In the latest episode of the War on Drugs, about 10% of the Mexican federal police have been fired for corruption or failure to perform their duties. Many face additional criminal charges. Perhaps some federales will now think harder before dealing with the cartels.
As Jake has described, punishment serves four purposes: retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation. In the case of the federales, deterrence was probably the prime motivator.
But how effective is deterrence? For a criminal, the severity of punishment is one of three things to consider. The other two are the likelihood of being caught and the reward for carrying out the crime.
In the course of policing, a government can affect two of these factors: likelihood and severity of punishment. But affecting only these two factors may not be enough. Until recently, the Chinese government was routinely executing officials found guilty of malfeasance, yet corruption remains stubbornly entrenched.
This is because the potential rewards for abusing power might be so great as to trump dangers to life and limb. A simple cost-benefit analysis tells us that if the potential reward for a crime is great enough, then many risks may be justified.
In Mexico, the continued existence of a lucrative underground market provides irresistible opportunities to some people; in China, a lack of transparency in the political system does the same thing.
Punishment surely has its place among the means a society uses to control miscreants. But lasting solutions to corruption might require that we think more about eliminating the rewards that make corruption attractive.
Image by Flickr user Foto Martien used under a Creative Commons Attribution License
For his role in 16,000 deaths during the Khmer Rouge, Kaing Guek Eav, alias “Duch,” was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison. That he may walk free in 19 years at the age of 86 due to time served has baffled and infuriated Cambodians. The worst tyrants of the last century mostly escaped formal justice (Hitler, Stalin, Mao); others did die in ignominious circumstances and were effectively the victims of mob violence (Mussolini, Ceausescu, arguably Saddam). Duch’s case and surprisingly light sentence brings to mind the perennial question of justice for politically-motivated atrocities.
We seem to know what crimes against humanity are when we see them. But the story is often more complicated in places like the most impoverished parts of the Third World, where politics is a life-or-death affair. Interest groups are divided along ethnic, class, or religious fault lines and power is a means to extract resources for the favored group at the expense of all others. An old Kenyan aphorism holds that to seize the machinery of the state means that “it is our turn to eat.” In these cases murder, rape and torture may become routine tools of political intimidation.
How do we evaluate crimes against humanity and the justice that should follow when the only clear distinction between victim and victimizer is that the latter is stronger than the other, and when it seems likely that the other side would behave just as monstrously if the circumstances permitted?
Photo by Flickr user Sebr used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
On Tuesday Jamaican drug lord and gang leader Christopher Coke was arrested in Kingston. The next day, his mugshot photos were all over the Jamaican (and international) news. The kicker: Coke was dressed as a woman — wig and all (photo here). It’s increasingly common for criminals on the run to masquerade as women…and for their captors to let the world know they were dressed as such. Given that such pictures causes a huge amount of public embarrassment to the suspect and that they are, remember, just suspects, should governments be allowed to release cross-dressing mug shots? embarrass
How does cost affect where we should house suspected terrorists?
The Washington Post ran a detailed article today on the $500 million that has been invested in renovations at the Guantanamo Bay base that has housed many of the enemy combatants we’ve captured since the 9/11 attacks.
Among the more amusing expenditures:
The cost of the marquee, along with a smaller sign positioned near the airfield: $188,000. Among other odd legacies from war-on-terror spending since 2001 for the troops at Guantanamo Bay: an abandoned volleyball court for $249,000, an unused go-kart track for $296,000 and $3.5 million for 27 playgrounds that are often vacant.
It’s always easy to cherrypick seemingly useless expenses to show waste, although an abandoned go-kart track really does feel egregious. Also, I’m not sure playgrounds are as fun when you are cuffed and hooded. Or maybe slides and tunnels are a new “enhanced interrogation” technique. Ok, ok, enough bad one-liners.
The real concern is the disparity between Guantanamo’s $150 million annual operating cost and what it would likely cost to house these prisoners on U.S. soil. The Post cites a White House estimate that Guantanamo costs “double the amount for a comparable U.S. prison.”
There have been some interesting arguments about whether it would be appropriate to move suspected terrorists to a U.S.-based maximum-security prisons. The main debate was whether such a move would put American lives in danger.
But the spending issue adds a new and important perspective. There’s little question that safety arguments tend generally to trump waste arguments. If moving these prisoners to the continental U.S. really would significantly risk American lives, the best argument would be to show that keeping the prisoners in Guantanamo actually puts more lives at risk (or increased the risk level for the same number of lives).
If the risk is relatively low, the spending level (the Post estimates about $2 billion total) really does trade-off with other morally good things. Today’s Los Angeles Times reported that political pressures heading into the midterm elections have even many Democratic lawmakers leery about education and unemployment expenditures expected to be taken up by Congress.
If I were a father of four, I wouldn’t want Guantanamo-USA near my hometown. But if I’ve been unemployed for a year, I might need my unemployment check.
How should we choose?
Rules, standards, and individualized justice
In Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court yesterday outlawed life-without-parole for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide crimes, holding that such sentences violated the 8th’s Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual” punishment. The argument involves two steps, neither of which involves much explicit political philosophy. First, following Roper, the Court looks at State practices to assess the prevalance of the given punishment. While it may seem odd to examine current policies in order to determine timeless constitutional principles, the concept of “cruel” maybe and certainly that of “unusual” are indeed somewhat contextual. Second, the Court examines the 8th Amendment’s text, history, meaning, and purpose, which means applying previous Supreme Court cases. Embedded within this interpretative second step is some genuine political philosophy. In the end, the court held that a juvenile could indeed have the maturity and moral culpability to deserve life-without-parole for a nonhomicide crimes, but that the process of delineating these individuals from the greater number that don’t have the requisite culpability is fraught with error. And to such a degree that the Constitution demands a categorical prohibition for the class of juveniles as a whole.
To be clear: Following the court’s logic, without the categorical prohibition, many juvenile would receive unjust sentences, because they don’t have the requisite moral culpability; but then again, with the prohibition, some will received lighter sentences then they deserve. It’s the old issue that when you draw a line and set a hard rule, it will be in some ways over- and under-inclusive. Whereas before there existed a standard in those states without their own prohibitory rule, now there is a national rule for all States.
From an abstract philosophical perspective, it makes sense to have standards for punishment, so each person can get exactly what they deserve. But in the real world, standards leave open the door for inequality (unequal time for the same crime), corruption, and bias, such that individualized justice is better served by a categorical rule.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced this weekend that the Administration will seek to loosen the terrorism exception to Miranda rights law, allowing law enforcement even more flexibility to interrogate terrorism suspects before reading them their Miranda rights. Not surprisingly civil liberties advocates are not happy. So what do you think? Should there be more of an exception for suspected terrorists? Or is the law already flexible enough? How do we balance our desire for security with our belief in civil liberties?
Searching for justice after a genocide
On August 9th this year Rwandans will take to the polls to elect their president. This election will be the second since the horrifying events of 1994, when the death of President Juvénal Habyarimana triggered a frenzy of mass murder commonly referred to nowadays as the Rwandan Genocide. It is believed that 800,000 people, three quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority were killed by members of the Hutu majority, most of the atrocities taking place in as short a period as three weeks. Read more
Righting wrongs during wartime
War is difficult to execute, and its costs are inevitable. Good people die, the innocent are hurt or killed, and the destructin – physical and otherwise – persists long after the fighting has stopped.
But that hasn’t prevented us from trying to limit the extent of war’s evil. New facts have surfaced with regard to a disturbing incident in Afghanistan that raise – again – the question of whether such attempts are simply a fool’s errand.
In February, three women were killed in an American Special Operations gaffe, although U.S. soldiers denied it at the time. Now an Afghani investigation has not only confirmed that American forces were responsible for the deaths, but that they attempted to actively hide their involvement. A chilling account in the New York Times reports evidence that Special Operations soldiers dug bullets out of the women in order to disguise the cause of death. Read more
In the wake of the passage of the health care bill, it’s worth talking a bit about shame. Senate Republicans are introducing a host of amendments, all which will eventually no doubt be rejected, in an effort to slow the passage of the bill or, ideally for them, to have the bill sent back to the House. The one making the news, of course, is the amendment to forbid the supply of Viagra to sex offenders. I haven’t seen any commentary suggesting that this is a serious provision; it’s aimed at creating some low-budget “Democrat X wants sex offenders to have Viagra” commercials, with a video of children playing in the background.
This is distasteful on a number of levels. Leaving aside the standard obstructionism and general poor sportsmanship, setting up opponents to make these distasteful ads seems, well, shameful. (This is not to mention that the issue of repeat sex offenders is a serious one to be dealt with in a serious manner, though this is not a serious proposal). This seems categorically different from other tactics to me. One can compare this tactic to complaints that the bill is “too long,” making it somehow suspect. The length complaint is transparently false and made in bad faith, but it’s goal is to impugn the bill. This new strategy is designed to paint opponents as monsters — though it may be a subjective judgment that being labeled a friend of sex offenders is worse than being labeled a socialist and fascist at the same time.
How can someone behave in this manner without feeling a deep sense of discomfort at having done wrong? One can imagine a CFO quietly cooking the books, with a very low chance of being caught; it’s easier to overcome shame in secret than in public. What’s surprising about these antics is that they are so transparent, and so public. There’s something deeply troubling about a person, or group of people, that would engage in tactics like this, almost regardless of the stakes. If this behavior is allowable, is there any assurance that any action whatever would be out of bounds?
If he contributes nothing else to society, the infamous Fred Phelps has at least forced us to further examine the notion of free speech. At what point does offensive expression become punishable under the law?
Phelps is the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, which has gained notoriety over the past decade as a result of its practice of protesting military funerals with signs that read “Thank God for IEDs,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and of course “God Hates Fags.” The group believes that our losses in the War on Terror (along with the suffering from Hurricane Katrina and from the economic recession) are part of God’s punishment for our tolerating homosexuality.
The Supreme Court will now hear Snyder v. Phelps, in which the family of a deceased Marine has sued for damages after Phelps et al showed up en force at their son’s funeral. Most Americans would universally and absolutely condemn the church’s actions. But should they be illegal? If the Court sides against Phelps, would that not open the door to further litigation and regulation of “unsavory” speech?
Truly, one of the law’s most difficult conundrums.