Criminology 201: Selected Topics in Disorganized Crime

Criminology 201: Selected Topics in Disorganized Crime

In my last post, I discussed a client whose life experience failed to square with the accepted narratives that are taught to police, probation, and corrections officers during the course of their training. I now have a vision of what it would look like if my client were given the chance to communicate his life experience in a classroom setting. If any criminal justice class actually would let this client teach the lessons that he had learned just by living his life, the final result would probably be a wonderfully educational public relations disaster for the school in question. It might climax in a conciliatory letter of some sort to the aggrieved student body, with a short explanation of how little their textbooks had prepared them to comprehend life on society’s margins.

Like this one:

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From the Office of the Academic Dean, William H. Taft Institute of Criminal Justice and Weight Loss:

A number of students who were enrolled in last semester’s Advanced Criminology seminar have petitioned for review of their grades and disclosure of the grading criteria used by last semester’s guest lecturer. Our guest lecturer has provided a complementary set of explanations for the final exam that was given at the end of the term. He hopes that you will then use the lessons contained within his explanation to  figure out what went wrong with the remainder of your assignments, and assures you that “life is hard, but it isn’t complicated.”

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Question 1: Multiple choice, choose the correct answer.

You are a probation officer supervising a juvenile ward. He is often truant from school, and his urine has never tested negative for THC, suggesting daily marijuana use. To aid in this minor’s rehabilitation, you should:

a)    Violate the minor’s probation and advocate for his detention in juvenile hall – the

       minor must cease his violations of state and federal drug laws

b)    Order the minor to enter residential drug treatment for what is clearly a crippling

       addiction to a Schedule 1 controlled substance

c)    Get the minor drug counseling and something, anything, worthwhile to do with his day

d)    Wait until he gets arrested for something more serious, and then figure it out

Half of the class chose answer choice (a), the other half chose answer choice (b). Clearly, neither half had experimented with marijuana in high school. If you had, you would know that marijuana is not a reason to skip school; the decision to skip school is made completely independently of the decision to smoke pot. School holds nothing for a huge number of these children. They often have learning disabilities, or anger problems, and largely-inherited substance abuse patterns. They need far more help to succeed in school than they receive, and many predict their own failure early and throw in the proverbial towel. And with all this free time these kids now have, why not smoke pot?

Of course teenagers shouldn’t be smoking pot. It interferes with their brain development, screws with executive functioning (very relevant for someone debating the merits of stealing a car), and creates a lifestyle that makes it very hard for them to interact with professional adults (teachers, employers, customers, etc). But pot isn’t dangerous; in fact, it has no known fatal overdose. Depriving them of freedom for smoking it is counter-productive at best, and completely self-defeating at worst. Of course, some sort of intervention is necessary, and without it, this minor will likely end up in serious legal trouble: not because of marijuana, but because of the people in his life who also happen to smoke it. Those who reside in the real world will answer with choice (c). Those who are already employed in the system might answer with choice (d), but that’s not the right answer either.

Question 2: Multiple choice, choose the correct answer

Which of the following can be considered as proof that a juvenile has joined a gang?

a)    Wearing baggy jeans

b)    Living in a neighborhood that is controlled by a gang

c)    Spraying gang graffiti on a highway overpass

d)    None of the above

To those who chose an answer other than choice (d), consider for a second that the word “gang”suggests a semi-disciplined criminal conspiracy. Wearing certain styles of clothing, even if that clothing bears the colors or logos that gangs use to identify themselves, says nothing about whether a person is a member of any such organization. Anyone can wear a certain color of clothing, and clothing can be shed at will when the social group dynamics cease to reward the teenager for wearing them.

Like conformist fashion tendencies, mindless vandalism is also common to at-risk youth. Anyone can spray anything on any surface; the vandal does not need to have been given orders to do so in micro-writing that was smuggled out of a maximum security cell block in the anus of a corrupt corrections officer.

Finally, while many gang members have the misfortune of growing up in neighborhoods that are already divided into gang rivalries, no sane person chooses to live there. People are born there, stay there, have no hope of ever leaving there, and will probably die there. These kids have roughly the same life expectancy as someone living in the Middle Ages. Gang membership is assumed by rivals just by virtue of that child’s neighborhood. Before the child knows it, he is choosing his bus routes to school so as to avoid “rival” territory. He is already suffering the drawbacks of gang membership; wanting to accept the benefits is an easy sell, especially if they have no other alternative for safety. Again, the correct answer is choice (d).

Question 3: Short answer

What does it mean to “hold someone accountable” for his actions?

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Holy shit. As often as I heard you say this during our class discussions, very few of you seem to know what this phrase actually means. Holding someone accountable doesn’t mean showing them that their actions have consequences: anyone who has witnessed a car accident understands this. It doesn’t matter how many years of prison a person receives; the Convicted does not need you to remind him, repeatedly, in varying tones and volumes, that his own actions resulted in tremendous loss to himself and others. I suspect that many of you relied – to your detriment – on the thesaurus, which lists the following as synonyms for this phrase: attack, brand, blame, denounce.

