human rights violations, law, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (99): Private Prisons in the U.S.

buster keaton in jail

Buster Keaton in jail

As if the incarceration rate in the U.S. isn’t high enough already, the partial privatization of U.S. prisons creates some perverse incentives: the prison industry’s goal is to extract as much public money as possible by locking up the maximum number of people; this in turn fuels “tough on crime” policies and the insane war on drugs. Some examples:

The private prison industry was secretly involved in drafting Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law to boost demand for its immigrant detention centers. The Corrections Corporation of America has offered to help relieve the fiscal crises of 48 states by buying their prisons—provided the states sign a contract to keep them 90 percent full for the next twenty years, regardless of the crime rate. (source)

Not long after 11 September 2001, Steven Logan, the CEO of Cornell Companies (now part of the for-profit prison corporation GEO Group Inc) had good news for its shareholders. In a quarterly earnings call, Logan enthusiastically talked about tighter border control and a heightened focus on (immigrant) detention in the wake of the attacks. As he put it, “more people are gonna get caught. So I would say that’s a positive.” (source)

Note that more than 120,000 of America’s record 2 million prisoners are in private jails, plus a large number of illegal immigrants.

More on the problems created by excessive reliance on financial incentives here. More absurd human rights violations here.

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law, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (87): You Can’t Do What I told You to Do

Banksy Frisk

Banksy, Frisk

(source)

Critics say that as part of the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, officers routinely tell suspects to empty their pockets and then, if marijuana is displayed, arrest them for having the drugs in public view, thereby pushing thousands of people toward criminality and into criminal justice system. (source)

More on the war on drugs. More Banksy. More absurd human rights violations.

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capital punishment, data, law

Capital Punishment (37): Drug Offenses in Asia

These are the countries that take the “war on drugs” almost literally and execute drug offenders on a large scale:

Iran:

capital punishment for drug offences in Iran

Saudi Arabia:

capital punishment for drug offences in Saudi Arabia

Singapore:

capital punishment for drug offences in Singapore

Malaysia:

capital punishment for drug offences in Malaysia

Vietnam:

capital punishment for drug offences in Vietnam

(source)

In China, the numbers are difficult to ascertain given the government’s tough stance on secrecy. Thousands are executed each year, but one can’t be more precise than that.

The Dui Hua Foundation suggests that approximately 5,000 people were executed in 2009, and states that “the manufacture, transport, smuggling, or trafficking of illegal drugs account for a significant number of executions reported by Chinese media”. (source)

Other countries in Asia also use the death penalty as a punishment for drug crimes, but to a lesser extent.

More on capital punishment in China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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poverty, self-defeating human rights policies

Self-Defeating Human Rights Policies (6): The Social Effects of Incarceration

prison

(source)

[T]he effects of [the] change in the imprisonment rate [in the U.S.] … have been concentrated among those most likely to form fragile families: poor and minority men with little schooling. Imprisonment diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, and contributes to family breakup. It also adds to the deficits of poor children, thus ensuring that the effects of imprisonment on inequality are transferred intergenerationally. … Because having a parent go to prison is now so common for poor, minority children and so negatively affects them, the authors argue that mass imprisonment may increase future racial and class inequality — and may even lead to more crime in the long term, thereby undoing any benefits of the prison boom. U.S. crime policy has thus, in the name of public safety, produced more vulnerable families and reduced the life chances of their children. (source, source)

Graph demonstrating increases in United States...

Timeline of total number of inmates in U.S. prisons and jails (click image to enlarge)

This is an example of a self-defeating human rights policy: in an attempt to improve the protection of security rights and property rights of a population, a policy of increased incarceration rates has an adverse effect on the rights of the incarcerated, their families and children, and possibly even society at large (as increased inequality resulting from high incarceration rates among society’s most vulnerable groups will perhaps lead to more crime – although we can’t assume that increasing poverty and inequality will automatically provoke those who are impoverished because of incarceration to resort to crime).

More on incarceration rates, the war on drugs and hereditary poverty. More human rights quotes.

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freedom and equality, governance, human rights and crime, law, philosophy

Crime and Human Rights (14): The Limits of the Law

justice cartoon by Ares

justice cartoon by Ares

(source)

We need rules to live together in a spirit of respect for each other’s rights, freedom and equality. We need to tell people what they can, cannot or should do in order to respect the rights, freedom and equality of others, and we need to coerce people if they don’t respect these rules.

