More Known Unknowns: Where’s COVID-19 Data on County Jails?

Today we learned that there are outbreaks at jails in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, and these have been tied to surges in the community. There is no sign of a COVID stats page on either county’s Sheriff’s Department’s webpage. Why not?

Agnotology, a term coined by Robert Proctor and Iain Boal, is the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data. In this era of post-truth, studying agnotology, in such areas as climate change and vaccines, can be valuable and instructive.

In criminal justice, we spend a lot of time focusing on the persistence of myths and disinformation, such as myths about racial violence and sex crimes. But our agnotology pays attention, as it well should, not only to misinformation, but also to glaring lacks of information. For example, Franklin Zimring spends a big chunk of his book When Police Kill discussing the huge gaps in data collection about incidents in which police officers kill citizens, and explaining how his analysis required relying on journalistic projects, rather than on official FBI statistics. Similarly, in American Roulette, Sarah Beth Kaufman takes the time and space to discuss the sociological meaning of a lack of any centralized database containing information about capital trials.

Which brings me to today’s topic: COVID-19 in jails. The UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, spearheaded by my colleague Sharon Dolovich, is doing an important service to all of us by collecting longitudinal data on the development of contagion, hospitalization, deaths, recoveries, transfers, testing, etc., for correctional institutions nationwide. If you look at their database, you’ll see impressive coverage of state prisons. County jail coverage, however, is a different story. Yesterday on Twitter we were exchanging notes on the frustrations of trying to find data on COVID-19 spread in jails:

These folks do such a terrific job, and if even they can’t find what we’re looking for, then getting this data is going to be a painstaking job of making requests county-by-county. A few counties, such as Orange and Los Angeles, publicly provide the statistics on their websites. Others, such as San Francisco, send emails to lawyers, etc., when someone in jail tests positive (here are the press releases.) It’s easy enough to find webpages devoted to visiting and testing policies, but the statistics are elusive.

I’m a social scientist, and so lack of information in itself strikes me as an important social fact. When my colleague Margo Schlanger wrote this brilliant piece about the Plata litigation, she expressed concern that shifting control over prison healthcare from one centralized actor, the state, to the counties, would create a “hydra problem”: 59 new, separate sources of healthcare problems. At the time, the thinking was that the state was doing so poorly that surely the counties would be a better solution. In some ways, they were indeed better–that is, as Jeffrey Lin explains, some counties were. In some places, the judges made full use of the option of community supervisions, whereas in others, all the resources and energy went into building bigger jails.

We see the problem of diversification in the way we are getting information. As you saw in my previous posts, CDCR has an excellent and informative tracking tool; one only wishes their actual containment and healthcare management rose to the level of their pandemic documentation. By contrast, in the counties, you’re not dealing with one master, but with fifty-nine. Almost no one is obligated to report, and those who do, do not do it in a uniform manner that would enable us to compare counties effectively.

This is a huge problem for several reasons. The fragmentation of data makes it difficult–perhaps impossible–to track down interactions between correctional outbreaks and spikes in the surrounding counties. For example, we don’t know nearly enough about COVID-19-related releases from jails, nor do we know how to assess the contagion behind bars without clear, accessible information about population, design capacity, and testing protocols. For that reason, it’s impossible to draw connections that are hugely important–especially because jail staff is likely to be coming in and out of the facility into the surrounding county. Moreover, transfers between prisons and jails, which are important points of interface between systems and with the community, remain invisible. In an ideal world, there would be an excellent data interface between the CDCR tool and the county tools, and the latter would all look the same and provide the information that CDCR is doling out (as well they should.) But this is not that world, and perhaps we’ve gotten so used to administrative fragmentation that many don’t see what a hindrance it is.

Jails are not the only place where fragmentation is a problem. A decade ago, Jeremy Seymour, Richard Leo and I wrote a piece called Moving Targets, in which we explained that the fragmentation of police departments in the U.S. allows for all kinds of negligence and shenanigans in which one municipal police department can blame its mishaps on another. The current interest in policing has floated another nefarious aspect of this: cops who beat people up and lie in court might get fired by Department A, but might be immediately rehired by Department B, given that there are no state or federal licensing requirement. “This person beats people up and lies in court in a different municipality” does not seem to be a hindrance to getting rehired; in fact, the glorified disbanding of police departments has led to the county sheriff’s department taking over and rehiring all the cops that the disbanded department fired in the same geographical area. The absurdity goes beyond just cops–incompetent coroners get fired and rehired by other agencies all the time.

What we urgently need is for counties to liaise with whoever is doing the work for CDCR, get the same platform, collect the same information, link their databases, and get to work. This would be incredibly helpful to the good folks doing the work at the UCLA data collection project, but to epidemiologists and to all of us. Until that happens, a word of advice to other folks doing work on this: please, keep in mind this glaring gap in knowledge when you theorize about what is going on behind bars.

From the CDCR Tracking Tool: New Outbreaks to Watch and New Questions to Ask

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense Briefing, February 12, 2002

The two previous posts about San Quentin and Susanville finally moved the needle on public attention. After swearing off Twitter, I finally posted some links there, and thankfully (after months of predicting this would happen!), some people with the ability to investigate are biting. This is crucially important, because current trends require more consideration, particularly in prisons of which we have heard very little so far.

Looking at the “active cases in custody” curve in prisons only gets us so far, because, as the testing curve shows, oftentimes we only find out the peak of an outbreak after (or because) testing has been ramped up. It’s also difficult to tell a causal or even temporal story because we know so little about prison policy. The two previous posts benefitted from the information we had about the two botched transfers: from Chino to Quentin and from Quentin to Susanville. Why and how different institutions peak at different times could be a corollary of staff transfers, or could be completely coincidental (i.e., a staff member infected out in the community and bringing the disease to incubate in the prison.)

Keeping these considerable limitations in mind, as of yesterday, June 27, CA prisons fall into five categories:

Outbreak came and gone. Examples: Avenal, Chuckawalla, LA County, California Institution for Women, California Men’s Colony. Peaked weeks ago, by now all or most cases are resolved. These prisons have a high percentage of tested inmates and seem to have gone through the worst of it, with a few or zero new cases.

Outbreak ongoing and unabated. Examples: Corcoran, California Rehabilitation Center, Ironwood. In these places, there’s a considerable number of new cases, but also a bulk of old cases. Testing is underway, and so, these could be “outbreak came and gone” cases in disguise.

Recent outbreak. Examples: San Quentin, California Correctional Center, Wasco. In some of these cases, notably San Quentin and CCC, we know of specific events–botched transfers–that might have caused the outbreak.

Handful of cases. Examples: Centinela, North Kern, CA State Prison Sacramento, Salinas Valley, High Desert, It is unclear what this means, because these prisons typically have tested a small number of prisoners. There could be a successful isolation of a handful of people or a recent outbreak as-of-yet undetected because of a lack of testing.

No cases. Examples: Valley State Prison, R.J. Donovan, Pleasant Valley State Prison, Mule Creek State Prison, Kern Valley State Prison, Deuel Vocational Institution, Correctional Training Facility, CA Medical Facility (Vacaville), California Health Care Facility.

There are, likely, a lot of “unknown unknowns” here, which worries me. There are also a few “known knowns”, such as the situation at San Quentin and at Susanville. The only thing I can add to that, at the moment, are some “known unknowns” to think about. Here are some places to watch out for and some questions to ask in the coming days:

  1. For the places where the outbreak seems abated, what’s happened? Is there ongoing retesting after transfers from places where the virus might still be alive? What is going on in the neighboring communities, where the staff members live?
  2. For the places where the outbreak has been ongoing for a long time, what is going on? Are these places more overcrowded than places that have things more under control?
  3. For how many of the places in the third category, in addition to the “known knowns” I covered because I had the information, do we have a plausible theory of infection? Do we know, for example, of other population transfers beyond the one from CIM to Quentin and from Quentin to CCC? Have staff been transferred there? What was going on in the surrounding communities before the outbreaks?
  4. At this point, per the tracking tool, only 13 prisons (mostly from the first category) have tested more than a quarter of their prisoners. What is going on? Are people refusing to get tested? Is there a shortage of tests?
  5. Which of the places in the fourth category are merely isolated cases, and which are huge outbreaks a-la-Quentin waiting to happen? This is unanswerable without more testing, so expect things to be changing soon. I am especially disheartened to see the first case in Pelican Bay crop up on the tool today.
  6. Are there any transfers, etc., planned to the institutions that so far have no cases?

I am particularly worried about Category Four. Any of these could develop, in the next few days, into a horror show, or resolve itself with a relatively few number of cases, and a lot of this depends on administrative decisions that we are unlikely to learn about without reliable information from within. If you have such information, because you or a loved ones are behind bars as a prisoners or a staff member, please write and let me know immediately.

COVID-19 Ravages Susanville Prisons, Spikes in Lassen County a Few Days Later

Yesterday’s horror show–the botched Chino transfer, a dramatic (who knows how dramatic with 35% testing?) rise in infections in San Quentin, subsequent (who knows if consequent?) spikes in the surrounding population–seems to be playing out in Lassen County. As of a few days ago, the two state prisons in Susanville–California Correctional Center (CCC) and High Desert State Prison (HDSP)–have started seeing new cases, arguably as a consequence of a botched transfer from–you guessed it! COVID-19-ravaged San Quentin. The Lassen County Times reports:

The outbreak at CCC came after CDCR transferred four inmates from San Quentin State Prison in a effort to reduce the inmate population there as it struggled with a COVID-19 outbreak that some health experts said could explode to threaten the entire Bay Area. Officials said the inmates had previously tested negative for the virus sometime before their transfer, and they were not tested or quarantined immediately upon their arrival at CCC.

Lassen County Times, June 26, 2020

Again, we’ve checked the numbers. As of the Wednesday weekly count, CCC holds 3,828 in a facility designed to hold 3,883, which puts it as 98.6% capacity. The prison has tested 58.1% of its population so far, finding 187 new cases, which are eight percent out of its tested population of 2284 prisoners. And don’t be fooled by the relative calm at HDSP. So far, only one prisoner has tested positive yet, but HDSP has tested only 15.41% of its population so far, and the potential for contagion there is frightening, given that they have 3,580 prisoners in a space designed to hold 2,324 prisoners–overcrowded to the tune of 154% (and yes, for those still clinging to the arbitrary numbers from ten years ago, if Plata compliance were applied to individual prisons, this would be noncompliant.) HDSP 3580 2324 154% capacity. It has tested only 15.41% of its population so far.

Matters with staff, as per the CDCR daily report, are also grim. One staff member has tested positive at CCC and 5 at HDSP, 3 of which have been returned to work. This is crucial, because Lassen prison staff are more likely to reside in Lassen than San Quentin staff to reside in Marin (after all, that was the point of making Susanville into Prison Town, U.S.A.)

We’ve looked up the Lassen numbers on the L.A. Times database (we extracted it from this github tool.) Graph 1 shows the total number of cases in Lassen County and at the two prisons. As you can see, the spike in Lassen County happens after the spike at CCC, though it is hard to provide an airtight causal story because testing rates at the prison and the county differ.

Data for CCC and HDSP from CDCR tool. Data for Lassen County from L.A. Times tool.
Data synthesis and charting Hadar Aviram and Chad Goerzen.

The second graph shows new cases, rather than cumulative cases. It’s easier here to see the timeline. You’ll also note the spike in cases at CCC, whose shape likely reflects the spike in testing (you can see the testing spike on the CDCR tool.)

Data for CCC and HDSP from CDCR tool. Data for Lassen County from L.A. Times tool.
Data synthesis and charting Hadar Aviram and Chad Goerzen.

