A Philosopher's Blog

Do We Want Rapists, Robbers and Murderers Voting?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 26, 2016

My essay on felons and voting received an interesting comment from A.J. McDonald, Jr. He raised a concern about having rapists, robbers and murders voting. One initial reply is that there are many other types of felonies, a significant number of which are non-violent felonies. As such, any discussion of felons and voting needs to consider not just the worst felonies, but all the felonies on the books. And, in the United States, there are many on the books. That said, I will address the specific concern about felons convicted of rape, robbery and murder.

On the face of it, it is natural to have an immediate emotional reaction to the idea of rapists, robbers and murderers voting. After all, these are presumably very bad people and it offensive to think of them exercising the same fundamental right as other citizens. While this reaction is natural, it is generally unwise to try to settle complex moral questions by appealing to an immediate emotional reaction—although calm deliberation might end up in the same place as fiery emotion. I will begin by considering arguments for disenfranchising such felons.

The most plausible argument, given my view that voting rights are foundational rights in a democratic state, is that such crimes warrant removing or at least suspending a person’s status as a citizen. After all, when a person is justly convicted of rape, murder or robbery they are justly punished by suspension of their liberty. In some cases, they are punished by death. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that if the right to liberty (and even life) can be suspended, then the right to vote can be suspended as well. I certainly see the appeal here. However, I think there is a counter to this reasoning.

Punishment by imprisonment is generally aimed at three goals. The first is to protect the public from the criminal by removing him from society and to serve as a deterrent to others.  This could be used to justify taking away the right to vote by arguing that felons are likely to vote in ways that would harm society. The easy and obvious reply is that there seems to be little reason to think that felons could do harm through voting. Or any more harm than non-felon voters. For felons to do real harm through voting, there would need to be harmful choices and these would need to be choices that felons would pick because they are felons and they would need to be able to win that vote It could be claimed that, for example, there might be a vote on reducing prison sentences and the felons would vote in their interest to the detriment of others. While this is possible, it seems unlikely that the felons would be able to win the vote on their own. There is also the obvious counter that non-felons are likely to vote in harmful ways as well—as the history of voting shows. As such, denying felons the vote to protect the public from harm is not a reasonable justification. If there are things being voted for that could do serious harm, then the danger lies with those who got such things on the ballot and not with felons who might vote for it.

The second is the actual punishment, which is typically justified in terms of retribution. This does have some appeal as a justification, assuming that the felon wants to vote and regards being denied the vote as a harm. However, most Americans do not vote—so it is not much of a punishment. There is also the question of whether the denial of the right to vote is a suitable punishment for a crime. Punishments should not simply be tossed onto a crime—they should fit. While paying restitution would fit for a robbery, being denied the right to vote would not seem to fit.

The third is rehabilitation; the prisoner is supposed to be reformed so he can be returned to society (assuming the sentence is not death or life). Denying voting rights would seem to have the opposite effect—the person would be even more disconnected from society. As such, this would not justify removal of the voting rights.

Because of these considerations, even rapists, murderers and robbers should not lose their right to vote. I do agree, as argued in my previous essay, that crimes that are effectively rejections of the criminal’s citizenship (like rebellion and treason) would warrant stripping a person of citizenship and the right to vote. Other crimes, even awful ones, would not suffice to strip away citizenship.

Another approach is to make the case that rapists, murderers and robbers are morally bad or bad decision makers and should be denied the right to vote on moral grounds. While it is true that rapists, murderers and robbers are generally very bad people, the right to vote is not grounded in being a good person (or even just not being bad) or making good (or at least not bad) decisions. While it might seem appealing to have moral and competency tests for voting, there is the obvious problem that many voters would fail such tests. Many politicians would also fail the tests as well.

It could be countered that the only test that would be used is the legal test of whether or not a person is convicted of a felony. While obviously imperfect, it could be argued that those convicted are probably guilty and probably bad people and thus should not be voting. While it is true that some innocent people will be convicted and denied the right to vote and also true that many bad people will be able to avoid convictions, this is acceptable.

