Archive for March, 2007

Federal and State “Please-Call” Lists

I just received yet another call from a marketing group representing the Fraternal Order of the Police (FoP).

This is certainly something to file under the law of Unintended Consequences.  The fact is that as soon as I registered for the Federal and State “Do Not Call” lists that I actually started receiving more solicitation calls.

I started receiving calls from the “Fraternal Order of the Police (FoP),” Political Campaigns, and other organizations exempted under the law. While it would be hard to prove, it certainly seems that these non-profit groups are using the “Do Not Call” lists as a cheap and easy way to get lists of people’s phone numbers. 

In effect, these groups have turned “Do Not Call” lists into “Please Call” lists.  It seems particularly nefarious that organizations representing political groups and government employees would be exempted from the law.  It seems these groups should be held to an even higher standard.  

But then again, exempting itself from its own laws has become somewhat of a time-honored government tradition.


The Terminally Ill and their Impact on Interstate Commerce

United States Constitution, Amendment 10Powers of the States and People – Ratified 12/15/1791

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively”

Hmmmm, seems clear enough to me, and certainly a lot clearer then the various misinterpretations of the “Interstate Commerce Clause” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 in case anyone is keeping track) – Congress shall have Power To :

“To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”

Now as often happens when I read an news story on the current excesses of federal government regulation, I try to reconcile my simplistic understanding of Constitutional statements such as Amendment 10 with the subsequent convoluted case law surrounding them. 

The current source of my bewilderment?  A federal court decision: Dying woman loses marijuana appeal – a Federal Appeals case of course, because Medical Marijuana is legal in her state.  While I have not read the decision, I can imagine it was rife with non sequitur references to the “Interstate Commerce Clause.”

I propose a new Ammendment that will hopefully be followed more closely than Ammendment #10:

“Once you get certified as being terminally ill or in a vegetative state, the federal government has to stop harassing you.”

It is painfully apparent that we need a new standard for finding something in the constitution: how about some clear cut criteria that if the concept is not there, you can’t claim a connection.  Abortion, Gay Marriage, Drugs, etc. – these topics or any concepts remotely connected to them simply are not addressed.   Sorry federal government – and more importantly protagonists on the right and left – please see Amendment 10.

There is an adage: “If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”  Unfortunately, right now to anyone who has an agenda, the hammer is the judiciary and everything is starting to look like a constitutional issue.  Constitutional that is – unless you are silly enough to believe Amendment #10.

Be Nice to Your Hall Monitor – or Else Do 7 Years Hard Time

Your honor, in defense of my past posts on the Epidemic of Incarceration,  I would like to enter into the public record Exhibit A.

It is the Chicago Tribune story of Paris, TX resident Shaquanda Cotton (today’s #1 story on Digg).  She is a 14-year-old  who was tried and convicted of felony “assault on a public servant” for shoving a school hall monitor at her Paris High School.  For this heinous crime she was given a 7-year sentence by Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville.

Jeez – time was that shoving – and/or otherwise showing your disdain for- your hall monitor was considered a prerequisite for entry into normal society.

But all kidding aside, I thought this story was a perfect illustration of many elements of the epidemic:

  1. Race – are African Americans given harsher sentences?
  2. Overcharging – should the Paris, TX DA really have even charged her with this felony offense to begin with? 
  3. Using Prison and Incarceration as a First Resort (rather than as a last resort) – could she have not been given some alternate intermediate punishment?  
  4. “Toughness on Crime” – is this sentence truly warranted?  Why was she not allowed out on bail while she filed her appeal?  What could this Judge possibly even been thinking?

This story is certainly sure to make people think a little harder about these issues.  Perhaps not entirely unlike an inprisoned Nelson Mandela made people think Apartheid wasn’t such a hot idea.  Your Honor, the defense rests.  Would you mind letting Shaquanda out of lockup now?

S. Cotton

Go West Young Man!

I’ve flown to the Left/West Coast maybe 20 times in my life and yet I never cease to be amazed by the scenery.   The variety and range of landscapes is truly awe-inspiring and makes even a jaded traveler like myself spend most of my time gazing longingly out of the window.

Springtime in the Rockies I

It is almost as if the country feels guilty for making you view the intense monotony of the Great Plains, that it feels it must reward you with some of the most striking scenery imaginable once you pass Denver.

Moon-scapes, Mars-scapes, Snow-capped Mountains, Red Rocked Canyons, Granite Deserts, and fractal patterns of almost every make and description.

Fractalscape III

And all of this amazement is only further increased by the realization that people were once so determined that they crossed this forbidden wasteland on foot.  Does any of the toughness and determination of these hardy predecessors live on today? 

I hope so – certainly free land is an potent motivator.  Recently an Alaskan town gave away free land and had plenty of takers – although these modern day homesteaders are more likely to be driving Ford Taurus-rather than Conestoga- wagons – I suspect they are the same hardy, adventurous sort.  May they meet with similar success.

Jesus and the Parable of the Wii Sports Boxing Game

“Two men went up to the video console to play;
one was a gamer, and the other was a ….”

…pretty good likeness of Jesus Christ. That’s right, while watching my son play the Wii the other day, I could swear that his boxing opponent was the splitting image of Jesus. Not the look and build of your typical boxer.

 Wii Jesus “Mii” in a Boxing Match

I might otherwise believe it was pure coincidence except when the virtual boxing opponent knocked him down I thought I heard him mutter “I smite thee Pharisee and tax-collector!”

