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Monday, February 02, 2009

Prisons in Haiti... and in California

I've been thinking this morning about the parameters we use to compare the scope of rights available to citizens in different countries. This month we've been hard at work putting together the California Correctional Crisis Conference, which will happen in San Francisco March 19-20 (and you are all, of course, warmly invited to RSVP and attend). In making the conference happen, we all learned a great deal about the dire circumstances of our state prisons, which are at 200% capacity, and whose medical system is falling apart. I've also come across a pretty decent (though somewhat sensationalized in terms of presentation!) documentary series that serves as a good primer about how we got to this sad state of affairs.

But then, I think about the prison system in places like Haiti, where people languish for months without any proper medical care and before trial; where the conditions are unbearable; and where, often, there is no separation between populations that we take for granted should be separated. Hastings, and a few other law schools such as Seton Hall, are helping in Haiti, and we will be there in March helping with some prison research. Is it better to concentrate our efforts on places where people are, perhaps, objectively worse off, or closer to home?

Naturally, there's no one good answer to these questions. Do we expect more from California than we do from developing countries? And, if so, do we take it for granted that "our" prisoners, even if their conditions are extremely problematic, are and should be better off than "their" prisoners? To what extent do we ignore problems in developing countries until some political/symbolic mechanism pushes us to act? And given the limited resources we all have, what do we devote our energies to?

As I ride into the sunset to ponder these, I'll provide an update I still owe you all regarding the police officer who shot Oscar Grant at the Oakland BART station. After what seems to have been a problematic police probe into the matter, the officer has been released on bail but charged with murder, and it seems like he will be arguing he mistook his gun for a taser. The other officer, who hit grant, argues provocation. 

With these difficult questions on my mind, I bid you all farewell for the time being. Thank you for the gracious hosting and for your thoughtful comments and dialogue.

Posted by Hadar Aviram on February 2, 2009 at 12:18 PM in Criminal Law | Permalink


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Thanks, Patrick, this is really helpful. It's good to know that plenty of good folks are grappling with these issues in a more systematic way!

Posted by: Hadar Aviram | Feb 2, 2009 4:58:31 PM

"Is it better to concentrate our efforts on places where people are, perhaps, objectively worse off, or closer to home?"

"And given the limited resources we all have, what do we devote our energies to?"


Perhaps not surprisingly there is a fairly large literature dealing with the above and related questions, much of it within the rubrics of "global distributive justice" (on which I have a fairly decent bibliography covering the ethics, politics and economics thereof, should anyone be interested) and "cosmopolitanism." Works in both these areas reveal that it's not simply a question of trading off one set of people (our particular club of citizens, for example) against others outside that club. In fact, given the enormous global disparaties of welfare and well-being or respective points on "quality of life" indices, there's much that can be done to help out those in emerging polities and so-called developing countries even if the bulk of our efforts are focused on what's close at hand. Other works germane to our questions that fall outside those two domains are within ethics and moral philosophy proper.

FWIW, I'm partial to such folks as Thomas Pogge, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and G.A. Cohen, as well as avowed Marxists like R.G. Peffer. One of the best works remains Robert Goodin's Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities (1985) but see also (in no particular order) Garrett Cullity's The Moral Demands of Affluence (2004), Deen K. Chatterjee, ed., The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy (2004), Jamie Mayerfeld's Suffering and Moral Responsibility (1999), Peter Unger's Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusions of Innocence (1996), Jonathan Wolff and Avner de-Shalit, Disadvantage (2007), and Simon Caney's Justice Beyond Borders: A Global Political Theory (2005).

So I think there are some answers to our questions that are better than others and perhaps even "good," even if the questions, let alone the "answers," are unavoidably difficult, contentious, not well understood, etc. I appreciate you raising them in any case.

All the best,

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 2, 2009 4:52:49 PM

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