Many Californians don’t know that our state Constitution requires that any voter initiative have a single subject: “An initiative measure embracing more than one subject may not be submitted to the electors or have any effect.” You wouldn’t know this from looking at our convoluted, confusing, oft-misleading propositions because, as my colleague Mike Gilbert explains here, the rule is very difficult to enforce.
Prop. 20 is an example of a voter initiative that quite possibly violates the single subject rule. It bundles together four different issues under the general “tough on crime” umbrella. While I find at least two of them deeply objectionable on the merits and have serious problems with the remaining two, what really irks me is the marketing: law-and-order supporting folks are being lobbied to vote for things which are, frankly, untethered from reality, simply because they are ideologically bundled with other stuff that belongs on that side of the political map. My message to everyone, from ardent law-and-order people to rabid abolitionists: Vote no on this stupid package.
The first item in the package is the introduction of two new theft crimes. Background: In 2014, California voters approved prop. 47, which changed the designation of several theft-related offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. This is how we’ve been able to achieve the Plata-mandated prison reduction with no increases in crime rates. Prop. 20 proponents would have you think this is a bad thing, and to remedy our apparent shortage of theft crimes, you’d now have two new wobblers: “serial theft” and “organized retail theft.” “Serial theft” would be shoplifting or petty theft for someone with two prior theft convictions (because apparently we’re hurting for habitual offender enhancements, too.) “Organized retail theft” would be shoplifting or petty theft in concert with other people two or more times within six months. Both of those crimes will be punishable either as felonies or as misdemeanors. Theft, and various theft-like offenses, are still crimes in California, as they’ve always been, and the $250 limit placed by Prop. 20 is way lower than inflation would allow for (just to give you an idea, in 2014 we raised the minimum amount for grand theft to $950.)
The second issue is another effort to fix something that isn’t broken–Prop. 57, which California voters approved in 2016. Under Prop. 57, people convicted of nonviolent offenses with “enhancements”—special provisions that add years to their basic sentences, for example, because of prior convictions—come up before the parole board at the end of their basic sentence, and the parole board may recommend their release after considering their criminal history and behavior in prison. Proposition 20 would change the designation of some offenses from “nonviolent” to “violent”, to make some people ineligible to come up before the parole board, and would create a waiting period of two years before people denied parole under prop. 57 can come up before the Board again. It would also add restrictions to parole board considerations. I’m going to humbly suggest that parole in California is something I actually know a little bit about and tell you that this is absolute nonsense. Getting out on parole in CA is extremely difficult, parole hearings are Kafkaesque, and the last thing we need is pile more difficulties in the path of people who pose low reoffending risk. To appeal to people for whom the word “victim” is a talisman for righteousness, they threw in the need to consult with victims, but guess what: victims are ALREADY NOTIFIED of Prop. 57 hearings, and if they want to get involved, they get registered with the state. This proposition would drag into the punitive rhetoric net even victims who are not registered with the state. For what purpose, if these folks themselves are not interested in participating?
The third part of Prop. 20 would expand our DNA collection practices. Currently, California collects a DNA sample from people arrested or charged with felonies. If Prop 20 passes, DNA samples will be collected from people who are under arrest for certain misdemeanors. Many people have qualms about expanding DNA databases, on account of the mistakes that can happen. I suspect that, in the aftermath of the successful DNA-based prosecution and conviction of the Golden State Killer, this is not going to be super persuasive; I also submit to you that DNA databases have the potential to clear and exonerate, not only to convict, and I would therefore be willing to entertain pros and cons of this part of Prop. 20 if it came to us on its own, without the other issues. As it is, it’s not worth the price and expense of reversing two highly beneficial initiatives that reduced incarceration without risk to public safety, so I’m still firmly on the “no” side.
Finally, Prop. 20 also involves various changes to community supervision of people released from prison or jail. Currently, people released from jail, or from prison for nonviolent or nonserious crimes, are supervised in their counties. If Prop. 20 passes, probation officers will be required to ask a judge to change the terms of supervision if the person under supervision violates them for a third time. In addition, the proposition requires state parole and county probation departments to exchange more information about the people they supervise. In community supervision matters, it’s all about the details, and these are technical issues that are unsuitable for resolution via a yes/no political referendum.
The complicated structure of Prop. 20 makes it difficult to estimate the expense involved in its implementation. Because the proposition overall would lead to more and longer incarceration—more severe crimes, less opportunity for parole—there would be cost increases associated with it. The only silver lining here, and this tells you something, is that a sane court will find that the two first aspects are unconstitutional and strike them down, which will mitigate the expense of incarceration (but require litigation.) In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Vote No on 20.
Accordingly, people who are serving a sentence in a state or federal prison, or have been released and are on parole, cannot be registered to vote. As of 2016–after our litigation efforts to get it done sooner failed–this restriction does not include people who are doing time in jail, even for felonies, nor does it include folks on community probation. But this leaves people on parole disenfranchised. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, as of Dec. 31, 2016, there were 89,586 people on parole. This is not a big number, because after Realignment, most people with felony convictions are supervised by the counties in the community (in addition to the already existing large probation population)–as of Dec. 31, 2016, we had 235,918 on probation. According to the Yes on 17 campaign, the number of parolees now is even smaller–they estimate that 50,000 people on parole are ineligible to vote under the CA constitution.
Prop 17 would change that. It is a Constitutional amendment that would grant people who served a federal or state prison sentence the right to vote as soon as they complete their sentence. If we pass this proposition, we’ll join the following states, which allow parolees to vote: Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and D.C.
A “yes” vote on 17 has many benefits. As Jessica Willis and I wrote elsewhere, civic reengagement of people after they return home from a prison sentence is a crucial step in restoring their trust, loyalty, and sense of a stake in their community. It makes communities safer by ameliorating the already-difficult trajectory of reentry and reducing recidivism. It mitigates racial injustices (most parolees are people of color.) And it brings much-needed perspectives, with important experiences, into the democratic process, which includes voting for people like prosecutors and judges.
If anything, Prop 17 does not go far enough–like everyone else, the person would need to register to vote, which is an extra step that creates a hindrance; if it passes, many people might not even know, upon release, that they are eligible to vote. But this goes to my general gripe with a system that requires registering to vote, as opposed to rendering all citizens automatically eligible to vote when they reach voting age; I’ve written before about how U.S. illogical obstinance about a simple measure–the provision of a national identity card to every American citizen when they turn 18–perpetuates a problem that is very easy to solve. But even within the constraints of the existing system (every country has tics and wrinkles–the ones here are obvious to me because I didn’t grow up here,) I can see a solution. When I became a citizen in 2015, as soon as all of us new Americans exited the beautiful Paramount Theatre where our naturalization ceremony was held, we passed through three booths: passport application, social security application, and a happy and energetic voter registration posse. Putting together a similar setup at the exit door of the prison is a piece of cake. All CDCR needs is a computer with a working Internet connection and this handy link, and everyone–EVERYONE–on the day of their release can leave CDCR facilities as a registered voter. As to the expense involved in doing all this, LAO estimates a one-time expense in updating state systems, followed by an annual expense representing the need to print and mail additional ballots and voter materials–exactly what you and I get as registered voters.
There really are no downsides, unless you’re a moralistic curmudgeon who for some reason believes that we should continue disenfranchising people after they’ve served their prison sentence. Let’s bring more people into our democracy. Vote Yes on 17.
In 1969, the world was shocked by a series of murders committed by Charles Manson and his “family” of followers. Although the defendants were sentenced to death in 1971, their sentences were commuted to life with parole in 1972; since 1978, they have been regularly attending parole hearings. Today all of the living defendants remain behind bars.
Relying on nearly fifty years of parole hearing transcripts, as well as interviews and archival materials, Hadar Aviram invites readers into the opaque world of the California parole process—a realm of almost unfettered administrative discretion, prison programming inadequacies, high-pitched emotions, and political pressures. Yesterday’s Monsters offers a fresh longitudinal perspective on extreme punishment.
Book reading, signing, parole reform, food, drink!
Theodore R. Davis’ illustration of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial in the Senate, published in Harper’s Weekly.
Much has been made in the last couple of days of Nixon and Clinton comparisons to, ahem, the current brouhaha. But as I was prepping this slideshow for a virtual talk at Manny’s, I was struck by the surprising similarities between our, ahem, situation, and the context of Andrew Jackson’s impeachment in 1868. A quick read of this lucid and helpful Wikipedia article will bring you up to speed. It’s a rather obscure chapter in American history; as early as 1896, Edmund Ross commented that “little is now known to the public” about it. After Ross’s book, three more books were written about the impeachment trial: David Miller DeWitt’s in 1903, Michael Les Benedict’s in 1999, and David Stewart’s in 2010. What is palpable in all of them (perhaps most so in Stewart’s book) is the context: a bitter, partisan, no-holds-barred fight between Lincoln’s successor, a moderate Southern Republican seeking reconciliation with the South, and Congress, which sought more sanctions against Southern States during Reconstruction.
Johnson’s unbridled anger at Congress will remind you of someone we know: He actively campaigned against Congress, which included a massive speaking tour to “fight traitors in the North.” This campaign backfired spectacularly when the election yielded two Republican houses determined to thwart his agenda, and when he tried to get rid of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War he inherited from Lincoln and a staunch Unionist. Congress tried to thwart these efforts by passing the Tenure of Office Act, and Johnson, determined to get rid of Stanton, did so nonetheless. Nine of the eleven articles of impeachment revolved around this effort.
Through the prism of 2019, I can’t help but read this story as that of a small man with no hope of filling the giant shoes of his predecessor, conciliatory and sympathetic to a grim racist heritage, determined to spite anyone placing limitations on his power to appoint and discard people as he chose. It might cheer you up (or not) to learn that the Senate came one vote short of removing him from office. It might also be useful to keep in mind that the failure to secure the additional vote came from four Republicans voting against their own party out of concerns that the evidence presented against Jackson was one-sided–and a good reminder that, in order to garner legitimacy for the impeachment process, it is important to conduct a thorough and objective investigation that might assuage the concerns that some of today’s hesitant Republicans about “witch hunts” and “kangaroo courts.” If Democrats want to secure removal in the senate, which for obvious reasons will be an uphill battle, the process has to be fair and also to be perceived as fair.
In addition to being engrossed in my animal rights/criminal justice project, I have the happy and challenging obligation of writing an encyclopedia entry for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice on “politics and penality.” This is a daunting project because it calls for a preliminary working definition of what current scholarship means by “politics” and what it means by “penality.” Critical writings on punishment and society, especially on the macro level and especially recently, tend to examine punishment within a reality of political priorities, and particularly in the context of power and inequality in their many forms. This calls for a loose, broad definition of “politics”. Moreover, scholarship has come to understand penality as a broad regime, beyond obvious and visible representations of penal power such as criminal courtrooms and prisons.
I’m still thinking about how to conceptualize the project (this post is part of that reflection), but it seems to me like there are at least three trends in recent literature on politics and penality that are particularly interesting:
1. The Separation and Overlap of Politics and Penality and the Importance of Neoliberalism as an Explanatory Factor
As I mentioned, one of the major novelties of the literature is observing and reporting on manifestations of penality outside the prison. In that respect, the work of critical geographers, economists, and public policy scholars has been most instructive. The notion of “million dollar blocks” has brought prison planning and expense out of the prison and into neighborhoods. The work on the impact of incarceration on families expands the circle affected by mass incarceration beyond the prison. The work on the conflation of ghetto and prison shows not only exclusion and confinement operating in and out of the prison, but also the inexorable link between the decline in welfare and the rise in incarceration as economic factors. Work that sees the hand of incarceration in landscape and industry; this “carceral term” is especially linked to the overall rise in importance of neoliberalism in explaining penality. It seems like neoliberalism is now at the heart of any macroanalysis of politics, and penality is no exception: what emerges from the literature is the sense that the tyranny of capitalism, miserly manifestations of shrinking welfare, and in general, the lack of care for the bottom 15% (20%? 50%? 99%?) of the population is what drives penality. This school of thought, which sees penality as the product of a grander political program, manifests itself not only in the context of class, but also race (particularly in North American writings that see punishment as part of a “racial project”). These big picture analyses tend to suggest a grand and sinister plan, in which punishment serves as a tool for a larger political economy scheme (echoing radical Marxist criminology) and has been criticized by some as imposing current notions of neoliberalism and capitalism rather than taking historical or contemporary actors on their own terms. There are also big questions as to the extent to which grand political trends (such as managerialism/actuarial justice) trickle down to actual actors. Neoliberalism also means that, popular progressive calls for abolitionism aside, it’s hard to imagine what abolitionism would actually look like, though some try.
2. The Association of Punitivism with Particular Political Positions
3. Geopolitical Penality, Penality and Protection, Penality and National Security
New literature sees penality beyond the context of the domestic, as a manifestation of growing nationalism and security trends in a variety of countries around the world. The idea of border criminologies looks at how penality, xenophobia, and national security intersect, as does the relatively new field of crimmigration. As recession-era politics in the global north curbed incarceration, they affected a shift in resources and private investment toward immigration enforcement, the use of criminal logics in the immigration context, and the introduction of criminal technologies in managing immigration. Also important is the penal manifestation of political shifts in postcolonial and developing settings.
Please, let me know if there are other hot topics in politics and penality that you think are relevant!
There are lots of interesting cases involving animal welfare, animal rights, and the complicated terrain of animal personhood. But what is unique to the criminal process is that at the center of the proceeding is a human defendant facing a possible incarceration sentence. An interesting aspect of this project involves the way activists perceive, and make meaning, of this prospect, and one possible way to think about this is to rely on Idit Kostiner’s typology of legal mobilization schemas.
Kostiner, who interviewed social justice activists, found that they related to what the law could do for their movement in three primary ways: instrumentally (whether they might “win” their rights through an effort to legislate or through impact litigation), politically (whether the very effort of participating in a mobilization project will bring the movement together, give it a political direction, galvanize it), and culturally (whether constructing the struggle in a rights perspective offers avenues of change in thought and perception.) While Kostiner found evidence of all three schemas in her interviews, she also hypothesized that there’s a progression from one to the other – that people move from the instrumental to the political to the cultural.
I found Kostiner’s work helpful in 2004, when I started working on the opposite question: why the polyamorous community in the Bay Area was not mobilizing for legal recognition of nonmonogamous relationships. Like Kostiner, my interviewees were influenced by considerations belonging in the three schemas. The instrumental perspective was served by the fact that many activists had found other ways to secure their rights, such as contracts, power of attorney documents, wills and trusts, and others found that keeping their relationships under the legal radar served them well in terms of rights. Politically, some of my interviewees were averse to the notion of damaging the LGBT marriage equality struggle, which was nascent at the time, by association, and wanted to give their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters their moment in the sun (my later work with Gwendolyn Leachman showed the wisdom of this approach, as well as how poorly it paid off for the poly activists later.) And culturally, many interviewees were averse to the idea that they would have to appeal to the mainstream, to be digested into “normality”, to appear bourgeois, to eschew their interests in sacred sexuality and BDSM, all of which seemed too dear a price to pay for legal recognition.
Studying animal rights activists using the same framework is useful in the sense that the three schemas can reflect attitudes toward a prospective conviction and jail time. Instrumentally, activists may work toward an acquittal in the hopes of preventing conviction and incarceration. Such a victory, whether through a jury acquittal or through an appellate reversal, would be a double win: for the human defendant, who won’t be going to prison, and for the nonhuman animals, if the win will be interpreted as some legal recognition of the value and moral weight of animal suffering (if not an acceptance of a weak or strong theory of animal personhood.)
But short of such an instrumental win, the prospect of incarceration could carry some important political implication. A normative, principled, ideological young person behind bars is a powerful motivator for movements to unite. There are some serious fractures within the animal rights movement, not only regarding strategies and action but also regarding activist styles, dispute resolution, and questions of intersectionality that have arisen in a variety of progressive movements and communities in the last few years. Some of these may heal in the face of a person unjustly incarcerated for bringing animal cruelty to light.
Incarceration also has a powerful cultural symbolism. It creates an important analogy between the animals, for whose conditions incarceration might be even regarded a euphemism, and their human protectors, now behind bars. In my years of studying and advocating about prison conditions, I’ve often heard the conditions described as “like animals.” Since here, helping animals is the point, there is something very powerful about analogizing incarceration. There is also a sense of cultural continuity with other movements for civil rights, particularly with incarcerated nonviolent activists fighting for compassion and equality. This is particularly important for movements building their action program around concept of Kingian nonviolent resistance.
There’s plenty more to say, but this should give you an idea of the project – and now, I’ll get to work!
The wonderful CBS series Madam Secretary, whose fifth season is out, features Téa Leoni as Elizabeth McCord, a Secretary of State in a parallel universe in which responsible adults with nonpartisan interests are at the national helm. It is almost difficult to watch the series against the backdrop of the news; episodes in which the State Department team races to find humanitarian solutions for climate refugees collide with the Trump Administration rescinding English, soccer, and legal aid for migrant children in government custody. In real life, throwbacks to Nixon and Reagan proliferate, dragging us kicking and screaming into the stone age in which the war on drugs was thought to be a good idea; on the show we sign nuclear weapon treaties and command the respect of the civilized world.
Among the many interesting things about the show is its verisimilitude in the face of changing political realities. A moderate Republican President uncomfortable with the isolationist, MAGA-like foreign policy espoused by his challenger decides to run as an independent… and wins. Demographically and ideologically diverse staffer teams come together to find creative solutions for international problems. Lurid scandals do not control the news cycle (or, if they do, we don’t see them.) Consummate professionals in the public eye have happy, functional marriages with happy, well-adjusted children. Oh, and a series of real-life reasonable, accomplished, experienced Secretaries of State–Madeline Albright, Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton–GUEST STAR in one of the episodes. In short, if you want to escape to an alternative universe, this show’s got your number.