A reply to this is to inquire as to why such a moral standard should be used in regards to the right to vote. After all, the right to vote (as I have argued before) is not predicated on moral goodness or competence. It is based on being a citizen, good or bad. As such, any crime that does not justly remove a citizen’s status as a citizen would not warrant removing the right to vote. Yes, this does entail that rapists, murders and robbers should retain the right to vote. This might strike some as offensive or disgusting, but these people remain citizens. If this is too offensive, then such crimes would need to be recast as acts of treason that strip away citizenship. This seems excessive. And there is the fact that there are always awful people voting—they just have not been caught or got away with their awfulness or are clever and connected enough to ensure that the awful things they do are not considered felonies or even crimes. I am just as comfortable allowing a robber to vote as I am to allow Trump and Hillary to vote in their own election.


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College Education for Prisoners

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 5, 2014

At one time, inmates in the United States were eligible for government Pell tuition grants and there was a college prison program. Then Congress decided that prisoners should not get such grants and this effectively doomed the college prison programs. Fortunately, people like Max Kenner have worked hard to bring college education to prisoners once more. Kenner has worked with Bard College to offer college education with prisoners and this program seems to have been a success. As might be imagined, there are some interesting ethical issues here.

One approach to college education for prisoners is both ethical and practical. If it is accepted that one function of the prison system is to reform prisoners so that they do not return to crime after they are released, then there seems to be a very good reason to support such programs.

Since 2001 about 300 prisoners have received college degrees from Bard. Of those released from prison, it is claimed that less than 2% have been arrested again. In contrast, 70% of state prison inmates are arrested and incarcerated again within five years of their release. Prisoners who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to return to prison than former prisoners who did not participate in such programs.

Given the very high cost of incarceration ($14-60,000, with an average of $31,000 per year), reducing the number of people returning to prison would save the state and taxpayers money. There is also the cost of crime, both to the victims and society in general.

Of course, there is the practical concern that the prison-industrial complex in the United States is a key job and profit creator (mostly transferring public money to the private sector) and having fewer people in prison would actually be a practical loss, economically speaking.

In moral terms, as long as the cost of the programs is not high, then a utilitarian argument can be given in favor of such programs. Using the stock utilitarian moral argument, the benefits generated by the education programs would make them morally correct. There is, of course, also the moral value in having people not committing crimes and being, instead, productive members of the community.

One practical objection to the programs is that the cost of such programs might exceed the benefits. However, this is partially a factual matter, namely weighing the economic cost of crime and imprisonment against the cost of providing such programs. The positive economic value of such programs should be considered as well. The cost to the state can, obviously, be offset if the programs are supported by others (such as donors and private universities). Given the cost of incarceration, practical considerations seem to favor the programs. However, this can be debated.

Another practical objection is that the benefits being discussed arise only when a released prisoner does not return to prison because of the education program. If a prisoner is serving a sentence that will keep him in prison for life, then there would seem to be no practical benefit. The counter to this is that most prisoners are not in prison for life, so this would apply in only a very few cases that would be offset by the cases in which people do leave prison.

It could also be claimed that the education programs are not the cause of the former prisoners remaining out of prison. After all, this could be a case of a common cause (that is, what seems to be a cause and an effect are really both effects of an underlying cause): the qualities that would cause a prisoner to participate in such an education program are likely to be the same ones that would make it less likely that the former prisoner would return. If this is the case, then it could be argued that such programs are not needed since they are not actually the causal factor.

While it is always wise to consider the possibility of a common cause, it does make sense that an education program would have causal role to play in a former prisoner not returning to prison. At the very least, education would increase the chances of the person getting a job and this would have an impact on the likelihood that she would return to crime.

It can also be argued that even if the education did not have this effect (that is, the former prisoners who would have been in the program would not have returned to prison anyway), the value of the education itself would justify the programs. I do believe that education has intrinsic value. However, this is not a view that is shared by all and it can obviously be argued against, usually on economic grounds.

In general, though, the education programs do seem worthwhile, if only on practical grounds. In cases in which the programs are being privately funded, there seems to be no practical reason to oppose such programs, provided that they do have the claimed benefits regarding recidivism.

One moral objection that can be raised against these programs is that resources are being expended on prisoners that could be used to help those who cannot afford an education and are not convicted criminals. One might also add that prisons exist to punish people for their crimes and not to reward them. As such, prisoners should not receive such education. Instead, any resources that might have been spent on educating prisoners should be spent on assisting non-criminals who cannot afford college. Of course, there are those who would not want to assist even non-criminals who cannot afford college.

This moral objection does have some bite. After all, a person in need who has not committed crimes seems more deserving of the assistance of others than someone who has committed crimes. If it did, in fact, come down to a choice between helping a non-criminal or a criminal, then it would seem preferable to assist the non-criminal—just as it would be preferable to spend money on education and infrastructure  rather than on subsidies to corporations. It would also presumably be preferable to spend money on addressing the causes of crime rather than creating a prison-industrial complex.

The reply to this objection is based on the fact that when a person is imprisoned, there will be a significant expenditure to simply keep that person in prison (an average of $31,000 a year in 2010). While it would be preferable to avoid having to imprison people, once they are in prison it would seem desirable to invest a little more to keep them from returning to prison. Calculating this would involve using the cost of the education, the cost of keeping the prisoner in prison, the likely chance of returning to prison and for how long. To use a made up example, if it cost $31,000 for a prisoner to get her degree and $31,000 a year to keep her locked up, then if there is a good chance that her degree would keep her out of prison for another four year sentence, then it would seem to be worthwhile even as a gamble. After all, expending $31,000 is likely to save much more money. If the fact that she is likely to be a contributing member of society is factored in, the deal is even better. So, the gist of the reply is that spending the money education does make sense, provided that it has a good chance of saving money and doing some social good. If the money is not spent on education, then it seems likely that even more will be spent on dealing with recidivism. Either way society pays, the question is whether one should pay more or less or whether to pay for something positive (education) or negative (locking someone up). So, it is not a matter of spending money that could be spent to assist non-criminals, it is a matter of how to spend the money that will most likely be spent either way.

I do, of course, understand how someone struggling to pay for her or her child’s college would be outraged that prisoners are getting an education for free. However, I would simply refer back to the previous argument: paying for the education of a prisoner, assuming it reduced recidivism, is cheaper than paying to keep locking the prisoner up.

It might be objected that the problem should be addressed before people go to prison, that there should be education programs designed to assist people who are at risk for prison, but are also likely to be able to complete college and avoid prison.

In reply, I would say that I agree completely. It is better that a person never go to prison in the first place and education certainly seems to be a much better investment than prison. There are, of course, those who would disagree and argue that it is better to let people end up in prison than to spend public money on college education. Others could argue that while such plans might be good intentioned, they would not work—the money would be spent and the result would merely be educated criminals. These objections are worth considering, but I would still contend that spending on education to keep people out of prison is preferable to spending money to keep people in prison.


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Strip Searches

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 13, 2012
The United States Supreme Court, the highest c...

They are, in fact, the judge of you. And me, too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the media and public were briefly focused on the Supreme Court’s consideration of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the court made a rather troubling ruling on a case involving Albert Florence.F

Florence, a finance director for a care dealership, was stopped on the way to a family event. He was then arrested when the trooper determined that there was a warrant for his arrest. While the warrant was in error (he had paid the fine in question) and he had a document to that effect, he was still jailed. While in jail he was strip searched. Six days later he was transferred and strip searched once again. Florence took issue with this treatment and his case made it to the supreme court.

By a predictable 5-4 vote, the Court ruled that anyone who is arrested (even for minor offenses, such as traffic violations) can be stripped searched. The ruling allows this even when there is no reasonable suspicion the person is concealing anything that would require a strip search to locate.

In the majority opinion Justice Kennedy noted that it would be “unworkable” to require jail officials to strip search only in cases in which they had reasonable grounds to suspect that a strip search would be needed. As might be imagined, this seems like an absurd thing to say. After all, it seems to be saying that it would not work to limit strip searches to cases in which a strip search would be reasonably justified. I certainly hope that this same logic is not extended to arrests. After all, the police are currently limited to arresting people when they have reasonable cause to suspect that a person needs to be arrested. I do hope that this is not also “unworkable.”

Kennedy did attempt to back up his point with an example, specifically that of the infamous Timothy McVeigh.  McVeigh had been arrested for driving without a license plate which caused Kennedy to note that “people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.”

One rather obvious response to this is that his example is irrelevant to the matter of strip searching. After all, nothing about the McVeigh case involved finding something dangerous or important by strip searching him. Now, if McVeigh had been arrested on a traffic stop and the police had found a bomb taped to his genitals and had thus prevented the horrific bombing, then Kennedy’s example would have had at least some relevance. It would, of course, still be just one example and thus an incredibly weak argument by example.

It might be countered that Kennedy did not mean for this to be an example directly showing the importance of strip searching people but rather as evidence that very bad people can be arrested for minor offenses. Presumably his reasoning is that such people would be more likely to hide things in places that only a strip search would reveal. Of course, this logic would also seem to apply to having the police check anyone, such as folks who eat fast food. After all, “people who eat at McDonald’s can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.”

It might be replied that people who are arrested for minor offenses have been arrested and hence are legitimately subject to searches in ways that people who are just out and about are not subject to arrest. This can, of course, be countered by the reply that it seems to be unwarranted to treat all prisoners the same, regardless of the offense and other factors. After all, if the police can distinguish between who should and should not be arrested, they should be able to distinguish between who needs to be strip searched and who does not.

This can be countered by arguing that the strip searching is done for the safety of the prisoners and the guards. After all, if everyone is strip searched, then the chances of dangerous items getting into prisons is somewhat lower. However, there is the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who are arrested for minor offenses are not concealing anything and to strip search people on the minute chance that they have something would be overreacting. To use an analogy, putting all prisoners in straight jackets and masks would provide greater protection, but that seems needlessly excessive for the vast majority of prisoners.  There is also the rather important fact that people are not supposed to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment.

While searching prisoners is a legitimate practice, strip searching certainly seems to go beyond what is needed in the case of minor offenses. After all, even Alito notes that strip searches are humiliating. As such, to subject a minor offender to such unnecessary humiliation  would be to punish them in cruel and unusual ways-even before they are found guilty.

Naturally, the ruling does not require that everyone who is arrested be strip searched-it just allows it to occur.  Alito even noted that for most people arrested for minor offenses, “admission to the general jail population, with the concomitant humiliation of a strip-search, may not be reasonable.” As such, jails could elect to house those arrested for minor offenses apart from the general jail population and not strip search them. However, the fact that this could be done does not mean it will be done and there is the rather obvious concern that this ruling will be exploited to allow the humiliation of people who are arrested on minor offenses. This would add nothing to public safety and would merely serve to impose on liberty, privacy and dignity.

Given that the court accepted that the police have a right to strip search even without probable cause, it would seem sensible to think that they will rule in favor of the Affordable Care Act. After all, if the state has the right to strip you naked and check out your junk when you are arrested for anything at all, then surely the state has the power to require you to buy health care insurance. In fact, given that an increased number of Americans will be exposed to the chilliness and psychological stress of being strip searched, they will need health insurance more than ever.

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Prisoner Denied D&D

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on January 30, 2010
A D&D game session in progress
Image via Wikipedia

In a rather odd story, a prisoner in Wisconsin has lost his appeal to keep his D&D material (that is Dungeons & Dragons).

This is the result of an anonymous letter sent in 2004 alleging that the prisoner, Singer, was forming a gang around the D&D game. Of course, anyone familiar with D&D will know that while D&D players seem a bit gang like (strange lingo, obsession with loot, and so on) they are rather far from the sort of gangs that people need to worry about.

