I first heard of Sudhir Venkatesh even before he was featured in Freakonomics, when my husband took Steve Levitt's course, "The Economics of Crime"...moreI first heard of Sudhir Venkatesh even before he was featured in Freakonomics, when my husband took Steve Levitt's course, "The Economics of Crime". Ever since I first heard the anecdote of the first-year sociology grad student who showed up to the housing projects on the South Side with a questionnaire asking "how do you feel about being poor and black? Very good, good, neither good nor bad, bad, or very bad", and who somehow endeared himself to the local Black Kings crack-dealing gang, I wanted to hear more stories about his experiences.
However, between the Economics of Crime, Freakonomics, the Freakonomics blog, and Sudhir Venkatesh's various appearances on the Colbert Report and the Daily Show, I apparently had already heard all the best anecdotes.
It was still worth reading, since I certainly never had the courage to cross Cottage Grove, 63rd, or 47th Street on foot to talk to the people who live there. However, I don't know how representative or up-to-date his account actually is.
I also think it's very disappointing that after Ms. Bailey asks Sudhir if he plans on talking to white folks, implying that he's not getting the whole story about poverty in the projects without looking at its context (why don't ambulances come? why don't the police come? why were the projects built in the first place? who's assessing whether they're meeting their goals?), he never does look into it.(less)
The title comes from a quote by Justice Hugo Black: "There can be no equal justice as long as the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has."
In No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System, David Cole argues not only that our criminal justice system is grossly disparate in how it treats members of different races and classes (though I don't know if even the most naive dare deny that claim), but furthermore that it deliberately exploits the inequality so that we, as a society, need not pay the entire costs of guaranteeing constitutional rights to everyone.
He discusses searches with "consent" (the "driving while black" phenomenon), the deplorable state of public defense (where the rich can afford fancy lawyers to get them off), the system of jury selection (because while black people are summoned the jury duty, they can still be removed from service via preemptory strike), the unintended consequences of the war on drugs (in which the sentence for possessing crack cocaine is one hundred times as severe as the sentence for possessing powder cocaine, and a single mom can end up with ten years in prison for mailing a package for a friend that turned out to contain crack) and three-strikes policies (where third-strikers have nothing to lose when trying to elude police), and how our communities are being ravaged by our policy of mass incarceration (at the time the book was written, in the late nineties, 1 in 3 young black men were under police supervision).(less)
I already opposed the death penalty before reading this book, so it's hard for me to judge how persuasive it is.
All research shows that the death penalty is not a deterrant. Psychological research clearly shows that in order to be an effective deterrant, a negative reinforcement must swift and certain (and just, Prejean goes on to add, but I'm going to sweep that into certain: if we have 100% coverage, then it's going to be definitionally just).
The death penalty is not swift. Prisoners languish for years, even decades on death row. You may think that humans are capable of abstracting the horrors of being electrocuted, even years in advance, but the brain just doesn't work that way.
The death penalty is not certain. Only a tiny percentage of first-degree murder cases end up with the death penalty. Even if that tiny percentage were evenly distributed, it would be capricious and consequently not an effective deterrant (every criminal can and will think, well, that won't happen to me). In both cases covered by the book, the condemned men each committed his crime with another man: but in each case, only one of the two murderers was given the death penalty, more or less randomly. But it's even worse, and this is what Prejean gets into:
The death penalty is not just.
Criminals on death row overwhelmingly have two factors in common:
1. Death row inmates are poor. If a criminal has the wherewithal to hire even a decent lawyer, let alone a good one, prosecutors won't risk seeking the death penalty. (It's tremendously expensive, for one thing. You might think that executing a criminal and being done with it would be less expensive to the state than to feed and house him for the rest of his natural life, but you would be wrong, by an order of magnitude. No, I don't really understand, either, but that's a fact. (P.S.: Gov. O'Malley, if you're serious about cutting costs, abolish the death penalty.)
2. Their victims are white. The race of the criminal actually matters much less than that of the victim: if a white person is killed, then it's a heinous crime committed by an irredeemable monster; if a black person is killed, it's collateral damage. He shouldn't have been dealing drugs. She shouldn't have been dating an abusive boyfriend. Etc.
