety of my neighbors.

    But then, I’ve read about The Milgram Experiments and the Zimbardo Experiments, so I’m quite skeptical that the urge to punish comes from a positive place in our psyche.

  18. I almost created an account when Ms. Susie Bright’s guest blogging was announced, but this article compelled me do so now, at least four years after I started reading.

    The article by Charles Platt was indeed eye-opening. At the same time, this has been a problem in the making for nearly thirty years.

    Poor people are disproportionately represented in prison. Women, over the last twenty years, are especially affected. As drug laws require more mandatory minimums, many women are sentenced for playing the most minimal roles in drug conspiracies.

    For anyone who is interested in helping people on the inside, I encourage you to search for the Women’s Prison Book Project, an entirely volunteer run organization that sends books to women in prison all over the country, for free. They are a great organization, literally saving many women’s lives. And like all non-profits, they are hurting for cash donations that pay directly for sending books to women who request them.

  19. I suspect the bulk of the people who actually are committing serious crimes (batterers, bankers, current Vice Presidents of the United States of America etc) have serious mental disorders. Even if we could lock up all those who truly belonged behind bars (Ha, like we could ever get Cheney convicted and serving a sentence.) Then a new batch of mentally deviant people will come along and we’ll start all over.

    How’s about we let the weed dealers and such go home, and we put the funds saved into research to understand what causes people to be sociopaths, genetically, metabolically and such, and a way to cure or prevent it?

  20. The point Mr. Platt is making isn’t the usual didactic discussion of crime and punishment, he’s asking a real question that demands a fair answer. Why, in the past 30 years, has America embraced incarceration as a social cure? It’s expensive, dehumanizing and endangers our republic.

    This isn’t about victims and criminals, this is about a system that is rapidly spinning out of control. Rather than looking at the root causes of crime (poverty, mental illness, all manner of abuse) we only address the matter when it it at a crisis. We have become a nation that is proud at how few band-aids we hand out for paper cuts because only one out of a hundred results in blood poisoning.

    It’s time for people of good conscience to get past the fear-mongering of the media and ask hard questions about reforming our legal and correctional system. Your want to do something? Visit the imprisoned, see how they live and how they cope and what the system is doing for and to them.

    We’re not talking about living in a society that tolerates violence or lawlessness, but one that respects human dignity.

  21. immediately release all the political prisoners of the Waronsomedrugs Industry presently being tortured for marijuana. That would free up millions for better use elsewhere. Say, preventing gangs.

  22. I find that this article really used the wrong vehicle for argument of reforming penal systems. I have little sympathy for violent offenders, though for broader societal reasons I do think that prisons should focus more on improving/encouraging useful skills so there may be some chance of lowering the staggering recidivism rate.

    Though in my view, admittedly myopic and not contented to be authoritative, it seems the “War On Drugs” is the real culprit behind America’s burgeoning prison population and the more pressing issue to be dealt with. I can see little if any value in locking up non-violent drug offenders for significant period of time. I am not advocating the legalization of drugs, well maybe marijuana, but just a more sensible drug policy. One that doesn’t make felons out of every drug user. I watched an interesting piece on Current TV called “Getting Out of Prison” (available at, http://current.com/items/89586411/getting_out_of_prison.htm) which talks about the difficulty of reentering society once you have been labeled a “felon” regardless of whether your crime was drug possession or attempted murder. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the current state of our penal system.

  23. @ #8 charlesplatt


    “But, when someone has hurt someone else, they should be punished.”

    Why?

    When I see family members demanding the death penalty for someone who killed a loved one, I find it deeply disturbing. How will an additional death help them? It looks to me as if the family members would really like to kill the killer themselves, in which case, how are they better than he is?

    I knew a very nice man who was killed during a robbery. I felt extremely saddened, and still do. But all I care about it that the people who did it should never do the same thing to anyone else.

    Additional death will help the grieving family, because they know the monster that killed their loved one will be completely gone from this earth, forever.
    And they are monsters.
    For a somewhat rational human being to willingly take another’s life is quite possibly the worst thing that anyone can do, along with rape.
    Once you have embraced the rules of the jungle, you have signed away your humanity.

    It’s sad, I agree, and it’s healthy to feel a sense of loss when something tragic happens.
    But when someone is murdered, it is also healthy for there to be anger too.

    That nice old man you knew, he wasn’t killed in some sort of random accident or natural disaster.
    He was killed because a fellow human being decided that he shouldn’t live anymore, probably because he wasn’t handing him money fast enough.
    People are murdered for much less, all of the time.

    Just like 9/11 wasn’t just a tragedy, it was a planned mass-murder, by people who would burn us all alive if they had the means.

    When you forget stuff like that, you insult the victims, and, I would argue that it is an unhealthy attitude and probably bad for society.

    I think in most instances people guilty of those crimes can never be “rehabilitated”.

    And really, how much of an acomplishment would it be if they could?
    What would it say about our society if someone could commit MURDER, and then, after a few years of anger management therapy or whatever, be released, just so long as they’re really sorry and promise not to do it again.
    Maybe that scenario is a strawman, I am not completely sure what you advocate, but I DO think that your train of thought could eventually lead to something like that.

    Also, you keep mentioning restitution, what about psychological restitution?

    Have you personally ever been the victim of a violent crime?
    The trauma can stay with you for the rest of your life.
    That loss of saftey that you will never get back, that constant burning fear in the back of your mind, ready to jump out at any provocation.
    It activates the more primative impulses in your brain, which can never be completely turned off again.
    It makes you a harder person; you snap at people, you can’t stop thinking about the event, and you find your thoughts increasinly turning to violence in general…

    When someone emotional maims you for the rest of your life, just for the hell of it…

    Why isn’t that a factor?
    The victims are the victims! That’s why we call them the *victims*! Not society!
    I am not opposed to laws having an affinity towared helping society, but criminals should be punished first.

    All of that said, I do feel sorry for Mr Tran.
    I am sure prison is a terrible place, and I don’t know how I could survive in that kind of restrictive environment.

    However, try to have some empathy with the people he murdered.
    Try to imagine a young Son, cornering you in an alley with a predatory grin, laughing to himself as blood pours out of your chest.
    (I don’t know what actually happened, that was just an example)
    Somehow, I don’t think you would care if he was just being coerced into murdering you for a gang initiation…

    Personally, I think I would let people kill me before I could bring myself to take an innocent life, but that’s just me, and I have never been in that situation.

    This becomes a practical issue. What is the most effective and cheapest way to prevent repeated crimes? The death penalty is proving to be unaffordable, regardless of the ethical issue of the state killing its own citizens. I continue to feel that the key is to evaluate the risk that prisoners pose to society. In my ideal world, people who are trained to do this would be highly paid, but their pay would fluctuate depending on their track record. They would have a very powerful financial and career incentive to evaluate prisoners accurately.


    “What is the most effecctive and cheapest way to prevent repeated crimes?”
    Repeal all gun laws, lol.
    That really is a great idea though.

    Since when is the death penalty unaffordable?
    The Chinese manage to do it pretty cheaply.
    How much does one bullet and a last meal cost??
    And the bills for the electric chair can’t be THAT high.

    But seriously, about the death penalty, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of how it is currently *implemented*, that do nothing to attack the concept of the death penalty itself.

    And why are you focusing soley on the practical aspects, while ignoring the human aspects of this issue?
    Since you seem to be of such a utilitarian about what the “cheapeast” way of preventing repeated crimes is, how about a few proposals using your logic:
    – Death penalty for all offenses
    – Mandatory behavior modifying drugs introduced into the water supply
    – Financial incentives — pay repeat criminals not to hurt people
    – Potential Victim relocation — forcibly relocate potential victims from areas where criminals live.

    I do agree that our legal system should be more flexible, and we should give more authority to judges and especially juries to decide punishment.
    I am opposed to mandatory minimum sentences and zero tollerance laws.
    We shouldn’t be hard-wiring the logic of the legal system into the laws themselves, we should leave implementation up to humans.