Holding someone accountable for their actions entails building empathy for those affected by their actions; these parts of the brain may have atrophied from years of mistreatment in childhood, so we need to be patient. Holding someone accountable includes teaching them about alternative choices that could have been made. Extensive work needs to be done with those who – with or without reason – felt that they had no choice in their actions. Too many of your answers would have fit on bumper stickers, let alone three lines. Put more thought into phrases that are used so frequently. And for God’s sake, stop thinking in slogans.

Question 4:

Describe a situation where a person might plea “no contest” to a crime that they did not commit.

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Again, a disappointing number of blank answers for this question. The students who confronted me about this question after class insisted that no one in their right minds would do such a thing. During the course of these conversions, I inferred that none had ever been given poor legal advice by an attorney that either did not have the time to care, the ability to care, or the retainer to care about that person’s case. A depressing number of Accused plea because, quite simply, they do not have confidence that their attorney has heard, understood, or investigated their defense. And without a defense, why wouldn’t they plea?

Do not underestimate the frightening penalties that follow trial, especially in jurisdictions where the criminal sentencing laws (and the judges tasked with imposing them) are left to popular vote. Many, many innocent people (or people who have a colorable argument for their innocence) surrender their rights simply to minimize risk.

Finally, don’t underestimate how often the district attorney uses a “devil’s bargain” to coax a plea from a defendant who has a strong defense. In fact, the deals become more irresistible as the prosecution’s case weakens. For example, a defendant who is in custody on the day of trial will find a “credit for time served” offer irresistible. An 18-year-old will plea to terrible things in exchange for minimal time. A good lawyer will sometimes advise him or her not to take the deal, but the defendant will always respond by asking, “But I get to go home today?” In California, an 18-year-old becomes a walking life sentence if the charges to which he pled happened to be “strike” offenses; his next felony case might result in a life sentence. The DA gladly cuts time up front with the expectation that they will get him later; and if his record is made serious enough early on, that “later” can last the rest of his life.

I know that the premise of this question hurt some students’ tender sensibilities, but taking my lectures seriously would have given you plenty of material for to answer this question.

Question 5: Essay

Part I: Consider the the following hypothetical. The minor described below is a ward of the juvenile delinquency court and you are his probation officer:

    Jaime is a 15-year-old high school freshman. His mother probably should not have had children until she had a stable relationship and/or living arrangement. Jaime’s mom probably should have tried to have all of her children with one person, rather than several people. Jaime’s father should have attended his domestic violence classes like his probation officer wanted to. He also shouldn’t have died when Jaime was 9 years old. Jaime’s mother should have finished her drug rehabilitation program and should not have relied as heavily upon her own mother for child care. Jaime’s mom should not have dropped out of high school, because Jaime’s mom should not have had to settle for working a graveyard shift at the front desk of a shady motel by the freeway. Even though she insists upon working this job, Jaime’s mom really should be getting home in time to make sure that Jaime and his little brother are getting to school on time.

    Jaime should never have failed his first semester of high school. Jaime should have studied harder and placed a greater emphasis on his education. Jaime should not have gotten himself suspended for fighting; Jaime should learn to control his seemingly irrational bouts of anger. Jaime should not take his anger out on his family by punching holes in the wall. Most importantly, Jaime should not be cutting class to smoke marijuana.

Part II: Please comment on the following, and show how it would influence the way you would approach Jaime’s supervision:

When you use the word “should,” you are arguing with reality.

Unfortunately, I have no sample answers to discuss because none of you attempted an answer. This was disappointing given the preoccupation that most of the class expressed concerning criminal street gangs. Several students expressed interest in stopping violent gangs, mainly because of some awful episode of Lockdown: Life on the Inside that they insisted upon mentioning in class.  However, none of you realized that little Jaime is a prime candidate for gang membership. Kids love group identity, and young men love a sense of feeling power and control.

Imagine the many, many niches in Jaime’s life that would be filled by a gang. He would have family, safety, financial opportunity, and a steady drug source within one social circle. Eventually, Jaime will get caught. He will be arrested. He will be sentenced according to the astoundingly severe sentencing laws that Californians put on the ballot. As a result, Jaime will possibly serve 10, 15, or 20 years in prison on his first case. And with nothing to do for 10-20 years, and with no social capital other than gang membership, what do you think will happen once he gets to prison? Prison gangs are the Frankenstein of California’s criminal justice scheme, and fixating on what someone should do, taking decades from their lives for things that they should not have done won’t actually fix anything.

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Well, readers? What is your answer to Question 5? How would our approach to criminal justice issues change if we addressed the real world as it is, and not how it “should” be? Anyone? Anyone?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section. I would love to hear some new ideas.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

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