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

To The Wolves…

A client of mine was recently sentenced to 19 years in state prison. His sentencing took place a handful of days after his 18th birthday.

Prior to that, and all during the time I represented this client, he was housed at juvenile hall. Although he was a teenage boy, the district attorney decided to charge him as an adult.

By age 16, my client had made the very grown-up decision to replace his failed high school career with the instant acceptance and gratification he got for having the same tattoos and wearing the same colors as the tough kids in the neighborhood who never looked afraid of the cops, or of anybody for that matter. My client then learned that if he sold weed for them, would get paid both money and weed. His one parent who was not perpetually high on crank worked two jobs; no one lifted a finger to save him.

None of this changes the fact that he swung a knife at two other gang members to keep them at bay while his buddies pummeled another kid, who was also a gang member. But the kid described in the police reports bore little resemblance to the kid facing a felony sentence two years later. The kid who sat beside me was in protective custody after resigning gang membership in the most terrifying and official way possible: by renouncing gang membership when he was booked into the adult county jail on his 18th birthday. My client had his GED and had devoured the copy of Ender’s Game that I had loaned him.

For the next 16.15 years (which is 85% of 19 years, as required by law), my client will be a ward of California’s bloated prison population. For perspective, the Supreme Court recently ordered California Governor Jerry Brown to release another 10,000 prisoners by the end of the year. A federal court in Sacramento had found that, on average, one person per week was dying due to preventable medical reasons, made unpreventable by the fact that California’s prison system was at over 175% of capacity. With the release of 10,000 more prisoners, the prison population will hover at the 137% of capacity ordered by the court.

Who are all of these prisoners? Some of them are terrifying individuals. It should be no surprise that there are some pretty scary people in prison whose crimes garner media attention and inspire harsh sentencing laws, like Three Strikes. But then those laws are used against less-scary people who wind up in prison for decades for crimes such as stealing a bike, or punching a security guard while shoplifting a beer. Many of these laws were passed through ballot proposition, and by overwhelming margins. None of these laws included new taxes to pay for the added expense of more prisoners and, as more and more “lifers” entered old age, more elderly prisoners.

Also, let us not forget that since the California taxpayers decided that they had had enough of funding state hospitals for the seriously mentally ill, the Department of Corrections has become the biggest purveyor of mental health services in the state.

Among the more notorious groups in prison are California’s prison gangs. California’s prisons have themselves been the incubator for violent prison gangs whose associates on the street, especially their impressionable family and neighbors, form the tendrils of the monster that sucks in kids like my client like a hungry giant squid. Voters responded to their Frankenstein by passing the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act by, you guessed it, ballot proposition. This was the law the DA chose to use to have ten years added to my client’s sentence.

These are the forces that have combined to send someone who can’t grow a moustache to live in a locked facility among actual hardened criminals. Although he could have controlled his behavior on the day he was arrested, I fail to see what say he had in any of the surrounding circumstances that, at the time, made a knife fight with gang rivals seem like a good idea.

I also fail to see how a decade-and-a-half in California’s prisons will change those circumstances. Like it or not, people like my client will be our neighbors again, someday. Will his time behind bars make him a better neighbor? Will my client “spend his time regretting his crimes and holding himself accountable for his behavior” like he is supposed to?

This will only be true to the same extent that a dog might learn not to relieve itself indoors by having his nose rubbed in it; unless punishment occurs more or less simultaneously with the crime, the punishment won’t be associated with the crime. Anyone who has successfully completed any prison term, of any length, will tell you that after year 3, 4, or 5, the unique combination of misery, anxiety, violence, and boredom is no longer associated with any specific cause; it becomes suffering without purpose, lesson, or goal.

When my client is released 16 years from now, his neighborhood will either still be dangerous, or will be razed to the ground in order to make room for retail stores and stucco condominiums. The schools will still be failing, and even more job opportunities will have been either shipped overseas or given to machines.

