All posts filed under: Criminology

L.A.’s Failed Homeless Policies Turned My Home Into a Prison

I never wanted a gun. In fact, I wanted to never own one—until around noon on Thursday, August 20th. Since the late 1990s, I’ve lived in Venice, California, renting a one-bedroom Craftsman house a mile from the ocean that someone built out of a Sears-catalog kit 100 years ago. I’m a science-based syndicated columnist and author, currently working all hours to complete a book that keeps trying to kill me. Luckily, I’m writing it in this cute little old lady of a house on my sweet Venice block. Whenever it seems I’m pointlessly pushing words around the page, I’ll step out the front door and take in the sunny stretch of palm trees, cacti, and bougainvillea. I’ll spot a hummingbird, wave to my neighbor with his parrot on his shoulder, or maybe watch Joey the Aggressive Squirrel, my wee dog’s taunting nemesis. These brief distractions uncouple me from looming suspicions that I’m an incompetent dullard no one will want to read, and I often go back in, emotionally restored, and pound out a coherent and …

Racist Police Violence Reconsidered

Tony Timpa was 32 years old when he died at the hands of the Dallas police in August 2016. He suffered from mental health difficulties and was unarmed. He wasn’t resisting arrest. He had called the cops from a parking lot while intoxicated because he thought he might be a danger to himself. By the time law enforcement arrived, he had already been handcuffed by the security guards of a store nearby. Even so, the police officers made him lie face down on the grass, and one of them pressed a knee into his back. He remained in this position for 13 minutes until he suffocated. During the harrowing recording of his final moments, he can be heard pleading for his life. A grand jury indictment of the officers involved was overturned. Not many people have seen this video, however, and that may have something to do with the fact that Timpa was white. During the protests and agonizing discussions about police brutality that have followed the death of George Floyd under remarkably similar circumstances, …

America’s Black Communities Are Suffering. Violent Protests Will Make the Suffering Worse

Protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin—an act that prosecutors describe as murder—have devolved into violence. Numerous small businesses have been destroyed, and at least one elderly shopper at a Target store was assaulted. A man has been shot dead. This pattern of events is familiar because it has repeated itself numerous times over American history following acts of police brutality, especially in cases where, as with Floyd, the victim was black. First, large numbers of people protest peacefully, drawing attention to their cause and attracting national sympathy. Then, a smaller group turns violent, causing destruction in the community and sometimes harming innocent people. That smaller group sometimes includes people who exploit the chaos for their own ends. During the Baltimore riots of 2015, for instance, the looting of pharmacies led to opioids and other drugs flooding the market, likely feeding drug dependency, enriching gangs, and fueling more crime. In the 1960s, thousands of Americans took part in non-violent protests in opposition to segregation. Their …

Canada’s Treatment of Indigenous Peoples Was Cruel. But Calling It an Ongoing ‘Genocide’ Is Wrong

Two months after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the public: “As his armies advance, whole districts are being exterminated. Scores of thousands, literally scores of thousands of executions in cold blood are being perpetrated by the German police troops…We are in the presence of a crime without a name.” By the end of World War II, we had at least two names for it, Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide. Now, almost 80 years later, a debate over the semantics of genocide has erupted in Canada, following a report from a National Inquiry investigating the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). The report claims not only that Indigenous communities were historically victimized by racist and murderous colonial policies, but also that a “genocide” is still going on in Canada to this very day. While many well-meaning activists are pressuring the Canadian government to act on the findings of the Inquiry, others have questioned the use of this term. The fact that the overall Canadian homicide rate …

Neutralizing Ngo: The Apologetics of Antifascist Street Violence

In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell observed that “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” He detailed how certain manners of diction are employed to that end—dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious and otherwise meaningless words all work to constitute a kind of inflated, euphemistic style of expression. This divests language of plain meaning in order to obscure brutal realities and to hide the “gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims.” As these habits are adopted and spread, clear thinking and good communication become more difficult and the process self-perpetuates. Stupid, ugly, and oppressive ideas actively distort language to create a semblance of reason and respectability; in turn, the corruption of language further predisposes people to uncritically accept and conform to the same sorts of orthodoxies. In a vein similar to Orwell’s lexicology of apologetics, criminological theory may help inform an understanding of how speech is used in defense of the indefensible at another level of analysis—that of rhetorical strategies. Specifically, what follows is a look at the …

Say It Ain’t So, Doc: How Should Martin Luther King Scholars Deal With the Rape Story?