The reason given by officials is that  D&D “promotes fantasy role playing, competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviors, and possible gambling.”

The first part of the charge is obviously true. D&D is all about fantasy role playing. Saying that it promotes this is like saying that track promotes running.

The other claims are far more debatable. They are also, as Socrates might say, the old charges that have been trotted out against gaming for decades-despite the complete lack of adequate evidence for such claims. My own experience has been that while gaming does tend to attract people with a desire to escape reality, gamers seem to be no more prone to violence or gambling than non-gamers. These matters are, of course, subject to empirical testing but the burden of proof rests on those who claim that gaming has these effects.

As I see it, it would actually be a good thing to have prisoners playing D&D.  After all, time spent playing D&D would be time in which they are not doing things like using drugs, raping each other, engaging in real violence, or engaging in other activities that create real harms.

D&D also tends to encourage reading, an interest in numbers, as well as the development of the imagination. It can also help people develop social and cooperative skills. True, players can elect to be evil and do evil things to one another, but that usually teaches the lesson that being evil does not work very well.

A more reasonable justification for not allowing prisoners to play D&D is that prison is supposed to be punishment. Therefore, the officials argued, prisoners should be denied what they enjoy.  This, of course, assumes that keeping prisoners bored is a form of punishment and that this has desirable consequences.

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Movies, Zero Tolerance & Zero Sense

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on December 6, 2009

Samantha Tumpach was recently arrested and jailed. She faces the possibility of three years in prison. Did she assault someone? Rob a store? No, her crime was that while she was filming a birthday event she managed to capture a few minutes of New Moon-a crime for which the movie theater folks had zero tolerance.

Being an author, I am against the theft of intellectual property. After all, as I would regard stealing my work as wrong, I must regard the stealing of others’ work as equally wrong.  Also, it is theft and hence most of the moral arguments against stealing apply to this sort of theft as well. As such, people who try to steal movies by copying them in this manner should be subject to punishment.

Being an ethical and rational person, I am against excessive punishment and believe that the purpose of law is to serve the general good. Unthinking obedience to the letter of the law and zero tolerance tends to transform the law from an instrument of the public good to a implement of harm. I am, of course, against that.

To justly punish a person for theft, the thief would seem to be an intentional thief rather than an accidental taker. In this case, Tumpach did not seem to have any intent to steal the film (if she did, then the matter changes considerably) and her “theft” seems to be purely incidental. To use an analogy, it would be like a woman setting her purse down on the counter of a pastry shop and having a pastry stick to it by accident. When she walks out, unaware of the pastry, she is “stealing” the pastry, but it would be unreasonable to call her a thief. Likewise for Tumpach. If her video simply captures the film incidentally and does not show an intent to copy the film, then she should not be considered a thief.

Just punishment also needs to be proportional. After all, punishing a person to a degree that exceeds the wrong she did (and what is needed justly for deterrence) would simply create a new wrong that would need to be rectified. What she did does not seem to have done any meaningful harm to the owners’ of the movie and hence her arrest seems to be an injustice.

Before anyone asks, no I haven’t seen New Moon. I have seen the ads, thus leading me to infer that the werewolves in that film world spend their time in the gym getting buff rather than killing people. No doubt the older werewolves are disappointed.

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Huckabee, Horton & Clemmons

Posted in Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 2, 2009
Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speak...

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Jill Lawrence of Politics Daily has declared Michael Huckabee‘s 2012 presidential campaign DBA (Dead Before Arrival). This is based on the fact that Huckabee commuted Clemmon’s prison sentence in 2000. Clemmons allegedly murdered four police officers recently and the folks in the media have been quick to note the connection between the two men.

While one incident would be bad enough, Lawrence asserts that Huckabee has a pattern of making bad choices when it comes to commuting sentences (such as the case involving Dumond). Interestingly, no mention is made of any positive results from his commuting sentences.