Again, I want to emphasize that, without contact tracing, telling an airtight causal story here is impossible, but the numbers tell a plausible story. This seems to have finally driven home the point that prisoners are actual people who live in the county, whether or not they are being “counted” as such. Realizing that Lassen County people’s health depends on what goes on at CCC, Brian and Megan Dahle, respectively a Senator and an Assembly Member for Lassen County’s First District, Megan Dahle, who is running for State Assembly, wrote a letter to CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz, asking him “to provide answers on questionable protocols that have led to a surge of inmate #COVID19 cases in Lassen County.” Waking up to this reality has finally made the county and the prison work together, even though there’s still a bunch of posturing about “jurisdiction”:

While CDCR’s attorneys allege in a June 5 statement the counties lack jurisdiction over the prisons, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the past two days the Lassen County Public Health Department and our local prisons worked together to test more than 2,000 inmates and approximately 180 employees for the virus according to a Friday, June 26 statement from the Lassen COVID-19 Incident command.

In a previous statement on June 5, the general counsel for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation issued this statement in regards to a local health officer’s orders in Kings County: “While local health officers are able to issue orders to other governmental entities to control the spread of the communicable disease, this is limited to entities within the local health officer’s jurisdiction. The state is not an entity under local health officers’ jurisdictions, and thus local health officer orders are not valid against the state. As a state agency CDCR and its institutions will follow the direction for CDPH.”

Lassen County Times, June 26, 2020

I said this in yesterday’s post and, unfortunately, I have to say it again: Nothing here was unforeseeable. My colleagues and I repeatedly warned, months ago, that being timid about releases, because the uninformed public would grumble about “violent inmates”, was tantamount to incubating the virus to the detriment of the general population. Without decisive action from Gov. Newsom, we won’t be able to make a dent in the cumulative disaster that is unfolding. Yesterday I got a missive from the Governor’s office, asking all Californians to “do their part” by wearing masks and keeping social distancing. Gov. Newsom, please do YOUR part. You have many tools at your disposal to alleviate prison overcrowding. This is already a human rights disaster, but immediate releases of everyone over 50 or otherwise at risk can make the mass graveyard nightmare less threatening. It had to happen weeks ago, but some lives might still be saved if you act quickly.

COVID-19 Tears Through San Quentin

A tragedy is playing out in California’s theatre of the absurd, San Quentin Death Row. For the last few days, advocates have watched in horror as COVID-19 ravaged through the prison, likely as a consequence of a mass transfer from Chino of prisoners who had not been tested: as of June 25, 542 cases, all but 30 of them very recent. This morning, the Chronicle reports:

A coronavirus outbreak exploding through San Quentin State Prison has reached Death Row, where more than 160 condemned prisoners are infected, sources told The Chronicle on Thursday.

One condemned inmate, 71-year-old Richard Eugene Stitely, was found dead Wednesday night. Officials are determining the cause of death and checking to see whether he was infected.

State prison officials declined to confirm that the virus has spread to Death Row, but three sources familiar with the details of the outbreak there provided The Chronicle with information on the condition they not be named, and in accordance with the paper’s anonymous source policy. Two of the sources are San Quentin employees who are not authorized to speak publicly and feared losing their jobs.

There are 725 condemned inmates at San Quentin, and of those who agreed to be tested for the coronavirus, 166 tested positive, the sources said.

. . .

It is unclear whether Stitely was infected with the coronavirus. He refused to be tested, according to the three sources with knowledge of the situation.

If Stitely tests postive, his death could mark the first coronavirus fatality in California’s oldest prison, where prisoner cases have rocketed from zero infections in late May to 515 by Thursday evening. Additionally, 73 San Quentin staff members have tested positive.

The infections were touched off by a botched transfer of 121 men on May 30 from the virus-swamped California Institution for Men in Chino, which until Thursday was the state prison with the largest number of infected inmates.

San Quentin has surpassed Chino’s current tally of 507 cases, and now holds more incarcerated people who have tested positive for the virus than anywhere else in the state. There have been more than 4,000 confirmed cases throughout California’s prison systems, with 20 prisoner deaths attributed to COVID-19. Sixteen of those deaths came from the California Institution for Men in Chino.

As of Thursday, there were 16 San Quentin prisoners who were receiving care from outside hospitals because of COVID-19 complications, according to Liz Gransee, a spokeswoman for the prison’s health care system.

Yesterday I spent some time playing with the infection statistics in CA prisons, trying to correlate them with overcrowding, as well as with infection data from each prison’s surrounding county. The signal-to-noise ratio was too faint to pick anything useful up. I’m going to leave the more fine-grained inference models to epidemiologists; this is something that should be done on a time series, not a snapshot of one day. It’s also useless to infer contagion given the dramatic change, over time, in testing rates, and the considerable differences between prisons in both overcrowding and testing rates. According to the CDCR tool, as of last night only 35.3% of inmates at San Quentin have been tested, and the testing rates range widely, from 97% at Amador to 11.4% at Chuckawalla.

Specifically as to Quentin: As of June 24, the population in prison was 3,507. Design capacity for Quentin is 3,082; they are at 113% capacity. I’m sure some of you will remind me that this complies with the Plata mandate, but the Plata numbers are meaningless in this context, so let go of the mythical 137.5%. What matters is not what federal courts said ten years ago in a different context; what matters is whether there is actual room to isolate and treat people now. If death row isolation, where people are housed in single-occupancy cells, is not sufficient protection from contagion, it is unclear where and how they can make space in an overcrowded general population to maintain social distancing. In any case, it’s way too late for masks and 6-feet-niceties. Let’s play a bit with numbers. With a 35% testing rate at Quentin, we have, say, 1227 prisoners out of 3507 tested. Out of those folks, 542 – an astounding 44 percent – have been found positive.

Now, this does not mean that 44% of the entire San Quentin population is infected. The virus doesn’t pick and choose where to spread, nor does it spread evenly across the prison. The geography and architecture of the prison is key, which is partly why we’re seeing this horror play out specifically on death row. We also don’t know whether the testing protocol follows the infected areas. Recall that the people who spoke to the Chron did so anonymously, out of fear of losing their jobs.

While we cannot (yet?) causally attribute the death in death row to COVID-19, the absurdity of the entire situation is breathtaking. We have a death penalty moratorium after decades of sentencing people to death and then not executing them. We have spent billions of dollars during these decades litigating minute technicalities: death chamber setup, this drug, that drug, one drug, three drugs. Extensive appellate proceedings have gotten into the minutiae of a person’s health because, shockingly, in this country, in half the states, it is still a valid legal question whether someone is healthy enough to be killed by their government. Whatever heinous homicide people committed forty or fifty years ago that landed them on death row, we did not embroil ourselves in endless technical litigation so that people would get their death sentence via COVID.

Nor is it the case, as some people might secretly think, that this is somehow less awful because the people on death row are anyway “the worst of the worst.” Sarah Beth Kaufman’s new book American Roulette, which is out this month, reflects meticulous observations of 16 capital trials nationwide, beginning to end. The people that get the death penalty, as opposed to life without parole, are not necessarily the people who commit the most heinous murders, nor are they necessarily the victims of systemic racism. More likely than not, the question of life or death is decided on the basis of which team puts together the better theatrical spectacle for the jurors, whose selection process already guarantees that they are what Kaufman calls “punitive citizens.” There is nothing that separates the people more and less at risk but misfortune and mismanagement.

Even if you can’t find compassion for your fellow human beings behind bars, think of you and your loved ones on the outside. California prison guards live in California, and as of yesterday, 73 staff members from San Quentin were infected. We ran some numbers for Quentin as well as for the neighboring counties (the former from CDCR, the latter from the L.A. Times), and the outbreaks in the neighboring counties happened after the transfer from Chino to Quentin. To establish this with certainty you’d need contact tracing, but it is not implausible that guards incubating the disease went shopping or eating around Sonoma, Napa, Solano, or Marin sometime in late May or early June, and that’s what has made Marin’s numbers spike.

Calculation of R_t as follows:
Estimated R_t based on new case levels 7 days apart, or a value of 1
in the case of 0 new cases. Smoothed using an exponential moving
average filter with an alpha value of 0.15. Calculation credit Chad Goerzen.

Months ago my colleagues and I repeatedly pleaded Gov. Newsom to release more prisoners than the piddly 3,500 people. I warned that, if we did not do so, CDCR would become a mass grave. Gov. Newsom has seven powerful levers at his disposal to alleviate this crisis: early releases, testing, commutations, ending any collaboration with ICE, parole, resentencing, and funding. UnCommon Law is putting a pressure campaign on titled Healthy and Home. Do what you can to join the calls to aggressively hasten the testing of 100% of the prison population, get home everyone over 50 or otherwise in a high-risk group, and guarantee real health care and preventive measures behind bars.

Sorry, Prisoners, the IRS Wants Your Stimulus Checks Back

The news these days, especially from prisons, are so outrageous they far outdo anything one could invent. Take this astounding story from CorrectionsOne:

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in coronavirus relief payments have been sent to people behind bars across the United States, and now the IRS is asking state officials to help claw back the cash that the federal tax agency says was mistakenly sent.

The legislation authorizing the payments during the pandemic doesn’t specifically exclude jail or prison inmates, and the IRS has refused to say exactly what legal authority it has to retrieve the money. On its website, it points to the unrelated Social Security Act, which bars incarcerated people from receiving some types of old-age and survivor insurance benefit payments.

You’ll have to read the whole story to get a full grasp of the inanity, so please click the link. I will only add this: In Chapter 6 of Cheap on Crime I talked about the increasing tendency of prisons to monetize basic services they provide, such as haircuts, food, and healthcare–not to mention ridiculous pay-to-stay fees that they place as liens on people’s post-incarceration earnings. Prison is not a place you go to voluntarily, obviously, which you’d think placed an obligation on the state to feed, clothe, and treat you; nonetheless, many states charge their prisoners medical co-pays (if you’re just finding out now that prisoners have been making co-pays for their medical treatment, you’re not alone.) I referred to this progression in the imagined status of prisoners as the shift from ward to burden to consumer. Indeed, if you were to just follow the money, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s no incarceration at all: people pay hotel fees for their beds, co-pays for their health insurance, and the like, all from their lavish earnings or from their future earnings (which promises that their reentry will be a bag o’laughs.)

My initial thought about the stimulus brouhaha is this: if we’re all supposedly real consumers in the real world, who pay for our lodging, healthcare, and services–regardless of whether we happen to be in prison or not–why don’t we all get a stimulus check? Ask your government. And add this to the list of matters you address in November when you drop your ballot.

Collard Greens with Tofu

This recipe is a very liberal adaptation of several recipes in Richa Hingle’s wonderful Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen. I’m serving it with quinoa and with a thickened version of this curried daal.

  • 1 tsp coconut oil
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-inch knob ginger, minced
  • 12 oz. package of firm tofu (no need to squeeze the water), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 large, ripe tomato, thinly sliced
  • 1 enormous bunch of collards, de-stemmed and sliced into thin ribbons
  • 1/4 cup water

Heat up oil in heavy pan. When hot, add cumin and coriander seeds and toast for 30 seconds. Add garlic and ginger and toast for another 30 seconds. Add sliced tomato and tofu cubes and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add collard ribbons and water, cover, and reduce heat. Continue to cook for about 15 minutes, or until collards are soft to your taste.

Curried lentil-carrot-coconut-tomato-ginger-turmeric soup

This morning called for a bowl of warming soup and for deepening my joy about my newly arranged spice rack. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted lentil, carrot, or tomato soup, and so I decided to make one soup to rule them all! The real stars of the show are fresh ginger and turmeric roots; I bet you could make this with powder, but the fresh root is so delightful in color and taste. I also relied on Madras South Indian curry I ordered from World Spice Market.

I made this in the venerable Instant Pot, but I bet it would come out fantastic cooked on the stove. The thickness of the soup depends on how much water you add, and you can adjust it after it finishes cooking, before the blending stage.