These are difficult days for students of Martin Luther King, Jr. The man many of us have dedicated long months and years to researching, often out of a profound sense of respect, is facing an allegation of laughing and even offering advice while a fellow Baptist minister raped a woman in a Washington, D.C. hotel room in January 1964. The source of this explosive claim is a trove of newly released FBI surveillance documents unearthed by the dean of MLK historians himself, David J. Garrow, author of The FBI and Martin Luther King: From “Solo” to Memphis and the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on King, Bearing the Cross. Since the article detailing Garrow’s new findings came out at the end of May in the British magazine Standpoint, Garrow has taken more of a pounding in the press than King. No surprises there, perhaps. Like those now criticizing Garrow, I desperately want to believe that the 55-year-old allegation is a trumped-up product of the FBI’s “viciously negative attitude” toward King, as Garrow described it in “Solo” to …

The Life of a Transgender Prisoner

Last month’s school shooting in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, claimed the life of an innocent child. Eight more were injured. In the way that this crime affects the victims and their families, the tragedy is similar to many previous incidents. But it also uniquely highlights a criminal justice challenge that has been the subject of debate: what to do with transgender criminals? In the UK, where prisoners are classified primarily according to a policy of “self-identification,” recent controversy has focused on Karen White, a violent transgender woman who was moved to a male facility in 2018 after being accused of sexually assaulting multiple female prisoners. In the United States, where prisoners generally are classified according to their biological sex, the issue has been less prominent. However, that may soon change. One of the two suspected shooters in Colorado is listed in court records as Maya McKinney, a 16-year-old female. However, the suspect now identifies as “Alec,” and has asked that male pronouns be used in all official proceedings—even though Alec is being housed in …

The Dangers of Ignoring Cognitive Inequality

On Sunday 28 April 1996, Martin Bryant was awoken by his alarm at 6am. He said goodbye to his girlfriend as she left the house, ate some breakfast, and set the burglar alarm before leaving his Hobart residence, as usual. He stopped briefly to purchase a coffee in the small town of Forcett, where he asked the cashier to “boil the kettle less time.” He then drove to the nearby town of Port Arthur, originally a colonial-era convict settlement populated only by a few hundred people. It was here that Bryant would go on to use the two rifles and a shotgun stashed inside a sports bag on the passenger seat of his car to perpetrate the worst massacre in modern Australian history. By the time it was over, 35 people were dead and a further 23 were left wounded. Astoundingly, Bryant was caught alive. He was arrested fleeing a fire at the house into which he had barricaded himself during a shootout with the police. He later pled guilty to a list of charges …

Are Liberal Democracies ‘Rape Cultures’?

What are we to make of the claim that we inhabit a ‘rape culture’? Those making this claim seldom make it clear if they are being descriptive or expressive. A descriptive claim purports to tell us that something is or is not the case (“The exam is over”) while an expressive claim conveys subjectivity and sentiment (“That exam was torture!”). If the claim that we live in a rape culture is descriptive—that our culture condones or promotes rape—those making the claim must support it with adequate evidence. If they are not being descriptive, then the expressive meaning of the claim is not entirely clear. Let’s begin by considering a passage from an article by Alyn Pearson entitled “Rape Culture: It’s All Around Us,” which appeared in the (now defunct) feminist publication Off Our Backs in 2000: Rape is the common cold of society. […] We have assimilated rape into our everyday culture much as we have the cold. […] There is a silence surrounding the recognition that we live in a cultural environment where rape is endemic, but it is true. …

Biosocial Criminology and the Lombrosian Paradox

Last October, Quillette published an article by Hal Conick, crisply abridging Robert Sapolsky’s biologically based argument for criminal justice reform. Sapolsky, a neurobiology professor at Stanford University, has spent his career researching a range of topics including neuronal degeneration, infraspecific dominance hierarchies, stress, and violence, especially in relation to the behaviour of primates.  Over the years, Sapolsky has found that much of the antisocial behaviour we see and criminalize in human beings manifests similarly, biologically speaking, in our hominid relatives. Coupled with his extensive training in neuroscience, Sapolsky has used the findings of this simian research to argue for shifts in criminal justice policy—from the current system, which relies on an esoteric conception of ‘free will’ that can be needlessly retributive, to a system emphasizing public safety. In his 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Sapolsky argues that “you can’t begin to understand things like aggression, competition, cooperation, and empathy without biology,” a caveat he quite rightly issues, “for the benefit of a certain breed of social scientist who …