It seems that the best way to do this is to translate these rule into laws and then to use a justice system and a police system to enforce respect for these laws. That’s obviously not the only way to do it – education, tradition, social control, incentives etc. are other ways – but it’s one that has proven to be successful (yet not perfectly successful since legal prohibition of acts and enforcement of this prohibition never completely prevent those acts and may even backfire). If that is correct, then laws and their enforcement institutions are necessary parts of modern life.

So, these are, in broad strokes, the limits of the law: laws should protect people’s rights, freedom and equality, no more, no less, and nothing else. However, once the institutions of the law and of law enforcement have been created, there’s always the possibility and perhaps even the certainty that they will be used not to protect rights, freedom and equality, but for other purposes, or for the enforcement of controversial and exotic interpretations of rights, freedom and equality. That’s one way in which the law can overstep its limits or, if you want, become corrupted. (I focus here on the corruption of the law, not the law enforcement institutions. The latter is for another time).

Quantitative limitations

Detail from Corrupt Legislation. Mural by Elih...

Detail from Corrupt Legislation. Mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Main figure is seated atop a pedestal saying "CORRUPT LEGISLATION". Artist's signature is dated 1896.

But a system of law can overstep its limits in several other ways as well. The purpose of the law – rights, freedom and equality – is a limitation, but it’s a limitation that requires other limitations, for example a quantitative limitation. There’s always a tendency for the number of laws to become too large. That’s a problem because a violation of this quantitative limitation has qualitative consequences for the ability of the system of law to serve its purpose, namely the protection of rights, freedom and equality:

  • When laws become too numerous, it becomes difficult for people to know what is and is not legal. As a result, people may find that they are ambushed by the law. When people are ambushed in this way, they risk losing their freedom through no fault of their own, and that means that the system of law doesn’t perform its main function, namely protecting rights, freedom and equality. Moreover, after having endured or seen this kind of ambush, people will start doubting the value of the whole system of law. This undermines the credibility of the system, making it again difficult to use it for its intended function.
  • When laws become too numerous, the enforcement institutions will have an increasingly difficult task. Some laws will no longer be enforced, or will be enforced in an unsatisfactory or selective way, something which again destroys the credibility and hence the effectiveness of the system of law and again has consequences for the purpose of the system.
  • When laws become too numerous, it’s likely that the focus of the law will be lost. People have a limited number of rights, and there are a limited number of ways in which people can infringe on each other’s freedom and equality. Hence, the number of laws should also be limited. When there are more laws than necessary, people will be coerced for other reasons than rights, freedom and equality, and they will rightly resent this. This resentment will again be directed at the law in general, including the laws that are necessary for rights, freedom and equality.

Formal limitations

It’s not only the number of laws that can force the system of law beyond its limits. The nature of laws is also important. After all, just as a vast body of law can coerce too much, so can one very sweeping law. Laws should have certain characteristics if they are to stay within their limits:

  • Laws should be precise: they should be targeted at very specific threats to freedom, equality and rights, and not at vague threats or at threats to something else. For instance, a law that makes hate speech illegal, but doesn’t specify hate speech, is too vague. It risks coercing too much and hence destroying rights, freedom and equality rather than protecting those values.
  • Laws should also be effective: they should have a proven track record of countering specific threats to rights, freedom and equality. Otherwise they should be repealed. It often happens that laws are counterproductive: rather than countering a specific threat to rights, freedom and equality, they enhance it. For example, capital punishment for murder may make it more likely that witnesses are murdered.
  • Laws should be proportional. They should not provide a punishment for those threatening rights, freedom and equality that produces a greater threat to the rights, freedom and equality of the punished criminals (and their relatives etc.). And they should not produce other unwanted side-effects that have an impact on rights, freedom and equality. An example of a law – or better a set of laws – that creates more harm than it prevents is the “war on drugs“. Maybe this is a set of laws that effectively suppresses drugs, but in doing so it disproportionately harms rights, freedom and equality in other places (it leads to excessive incarceration of ethnic minorities).
  • Laws should not be secret, retroactive (a retroactive law is one that punishes acts that have occurred before the law came into force) or unstable (they should not change all of the time).  Otherwise, it becomes very difficult for people to respect the law, creating again the risk of ambush and the consequent loss of credibility for the whole system of law.
  • Laws should not be bad law. They should not be too complex, incomprehensible or contradictory. Otherwise they will have the same effect as secret, retroactive or unstable laws.
  • And, finally, laws should be necessary. If there’s a non-coercive tool to protect rights, freedom and equality that is equally effective and proportional, then this tool should used. A law, after all, because it is coercive, is a violation of freedom. Laws can therefore only be used if they are the only available means to produce more freedom than they take away, or if they are more effective.