    Let’s allow as many people as possible to resume earning money in the outside world, so that they can make financial restitution. As for those who are too dangerous to be released, let’s educate them so that they can make more money doing useful work in prison instead of stitching underwear. Then take a large percentage of their earnings and direct that to victims or their families.

    Personally I do not like to live in a punitive society.

    I don’t diagree with any of that.
    And our society has a lot of problems, being too punative is one of them.

    I hope I wasn’t too rude to you, I did enjoy your piece.
    I just have some very strong opinions about this issue.

  24. Most people “working at the paint counter in Home Depot or servicing cars at Jiffy Lube” manage to stay out of involvement with murders, gang activity, robbery and so on. Most Craigslist posters manage to avoid actionable libel or slander.

    Most people manage to get through teenage angst, anger, poverty and abuse without becoming killers and thieves.

    It’s a mistake to minimize these crimes. The 40 years isn’t to help or deter him so much as it is to give us 40 years of freedom from another criminal.

  25. I am in school to be a speech therapist. One of my professors used to have a bumper sticker on her car that said something like, “Keep kids out of prison; teach them to communicate!” There are some studies that suggest that the prison population may be the most underserved population of people with communication disorders out there. Hitting to express anger is a lot easier than talking about it. Just something to ponder.
    I agree that we should try to reintroduce prisoners into society to be productive, contributing members of society. If prison and crime are all they know, then of course they’re going to commit another crime and go back to prison.

  26. #24:

    Agreed. This is a very big question that has its roots in insane political strategies and ideological blindness more than anything else.

    Platt is talking about how politicians and the legal system engage in a form of social engineering designed to create a climate of fear and paranoia. It’s less about the prisoners than about the society that has to live with this cycle of incarceration and intimidation.

    To Mr. Platt: great article. A lot of it has been said before, but you’ve given us a very observant elucidation of what’s wrong with the American system of justice.

  27. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s summary of the case is here: http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/transon.htm. A more detailed explanation can be found in the original appeal here: http://www.cca.courts.state.tx.us/archives/Opinions-Non%20Published/74040.htm.

    I encourage you to read the facts of the actual case that Tran himself isn’t able to discuss at this time because his case is still in appeal. While it isn’t clear to me if he in fact pulled the trigger, it is entirely clear that he was part of a small group of people that purposely lured a man to a location where they then murdered him. Later, they learned that a woman had learned of the details of their crime and then lured her separately to another location where they murdered her to cover their tracks. Sorry if I can’t join in the concerns about his fate; I’m quite comfortable with where he is sitting.

    I was a Soc minor in college and took a class that was taught by the Deputy Director of Corrections in our state who had previously served as warden at a supermax prison, on the state parole board, as a corrections officer, etc. Not once did he refer to the dumb book we had to buy – instead he spent every class time telling stories about the people he had worked with during his career. There are three stories he told in that class that I haven’t been able to retell because they are so horrible I prefer not to remember. These stories weren’t about the crimes that were committed but rather about the early lives of the individuals that later became violent offenders.

    Of course most violent offenders don’t fit the menancing stereotypes you see on TV. Most are fathers, sons, brothers, people who have had tough, sad lives and suffer deep emotional problems that leave them incapable of handling their emotions and cause them in some cases to react in horrible ways against other individuals. If you could read the story of each of these people you would find them all deeply moving and find their subsequent violence completely understandable. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that when they choose to physical harm another person, or in the case of Tran to assist in killing someone not once but in two entirely separate situations, that they have to claim responsibility for their actions.

    Certainly our criminal justice system has many, many flaws and I’m as passionate an advocate for rehabilitation as anyone, but nothing about this article convinces me that we should invest that money in violent offenders. Ignoring for a moment the fact that getting the public to fund widespread rehab programs has proven all but impossible, I’d argue first to begin with nonviolent offenders. I found the article a little confusing in that it interlaced the fate of a man convicted of direct involvement in two different homicides with the fate of all of those imprisoned, most of whom are nonviolent and surely capable of being safely recyled into society if we do it right.

  28. You may also be interested in the project Songs From Death Row,

    http://www.songsfromdeathrow.com/

    It’s the songs made by the lyrics of Gene Hathorn, death row prisoner in Texas. When Gene dies he has also volunteered to donate his body to a follow up of Marco Evaristtis “Goldfish-in-blender”-exhibition. His body will be cremated and used as fish-food later on.

    T.

  29. I feel that once a person commits a violent crime against another that they have forfetted their rights. While I can’t stand behind capitol punishment, I can agree that incarceration to remove the chances of this kind of action happening again by that individual.

    Just wait until your family is under threat of harm from groups that conduct this kind of “business” and your opinion of the long sentence may change.

    Mine did.

  30. This article has some misstatements in it. I am a student in Houston and my step-father is a prison guard in Huntsville, TX, the most likely place to find a violent offender.

    TDCJ does allow prisoners to make money, but they cannot have it in cash. I know that they money for something I purchased made by a prisoner went to a defense fund for that prisoner. That prisoner actually runs a small business and distributes the money to his workers’ defense funds.

    Furthermore, a Vietnamese kid would not feel left out in Houston: Houston has the third largest Vietnamese-American population in the US. There are not-insignificant communities where street signs are in Vietnamese too.

  31. @32 “I feel that once a person commits a violent crime against another that they have forfetted their rights.”

    Unless they were wearing a uniform when they commited that violence.

    That being said, I just talked yesterday to a friend in Guatemala. Half of her family was murdered, and the assailants are threatening the rest if they don’t pay up. She is fleeing to Chicago.

    When economic and social conditions are bad enough, there really isn’t any sort of incarceration that can act as either a deterrent or keep new criminals from replacing the locked up.

    I strongly believe that our current prison system is one of the #1 contributing factors to criminality in America – because a sentence follows you for life, it deprives hope of those imprisoned and condemns them to a lifetime of criminality.

    I will agree that the only socially sane thing is to focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment.

    If the prisoner is willing, there should be special prisons which are like colleges, where prisoners could get BAs and even graduate degrees. If they work hard there and show real initiative, maybe they could cut their sentence in half. Certain types of crime wouldn’t be valid for this, like child molestors. Also, the prisoners would “graduate” from prison with comparable student loans as others, to reduce the incentive to go to prison just for a degree.

    This could be combined with serious, non slave labor jobs in prison, so the prisoners could get used to being in the actual workforce.

    I have trouble believing that a criminal tendency can continue for more than a decade in all but the smallest percentage of the population, especially if the future looks bright after prison.

  32. @26 Have you personally ever been the victim of a violent crime?
    The trauma can stay with you for the rest of your life.
    That loss of saftey that you will never get back, that constant burning fear in the back of your mind, ready to jump out at any provocation.
    It activates the more primative impulses in your brain, which can never be completely turned off again.
    It makes you a harder person; you snap at people, you can’t stop thinking about the event, and you find your thoughts increasinly turning to violence in general…

    When someone emotional maims you for the rest of your life, just for the hell of it…

    Why isn’t that a factor?
    The victims are the victims! That’s why we call them the *victims*! Not society!
    I am not opposed to laws having an affinity towared helping society, but criminals should be punished first.

    By your own account, you will never get back your sense of safety. Given this, how will killing the offender help your situation? It won’t make you feel any safer; after all, you’ve lost that feeling permanently.

    Unless what you’re proposing is that the offender should be killed so that you don’t have to be scared of him anymore. But that’s silly; one person’s emotions shouldn’t decide whether another person lives or dies.

  33. People wanting “justice” and compensation for victims, not rehabilitation of the criminal. But what is “justice” at that point? There is *nothing* to compensate the family and friends (heck, the world as well) of murdered people.

    No punishment of the criminal can amount to compensation. Punishment as compensation is merely cloaked revenge and thirst for blood, lowering the punishers to level of criminal themselves, and birthing forests of violence.

    The only way forward is teaching and rehabilitation, of criminals *and* their victims. In the rare extreme cases unfortunately incarceration is still required, until we have better ways of understanding and helping such people. But the point is that it would be a last resort in the case of criminals who have no desire to change or can’t due to psychological/neurological conditions (in which case they should be separated so they can receive their own specific treatments).