What makes this incident so politically damaging is the fact that a similar  sort of disaster was used to attack Michael Dukakis. Folks who have been around a while will recall that while Dukakis was governor, the convicted murder Willie Horton raped a woman while on furlough from prison. The Willie Horton club was wielded quite effectively by the Republicans to beat down Dukakis. Obviously enough, the Democrats can easily pick up the club, dust it off, spray paint “Maurice Clemmons” over “Willie Horton” and commence beating.

This sort of attack would seem to be especially effective against a Republican. After all, Democrats are generally stereotyped as being soft on crime but Republicans are supposed to be tough on crime. As such, Huckabee would seem to be fatally wounded by this situation. Or so it would seem.

In the case of Dukakis, the Republicans were able to cast him as weak and soft on criminals because of this weakness. Huckabee, however, is presented as commuting sentences primarily based on his faith and his belief in redemption. That is, he tended to commute sentences because he believed that the individual had found religion and had been redeemed.

Interestingly, while folks on the American right generally believe in being tough on crime, those with religious leanings tends to also believe greatly in the power of redemption through faith. As such, Huckabee can be presented as not being weak on crime but being a true believer in the redemptive power of faith. As such, Huckabee’s mistakes can also be presented as failings on the part of the once-redeemed. In the case of Clemmons, he did not act until nine years after his sentence was commuted. This would certainly seem to mitigate some of Huckabee’s responsibility. While it is true that if Clemmons was still in prison, then he would not have killed the officers. However, it is not clear that Huckabee is responsible for how those nine years affected Clemons.

While Huckabee’s chances in 2012 have been damaged, I think it is premature to count him out. First, he can make use of the redemption angle to deflect attacks on him based on him being soft on crime. Second, he can apply damage control to the situation now and let it lose political beating power over the next three years.


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Privatizing Prisons

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 15, 2009
Jail cell in the Brecksville Police Department...

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Some states, such as Arizona, are considering privatizing certain prisons. The usual argument for doing this is based on money. It is claimed that privatizing the prisons will decrease costs and increase revenues for the state.

On the one hand, there is the stock argument that the government is inherently inefficient and that the private sector can do a far better job. On this view, privatization will have the desired effect by replacing the poor government management with the profit generating competence of the private sector. It is claimed that the effectiveness of the private sector will generate enough income so that the private company will make money and have enough to provide the state with a profit as well.

On the other hand, this sort of claim seems dubious. After all, it would seem that the state could simply see what a private company would do and do just that, thus avoiding the the need to split the profits with a private company. Even if the state was somewhat less effective than the private companies, not having to share the profits would compensate for this. Of course, it could be argued that the state is, by its very nature, incapable of such efficiency-but the burden of proof rests on those who make this claim. After all it seems that anything a private company can do, the state could also do. It seems most likely that the privatization of prisons would be rather profitable for the private companies, but not so for the states.

Another concern is a moral one, namely that the privatization of prisons is likely to do more harm than good. First, in order to make a profit that can be shared with the state, the prisons would need to make a profit that is not based on getting paid by the state. This would seem to lead to the exploitation of prisoners. Of course, if using prisoners to make a profit is acceptable, then the state could do the same thing-thus removing the need for the privatization. Second, since the profits a company makes would correspond to the number of people in prison, they would have an incentive to lobby for longer sentences, tougher laws and other means of increasing the prison populations. This, of course, would be unjust-people would be sentenced not based on the principle of justice but so that profits could be increased. Third, there is an increased risk of corruption. For example, judges might be bribed (as has been done)to send people to prison so as to increase profits.

While there are serious problems with the prison system, privatizing prisons does not seem to be a reasonable solution to these problems-or the financial problems of states.

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H1N1 Shots & Prisoners

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2009
Jail cell in the Brecksville Police Department...

Image via Wikipedia

As most folks know, people are supposed to get the H1N1 shots. As folks also probably know, the vaccine is in very short supply (despite promises to the contrary). One thing that has stirred up controversy is that some folks in prison will be getting their shots before some other people who are in need.

On one hand, the furor over this does seem to be justified. After all, the people who are in prison would tend to be bad people who have harmed society. As such, to use society’s limited resources to protect them from H1N1 at the expense of protecting people who have not harmed society seems to be morally incorrect.

On the other hand, the distribution of vaccines is based on risk-those more at risk get moved up towards the front of the line. Since prisoners are in highly confined spaces and exposed to large numbers of people, they can be at much higher risk of H1N1 than the general population. While it might be tempting to say that they deserve to suffer because of their crimes, their punishment is to be in prison and not to become infected with a disease. As such, a case can be made as to why the prisoners would get the shots ahead of certain non-prisoners.

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Saudi Justice

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2009
Third Saudi State (present day) (Saudi Arabia)
Image via Wikipedia

When Saudi trials make the news, it tends to make clear the nature of Saudi Society. In a recent incident, a female journalist was sentenced to 60 lashes and a two year travel ban because of her involvement in a Lebanese TV show, A Thick Red Line. This show covers social taboos and the episode that led to the sentence featured a Saudi man bragging about his sexual exploits.

Interestingly enough, the fellow was sentenced to five years in prison as well as 1,000 lashes. As such, his punishment was considerably harsher than that handed down against the woman.

The latest turn in this story is that the king of Saudi Arabia decided to pardon the woman. The king, who is regarded by many as working to modernize his country also pardoned a woman who had been a victim of a gang rape. She was to be punished with six months in prison and 200 lashes for being alone with a man not related to her.

While I see the appeal in whipping people who go on TV to brag about their sexual antics, the sentencing does seem to be rather unjust. After all, a basic moral principle of punishment is that it should be in proportion to the crime. In the case of the man, five years in prison and 1,000 lashes for bragging about his sexual activities seems quite out of proportion to any harm his actions might have caused. In the case of the woman, she seems to clearly not deserve that sort of punishment-or any punishment at all. As such, the king acted rightly in pardoning her.

Given that Saudi Arabia’s legal system is so harsh, that the country has some “interesting” connections to terrorism, and that it is a monarchy (a system of rule which directly opposes our political and moral philosophy of legitimacy) it is sometimes wondered why we are so closely allied to Saudi Arabia. The easy, obvious and correct answer consists of two facts: they have oil and they have an important strategic location next to other oil reserves.

If Saudi Arabia lacked oil and was located somewhere else, we would have no dealings with them-except, perhaps, to be critical of their legal system. Also, we most likely would have invaded the country after 9/11. Of course, without the money provided by the Saudi Osama Bin Laden, there might never have been a 9/11 attack.

As long as our economy relies on oil and as long as certain corporations (and families) maintain close relations to the Saudis, we will continue to stay allied with the Saudis. Of course, this is a marriage of convenience for them as well. If we did not have the money and power they need, they would most likely have nothing to do with us. After all, the sort of sexual bragging that they punish, we so often reward with book deals and TV shows.


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Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 22, 2009
Detainees at Camp X-Ray Original caption: Deta...
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Our Guantanamo prison has become quite a political mess. Yielding to popular opinion, Obama promised to close it. However, his fellow Democrats recently decided to deny funding for its closure until he comes up with a plan. Perhaps the Democrats are being reasonable: after all, it would be unwise to allocate money irresponsibly (perhaps they learned something from AIG…). On the other hand, it is something of a slap at Obama. Perhaps they are trying to milk the situation for some political gain?

One of the main questions is what to do with the prisoners. One proposal is to transfer them to prisons on American soil. However, that has started off a frenzy of Not In My Backyard.

When people talk about transferring the prisoners, they often make it sound like they will simply be dropped off in a US city, perhaps with a new suit and $5 in their pocket. However, that is not the plan. The plan is to transfer them to a prison or prisons.

