criminal justice, death penalty, poverty

Does This Man Deserve to Die?

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Texas Monthly, July 29, 2016

Jeffrey Wood and Daniel Reneau had only known each other for a couple of months when, on the morning of January 2, 1996, Wood waited in the car as his new friend entered a Texaco station in Kerrville. When Wood, a 22-year-old with no prior criminal record, heard gunshots, he went inside the store to find the attendant, Kris Keeran, shot dead. Wood says that Reneau then pointed his .22-caliber handgun at him and forced him to steal the surveillance video and drive the getaway car.

Witness reports led police to Reneau and Wood, and the pair was arrested the next day. Reneau, who confessed to the crime, was convicted of capital murder in 1997 and sentenced to death. He was executed five years later, in 2002. Wood didn’t pull the trigger, but prosecutors tried him for capital murder under the Texas Law of Parties, which holds that someone can be held liable for an offense committed by another person. A jury found Wood responsible for either intending or anticipating the murder Reneau committed and sentenced him to death. His execution is scheduled for August 24, 2016.

Both Wood’s family and his lawyer have long maintained that his trial was flawed from beginning to end. A jury first found Wood incompetent to stand trial, and he was committed to a psychiatric institution. Less than three weeks later, Wood was determined competent by a psychiatrist to stand trial. After he was convicted, he tried to represent himself during his sentencing, but the judge denied that request, effectively finding him mentally incompetent to do so.

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criminal justice, poverty, prison, racism, review, stereotypes, violence

Some Thoughts on Neurocriminology

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

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criminal justice, police, poverty, prison, public policy, racism, rehabilitation

Turning Points

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.

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institutions, poverty, prison, rehabilitation

Passport to Success?

Several years ago I was assigned to write an article for Harper’s Magazine about CEO, the Center of Employment Opportunities, and one of the reentry organization’s clients, Vanetta Washington. The article ended up being “killed.” I was never able to forget Vanetta’s dilemma, her hopelessness, anger and humiliation. When I sifted through my files and came across the original “Passport to Success,” so I decided to post it here:

A long-overlooked epidemic is reaching combustion point: Mandatory sentencing put millions of Americans behind bars and now they are coming back. There are currently five million people on parole or probation, and this year alone some 700,000 prisoners are expected to come home. If past studies are an indication, more than half of them will eventually land back behind bars. No one knows for certain how to rehabilitate these disenfranchised masses. Prison has long decimated their opportunities for improvement, shifting the burden to the communities in which the men and women are released. Having grown enormously in size and number, community-based nonprofit organizations have been testing various rehabilitative methods. One of the largest of these organizations is the Center for Employment Opportunities in New York. This agency tries the most austere, traditional and popular method of rehabilitation on several thousand ex-offenders each year. Its mission brochure, “The Power of Work,” suggests that putting ex-offenders to work upon their release and teaching them punctuality, discipline, respect and presentability increases their self-confidence and their chances of staying free. To promote and monitor these standards, the organization issues its “clients” a Passport to Success—a report card to be worn around their necks and checked off by supervisors at the end of each workday.

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A 42-year-old former crack addict, Vanetta Washington was paroled in 2006 after having served yet another sentence for drug possession. A spotty work history, the surge of criminal background checks and various occupational bars have made it virtually impossible for people like Washington to find legitimate employment. She turned to the Center for Employment Opportunities, whose acronym CEO is meant to be “an aspiration for [its] clients.” “They promised me a lot,” Washington told me. Like thousands of other job seekers with criminal records, she had to first attend a job readiness class, which, depending on the program provider, lasts from a couple of days to four weeks. At CEO’s three-day class the students are instructed to take off their baseball caps and do-rags. They are taught how to fill out job applications and to respond appropriately to the questions of potential employers. In mock interviews the students practice shaking hands and smiling and looking into people’s eyes. They learn to take off their “game face”—the impassive survival mask of the ghetto. They become skilled at speaking about their convictions in a remorseful, non-threatening manner and learn to lie in the honesty test conducted by some .CEO_Passport_a

After graduating from Life Skills class, Washington received her Passport to Success and a pair of state-issued boots ironically like the ones she had to wear at Rikers Island. In the transitional work phase, which lasts up to 75 days, CEO employs its program graduates to clean and maintain state agencies and their jurisdictions. It promises to help find its clients permanent employment if their Passport can prove that they show up to work on time, clean and well-groomed, follow orders and value their work. CEO has grown into a burgeoning business that now serves as a national and international model. It is consulted by agencies from all over the world and its concept has been replicated by Pecan’s Workout program in the UK. Most importantly, its unsentimental philosophy is in line with that of the government, which provides most of its funding.

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CEO’s approach echoes the old saying “idle hands are the devil’s playground.” Work has traditionally been seen both as the main method and desired result of rehabilitation. But some academics are skeptical. “Unemployment only has a modest correlation with criminality,” says Edward Latessa, a criminologist at the University of Cincinnati who assesses programs like CEO. Latessa refers to methods that don’t consider the specific needs and risk factors of ex-offenders and lack sufficient long-term evidence as “correctional quackery.” While work is important, studies have shown that people are not criminals because they are unemployed; they are criminals because they suffer from drug addiction, mental health issues and anti-social attitudes, and because they are unable to escape poverty and their criminal environment. The Fortune Society in New York is one of the few organizations that addresses these risk factors. The agency provides supervised housing as well as educational, mental health and employment services to ex-offenders. The 60 beds in its halfway house and the 4,000 people it is able to serve per year, however, are a mere drop in the bucket.

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poverty, prison, rehabilitation

Prison and the Poverty Trap

The New York Times recently featured an article by John Tierney about the connection between incarceration and poverty. This is the first article in the series “Time and Punishment.” While Tierney’s point is certainly important–“A stint behind bars tends to worsen job prospects that weren’t good to begin with,” he writes — it doesn’t surprise me one bit. Incarceration stigmatizes, reduces earnings, destroys families, hurts children, negatively affects communities, costs billions of dollars and impacts the mental and physical health of the (formerly) incarcerated. Here’s an excerpt from Tierney’s piece:

WASHINGTON — Why are so many American families trapped in poverty? Of all the explanations offered by Washington’s politicians and economists, one seems particularly obvious in the low-income neighborhoods near the Capitol: because there are so many parents like Carl Harris and Charlene Hamilton.

For most of their daughters’ childhood, Mr. Harris didn’t come close to making the minimum wage. His most lucrative job, as a crack dealer, ended at the age of 24, when he left Washington to serve two decades in prison, leaving his wife to raise their two young girls while trying to hold their long-distance marriage together.

His $1.15-per-hour prison wages didn’t even cover the bills for the phone calls and marathon bus trips to visit him. Struggling to pay rent and buy food, Ms. Hamilton ended up homeless a couple of times.

“Basically, I was locked up with him,” she said. “My mind was locked up. My life was locked up. Our daughters grew up without their father.”

The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that America’s incarceration rate has risen to be the world’s highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities.

“Prison has become the new poverty trap,” said Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist. “It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”

Among African-Americans who have grown up during the era of mass incarceration, one in four has had a parent locked up at some point during childhood. For black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma, the incarceration rate is so high — nearly 40 percent nationwide — that they’re more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.

No one denies that some people belong in prison. Mr. Harris, now 47, and his wife, 45, agree that in his early 20s he deserved to be there. But they don’t see what good was accomplished by keeping him there for two decades, and neither do most of the researchers who have been analyzing the prison boom.

The number of Americans in state and federal prisons has quintupled since 1980, and a major reason is that prisoners serve longer terms than before. They remain inmates into middle age and old age, well beyond the peak age for crime, which is in the late teenage years — just when Mr. Harris first got into trouble.

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