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January 29, 2012

"Should Teens Be Jailed for Sex Offenses?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy recent piece in The Daily Beast, which carries this subheading: "Parents are fighting powerful laws that imprison teens for sex.  Prosecutors say kids should respect the law. Meet one young Romeo who didn't — and spent six years behind bars." The full piece gets started this way:

Francie Baldino, a mother of two from Royal Oak, Mich., can tell you the day she became an activist against America’s sex-offender laws.  It was the day her teenage son went to prison — for falling in love with a teenage girl.  “The prison term was unthinkable,” says Baldino. “He was just a dumb kid.”

Her son, Ken, was an 18-year-old senior in high school when he was arrested for having sex with his girlfriend, a 14-year-old freshman, in 2004.  The age of consent in Michigan is 16.  He got sentenced to a year in jail and three years’ probation.  After that, when the two teens resumed their relationship — violating his probation — he got five to 15 years.

His mother is part of a surprising rebellion that has now spread to all 50 states: parents fighting against sex-offender laws — the very laws designed to safeguard their children. These parents argue that the laws are imposing punishments on their high-school sons that are out of proportion to the crime.

Baldino’s son, for instance, spent more than six years behind bars and today must wear a GPS device the size of a box of butter.  Sometimes, he says, it loses its signal and sets off an alarm.  “That’s really helpful when I’m at work,” says the blue-eyed 26-year-old, who wears stud earrings and works at a door-and-window store.

No one keeps a tally of how many cases fall into this category nationwide. But there is one measure of the scale of the movement: there are now more than 50 organizations — at least one in every state — battling against prosecutions like these.  Baldino’s group is Michigan Citizens for Justice, which she says includes more than 100 parents.  Another group in Michigan, the Coalition for a Useful Registry, has around 150 parents as members, it says.  Organizations in other states report similar numbers.  One of the largest, Texas Voices, claims some 300 parents as members.

The questions are difficult: Should the scales of justice be weighted in favor of the young? Is a sex crime somehow less terrible, if it involves teens?   The cases they are fighting are highly complex, charged with emotion, and rarely black-and-white.  The questions are profoundly difficult: Should the scales of justice be weighted in favor of the young?  Is a sex crime somehow less terrible, if it involves teens?  The judge in the Baldino case, Fred Mester, openly acknowledged the complexities.  Referring to his own high-school days when handing down the prison sentence in 2005, he said, “Half my senior class … were dating freshman girls, and I suspect half of them would be in here today.”

Prosecutors say it’s simple: kids should obey the law, and parents need to keep their children under control.  Paul Walton, a chief assistant prosecutor in Michigan, says Baldino’s son had only himself to blame: he was an adult, and he chose his own actions. “The court isn’t imposing restrictions because it’s fun — it’s the law,” Walton says.  “You can disagree on the age of consent, but the law says that prior to that age, a person doesn’t have the ability to consent.”

January 29, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (37) | TrackBack

Documentary on US drug war wins top prize at Sundance Film Festival

The_House_I_Live_InIf I was a truly shrewd and savvy blogger, I would have figured out a way to go to this year's Sundance Film Festival and call it a work trip because of the screening of a new documentary on the US drug war titled "The House I Live In."  Instead, I am home just blogging about the news that this documentary won the top prize at Sundance for documentaries. This review from The Hollywood Reporter suggests reasons why the film has been well-received and why I am now extra eager to find a place to see it soon:

A potent cry for a drastic rethinking of America's War on Drugs, Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In synthesizes many fairly familiar arguments, and some that are less so, into a case for viewing U.S. policies as a war on the lower class.  Balancing big-picture stats with personal perspectives, it should connect solidly with viewers at a moment when it seems possible to change public attitudes....

Working methodically, Jarecki's nearly two-hour film views the war from a number of perspectives too great to summarize here.  Crucially, while he speaks to academics who have long argued for drug-law reform, he also goes to those most directly involved in enforcing the laws: a U.S. District Court judge in Iowa, an Oklahoma corrections officer who's an avowed law-and-order man; numerous narcotics officers.  They tell him variations of the same thing: Our laws aren't working to decrease drug use; we're putting too many people away for too long and doing too much harm to their families.

Jarecki might have considered giving a co-writing credit to The Wire's David Simon, because while other interviewees offer damning stats and compelling perspectives, Simon returns throughout the film to crystallize big issues.  Describing an under-discussed side effect of the drug war, in which overtime pay goes to cops who make easy possession arrests while those spending their time on hard-to-solve violent crimes go unrewarded, he says our policy "makes a police department where nobody can solve a fucking crime."

Many of these statistics have popped up here and there in public discourse, and are simply being gathered into a digestible, infuriating package.  But House holds eye-opening surprises as well, like an interview with Abraham Lincoln scholar Richard Lawrence Miller: Looking through the history of American drug laws, Miller argues that legal substances were frequently demonized only when it became clear that making them illegal could help keep a threatening minority in check. (For example, Miller cites opium laws on the West Coast directed at Chinese immigrants.)

January 29, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

NAACP head recognizes Tea Party favors some progressive criminal justice reforms (and sometimes more than Democrats)

A helpful reader alerted me to this little piece from Slate with an interesting Q+A with Ben Jealous, the head of the NAACP, in the wake of this past week's State of the Union Adresss.  Here is the particular Q and A that I found especially blog-worthy:

Slate: Ron Paul answered a question about his old newsletters by saying he was the most anti-racist candidate: He wanted fair criminal justice reform. Did you buy it?

Jealous: We've found common cause with libertarians across the South, for years. In Texas, Ron Paul's state, we've passed a dozen progressive criminal justice reforms last year, working with the Tea Party.  In South Carolina we got one-to-one on crack versus powder, which we couldn't get Congress to do when Democrats controlled it.  In Georgia, we just pushed through the biggest review of criminal justice policy in the entire country, again, working with a Tea Party governor and Tea Party supporters.  Criminal justice reform is, if you will, the big silent agreement in this country.  It's ideas like treatment instead of incarceration appeal from libertarians to liberals alike, to progressives and conservatives alike.

If you divide the Tea Party, it divides into three groups: The libertarians, the fiscal conservatives, and the social conservatives.  And when you go them and say rehab is seven times more effective than prison, they pay more attention.  The pot-smoking wing pays attention.  The Christian conservatives, who are very involved in prison ministry, already know it.  So Ron Paul has a point that policies he is promoting, on criminal justice reform, are policies that need to be discussed and would have a positive impact on the black community.

January 29, 2012 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack