Movies News Prison and Criminal Justice

Yes, this is like Minority Report, but not like you think

How awful to use the phrase, “cannibal cop” but if you’re in NYC, odds are you know what I’m talking about: Gilberto Valle, convicted this week for conspiracy to commit kidnapping. I can’t comment on any of the specifics of the case, although it is true that the phrase “ugly thoughts” doesn’t begin to describe how repulsive his actions were prior to his arrest, and he is not denying his actions as part of his legal defense.

My big complaint about most of the mature public dialog (setting aside all the lurid news coverage that is just for shock value) is that it’s still mired in a false dichotomy. The two presumed choices are:

1- He should be punished harshly (in this case, a single conviction can possibly lead to a life sentence in prison) because what he was doing is really messed up, or

2- Whether there should be no consequence at all for starting to possibly lay the groundwork for a horrific set of crimes because he hadn’t yet actually tortured and killed anyone.

Let’s be honest: #2 is simultaneously weak and horrifying when you factor in any of the real-life women on his list. Option #2 mostly makes sense to people who are not the target of someone’s hateful planning, and by the way, pretty much cedes the ground that we should never try to prevent a crime. And that’s where the problem comes up: option #2 is pretty repellant, so it suddenly makes option #1 seem like the only real option. Except then we’re punishing people for horrible things they haven’t actually done.

There’s a similar dichotomy presented in the 2002 movie “Minority Report” (inspired by the Philip K Dick short story of the same name, but I didn’t read the short story). I loved that movie (so did Roger Ebert). In the movie, cops in the future arrest people for murders they haven’t yet committed, and so that produces the central dilemma: is it ethical to punish people for things they haven’t actually done? But murder is bad, and if we can prevent a murder, we should, so it seems like the cops should do this… and there are many futuristic gadgets as well to make it a great movie adventure.

But the movie presents the same damaging falsehood: that even if we can prevent crimes, somebody has to pay. And in the case of a conspiracy crime or Minority Report’s pre-crime, a harsh punishment is justified because the crime would’ve been horrible. In the movie, people are intercepted as they are about to commit murders, then placed in a drugged stasis an underground prison where they relive the murders in their minds in perpetuity (in the movie it’s called being “haloed”). So the movie plot revolves around ending the program that prevents murder, because these harsh punishments make no sense if a person could possibly not commit the crime. Which is true — a harsh punishment doesn’t make sense if a person hasn’t actually committed a crime.

But the problem is what we’re ignoring here, a different choice:

3 – We have to intervene to prevent crime, to remove someone from the situation, and we have to do so in a way where no one, including the perpetrator, gets hurt.

There could be an effective intervention that prevents the crime but isn’t based on a harsh punishment or a long prison sentence. There’s an article on Slate that comes close to arguing that Valle may actually need mental health treatment, but most discussions about the Valle case don’t even mention that possibility.

Because yes, something should happen when someone — especially a police officer — spends their spare time talking about torturing and killing his wife and other women he knows. (For starters, she should be able to get a divorce if she wants one.) He should not have a job where he is armed and has the right to stop and detain people. He should get help — non-judgmental, effective help that is non-optional for him. He may need monitoring for an extended period of time, and help finding the right job. It’s possible that some of this will be unpleasant and uncomfortable for him. But it doesn’t have to be deliberately punitive.

But in real life, though, there is little talk of this third option. Because this case is handled by our criminal justice system, prosecutors respond as they generally do: with a prosecution focused on getting as long of a prison sentence as possible. And then we wind up talking about civil liberties and “was this really just a case of someone paying a high price for having bad thoughts?”

Really, we should be talking about how to prevent violence against women in general, these women in particular, what to do about online communities where people may be conspiring to murder women, and how to respond effectively to the threat of violence in a family with something other than a prison sentence.

As long as the choice is between something and nothing as a response to the threat of violence, many reasonable people will favor doing something. But it should be something that is still fair and just to all involved, not just the empty victory of someone spending life in prison.

The image is a still from the 2002 film, Minority Report.

Movies Prison and Criminal Justice

What was really missing from the movie “Lincoln”

Like many people, I found the movie Lincoln absorbing. And, overall, there were two glaring omissions that pained me.

First off, yes, I was transported by the great performances by the lead actors, and a bunch of the supporting cast as well (I especially liked Tommy Lee Jones as the white abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens).

I would have been even more absorbed if the two great African-American actresses in the supporting cast (S. Epatha Merkerson and Gloria Reuben) could’ve gotten more than a handful of lines between them. Saving up the revelation of the existence of Lydia Hamilton Smith was a bit insulting to me. Her character is less than a footnote to the whole story.

This movie can be placed squarely in the category of “movies about how white people ended slavery while Black folks looked on.” The gratuitous opening dialogue between Lincoln and two African-American soldiers aside, there is little in the film showing even a Black face, much less the leadership of anyone other than white people in the political and social changes that propelled the 13th Amendment forward.

The other omission is how the 13th Amendment brought us one of the greatest problems of our era: our country’s role as the biggest jailer the world has ever seen. Although on the surface the 13th Amendment appeared to eliminate slavery from the U.S. Constitution, many modern-day activists have noted that it wrote slavery into the Constitution:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (emphasis added)

Once it became clear that convicting individuals of a crime would offer an opportunity to treat people like slaves, all sorts of laws came into existence that could be applied to people based on the discretion of police and prosectors. From the Black Codes to Jim Crow to our modern War on Drugs (a war that criminalizes Black and Latino drug users out of the proportion to the rates that Black and Latino people are addicted to drugs), we’ve seen a full court press of this strategy for over 100 years.

This push to “convict people of crimes” so that we can maintain a conviction-based caste system has horrible effects on Black and Brown communities in this country. The 13th Amendment didn’t just “end” slavery — it also laid the groundwork for where we are now.

The 13th Amendment is a critical part of American experience, and I’m glad that people with great cultural influence made a movie about it. But from my vantage point, these omissions are glaring. Since Tony Kushner has already made clear he’s indifferent to criticism about his inaccurate depiction of the roll vote for the 13th Amendment, I think it’s unlikely he will ever move to address these omissions from the story, or craft a more complex, less “white” story about how that moment in history has brought us to the moment we are in today.

If you happen to know a better film about the 13th Amendment, let me know so I can go see it.

Broader foreign policy News Prison and Criminal Justice Things We Can Do

See Guantanamo, Close Guantanamo

Amnesty is really getting the word out with their travelling prison tour to show people just how horrible our illegal prison in Guantanamo is. They also have a 3-d online replica of a Guantanamo cell.

They’re also organizing visits to congressional offices for the week of June 30-Jul 3. I’m on the list for that but haven’t heard anything yet…

Prison and Criminal Justice

No More Exclusion Zones (sound of applause)

Mayor Potter did the right thing when he let Portland’s exclusion zones lapse on September 30. I didn’t blog about it right then, but I did jet off a quick letter to the editor that got printed (I just got the Google alert). Since the Oregonian archive will soon conceal my letter from view (unless you access the Oregonian archive using Multnomah County’s online access), here is what I said:

I applaud Mayor Tom Potter’s decision to end the drug-free “exclusion zones” that have been targeting black people based on race (Sept. 27, Sept. 29 articles).

I have lived in the Boise neighborhood since 1992, before it was an exclusion zone. My neighborhood association had many concerns about the exclusion zones when they were renewed last year.

Among our concerns were that the laws would be applied unevenly based on race (now undeniable), that the practice merely pushes people addicted to drugs around the neighborhood (clear to anyone who lives here), and concerns that arresting people is the least effective (and most expensive) way to deal with drug addiction.

My neighborhood will continue to have to live with the problems of drug addiction until we have more resources to support treatment and recovery from addiction right here where it’s needed.

I hope that the city decides to fund recovery outreach and addiction treatment aggressively, in neighborhoods that need it, such as Boise.

KATHLEEN PEQUENO Northeast Portland

One thing I left out of my letter: I find that the Oregonian coverage has often glossed over the opposition to the “drug-free” exclusion zones that has come from neighborhoods. They generally cite “civil rights advocates” as the ones concerned about civil rights, when plenty of us who live in the zones have concerns about a law that lets the cops stop you and ticket you in a process in which you are “guilty until proven innocent.” The Boise neighborhood sent a thorough letter to the city council explaining our concerns about the “drug-free” exclusion zones back in late 2005/early 2006 when we had a series of meetings about the renewal.

But even without getting into the patent unfairness of the exclusion zones, here’s the bottom line: if people are causing problems because they’re addicted to drugs, we can either treat the problem they have, or we can shove them around from place to place, spin them through the jail’s revolving door, and see if then they get all better. Which one is more likely to work? Which one are you willing to spend money on?