    Teaching a criminal how to improve the world is the only real compensation for the crimes they’ve committed; everything else is just thirst for their blood, and definitely not “justice”.

  34. people forgot an important concept that goes along with the justice system: mercy.

    personally, i’m not advocating mercy for rapists, pedophiles, etc., but for the people who made a stupid mistake they’ll regret… mercy often brings better results then misguided ideas of revenge.

    my best friend and her grandmother were killed by a drunk native american woman who smashed into them while they were helping a stranded motorist on the side of the road in the midwest. the woman was an alcoholic with children, and she knew perfectly well how badly she messed up by killing someone’s else’s 11 year old daughter. my best friend’s parents wrote to the judge deciding the case asking for mercy on the woman instead of demanding revenge.

    the woman is no longer an alcoholic, she’s monitored by the government, and now helps in a program for native americans with drinking problems with great success. if she would’ve been sent to jail, her children would’ve just been without their mother, and my best friend would still be dead…

  35. Neither financial restitution nor another murder compensates for loss of a loved one. In the most technical sense, the murdered person’s friends and family are not even ‘victims’ of the crime.

    The DOJ has a lot of statistics, for those willing to look. I found the recidivism rates (only applied to those actually released back into society) of less than 50% for all crimes except petty theft and WEED possession most interesting. Contrary to TV reality, murder and sex crimes had the LOWEST recidivism rates (yes, even child molesters) All of these from before the FUD about crime, and minimum sentences. When innocent until proven guilty meant something.

    So either people don’t commit the same crime after doing the time, or they get better at avoiding the law.

    Some prison time is probably often a good lesson for serious offenses, but it costs more to process the grocery thief than to feed him for a year! I’ve never been able to figure the logic that would rather pay 50 grand per year to incarcerate someone than 10 grand to support him on welfare.

  36. Are “Big Brother” style technologies preferable to incarceration?

    Most inmates would say yes and I imagine discreet monitoring would make rehabilitation more effective.

    I hate the idea of living in an Orwellian state more than the people that run boingboing but many people read your blog and if you don’t have someone arguing Devil’s advocate then you’ve got a pulpit, not a forum.

    Bentham’s “panopticon” is extremely important to the idea of modern punishment and, frankly, observation is preferable to all parties and less expensive than incarceration. So at least consider a role for “Big Brother” in the world.

    barrybondsisthegreatest1983@yahoo.com

  37. @Dequeued

    But seriously, about the death penalty, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of how it is currently *implemented*, that do nothing to attack the concept of the death penalty itself.

    What gives us (as represented by the state) the right to murder someone as a punishment for murdering someone?

    If murder is wrong, it is wrong. There is no “good murder”. Only murder.

  38. Nicheplayer @12, please don’t just be snotty. If you don’t think it’s a good article, explain why.

  39. Texas Department of Criminal Justice

    Offender Information – Son Vu Khai Tran
    (http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/transon.htm)

    Summary of incident
    Convicted of capital murder for his participation in murders resulting in the death of four people. Tran and three others lured a man to a club in Houston and murdered him because of his relationship with a woman who worked at the club. Tran and the others involved learned that another woman who worked at the club was aware of their identities. Tran and two of the others drove that woman to a secluded beach and shot her in the head, resulting in her death. Tran and two others then became concerned that the fourth person involved in the first murder might not keep their secret. The fourth person was lured to a meeting under false pretenses. He brought a friend along. Tran and one of the others shot and killed the fourth person and his friend. Prosecution for the death of these last two murders resulted in the capital murder conviction for Tran.

    If the Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders on constitutional grounds, I can abide by that, but this scumbag deserves every year of those 40 years.

  40. If the punishment for a crime is to hard. The hesitation to commit more crimes to avoid being punished will disappear.

    If someone commit a crime that he/she will get a high degree of punishment for. He/she will go to any means to protect himself/herself from being punished. This is also true of people who thinks they could get the blame for a crime they didn’t commit.

    This makes a criminal who has not been identified/caught or have escaped from punishment very dangerous.

    The consequences of commiting a crime must of course be deterrent, but with moderation.

    I live in Sweden where, as the punishment for different crimes have been made harder and harder recently, the crimes commited by people trying to avoid punishment has become more and more spectacular.

    Most Swedish people still don’t think anything good can come from only punishing criminals. But there is a strong mission in Sweden from rather creepy Christian groups, who use peoples most immoral instincts to convert them to (their) Christianity. The Christians has always had a rather partial position in Swedish politics, compared to the rather small number of Christian followers in the society at whole, simply because they are rather loudmouthed, rude and don’t have the same moral restrains. With this new movement, the people who rage about punishment will gain ground. Luckily, much of the money to finance Christian missionaries in Sweden comes from USA and with the new economic situation the cash flow will get narrower. In Sweden we have a saying that nothing bad happens that don’t lead to at least something good.

  41. Dequeued @19:

    Maybe it doesn’t modify someone’s behavior, in the correct way, but why is that the only issue? I am not comfortable with the government casually trying to “modify our behavior”. Social engineering usually has unintended consiquences, and it should not be taken lightly.

    Of course the government (or rather the law enforcement branch of it) tries to modify our behavior. That’s the point of the exercise: to get people to behave, and not commit crimes.

    I’d far rather have the government handling behavior modification than let you do it.

    Why do you view incarceration only in terms of it’s effect on society? What about crime’s effect on the victim?

    Victims and criminals are both members of society. If we can figure out how to make fewer crimes happen, we’ll all be better off.

    Charles Platt also equates any kind of punishment as “petty revenge”, before dismissing it completely because it isn’t “helping society”.

    Yes.

    Why should some vague idea of improving our society trump victims right to feel safe? Or be safe?

    Wherever did you get the idea that you have a right to feel safe? The world can be a dangerous place. That’s always going to be true, no matter how careful we are, or how severely our society punishes wrongdoing.

    If you used to have a sense that you were “safe”, one way to look at it is that you were wrong. You hadn’t yet learned that the world can be dangerous. Now you know better. That’s progress.

    Another objection to your assertion of a “right to feel safe” is that it’s a strictly internal phenomenon — a measure of how you feel, not what other people do. The law can’t address that.

    Some people can feel safe in objectively hazardous situations, because they trust (rightly or wrongly) that they can deal with whatever comes up. Other people will feel inadequately safe no matter what their circumstances. It would be ridiculous to suppose that this second person has a greater right to safety than the first one, or that they’re entitled to punish those whom they see as being responsible for their fears.

    MGFarrelly @24:

    The point Mr. Platt is making isn’t the usual didactic discussion of crime and punishment, he’s asking a real question that demands a fair answer. Why, in the past 30 years, has America embraced incarceration as a social cure? It’s expensive, dehumanizing and endangers our republic.

    The most succinct theory I’ve heard says it’s because we’ve run out of good places to build dams. Dam projects used to be a reliable way to pump money into a congressional district. Now, the best long-term moneyspinner they can install is a prison.

    I don’t know whether that’s true, but it is tidy.

    Scottyboy @33:

    I feel that once a person commits a violent crime against another that they have forfetted their rights.

    I feel that that attitude dehumanizes us.

    Dequeued @27:

    I think in most instances people guilty of those crimes can never be “rehabilitated”.

    I think you have no idea whether they can or they can’t, and are the last person to be making that judgement.

    And really, how much of an accomplishment would it be if they could?

    Excuse me. You’re making all sorts of complaints about your fragile and finely-balanced inner life being knocked askew, and asserting that you have a right to feel safe; but you’re ready to dismiss other human beings and their accomplishments this lightly? If you value your own life, value theirs, too, because you don’t know who they are, or how they got there.

    What would it say about our society if someone could commit MURDER, and then, after a few years of anger management therapy or whatever, be released, just so long as they’re really sorry and promise not to do it again.

    I’d think that was be great, and would be lobbying for us to also use the same rehabilitative techniques on people before they commit violent crimes. In the meantime, why should you care how long it takes for them to get out? You don’t think they can be rehabilitated anyway. You want to just write them off as human beings. Since you think that letting them off at all is a mistake, I don’t see any difference between your feeings about a five-year and a forty-year sentence.