Oh, by the way: I finally figured out the reason for the odious tendency of cooking websites to make you stroll through florid personal stories of wise elderly relatives, college exchange programs and exotic backpacking adventures, seventeen different pictures of each recipe, and detailed descriptions of the experience of eating it. You might already know this–I am a true neophyte to the ways of e-commerce and web traffic–but anyway, it turns out that one’s site fares better on Google et al. if you throw in a minimum amount of text and pictures. Thankfully, I’m in the fortunate position of having a day job and not making a cent off of sharing recipes with you, so I’ll stop torturing you and get to business. Be your own hero and make this soup!

  • 1-2 tsp coconut oil
  • 2 tbsp Madras South Indian Curry (or equivalent spices: Coriander, Brown Mustard, Turmeric, Cumin, Fenugreek Sd, Blk Pepper, Chile Flk, Cardamom, Indo. Cinnamon, and Ginger, totaling 2 tbsp)
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 1 1/2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1-inch knob fresh turmeric, peeled and minced
  • 4 large carrots, sliced or cubed
  • 1 small can of diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 can coconut milk
  • 2 cups red lentils
  • 6-8 cups water

Set the instant pot to “sauté” and heat up the coconut oil. Add the curry spices and toast them in the pot for about 1 min. Add the garlic, ginger, and turmeric, and toast for another 30 seconds. Turn off the sauté function and throw in the carrots, tomatoes, coconut milk, lentils, and water. Set to “soup” (30 minutes of high pressure cooking). Allow pressure to release slowly. Open pot and use a ladle to move half of the contents to a blender. Add water to achieve desired thickness and blend until smooth. Return to instant pot and keep on “warm” until serving.

My Years as a Legal Alien

The Trump Administration’s erratic response to the coronavirus has mindlessly pivoted between posing as if the virus does not exist, is a hoax, etc., and taking absurd measures against a variety of undesirable populations in the guise of pandemic prevention policy. After the flop of Trump’s Tulsa rally, this morning ushers new xenophobic measures: limitations on temporary work visas, which have infuriated tech companies. Thankfully, the news are less dire for international students: colleges, employers, and even some Republican Congress members successfully lobbied to remove Trump’s planned restriction of the OPT visa program, which allows students to work in a job related to their field for at least one year after graduation (three in some science and technology fields.)

My professional and social circles feature many non-U.S. folks working in highly skilled jobs in the U.S., and everyone’s stress and relief were palpable. Even those unaffected by the news were rattled by the prospect of having one’s education halted. I get it, viscerally–I was an international student in the U.S. between 2001 and 2005, first on a J-1 visa sponsored by Fulbright and then on a F-1 visa sponsored by UC Berkeley.

My grad school experience was considerably colored by the events of 9/11, which happened just a few weeks after I arrived in the U.S. At first I struggled to grasp the immensity of the catastrophe, as my psyche was desensitized by decades of suicide bombings back home. But it soon became clear that many political, social, and economical assumptions were to be upended by this tragedy. Embroiled in one new war, then another, amidst conspiracies and factual obfuscations, the US transformed its international relations as well as important aspects of its domestic life.

I was at Berkeley; all around me were friends, colleagues, and professors who were vehemently opposed to the war. For the life of me, I could not fathom who had voted for Bush. It was hard to reconcile my distaste for unwinnable, sticky warfare and the massive destruction it would bring with my sense as an Israeli during the Gulf War of 1991 that the Americans had a duty to protect “us”.

It quickly became apparent that the landscape for foreigners in the United States was going to be different. My trips in and out of the U.S. became stressful events involving long lines, paperwork, multiple identification methods and interrogations. In 2003 I flew to Israel to conduct fieldwork for my dissertation. While there, my J-1 visa sponsorship ended (Fulbright sponsored me for two years) and I had to undergo a process to transfer the sponsorship to Berkeley and change the visa type to F-1. My application got bogged down in the general 9/11 paperwork brouhaha and my departure back to school was delayed by months (extremely stressful at the time but, in hindsight, a blessing in disguise, as I was able to conduct a lot more field observations, including two full criminal trials for conscientious objectors.) My return trip in 2003 was unforgettable. At JFK, my passport was taken away from me and I was diverted from the normal immigration line to the secondary room, where we had no access to washrooms and were forbidden the use of our phones. Not a single person in the room, which was full of crying babies and frightened adults and children, held a passport hailing from the global North. It was one of many experiences I had as an international traveler getting a peek (for someone usually carrying considerable social advantage because of my appearance and language fluency) into the lives of people from countries that the U.S. deems “suspect.” After two hours, fearful that I would miss my connecting flight, I obsequiously stammered to the person at the counter. Within a few moments, my passport was returned to me and I left the room, running, leaving behind dozens of equally fearful and timid fellow passengers.

The remainder of my involvement with the U.S. government until I received my citizenship in 2015 was characterized by the dialectic between two conflicting messages. My academic community, including my school, my workplace, and my professional associations, usually (but not always) communicated appreciation for diversity, happiness to have me and other foreigners in the U.S. research world, and a sense of value for my outsider perspective on American criminal justice (a handful of people were dismissive and patronizing, even after decades of living here, but most were great.) All my interactions with the U.S. government, on the other hand, communicated the message that I was an upstart interloper out to steal a job from an American citizen. I remember the hesitation and fear to bring up visa process and funding with potential employers as I was flying to job interviews in America, jetlagged and exhausted. I vividly remember being in a bind when I had to return to the U.S. to take the job at Hastings, with just a few days left to complete my two-years-in-my-home-country Fulbright requirement; they counted every day, including the brief vacation my partner and I took in Istanbul. That the missing days would be spent in Israel during the academic summer vacation, while I would miss the actual semester in the U.S., did not matter. When I found one visa category that would enable me to bypass this problem, the O-1 visas for “extraordinary aliens”, my visa sponsor at Fulbright asked me with a voice full of disdain whether I deigned to think I was extraordinary.

My fear of the government did not subside during the O-1 years, nor did it disappear when I was granted my Green Card in 2009. Any silly, mundane conflict, including a noise complaint to our landlord by our downstairs neighbors, ushered in unreasonable fears of deportation. I steered clear of any environment in which even a whiff of marijuana could be detected, including asking friends (who thought I was paranoid, and probably rightly so) not to keep the stuff in their house while I was there. Before, and especially after, the Snowden revelations, I communicated with all my friends and colleagues under the assumption that every word I uttered or wrote was monitored. Even now, having been an American citizen for five years, my fear has not completely evaporated; I know the Trump administration revokes naturalized citizenships and, living under this unlikely but not impossible cloud, I will never be a 100% inalienable member of my new country.

Keep in mind that this narrative comes to you from a standpoint of considerable social advantage. I did not come to the U.S. from the global South or from a Muslim country, but rather from a country occupying a role in the U.S. cosmology somewhere between petulant child, exotic suspect, and privileged protégé; I am a highly educated professional with a comfortable salary working at a public institution in a blue state. Multiply the fears and entanglements manyfold and you’ll get a sense of how many immigrants and nonimmigrant students and workers experience their interactions with the government. Moreover, consider that I became a citizen during the Obama years, welcomed to America at a lavishly decorated venue in which we received warm speeches about the value of diversity we bring to the country, and invited to stand up when our country-of-origin’s name was called out with everyone cheering us. As soon as we exited, smiling, cheerful people welcomed us to booths where we could immediately apply for a passport and register to vote. A friend who naturalized in 2018 reported very different sentiments; by contrast to the beautifully written letter I received from President Obama in 2015, addressing me as his “fellow American”, he received nothing from Trump, and the cold, unpleasant ceremony emphasized themes of assimilation and erasure.

All of which is to say–these developments, ostensibly for pandemic response reasons but truly a continuation of this administration’s xenophobic persecution project, frighten and upset me. My heart goes out to the people whose world is shaky and uncertain today and to the hundreds of thousands of people who do not even have the privilege to experience this shakiness because their entire experience of living here is rife with the peril of discovery and removal. And most of all–the heart goes out to the children. The poor, frightened children, separated from their parents, and held in concentration camps, neglected, abused, sobbing, dying, growing up in fear and trauma. May we all do the right thing this coming November. This nightmare must come to an end.

Stretching Compassion to Difficult People: Is Abolitionism Only for People “We” Like?

Fifteen years ago, the LGBTQ community in Israel was reeling from a vicious stabbing attack by Yishai Schlissel, an Ultraorthodox Jewish man, at the Gay Pride in Jerusalem, which claimed the life of 16-year-old Shira Banki and injured several others. Some friends and I–legal scholars and members of the LGBTQ community–were invited to participate in a public panel whose goal was to advocate for broader criminalization and increased punishment for violent hate crimes. I found myself wondering: isn’t murder already a crime? Would more decades in prison for Schlissel bring Shira and other innocent victims back? And what does that say about our commitment to other progressive goals, such as humanizing (or defunding) law enforcement and decreasing (or eliminating) incarceration? Are we single-issue fanatics or do we see the bigger picture? Are we only aboard the abolitionist train when we talk about people we like?  And when people we dislike are on the agenda, are we part of the carceral problem we so vehemently disavow?

These internal contradictions have been on my mind for many years, both in Israel and in the U.S. The last decade of punishment and society scholarship has seen an expansion in the circle of blame for mass incarceration in the United States. There certainly is plenty of blame to go around; even with the salutary recession-era turnaround in incarceration rates, the American correctional colossus continues to dramatically eclipse incarceration rates in other countries, its human rights crimes, racially discriminatory policies and outcomes, and financial unsustainability still in plain sight.

Where Are Progressives in the Carceral Blame Game?

Traditionally, the blame for mass incarceration was placed squarely upon the shoulders of conservative Republicans. A subsequent wave, which we see in some newer works as well as in progressive public discourse, pulls centrist Democrats—from Kennedy and Johnson to Clinton, Obama, and Biden—into the circle of responsibility, either through federal legislation such as the 1994 Crime Bill or through “tough on crime” posturing for centrist voters.

But even with these patterns, social movements of a more progressive bend have been granted a “pass” from the blame circle. This is fair when talking about the traditional categories of people subjected to the evils of mass incarceration: poor people of color, whom civil rights advocates and activists seek to help and protect. That these populations are disadvantaged and marginalized is an important argument against mass incarceration (and for abolitionism, for those who identify as such.) But three recent books argue that progressive movements have wrongly excluded from our circle of compassion several categories of people whose criminalized behavior is unpopular–even reviled–in progressive circles: people committing animal cruelty, sexual assault, and domestic violence. All three books provide an extremely valuable service to progressive communities in outlining the broader, negative implications of making crime control the rallying cry of progressives. Moreover, reading all three of them together raises the question I asked when I defined, and wrote about, progressive punitivism: have all Americans, including progressive ones, marinated for so long in carceral logics that we are unable to view the social problems we want to solve through non-criminal paradigms?

After summarizing each of the three books, I will discuss the ways in which they are particular iterations of progressive punitivism, which reveal common mechanisms of progressive carceral activism and policymaking; provide a few theoretical frameworks for understanding progressive punitivism; and raise questions about the viability of an overall abolitionist, or anticarceral, progressive milieu, examining the application of anticarceral perspectives to who I suspect might be the last bastions of criminalization: police officers and white supremacists charged with homicide or assault.

“Abuse an animal—go to jail”: Justin Marceau’s Critique of Carceral Animal Rights Advocacy

In Beyond Cages, Justin Marceau critiques the animal rights movement’s convergence around criminal justice as a vehicle for animal protectionism, encapsulated in the slogan, “abuse an animal–go to jail.” Marceau finds the consensus around this mentality surprising given the diversity and conflict within the animal rights movement; under this mentality, he argues, “the reduction of the suffering of animals is something of a zero-sum game where the increased status of animals is in tension with a less punitive, less carceral approach to criminal justice” (6). But this strategy has strong drawbacks:

Carceral victories do not meaningfully enhance the protection of animals, they do not make humans safer, and the efforts to align the movement, at least at a conceptual level, with the policies and logic of mass criminalization, come at a cost. Propagating the dehumanizing violence of incarceration is not a viable solution to the inhumane treatment of animals. Such a view of the movement – that incarcerating rogue animal abusers will dislodge longstanding social norms about animals – is empirically unfounded and conceptually dangerous (6).

