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The Misuse of Life Without Parole

Posted on : 15-09-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Teaching

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EDITORIAL
Published: September 12, 2011

The Supreme Court ruled last year that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to life without parole when the crime is short of homicide. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that life without parole shares “some characteristics with death sentences that are shared by no other sentences” in altering “the offender’s life by a forfeiture that is irrevocable.”

The sentence is no less severe when applied to adults. Yet life without parole, which exists in all states (Alaska’s version is a 99-year sentence), is routinely used, including in cases where the death penalty is not in play and where even an ordinary life sentence might be too harsh.

From 1992 to 2008, the number in prison for life without parole tripled from 12,453 to 41,095, even though violent crime declined sharply all over the country during that period. That increase is also much greater than the percentage rise in offenders serving life sentences.

The American Law Institute, a group composed of judges, lawyers and legal scholars, has wisely called for restricting the use of the penalty to cases “when this sanction is the sole alternative to a death sentence.”

In capital cases, life without parole is a sound option. Public support for the death penalty, a barbarity that should be abolished in this country, plummets when life without parole is an alternative. In many states, juries are instructed that it is an option. But the use of the sentence has gone far beyond death penalty cases, even as violent crime rates have declined.

In the last decade in Georgia, one of the few states with good data on the sentence, about 60 percent of offenders sentenced to life without parole were convicted of murder. The other 40 percent were convicted of kidnapping, armed robbery, sex crimes, drug crimes and other crimes including shoplifting. Nationwide, the racial disparity in the penalty is stark. Blacks make up 56.4 percent of those serving life without parole, though they are 37.5 percent of prisoners in all state prisons.

The overuse of the sentence reflects this excessively punitive era. But as the institute’s report explains, an “ordinary” life sentence is “a punishment of tremendous magnitude” whose “true gravity should not be undervalued.” In the past 20 years, the average life term served has grown from 21 years to 29 years before parole.

Interestingly, even the institute’s approach to sentencing reflects the times. In 1962, when it last revised its Model Penal Code on sentencing, which is a blueprint for states to follow in shaping their laws, the group called for prisoners sentenced to life to be considered for parole after 1 to 10 years. Now the group calls for them to be reviewed by a judge within 15 years, with the expectation that many will “never regain their freedom.”

Still, the group’s view about the proper relationship between crime and punishment is dispassionate and correct. A fair-minded society should revisit life sentences and decide whether an offender deserves to remain in prison or be released on parole. And a fair-minded society should not sentence anyone to life without parole except as an alternative to the death penalty.

Read the original article at the New York Times Online

NYT Op-Ed (Privacy)

Posted on : 15-09-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Teaching

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OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Protect Our Right to Anonymity

By JEFFREY ROSEN
Published: September 12, 2011

IN November, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could redefine the scope of privacy in an age of increasingly ubiquitous surveillance technologies like GPS devices and face-recognition software.

The case, United States v. Jones, concerns a GPS device that the police, without a valid warrant, placed on the car of a suspected drug dealer in Washington, D.C. The police then tracked his movements for a month and used the information to convict him of conspiracy to sell cocaine. The question before the court is whether this violated the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of our “persons, houses, papers, and effects.”

It’s imperative that the court says yes. Otherwise, Americans will no longer be able to expect the same degree of anonymity in public places that they have rightfully enjoyed since the founding era.

Two federal appellate courts have upheld the use of GPS devices without warrants in similar cases, on the grounds that we have no expectation of privacy when we are in public places and that tracking technology merely makes public surveillance easier and more effective.

But in a visionary opinion in August 2010, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, disagreed. No reasonable person, he argued, expects that his public movements will be tracked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and therefore we do have an expectation of privacy in the “whole” of our public movements.

“Unlike one’s movements during a single journey,” Judge Ginsburg wrote, “the whole of one’s movements over the course of a month is not actually exposed to the public because the likelihood anyone will observe all those movements is effectively nil.”