    Maybe that scenario is a strawman, I am not completely sure what you advocate,

    Many people would stop typing and rethink their approach at that moment.

    but I DO think that your train of thought could eventually lead to something like that.

    Look! It’s a strawman sliding down a slippery slope!

    I know what your line of thought leads to. It turns you into Bernie Goetz. He’s a guy who was mugged in NYC in 1981, and never came to terms with his feelings of anger and insecurity. Three years later, he got onto a subway car and deliberately sat down directly opposite four dark-skinned young men. They came over and aggressively panhandled him. That’s not a pleasant situation. I’ve had it happen tome. However, there were other people on the car. Goetz could have pulled the cord, indicating to the conductor that there was an emergency situation on the train. He could have called out to the other passengers and had them pull the cord. He could have done a dozen other things to defuse the situation, including not sitting down directly opposite them in the first place. Instead:

    …he decided on a “pattern of fire” that he would use to shoot them. Goetz, pretending not to hear them, asked Canty, “What did you say?” Canty calmly repeated, “Give me five dollars.” Goetz told police that he “snapped” and that his intention at that point was to “murder them, to hurt them, to make them suffer as much as possible.” …

    After the second demand or request for money, Goetz rose from his seat, and from beneath his blue windbreaker fast-drew a .38 Special five-shot Smith & Wesson revolver and fired five shots with speed shooting. … In media interviews, Goetz, who had prior firearms and target shooting experience, described how he discharged all five rounds in less than 1.6 seconds. (Some eyewitness testimony stated all shots were fired within one second.)

    The first shot hit Canty in the center of the chest; the second shot struck Allen in the upper rear shoulder while he was turned about 90 degrees from Mr. Goetz. The angle of the bullet suggested that Mr. Allen was ducking; the third shot hit the subway wall just in front of Cabey; the fourth shot hit Cabey in the left side, severing his spinal cord and rendering him paraplegic; the fifth shot went through Ramseur’s arm and lodged itself in his left side. Goetz then immediately looked at the first two men to make sure they were “taken care of.” Goetz then saw Cabey moving on the bench and confessed to approaching Cabey and saying, “You don’t look too bad, here’s another,” and then attempted to shoot Cabey again in the stomach, with an empty gun. Cabey, who was briefly standing prior to the shooting, was sitting on the subway bench during all attempted shots. In his subsequent police statement, Goetz explained, “If I had had more [bullets], I would have shot them again, and again, and again.” In a 2008 interview, Goetz denied having actually made the statement “You don’t look too bad, here’s another” in the subway car, but said that he did try to shoot Cabey again, after which he knew he was out of bullets.

    All four men survived, though Cabey was permanently paralyzed and suffered brain damage as a result of the bullet that severed his spine.

    That’s what all this crap about revenge and retribution gets you: a guy pulling a gun and taking out three years of fear on a bunch of teenagers.

    Also, you keep mentioning restitution, what about psychological restitution?

    You mean, hurting the other person enough to make you feel better? I have news: it won’t make you feel better.

    Have you personally ever been the victim of a violent crime?

    Yup. More than once, more than twice. The same is true of quite a few people who hang out here.

    The trauma can stay with you for the rest of your life.

    Guy, you don’t need revenge; you need a good therapist.

    Yeah, the trauma is hard to deal with. You’re not the same person afterward. But you know what? You can mostly get over it.

    That loss of safety that you will never get back,

    I don’t frickin’ care about your sense of safety. You had one? Lucky you. I congratulate you on your childhood. I’m not going into details about mine, but I have one vague early memory that might have been a sense of safety. It went away so early that I don’t remember losing it.

    Fear is always there. That’s appropriate. We aren’t immortal or indestructible, so it’s good we have fear to remind us of it.

    that constant burning fear in the back of your mind, ready to jump out at any provocation. It activates the more primative impulses in your brain, which can never be completely turned off again. It makes you a harder person; you snap at people, you can’t stop thinking about the event, and you find your thoughts increasinly turning to violence in general…

    So someone traumatized you, and instead of dealing with it, you’ve taken it as permanent permission to let loose alla them savage and primitive impulses in your brain. I am seriously not impressed with this as a coping strategy. Go see a shrink. Deal with it.

    The other thing that bothers me about this is that it makes you no better than the people you’ve been talking about, the ones who are more prone to commit violence. Why does this transformation supposedly make you an object of pity, but make others who may be in the same situation irredeemable?

    When someone emotional maims you for the rest of your life, just for the hell of it…

    You get the hell over it, just like the rest of us. If you need help, get help; either way, just do it.

    Why isn’t that a factor?

    Because one of the great long learning curves of civilization is the movement away from revenge, and toward the impartiality of law, that’s why.

  42. >> but this scumbag deserves every year of those 40 years.

    Congratulations on reading a one paragraph summary produced by the somewhat biased “Texas Department of Criminal Justice.”

  43. I hate to sound so unsympathetic but – come on! This guy is a murderer! I don’t care if he can write a sympathetic sounding article about his difficult background (wake up – we all have struggles to overcome, stop whining about how yours was any harder that the millions of other people who DON’T kill humans).

    This man has committed a crime, and while it’s great that he clearly has educated himself since it happened – he’s still responsible for murder! And he gets out in 30 years, so we don’t need to cry a river about his juvenile record committing him to death.

  44. Boo hoo…cry me a river. The highlight of the prisoner’s day is eating some crappy sandwiches?
    I’m sure his victim’s family would live to share a gas-station sandwich with their murdered loved one.
    Listen….the deal is this:
    Prison is supposed to be tough. It’s not supposed to be a nice place.
    Prisons are over crowded because we are locking up the wrong people.
    Non-violent, first time drug offenders shouldn’t be locked up.
    This silly War on Drugs isn’t working, and never has, unless the goal has been to finance private armies in South America.
    Legalize it all,(by that I mean drugs), and put the money that we are currently wasting into treatment and education.

  45. >> If we can figure out how to make fewer crimes happen, we’ll all be better off.

    Americans reason (if at all) using cartoon and Charles Bronson motifs on justice and revenge.

    How does one define “crime?”

    Because, yes, murder is clearly a crime. Theft… well. Let’s say that enjoys a special layer of deliberate ambiguity and mass denial in American society. In fact, most forms of theft in America are considered virtues. In America, only suckers and losers don’t steal.

    And even murder is ambiguous as we routinely hand out medals, wealth, and status for mass murder done in the service of theft.

    It wouldn’t even occur to most Americans (and it certainly hasn’t occurred to the Boing Boing commenters on this thread) to ask what were the circumstances that delivered this Vietnamese boy to Houston in the first place. And where were his parents? And why did he join a gang?

    Because that’s a level of introspection that Americans just don’t apply to their society and therefore to themselves.

    I bet we would find some interesting details about the narrative that brought the boy to this place.

    Americans like to scream at a perpetrator, but NEVER examine the roots. And then when the perpetrator falls into their hands for judgment, they either execute outright (which was the initial sentence) or just warehouse them.

    But, hey…

    Why just warehouse when you can have slave labor stitching underpants for pennies an hour?

    That’s America.

    Everyone on the planet knows it EXCEPT Americans.

    America is a shameful, dysfunctional, and deeply evil nation on a level that makes the actions of this young person seem minor by comparison.

    My homeland makes me sick.

    How’s that multi-trillion dollar “bailout” coming, heroes?

  46. @Dequeued:

    Additional death will help the grieving family, because they know the monster that killed their loved one will be completely gone from this earth, forever.

    Additional death, as it turns out, does not help the grieving family. Many victims’ rights groups oppose the death penalty because they have found, over time, that it is HARDER for victims’ families to cope if the murderer is put to death than if he’s given life in prison. Families often heal better WITHOUT the death penalty.

    And to get a little more metaphysical about it, you complain that people give up their rights once they go to the law of the jungle, or some such words. In that case, I’m not sure WHY you’re in favor of allowing emotions like revenge, the sort of jungly law that got us there in the first place, to be the driving force in punishment.

    For a somewhat rational human being

    And THIS is an enormously debatable point. Few violent criminals are being “rational” when they commit the crime. Go to your county courthouse for a cattle-call arraignment (Monday or Tuesday they usually do the weekend offenders so there’s a big batch). These people aren’t THINKING. These are the sad dregs of society — victims of abuse, the mentally ill and untreated, people with substance abuse problems. (And they’re generally people lacking in education, support networks, job skills, etc.) Mike the Meth Addict isn’t doing a cost-benefit analysis when he mugs you and rationally planning out the crime; Mike is jonesing for meth and you happened to walk by. Treating him like a “rational” human being is in itself irrational.

    @all, on a side note, I teach ethics, and this has been such a nice discussion hitting the major points of the debate between Kantian and Utilitarian ideals of punishment and rehabilitation that I think I’ll post and link to it on the class website. Thanks, smart articulate Boingers!

  47. random traffic stops in search of drivers who have had two beers and will be hauled straight to jail

    No. No no no. Do NOT equate driving under the influence with the other examples. If you’ve had two beers, you have no business what so ever driving.* There is a very dangerous sense in the US (it seems to me, from what I can gather through various media channels) that drunk driving is somehow not a big deal. It is. It is a VERY VERY big deal, and anything that trivialises it, is bad.

    Some very good points are raised in this article, and I agree with many of them. I’m Norwegian, our prisons and the amount of time people generally spend in them is laughed at by most other countries, yet this is one of the safest places you can live.

    I wish someone would realise that “Ok, we sentence people to death, we sentence them to life in prison – yet it does not seem to have any deterring effect. Maybe we should try something else.”

    *It might be legal, I don’t know your limit, but you still have no business driving. None at all.

  48. I think it’s good to be reminded of the exact crimes that Mr. Tran was convicted of, but I’m also severely aware of how flawed ‘Texas Justice’ has been proved to be in altogether too many cases, including capital punishment ones.

    I’d also like to know what the other defendants in the case were sentenced to, especially if somebody turned state’s evidence to reduce their own punishment in return for overstating the others’ guilt. This could matter a whole lot as to the appropriateness of the sentence that he received.

  49. Vaguely I wonder when the American school system embraced the slit-windowed concrete-box motif, and why.

    To keep would-be school shooters from sniping from the outside, I’d guess.

    Also, and this has already been said many times, many ways, George Ryan didn’t see the light WRT the death penalty (which I oppose, BTW) until the corruption investigation which eventually resulted in his own conviction and imprisonment was well underway.

  50. @SCOTTYBOY

    incarceration to remove the chances of this kind of action happening again by that individual

    What is the point of incarcerating individuals if the entire system is turning an ever increasing number into criminals. Either through rampant poverty, which correlates very closely to crime, or by criminalising formerly innocuous activities.

    Instead of doing what feels right and locking up and killing criminals, why not do the thing that will actually reduce criminal behaviour and reduce the factors that encourage crime in the first place. Poverty, lack of education, McJobs and drugs all correlate highly with crime, but the right seems addicted to punitive revenge methods instead of spending the money where it’s needed. Spend some of that prisons budget on better schools. The War on Drugs not only doesn’t work, but actively encourages crime. When drugs are illegal, organised crime steps in to supply the demand. Legalise them, tax the hell out of them and use the money for addiction relief. No more drug gangs pushing people into addiction through peer pressure, no more gangs fighting for dominance whilst the innocent suffer.

    If you truly want to make society safe for you and your family, try doing something that works rather than something that feels right.

  51. I agree that prison and capital punishment are not very effective deterrents and I do not care.

    I do not care if prison is pleasant, miserable, fair or unfair.

    I do not care if prisoners are rehabilitated or not.

    All I care about is that me or my family are not in the path of Mr. Tran the next time peer pressure and feelings of alienation compel him to kill someone.

    It looks like our current system will keep that from happening for at least 40 years.

  52. Son Tran’s letter is certainly an eye-opener, though perhaps not in the way that Mr. Platt would hope. No genuine remorse, just an ongoing sense of victimization. Definitely worth the read. I’m also somewhat curious as to what Mr. Platt proposes. That Son Tran should be released?

  53. In my mind, I adjusted the Consequences to Fit the Crime, and 40+ years for a double murder sounds about right for me.

  54. There are two parts of this article:

    1. A very good story about one guy in prison. Nice detail, and a fair amount of perspective.

    2. The author dips his toe into an old, old, debate about crime and punishment, with some I-just-read-this-amazing-magazine-article figures and factoids.

    Every point in the #2 part of this article has been made and answered a zillion times before, and every one of those counterpoints has been disputed and debated in turn. And that’s the quality part of the debate. Arguments on this topic tend to degenerate into personal anecdotes and value statements very quickly.

    rtcls lk ths nvr chng nyn’s mnds xcpt th vry, vry nv r th vry prsdbl.

  55. At the point that you, as a person, decide to infringe on a persons rights and either harm them or take their life, you get to sit in timeout. You stopped playing by the rules and as such are no longer allowed the protections and benefits of being a citizen. You forfeited them. Plain and simple.

    This isn’t a hard concept to grasp, I don’t get why everyone is saying “You just want revenge!” If revenge is wanting for the person to be away from the rest of us law-abiding individuals who respect one another, then yes I want what you are calling “revenge”. I call it justice. They shouldn’t get the same treatment that you or I receive anymore.

    The treatment they do deserve? Counseling, psychiatrists, any professional they need for their rehabilitation. All of it. If they are deemed better by a group of trained professionals then I have no problem with them being released.

  56. I really appreciate all the comments here, which show a great deal more thought and concern about social problems than I find when legislators (or DAs running for office) talk about these issues.

    I fully agree that my article would have been easier to write, and probably more convincing, if I had been dealing with a drug offense instead of a capital crime. But, I’m not interested in making my task easier. I deliberately went for the hardest problem: Homicide. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I know what the best answer is to this problem, because, I don’t. All I do know is:

    –The United States totally changed its policies regarding sentencing during the past thirty years. Was this a rational response or just a way for unprincipled legislators to win votes? Did it achieve any social good, or did it just make voters feel a little more secure, and if so, is the security real or illusory?

    –Every other nation in the world (including ones that we regard as having an atrocious record regarding human rights) imprisons a smaller proportion of its population than we do. How did this situation come about? While the percentage of imprisoned drug offenders has increased, this is not the only factor. Three-strikes rules and mandatory minimums had a big effect, as did the elimination of parole by some states.

    –I do not believe 40 years is more of a disincentive than 20 years, for someone in a gang where a “group reality” has displaced everyday decent human values. I suspect that nothing would work as a disincentive for people in that situation, because they have become so alienated from everyday society.

    –I regret that parole became stigmatized by a handful of high-profile cases, because I think it is a sensible response to the differences among prisoners.

    Now, the big question: How can we excuse the type of crime which appears to have been committed in this instance? Well, we can’t. It is inexcusable. Nothing can make up for it. But this is precisely the point. Even killing the killer can’t make up for it. Even if it were legal to torture the killer before killing him, or hang, draw, and quarter him as was done in the Middle Ages, it still wouldn’t undo the original crime. I think it’s very important to recognize this. So long as we want to “make it better” we’ll be reaching for remedies that don’t exist. Some things cannot be made better.

    One poster asked if I have been a victim of a violent crime. The answer is, yes. I have been robbed in the street at knife point, and robbed in the stairwell of a housing project when I couldn’t tell whether the people had weapons. And no, it didn’t make me feel punitive toward the people who targeted me; I just felt very depressed, for days afterward.

    My lack of anger toward some of the people who commit violent crimes probably derives from a suspicion that if I were in their situation, I might end up doing the same thing. I am not a violent person, but if I were immersed in a subculture where I was taught that violence is utterly normal, I might not have the strength of will to resist that message. Therefore I believe if there is any “answer” to the problem, it would be to do social work to ameliorate conditions that tend to encourage violent groups.

    Incidentally I regard the military as being almost identical to a gang environment, since it has exactly the same effects. It persuades everyday, decent people that it’s quite okay for them to kill strangers. Never underestimate the power of authority figures in a group!