As Marceau explains, from its inception, the animal rights movement’s success came from criminal prosecutions. Stories of abuse of pets, in particular, have been the “low-hanging fruit of outreach and fundraising” (19). Before wide animal cruelty legislation, successes came from a patchwork of litigation, including creative use of customer protection laws. These efforts received rebuke from courts, who steered animal rights organizations toward criminal prosecution as the appropriate path.

As a consequence, the animal protection movement has come to see criminal convictions and harsh sentencing as the hallmark of its success. To guarantee favorable legislation, the movement plays an active role in drafting criminal codes, adding animal cruelty offenses, and raising sentences for violations of these laws. The advocacy for these punitive laws Touting low enforcement rates, that are actually higher than rapes and murders etc.A major success has been raising animal cruelty to the level of a felony, and there is wide support in the movement for mandatory minimums and for charging juveniles as adults. Marceau describes amicus briefs supporting warrantless searches and seizures (primarily through the expansion of the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement), as well as partnering with other organizations to remove minority rights in cases that are primarily motivated by racist animus; Marceau mentions efforts to argue that double jeopardy allows charging a defendant with multiple counts of animal cruelty for the same scheme involving multiple animals—of no benefit to the animal, but allowing for lengthier incarceration.

Relying on harsh animal cruelty legislation, the movement spends enormous resources on prosecution: Animal rights groups provide trainings and advice to prosecutors. The groups pay for expert witnesses and consulting experts, they draft pleadings, they provide hands-on services to police, and in many organizations the interest in securing convictions is part of the strategic conversation. Litigation that implicates law enforcement or that might attract the ire of prosecutors is disfavored, and potentially subject to a pro-prosecution veto. The organizations give awards to prosecutors. In some cases, animal rights organizations bankroll prosecutions by effectively hiring and paying the salaries of members of the prosecutorial team—a practice infested with conflicts of interest. More commonly, animal rights organizations do the investigative legwork behind prosecutions.

Marceau’s critique of this policy is threefold. First, he explains, by expressing punitive sentiments toward people whose empathy toward animals has eroded, “the movement appears to be losing sight of whether it is eroding its own empathy by seeking ever more carceral solutions to animal mistreatment” (13). The punitive coalition tends to target primarily poor, disenfranchised people, absolving the greatest agents of animal cruelty–factory farms–from responsibility, and deploying incarceration and collateral consequence toward disempowered people–including loss of housing and employment and, in cases of undocumented slaughterhouse workers, even deportation. This is not only callous, but ultimately ineffective: There is little reason to believe that animal welfare would be better protected in destabilized communities with entrenched socioeconomic deprivation. Indeed, the movement purports to speak punitively on behalf of animals (whom are found by robust scientific research to be far more forgiving than humans!) only in the context of cruelty to pets, whereas no such punitive assumptions are present where police abuse of companion animals is at stake: “Law enforcement is always right, and they side with animals only when and to the limited extent necessary to advance the incarcerating power of the State” (47-48). This principle is even more salient in the scant support the movement offers to radical activists conducting undercover investigations in factory farm or forms of direct action like open rescue of sick animals. In other words, “[i]n the carceral view of animal law, animals win when prosecutors win” (48.) This shortsightedness as to progressive interests other than harsh prosecution plays out in other legal contexts as well, such as a landmark case in which the movement tried, but failed, to limit abhorrent videos of animal abuse, relying on rationales that would help this single issue but hurt free speech in general, positioning them “in the unique role of a civil rights movement that has consistently urged narrowing interpretations of the fundamental  rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights” (78.)

Second, Marceau highlights the racial underpinnings of the collaboration between the animal rights movement and the carceral state. Animal rights groups, whose membership is “still overwhelmingly white”,  risk alienating people of color further, because “African Americans are not leading the animal protection movement, and the enthusiasm for tough-on-crime policies. . . has an unavoidable racial inflection” (42.) The movement selectively centers and ignores the suffering of racial minorities: even as it relies on analogies between human slavery and the exploitation of animals, which sound tone-deaf to potential allies of color, it supports carceral policies, and pursues individual cases, that exacerbate the stronghold of the racism on the carceral machine. Not only that, but some of its alliances and chosen battles trivialize the suffering of people of color and create a false dichotomy between the interests of humans and animals. In addition, there is a perception that animal cruelty prosecutions are somehow different than other types of crime because they are not tied to race; this misses a strongly racialized history of animal cruelty legislation and enforcement.

Finally, Marceau obesrves that much of the punitive animal rights rhetoric relies on the idea of what he calls “the LINK” theory: a hypothesis that animal abuse predicts violence toward humans. Marceau marshals secondary literature disproving “the LINK” offers a critical assessment of the studies that posited it. He concludes that, while animal abuse is surprisingly common among both violent and nonviolent people, it offers precious little prediction of violence toward humans. Animal rights organizations obfuscate the true scientific consensus, relying on a popularization of “LINK” theories in their plea for harsh punishment. The irony is not lost on Marceau: to say that incarceration is not a mechanism that alleviates this purported propensity for violence is an understatement. Moreover, Marceau argues, when the movement espouses abuse of humans, not only through harsh sentencing and consequences but also through obtuseness and downright ridicule of extenuating circumstances like poverty and mental illness (which correlate with animal abuse), it cannot in good faith claim that it cares about humans.

#BelieveWomen: Aya Gruber’s Critique of Carceral Feminism in Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault

Aya Gruber’s The Feminist War on Crime articulates and critiques the uneasy alliance between feminism and carceral logics. Gruber begins by observing the inconsistencies between feminist protectionist positions toward commercial sex by marginalized women and the puritan approaches (consistent with calls for formal and informal harsh punitive measures) toward sexual misbehavior of men. She explains:

The tension between the over-the-top sexuality and intolerance for imperfect sex reflects contemporary feminists’ struggle to embrace sexual liberation while simultaneously critiquing a hazardous sexual terrain where the burdens of open sexuality fall disproportionately on women. Unfortunately, the existing criminal law discourse of devastating victimhood, righteous indignation, and punishment as ‘justice’ provides a ready-made vocabulary for women’s unease with the disparate nature of sexual liberation. The existing criminal system provides a ready-made remedy in the form of prosecution, conviction, and prison. Condemnation of men’s newly branded criminal conduct and calls for just deserts multiply on social media until feminists’ thoughtful efforts to grapple with a complex issue appear as little more than pitchfork-bearing vengeance, demonstrating that #MeToo has lots its way (15.)

Lest her readers see carceral feminism as a recent product of entitled young, white third-wave feminists participating in online cancel culture, Gruber demonstrates that feminism has shaped and has been shaped by the penal state as early as the Progressive Era. Contrary to the received wisdom that second-wave feminists adopted criminalizing methods out of lack of choice, she finds more complex narratives of criminal culpability and penological appropriateness. Alongside disturbing cases in which rape victims were disbelieved, mocked, and demonized for unchasteness, she finds women prosecuted for adultery and fornication, but also criminal legislation prescribing, and criminal courts imposing, capital punishment for rape, particularly against poor men and men of color. Rhetoric in favor of temperance reflected an animus against druknenness as a precursor to domestic violence and consumption of prostitution services, and was rife with disapprobation for loose sexual mores (such as, for example, in dance halls.) Among the achievements of the white, middle-class movement that combined radicalism with purity was raising the age of consent “so that tolerated seductions could be converted into easily prosecutable rapes” (26.) Particularly, the participation of early feminists efforts to criminalize “white slavery” was drenched in racial assumptions and hierarchies, as efforts to rescue white women (and a small number of Chinese women) from “foreign men, low-class criminals, and ethnic minorities” (28)–a concept which marginalized black slavery and oppression. The result of this successful campaign, the Mann Act, was weaponized in infamous and controversial ways, particularly against men of color. Alongside marginalized women who claimed rape and were ignored because of their identities were white women falsely–and successfully–claiming to have been raped by black men (sometimes fabricating these claims out of thin air and sometimes masking consensual, but frowned upon, interracial liaisons.) Such cases culminated not only in harsh sentencing, but also in rape-based lynching. The “rape-race nexus” (39) continues to loom large in American mythology, relying on stereotypes against immigrants and racial minorities.

After the progressive era, punitive energy in the feminist movement waned. Second-wave feminism emerged initially as a radical, antiauthoritarian reaction to the Vietnam war and oppressive capitalism, and its initiatives mostly reflected mistrust of the police–an arm of “the Man”– and sisterhood assistance (for example, through the establishment of battered women shelters as an alternative to the state.) Even the antirape movement, characterized in the late 1970s by Take Back the Night (TBTN) rallies (and fueled by terrifying, albeit rare, stranger-rape cases), was not carceral in nature, and sought more funding to empower and assist women against a variety of “violences”–systemic, social, and institutional. In some cases, however, the portrayal of rape victims and sex workers as modern-day slaves overlapped with conservative sex-panic discourses. Within a few years, second-wave feminism largely shifted its position to advocate for more law enforcement and prosecution. Gruber uses domestic violence activism to highlight this transformation. She describes the shelter activists of the early 1970s who sought to “upend[] the patriarchal structure of marriage” (50) and the establishment of the National Coalition against Domestic Violence; the radicalism and separatism of these organizations was an uneasy fit for women of color because of its blindness to intersectional issues, and the enforced separation from batterers that they advocated offered little benefit to poor women who depended on male partners for subsistence. Gruber then describes the battered women’s movement, whose punitive position toward individual abusers was epitomized in class action lawsuit Bruno v. Codd (1976), in which feminist lawyers argued that domestic violence victims have a right to police assistance and intervention. In the 1980s, feminist efforts to obtain accountability dovetailed with the shifting national politics under the Reagan administration to paint marginalized populations as perpetrators of their own misery, with domestic violence and sexual victimization as powerful examples.

The feminist depictions of police officers as patriarchy-supporting brutes failed to acknowledge the more complex (albeit still masculinist) ambivalence of community-minded officers who saw domestic violence as indication of deep-seated problems they felt unable to address in a typical police-like manner. In targeting individual male offenders, feminist lawyers’ depictions of the domestic violence problem deviated from those of family violence researchers, who identified socioeconomic and psychological dimensions of the problem, and who examined women’s violence as well as men’s. Legal feminists touted (and, as Gruber argues, overclaimed and somewhat misinterpreted) a study conducted by Lawrence Sherman and Richard Berk, which advocated for arrests as a solution to domestic violence. This advocacy led to the adoption of mandatory arrest policies, despite new studies that shed doubt on their efficacy; the advocacy for mandatory arrests and harsh punishment took on “a troublingly racialized tone” (91). Gruber’s epilogue to this transformation describes Sherman’s 2015 followup to his 1988 study with Berk, in which he found that the arrest of a partner for domestic violence led to heightened morbidity from a variety of causes among the female victims.

The chosen rhetorical and cultural vehicle for feminist advocacy was victims’ narratives and rights. Because the public was more receptive to some victims’ narratives than to others (rape by strangers versus date rape, for example), feminist narratives tended to rely on poster-children victims who received more public sympathy: white, middle-class, attractive victims of stranger crimes who sought severe punishment. Feminist lawyers made paternalistic assumptions about what was best for victims, believing “that they knew how to manage victims’ safety better than the victims themselves” (105). Even more symbolically powerful was the narrative of the child victim of the sexual predator, which fueled various punitive laws, including sex offender registration, notification, and housing restrictions. Anti-rape and anti-prostitution activists, such as TBTN protesters, relied on fear of violent stranger attack to support their cause, even though acquaintance rape is far more common, and on controversial depictions of the commercial sex industry.

