Check out this audio-visual project that focuses on sharing individual stories from the restorative justice movement in the United States. Started by five Middlebury College students in the Spring of 2013, Beyond Justice offers a nuanced look at the ways individuals are challenging traditional approaches to punishment through narrative.
Adrian Raine’s article “The Criminal Mind” has been buried in a pile of must-reads on my nightstand for months now. When it was first published in April 2013 in The Wall Street Journal, I was too busy with the release of my book. And frankly, I was also a bit afraid. Last night, though, I finally unearthed the article and read it.
Of course I knew from my own research that neurocriminology receives far more funding than environmental psychology of violent behavior, but I’ve always been wary of it. I thought that to look at the brain as the cause of criminal behavior was misleading and dangerous. Why? Crime and incarceration affect a disproportionate number of people of color. The conclusion that the make-up of one’s brain causes a person to become a criminal may suggest to some that African Americans are by nature more violent than white people. It would bring us precariously close to the 19th-century pseudoscience of Phrenology, which claimed that we could recognize a criminal by his physical features. Furthermore, I was—and still am—worried that the increasing focus on the physical traits of criminals lessens our interest in crime-causing factors in the environment, factors that can potentially be changed. We can fight poverty, the easy accessibility of guns, bad schools and a dysfunctional family background, but our brains? Good luck with that! I also wish society would take at least some responsibility for people’s actions.
Raine’s article, however, does justice to the complexity of the issue. A Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Anatomy of Violence (Pantheon, 2013), Raine concludes that “genetics and environment work together to encourage violent behavior.” A child who is predisposed to violent behavior due to his genetics does not necessarily become a criminal; there are plenty of environmental factors that can make up for neurological “handicaps.” Proper nutrition may play a role, for example: Raine writes that studies have shown that Omega-3 supplements in the diets of young offenders reduces serious offending by about 35%. And even if a child’s brain doesn’t show any abnormalities at birth, exposure to environmental toxins, physical abuse and emotional deprivation—a lack of love and a supportive social environment—may alter his brain chemistry, causing him to commit acts of violence. As a result, an initially healthy brain can turn into one that causes impulsiveness, a trait that has long been recognized as a leading cause of violent behavior. Lead is neurotoxic, according to Raine, damaging the prefrontal region which regulates behavior. “Rising lead levels in the U.S. from 1950 through the 1970s neatly track increases in violence 20 years later, from the ’70s through the ’90s.” He concludes, “No other single factor can account for both the inexplicable rise in violence in the U.S. until 1993 and the precipitous drop since then.” Continue reading
“Prisons are a vast, undercovered but important beat. Why we need more criminal justice coverage” is an excellent article by Dan Froomkin. It laments the lack of coverage of America’s incarceration epidemic by the mainstream media and explains what reporters could (and should) do about it.
I excerpted some quotes from the article that I found particularly eye-opening.
” ‘Too often, no one’s being quoted who doesn’t have a government paycheck, who doesn’t have an investment in mass incarceration,’ Wright [a former prisoner who founded the Prison Legal News] says. (…) Wright is particularly peeved that the New York Times doesn’t have a reporter assigned to the topic. ‘We’ve got two and half million people locked up. Doesn’t this merit a beat?’ ”
” ‘What I see in my work that isn’t as clearly portrayed when I read media stories is that most of the people in prison are not serial killers and child molesters,” [Deborah Golden, the acting director at DC Prisoners Project] says. “Most of the people I meet are really cool, interesting people who usually had a very crappy shot in life. Some people made really tragic mistakes. Some of them made mistakes that lots of people I know made, they just turned out differently, because they got caught.’ ”
“To the extent that the public gets exposure to that kind of message right now, it’s mostly from popular culture. ‘Sesame Street’ this summer introduced a character whose father is in jail, part of an initiative that includes special Muppet appearances at prisons when children are visiting their parents. And one of the most riveting and discussed shows on television right now is the Netflix series ‘Orange is the New Black,‘ which casts its flawed but hardly terrifying female inmate protagonists in a compelling and sympathetic light.”
” ‘If you want to write about prisons, write a couple of stories, and then you’ll get letters, and you’ll find issues,’ Green [Frank Green, who covered prisons full time for the Richmond Times-Dispatch] says. “In fact, I’m probably the last person in the newsroom to get handwritten letters.”
” ‘I don’t think people realize the amount of money involved,” says Lukachick [reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press]. ‘Even if you don’t care about the people—and you should be caring about everybody—we’re talking about billions of taxpayer dollars.’ ”
” ‘No one demands better from our prison officials,’ says Wright.”
” ‘But Drucker thinks what’s needed is something more. ‘I think there’s an apology owed these people,’ he says. And if society is ready to admit its mistakes, and acknowledge how harmful this process has been for the families, he says, then what’s required is ‘a way to sever the tie between them and the criminal justice system, period.’ “
Let’s hope David Cole is right when he writes that “we are at a turning point in confronting the excesses and injustices of America’s criminal law.” In his NYRB blog post “Getting Past ‘Tough on Crime’,” Cole sums up recent criminal justice achievements across the country:
The coincidental delivery on August 12 of Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech calling for measures to reduce overincarceration and racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and federal judge Shira Scheindlin’s 195-page opinion declaring the New York Police Department’s aggressive “stop and frisk” practices unconstitutional have led some to suggest that we are at a turning point in confronting the excesses and injustices of America’s criminal law. In fact, the turn began some years ago. Both Holder’s brave speech and Scheindlin’s powerful decision reflect a growing recognition over the past decade—in law and in politics—that something is fundamentally wrong with the enforcement of criminal law in America.
Racial injustice in the enforcement of the law, and its disturbing consequences, have been with us for centuries. As President Obama reminded the nation in his remarks after the conclusion of the Trayvon Martin trial last month, “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” African-Americans today are far more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison for drug possession, even though studies consistently find that whites and blacks use illegal drugs equally. African-Americans are only 13 percent of the general population—and about the same percentage of those who use and sell drugs. Yet African-Americans account for roughly 35 percent of those arrested on drug charges and 53.5 percent of those entering prison for a drug conviction. Much of the rise in the nation’s prison population over the past forty years has been fueled by drug convictions, and African-Americans have borne the brunt of the policy.
But there are encouraging signs that we are moving away from the worst of these practices. While the nation’s incarceration rate has skyrocketed since the 1970s, in the last three years the state prison population has decreased. The drop in 2012 was the largest yet. And racial disparities are also diminishing.