    While some people are genuinely deranged and scary (giving off the menacing vibes that I mentioned in my article) I think many others are just the product of group behavior. If they can be removed from the group, I think they may recover. At that point, there’s nothing to be gained from keeping them locked up. They are no longer dangerous, and their incarceration costs money. The only point in keeping them in prison is to punish them, and that gets me back to what I believe is the fallacy of thinking that punishment will somehow compensate for an inexcusable act.

    Lastly, regarding the detail about the Texas prison system preventing inmates from engaging in a business, I have seen copies of statements from the prison where Son Tran is incarcerated, making it very clear that any attempt to “run a business” will result in loss of privileges. As for possessing money, technically the money in an inmate trust fund does belong to the prisoner, but its use is severely restricted. The money certainly cannot be used, for instance, to buy items via mail order. The reasons for this should be obvious: A prison does not want to have to search incoming packages for potentially dangerous items.

    –Charles Platt

  57. >How do you think the families of his victims feel?
    >How would YOU feel if someone you loved was murdered, and the person who did it was not severely punished?

    In a discussion of justice, that’s irrelevant. In a discussion of revenge and retribution, yes.

    In general, punishments are not meted out to stop the specific crime that occurred — but to influence the prevention of future crimes. The “body of the condemned” is an example, as it were.

    There is no punishment possible that can re-render the past — thus no true resolution for a victim. We punish to change behavior. Or, rather, we tried to, at some point.

    Penitentiaries were created by the Quakers (Eastern State) to instill a penitential spirit — to rehabilitate. But Eastern State was a failure — yet we whole-heartedly embraced its panoptic design.

    :::sigh:::

    More surveillance cameras, please….

  58. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator @ #45

    “Victims and criminals are both members of society. If we can figure out how to make fewer crimes happen, we’ll all be better off.”

    That’s semantics.
    Members of society are not the whole of society itself.

    “If you used to have a sense that you were “safe”, one way to look at it is that you were wrong. You hadn’t yet learned that the world can be dangerous. Now you know better. That’s progress.”

    Lovely

    “Another objection to your assertion of a “right to feel safe” is that it’s a strictly internal phenomenon — a measure of how you feel, not what other people do. The law can’t address that.”

    Well, then I wasn’t clear.
    Not just do I, and everyone else, have a right to feel safe, we have a right to BE safe.
    No, no one can change the state of our minds for us, but the government can certainly make our environment safer.
    It’s not complicated, in a civilized society, people have a general presumption to not be harmed by others.
    Sure, people may violate these principles occasionally, but then they are abandoning civilization, and humanity, and are no better than enraged baboons.

    “I don’t frickin’ care about your sense of safety. You had one? Lucky you. I congratulate you on your childhood. I’m not going into details about mine, but I have one vague early memory that might have been a sense of safety. It went away so early that I don’t remember losing it.”

    And I don’t give a rat’s ass that you can rationalize away your trauma.
    Just because bad things have happened to you and you tolerated it doesn’t mean others have to as well.

    “I’d think that was be great, and would be lobbying for us to also use the same rehabilitative techniques on people before they commit violent crimes. In the meantime, why should you care how long it takes for them to get out? You don’t think they can be rehabilitated anyway. You want to just write them off as human beings. Since you think that letting them off at all is a mistake, I don’t see any difference between your feeings about a five-year and a forty-year sentence.”

    If someone is so mentally ill that they really didn’t fully understand that they have committed murder, fine, maybe they can be rehabilitated to a degree, although they could never again enjoy full inclusion in our society…

    But there are plenty of people who know full well that what they are doing is wrong, and do it anyway, because they can.
    How could someone ever come back from that?
    I guess we just see things differently.

    “I know what your line of thought leads to. It turns you into Bernie Goetz. He’s a guy who was mugged in NYC in 1981, and never came to terms with his feelings of anger and insecurity. Three years later, he got onto a subway car and deliberately sat down directly opposite four dark-skinned young men. They came over and aggressively panhandled him. That’s not a pleasant situation. I’ve had it happen tome. However, there were other people on the car. Goetz could have pulled the cord, indicating to the conductor that there was an emergency situation on the train. He could have called out to the other passengers and had them pull the cord. He could have done a dozen other things to defuse the situation, including not sitting down directly opposite them in the first place. Instead:”

    Aggressive panhandling??
    And did you EVEN READ the complete article on wikipedia?

    “This second indictment was later dismissed after two of the shooting victims were arrested on separate rape and robbery charges, and a third shooting victim stated in a newspaper interview that the other members of the group decided to rob Goetz because he looked like “easy bait.” Independent eyewitness statements were still withheld from the media.”

    These men were rapists, robbers, and potential murderers, even after they got shot for their trouble they kept being assholes.
    I guess they just need anger management.

    “Soon after being released from the hospital for the treatment of his gunshot wound, James Ramseur committed another crime with an associate: he was later convicted of raping, sodomizing, beating and robbing a pregnant nineteen year old woman on a building rooftop in the Bronx, and in 1986 was sentenced to 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison.”

    Hey! I am sure that pregnant 19 year old girl was totally asking for it!
    That slut!
    It was really her fault, James Ramseur is the real victim here, he can’t be made to take responsibility for his actions!

    And have you ever been on a subway?
    Pulling the cord is the very last thing you want to do if there is a situation, because it halts the train and it usually takes longer for the cops to get there than if you just waited until you were at the next station.
    Besides, maybe he was surrounded, or felt he couldn’t move.
    It’s really not fair to judge someone in that kind of situation.
    And a subway car is a very claustrophobic environment, it’s like being locked in a prison cell with someone.

    Unfortunately, NYC has very backwards gun laws, so I can’t legally carry a concealed firearm with me (Criminals are of course, exempt from this).
    I am a big guy though, and I have a hippie size can of mace and a 50lbs bike chain which could easily crack a skull.
    But yeah, I have a friend who goes to school in Minneapolis, and she feels much safer being able to carry a concealed firearm in her purse.

    Nice blaming the victim there though, with a hint of racism.
    I guess Goetz should have know better than to sit next to some black kids, right?
    The thugs who attacked him can’t be blamed for what they did, RIGHT?

    An attractive woman has the right to walk wherever she pleases, wearing whatever she wants, and not get raped.
    There are no exceptions to this.

    While practically speaking, it may not be smart to go to places where you know criminals dwell, or present yourself as a target to criminals, it also your right, and you shouldn’t go through life hiding and worrying about being attacked.

    “That’s what all this crap about revenge and retribution gets you: a guy pulling a gun and taking out three years of fear on a bunch of teenagers.”

    As I have already shown, they were not some innocent teens trying to panhandle, they were career gangstas, who shamelessly rape, sodomize, rob, and assault.
    Monsters. Scum.
    I say too bad he didn’t finish the job.

    “The other thing that bothers me about this is that it makes you no better than the people you’ve been talking about, the ones who are more prone to commit violence. Why does this transformation supposedly make you an object of pity, but make others who may be in the same situation irredeemable?”

    Ummm, that’s easy.
    Because I am not going around taking out my frustration on innocent bystanders.
    If, I went out and robbed and sodomized someone, and then when I was arrested I told a judge that it wasn’t my fault I had something traumatic happen to me, then, yes, I would be no better than them.
    But being willing to respond when someone else initiates for onto me is fine.

    All violence isn’t the same, the motivation for violence is what matters.
    Violence in self defense, is usually a very good thing.
    And being passive in the face of evil can be a very bad thing.

  59. @ charlesplatt

    Interesting post, interesting subject. Let me duck your main points, and nitpick about one thing. You suggest the military is “almost identical” to street gangs because they both teach that its okay to kill strangers. In passing, I’d say the military, at least in Western developed countries, is not generally like most street gangs for a lot of reasons. But specifically, I’d say that in some circumstances, killing strangers is okay. Gandhi would not agree. But George Orwell, who fought as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, and didn’t particularly like Gandhi, would agree. On the other hand George Orwell was no fan of the death penalty, for instance. I don’t know that he ever analyzed the death penalty from a sociological or cost-benefit perspective. But he did write about seeing a man being hanged. Purely anecdotal, but moving:

    http://www.orwell.ru/library/articles/hanging/english/e_hanging

  60. disqueued:

    “Not just do I, and everyone else, have a right to feel safe, we have a right to BE safe.
    No, no one can change the state of our minds for us, but the government can certainly make our environment safer.
    It’s not complicated, in a civilized society, people have a general presumption to not be harmed by others.
    Sure, people may violate these principles occasionally, but then they are abandoning civilization, and humanity, and are no better than enraged baboons.”

    how does the foregoing relate to the experience of being black in America? How many black people are in jail? Percentage-wise to others? Should these rights you speak of apply to them?