After a politician goes into a “no” frenzy, they typically start tossing out reasons as to why these prisoners cannot be imprisoned in his/her state. The main reason given is that these prisons would be  a terrible threat. To be specfiic, it is claimed that they might:  escape and commit acts of terror, radicalize other prisoners, establish means of funding terror (perhaps by tapping into the lucrative criminal enterprises thriving in American prisons) and so on.

On one hand, these are reasonable concerns. Presumably each members of Congress who has said “no” is doing so based on his knowldedg of  his state’s’ prison system. If they believe that their prison system cannot handle prisoners adequately, then such claims should be taken seriously.Of course, this should spur an investigation into these prisons.

On the other hand, it might be suspected that a political game is being played. After all, our prisons already hold very dangerous and wicked people. That is what they are, in part, intended to do.

Of course, some folks in Congress would have us believe that the Guantanamo prisoners are a special sort of prisoner and are beyond the power of our prison system to contain. The obvious reply to this is that we have already been containing them. Further, as others have pointed out, we already have terrorists and very dangerous people in our prisons. Naturally, if some of the prisoners have special training or are masters of escape (apparently not from Guantanamo, though) then they can be sent to prisons designed to deal with that. After all, we do have maximum security prisons in the US.

They also stress how these people would do very bad things if they got out. While this is a reasonable concern, it is not a special concern. Some of the folks who are in prison are there because they did very bad things and it is assumed that they would do such things again if they escaped. If we accepted that people who would do bad things if they escaped should not be locked up in the US, then we would need to transfers prisoners from the US to places like Guantanamo.  Also, during WWII we had POWs on US soil. If we can handle trained soldiers in a time of war, surely we can handle these prisoners as well.

Another tactic is to argue that having the prisoners brought to the US would cost the taxpayers money. One flaw with this argument is that they already cost us money. Of course, it is reasonable to consider the expense. But, if we can afford to keep 1% of our population locked up, we can handle a few more prisoners.

Yet another concern is that the prisoners might get trials and be released.  Naturally, the fear is that they will be released in the United States and start being terrorists here. Or they might go someplace else and be terrorists there. It has been claimed that 1 in 7 of the 534 detainees already transferred abroad have returned to an involvement in terrorism or militant activity. Interestingly, this gives them a recidivism rate far less than criminals. Apparently about 50% of criminals return to crime after being in prison. In California, the percentage is even higher.

While this terror recidivism is a concern, the same concern applies to anyone who is sent to prison. If is acceptable to keep the Guantanamo prisoners locked up indefinitely, then the same logic would apply to all prisoners. In fact, normal criminals would be of greater concern because of a higher rate of recidivism. However, this approach hardly seems correct or reasonable.

Perhaps these folks in Congress are worried about the possibility of the trial as much as the possibility of release. After all, a trial might reveal embarrassing or unpleasant facts about what was done. However, if these prisoners are as bad as is claimed and if we have imprisoned them justly, then surely there must be adequate evidence that would stand up in a legitimate trial? Surely we have nothing to fear from being the unjust and wicked to justice?

One reasonable legal concern is the status of the prisoners. Are they criminals? If so, they have the right to a criminal trial. Are they enemy combatants? If so, they would fall under the relevant laws and would also be entitled to proper treatment? Or do they occupy a legally gray area? A case can certainly be made for that. However, we cannot just leave them in the gray-something must be done.

While some folks on the right have been calling the closing of the prison and the decision to have trials a public relations or popularity thing, it is actually a serious matter. While Bush and his fellows seemed to take the view that what others think of the US matters not, Obama realizes that it does matter. While nations are not individuals, they are composed of individuals. If one person thinks well of another, then she is more inclined to help that person. If one person thinks poorly of another, then they are less inclined to help. If people in other countries think better of us, they will be more inclined to work with us.

So, closing the prison is, in part, a popularity thing. But being liked and popular are valuable resources in politics. Just as a company crafts its public image in order to move more product, we need to craft our public image in order to win people over. Doing the right thing is also important-it is good to see the two coincide.

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