More judges like this, please

Love this story of a truly sensible judge’s response to one case in the war on drugs.  Via the New Yorker:

Chevelle Nesbeth was nineteen when she was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport, last year, for smuggling about 1.3 pounds of cocaine into the United States. At a boyfriend’s request, she had visited Jamaica, where she was born. Friends there, who had purchased her round-trip airline ticket, asked her to bring two suitcases to someone in the U.S. The drugs were in the handles of the luggage. She said she didn’t know they contained drugs, but there was enough evidence to contradict her story beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury in a Brooklyn federal district court convicted her of felonies for importation and possession of cocaine, with intent to distribute…

Last week, Senior District Judge Frederic Block drew attention by giving her a sentence without time in prison, though federal sentencing guidelines pointed to a term of thirty-three to forty-one months behind bars. Block wrote in hisopinion, “Her crimes were certainly a marked deviation from an exemplary law-abiding life; she has worked in meaningful jobs; she has a record of prior good works counseling and tending to young children; she apparently was under the influence of her boyfriend, and there is no evidence that she was even to be paid for her crime or was motivated by financial gain.” …

But the bulk of his opinion—the reason federal judges throughout the country have been sending it to one another as a cutting-edge view on an important issue in sentencing—is about why he “rendered a non-incarceratory sentence.” He wrote that it was largely “because of a number of statutory and regulatory collateral consequences she will face as a convicted felon”—restrictions that the federal government, as well as every state government, imposes on anyone convicted of a crime, but especially a felony. A broad range of the restrictions, he said, “serve no useful function other than to further punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences.”

Block asked the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Federal Defenders of New York, which represented Nesbeth, to provide him with a list of the collateral consequences that she faces as a convicted felon. The government identified what it described as the “handful” that are “potentially relevant.” The loss of a driver’s license is the least onerous. She is also ineligible for student grants, loans, or work assistance for two years, and banned for life from receiving food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, though Connecticut could grant her an exemption. She and her family can be denied federally assisted housing for a “reasonable time,” and she cannot be issued a passport until her probation is finished, which matters to Nesbeth because, as her lawyer told the judge, her “father, grandmother, and extended family all reside abroad.”

The judge recounted that federal law imposes considerably more than a handful of consequences, “nearly 1,200 collateral consequences for convictions generally, and nearly 300 for controlled-substances offenses.” …

The main conclusion of the judge’s opinion is that, while the law allowed him to take account of the civil penalties when he sentenced her, there was nothing he could do to protect her from them. He joined criminal-justice experts in encouraging Congress and state legislatures “to determine whether the plethora of post-sentence punishments imposed upon felons is truly warranted,” and suggested that they do the country “more harm than good.” He didn’t say so, but for many legislatures that would mean carefully assessing these punishments for the first time…

The judge made clear why the severity of collateral consequences—authorizing discrimination in education, employment, housing, and many other basic elements of American life—means that anyone convicted of a felony is likely to face an arduous future. This predicament has been called modern civil death, social exclusion, and internal exile. Whatever it is called, its vast array of penalties kicks in automatically with a conviction, defying the supposedly bedrock principle of American law that the punishment must fit the crime.

Our war on drugs is so wrong in so many ways.  At least more and more people are getting it.  Judges are getting it.  Time for Congress and state legislators to get it.

Everybody gets debt forgiveness

Okay, not everybody, but 9000 people.  John Oliver demonstrates the evils of the debt collection industry as only he can.  Summary here.  And if you are not familiar with this issue, John Oliver is your perfect guide.


My inauthentic self

Loved this NYT column on how “be yourself” is terrible advice:

But for most people, “be yourself” is actually terrible advice.

If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.

A decade ago, the author A. J. Jacobs spent a few weeks trying to be totally authentic. He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him. He informed a friend’s 5-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead. He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring. You can imagine how his experiment worked out.

“Deceit makes our world go round,” he concluded. “Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.”

What I especially like is that the column then goes into self-monitoring theory– one of my favorite concepts in Social Psychology.  In fact, I discovered a did a good post on this 9(!) years ago.  Here’s part of what I wrote then:

Of course, every husband/boyfriend understands that lying is a key to a happy relationship– “do these jeans make me look fat?”  David’s favorite cartoon, Lilo and Stich, had a great episode where the evil genuis scientist created a lie detector that made a noise when anyone lied.  The original purpose of this creation was to undermine an enemy society.  Why?  “Because lies are the fabric that hold society together.”

The fact that liars tend to be more popular also reminds me of one of the more intriguing theories I learned about way back in my Intro to Social Psych class: Self Monitoring Theory.   Basically, there is considerable individual variation on how closely we monitor ourselves and adjust our behavior to fit into different social situations.  Not surprisingly, high self monitors tend to be more socially successful.  I’ve always liked this theory because I had a real light-bulb moment when I learned about it.  My childhood best friend, Stanley Bean (who I sure hope is not reading this entry), accused me of being a hypocrite for my different actions/statements in different social settings.  When learning of this theory in class, I realized that I was a classic high self monitor and to a classic low self monitor like Stanley, I just appeared like a big hypocrite.  It really explained a lot.  So, maybe I am a hypocrite, but at least I am a socially well-adjusted one.

And here’s what the NYT column has to say about the research on the matter:

How much you aim for authenticity depends on a personality trait calledself-monitoring. If you’re a high self-monitor, you’re constantly scanning your environment for social cues and adjusting accordingly. You hate social awkwardness and desperately want to avoid offending anyone.

But if you’re a low self-monitor, you’re guided more by your inner states, regardless of your circumstances. In one fascinating study, when a steak landed on their plates, high self-monitors tasted it before pouring salt, whereas low self-monitors salted it first. As the psychologist Brian Littleexplains, “It is as though low self-monitors know their salt personalities very well.”