So the only consolation that I can give to my client, on his 18th birthday, is that the world might not change as much as one might expect before his release.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

On the Twelfth Day of Rehab, My P.O. Gave To Me…

The United States has long since lost the “War on Drugs,” and no drug demonstrates the futility of fighting addiction with cops and courts better than crystal meth does. Crystal meth floods the brain with the pleasure chemicals – primarily dopamine – that most of us receive only in the tiniest doses (a six-second orgasm, petting a kitten, etc). Once a person experiences physical withdrawal symptoms, their brain activity will have undergone a permanent change that cannot be “undone.” Brain scans of serious addicts in withdrawal show that meth addicts have the same brain chemistry as someone delirious from starvation. Long term users sometimes lose the ability to produce their own dopamine without the aid of crystal meth.

This means that a serious addict can become chemically unable to feel joy. That is, unless they can get one more hit.

Cops, courts, and prisons cannot frighten people out of using crystal meth. You cannot expect someone who is thinking like a delirious starving person, to rationally weigh the pros and cons of meth vs. prison time before scoring their next hit. For the addict, feeling pleasure for at least a little while is preferable to the dull, gray drone of sober existence.

And let us not forget the many thousands who use narcotics to “self-medicate” for undiagnosed mental illness. Drug addiction must be treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue. It is so treated in more civilized parts of the world.

To California’s credit, a half-way solution is becoming increasingly popular. Many jurisdictions are experimenting with specialty drug-treatment courts. Combined with California’s Proposition 36, which allows drug offenders to participate in outpatient drug treatment in lieu of jail time, drug-treatment courts (DTCs) are a well-meaning attempt at treating the root of most of my clients’ criminal behavior. However, criminal sanctions (including jail time or state prison sentences) will follow failure to comply with treatment, which includes relapse. Little accounting is made of the fact that relapse is almost universal, even for those who eventually overcome their addictions. The vast majority of those participating in Prop. 36 in my jurisdiction are doing so because of crystal meth.

Is half-way better than no-way at all? People more informed than I may have statistics. But it sure doesn’t feel that way.

Despite the eerie resemblance that this whole dance bears to a regular-old-adversarial process, the judges like to say that DTC is “collaborative.” Everyone has the defendant’s best interests at heart, and everyone wants the defendant to succeed. The adversarial justice system is calling an armistice! Isn’t that great? We’re all working together to help these poor folks overcome the disease of addiction.

Today, a client of mine is being remanded into custody. She missed two scheduled drug tests. This gave the judge an opportunity to spout some of the other things that the DTC judges like to say:

“So, counsel, don’t you see how you’re undermining that goal by telling your client to remain silent when I ask her why her last urine test came up dirty? To make matters worse, she missed her previous two urine tests. Lack of funds is no excuse: Maybe she would have been able to afford them if she got a part-time job at Chipotle like the lady whose case we just called. Doesn’t she want a part-time job too?”

After all, urine tests only cost five-hours worth of minimum wage labor. Does that sound like a reasonable slice of the pie graph for you, judge? Is it possible that the dreariness of laboring at a fast food restaurant for five hours to pay for urine tests is a big part of why she uses in the first place? Also, don’t tell me with a straight face (“your Honor”) that the Fifth Amendment undermines your goals.

When this particular client is remanded for her malfeasance on probation, she walks past the “inspirational” posters that somebody thinks are mandatory in every DTC courtroom. At some point, the administrative office of courts must have walked through the building and said “You know what will help the repeat-molest victim not to take drugs every time she feels her uncle’s hands on her? A picture of some guy staring at a sunset from a sailboat with the word “POSSIBILITIES” emblazoned underneath it.” As my client is lead away, I can only gawk as I watch a judge try to fight a mental/public health epidemic by shaming and handcuffing the patients in a forum that eerily resembles an optometrist’s waiting room.

I regret to inform her that I can’t get her out by Christmas. Yes, she should have known better. But what is our excuse?

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre