Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Should America care about felons?



     This was over 1,200 words long when I finished the first draft Tuesday morning. Cutting it to size required loss of this bit of promotion I had wanted to tuck at the end. If, after reading this, you would like to hear Ben Austen speak, and are free tonight, he will be discussing his book Wednesday, Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. at the Northwestern University School of Law, Strawn Hall, 375 E. Chicago Ave. Admission is free, but you need to register.

     "Vindicta" is Latin for vengeance — payback for wrongs others have done.
     Or wrongs you imagine they've done. Or might do.
     Look around. We are in the golden age of vindictiveness. It's the thread that holds everything together, the hidden hand. The only questions: Who is the object of retribution this week? Who can we safely hurt?
     Nearly a decade ago, when Donald Trump went down that escalator, vindictiveness was directed against Mexicans (rapists) and Muslims (terrorists). We were building the Wall and banning immigrants from Muslim countries. Trump was elected president on that platform and might yet be again.
     Like fashion, the specific objects of our scorn change with the seasons. Now Mexicans and Muslims are out, more or less, and Venezuelans (too many) and trans people (predators) are in.
     In a pinch, there's always criminals.
     You don't need Trump to tell you to disdain felons. That's the default. The United States incarcerates nearly 2 million people, more than China, four times our population. The U.S. is the world's top jailer — our incarceration rate is 531 per 100,000, nearly double the 300 of Russia. Canada's is 85.
     Our country is in such peril right now that I'm reluctant to bring up a another concern. But when you consider our problem as one of general vindictiveness — the urge to punish driving our political nightmare — the fate of prisoners becomes very relevant.
     Particularly after reading "Correction: Parole, Prison and the Possibility of Change" by Ben Austen, a compelling, well-reasoned book that looks at incarceration in Illinois through two longtime prisoners.
     First, Michael Henderson, who borrowed a .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver and shot a fellow teen outside a bar in East St. Louis in the summer of 1971.
     Then 18, Henderson was offered a deal — plead guilty, and be sentenced to 7 to 21 years. He declined, was convicted, and sentenced to 102 years.
     Second, Johnnie Veal, convicted of gunning down two policemen in Cabrini-Green in 1970. The notorious murder of Sgt. James Severin and Officer Anthony Rizzato shocked the city. There was no physical evidence tying him to the crime, but Veal was a Cobra Stone, and several rival gang members fingered him. He was sentenced to 100 to 199 years in prison
     Both men were sentenced before 1978, when sentences still could be adjusted by a parole board. Austen focuses on this dwindling population of men who have been in jail for decades and are offered the carrot of release, as a goad to self-improvement, while that decision rests with parole boards, often staffed with retired cops and prosecutors more interested in regurgitating the details of a crime than considering any improvements in the criminal over the past 20 or 30 or 40 years.

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24 comments:

  1. Briefly (very briefly) dated the tough daughter of a tough Irish cop. He apparently had some sort of a beef with his partner, and they split up. The ex-partner was one of the two officers who died at Cabrini-Green. Had he and his partner not become estranged, her father could have easily been the other one. To say that his daughter was very much upset is putting it mildly.

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    1. Grizz 65, I am a newcomer to the NS blog site, but I was in tears reading your comment. If that isn't enough to make us cherish what we all have to cope with Every Goddamn Day, I don't know what is.

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    2. Didn't mean to upset anybody. It was a LONG time ago...1968. She was 18 and a pretty tough cookie. I think she had what were later called "issues"...could easily have been because of her police officer father. We didn't hang out for long, but we ran with the same crowd in my college town.

      When the 1970 shootings happened, she was very upset, and I learned why after she related the details mentioned above. To her, anyone in blue was her father's brother...like an uncle, I guess you might say.

      She became involved with a foreign graduate student, who had to leave the country. She followed him to East Africa. None of us ever saw her or heard from her again.

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  2. It's tough to change the course of a river. Look at Kim Foxx. I won't go so far as to say she botched it, but when her efforts to enact change went against the flow, her career was swept into the grist wheel and ground to a fine dust.

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  3. This column certainly offers food for thought.

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  4. I feel so bad for the kids. Crimes (yes, sometimes awful ones) committed when their brains are still mush. No hope, no matter what they do, of ever having a life. All about vengeance, not rehabilitation. So sad.