In some cases, the second-wave feminist framework of sex-as-coercion, such as in the context of egregious cases of adults exploiting children, characterized the legal response; in other cases, such as the gradual criminalization of date rape, the liberal feminist framework of consent carried the day over the previous standard of force. Within the framework of consent, feminists sought to expand the meaning of consent beyond cases in which the victim said no. “Instead of the messy endeavor of divining the complainant’s mind-set from the totality of the circumstances, fact finders could simply look to whether there was a ‘yes’ or functional equivalent” (131.) Gruber demonstrates the difficulty in affirmative consent standards through an analysis of cases, in which relying on the victim’s affirmation can be as confusing and ambivalent as relying on her denial. The idea that obtaining verbal, explicit consent is easy flies in the face of sexual conventions and commonly opaque interpersonal communications. Any effort by the defense to tarnish a victim’s credibility through her pre- and post-event behavior was explained away by trauma, raising serious questions of how to test credibility and bolstering the myth that rape “ruined” women–a myth that also has pernicious race and class implications. Gruber points out the role that affirmative consent plays in expanding prosecutorial discretion, which infuses charging decisions with class and race biases–against both perpetrators and victims from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The strongest chapter in Gruber’s book examines  campus sexual assault regulation reform in the 2010s. A pivotal moment in the fight to remove due process protections for alleged sexual abusers was the publication of a Rolling Stone article about gang rape, which was later found out to be completely fabricated. Nonetheless, a movement had coalesced after the article, generating sex panic on campus. Gruber recounts an interview with the author of a campus sexual assault survey, showing that the survey was designed to furnish evidence for the magnitude of the problem by categorizing a wide range of sexual behaviors (ranging from force to emotional manipulation) as rape and sexual assault. Arguments asserted as fact by campus advocates and carrying weight in their advocacy–such as the theory of campus serial rapists”–rely on questionably applicable survey data, and any risk-avoidance suggestions to women, primarily in terms of alcohol consumption, is excoriated as victim blaming. Gruber’s analysis concludes with a critique of the recent campaign against Brock Turner, a Stanford athlete who assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, which was expanded to a successful recall campaign against Judge Aaron Persky, who followed the recommendation of the probation department in sentencing Turner to six months in prison. Gruber’s careful analysis of Persky’s sentencing record is disheartening–his rulings generally followed probation recommendations. Nonetheless, not only did he personally become another victim of a misguided #MeToo campaign, but his recall fueled increased punitivism by judges fearing similar consequences (explicitly so, in at least one case that Gruber cites), as well as more Draconian campus legislation.

Gruber offers three “neofeminist” recommendations for feminists seeking to navigate the gap between “toleration of private male violence and complicity with the penal state” (192): adopting a framework that eschews the entanglement between feminism and mass incarceration (such as, for example, those who universalize the experiences of white victims of stranger assault to all women); withdrawing support for existing and future carceral programs purporting to support victims that do not advance justice (such as “yes means yes” legislation and aggressive campus criminalization proposals); and diversifying feminist participation in the debate to include voices and programs that address gender justice as well as oppose mass incarceration.

Throwing the Book at Domestic Abusers: Leigh Goodmark’s Critique of Criminal Justice Approaches to Intimate Partner Violence

There is a certain topical overlap between Gruber’s argument and Leigh Goodmark’s Decriminalizing Domestic Violence, though the two books are considerably different: Goodmark’s book is set mostly in the present time, and therefore less expansive on historical account and more expansive on policy analysis. Goodmark dates the problem of domestic violence policy to the exponential increase in criminalization, arrests, conviction, and incarceration resulting from the enactment of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. The new law led to a dramatic change of the criminalization landscape, mirrored by astronomical growth in VAWA grant money devoted to criminal enforcement compared to housing and other social services: “In 1994 62 percent of VAWA funds were dedicated to the criminal legal system and 38 percent went to social services. . . . In fiscal year 2017, VAWA’s two largest grant programs combined to provide $266 million to the criminal legal system. By contrast, VAWA allocated $30 million to housing, despite repeated studies showing that housing is the single greatest need identified by people subjected to abuse.” (3%.)

Despite this expenditure, there is little evidence that criminal legal interventions have curbed domestic violence: “Since 1994 rates of intimate partner violence in the United States have fallen—but so has the overall crime rate. From 1994 to 2000 rates of intimate partner violence and the overall crime rate decreased by the same amount. From 2000 to 2010 rates of intimate partner violence dropped less than the overall crime rate. No reliable social science data ties the drop in the rates of intimate partner violence to criminalization or to increases in funding and criminal legal system activity spurred by VAWA. Crime has declined and the funding to address intimate partner violence has increased, but the problem persists” (3%). Indeed, while the punitive approach toward domestic violence grew in lockstep with mass incarceration, postrecession criminal justice reforms, which scaled back other aspects of the carceral state left the punitive policies toward domestic violence perpetrators untouched. Instead, as mandatory minimums were slashed for drug offenses, they were created for intimate partner violence. In short, “[a]s a result of these law and policy initiatives, the criminal legal system is the primary response to intimate partner violence in the United States today” (3%).

Goodmark opens the book with a critique of the carceral paradigm for solving domestic violence. in a nutshell, she finds little merit in exclusively focusing on criminalization:

[The criminal legal system is ineffective, focuses disproportionately on people of color and low-income people, ignores the larger structural issues that drive intimate partner violence, robs people subjected to abuse of autonomy, and fails to meet the pressing economic and social needs of people subjected to abuse (5%).

In her summary of the criminal model for addressing domestic violence, Goodmark shows that mandatory arrest policies were adopted without sufficient data to support their role in recidivism reduction, and that their implementation ignored mixed results. She also demonstrates how no-drop prosecutions developed in lockstep with neoliberal economies. While Goodmark agrees that, in serious cases arrests and criminalization can stop dangerous situations (she has recently disavowed this position on Twitter, arguing that she has moved further into abolitionism since publishing the book), she also offers that these disproportionately target the people who are targeted by the system anyway. In a Wisconsin study she cites, “men of color represented 24 percent of the population but 66 percent of the defendants in intimate partner violence cases, a disparity attributed in part to policing practices. Most intimate partner violence offenses are prosecuted as misdemeanors, and rates of misdemeanor prosecution are much higher among men of color. Arrest and conviction may have particularly negative consequences for men of color; finding employment after incarceration is difficult for all men, for example, but much more so for men of color” (11%). Notably, Goodmark maintains that the destructive impact on offenders is matched, or even exceeded, by the impact on survivors. Given that domestic violence has largely been perceived and analyzed through the lens of patriarchy and gender domination, Goodmark importantly argues that women have also been harmed and overly criminalized as a consequence of mandatory arrest polices, especially dual arrests, and of child custody consequences (which largely intersect with race and poverty.) The only acceptable victim under the criminal model, Goodmark argues, is a punitive victim: the system ignores, infantilizes women who have ambivalence toward the process. Indeed, victims who refuse to cooperate are themselves criminalized. This is all especially true for marginalized communities, in which the motivation to cooperate with the police is already low given the broken trust. Indeed, “Women of color frequently have negative, abusive, and even deadly experiences with police officers who are called to respond to intimate partner violence.”

In addition, Goodmark points out that criminalization also has detrimental effects on community, in that it “shifts the responsibility of policing intimate partner violence from the community to the state. While that initial move grew out of community failures to sufficiently protect people from abuse, the result has been to relieve communities of any responsibility for or ability to hold community members accountable without resorting to the criminal legal system.”

Weighing the penal rationales, both retributive and utilitarian, against the costs of the criminal model, Goodmark finds that domestic violence behavior do not seem to be deterred through arrests and convictions, though, as she points out, measuring deterrence is difficult because new arrests capture only a small part of recidivist behavior. Goodmark is concerned that carcerality and collateral consequences might outweigh the benefits of criminal enforcement, both on the individual level and on the level of communities and neighborhoods. Even the benefits of criminalization–the resources brought to the movement, safety of victims, and expressive value of criminalization–are muddled because they are not spread evenly across the population.

The remaining chapters of Goodmark’s book shine spotlights on alternative frameworks for understanding and addressing domestic violence: economic, public health, community, and human rights models, respectively. Goodmark finds that the lion share of domestic violence costs, already correlated with preexisting poverty and material deprivation, is borne by the people who are subjected to abuse—and that these costs stem not only from the violence itself (in the form of medical and mental health as well as economic abuse), but also from the state response to it: for example, survivors’ inability to find and keep secure housing is associated with domestic violence, most perniciously through evictions for nuisance (the nuisance itself being either the violence or the police response to it.) Financial literacy programs offer some relief, but are themselves grounded in corporate capitalism. For people who abuse, the economic hardships that flow from a state response to domestic violence, particularly the emasculating aspect of losing one’s job, can trigger escalation in violent behavior. Goodmark also finds benefits to a public health approach, which views intimate partner violence as a preventable problem and emphasizes preventative efforts in the form of education for men and boys, as well as–importantly–the prevention of adverse childhood experiences, which correlate with perpetuating the cycle of abuse in adulthood. She also examines community interventions, including a range of restorative and transformative justice approaches, and argues that community-based responses could shift societal norms around intimate partner violence and provide meaningful justice for people subjected to abuse. Goodmark is somewhat less sanguine about relying on an international human rights framework for domestic violence prevention and response, arguing that the vague formulations of protections in international and regional treaties could intersect poorly with the primarily-criminal domestic framework in the U.S.

Goodmark concludes that a balanced policy approach to intimate partner violence would work better than a predominantly carceral model. She recommends introducing legislation addressing economic abuse and financial empowerment and literacy programs for survivors. She also recommends adopting public health preventative measures and community-based alternatives, and relegating the criminal legal system to a last-resort role for serious cases.

Common and Divergent Themes in Progressive Punitivism

I want to be careful in arguing that the three stories in the books I review here are iterations of the more general trend toward progressive punitivism. First, by no means do I argue that the authors have failed to suggest generalizations of their respective case studies or that their choice to describe a particular scene of progressive activism, to the exclusion of others, is an oversight. On the contrary, all authors, most explicitly Marceau and Gruber, see their subjects not as outliers but as warning signs of a broader phenomenon. Marceau asks that his book be taken not only as “a specific critique of carceral strategies pursued in the name of improving the lives and status of animals”, but also as “a more general case study about the limitations of relying on the criminal law as a vehicle for progressive social reform.” (2-3). Similarly, Gruber warns about uneven, racially discriminatory enforcement in other areas, not only those near and dear to feminist activists: “Take, for example, hate crime legislation, a perennial progressive carve-out. in the face of accumulating evidence that defendants of color are disproportionately subjected to hate crime enhancements, incarceration critics are beginning to realize that criminalizing identity-based animus is a double-edged sword” (184). Marceau explicitly cites Gruber and Goodmark’s works to point out similarities.

Moreover, each of the three books tells a story with importantly distinct characteristics. The particular histories of criminal justice encroachment in each of these cases matter, not only because they highlight carceral tactics, but because they reveal different stories about the internal struggle in broad movements between those who support and oppose carcerality. While Marceau’s story reads more as a surprising carceral consensus among animal rights advocates, Goodmark’s and, to a greater extent, Gruber’s, unveil how trends and strategies vary over time, with the carceral animus ebbing and flowing along with local politics, regional differences, and the particular personalities of advocates.

