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October 27, 2011

Thoughts on class paper packet...

should appear in comments to this post.

UPDATE: Hmmm... nobody wants to comment on the work of colleagues. Not surprising, but a bit disappointing.  Nevertheless, this post will stay open for comments, and I will perhaps try to prompt some students comments with a few of my own in the days ahead (if necessary).

October 27, 2011 in Class activities | Permalink


One article that really interested me in our packet is the one entitled, Towards a Better Understanding of the Drug War: How Changing the Focus of Reporting Can Change the Way the War is Waged. What caught my attention was that before discussing the reporting of the drug war, the author defined what it meant for an issue to be “underreported” for the context of this paper. I had not put too much thought into this for my own paper, and I found that here it added meaning to the author’s discussion of why underreporting is an issue.

The author characterized underreporting not as whether the issue is reported on at all, but rather as how the issue is reported. The author defines underreported as “those stories being reported by outlets falling under the ‘mainstream media’ classification [that] provide insufficient information to allow citizens to make a knowledgeable assessment of the United States’ continued efforts at drug prohibition.” He/She goes on to argue that because most of the reporting on the drug war falls into this category, a typical person who pays attention to the news would not be capable of determining if the sentences we impose for drug possession are aiding in the effort to reduce the availability and use of recreational drugs. I thought this was a very unique way of approaching the reporting of the drug war, an approach that only made sense by defining “underreported” in the way the author did here.

As he/she indicates in the paper, a google search of “drug war” results in over 6,000 hits, suggesting that the issue of how sentencing impacts the success of the drug war is overly reported. But the author is quick to convince me that the issue is not effectively reported, as emotional reports of decapitations in Mexico do not help the average person in thinking critically about how sentencing policy affects the success or failure of the war effort. I agree with the author that the nature of reports on the drug war must change in order for taxpayers to make more informed decisions on how the war should be waged and how we want sentencing to play a role.

He/she made a great point that unlike research and litigation, reporting “shapes the public attitudes that lead to political change” of the kind that would make it acceptable for politicians to support more lenient, but more effective sentencing policies. Overall I thought the author’s decision to define “underreported” in this way made for an interesting approach to the issue of sentencing policy’s impact on the drug war and created a discussion that seemed more thoughtful than one that just addressed why an issue was not reported in the first place.

Posted by: Ranya | Oct 31, 2011 12:58:42 PM

I really enjoyed the topics of a few papers, one on needing to research how to cut back on pretrial detention times and one on the underreporting of public shaming of criminals.

The pretrial detention paper was a very practical and useful topic and should really be further examined in the public eye in these times of fiscal challenges. Not only is holding the accused without trial bordering on injustice, it has huge costs for states. If I had been working on this topic, my first instinct would have been to write about how it is underreported on, but I liked how the author of this paper focused on how there needs to be more research on pretrial detention in order to be able to reform it.

The public shaming idea is interesting and the paper left me wanting to go look up the topic on my own to see what I could find on the deterrence of sex offenders and OVI violators. It didn't seem like the author could find much analysis of the topic, so a lot more research could be done.

Posted by: Maureen F | Nov 1, 2011 1:01:48 AM

These papers brought up a lot of interesting issues that I often don’t think about, such as military justice. I thought the “Across the Pond” paper about day-fines was interesting, with a good intro and good use of evidence. I liked the paper about “Innocent Children of Incarcerated Parents,” and I think it’s a good idea to study how incarceration may harm society more than it helps it because of the harm to the children of those incarcerated. I liked the paper “Giving the Black Robes a Voice” about mandatory minimums; I thought it had a good intro and good organization, use of evidence, and compelling argument for getting rid of mandatory minimums. I also thought the premise was interesting that humans’ increasing lifespan changes sentencing law, both for determinate sentences as well as life sentences, including cost issues, and I am curious about potential solutions.

Reading this packet helped me notice some of my own habits as a reader, which I think can help me as I write papers in the future. Examples: I like papers with citations, evidence, and definitions to support opinions and arguments, and often ones that offer solutions to the problems noted along with compelling reasoning. I like titles because they frame what the piece is about. I like pictures, charts, and attention-grabbing intros that get right to the point. I like papers that get points across concisely. Single-spacing and small font reminds me of block quotes, which I tend to skim or skip. Headings can be nice, and descriptive ones nicer, but too much and then I tend to just read those and nothing else. I appreciate clear writing, and a lack of proofreading can distract from even a really interesting paper/topic. Papers with lots of background or which waited a while to state the thesis also put me into skim mode. Reading all of these papers took a while, but the topics everyone chose were varied and interesting. It was valuable to see everyone’s points of view on sentencing in general and on certain topics in particular, including unpopular views like “excessive” sentencing for sex offenders. It was also valuable to see how everyone else approaches such an open-ended assignment like this.

Posted by: Shawna | Nov 1, 2011 12:02:11 PM

Here are my favorite papers (I didn't include my own paper here):

Best paper: "The Cowardly Cloak of Democracy."

This one begins with the following line: "We are animals." What follows is a novel, well-written look at why juries themselves should play the role of executioners in our death penalty system. The author concludes that absolving jurors of their personal responsibility in the death of others is cowardice. This paper was a great read.

Other great papers:

The Supermax paper.
There was a reporter in Maine when I was there (Lance Tapley) who did some groundbreaking stuff on the state's supermax prison. I believe he won some awards for his coverage of the issue, which mostly appeared in alt-weeklies. My editors ignored the issue for years. Go figure. But, FWIW, Tapley posted a video of guard-prisoner interaction at Maine's supermax that made some waves: http://www.portlandphoenix.com/features/top/ts_multi/documents/05081722.asp

Race as an Aggravating Factor in Sentencing.
The paper includes this sentence: "Rather, in today's inflexible and unrelenting atmosphere, all criminal sentences are for life, regardless of how long actual imprisonment is imposed." Nice.

Another paper, "A Look at Reentry" further develops the idea above. Well done.

Whether judges should take "prison culture" into account for sentencing.
This is an interesting piece, basically suggesting that prison officials won't get off their rear ends and put an end to all the beatings and rapes on the inside until we start taking those factors into account upon sentencing.

The "let's relocate gang members instead of sending them to prison" paper.
Novel idea that's definitely worth a thought. I don't like the "red card" idea (relocated gang members would be subject to the death penalty upon any subsequent felony), but the general relocation idea is a good one that could spark some interesting discussion.

The vague supervised release conditions paper.
Using the TI incident as a jumping-off point helped demonstrate some of the more ludicrous supervised release conditions.

General Article 134 of the UCMJ.
Had never heard of this, but the author is right to discuss concerns about notice and selective enforcement raised by this vague, unclear provision.

Mandatory minimums & separation of powers.
I agree, 100%. Congress has usurped too much judicial power in this realm and the Supreme Court should step in soon.

Aging prison population.
The proportionality issue is interesting. The cost issue is going to force corrections officials, judges, and legislators to work together to come up with alternatives to incarceration for older inmates. $150K/year is too much for society to pay to keep someone boxed up.

Posted by: Elbert A | Nov 1, 2011 1:00:02 PM

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