The Crime and Punishment colloquy aims to cover two basic areas – crime in the United States, and the punishment people get when they’re convicted of crimes. The crime session will delve into discussion of felonies and misdemeanors – felonies are more serious and frequently land the defendant in prison; misdemeanors usually result in a fine/probation/less than a year’s jail time. We’ll also look at how pervasive crime is in our daily lives and national culture – crime is the staple of news reports and is the stuff of bestselling novels, television and streaming series and movies.
Of the four colloquy sessions, two will be devoted to a discussion of crime and two will deal with incarceration. We will examine how many of our fellow citizens (along with some non-citizens) are imprisoned in the U.S. (nearly 2.3 million people), how prisons operate and the problems that arise when the state deprives people of their freedom. Since this colloquy originates in rural Maine, and many, if not all, the participants live in Maine, we will touch on local crime. (On April 18, 2017, the PBS series “Frontline” aired an absorbing documentary on solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison. Google Maine State Prison frontline documentary for more information. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/solitary-nation/)
Michael Taylor is a retired reporter and editor who worked at the San Francisco Chronicle for 36 years. While at The Chronicle, he covered crime, courts, breaking news, wrote features, and did investigations. He also wrote about state and federal prisons, based on visits to many of them, including ADX-Florence, the Supermax federal prison in Colorado.
November 22. Crime. Outlining crime in general – discuss felonies, misdemeanors and prison/jail time/parole/probation. Why is there so much crime; or is there really that much crime? Talk about how culturally pervasive crime is in our daily lives – it’s the bread-and-butter material for news reports; the stuff of bestselling novels; the staple of TV and the movies. We’ll look at the differences between these dramatic portrayals and what happens in real life. We’ll focus on crime in Maine and elsewhere, examining what happens day in and day out – much of it in our local area is drug abuse, burglaries, domestic violence, drunken driving.
Suggested reading: The Wikipedia entry on Crime in the United States is indispensable as a framework and guide, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_in_the_United_States; participants should also read the crime stories in local and national papers or websites.
(Optional: on your own, check out the district court in Ellsworth, https://www.courts.maine.gov/courts/district/ellsworth-dc.html; it’s at 50 State Street. Check the website for hours and hearings. Courts are open to the public. If you carry a pocket knife or any other weapon, leave it in the car. The building has an airport-style metal detector in operation. In Bangor, the Penobscot Judicial Center is worth a visit. From time to time, there’s a good murder trial to watch. https://www.maine.gov/tools/whatsnew/index.php. Again, ditto on the knife rule.)
November 29. A distillation of crime these days can be seen in an interview the PBS NewsHour did on Jan. 27, 2022, with Thomas Abt, former New York City prosecutor and now a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/whats-behind-rising-violent-crimes-in-the-u-s-and-how-they-can-be-reducedspike-in-violence.
Three things drive crime trends, Abt said: the pandemic, which has put “incredible pressure” on everyone, but “in particular, has placed disproportionate pressure on communities of color, precisely where community gun violence concentrates”; the record sales of guns and the increasing proliferation of guns on the street; and the social unrest sparked by the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nine and a half minutes. but, as Abt said, it crystalized what was already a tragic trend, for lack of a better word, of Black people being killed by white cops, producing, among other things, a wedge between police and the community – each side was alienated against the other, with little cooperation between them. Less pro-active investigation by the cops; less cooperation from the community.
Other things to talk about:
In San Francisco, police linked a suspected burglar to a crime by using DNA she had provided investigators years earlier as a rape victim. In other words, she had volunteered the very element that would be used against her in an alleged crime. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin called it an “egregious violation of victim privacy” and dropped the charges. But he did say it’s apparently a widespread practice in crime labs statewide. What’s the fairness here, let alone the admissibility of that particular DNA as evidence?
Restorative justice. Interesting piece in the New Yorker about a woman who campaigned to have her father’s killer released from prison. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/01/24/a-daughters-quest-tofree-her-fathers-killer
December 6. Prison and jail. (The general definition: jail is usually a city or county facility where you’re held pending trial. It is also where you serve one year or less, usually for misdemeanors. Prison is where felons are sent.) The stats: the U.S. has nearly 2.3 million people behind bars. The lion’s share, 1.3 million, are in state prisons. The rest are in city or county jails (631,000), and federal prisons (226,000); the remaining 119,000 or so are in a mix of youth offender, immigration and other facilities. The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world. On a per capita basis, in descending order, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Georgia and Arkansas have the highest incarceration rates. (What is it about the South?) The lowest rates are (from the bottom up) Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine. (New England clemency?) We’ll talk about how we got to be the world’s jailer.
Suggested reading (and the source of all these statistics: the website of the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit organization that researches prisons and puts out periodic reports https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html. It’s an advocacy group that nevertheless has a wealth of bipartisan information on its site. Also, “The Caging of America,” from a January 2012 issue of The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/01/30/the-caging-of-america; these are just two examples of what can be tons of information on this subject. (Local note on this subject: the Maine State Prison, population about 900, is in Warren, some 65 miles from Blue Hill, and about 10 miles west of Rockland. Maine’s original state prison was built in Thomaston in 1824. A new facility opened in Warren in 2002. A state prison is a stark, no-nonsense place and makes an equally stark impression on visitors.)
December 13. We’ll discuss what prisons are like, how people live and work in them, the issues of solitary confinement and brutality on inmates. This session will be buttressed by selected samples from prisoners’ writing. Suggested reading: short story by Kenneth Brydon https://pen.org/fiction/consensus-death; it’s one of hundreds of short stories, poems and novels being written by inmates in the U.S. (Brydon was doing life in San Quentin for murder when I met him in 2009; he spent 39 years behind bars and was paroled in August 2017; here is a sparkling interview with Brydon shortly after he was released.) https://brothersinpen.wordpress.com/2017/10/13/kenny-brydon-free-as-a-sunbeam/); other works: Prison Noir (15 stories from prisoners, ed. Joyce Carol Oates); Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing.
Registrants will receive a lengthy reference list compiled by Michael of articles, books and movies – both fiction and non-fiction relating to the subject of Crime and Punishment (all for optional consumption).
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