Saturday, April 11, 2015

Saturday Morning Reads

First, an update on my post yesterday regarding Walter Scott's slaying in South Carolina. The Marshall Project adds another layer to the tragedy, suggesting Scott was purportedly running because he had been arrested several times for not paying child support. One in eight people languishing in South Carolina jails is in for contempt/non-payment of child support.

Debtor's prisons, in other words.

For Scott, the fear that he could end up in jail for owing child support may have been more real, in those few seconds, than the abstract possibility of another police-involved shooting. He had been arrested multiple times in the past on contempt-of-court charges stemming from child-support obligations he had missed, and he knew all too well the criminal repercussions he was facing: arrest; a few rushed minutes in court, at best, WITHOUT A LAWYER1 and without the presumption of innocence (because it would be a civil proceeding); jail time; and another mark against him on his permanent record.
In South Carolina, at least one in eight people in jail are there on contempt-of-court charges related to late or unpaid child-support orders. Nationally, as many as 50,000 parents may be in jail on those charges, though the exact number is uncertain, mainly because "contempt of court" is a general charge that does not only apply to child support cases. The best available data suggest that a majority of these jailed parents are black fathers.
And the stupidity behind arresting people (mostly poor men) for non-payment goes without saying. How is a person supposed to work and earn money to make said payments if he's in jail? He isn't. The jail system becomes another defacto form of social sanitation by which we scrub society clean of its undesirables. At least back in Dickens' day, debtors could work while in the hoosegow and pay off their debts.

In this Quartz article (via Atlantic), the desperate attempt by states to keep executions alive, by authorizing new and fun alternative methods to lethal injection, is documented, as well as in-depth history regarding how technology has allowed executions to become increasingly hidden from the public (something we spend weeks discussing in 3150).

From Utah's bringing back the firing squad (which it just scrapped a few years ago as an alternative method), to Tennessee and electric chair, states are getting desperate and planning what to do when lethal injection drugs either run out or it's declared unconstitutional by SCOTUS. 
Since the 19th century, American elites have searched for a mode of execution that was professional in appearance and humane in practice, one that would display the state’s sober-minded restraint while taking life as quickly and painlessly as possible.

As early as the 1830s, states began searching for ways to take the condemned out of this world with as little fanfare and medieval ritual as possible. Worried about jeering execution day crowds, elites moved executions behind walls and eventually into the bowels of prisons where sober decorum would prevail.

A complex division of tasks within the execution chamber, moreover, cleansed the punishment of vengeful overtones.

The “law” was no longer a local sheriff publicly carrying out a hanging on behalf of an aggrieved community, but multiple bureaucrats, each responsible for performing a small step in a highly-choreographed procedure. One tied the hands, another bound the feet, another secured the noose, and another pulled the lever to release the trap door. No single person embodied the state. And since the 1890s, a persistent dark optimism has produced revolutions in killing technologies every few decades.

From shooting and hanging to electrocuting to gassing to injecting, Americans have continuously introduced new killing technologies that have promised to minimize the discomfort, for witnesses and the condemned, caused by the state’s exercise of its sovereign power over life and death.
Shooting people kills them more quickly and reliably than electrocuting, gassing, or poisoning them. But it’s harder to watch or read about than lethal injection.

The raw violence of the act puts it at odds with the aesthetic values that have historically shaped the development of capital punishment in the United States. Guns uncomfortably blur the line between the righteous violence of the state and the lawless violence of the criminal. The gun is, historically speaking, the only instrument of execution that is also commonly used by criminals. Its use in executions reminds us of a past in which there was less of a distinction between the state that carried out the law and those it punished.

Indeed, in its jarring loudness, its bloodiness, and its mutilating effects on the body, execution by firing squad comes much closer to expressing the “eye for an eye” logic that has long stoked Americans’ demand for the death penalty, but that has, since the nineteenth century, been carefully excised from its actual administration.

Of course, to the pro-dp types, blood lust ain't a big thang...it's just a thang. Guilty as Hell, etc.

And finally, revisiting mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles, three years after Miller v. Alabama:
At 14, in 1990, he was out with two gang members when they robbed a rival drug house and shot the occupants, leaving two dead. Now 38, he has spent the last 24 years in prison on a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

But his future will be reconsidered in a new sentencing hearing here on Monday. It is one of the first such proceedings in Illinois to result from the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Miller v. Alabama that juvenile murderers should not be subject to mandatory life without parole.
In the 2012 ruling, the Supreme Court did not say life terms were never appropriate. But, building on earlier rulings that “children are different,” and citing research on brain development, the court said sentencing must take account of mitigating factors like the offender’s background and age, and consider the potential for change.

Mr. Davis was one of about 2,500 prisoners across the country at the time who were serving life without parole for juvenile murders, most of them as a result of mandatory sentences that gave judges no leeway, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, an advocacy group.

The 2012 decision did not say whether the new rules should apply retroactively, to cases long closed. Since then, state and lower federal courts have disagreed, creating drastic differences for prisoners depending on where they live.

Ten states, including Illinois, are applying the standard to pre-2012 cases and have started the process of resentencing. Four states — Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, with about 1,130 prisoners who could be affected — have declined to make the ruling retroactive.

The Supreme Court is expected to clarify the issue next fall, when it hears the appeal of a convict in Louisiana.
With some states applying it retroactively and some states not, you create a situation where retroactivity in sentencing, an issue the court generally shies away from, becomes an bone of contention they nonetheless have to revisit. And good on them for doing so.

Enjoy your spring Saturday.

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