Low self-monitors criticize high self-monitors as chameleons and phonies. They’re right that there’s a time and place for authenticity. Some preliminary research suggests that low self-monitors tend to have happier marriages and lower odds of divorce. With your romantic partner, being authentic might lead to a more genuine connection (unless your name is A. J. Jacobs).

But in the rest of our lives, we pay a price for being too authentic. High self-monitors advance faster and earn higher status, in part because they’re more concerned about their reputations. And while that would seem to reward self-promoting frauds, these high self-monitors spend more time finding out what others need and helping them. In a comprehensive analysis of 136 studies of more than 23,000 employees, high self-monitors received significantly higher evaluations and were more likely to be promoted into leadership positions.

So now we know the secret to my success.  Sorry if you think I’m a phony :-).

Trump against democracy

Let’s be very clear here– the biggest problem with Trump is not just that he is an ignoramus, sexist, racist, blowhard, it is that he is one with utter contempt for the (mostly) bipartisan values that our genuinely fundamental to our democracy.  Lots of good stuff on the matter lately.

First, Peter Beinart on Trump’s threat to an independent judiciary:

Now he’s going after the judiciary. In San Diego over the weekend, Trump publicly attacked Gonzalo Curiel, the judge who is hearing the lawsuit against Trump University. After first noting that Curiel “happens to be Mexican” (he was actually born in Indiana to Mexican immigrant parents), Trump declared that, “It is a disgrace. It is a rigged system … This court system, the judges in this court system, federal court. They ought to look into Judge Curiel because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace.”

To understand how extraordinary Trump’s attack on Curiel is, it’s worth remembering what happened when Barack Obama, in his 2010 State of the Union address, criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case. As the justices looked on, Obama declared that, “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections.” Rush Limbaugh saidObama’s comments reflected a “profound disrespect for the separation of powers” and “a thugocracy style” befitting a “banana republic.” Chief Justice John Roberts himself called Obama’s remarks “very troubling.”

But Obama didn’t attack the justices’ integrity. And he didn’t suggest they be punished. Trump, by contrast, called Curiel a “disgrace,” who is presiding over a “rigged system.” And he suggested that, “they ought to look into Judge Curiel.” …

Were Trump president, he’d have other methods of intimidation at his disposal. Instead of merely suggesting that, “they ought to look into Judge Curiel,” he could order his Justice Department to do it. To be sure, Democrats, liberal journalists, and principled conservatives would howl. But given the partisan consolidation around Trump since he locked up the nomination, it’s likely that many Republicans would look the other way, or suggest that what Obama did was worse. Already, pro-Trump Republicans like the CNN commentator Jeffrey Lord are echoing Trump’s attack, calling the Trump university trial “rigged,” and suggesting that Curiel, because he received a reward from a Latino lawyers’ group, has a “serious ethnic axe to grind.” …

On the right, the most common justification for supporting Trump is that he’ll appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court. That’s naïve. On issues like abortion, gun control, and gay rights, Trump has been wildly inconsistent. Where he’s been more consistent is in his willingness to denigrate anyone who gets in his way. He’s less likely to the challenge federal judiciary’s progressivism than to challenge its independence. Gonzalo Curiel may be the first judge he’s threatened on his way to the White House. But he’s unlikely to be the last.

And the NYT article on his attacks on a free press:

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on the presidency and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Trump appeared to be making assumptions about journalism that were “so faulty as to be bizarre.”

“The notion that the press would be writing stories praising him for keeping a promise he made in public to veterans, months after he made the promise, suggests he simply does not understand the function of the press,” she said.

And the president of the National Press Club, Thomas Burr, issued a blistering statement suggesting that Mr. Trump “misunderstands — or, more likely, simply opposes — the role a free press plays in a democratic society.”

“Any American political candidate who attacks the press for doing its job is campaigning in the wrong country,” Mr. Burr said.  [emphases mine]

And a great NYT story calling upon legal experts (especially conservative and libertarian ones) to explain how Trump is a threat to the foundational principle of the rule of law:

Even as much of the Republican political establishment lines up behind its presumptive nominee, many conservative and libertarian legal scholars warn that electing Mr. Trump is a recipe for a constitutional crisis.

“Who knows what Donald Trump with a pen and phone would do?” askedIlya Shapiro, a lawyer with the libertarian Cato Institute…

David Post, a retired law professor who now writes for the Volokh Conspiracy, a conservative-leaning law blog, said those comments had crossed a line.

“This is how authoritarianism starts, with a president who does not respect the judiciary,” Mr. Post said. “You can criticize the judicial system, you can criticize individual cases, you can criticize individual judges. But the president has to be clear that the law is the law and that he enforces the law. That is his constitutional obligation.” …

Beyond the attack on judicial independence is a broader question of Mr. Trump’s commitment to the separation of powers and to the principles of federalism enshrined in the Constitution. Randy E. Barnett, a law professor at Georgetown and an architect of the first major challenge to President Obama’s health care law, said he had grave doubts on both fronts.

“You would like a president with some idea about constitutional limits on presidential powers, on congressional powers, on federal powers,” Professor Barnett said, “and I doubt he has any awareness of such limits.”

You get the gist.  Again, take note of who these criticisms are coming from.  Now, we need enough Republican politicians and others to get this gist.  Trump is not an ordinary nominee.  He is a uniquely dangerous candidate for our democracy.  Maybe the odds of him doing major lasting damage to our democratic institutions is only 5-10%, but that’s 5-10% higher than any other major party nominee we’ve seen in recent times.

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