And for those of you who don't buy psychological research, we also have empirical data directly on the death penalty. If the death penalty were a deterrant, then you would predict that the crime rate in a state that abolishes the death penalty would rise immediately afterward. Contrariwise, if a state instates the death penalty, you would predict the crime rate to fall. We have data for both cases, and in both cases, the hypothesis fails the test. So no matter how intuitively appealing the idea that the death penalty is an effective deterrant, the fact is it just isn't.
So if it's not a deterrant, then what else is there?
This is where it starts to depend on your idea of what the purpose of punishment by the state (the people) is. We've already ruled out the deterrant.
Is it to prevent criminals from committing more crimes? Then one would have to show that executed criminals are less likely to get out than criminals with life imprisonment. We do have the problem where murderers are often slapped with light sentences and out on parole only a few years after their sentences began. But these criminals weren't going to get the death penalty anyway. Our efforts would be better spent making sure that more of these kinds of criminals get more serious sentences (because shooting a black teenage boy is surely just as much as a crime as shooting a white teenage girl, yet one would hardly know that from looking at our judicial system) than by diverting a few (very few) life imprisonments toward death row. (Escaping from prison is a very rare occurrence, thankfully.)
Is it to give criminals the opportunity to repent, and reform themselves? Then of course the death penalty is less conducive to that goal than to life imprisonment. Not only do they have less time to see the error of their ways, but appealing their case gives the criminals something to do, something external to focus on rather than introspection. The first death row inmate Prejean advises was remorseful to begin with, and would have been with a life sentence; the second inmate focused entirely on his impending execution rather than the wrongs he did.
Is it to punish, then? For me, that is a distant fourth, but, as I said, I was already on board before even reading this book. It's a logical inconsistency: killing people is such a bad thing to do that we will kill people who do it. But if killing people is bad, then isn't it bad whoever does it? Isn't our society stronger than caving into our basest instincts? Can't we demonstrate our strength by showing grace to those who wrong us? By demonstrating that we will not compromise our ideals?
There are those who think the death penalty is a noble way of society exacting justice. But frequently these people also think that executions should not be open to the public, and certainly not televised, because of a coarsening effect on those who watch it. But if it's coarsening, then how can it also be noble?
Another point the book raises: throughout the system, the state collectivizes responsibility for the death penalty. You can always pass the buck. The governor is just following the recommendation of the parole board. The parole board is just upholding the courts. At no point is any one person, or group of people, actually responsible for the death of the criminal. But once again, if it's so noble, then why are we so ashamed that we want to pass responsibility to someone else?
Both the prisoners in this book were electrocuted, a method that has since come to be recognized as inhumane. But the lethal injection cocktail used today is far from problem-free: it's not entirely clear whether the anesthetic is really anesthetic, or just paralytic. All the more appalling, because we have euthanasia down to an exact science when it comes to our pets. And no veterinarian would euthanize a dog with the cocktail that we use to kill humans.(less)
**spoiler alert** On one level, this book is about its plot: in 1926, an American FBI agent comes to England in pursuit of a terrorist, and he gradual...more**spoiler alert** On one level, this book is about its plot: in 1926, an American FBI agent comes to England in pursuit of a terrorist, and he gradually gathers clues. (In this respect, the book is at its weakest: either from the format of the thriller (the culprit is always the one you least expect!) or from the omniscient narrator letting the reader know more than the protagonist, I immediately knew who the bomber really was, and was therefore not terribly sympathetic to the FBI agent's mistakes and oversights.)
On another level, this book is a historical portrait of the period (which Laurie R. King has already researched for her Mary Russell novels) haunted by the Great War and on the eve of the General Strike.
On that note, this is also a book about class warfare and what drives people to political extremism (i.e. terrorism).
But what I most experienced reading this book was the four central characters and their interactions. Laurie R. King's greatest strength has always been her ability to create believable, interesting, and likeable (even the villains) characters that I always wanted to get to know better (by keeping on reading the book instead of setting it down and finding something better to do).(less)
This has also been a topic of interest ever since I heard the story of the Persepolis tablets. Apparently terrorism...moreAs heard on the NPR books podcast.
This has also been a topic of interest ever since I heard the story of the Persepolis tablets. Apparently terrorism victims of Hamas sued the state of Iran (for funding Hamas) for damages, and when Iran did not show up to the hearing (in Rhode Island), the judge awarded $400 million in damages to the victims: which they chose to claim in the form of cultural artifacts (the Persepolis tablets), which the state of Iran had been lending to the Oriental Institute in Chicago. (You can read about it here.)(less)