Content limitations

Another limitation of the law is that it can only be designed to serve rights, freedom and equality. If people want to waive or destroy their own rights, freedom and equality, the law should not force them to do otherwise. In other words, the law should not be paternalistic, although there may be room for some form of soft paternalism in the case of people who obviously don’t understand their own interests or who have a hard time acting on their interests. If paternalism can enhance autonomy, why not. I won’t develop that point in this post, however.

Some also argue that religious people, or people holding other, non-religious but substantial moral convictions that are very controversial, should avoid using those religious or moral convictions as a justification for laws. Laws should in other words be neutral in order to avoid coercing people in ways that they can never accept. I rejected this argument here, so in my view that’s not a proper content limitation of the law.

If we want to keep the law within the limits stipulated here, we have to be aware of the possible roads to corruption. First, legislators should think, in every legislative decision, about the ways in which the proposed law is necessary and effective for the protection of freedom, equality and rights. Next, they should respect some formal and content limitations, as well as quantitative ones. And finally, they should have a coherent understanding of the nature of freedom, equality and rights. That, of course, in controversial – different people will always have different views of the proper meaning of these concepts. However, democratic deliberation and public reasoning can at least guarantee majority support for a particular interpretation of this meaning, and make it possible to avoid private and self-interested meanings to sneak into the law.

More on the corruption of the law is here, here and here. Something about the corruption of the enforcement institutions is here and here.

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annals of heartlessness

Annals of Heartlessness (5): Damn Kids!

evil kids

(source)

[A] Salt Lake City man was arrested for pot possession when his 12- and 13-year-old kids turned him in to the police. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, dad “faces two third-degree felony charges of child endangerment and one class B misdemeanor for possession of a controlled substance.” (source)

More in the annals of heartlessness here. More on the war on drugs here.

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data, racism

Racism (19): Racial Inequality in U.S. Incarceration Rates

Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption

Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption

The boom in incarceration rates in the U.S., following the War on Drugs and other sentencing reforms inspired by the “tough on crime” ideology, has had devastating effects on the rights of the incarcerated – many of whom are in prison for deeds that resulted in little or no harm to anyone – but also on the rights of their family members, none of whom did anything wrong. These rights violations have fallen disproportionally on an already disadvantaged group of American society, namely African-Americans. And it’s their children who suffer along:

Graph demonstrating increases in United States...

Timeline of total number of inmates in U.S. prisons and jails (click image to enlarge)

  • 1 in 40 white children born in 1978 and 1 in 25 white children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned;
  • 1 in 7 black children born in 1978 and 1 in 4 black children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned;
  • inequality in the risk of parental imprisonment between white children of college-educated parents and all other children is growing; and
  • by age 14, 50.5% of black children born in 1990 to high school dropouts had a father imprisoned. (source, source)
parental incarceration by parents' education and race

parental incarceration by parents' education and race

(source)

Children especially are placed at considerable risk by policies of incarceration. Incarcerated men are less likely to contribute financially or otherwise to their families and their children’s education. The same is true even in the case of formerly incarcerated men, because of their inferior earnings. Hence, the effects of incarceration place children at a significant economic disadvantage, which is punishment without a crime, worthy only of a dictatorship.

More data on incarceration are here. More human rights facts are here.

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data, human rights maps, law, statistics

Human Rights Maps (100): Crime Rates in San Francisco

Usually, maps about violations of people’s security rights or property rights are like this or this: informative but rather boring as well. Here’s a novel approach to statistical maps:

crime rates in san francisco map

(source)

More on prostitution here and here. More on private property rights and on the war on drugs. More human rights maps.

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economics, health, human rights violations, law, most absurd human rights violations, trade

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (62): Life Imprisonment For Half an Ounce of Medical Marijuana?

A Texas state trooper stops a 1990 Mercedes with an expired registration sticker. The driver [not in the picture] says he does not have his driver’s license or proof of insurance. After arresting him for “failure to identify”, the trooper searches him and his car, finding 14 grams (half an ounce) of marijuana and hashish. Indicted for possession with intent to deliver, he could be sent to prison for the rest of his life.

Does it matter that the defendant is a 20-year-old asthmatic who obtained the cannabis with a doctor’s recommendation in California? Not under Texas law, which prohibits the use of marijuana for any purpose. And the situation in which Chris Diaz finds himself would be outrageous even without the medical angle. …

Although Diaz’s cannabis was still in the bottles used by the medical marijuana dispensary where he obtained it, Brown County prosecutors cite a cell phone “containing text messages referring to drug sales” and a notebook with “drug and law writings” as evidence of intent to deliver. (source)

More on the insane war on drugs in the U.S., on marijuana, and on incarceration. More absurd human rights violations.

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data, freedom, human rights and crime, human rights violations, justice, law, privacy, statistics

Crime and Human Rights (10): Does Being Tough on Crime Reduce Crime?

The human right issues created by incarceration are evident, I think: locking people up means taking away a number if not most of their liberties, most obviously their freedom of movement, freedom to work, political freedom in some cases, and privacy. Other rights violations are also common, even in the prisons in rich countries such as the U.S.:

  • juvenile incarceration
  • the substandard conditions in which many prisoners are kept (Federal prisons in the U.S. hold 60% more prisoners than they were designed for)
  • the forced and unpaid labor prisoner often perform
  • the common occurrence of prison rape (see here and here).

Some people clearly deserve to be put in jail, and often that is what is required in order to protect the human rights of their (possible) victims.

However, I mentioned before that the “tough on crime” policies enacted in the U.S. and the resulting explosion in the numbers of U.S. citizens who are in prison (the U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world) go beyond what is required for public safety and the rights of victims. The causes of this explosion are numerous.

  • There’s the war on drugs, of course, which leads to excessively tough penalties, sometimes even for victimless crimes (the illegal sale of prescription painkillers for instance). Some of the penalties for drug “crimes” are tougher than the sentences for violent crimes.
  • There are other acts that are in essence victimless and need not be criminalized, and yet result in incarceration in the U.S. (e.g. importing rare orchids).
  • Sentences in the U.S. are too long. Many crimes come with mandatory minimum sentences, taking away judges’ discretion and their ability to take into account the specific circumstances of a crime. “Three strikes and you’re out” lead to life sentences for sometimes trivial crimes.
  • Some laws, especially laws regulating the conduct of businesses – are so vague that people have a hard time steering away from crime.
  • Prosecutors are often allowed to slice up a crime into a series of different crimes, each coming with a minimum sentence.
  • Parole conditions have been toughened, and people are regularly put back in jail for non-criminal violations of these parole conditions.

The cause of all this is probably the race to the top going on between politicians who are all promising to be tougher on crime than the next guy. Some judges in the U.S. are elected and engage in the same kind of bidding.

The prisoner's dilemma is an example of game t...

Image via Wikipedia

The question is: what are the benefits of this toughness, and what are the costs? Regarding the benefits, the homicide rate has been going down in the U.S., but it has since two centuries and it’s not clear that the tough policies introduced during the last decades have contributed much to the decline.

Bert Useem of Purdue University and Anne Piehl of Rutgers University estimate that a 10% increase in the number of people behind bars would reduce crime by only 0.5%. In the states that currently lock up the most people, imprisoning more would actually increase crime, they believe. Some inmates emerge from prison as more accomplished criminals. And raising the incarceration rate means locking up people who are, on average, less dangerous than the ones already behind bars. (source)

Regarding the costs: the prison system in the U.S. is extremely expensive, sucking away funds that could be used much more productively elsewhere, particularly on policies protecting human rights such as education. It’s also money that can’t be spent on better crime detection and better policing. It’s well-known that swift justice and high “catch rates” deter more crime than harsh penalties. If you want to be tough on crime, you shouldn’t necessarily choose the option of putting a lot of people away for a long time. And questioning the high incarceration rates in the U.S. doesn’t mean you’re weak on law and order.

High numbers of inmates also reduce the chances of rehabilitation: more prisoners means relatively less prisoners who can take advantage of the limited resources dedicated to vocational training and other activities that make it more likely that prisoners can become normal and non-reoffending members of society once they get out. Together with the phenomenon of prison as a “school for criminals”, this is likely to create a perverse effect: being tough on crime can actually increase crime. People should think hard on the way in which they choose to be tough on crime, and should consider if some crimes need to be crimes at all.

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law, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (49): Bring the SWAT, There’s Some Pot

SWAT

SWAT team breaks into home, fires seven rounds at family’s pit bull and corgi (?!) as a seven-year-old looks on.

They found a “small amount” of marijuana, enough for a misdemeanor charge. The parents were then charged with child endangerment.

So smoking pot = “child endangerment.” Storming a home with guns, then firing bullets into the family pets as a child looks on = necessary police procedures to ensure everyone’s safety.

Just so we’re clear. (source)

There’s actually some footage of it (warning: it’s disturbing):

More on the incredibly stupid war on drugs and on the Fourth Amendment. More on the abuse of arrest powers here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. More absurd human rights violations.

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