  61. I think we need to either rehabilitate the criminal or execute them, period. THere should be a maximum sentence, and ten years is a LONG sentence for anything, and if a person cannot be rehabilitated by then, just kill them and move on. It sounds harsh, but Plato would agree, and the system as it stands is harsh and a failure, not to mention expensive.

  62. >> Incidentally I regard the military as being almost identical to a gang environment, since it has exactly the same effects. It persuades everyday, decent people that it’s quite okay for them to kill strangers.

    This is EXACTLY the nut of the matter.

    America is a thug nation.

    This Son Tran just joined the wrong gang. Had he been prescient enough to join the US military he would have been paid a salary, awarded medals, and given income towards his education for capping out, running drive-bys, and shaking down whichever foreigners America had decided to “liberate” from their natural resources.

    Take his rap sheet, put him in uniform, and imagine all of the murders took place in Baghdad and this kid immediately goes from goat to hero.

    Crime pays.

  63. 70 years ago in Italy, when people were asked if they lived in a police/fascist state they replayed that Italy was more a safe and a better place to live than before…

    Sounds like the thinking of many US citizens regarding the police/war policies in their Country.

    US Government spends more money than any other civilized (and not) Country in the World on prisons, military, paramilitary police and secret agencies.
    Now, from a foreigner point of view, this is far from what one would usually consider the spending of a Country called “Land of Freedom”…

    Dreams are beautiful but I think it’s time to reality check the “American Dream” and stop to call communist or anti-USA anyone who is pointing to facts like these…
    accepting reality is the first step for CHANGE!

  64. Texas prisons house more than 100,000 men and women. Only a tiny percentage are inherently violent people.

    I can speak with certainty about this because I lived with them for more than 20 years.

    The vast majority of inmates are products of unstable or nonexistent family structure, educated to something like a 6th grad level.

    Their crimes almost never inflicted direct violence on any individual. Most have a string of relatively minor offenses starting as young teens, the cumulative effect of which landed them in prison for 10-20 years after they became adults.

    In effect, society becomes frustrated with these youngsters and opts to warehouse them instead of facing facts about what generates this growing segment of our population.

    Nobody leaves prison a better person than who they were before. Nobody. Most become more angry and bitter.

    And eventually almost all are released. A hundred or so guys march out from behind the walls every day. If you doubt this, spend a couple of midday hours sitting under a tree outside the old Huntsville “Walls” unit.

    So, consider that in addition to exacting revenge or punishing wrong doers, hundreds of hardened, angry people are released every week in an absurd kind of recycling.

    Keep listening to fear-mongering politicians who perpetuate this incredibly expensive, counter-productive system.

    God forbid you should think for yourself and begin to look for alternative solutions.

  65. Icky @31:

    I’m as passionate an advocate for rehabilitation as anyone, but nothing about this article convinces me that we should invest that money in violent offenders. Ignoring for a moment the fact that getting the public to fund widespread rehab programs has proven all but impossible, I’d argue first to begin with nonviolent offenders.

    The public used to be more willing to fund it. I don’t think that’s because the crimes have gotten more savage.

    Something I heard a while back was that the best window of opportunity for rehabilitating violent offenders is when they’re young, before they’ve wasted years in prison picking up bad strategies from older inmates; and that it’s best done intensively. It’s expensive, but it’s a lot cheaper than lifetime incarceration.

    Eyebrows McGee @50, excellent comment.

    Kari @51, another good comment. You’re right about driving after drinking. It isn’t an interaction that suddenly goes wrong. It’s a person deciding that the laws don’t apply to them, and that they have the right to potentially maim or kill others in order to gratify an arbitrary preference for driving rather than riding.

    BDGBill @56, all that does is make sure than when you’re in the path of someone who’s armed and making bad decisions, it won’t be Mr. Tran. I don’t see the benefit. Social programs, on the other hand, might keep your potential assailant from being armed & stupid when you cross paths with him.

    Machine in the Ghost @59, if these discussions are so worthless, what are you doing here? And if no one ever changes their mind on this subject, how is it that the United States has become so fixated on punitive incarceration?

    Dequeued @63: First order of business: if you don’t stop breaking your paragraphs like poetry to add spurious length to your comments, I’m going to suspend your account for a day. And while we’re on the subject, please don’t leave more than one extra linespace between paragraphs, or boldface more than a word or two for emphasis.

    Onward. I see you’ve refused to engage with most of my remarks.

    That’s semantics. Members of society are not the whole of society itself.

    If society is not entirely made up of members of society, could you please explain what the rest of it is made of?

    Not just do I, and everyone else, have a right to feel safe, we have a right to BE safe. No, no one can change the state of our minds for us, but the government can certainly make our environment safer.

    The right of everyone to be safe is what the rule of law is all about. Presumably, the government does the best it can to keep us all safe, but obviously things don’t always work out that way. Can you please explain in more detail how you feel the government has failed you?

    It’s not complicated, in a civilized society, people have a general presumption to not be harmed by others. Sure, people may violate these principles occasionally, but then they are abandoning civilization, and humanity, and are no better than enraged baboons.

    And yet you want to commit violence on others. What does that make you? I know you feel that in your case it’s justified or reasonable, but so does almost every other person who commits violence. That’s why we don’t leave it to them to decide what’s appropriate.

    You don’t have a right to revenge. You don’t have a right to hurt others until you feel better. If you insist that you do, you’re putting yourself outside civilized society and the rule of law.

    You now take a huge jump to a later portion of my comment. May I assume you’ve conceded all the intervening arguments? I feel I should get some recompense for you stripping my next quoted remark out of its original context.

    I don’t frickin’ care about your sense of safety. You had one? Lucky you. I congratulate you on your childhood. I’m not going into details about mine, but I have one vague early memory that might have been a sense of safety. It went away so early that I don’t remember losing it.

    And I don’t give a rat’s ass that you can rationalize away your trauma. Just because bad things have happened to you and you tolerated it doesn’t mean others have to as well.

    I do apologize for mentioning anyone else’s histories in a thread you apparently believe is entirely about you; but you’re seriously mistaken if you think that what happened was either rationalized or tolerated.

    I don’t advocate either strategy. What I was saying is that you’re not the only person in the world who’s experienced trauma. In fact, given your evident sense of outraged betrayal that it happened to you at all, I’m going to guess that you’ve experienced and/or witnessed less trauma than the average person, and that substantial portions of your life have been spent in sheltered or even privileged circumstances. I can’t think of many other ways to account for your belief that you should have the right to punish those who make you feel uneasy.

    To be quite honest, what I think you believe is that it’s perfectly all right for certain classes of people to be subjected to violence and other mistreatment, and live their lives in a constant state of uncertainty; but you aren’t a member of those classes, so by rights such things should never happen to you. You’re afraid, but more than that, you’re furiously angry that someone made you afraid.

    Regarding Bernie Goetz:

    Aggressive panhandling?? And did you EVEN READ the complete article on wikipedia?

    Yes. I read the whole Wikipedia article. I’ve also read a lot of other sources on him, including all the NYC coverage of the case.

    These men were rapists, robbers, and potential murderers, even after they got shot for their trouble they kept being assholes. I guess they just need anger management.

    1. Goetz had other ways he could have dealt with the situation. He didn’t use them. 2. When you shoot someone, you have to assume you’re going to kill them. Shaking down Bernie Goetz for five bucks is not a capital offense. 3. Goetz is not a police officer. He’s not a court of law. He’s not the penal system. He had no right to appoint himself judge, jury, and executioner.