Here’s what is interesting for our purposes: the Secretary of State (an accomplished, well-informed middle-class white woman from an academic background, with a strong record of achievements at the federal level–sound familiar?) prepares to run for President, she is asked by her campaign advisor, Mike B., to turn her gaze toward domestic issues. What’s the first one that comes to mind for her? Criminal justice reform! Inspired by the plight of a poor single mother she meets while on jury duty, Secretary McCord applies her international perspective to U.S. prisons, reminding Mike B. (and the audience) that we have plenty of work to do in that department before we join the civilized world.
If Madam Secretary is the reality we aspire to create on Nov. 2020, what do the Democrat challengers think about criminal justice reform? I’ve started to look at the candidates’ websites and it seems like the criminal justice aspects of the campaigns need to be better fleshed out. I’m not particularly surprised these read like clichés from a public protest; after all, with the laudable and welcome public interest in criminal justice reform came oversimplification and misinformation, and these candidates are trying to appeal to people who think they understand mass incarceration and how to end it. Also, there’s only so much that the federal government can do–most of the U.S. incarceration problem, together with access to court, bail, policing, and reentry policies, happens at the state and local levels. But even with the fairly slim issue lists we do have, a few themes emerge:
Everyone Loves Legalized Marijuana. Pretty much all platforms advocate for marijuana legalization, for the classic Cheap on Crime/bifurcation reason: “let’s stop criminalizing people for smoking a joint so we can spend our energies on the ‘real’ criminals.” Plenty of chatter, also, about “ending the war on drugs”; particularly well informed candidates, like Bernie Sanders, also argues for ending civil asset forfeiture. Nobody, however, talks about legalizing other drugs. The opioid epidemic is discussed as a health problem, but there are no calls for legalization in that respect–only for finding treatment options.
Sentencing Reform. A call to end mandatory minimums and, more generally, pursue “sentencing reform.” These can be seen as a continuation of the Obama-Trump trend (this kind of bipartisan reform was the least disrupted Obama-era trend). Not a single peep from anyone except Buttigieg about death penalty abolition.
End Private Prisons. The candidates uniformly call for a divestment from private prisons, echoing Obama’s largely-symbolic move to stop domestic incarceration of federal prisoners in private facilities. Not a word about the much wider practice of detaining immigrants in private facilities. Tough on Criminals We Dislike. Democratic candidates are very clear on the sympathies their constituents have for people caught in the system, and therefore know that these sympathies do not extend to certain categories of criminals: cops who employ excessive force, domestic violence perpetrators, and white mass shooters. With respect to these categories, the reform call is reversed: candidates call for strengthening the Violence Against Women Act, to address police reform so that shootings are avoided, and to push for gun control reforms. Warren emphasizes the need to hold white collar criminals accountable.
I am curious to see whether these folks’ fictional counterpart, Elizabeth McCord (will she run as an independent or as a Republican? The show shies away from the possibility that she might become a Democrat) adopts similar principles. It seems like we’ve pretty much settled on what the candidates imagine that their constituents want, probably with considerable justification.
This morning on Twitter, Shaun King took on the schadenfreude festival that surrounded the reports that Paul Manafort–perhaps the shrewdest collaborator with the Russians in the context of the 2016 election and an unscrupulous white collar crime offender–is going to be in solitary at Rikers. King said:
I see people excited to see Paul Manafort sent to Rikers Island and put in solitary confinement.
1. Rikers Island should be closed down 2. Solitary confinement should be ended.
We must be so principled in our calls for reform that we want them even for our enemies.
I couldn’t agree more. This is one more example of the evils of progressive punitivism, which I discussed in this primer. No matter how many resistance-related hashtags are affixed to these expressions of joy, they are the opposite of revolution; rather than deeply upending the rationales of the punitive state, they consist merely of turning it around 180 degrees. Instead of torturing poor people of darker skin, we’ll torture rich people of lighter skin. This is not reform; it’s tribalism.
I’ve written two pieces on progressive punitivism so far. The first, based on my Not Your Typical Kavanaugh Opinion Piece, shows how some aspects of the #metoo movement feed into the most noxious aspects of progressive punitivism, namely the encouragemenet for people to marinate in victimization as a condition of being heard (forthcoming from JCRED). The second, based on this post, argues that the tendency to demonize everyone involved in failed criminal justice reform (particularly painting well-meaning people as racist) is ahistorical and harmful to the movement overall, and that it is much healthier for both academics and reformers to analyze people on their own terms (forthcoming from LSI). The third piece, which I’m working on now, is for the Punishment and Inequality conference at the University of Bologna. In this piece I try to unpack the intellectual roots of progressive punitivism and come to some surprising conclusions.
It turns out there is very little in the history of conflict and radical criminology that tackles the question, “whatever shall we do with the rich after the revolution?” Admittedly, much of the radical criminology paradigm consists of questioning the connection of crime with class; the oft-quoted maxim from Anatole France’s The Red Lily talks about how ‘[t]he law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.’ To criticize how the law applies to the poor is to implicitly question how it applies to the rich, because criminalization and severity get their meaning from relativity and context. Critical and radical criminologists have highlighted areas in which the rich commit crime with impunity–white collar crime, environmental crime, state crimes, etc.–but save for, say, the post-Enron outrage, there’s been very little to foreshadow the explosion of punitive sentiments on the left that we see today. Perhaps the exception is carceral feminism, which was foreshadowed in Catharine MacKinnon’s writing; she seems to support this aspect of the #metoo movement, opining here that the online outrage and excoriation campaigns we see are an outcome of the incompetence of formal criminal law in addressing sexual harassment. For an even more extreme example of the antecedents of carceral feminism, see this passage from Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto:
SCUM will kill all men who are not in the Men’s Auxiliary of SCUM. Men in the Men’s Auxiliary are those men who are working diligently to eliminate themselves, men who, regardless of their motives, do good, men who are playing pall with SCUM. A few examples of the men in the Men’s Auxiliary are: men who kill men; biological scientists who are working on constructive programs, as opposed to biological warfare; journalists, writers, editors, publishers and producers who disseminate and promote ideas that will lead to the achievement of SCUM’s goals; faggots who, by their shimmering, flaming example, encourage other men to de-man themselves and thereby make themselves relatively inoffensive; men who consistently give things away — money, things, services; men who tell it like it is (so far not one ever has), who put women straight, who reveal the truth about themselves, who give the mindless male females correct sentences to parrot, who tell them a woman’s primary goal in life should be to squash the male sex (to aid men in this endeavor SCUM will conduct Turd Sessions, at which every male present will give a speech beginning with the sentence: `I am a turd, a lowly abject turd’, then proceed to list all the ways in which he is. His reward for doing so will be the opportunity to fraternize after the session for a whole, solid hour with the SCUM who will be present. Nice, clean-living male women will be invited to the sessions to help clarify any doubts and misunderstandings they may have about the male sex; makers and promoters of sex books and movies, etc., who are hastening the day when all that will be shown on the screen will be Suck and Fuck (males, like the rats following the Pied Piper, will be lured by Pussy to their doom, will be overcome and submerged by and will eventually drown in the passive flesh that they are); drug pushers and advocates, who are hastening the dropping out of men.
What does this radical program of punishment, excoriation, required groveling and ceremonial apologies resemble? Unsurprising answer: Communist China’s criminal law. While criminalization, tribunals, and harsh punishment were part and parcel of the cultural revolution, China didn’t actually have an official criminal code until 1979. The Maoist authorities had drafted one, but Mao believed it unwise to codify a criminal law that later might restrain the party. Still, these notions of criminal law as embedded in politics characterized the eventual legislation. As Donald Clarke and James Feinerman argue in Antagonistic Contradictions: Criminal Law and Human Rights in China, the question of what constitutes a crime was nebulous in the criminal code of Communist China, and highly dependent on the perpetrator’s location on the class food chain. As they explain:
The Criminal Law (CL) does not so much define which acts are punishable as prescribe what the sanctions shall be when relatively severe punishments are deemed in order. The definition of crime is accomplished outside the Criminal Law by reference to political exigencies or generally accepted standards of morality. There is little perceived danger in allowing government officials to impose their own standards of morality, since Chinese state ideology does not accept the legitimacy of multiple standards of morality.
Consider, for example, the provision for analogy (Article 79 of the CL): a “crime” not stipulated in the CL (or elsewhere) may be punished according to the most nearly applicable article. This shows that if rules defining crime are “law,” then the very notion of “crime” is not a “legal” concept; the determination of whether a particular act constitutes a crime is something that must take place outside the CL. Thus, while the CL tells you what punishment to apply for a particular crime, it is often unhelpful in determining whether a crime has been committed. In this respect, the CL resembles the rules for punishment of Imperial China, which stipulated any number of punishable acts in great detail, but also contained provisions allowing for analogy and punishing “doing what ought not to be done.”
The Special Part lists various crimes and their punishments. Pride of place goes to counter-revolutionary crimes, which are defined as “all acts endangering the People’s Republic of China committed with the goal of overthrowing the political power of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist system” [but are very rare despite their textual prominence.] . . The other chapters in the Special Part cover crimes of endangering public security, undermining the socialist economic order, infringement of personal and democratic rights, property violation, disruption of the order of social administration, disruption of marriage and the family, and dereliction of duty and corruption.