Now, before Nintendo sends a team of lawyers over to my house, I should acknowledge that I am only kidding about this last paragraph (the boxer could be any Renaissance-era Italian and I believe he merely speaks in grunts).

But seeing such potential controversy in a simple video game reminded me of how easy it is to see religious symbolismand metaphysical machinations in the most banal of objects and images – from a grilled cheese sandwich (on sale at my ebay store) to a plague of locusts (OK, maybe that’s not a good example).

It also harkened me back to the nascent, innocent days of the web when viral urban legends would propagate in my email’s inbox like so much pathogenic paramecia.  For instance, remember the Wingdings “NYC” fonts controversy.

NYC “Symbolism”

At the time of the controversy, as usual, professional debunkers Penn Jillette and Barbara Mikkelson( assured us that there was no animosity or sinister plot lurking in the arrangement of symbols in the Wingdings font (although Microsoft acknowledged there was forethought into the earlier Webdings arrangement).  

Now if I could only be similarly assured that this Wii boxing opponent wasn’t Jesus, I might be able to fight back without fear of eternal damnation.

Please forgive him, for he knows not what he does...

Little Girls and Pets Don’t Mix

What happens when you leave a little girl alone with her pet… 

Little Girls and Dogs Don't Mix

If only we could all be so tolerant of kids.

In this picture, our family pooch reminds me of a canine version of Peg Bundy from Married with Children.  Will someone please get her a bon-bon?

U.S. Epidemic of Incarceration and Sentencing Alternatives

OK, one more entry on the U.S. Epidemic of Incarceration and then on to more pleasant topics…

And admittedly, it is not very “pleasant” to think of mostly young, minority men, rotting in prison and themselves being robbed of potentially the most productive years of their lives. And it is certainly not “pleasant” to think about crime victims.

But, we must find some way to better balance the needs of these 2 interest groups. Often the debate stops immediately, and quite compellingly, with “What about the victims?” or to quote Helen Lovejoy from the Simpson’s: “Will someone please think of the children?

In order to move past that argument, let’s assume the rest of my comments pertain strictly to victimless crimes – recall (from my last post) that they are the majority of those incarcerated. Of course to do this we have to accept that there are in fact victimless crimes – that a Hollywood actor who snorts Cocaine is not responsible for the murderous crimes of a Columbian Druglord. But hopefully, most people are able to disambiguate between the two.

Furthermore, as we continue to speak about non-violent offenders, can we agree that:

1. There are segments of the prison population who do not need to be there

a. Society derives more benefit from having individuals pay taxes as productive citizens versus consume taxes as a prisoners.  Prison is the most expensive form of Welfare imaginable.

2. Prison actually increases criminality

a. This should be common sense. If you take someone who is a little bit misguided – lock them up for a couple of years with folks who are a lot misguided – what type of person do you think you will have in the end? (if you don’t believe this, see the story of Lionel Tate)

b. Do more convicts = less crime or more crime? Because of the complex variables involved, contrary to what most politicians tell you, this statement is almost impossible to prove either way. So let’s stick to the common sense approach.

3. Prison should be a last resort after other options have been tried

a. Today, there are already compelling alternatives to prison: restitution, fines, house arrest (with an exemption for work hopefully), and boot camp just to name a few. So why does our prison population continue to swell. Are these alternatives being used when, or as often as, they should?

So, can we send fewer people to prison? Is there a technologically and socially feasible solution to the problem of over-incarceration and the ever-growing prison population?

Can science or technology contribute to the solution? Certainly, movies like the very powerful A Clockwork Orange have led to some skepticism. Thus, so far, Ankle Bracelets and “SuperMax” prisons aside, there have been very few contributions of science to the field of criminal justice.

But consider a combination of several different approaches:

  1. Modern Tracking Systems
    1. We can pinpoint and track just about anything, just about anywhere on the planet – down to a $10 UPS package. Can’t we track individuals who submit to be monitored?
    2. Instead of just monitoring position/location. Also monitor with voice/cell communications – so that someone being monitored can be reached at any time
    3. If you really need to be Big Brother with someone with a drug or alcohol problem, while you are combining a GPS and Cellphone and Ankle Bracelet throw in some sensors to sniff the air for traces of the stuff.  They do this now with car interlock devices that you have to blow into to start. 
    4. Rather than just passively monitor individuals, provide alerts when someone goes in areas that they probably shouldn’t (e.g. known drug areas)
    5. Create parole officers who are essentially high tech prison guards without walls. If the shipping guy from the Nextel commercial can ask “Who’s agitating my dots. Can’t a parole officer see and ask “Who’s agitating my parolees”
    6. I am certainly no fan of a surveillance society – but if it is a choice between having .7% of the population in prison or under electronic surveillance – I’ll pick the surveillance every time.
  2. The Laws of Credible Threat and Immediate Consequences
    1. ABC Primetime had a great show on how they were able to get an entire office to lose 20 pounds using a credible threat
    2. So can’t we come up with alternate credible threats before prison must be used
  3. Derive a more graduated scale of punishments
    1. So there are alternatives for someone who has a technical parole violation other then sending them back to prison for the rest of their sentencing term.

While it simply is not possible to write the complete solution to this large problem in one page, it is nonetheless a solution that we must start to more earnestly seek. Continuing to imprison offenders for victimless offenses and destroying them along with their families will not serve the long term interest of our nation.

It is an imperfect world and criminality is but one part of that imperfection. But we should not make this imperfect world worse with misguided policies.

March 2007
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