    You’re terribly, terribly concerned about the damage you took from one traumatic incident. Since we’re talking about poor black kids from an inner-city environment, we can assume they’ve been the recipients of numerous traumatizing events, starting at a very early age. Where’s their sense of safety? Where’s their internal balance, and sense of wholeness? Why do you expect us to have sympathy for you, when you have none for them?

    “Soon after being released from the hospital for the treatment of his gunshot wound, James Ramseur committed another crime with an associate: he was later convicted of raping, sodomizing, beating and robbing a pregnant nineteen year old woman on a building rooftop in the Bronx, and in 1986 was sentenced to 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison.”

    You say you were traumatized. Were you and your friends shot? That’s what happened to him. If you can blame the changes in your psyche on one traumatic event, how can you say that James Ramseur was unaffected by such a traumatic event?

    But then, James Ramseur belonged to the class of persons whose traumas you don’t care about.

    (In fact, I don’t think James Ramseur was a nice person. I’m just pointing out that the logic that fits one will fit the other.)

    And have you ever been on a subway?

    Guy, I live in Brooklyn. Before I lived in Brooklyn, I lived in Manhattan. So yeah, I’ve been on a few subways.

    Pulling the cord is the very last thing you want to do if there is a situation, because it halts the train and it usually takes longer for the cops to get there than if you just waited until you were at the next station.

    Wrong — and by the way, I did pull the cord on one occasion.

    1. It’s so urgent that he has to shoot people, but not so urgent that he can’t wait until the next station to summon help?

    2. I forget whether there was an officer on that particular train, but it was pretty common to have transit cops on trains at that time. You pulled the cord, they came running. If there were no police, the conductor came running.

    3. Pulling the cord would have been sufficient. This wasn’t a determined attack; it was a shakedown. The kids weren’t armed. If Goetz had pulled the cord, or gotten someone else to pull the cord, the kids would have known that authority was on the way, and they were in big trouble.

    Haven’t you ever dealt with kids like that? The minute they know someone’s called the police, their bravado evaporates. They may still talk tough, but they’ll be walking backwards, away from the scene, as they do it.

    What
    Besides, maybe he was surrounded, or felt he couldn’t move.

    And that’s enough reason to shoot a bunch of people?

    If he was uncomfortable with their presence, he shouldn’t have sat down directly opposite them on a train with that had lots of empty seats.

    It’s really not fair to judge someone in that kind of situation.

    Excuse me? You don’t get to say that. You’ve passed judgement on way too many people in the course of this exchange.

    And a subway car is a very claustrophobic environment, it’s like being locked in a prison cell with someone.

    No, it isn’t. I’ve been in more subway cars than I can possibly count, and it’s nothing like being locked in a prison cell with someone — though the fact that you’re willing to say that tells me a lot about your attitude toward your fellow citizens. As for claustrophobia, let me repeat: there were very few people on the car.

    Unfortunately, NYC has very backwards gun laws, so I can’t legally carry a concealed firearm with me

    Thank god for that.

    (Criminals are of course, exempt from this).

    No, they aren’t. If they commit a crime when they have a gun on them, there are heavy penalties. If they use a gun in the course of a crime, the penalties are heavier. And if they’re caught with an unlicensed gun, that’s a felony all by itself.

    You’re forgetting that it was Bernie Goetz, not the kids, who had the gun. They were unarmed. He shot them anyway.

    I am a big guy though, and I have a hippie size can of mace and a 50lbs bike chain which could easily crack a skull.

    And if you use it, you’ve committed assault with a deadly weapon, and will spend time imprisoned with a bunch of those people you don’t like riding the subway with.

    But yeah, I have a friend who goes to school in Minneapolis, and she feels much safer being able to carry a concealed firearm in her purse.That’s another one of those cases where what’s real and what you feel don’t necessarily match up.

    Nice blaming the victim there though, with a hint of racism.

    I think I know where the racism’s come in in this conversation. Where do you see it?

    I guess Goetz should have know better than to sit next to some black kids, right? The thugs who attacked him can’t be blamed for what they did, RIGHT?

    I didn’t say that. I said that his case is the logical endpoint of attitudes like yours. You don’t want to deal with your fear and anger like everyone else. You’re so special that the fact that one bad thing happened to you is reason enough to suspend all the rules of law, standard procedure, impartiality, and measured response.

    Like Bernie Goetz, you’re a half-cocked gun just waiting to go off. You want to get some recompense. Who are you going to collect from? Goetz carried a loaded gun into a sparsely peopled subway car and deliberately sat across from four inner-city black teenagers. That’s not avoiding confrontation. They had nothing to do with his mugging three years earlier, but he took it out on them just the same.

    Or shall we take this further? You’re saying it’s all right to commit violent acts upon someone who scares you, whom you perceive as a threat. You’ve referred to those people as animals. You don’t think they should have any rights which we are obliged to consider. What that says to me is that you’re not very far removed from people who participate in lynchings.

    …As I have already shown, they were not some innocent teens trying to panhandle, they were career gangstas, who shamelessly rape, sodomize, rob, and assault. Monsters. Scum. I say too bad he didn’t finish the job.

    Just like that. You want to pretend they’re not human.

    I’m not saying they’re good humans. I’m saying they’re just as real and complicated as you are. You don’t know what’s happened to them, or what they see when they look at you. I think that’s something a person ought to care about. Because if I wanted to stereotype you as a particular kind of jerk, it wouldn’t be hard to do. It would be real easy to see you as a threat. You’re a big guy who’s going around in a state of badly controlled rage, armed with a can of mace and a chain big enough to crack skulls. Maybe I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with people who superficially resemble you. Maybe you inadvertently crowd me, or look like you’re trying to start something.

    What then?

    “The other thing that bothers me about this is that it makes you no better than the people you’ve been talking about, the ones who are more prone to commit violence. Why does this transformation supposedly make you an object of pity, but make others who may be in the same situation irredeemable?”

    Ummm, that’s easy. Because I am not going around taking out my frustration on innocent bystanders. If, I went out and robbed and sodomized someone, and then when I was arrested I told a judge that it wasn’t my fault I had something traumatic happen to me, then, yes, I would be no better than them.
    But being willing to respond when someone else initiates for onto me is fine.

    Ever hung out with police or EMTs? Nobody ever thinks they’re the one who started it. An EMT of my acquaintance refers to this as “Somedude Syndrome,” as in, “I don’t know what happened! I was just sitting there, minding my own business, when some dude starts whaling on me with a pool cue.” If you can catch up with the other guy, he always tells a different story.

    Your judgement that the other guy started it does not give you an unlimited right to commit violence. What you have is the right to do what it takes to get away so you can call a police officer.

    All violence isn’t the same, the motivation for violence is what matters.

    Nope. Say one guy wishes me ill, but he’s a terrible shot. The bullet misses me by such a wide margin that I don’t even know it’s been fired. Another guy intends only good, but he’s inept at handling a gun, and accidentally shoots me. If you think intent is all that matters, I say we let the inept guy shoot you instead, because I think it matters whether or not I get shot.

    Violence in self defense, is usually a very good thing.

    No. It may occasionally be a necessary thing, but it’s not a good thing. The kind you have in mind is almost guaranteed to be a bad thing.

    Justice, civilization, and law are not achieved by deciding who does and doesn’t deserve them. They only work when they apply to everyone. We’re all in this together.

  66. One statement near the beginning jumped out at me:

    “Among the adult population of the United States, 1 person out of every 100 is now behind bars. Thus the unweighted odds of going to jail are greater than the odds of being a crime victim.”

    Fewer than 1% of Americans have been victims of a crime? I find that very hard to believe.

  67. That makes more sense, but if he is going to use violent crime statistics on one side of the comparison then he should say how many of the adult population of the United States is behind bars for violent crime on the other side of the comparison.

  68. Punishment: I would fear Pavlov’s teachings taking hold in an individual with unsavory character. Punishment does nothing more than set the fires of anger on low until a correct time is reached. I think it is not at all cut and dry, but more to do with demographics many more times than not. Law refuses to see nothing short of a perfect life disrupted by a decision to commit a crime. Children have to be fed, earning need to be better in many more cases than not. How many crimes would not be done if the money were adequate?

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