I argue that we need both detailed case studies and a generalized bird’s-eye view: the narratives have value on their own as well as cumulative value when read together. Seeing progressive punitivism as a broad phenomenon is important for several reasons. First, I suspect that single-issue advocates may fail to see the way in which the undesirable application of punitive principles to targets of “other” movements might educate them as to the choices they make regarding their own targets. There is much that progressive movements can learn from each other if they set aside the unique features of their respective pet causes and listen. Second, as Gwendolyn Leachman and I argued elsewhere, sometimes progress for one progressive cause can spill over and hamper the progress of another. Progressive advocates have much to gain from coordinating their strategies in ways that do not sabotage other important struggles. And third,  reading accounts of progressive punitivism in tandem can offer some insights about the extent to which punitive policies are openly chosen, or merely swept, consciously or unconsciously, into the current of the punitive zeitgeist. These insights can be deeply uncomfortable for progressive activists, who earnestly take on causes in an effort to bring more justice and compassion into the world, but they are crucial if we are to develop a broader vision of the world we’d like to see. Here, then, are a few of the common themes I find in all three books:

Who Subjugated Whom – Progressive Movements or the Carceral State?

All three accounts offer reflections on the extent to which carceral advocacy was an an explicit choice, and are sensitive to the fact that what seems like a terrible choice in hindsight could have emerged from a perceived lack of choice in the past. Trying to provide support for beings whose health (and sometimes their very existence) is threatened and precarious is a difficult task. Marceau recognizes that “the attraction to criminal punishment might be charitably viewed as an act of desperation by persons and organizations seeking a foothold in a legal world that has proven itself hostile to recognizing animals as deserving of meaningful consideration or protection” (10.) Gruber situates Progressive Era reformers, such as the leaders of the Temperance movement, within their race and class identities, arguing that their perception of women different from them, whom they sought to protect, colored their notion of the appropriate policies. Similarly, Goodmark provides a nuanced account of both community justice initiatives and international treaties, pointing to the sincere beliefs of their advocates that they would provide holistic, not-necessarily-punitive solutions to the problem.

Nevertheless, to a contemporary reader, it seems that the relationship between progressive advocacy and the punitive animus is a symbiotic one. In all three examples, the carceral state seems to have gained at least as much from coopting progressive campaigns as progressives gained from embracing carceral principles. Examples of this trade-off abound in all three accounts. Marceau’s irate description of the free-speech-limiting remedy sought in Stevens explicitly alerts readers to the frightening erosion in constitutional protections that could have resulted from a narrow victory to the animal rights camp. Gruber shows the extent to which the Reagan administration, and later the Bush administration, benefitted from adopting the women’s rights cause as their own and contributing to imbuing it with carceral “flavor.” And Goodmark shows how neoliberal approaches to poverty and housing, which essentially flout any responsibility for the basic needs of people at the bottom of the social ladder, benefit from carceral approaches; her account is particularly heart-wrenching when she describes how landlords are often victorious in courts when evicting women who are abused by their partners on the basis of “nuisance”–the nuisance being the very calls to the police that these women are encouraged to make.

At the same time, none of the books absolves the activists of responsibility. The choices of poster-children and “pet causes” in all three books seem very deliberate, and geared to find sympathy among broad swaths of the public not generally inclined toward progressive change. Appealing for support for highly anthropomorphized pets (but not for the factory-farmed animals that most Americans consume, oblivious or obtuse to their suffering) or for white, attractive, middle-class victims of stranger assault (but not for sex workers or other victims/survivors whose behavior is ambiguous) is a strategic choice designed to form a coalition with the prevailing punitive forces, rather than, say, with the far more marginalized advocates of animal rights or sex work reform. We receive intelligent, nuanced accounts of strategic collaboration and tactical choices that are effective on one hand but destructive on the other.

Criminal Law as a “Conversation Starter,” Not a Problem Solver  

Related to the genesis of carcerality is the question of the goal of pursuing carceral outcomes. Because, in all three books, carceral policies are adopted as one strategy among other options, these accounts highlight the ways in which the movements hope to leverage the successes in the criminal realm onto broader achievements. Gruber’s account of second-wave feminists’ efforts to place the issue of domestic violence, and later acquaintance rape, on the map, to make them visible, demonstrates how criminal prosecutions were supposed to frame these issues as important social policy matters. Goodmark, too, explains that the criminal model of domestic violence serves a symbolic function, not merely a retributive or utilitarian one. And, as Marceau explains, animal cruelty prosecutions are perceived as raising the profile of animal protection as an important societal program: “over time,” many senior figures in the animal protection world think, “these prosecutions and longer sentences, it is argued, will result in a widespread acceptance of animals as enjoying a more significant legal status” (96).

Flawed Intersectionality: Oppressing Marginalized Populations in the Name of Social Justice

Relatedly, all three books highlight the ways in which moving to criminalize, convict, and punish a wide swath of behaviors results in the usual patterns we see in punitive criminal justice: targeting and overrepresentation of marginalized people, particularly along the dimensions of race and class. This is evident in Marceau’s account of behaviors that are and are not criminalized in animal cruelty laws. For example, of all the animal entertainment practices, states have banned the racialized and class-identified practices of dog and cock fighting, as opposed to the similarly cruel practices of penning, hunting, and fishing, which are associated with white people. Similarly, along the class dimension, Marceau points out the hypocritical web of legal exemptions from prosecution of factory farms; these exist in forty states, and in twelve of them the exemptions were created in tandem with the raising of animal cruelty crimes to felony level. But even where discretion is allowed by law, Marceau shows the disproportionate impact on racial minorities and undocumented workers. He criticizes the movement’s “jubilation over the prospect of incarceration for immigration offenses and support for deportation proceedings” (6), and argues that the message of giving a voice to the voiceless falls flat when it “completely ignores the power dynamic between an undocumented immigrant and his corporate employer” (17.) It is also a counterproductive strategy from the animal protection perspective, because it is “heedless of the possibility that such prosecutions may ultimately allow the industry to scapegoat precisely these low-level employees” (45).

Both Gruber and Goodmark’s accounts provide a wealth of data to show that statutes criminalizing men’s behavior against women are disproportionately enforced against people of color. Gruber’s historical account of the connection between feminist causes and carceral practices demonstrates the seemingly protean quality of race discrimination: not all rape victims were equally mocked and disbelieved. While women of means and social capital succeeded in claiming rape–primarily against men of color, even when the accusations were false–poor women and women of color were treated much differently. Gruber’s account adds important race and class dimensions to the race-neutral (but deeply racialized) advocacy on women’s behalf. This trend continues throughout Gruber’s narrative, culminating in her excellent chapter on campus sexual assault, in which she shows how eroding due process protections in university regulations most harshly descend upon defendants of color, whose access to higher education is already tenuous.

Similarly, Goodmark provides data to show how well-meaning (or less well-meaning) interventions purporting to help women result in serious harms to families–both men and women. In one of the strongest chapters of her book, she analyzes the economic impact of arrests and convictions. Not only do these often leave women who are abused without economic means (and then ignore their pleas of leniency so that they can subsist), but they also threaten men’s jobs; this latter observation is especially important because of the correlation between unemployment and domestic violence. Because people in poverty are more vulnerable both to abuse and to harmful interventions, these economic deprivations exacerbate class differences and prevent mobility for the entire family. Goodmark explains how housing restrictions hurt especially those who rely on low-income housing programs, and how statistical evidence clearly shows a systemic preference for prosecuting and incarcerating men of color for these offenses.

You Can’t Handle the Truth: Misuse of Science and Misguided Notions of Credibility

Progressive activists often criticize conservatives for touting values over facts, ignoring science, or misleadingly portraying scientific evidence to support punitive reforms. All three books show that conservatives have not cornered the market on obfuscating the truth. Marceau’s analysis of the use of dated “LINK” studies, and the misuse of the many studies that refute them, to bolster harsh consequences for animal abusers, is a case in point; he demonstrates how activists organizations persist in “LINK” messaging despite being made aware of the fact that the “LINK” is causally tenuous at best and meaningless at worst.

Similarly, Gruber’s account of the struggle to limit the range of permitted cross-examination of sexual assault victims is telling. Gruber does not question the inappropriateness of asking a victim-witness about her sexual behavior, but rather points out that the ability to inquire into a witness’s behavior before and after the crime was allegedly committed is one of the most important methods to challenge credibility in criminal trials. She demonstrates how any and all victim behaviors and choices have been attributed to trauma, without sufficient scientific backing.

Both Gruber and Goodmark discuss the emergence of mandatory arrest policies in domestic violence cases, and demonstrate how activists and organizations ignored, or misrepresented, the ambiguous findings as to their efficacy. These policies–particularly dual arrest policies–were adopted without sufficient data supporting their role in recidivism reduction, and subsequently implemented in the face of subsequent research that, at best, found mixed outcomes. Similar unscientific assumptions have underpinned arguments on behalf of lengthy prison sentences for perpetrators. Goodmark highlights the overall unsavory effect of incarceration on recidivism, and Gruber shows that the assumption that incarceration would at least separate couples (and thus incapacitate assailants) flies in the face of the many women that continue to visit and support their male partners in prison.

Due Process and the Presumption of Innocence Are Only for People We Like

Generally speaking, the rights of defendants in substantive and procedural criminal law have been line with goals that progressives overall enthusiastically endorse: humanizing the defendant, creating a fair and predictable criminal legislative framework, and providing the defendants with tools to mitigate the unbalanced effect of confronting, as a private citizen, the state’s law enforcement machine. All three books highlight a disturbing readiness to discard these important principles when the defendants happen to be people disfavored by the movement. Punitive legislation proposed by activists errs on the side of eschewing elements of the offense to facilitate conviction. Marceau points out the gradual diminishing mens rea requirement in animal cruelty law, from intent to neglect, and sometimes even efforts to enact strict liability cruelty laws. Gruber devotes considerable effort to describing the evolution in the actus reus elements of rape, from force to consent to affirmative consent, explaining how the new standard can be as vague and problematic to enforce as the old one, and how the interpretation of the affirmative consent requirement can be irrelevant to everyday human communication patterns.

Another example is the common understanding that children differ from adults in terms of their criminal accountability and potential for rehabilitation. After decades of treating, and trying, juveniles (particularly poor teenagers of color) as adults, the last fifteen years have seen a renaissance in our understanding of childhood, mostly inspired by advances in neuroimaging and resulting new understandings of brain developments. But the importance of treating children like children is sometimes set aside by zealous progressive advocates. Marceau notes this problem particularly in the efforts to prosecute teenagers who abuse animals as adults, exposing them to “sentences that may be grotesquely long relative to sentencing practices dictated by a system that is supposed to recognize the reduced culpability of juveniles” (29-30.) Goodmark similarly observes that a harsh criminal framework, which waits until after the crime is committed (by a juvenile or by an adult) to punish, ignores the immense preventative potential of public health interventions with teenagers on mutual respect and acceptable behavior in dating and the importance of identifying and intervening to mitigate adverse experiences in childhood–both scientifically proven to minimize experiences that strongly predict intimate partner abuse.

Classicist and Conservative Criminology: Retribution, Deterrence, Incapacitation

All three books also show a deliberate effort to frame criminality according to the traditional tenets of classical criminology: as a consequence of evil individual choice and nothing else. Contrary to the perception of progressives as “bleeding-heart liberals” who ask for compassion for offenders because of their disadvantaged backgrounds, the movements depicted in these books portray the ideology behind seeking Draconian punishment as squarely classicist, devoid of sensitivity to contextual factors. Animal mistreatment, argues Marceau on the basis of sentencing arguments by prosecutors and movement messaging, is portrayed as “the result of corrupt, depraved individuals, not a predictable result of child abuse, family strife, or other issues, and the solution to such personal failures is always a more robust penological response” (118). Similar portrayals of offenders as monsters, irredeemable except through interminable incapacitation, are present in Gruber and Goodmark’s books. Gruber devotes a chapter of her book to discussing the rhetorical “weapon” of the feminist war on crime: a deliberate and carefully crafted good-versus-evil narrative that contrasts innocent, “ideal victims” (94) with monstruous, incorrigible offenders. Goodmark highlights how the notion that domestic violence, with or without interventions, inevitably escalates to homicide flies in the face of empirical support for successful interventions with violent men.

In terms of the aims of punishment, the perception of criminality as divorced from social context can feed into several rationales for lengthy incarceration usually endorsed by conservatives: retribution, deterrence, and incapacitation. The Achilles’ heel of retributivist arguments, for example, is that reasonable minds can and do differ on the appropriate punishment for a particular crime, but when the targets are disfavored by people across the entire political spectrum, there will be consensus that the longer the sentence, the better. As Goodmark explains, lengthy incarceration not only affects individuals and their families, but also on communities; widespread, lengthy incarceration of men for domestic violence offenses (among other crimes) disproportionately affect low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods populated by people of color, which raises the question of just deserts as they apply to the entire community. Gruber also raises the issue of just desert-head on in her discussion of the campaign to recall Judge Persky. How one measures the appropriate length of sentences given by a particular judge depends on the political lens through which one examines their sentencing record, and as Gruber explains, the data was deliberately portrayed to support the campaign, obfuscating the best explanatory variable: accepting the recommendation of probation officers. Similar certainty that sentences are not long enough is also evident in Marceau’s account: “When the maximum sentences for cases of severe cruelty to animals are less than five or ten years, the leaders in the movement are quick to complain – as one group did in a fundraising letter in 2017, remarking that ‘the animal cruelty statutes are in desperate need of updating.’ Newsletters and fundraising material frequently communicate that months or even just a couple of years simply ‘isn’t adequate for the worst cases of animal cruelty’” (25.)

Similarly lacking is the assumption that harsh sentences will result in effective deterrence in these cases (as opposed to other cases, in which progressives tend to view deterrence with suspicion.) Marceau shows how the LINK logic supersedes any “[c]oncerns about poverty or racism, which may correlate strongly with animal abuse and human violence. . . and instead we are told with an almost religious zeal that incarcerating animal abusers will make society safer. More aggressive cruelty prosecutions, the public is told, will result in fewer mass shootings, less serial killers, and an overall drop in violence” (193-194). Gruber’s account of the tone-deafness of 1970s white feminist activists to the concerns of feminists of color, who viewed the criminal justice system with suspicion, is similarly jarring. And both Marceau and Goodmark remind us that lengthy incarceration is unlikely to make anyone less violent–toward animals or toward people.

The Intersection of Formal Justice and “Cancel Culture”

Marceau and Gruber’s books (and Goodmark’s book, to a lesser and more nuanced extent) point out the link between the formal criminal justice apparatus and the informal shaming machine, as they amplify and egg each other on. Gruber’s account, particularly in her discussion of horrific crimes against children, highlights the perverse effect that community notification and residence requirements has had not only on the basic human living conditions of sex offenders, but also on their recidivism. It is fascinating to see this technology migrate from one context to another; Marceau discusses the establishment of animal cruelty registries, borrowed from the sex offender context, which exacerbate the penal consequences through the informal public shaming machine.

More generally, both books highlight the ways in which mob shaming, particularly through the context of social media campaigns, amplifies and influences the punitive criminal process. In Gruber’s book, this is especially evident in her narration of the aggressive campaign to recall Judge Persky. Gruber highlights the lack of context and nuance in the recall campaign, as well as the deliberate reliance on the identity-driven “privilege” angle (which was true for Turner and Persky, but not for the probation officer who provided the recommendation.) Tweets from the campaign, quoted by Gruber, are jarring and disturbing. Gruber also examines the transition in perspective by the victim, who skewed more punitive as the campaign gathered steam, to the point of appearing in People Magazine and publishing her own book. The farcical nature of social media mobbing is even more pronounced in Gruber’s account of the Aziz Ansari affair: an anonymous young woman, “Grace”, provided Katie Way, a reporter for Babe (a “Rupert Murdoch-funded news-tabloid website dedicated to ‘girls who don’t give a fuck’ and ‘the pettiest celebrity drama'” (12)) with an account of a date gone sour with nationally famous comedian Aziz Ansari. The article unleashed a high-profile controversy about the limits and excesses of #MeToo–even as, Gruber explains, under affirmative consent standanrds, “the text of many current sexual assault statutes makes what Grace said Ansari did a crime” (14).

Similar dynamics were in place in high-profile animal cruelty cases. In one case of abuse of a cat, relates Marceau, “it was eventually acknowledged by the prosecutor that ‘behind-the-scenes’ advocacy by animal protection groups had influenced the prosecutor’s exercise of discretion and prompted him to refuse to offer any plea bargains to Robinson. As the reporter put it, the ‘activists and the pressure they have put on prosecutors have made the defendant’s life, and case, much more complicated.’ After a Facebook page was created to provide updates about the cat, Robinson become a household face” (52). This dynamic took on a racist spin in the context of Michael Vick’s conviction for his involvement in dogfighting; after a prison sentence, a heavy fine, public speaking against dogfighting, and empathy workshops… “Theorists and activists alike agreed that he should never be able to resume a normal life, much less a well-paid career as a football star” (178.)

In both sexual assault and animal cruelty cases, Marceau and Gruber both highlight crowd-baiting techniques straight out of the conservative playbook: “This is the normal cycle,” explains Marceau, “use a terrible act of abuse as an opportunity to fundraise, and pass harsher, more far-reaching criminal sanctions” (51.)

Goodmark’s account of informal justice processes is more nuanced. In her chapter about community justice, she describes the principles of transformative justice in detail, and in the conclusion to her book, she exhorts community justice facilitators to insist that perpetrators accept responsibility and efforts to make amends, rather than manipulate the other participants in the process. Overall, Goodmark sees growing community involvement as a positive development, in that it would return responsibilities to the community that have been relegated to the state, but she does express concerns about the extent to which urban, heterogenous communities will carry weight in bringing a domestic violence issue to a satisfactory outcome with buy-in from the parties. She also mentions concerns about community shaming, though not to the extent of preoccupation that is evinced in the other two books.

A Good Victim Is a Punitive Victim

Finally, many critical works on the rise of mass incarceration highlight the impact of the victims’ rights movement on public attitudes on crime and punishment, and on various aspects of criminal justice policy, ranging from law enforcement to courtroom practices to punishment and parole. But again, conservatives have not cornered the market on what Gruber refers to as the “deification” and “veneration” of victims. For punitive movements, be they conservative or progressive, a good victim is a punitive victim. All three books point out the toxic dynamic of viewing the victim and offender perspectives as a zero-sum game. An ideal domestic violence victim, Goodmark explains, is one that seamlessly cooperates with the law enforcement project and participates in the investigation and trial of her own partner; women who are reluctant to complain or press charges are, at best, treated with paternalism, and at worst forced to participate in a criminal process that does not reflect their initiative and wishes. In some jurisdictions, prosecutors follow “no-drop prosecutions,” which can result in subpoenas to testify; if women violate these and refuse to testify against their partners, they can find themselves criminalized and incarcerated, as well. Even in jurisdictions in which prosecution is optional, prosecutors might assume that they know better than victims what is good for them, and assume a punitive stance at sentencing with the purported goal to protect the victim from the perpetrator.

A similar dynamic is present in Gruber’s account of sentencing hearings. In theory, she argues, “victim impact statements could benefit defendants if victims called for compassion in sentencing. In practice, however, victims often ‘are angry, depressed, and mourning,’ as one victim of the Oklahoma City Bombing explained. Victims’ rights discourse, as law prrofessor Elizabeth Joh observes, netihger “generates [n]or tolerates narratives in which victims’ families can exercise mercy, kindness, or forgiveness toward defendants” (99).

The effort to assume a punitive position on behalf of–but not on behest of–the victim assumes a more stark form where nonhuman victims are concerned, as the victims are unable to speak for themselves. Nonetheless, as Marceau explains, the default position is that punitivism is for the animals: “If we don’t punish (and punish severely) the human who harms animals, regardless of race, age, socioeconomics, or mental health, then we devalue the non-human animal. To imagine that an animal abuser should get treatment, community service, or strict probation terms instead of incarceration is regarded as tantamount to disrespecting the entire animal rights agenda” (7). But as he explains, this position assumes that the animals themselves would wish for this punitive outcome. In one of the most remarkable passages in his book, Marceau delves into zoological to ascertain whether this assumption has any basis in reality and finds that “it is not clear that court-appointed human advocates are particularly well-suited to speak for the animal victims. Ethologist Marc Bekoff has described animals as ambassadors for forgiveness, and Frans De Waal has documented submissive behaviors and kissing among chimpanzees as a token of forgiveness in the immediate aftermath of some gruesomely violent encounters. In fact, some consider the almost mythical ability of dogs to forgive and move on after even the most horrific acts of abuse or neglect an inspiration for the betterment of humanity. At the very least, it is far from obvious that every animal would reflexively prefer incarceration to treatment and rehabilitation. If advocates could truly decipher the wishes of their animal clients, they might be surprised to learn that the animals might frequently prefer forgiveness to a degree beyond that of which many humans are capable. Put differently, whether one judges an animal’s propensity for forgiveness as a sign of a higher or lower biological status, the fact remains that they might be more forgiving than their human-appointed advocate” (81.) Marceau sees it as a “terrible irony” that “by inserting a human “voice” to speak for the animals, courtroom advocates would once again be using animals to serve characteristically human interests in revenge or in the name of preventing future violence against humans” (82.) Thus, in all three examples, at the same etime that these movements “deify” and “venerate” victims, they appropriate their voices (whether vocal or nonexistent) and subjugate them to the ultimate goal of the carceral apparatus.

What Makes Progressives Punitive? 

There is a robust body of scholarship devoted to parsing out public punitiveness, which consistently finds a correlation between punitive attitudes and political worldview. In particular, white men of low income and low education, with a pessimistic outlook on their economic situation, tend to endorse punitive positions, such as lengthy incarceration and the death penalty. These findings characterize not only studies of potential legislation, but also mock jury experiments. And, generally speaking, conservatives tend to endorse more punitive positions.

Progressive punitivism is perhaps better understood through Gruber’s concept of a “carve-out”: the overall positions of progressives are less punitive–anticarceral or abolitionist, even–but there are important exceptions. If conservative political worldviews explain punitivism, what explains the progressive carve-outs?

One way to look at this is through theories of group dynamics and processes. In The Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim–true to his functionalist framework–posits that crime and deviance perform an important social service. When someone flouts a value that the rest of the community holds in high respect, the community coalesces in indignation and bears witness against the offender. The excitement generated by the crime quickens the tempo of interaction in the group and creates a climate in which the private sentiments of many separate persons are fused together into a common sense of morality. In other words, deviance acts like a natural disaster in that it highlights the interests and values that the community holds in common, and serves both as a reminder and a clarifier of the “collective conscience” of the community and its moral priorities. Even in “a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals,” some rules, even trivial ones, may emerge–solely so that crime may occur once in a while, to remind people of their values, clarify them if they have been blurred and forgotten, or offer them an opportunity to modify them.

In the context of U.S. political divisions, which are increasingly polarized, each political persuasion subscribes to Tajfel’s social identity theory: they tend to exaggerate the commonalities among them (the “in-group”) and the differences between them and the opposite side of the political map (the “out-group”). Tajfel sees this occurring in three steps: categorization (identifying the in-group and the out-group), social identification (adopting the identity of the in-group), and social comparison (comparing the in-group favorably with the out-groups.) In other words, group identification yields tribalism and demonization of other groups. Durkheimian rituals of shaming and punishing deviants would act, therefore, to unify the members of the group and solidify their values; this is why even the self-perceived “perfect cloister” of progressive, anti-carceral activists needs its demons.

Elsewhere, I examined a different possibility. Americans of all stripes, I argued, are so steeped at this point in punitive marinade that every problem appears to them as a criminal problem. With this pervasive conditioning, progressive punitivism could simply be the consequence of lack of imagination: if the only tool you have is the criminal justice hammer, everything looks like a crime nail.

A third possibility I am thinking of now relies on Paul Bloom’s Just Babies. Drawing on his experiments in infant moral cognition, Bloom deduces that infants at a surprisingly early age are capable of judging the goodness and badness of others’ actions, feeling empathy and compassion, soothing suffering beings, and possessing a rudimentary sense of fairness. At the same time, we are naturally hostile to strangers, prone to parochialism and bigotry. It may be that everyone–albeit to different degrees–needs to satisfy this innate sense of justice, or fairness, sometimes through punitive sentiments.

The Future of Progressive Anticarcerality: Will Cops and White Supremacists Be the Last Carceral Bastion? 

Even Durkheim and Bloom would agree that it is possible to overcome our punitive tendencies; one of the transformations Durkheim predicted was from repressive to restitutive law, and Bloom thought that, as we grow and evolve, we can overcome tribalism. This may be the moment at which progressives wake up from their own punitive blind spots. It would have been difficult to imagine a book like the books reviewed here emerging from within the progressive movement just a few years ago. And yet here we are. Perhaps the excesses of these movements have now exceeded their benefits to the point that they are difficult to ignore.

And still, I have to ask myself if this progressive awakening will sweep the entire movement, or retain some last bastions of punitivism. As I write this, hundreds of thousands of people nationwide are participating in protests to express their understandable anger at systemic racism and the overcriminalization of police. These protests evince a complex and interesting duality, which has characterized previous waves of protests against police killings and white supremacist violence, albeit perhaps not to the same extent. The protests are almost always triggered by a horrific incident of killing, usually across racial lines, and the subsequent the legal system’s failure to act appropriately. This makes sense–it’s pain, grief, and anger, that drive people to the streets. At the same time, protesters correctly perceive the triggering incident not as an isolated occurrence, but as part of a long pattern of police violent misbehavior disproportionately directed at people of color. Even as protesters call for a systematic overhaul of the police–defunding, reorganizing, abolishing, which mean different things to different people–they are invested in a resolution of the particular criminal case. Success and failure are measured via traditional criminal justice metrics: criminal charges, convictions, and long prison sentences.

An additional wrinkle to this complex message is the movement’s approach toward protests. The debate about violence and harm to property by protesters (framed as “protesters or looters”) predictably divides people along political lines; now, there’s a debate about police violence toward those participating in the process, divided along the same lines.  Ilhan Omar, voicing the sentiments of many progressive activists, tweeted: “We need to criminalize violence against protesters. Pass it on.” Indeed, thousands “passed it on,” even though homicide, assault, and battery are already criminalized. The appetite to criminalize something that is already a crime–several crimes, in fact, and serious ones at that–even as the same movement decries the excesses of the criminal justice system–highlights the complicated messaging of the protest: on one hand, much of the animus for drastic changes to policing comes from the understanding that policing in the United States is mired in a toxic culture of racist masculinity. On the other hand, the trigger for these sentiments has often been the criminal justice system’s reluctance to prosecute, convict, and punish individual police officers involved in such incidents.

At this moment, it seems impossible to imagine that the anticarceral animus driving works like Beyond Cages, The Feminist War on Crime, and Decriminalizing Domestic Violence will be applied in the context of criminal expressions of white supremacy: killings through hate crimes and police killings, especially of people of color. Indeed, these books themselves position racialized violence as the last bastion of punitivism. Race is ever-present in these critiques of punitivism: one of their common major arguments is that using criminal enforcement to support women and animals tends to disproportionally target people whose plight in the carceral state is at the forefront of progressive thinking: poor people and people of color. In each of the three books, movements are criticized for their whiteness and elitism. And in each of those movements, activists are chastised for pinning their hopes on the police. If so, what anticarceral arguments will we marshal in a situation in which enforcement targets the people who are themselves victimizing poor people of color, and moreover, do doing so as the front workers of the carceral state itself? It might even be be tempting to distinguish the movement to hold police accountable from the movements to hold animal abusers, wife batterers, and sexual assailants accountable, by arguing that the first of these is the only truly progressive movement–one that directly takes on the carceral apparatus–whereas the others compromise by aligning themselves with conservative principles and agencies.

And yet, the rich conversation around police abolition/defunding/reform reveals openness to anticarceral perspectives and reveals real possibilities even in this difficult and controversial arena. In When Police Kill, Franklin Zimring argues for the need to reform police training and practices to prevent use of lethal force, and expressly devotes a section to discouraging advocates and activists from resorting to criminal charges against cops as the preventive/deterrent strategy. It won’t work, explains Zimring, and the problem is systemic, not individual. Similarly, Kate Levine argues that resorting to prosecutions of police officers is a lost cause because of the embedded conflict of interest. Even though #DefundThePolice is a slogan, open to a range of interpretations in our collective imagination, it is a call for diversifying our approach toward social problems away from the single focus of law enforcement. It would be complicated to exclude from this argument those who participate in law enforcement itself.

A few posts ago I relayed another personal anecdote here: when I worked at the Military Defender’s Office in Israel, despite my broad perspective of the occupation as an aberration, I never had moral difficulty defending soldiers who looted Palestinian homes. Beyond the obvious fact that, like everyone else, they were people, and as such should not have been excluded from due process protections, I had a strong conviction that there was nothing uniquely evil about them. Like the prison guards in Haney and Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment, they were placed in a situation in which their dehumanizing activities were not only tolerated, but lauded and encouraged by their commanding officers and their government. I think it’s fair to say that the rot in police organizational culture is much deeper than individual pathologies. I think progressives recognize this–not only in their heart of hearts, but in their voices when they call for real change. And I think we know that real change–if not for all people, then for most of them–does not begin and end with cages.

The New Salem

Many years after writing his play The Crucible, Arthur Miller reflected in the New Yorker:

In any play, however trivial, there has to be a still point of moral reference against which to gauge the action. In our lives, in the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties, no such point existed anymore. The left could not look straight at the Soviet Union’s abrogations of human rights. The anti-Communist liberals could not acknowledge the violations of those rights by congressional committees. The far right, meanwhile, was licking up all the cream. The days of “J’accuse” were gone, for anyone needs to feel right to declare someone else wrong. Gradually, all the old political and moral reality had melted like a Dali watch. Nobody but a fanatic, it seemed, could really say all that he believed.. . .

In those years, our thought processes were becoming so magical, so paranoid, that to imagine writing a play about this environment was like trying to pick one’s teeth with a ball of wool: I lacked the tools to illuminate miasma. Yet I kept being drawn back to it.

I came back to Miller’s commentary after reading Tre Johnson’s commentary in today’s Washington Post:

“Once again, as the latest racial travesty pierces our collective consciousness, I watch many of my white friends and acquaintances perform the same pieties they played out after Trayvon, Eric, Sandra, Korryn, Botham, Breonna. They are savvy, practiced consumers of Meaningful Things: They’ve listened to “Serial” and become expert critics of our broken criminal justice system after just one season. They’ve watched “Insecure” and can suddenly imagine life as Molly or Issa. They’ve shared the preordained “amplifying” social media post that just reads “This,” followed by a link to something profound from a black voice.. . .

“The confusing, perhaps contradictory advice on what white people should do probably feels maddening. To be told to step up, no step back, read, no listen, protest, don’t protest, check on black friends, leave us alone, ask for help or do the work — it probably feels contradictory at times. And yet, you’ll figure it out. Black people have been similarly exhausted making the case for jobs, freedom, happiness, justice, equality and the like. It’s made us dizzy, but we’ve managed to find the means to walk straight.”

Johnson, of course, falls into the trap that everyone else has fallen into, but at least he sees the trap. The combined effect of COVID-19 “content” (what an odious word) and, once more, the merry-go-round of commentaries on yet another horrific racial tragedy, have filled the social media universe with exhortations: Stay the fuck at home! Check your privilege! Wear your mask! Look within yourself! Be a good ally! Educate yourself! Flatten the curve! Dismantle white supremacy! The electronic town square holds trials for the Karens and Beckys of our time, which, given the centuries-old racist marinade we have been submerged in, are never in short supply. Everyone has an opinion about those (me included.) Everyone has an opinion about someone else’s opinion (me included.) Lists upon lists crop up in our social media feeds: Rating activities as to how safe they are (followed by the obligatory argument that the writer refrains from all of them, out of an abundance of caution); do’s-and-don’t’s for protesting “properly” are modified. Well-meaning people sincerely ask whether their white children may raise a fist on TikTok and receive fifty replies, all different. The actual issues are buried under edifices upon edifices of performance, performance, performance. Meta conversations about performance are rabbit holes. Every day some celebrity or other wears something or says something or performs some physical gesture, providing more grist for the mill. Every horrific incident of violence, racism, or racial distress, every photograph of someone out of compliance with the pandemic mandate-de-jour, becomes a morality tale, fueling endless takes, opinions, and new lists of instructions. Pandemic prevention enforcement and “how to be a good ally” have linked hands and are now the new religion of social media. We are in a panopticon, but the Foucaultian roles are reversed: we sit in the watchtower in the middle, and all around us are bloviating pulpits.

(I realize this post is falling into the same trap of exhortation, but this underscores my point–there is no end to a sea of pointing fingers. It’s turtles all the way down.)

If we were half as busy actually doing world improving things as we are performing our goodness in the public square and moralizing others, we might be in a different place. But public image is everything, and “content” (there it comes again!) must be provided. Citizens United has come full circle: now that corporations can speak like people, people speak like corporations. Everyone is a public entity, and so everyone has to issue on-point “messaging” to the public. Jeff Skilling’s infamous statement, “I am Enron,” is now true for everyone. Performance comes before feeling or doing. We must be on brand.

The problem is that “the personal is political” works both ways. It is one hundred percent true that we all play a role not only in pandemic spread, but also in the perpetuation of white supremacy. It is one hundred percent true that every revolution starts with individuals, and that individuals have the power to change the world–especially when organized. But these truths obscure other truths. “Flatten the curve” and “dismantle white supremacy” are big, pompous, vague goals, and in the absence of responsible adults at the helm of the country, there are bound to be differences in how we, the people, parse them into everyday behaviors. We’ve missed the train on testing and contact tracing, and now we’re left to pick at each other for mask violations.

The incessant chatter, be it contrite, derogatory, or both, is not “doing the work” that we are told to do. It is performing the work, which is something else entirely. It is exhorting others to perform the work. All the world’s a stage, and on this particular stage, we are performing The Crucible 24/7. There’s no escape from watching, from participating, from fretting about participating lest our flawed goodness be exposed.

I deeply understand where the urge is coming from. There are good intentions. There is a desperate need to do something in a situation in which we feel particularly powerless; we are sheltering at home, our face-to-face meeting places are closed, this online discourse is a poor substitute to our in-person conversations. As more and more avenues to do good close, either because they are impossible or because they are severely criticized, we are clutching at straws. These bursts of personal propaganda are the best thing we have, and we figure they are better than nothing, because silence is also a problem. And most importantly, there is pain. Searing, unbearable pain and grief. Grief for the sick, grief for the dying, grief for the people being killed and injured and ostracized and ignored. Grief and guilt. It feels overwhelming to sit with it. We take to our keyboards to find some relief, to tell some story about it, to remove the center of grief from our hearts to our heads to our keyboard. But verbose descriptions of grief are not the grief itself.

Can we take an intermission? Not from the work itself–improving the world is the project of a lifetime–but from the performance of it? Can we stop obsessing about our goodness and the goodness of others? Can we stop “messaging” so that we can actually feel something? Can we quiet our nimbly typing fingers to listen to the cries of the world, of friends and neighbors born to disadvantage, of our dying planet? Can we quiet them long enough to hear our own hearts quiver in compassion?