Judge Ginsburg realized that ubiquitous surveillance for a month is impossible, in practice, without technological enhancements like a GPS device, and that it is therefore qualitatively different than the more limited technologically enhanced public surveillance that the Supreme Court has upheld in the past (like using a beeper to help the police follow a car for a 100-mile trip).

The Supreme Court case is an appeal of Judge Ginsburg’s decision. If the court rejects his logic and sides with those who maintain that we have no expectation of privacy in our public movements, surveillance is likely to expand, radically transforming our experience of both public and virtual spaces.

For what’s at stake in the Supreme Court case is more than just the future of GPS tracking: there’s also online surveillance. Facebook, for example, announced in June that it was implementing face-recognition technology that scans all the photos in its database and automatically suggests identifying tags that match images of a user’s friends with their names. (After a public outcry, Facebook said that users could opt out of the tagging system.) With the help of this kind of photo tagging, law enforcement officials could post on Facebook a photo of, say, an anonymous antiwar protester and identify him.

There is also the specter of video surveillance. In 2008, at a Google conference on the future of law and technology, Andrew McLaughlin, then the head of public policy at Google, said he expected that, within a few years, public agencies and private companies would be asking Google to post live feeds from public and private surveillance cameras all around the world. If the feeds were linked and archived, anyone with a Web browser would be able to click on a picture of anyone on any monitored street and follow his movements.

To preserve our right to some degree of anonymity in public, we can’t rely on the courts alone. Fortunately, 15 states have enacted laws imposing criminal and civil penalties for the use of electronic tracking devices in various forms and restricting their use without a warrant. And in June, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, and Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, which would provide federal protection against public surveillance.

Their act would require the government to get a warrant before acquiring the geolocational information of an American citizen or legal alien; create criminal penalties for secretly using an electronic device to track someone’s movements; and prohibit commercial service providers from sharing customers’ geolocational information without their consent — a necessary restriction at a time of increasing cellphone tracking by private companies.

It’s encouraging that Democrats and Republicans in Congress are coming together to preserve the expectations of anonymity in public that Americans have long taken for granted. Soon, liberal and conservative justices on the Supreme Court will have an opportunity to meet the same challenge.

If they fail to rise to the occasion, our public life may be transformed in ways we can only begin to imagine.

Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, is an editor of the forthcoming book “Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change.”

 

The original article can be found that the New York Times Online

An Op-Ed (Considering Authority)

Posted on : 13-09-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Teaching

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From the New York Times:

During the summer of 2008, the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. The interviews were part of a larger study that Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog and others have been conducting on the state of America’s youth.

Smith and company asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.

It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.

Smith and company are stunned, for example, that the interviewees were so completely untroubled by rabid consumerism. (This was the summer of 2008, just before the crash).

Many of these shortcomings will sort themselves out as these youngsters get married, have kids, enter a profession or fit into more clearly defined social roles. Institutions will inculcate certain habits. Broader moral horizons will be forced upon them. But their attitudes at the start of their adult lives do reveal something about American culture. For decades, writers from different perspectives have been warning about the erosion of shared moral frameworks and the rise of an easygoing moral individualism.

Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb warned that sturdy virtues are being diluted into shallow values. Alasdair MacIntyre has written about emotivism, the idea that it’s impossible to secure moral agreement in our culture because all judgments are based on how we feel at the moment.

Charles Taylor has argued that morals have become separated from moral sources. People are less likely to feel embedded on a moral landscape that transcends self. James Davison Hunter wrote a book called “The Death of Character.” Smith’s interviewees are living, breathing examples of the trends these writers have described.

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

By David Brooks. Original article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/opinion/if-it-feels-right.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper

President Obama’s Jobs Speech

Posted on : 11-09-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Teaching

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Here’s a link to the full video of the president’s speech on jobs. I’d like to use it as part of the ongoing discussion we have this semester, so please take the time to watch it.

Steampunk World’s Fair

Posted on : 20-01-2011 | By : Dean | In : Science Fiction

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The second annual Steampunk World’s Fair will be held in Piscataway, NJ this year. From an email I received:

This will be the second year for Steampunk World’s Fair.  There will be musical performers, readings, and panels on all aspects of steampunk (last year there were wonderful panels on race, class & gender in steampunk and on multiculturalism in steampunk, among many others).   There will no doubt be at least one fashion show.   This would be a great opportunity for people who’ve been observing steampunk from a distance to see things close at hand;  for those of you who are already involved in the steampunk community, this is quite an enjoyable convention as well.

For more information, go to:

http://steampunkworldsfair.com/

If anyone is interested in more information or attending, please let me know.

Spring 2011: Semester Changes & the New Offering

Posted on : 18-01-2011 | By : Dean | In : Literature, Science Fiction, Teaching, Tech and Teaching, UWP

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I have made a few conscious changes to the classes that I am teaching this semester. One of them I have wrestled with for a long time.

1. Walden gets a rest, sort of.

Probably the biggest change to my EN227 class is the omission of Walden. It’s a book that is rarely appreciated by students on a first reading. I have come to accept that this is not only because it is difficult in its use of language and allusions, but because many of its central arguments contain contrary notions. Those elements are often read as contradictions, errors in logic, rather than nuanced acknowledgements of differing strains of Thoreau’s experiment. It is difficult to get past these things, so we’re going to try a few shorter pieces. Never fear, though, as I have included a chapter or two from Walden.

2. Nothing Online!

Although I have had overwhelmingly positive feedback on the courses that I have taught in Second Life, some students may note that there are no offerings there this semester. Those who have taken those classes know how much work goes into them, and while I am an advocate for such venues for online instruction (a much better choice because it offers real-time discussion), the fact is that Parkside doesn’t have the software or the support in place to facilitate these offerings. I may return to the virtual classroom in upcoming semesters, but spring will offer a welcome break from the computer programming and administrative work that was involved to ensure the success of the course I taught there.

I have kept Snow Crash on the list for EN237, though, and I am teaching the class in a computer lab, so there is always that chance for a foray or two into the world of Goreans and Furries!

3. Steampunk and the bookstore!

I have wanted to teach Steampunk in a sixteen-week format since I first taught a brief summer version of it two years ago. This semester will be my chance. I taught Cyberpunk over the 2010 summer session, so spring will offer a nice compliment.

I have found that both courses offer a challenge: Books. With many of the titles being tossed from one publisher to the next or in out of print status (with new titles available through amazon), coordinating with the bookstore is difficult. I have added a few books to the list available through the bookstore, and we will have to discuss options for the readings.

*It should be a wonderful semester. I still get a bad case of nerves the night before classes start. I won’t sleep tonight, so those of you who see me in the hall or in class tomorrow may mistake me for an animated corpse. That’s nothing new, though.

RIP: Cassette Walkman

Posted on : 26-10-2010 | By : Dean | In : Gadgets

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The mix-tape is one step closer to being forever forgotten. Gizmodo reported today that Sony has killed the Walkman:

After 30 years, Sony has announced that they will stop manufacturing and selling the venerable cassette Walkman. In a poetic twist, the official death of the Walkman lands on the iPod’s 9th anniversary.
Full story

It far outlived legwarmers, but not quite Jesus. Memorex anyone?

Murakami on Contemporary Narrative

Posted on : 21-10-2010 | By : Dean | In : Literature

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Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, had the following to say in an interview with the Paris Review:

I’m a writer of contemporary literature, which is very different. At the time that Kafka was writing, you had only music, books, and theater; now we have the Internet, movies, rental videos, and so much else. We have so much competition now. The main problem is time: in the nineteenth century, people—I’m talking about the leisure class—had so much time to spend, so they read big books. They went to the opera and sat for three or four hours. But now everyone is so busy, and there is no real leisure class. It’s good to read Moby-Dick or Dostoevsky, but people are too busy for that now. So fiction itself has changed drastically—we have to grab people by the neck and pull them in. Contemporary fiction writers are using the techniques of other fields—jazz, video games, everything. I think video games are closer to fiction than anything else these days.

Murakami’s novels include The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Norwegian Wood, and Kafka on the Shore. He is also the author of several short story collections.

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