Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Jon Swift Memorial Roundup

The Vagabound Scholar has resurrected the late "Jon Swift's" yearly roundup "The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves". It was a great thing Jon did, and a great thing the Vagabound is doing, both for the blogosphere community and to honor Jon's memory.

Head over and check it out.

Punishment and Reentry -- The Case of Michael Vick

Over the past several years, the case of Michael Vick has registered a continual and deep discomfort with a lot of how we talk about (and practice) crime and punishment, and the disjuncture between the moral justification of punishment and the way it is actually operationalized in our society. As Vick is enjoying a successful year in the NFL, there are still those who are outraged that he is even allowed to play in the NFL -- that he is permitted to return post-punishment with seemingly no permanent disabilities.

I was in the let Vick play camp well before the President registered his agreement on the subject, and I think that point is pretty clear. I also still maintain that, gravity of Vick's crime notwithstanding, there was a deep loss of perspective in those who labeled it a crime against humanity.

But there's a bigger point here worth exploring, and it goes into the psychology of punishment and how we go about rationalizing the state-inflicted violence that is the penal system.

When I say state-inflicted violence, I don't mean it as a judgment. Sometimes violence is acceptable -- in self-defense, in just wars -- and incarceration (the coercive locking-away of a person under pain of severe injury or even death if he tries to leave) as punishment for crime is one of those cases. But violence needs justification, and so, in order to rationalize punishment, we have to tell ourselves that the person is a bad person. Which of course, in a way, he is -- people who drown dogs or beat women or rob banks are bad people. But only so much so. The problem is that whereas criminal penalties are generally temporally limited (e.g., a jail sentence of two years), moral judgments have no such borders. Having concluded that someone is a bad person is the warrant that justifies the incarceration, but it does not fade away upon their release. We find, post-release, that our thirst for retribution hasn't been quenched. After all, there is a bad guy out there, living his life freely, successful, even happy. There is a disjuncture between the formalized, limited, moral judgment of incarceration, and the broader narrative of wrongfulness that sustains our ability to render that judgment under law -- a narrative that enjoys no such bounds or constraints, a narrative that, may, fundamentally, be incompatible with any sentence for felons other than life without parole.

Philosophically speaking, this is a problem for retributivist accounts of criminal punishment. But practically speaking, it's an even bigger problem for successfully reintegrating felons back into the mainstream of American life. Both in absolute and per capita terms, the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. It is both social and moral folly to permanently write off our entire population of convicts as irredeemable (which, in effect, is what we have done ever since we officially abandoned rehabilitation as a goal of incarceration). Frankly, if we don't think anyone will successfully turn away from a life of crime -- and we consider it an injustice upon their victims when they do and meet with success in their new lives -- then our criminal justice system is a farce. Why do we bother letting folks out of prison in the first place, if we think they're doomed to fail and are aggrieved when they don't accommodate?

Needless to say, I'm not endorsing mandatory life sentences. I'm endorsing a broader shift in how we think about criminals -- one that demands considerably more agility than "they are bad people". The narratives by which we justify imposing punishment on the offender have to include an ending through which we impose an obligation on society to forgive once the punishment is included. Our stories can't end with the bad man. They must contain a restorative element, or they will fail.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

New Year's Resolutions 2011!

It's that time of year: New Year's Resolutions! Here are the lists from 2010, 2009, 2008, and 2007. And of course, we begin by evaluating my performance of the previous year's goals.

Met: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 (but I overcooked it), 7, 9, 10 (barely), 11, 12.

Missed: 13, 15 (but it wasn't a very good game anyway).

Pick 'em: 5 (I supposed I should never be satisfied with my performance on this one), 8, 14.

Again, I'd say a decent performance! But onward we go, to next year's ambitions:

(1) Succeed as a teacher (Pick 'em)

(2) Get Sticky Slopes published (Missed -- through no lack of effort, unfortunately)

(3) Solidify post-clerkship plans (Missed)

(4) Explore new facets of my love of Jill, and expand the horizons of our relationship (Pick 'em)

(5) Be more appreciative of the things Jill and I already share and adore about each other (Pick 'em)

(6) Enjoy my first foray into being a real adult with a real (well, "real") job (Met)

(7) Make friends in Champaign-Urbana (Met)

(8) Keep track of law school friends, and keep in contact with law school profs, after graduation (Met)

(9) Write at least a full draft of a new law review article (Met)

(10) Link up with the Jewish community in Champaign-Urbana (Missed)

(11) Tolerate awkwardness better (Missed)

(12) Finish law school strong (Met)

(13) Keep the blog posts flowing (but don't let it interfere with #9) (Met)

(14) Visit Carleton (Missed)

(15) Holistically speaking, look back in 2011 and feel content. (Met)

Safety First

Spotted on twitter: "Think I'll have my daughter do some pole dancing videos. That way if she ever disappears the cable networks will cover it 24/7."

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Lieberman Tirade Shows Weakness of Israeli Government

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman unleashed a shocking string of vitriol at a recent Foreign Ministry meeting, attacking, among others, the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority for its stated goal of reaching an agreement before the end of 2011, the state of Turkey, and South American nations which have announced their recognition of the state of Palestine. In the course of the speech, Lieberman declared that there is no foreign policy Israel could pursue which would garner the approval of all coalition members.

Criticism of Lieberman has poured in from all sides, with PM Netanyahu stating that only he gets to set Israeli policy. But it was the opposition-leading Kadima Party which raised the most salient point, stating: "Lieberman said what every citizen in Israel knows: Israel has a government with no real policies, a government without direction and a government without leadership." It's a governing equivalent of a headless chicken -- it just wanders aimlessly from one crisis to another, half of them the result of the government's own incompetence.

Avigdor Lieberman has been an unmitigated disaster as foreign minister -- which is what happens when a state takes a Russian Sarah Palin and put him in charge of international relations. And the inability of the rest of the Israeli government, most notably Netanyahu, to effectively rein him in demonstrates the fundamental inability of the Israeli government to function at the level it needs to in order to solve the dire problems it faces today. One wonders how long this government can even last at this point. I just hope that the Israeli populace is beginning to recognize that its government can't govern. Say what you will about Kadima -- and they have their faults -- but they're a serious party in a country whose political class is rapidly devolving into farce.