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Archive for February, 2016

This post is about what kids for cash, the treatment of Brendan Dassey as shown in Making a Murderer, and the war on drugs have in common.

Kids for cash

Briefly, the kids for cash scandal involved Wilkes-Barre, PA Judge Mark Ciavarella, who gave kids long sentences at youth detention centers for very minor crimes. He had a financial relationship with two of these centers, which he did not disclose. So it appeared that he was profiting from giving kids harsh sentences. Pretty scandalous.

There is a documentary about this titled Kids for Cash. The documentary was not what I expected. What it shows is that Ciavarella wanted his identity to be about how tough on kids he was. He was campaigning on the idea that he wouldn’t give kids a second chance. If they got in trouble at school he would give them the toughest punishment allowable by law. He was elected. He then followed through on his campaign promises. He ended up getting re-elected. These are 10 year terms. So he was Judge for 10 years and citizens chose to re-elect him. For much of his time as Judge, he was not receiving kickbacks from youth detention centers. He campaigned as a tough-on-crime judge. He was elected as a tough-on-crime judge. He was giving out harsh sentences to kids who got in trouble at school, just like he said he would.

So it seems to me that he basically gave the people what they wanted, in terms of how he dealt with teens who got into trouble. Had he also not been getting kickbacks for it, would the public have really cared about these harsh sentences? They didn’t seem to when they voted for him and re-elected him.

War on drugs

Mass incarceration was a direct result of getting tough on crime, and especially getting tough on non-violent crime like recreational drug use. This is what the public demanded. Back in the 1980s, it was hard to find anyone who was arguing that recreational drug use should be legal (except for some libertarians, like Ron Paul, who weren’t taken seriously). Recreational drug use is very popular. If you are going to prosecute something that is very popular, you are going to flood the criminal justice system with those cases. What will then happen to people who cannot afford attorneys?

Well, if you give that last question some thought, you’d probably guess that state appointed defense attorneys would have huge incentive to get their clients to accept plea deals. What is the alternative? Can we really afford to pay for everyone to get a good defense, if we are going to prosecute so many non-violent offenses? Of course not. So that is exactly what happened. We wanted a war on drugs. We wanted to get tough on crime. So everyone started taking plea deals.

Brendan Dassey

If you’ve seen Making a Murder (the Netflix documentary), you were probably most outraged by how Brendan Dassey was treated. His defense attorney, before having ever spoken to him, announced to the press that he was guilty. He argued that Brendan should be given a lenient sentence, however, because he was influenced by his older cousin. The documentary series goes on to show how police and Dassey’s attorney worked very hard to get a confession out of him and get him to plead guilty. This, even though it was extremely clear that Dassey’s version of what happened did not match the physical evidence.

Conclusion

People seem to want judges to be tough on crime. In Philadelphia and New York City, there have been a half dozen or so years of stop-and-frisk policy, which has resulted in large numbers of people being charged with relatively minor offenses like drug or weapons possession. Being tough on these crimes ensures that the criminal justice system cannot handle the case load without having a very high proportion of cases having plea agreements. This leads to strong incentives for attorneys to get their clients to plead guilty. When the public finds out about some of the more outrageous cases of innocent people whose lives were ruined because they were talked into pleading guilty, they get outraged. And yet, there seems to be no way to have it both ways. If you support the drug war and tough on crime politics, you end up with a bunch of Brendan Dassey’s. There is no world where you can criminalize popular things that people enjoy and have every person who is charged with a crime get a good defense. For the past few decades, people have chosen get tough over everything else. The consequences of that are real, and sometimes briefly visible in particular cases that get exposure. Unfortunately, I do not think people see the connection.

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On cold days, I (sometimes) go to the gym (ok, not that often) and run on the treadmill. At the gym above the treadmills are many televisions, each on a different cable channel.

One thing that has stood out to me is how much airtime MSNBC devotes to showing black men committing crimes or black men fighting each other in prison.

Fox News, on the other hand, seems to stay on message (conservative, mostly white, mostly men talking about how dangerous Bernie and Hillary are, how worried we should be about terrorists, etc).

One could argue that MSNBC is reinforcing harmful stereotypes about black people. As Michelle Alexander put it in The New Jim Crow: “black men today are stigmatized by mass incarceration – and the social construction of the “criminalblackman” – whether they have ever been to prison or not.” This is MSNBC we are talking about – the network known for promoting a liberal worldview during its nightly news programming. It would be like if Fox News devoted a lot of airtime to exposing white collar criminals or to hard working, church going, undocumented immigrants.

It could be that people in charge of Fox News decided to make it a network that promotes a conservative / Republican viewpoint at all times, and the people in charge of MSNBC do not have the same type of commitment (they are the network of Morning Joe after all).

I don’t know if MSNBC has mostly liberal viewers during the day when they aren’t featuring their liberal news programming. But I couldn’t help but wonder about how many of the people who are cheering on Rachel Maddow in the evening are also being entertained by the images of black men committing crimes and getting locked up. Of course, there might be very little overlap between the two groups of viewers. It is just a thought I had while running. It’s probably unfair and too cynical. Probably. I think.

Disclaimers:

  • While I don’t go to the gym at the same time or even same days every week, I certainly don’t cover the whole span of a day. So my sample might not be representative. I don’t feel like devoting the time to determining if my observations hold up to careful measure. I therefore acknowledge that these ‘patterns’ I see might be coincidence.
  • I am not saying what MSNBC or Fox News should do.

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