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  5. Do the numbers for China include the hundreds of thousands of Uighers they have in so-called "re-education camps"?
    Do the Russian numbers include all their political prisoners, like Navalny was one of?
    Those other countries just don't have the violent crimes we have with guns, do they?
    Why aren't we imprisoning all those illegally carrying guns, since that incompetent Foxx doesn't demand the judges put them in prison for years, but has her assistant state's attorneys not demand they be remanded to jail upon arrest for carrying one & then usually reduces the charges from felonies to misdemeanors, which is a get out of jail free card for them, to go out & commit more violent crimes.

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    1. For a change, I agree with part of what Clark Street has to say. If you commit a gun crime or a crime where a gun is involved, you should go to trial and not be able to plea bargain down to a lesser charge that ends up with you being back out on the street. Albeit with an ankle bracelet.
      I feel a second gun crime, especially a violent crime. There should be a requirement to consider the full sentence as the punishment
      A third gun crime establishing habitual offender should result in life
      The parole situation in Illinois certainly needs to be addressed. It's a difficult and complex matter and causes some people to be treated differently than others, which I always assumed was unconstitutional but again I realize it's very complicated.
      I understand none of this would reduce the prison population here in Illinois or in the country as a whole.
      And this case, I agree with the Kim Foxes of the world that property crime generally should not result in prison time . theft of property should be punished with community service and retribution where you have to pay back the person or entity that you stole from.

      Violent criminals put them away and throw away the book. Petty crimes?
      Drug use and possession?

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    2. The UK has plenty of crime, but there don't seem to be many gun crimes. Gotta wonder why that is. Stiff penalties? Strict regulation of guns? I don't know any Brits who could tell me the answer. My sister lived in London at 20, but not for very long, so that doesn't really count.

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    3. From reading British papers online, Britain appears to have a knife problem & a few years ago some of their politicians actually knife control laws!
      British cops generally don't wear bullet resistant vests but stab resistant vests.

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    4. Thanks. I've heard that. Didn't know about the knife control, though. That would be rather hard to do. When knives are outlawed, everyone will still have knives...or how would you eat?

      Unlike firearms, there are no automatic stabbing devices. You can only knife one person at a time, so mass knifing deaths might easily appear to be far more rare, and a lot less lethal. But that isn't really the case. There have been many gruesome exceptions...and individuals or groups who've gone on stabbing sprees around the world have often killed dozens of victims.

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    5. I believe they wanted to control hunting knives & Ka-Bar types.

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  6. Sometimes I have hope. Sometimes I have none.

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  7. Thank you, Neil. I intend to attend the author event at NW this evening. Our sense of vengeance in America relative to people convicted of breaking the law is heartbreaking. I believe it’s Norway that takes an entirely different approach — one focused on compassion, respect, and rehabilitation. The living conditions and their treatment provides a sense of dignity for the prisoners. As a nation we are so harsh and unforgiving in our judgments.

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  8. Someday in the future, Americans may start wondering why we spend so much money to keep prisoners in cells and why we spend so little money on efforts to rehabilitate those prisoners. Someday, maybe. But I no longer believe it will happen during my lifetime.

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    1. As a daily reader of CWB Chicago, I don't believe most of the repeat criminals can ever be rehabilitated!

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    2. It's possible that some repeat offenders cannot be rehabilitated. However, current efforts to rehabilitate prisoners are so poorly funded there's a good chance we're failing to rehabilitate those prisoners who could experience a positive change. I think it would be wise to improve the funding for rehabilitation programs in order to help those who can be helped.

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    3. clark street, without commenting on your general point of view on this subject i would point out on this particular item you are mostly wrong. even strong "law and order" types acknowledge that older offenders, upon release, largely do not repeat offend. not always because they've been rehabilitated in the commonly understood sense, but because they're just too tired of being in jail and for that and other various reasons, just simply not interested in going back or doing crimes. there are, of course exceptions, but far more rare than you would think.

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  9. Are you familiar with the work of the late MN Judge Dennis Challeen?

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    1. He wrote a book about low-level offenders and how his experience on the bench shaped an approach to dealing with reintegrating them into society.

      It's called "The Punishment Myth" and can be found here:
      https://www.ccimrt.com/product/the-punishment-myth/

      Interesting stuff, if maybe just a bit dated.

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  10. I've ordered a copy of the book. Sounds interesting. Thanks for the article.

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  11. All Felons should not represent the country that took their rights away. Felons shouldn't pay taxes. No Taxation without Representation. Felons are basically outcasts of society yet you still getting punished for crimes you already paid your dues on. I advocate for every Felon to leave this place. Let this Cancerous place with Cancerous Leaders Suffer and crumble. The knowledge we know about this corrupted system we can take our ideas elsewhere. Sorry Felons.. Your own "American Citizens" are your enemies not the foreigners.

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