guns, institutions, murder, prison, rehabilitation, violence

Let’s keep asking questions about Joseph Hall

Sometimes this country demoralizes me. This was the case when I read Natasha Vargos-Cooper’s insightful and thorough article “I Shot Dad” on BuzzFeed. Her article tells the story of Joseph Hall, a 10-year-old who shot his father, the leader of a neo-Nazi movement after a lifetime of abuse and neglect. This January the now 12-year-old Californian boy was convicted of murder. He faces several decades in prison.

Not only does Vargos-Cooper detail the disturbing events leading up to Hall shooting his father and the inability of Child Services to remove the child from this poisonous environment, she poses some excellent moral questions that the American criminal justice system has long refused to confront:

“What drives a 10-year-old to murder? Does Joseph bear less of the blame if he was physically abused? What if he was not abused but just neglected? What of the other thousands of children who have case files, the ones who are ritually tortured by their caretakers but do not kill? Is the only difference between them and Joseph the easy access to firearms? Or was Joseph condemned before he was even born, marinating inside a womb basted with methamphetamines and heroin?

“Even if he is not considered psychotic, could the act of murder by a 10-year-old be anything other than a sign of some sort of mental illness? (…)

“(…) In the end, what real individual responsibility can be assigned to any child forced to lead the life imposed on Joseph? What chance of a normal life did he ever have?”

I would like to extend Vargos-Cooper’s excellent questions. What about a murderer who is 18 (the age of my book’s badly abused protagonist)? Or even 25?

Criminologists who have examined the psychological dimension of violent crime—Don Andrew, Francis Cullen, Cheryl Jonson, Edward Latessa, Alexander Holsinger, Christopher Lowencamp and Paul Genreau, for example—have long warned of so-called criminogenic risk factors. Continue reading

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guns, murder, prison, rehabilitation

Taking Forgiveness (And Guilt) One Step Further

I just read Paul Tullis’s recent article “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” in the New York Times Magazine. I have thought a lot about remorse and forgiveness, and there are a couple of things I’d like to comment on.

Tullis’s piece talks about the role forgiveness played for Andy and Kate Grosmaire, whose 19-year-old daughter Ann was shot dead by her boyfriend Conor McBride. As it is often the case, the article’s most amazing statements can be found in the quotes of the sources, particularly the victim’s mother Kate. Demonstrating her willingness to meet with and forgive her daughter’s murderer, she says, “I knew being together rather than being apart was going to be more of what I needed.” At another point in the article Tullis quotes Kate as saying, “I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment—as a murderer—I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.” Later we hear Kate say, “I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it. Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.”

I found this sentiment admirable and telling because we often think of forgiveness as a means of helping those who are guilty, when it actually serves—or “preserves,” as Kate said—oneself.

While I admire the Grosmaires’ generosity towards their daughter’s murderer, I also wondered about their motivation. Tullis remarks at the margin that the family is religious. When I was researching my book I noticed that the notion of forgiveness always seems to be tied to religious views. (One of my subjects converted to Islam while incarcerated, another one became a Quaker.) For humanistic and psychological purposes, I wish we could “free” forgiveness from its religious constraints and allow it to permeate our daily lives. It should really be considered one of our general values as human beings that help us to “[be] together rather than [be] apart,” instead of something God ordered us to do. Continue reading

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guns, mental illness, police, violence

Safekeeping

I’ve recently noticed that Salon.com has been posting an increasing number of articles concerning America’s mass incarceration, police brutality, lack of gun control and appropriate health care for the mentally ill. Among the many interesting stories about these urgent—and interconnected—issues one stuck out in particular: In “Half of people shot by police are mentally ill, investigation finds,” Natasha Lennard sums up a study conducted by two newspapers from Maine. She notes that “a lack of police training in crisis intervention as fueling the problem, undergirded by a lack of oversight and accountability.”

Lennard’s article about police officers shooting mentally ill people reminded me of journalist and documentary filmmaker George Stoney, whom I had the privilege of meeting a couple of years ago, shortly before he died at the age of 96. Stoney, most famously known for the invention of public access television, worked relentlessly on illuminating (and improving) the lives of the forgotten. Of his many works, one of my favorites was “Booked for Safekeeping” (1960), a short film that advises police on how to approach mentally ill people.

One hint: Guns did not play a role. Neither did injury or violence. Instead, calm talking, patience, empathy, and gentle physical contact once the disturbed person was ready to allow the officer to approach him.

What I take away from Stoney’s movies is that we have to begin solving problems before they escalate and before anybody gets hurt, killed or locked up.

We have to ask ourselves why a first-world country doesn’t offer more nonviolent intervention, such as proper and readily available mental health care and apt police training and oversight.

Here’s part of the article by Natasha Lennard:

An investigation by the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram has found that a disturbingly high percentage of individuals shot by police suffer from mental health problems. There are no federal statistics on police shootings of mentally ill people, but according to the investigation published this week, “a review of available reports indicates that at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.” Continue reading

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