The Special Part is a relatively skimpy 103 articles. . . One reason for the relative simplicity of the Chinese CL is that the provision on analogy offers an escape hatch in case of imperfect or careless drafting. Another reason is that the CL is supplemented by numerous other pieces of special legislation either specifically criminalizing a certain act or prohibiting an act and providing vaguely that “where it constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility shall be affixed,” without providing any guidance as to under what circumstances the performance of a prohibited act would constitute a crime. Finally, it must be remembered that the CL is as much a political text as a legal one; its drafters were concerned with providing a legal basis for state action, not with worries about due process, and it was designed to be used by judicial and public security cadres with a low educational level. Although the late 1980s and early 1990s have seen a movement among the Chinese legal community to revise the wording of the Criminal Law in an attempt to make it technically more elegant, no revision has yet taken place.
Essentially, what Clarke and Feinerman are describing is a punishment system that relies on the sentiments of the communist order toward the offender to even make the decision whether a crime has been committed. A poor person stole bread? Revolutionary impetus. A rich person stole bread? Class criminal.
One possible (and reasonable) counterargument could be that all criminal codes are, covertly, Maoist “little red books” by virtue of differential enforcement. After all, isn’t a city ordinance that prohibits any person from sitting or lying on a city sidewalk, but yields fines only against poor, homeless people, exactly the same as a “political texts” that “impose [their] own standard of morality”? Well, of course they are. But the difference between these codes and the Maoist criminal code is the difference between covert and overt intent. The Maoist code explicitly declares its intent to focus on counterrevolutionaries.
So what’s worse, a law that purports to criminalize in a neutral, universal way, but is enforced in a way that targets members of a particular class, or a law that explicitly says that it addresses only members of a particular class? There’s something to be said for the latter: at least it’s honest, which means that if we dislike its overt targeting, we can work to change it. Differential enforcement, on the other hand, can work covertly, and remain undetected. But this rationale does not neatly address what happens in the context of progressive punitivism, for two main reasons.
First, the days in which the mainstream public was in the dark about differential enforcement are long gone. The disparities that critical criminologists have been studying for decades–racialized police activity, ideological bias in charging decisions, sentencing disparities for members of different races and classes–are all there in the open. We studied this stuff before it was cool, but now progressive Millennials are born with the Michelle Alexander playbook in hand. They have come of age, politically, against the backdrop of Ferguson; they have been reading excellent journalistic coverage of the criminal justice system and listening to podcasts about miscarriages of justice for years. Honestly, there’s not much difference now, in terms of the progressive consciousness, between laws that explicitly target the poor and laws that are facially egalitarian but differentially enforced. This is good news for criminologists–we’ve wanted everyone to know this forever, and finally, the combination of colleagues with a desire to address the mainstream and journalists who made it accessible has succeeded in injecting the realities of criminal justice administration into the mainstream conversation (this conversation could use a little, or actually a lot, of nuance, but we’ll turn to that later.)
Second, even with an overt policy, there has to be a desire to change it. If lawmakers and constituents are overall pleased with policies that support a particular political order and target people on the basis of their class affiliation, it will be quite difficult to introduce change. Regardless of whether the class/race/gender bias of law is overt or covert, the ability to move it in one direction or the other depends largely upon whether its targets are people that “we” (for whatever value of “we”) like or dislike.
Which leads me to conclude that, even though we can find Maoist, or radical feminist, antecedents to the appetite for punishing the rich/male/white that permeates progressive discourse, its most obvious intellectual and cultural legacy is… conservative discourse.
Conservatives and progressives don’t live on different planets. The American public (as well as the American academic scene) has experienced decades of exposure to punitive ideologies and policies, and these, as well as their legacies, are bound to leave imprints on social movements of all stripes. Criminal justice and punishment scholarship in the United States is steeped in this punitive legacy–and this is characteristic, as Naomi Murakawa, Elizabeth Hinton, and others tell us not only of Nixon and Reagan, but also of Democrat politicians. After all, as Jonathan Simon explains, no politician, of any stripe, wants to be perceived as “soft on crime.”
Decades of being steeped in a program of conservative punitiveness has taught both conservatives and progressives three important lessons. The first is that criminal justice is the only hammer in the toolbox, and therefore each and every problem must be a nail. If that’s how we have been solving the problems of “inner city delinquency” for years, why would we not welcome any bad behavior on the part of the wealthy and privileged with choruses of “lock him up”?
The second lesson is that it is normal to think of criminal justice as a tool for separating communities across identities. I’m sure I tell you nothing new when I remind you that, while 1 in 100 Americans is behind bars, that figure is much higher for particular segments of the American population: 1 in 9 young Black men is incarcerated, and 1 in 3 is under some form of correctional supervision. Racial and class inequalities are found at every turn; in policing, in criminal courtrooms, and in sentencing, to name just a few. Many criminal justice critics, in academia and in the activist realm, treat this overrepresentation not as a coincidence, but rather as part of a systemic project of crystallizing and enhancing inequalities. Is it any wonder that, against a backdrop of “walk all over the poor”, a non-imaginative response is, “walk all over the rich”?
The third lesson, which is perhaps the most painful, is that the quintessential way to get the talking stick in America is to be a victim. Just yesterday we learned that Tricia Meili, the Central Park jogger who was viciously assaulted and left for dead decades ago, is calling for a release of investigation materials in the cases of the Central Park Five, the five teenagers who were falsely accused of assaulting her. We know who did it: the responsible party is in prison, has confessed to the crime, and is tied to it via robust forensic evidence (the only person who is still confused about this is Trump). We have seen footage of the interrogations of the teenagers. Meili is owed compassion and support for her harrowing experiences, as well as admiration for her long recovery process. But why is she an authority on an event she has no memory of? That we award victims an attentive ear on such matters shows how victimization, or more accurately, a spectacle of suffering, is the qualification you need to be an authority on criminal justice in America. #BlackLivesMatter and #metoo have internalized these messages all too well: in the face of victim voices serving the conservative agenda, like the Tate family, Mark Klaas, and Dominick Dunne, is it any wonder that the progressive response is to put victimization and trauma at the forefront of its own struggle?
The problem with these non-imaginative responses, as Shaun King reminds us, is that progressive punitivism is, essentially, a little-changed version of the conservative punitivism playbook. Applauding the incarceration of a reviled man on solitary at Rikers has as much potential for enshrining the practices of solitary, and the conditions at Rikers, as was applauding the incarceration of the people that the progressive movement cares about in identical conditions. We can and should do better than this every day, but that takes imagination, and shaking off the paradigms shaped by decades of criminal injustice doesn’t come easy. Still, we have to try.
The Washington Post is being justly criticized for its ridiculous so-called exposé of Elizabeth Warren earning reasonable attorney/consultant fees for her legal work. There is a debate about whether this display of poor journalism can be attributed to sexism. Though I struggle to imagine a man being criticized for similar earnings, I think it has more to do with a deep misunderstanding of my line of work.
To be clear: I am so very fortunate and grateful to be a tenured professor with a named chair at a time when excellent academics are driven to economic precarity by the corporatization and adjunctification of higher education. I teach a reasonable load, have time and space to research and publish, live comfortably, and want for nothing. These privileges enable me to spend a considerable chunk of each workweek doing public service. As many of you know, I’m on TV several times a week; when there’s some novelty with Trump, Barr, Mueller, et al., it’s sometimes several times a day. Every week I spend several hours consulting with journalists, civil rights attorneys, activist organizations, and others. I write amicus briefs. I speak at public events, not all of them academic, and most of which do not directly advance my professional career. And there’s nothing special about me–I have many colleagues who do things like this.
What seems to be at the root of Warren’s critics is that they perceive this public activity–which requires skill, hard work, time to stay on top of current events, cultivating media savvy, and yes, because this is a lookist society, investment in appearance and in reputation management–not as volunteer work, which is what it is, but as something that we somehow owe to the world to provide for free. This comes either from the perspective that we are cynical, underworked exploiters (“you have the summers off!” “you teach six hours a week and that’s your entire job!”) or obligate servants of The Movement who, for some reason, must do for free a lot of things that everyone else in the universe charges for, in the form of salaries, stipends, or honoraria. Many of us, especially women and people of color, internalize these critiques, mumbling when we should ask for honoraria, lowballing our fees because we don’t know what to charge, muttering “of course” when we’re told to do things for the greater good.
It is entirely reasonable to respond to requests that eat up considerable time and effort, especially when made by clients who can afford to pay, with this:
If anything, we should learn something from Warren’s laudable example. If she managed to have an illustrious academic career and, at the same time, put her impressive skills and industriousness to good use, good for her! The culture of sacrifice and deprivation that sometimes peeks through this critique seems to suggest that the endgame is for people to be paupers so as to lead by example. If that’s the endgame, it’s not worth the fight. The endgame is for people to live with dignity and have what they need, and there is no greater champion for this than Elizabeth Warren.
Thank you, WaPo, for helping me make up my mind about my preferred presidential candidate through your irresponsible journalism. CCC endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic candidate for President of the United States.
Yesterday I read the Mueller Report in preparation for a few TV appearances and created a Twitter thread condensing the entire report into about 180 tweets. Many people emailed and said they found it very useful. Here are the links to the thread: