July 28, 2011

Crime after crime: Battered woman’s struggle for justice

Debbie Peagler was 15 when she met and fell in love with a charming young man named Oliver Wilson. Unfortunately for her, Wilson was a pimp and drug dealer who ferociously abused her over the next six years. He beat her with a bullwhip, prostituted her, forced her to perform oral sex in front of his friends, put hot ashes on her hands and made her eat his feces, according to witnesses. When she said she would leave, he threatened to kill her.

On May 27, 1982, she asked him to drive her to a park. Waiting in ambush were two friends of her mother, neighborhood gang members who killed him. The prosecution maintained that Peagler hired the men. Peagler claimed she never discussed killing Wilson.

Threatened with the death penalty, Peagler pled guilty to first-degree murder and went to prison. And there she would have remained for the rest of her life, if not for a little serendipity.

After California enacted a law in 2000 to ensure fair trials for battered women who killed their abusers, the California Habeas Project selected Peagler as someone who might be eligible for relief. A local law firm, Bingham McCutchen, agreed to take the case pro bono. Two rookie land-use attorneys, Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, began collecting new evidence to substantiate Peagler’s abuse.

Peagler’s story had deep personal meaning for Safran. As a 9-year-old boy, he helplessly cried through the night as an abusive boyfriend pummeled his mother. Eventually, he and his mother escaped, and he learned to channel his simmering rage into legal advocacy.

Over the course of several years, the attorneys found long-lost witnesses, learned of allegedly perjured evidence, and got new statements from the men who had killed Wilson.

For her part, Peagley was a model prisoner. She had spent her decades behind bars tutoring illiterate women, leading a gospel choir, earning two college degrees, and participating in a battered women’s support group.

Eventually, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office agreed that Peagley should have been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, which at the time carried a sentence of only two to six years. Prosecutors signed a statement agreeing to Peagley’s immediate release from prison.

But that happy ending was not to be. After a political backlash in his office, the district attorney reneged on the deal, and Peagley’s petition for release was denied. Meanwhile, the case took on a new urgency when Peagley was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

Costa and Safran continued to petition for Peagley’s release on numerous grounds: Her guilty plea was coerced, false evidence was introduced against her, and the original prosecution would have differed had there been expert testimony on battering.

Although the courts failed her, she was finally paroled from prison in August 2009, thanks in part to an international grassroots campaign. She currently lives in Carson, CA.

Sadly, Bay Area private investigator Bobby Buechler, who gathered exculpatory evidence and was involved in the crusade to free Peagley (and whom I happened to know), died unexpectedly shortly before her release.

Filmmaker Yoav Potash spent five years filming the story as it unfolded, both in and out of prison. CRIME AFTER CRIME is the award-winning documentary of this dramatic saga. The film is currently playing around the United States; check HERE for more information and to find a venue near you.
Hat tip: Martin

July 22, 2011

Worldwide incarceration tops 10 million

Photo credit: Richard Ross, Architecture of Authority collection
More than 10.1 million people are held in penal institutions throughout the world according to the latest edition of the World Prison Population List (WPPL), published this week by the International Centre for Prison Studies in London. Rates vary considerably between different regions of the world, and between different parts of the same continent.

The United States' prison total constitutes a rate of 743 per 100,000 of the national population, making it pro rata by far the biggest user of prison in the world. The overall world prison population rate is 146 per 100,000.
The fact that there are now over ten million men, women and children in prisons around the world should be a matter of grave public concern. A small proportion of these are a threat to public safety and there is no question that they need to be detained. However, in many countries the majority of prisoners come from minority and marginalised groups, or are mentally ill, or are drug and alcohol abusers. Sending such people to prison is inappropriate, does not improve public safety and is very expensive. There are indications in a number of countries that current economic difficulties are at last forcing politicians and public commentators to acknowledge that prisons cannot continue to expand in the way they have done in recent years.

The WPPL provides up-to-date information on the global prison population based on official government data from 218 countries and territories.

The current report is HERE.

July 20, 2011

Sex offender roundup

So much being generated on the sex offender front that it's hard to keep up. Here, in no particular order, are just a few choice items:

The Atlantic: Overzealous sex offender laws harm public

As the tide begins to turn, The Atlantic magazine has joined the backlash, with a well-written and insightful piece by associate editor Conor Friedersdorf that begins like this:
On the Texas registry for sex offenders, Frank Rodriguez's crime is listed as "sexual assault of a child." If I lived in his neighborhood and had young children, I'd be frightened upon seeing that. Safe to assume that some of his neighbors discovered his status and became alarmed. Needlessly so, as it turns out. Delving into his story, journalist Abigail Pesta has discovered that Rodriguez was arrested for having sex with his high school girlfriend. He was 19. She was 15. They've now been happily married for years, and he has fathered four girls.

The anecdote is part of a larger story about America's sex offender registries and the people on them who don't belong there. It's a timely subject. This month, some state governments are racing to bring themselves into compliance with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in order to avoid losing federal funds. As a result, the sex offender dragnet may pull in even more people. Says Pesta, "Each of the 50 states now has at least one grassroots group dedicated to getting young people -- many high school age, but some under the age of 10 -- off the registry."

So perhaps the backlash will grow too.

The article continues HERE.

Juvenile registries harmful, study finds

Dovetailing nicely with the Atlantic piece, a leading researcher and national expert on sex offender policy has found that placing the names of juveniles on sex offender registries does nothing to make society safer, and has harmful unintended effects on youth and on juvenile case processing.

Based on her research, Elizabeth Letourneau of the Medical University of South Carolina is calling for an end to notification requirements for juveniles.

A summary of her research is HERE.

California releases audit of SVP program

The State Auditor’s Office has issued its long-awaited report on the practical implementation of California’s civil commitment scheme for sex offenders. It isn’t as hard-hitting as I would have liked, but there are a few interesting tidbits.

One I found interesting was the statistic that out of all of the sex offenders who were NOT civilly committed and who were released into the community between 2005 and 2010, only ONE was later convicted for a new sexually violent offense. Talk about a low base rate!

The report also details the program’s meager bang for the buck. From 2005 to 2010, the state paid nearly $49 million in evaluation costs alone to a small group of privately contracted evaluators. Some of these psychologists earned upwards of $1 million per year. And for what return? Last year, the SVP program screened 6,575 prisoners for possible civil commitment. And guess how many were committed? THREE (much less than 1 percent)!

Just think about how much primary prevention work to reduce sexual violence all of those waste millions could have funded.  

The full report is online HERE.

More on the social costs of civil detention 

Unlike the California auditors, who seem to have bought into the promise of the Static-99 as an “actuarial” technique capable of predicting future behavior, law professor Tamara Rice Lave of the Miami School of Law has just published an article in New Criminal Law Review claiming that the Static has little utility in SVP determinations not only because it is inaccurate, but also because it does not link dangerousness to mental illness as U.S. laws require. Here is the abstract of her article, “Controlling Sexually Violent Predators: Continued Incarceration At What Cost?”
Sexually violent predator (SVP) laws are inherently suspicious because they continue to incarcerate people not because of what they have done, but because of what they might do. I focus on three major criticisms of the laws. First, I use recent recidivism data to challenge the core motivation for the SVP laws—that sex offenders are monsters who cannot control themselves. Second, I situate the laws theoretically as examples of what Feeley and Simon call the “new penology.” I argue that the SVP laws show the limited promise of the new penology—that we can use science to predict risk accurately—because the actuarial instruments used in SVP determinations make many mistakes. In making this argument, I focus particularly on the most commonly used such instrument, the Static-99. Finally, I argue that the Static-99 fails to meet the constitutional criteria laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kansas v. Hendricks because it does not link an individual’s mental illness to his dangerousness.

Her full article is available online HERE.

Government SVP reports off target, says Allen Frances

Allen Frances, the chair of the DSM-IV Task Force, has been dabbling with SVP cases as an expert witness for the past year. After reviewing almost 100 cases, he is  – to put it mildly – under-impressed by the reports of government experts:
In not one case did the sexual offender qualify for anything remotely resembling a DSM-IV diagnosis of Paraphilia. And this is in an enriched sample of offenders who have been carefully screened and are presumed to have Paraphilia. Certainly state evaluators are wildly over-diagnosing Paraphilia and the courts are sanctioning unjust psychiatric incarceration based on their misguided opinions.

The evaluators all misinterpreted DSM-IV in just the same way. They routinely equate the act of committing a sex crime with having a mental disorder. Their reports gave remarkably detailed descriptions of the offender's criminal behavior, but provide little or no rationale or justification for a diagnoses of Paraphilia. The write-ups are all long and thorough -- but completely off point and generic. Although written by dozens of different evaluators, they have a rote quality and all repeated exactly the same mistakes.
His full post, at his “Couch in Crisis” blog at the Psychiatric Times, is HERE.

Is porn "driving men crazy"?

Last but not least, the prolific and insightful blogger Vaughan Bell deconstructs a CNN article by social crusader Naomi Wolf, who claims that pornography is “rewiring the male brain” and “causing [men] to have more difficulty controlling their impulses.”
According to her article, … “some men (and women) have a 'dopamine hole' – their brains’ reward systems are less efficient – making them more likely to become addicted to more extreme porn more easily.”

Wolf cites the function of dopamine to back up her argument and says this provides “an increasing body of scientific evidence” to support her ideas.

Porn is portrayed as a dangerous addictive drug that hooks naive users and leads them into sexual depravity and dysfunction. The trouble is, if this is true (which by the way, it isn’t, research suggests both males and females find porn generally enhances their sex lives, it does not effect emotional closeness and it is not linked to risky sexual behaviours) it would also be true for sex itself which relies on, unsurprisingly, a remarkably similar dopamine reward system.

Furthermore, Wolf relies on a cartoon character version of the reward system where dopamine squirts are represented as the brain’s pleasurable pats on the back....
The full post is HERE.

And after all of this if you're still in the mood for further browsing, I highly recommend the wide-ranging Mind Hacks blog; the topics are always fascinating (at least to me).

July 15, 2011

Historic hunger strike by Supermax prisoners continues

Gangs are bad, right? And prison gangs are worse?

Yet, when members of California prison gangs try to retire, California punishes them. They are shipping to a solitary housing unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay, one of the worst prisons in the state. They are locked in isolation cells for months or even years while being forced to undergo lengthy “debriefings” where they must snitch on other prisoners. Many become mentally ill.

The conditions of extreme isolation and deprivation are so severe that they violate the U.S. Constitution and international laws on torture, according to prisoners who on July 1 began a hunger strike in protest.

The prisoners were supported by up to 6,600 prisoners at 13 other prisons around the state. But even with some of the strikers reportedly nearing death this week, prison officials adamantly refuse to sit down at the table and negotiate. In fact, they are putting an evil spin on the strikers by claiming they are being coerced by prison gangs.

The prisoners' demands include an end to long-term solitary confinement, expansion of constructive activities and privileges (such as phone calls and the right to take one photo of themselves per year), and abolition of the prison’s gang debriefing policy.

One of the striking prisoners is Hugo Pinell, an African American organizer who has been imprisoned since 1971 for his role in the San Quentin uprising that led to George Jackson's death. Pinell has been at the Pelican Bay SHU for 20 years.

This is at least the third in a series of protests by U.S. prisoners in recent months. Last December, thousands of prisoners in Georgia used mobile phones to organize what has been called the largest prison labor strike in U.S. history, in at least six prisons across the state. Prisoners on death row in Ohio then went on a hunger strike and won some changes in their conditions, according to a lengthy report by Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera has more background on the strike (HERE). To get involved by contacting state officials or taking other supportive action, visit the blog of Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.

Related blog post:

July 10, 2011

Loughner case shines spotlight on forced meds practices

Under what circumstances may the U.S. government drug a captive against his will?

A round of high-profile court skirmishes over the forcible medication of attempted assassination suspect Jared Loughner may help resolve legal ambiguities on this issue.

Two decades ago, in the landmark case of Washington v. Harper, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that convicted prisoners may be forcibly medicated without a judicial hearing, if prison officials deem them dangerous to themselves or others. All that is needed is an informal administrative hearing behind the walls, a proceeding that many liken to a kangaroo court.

But pretrial detainees – who are presumed innocent – have greater rights when it comes to forced medications to restore their competency to stand trial. In the 2003 case of U.S. v. Sell, the high court specified certain conditions that must be met before someone may be forced to take medications designed to render him or her trial competent:
The Constitution permits the Government involuntarily to administer antipsychotic drugs to render a mentally ill defendant competent to stand trial on serious criminal charges if the treatment is medically appropriate, is substantially unlikely to have side effects that may undermine the trial’s fairness, and, taking account of less intrusive alternatives, is necessary significantly to further important governmental trial-related interests.
Government "end run"?

In the Loughner case, defense attorneys accused the government of trying to make an end run around these legal requirements by claiming that Loughner was dangerous. The incidents of alleged dangerousness claimed by the government included cursing and throwing a plastic chair on March 14, spitting and lunging at his lawyer, Judy Clarke, on April 4, and throwing chairs in his cell on May 28.

All of these incidents took place at the prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri where Loughner was sent after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and determined to be incompetent to stand trial. Loughner’s attorneys said they were denied access to their client, and only found out after the fact that the prison had held a hearing on June 14 and unilaterally decided to forcibly administering antipsychotic medication. Loughner is taking the oral antipsychotic Risperidone under threat that if he refuses, he will be forcibly injected with the potent drug Haldol.

In an emergency motion filed June 24 seeking to force a halt to the medications, the defense team said three isolated instances of misconduct during five months in custody are hardly sufficient to show present dangerousness. They accused prison staff of administering the antipsychotic not to reduce Loughner’s danger, but to restore him to competency, in violation of Sell. They asked that the prison be ordered to use other means of reducing Loughner’s danger if necessary, such as restraints, isolation, or minor tranquilizing drugs.
Courts must remain mindful that the dangerousness rationale and its purported justifications don’t become muddled with the attempt to administer psychotropic medications for purposes of treatment and restoration of competency…. To permit the prison to make these treatment decisions without Sell’s guidance and protections not only jeopardizes a significant liberty interest, it jeopardizes a fair trial.
They cited the landmark case of Riggins v. Nevada. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a Nevada man was deprived of a fair trial by being forcibly medicated to keep him competent during trial. The medications interfered with the content of his testimony and his ability to follow proceedings and communicate with counsel; they also impacted his outward appearance such that he no longer appeared insane, despite the fact that he was claiming insanity at the time of his crime.

"I didn’t go to medical school"

A federal judge summarily denied the defense motion, saying he did not want to second-guess the prison clinicians.

"I defer to medical doctors," U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns said at an emergency hearing requested by the defense. "I have no reason to disagree with doctors. I didn't go to medical school."

But because the issue of whether forced drugging is permissible is a legal issue, not a clinical one, this seems like improper deference.

Luckily, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had more sense, issuing an emergency order July 2 to halt the medications until the issue could be fully litigated.

The appellate court pointed to its 2005 ruling in of United States v. Rivera-Guerrero, holding that forced administration of medications to pretrial detainees is of “clear constitutional importance.” In that case, the 9th Circuit ruled that in federal cases that such orders are too important even to be issued by lower magistrate judges, as opposed to district court judges.

Should pretrial detainees get greater deference?

At a hearing before a three-judge panel on Thursday, the appellate justices focused on the distinction raised by Loughner’s defense team between forcibly medicating a convicted prisoner and medicating a pretrial detainee.

“Why should someone presumptively innocent not be treated with greater personal deference” than a convicted prisoner, asked Judge Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the 9th Circuit, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"Is the goal of rendering the defendant competent different from medicating him for dangerousness?” asked Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, touching on another area of murkiness. "Are these different goals? How do you separate them out?"

Loughner’s attorneys argue that not only will their client's fair-trial rights be affected, but he could also suffer irreparable harm from the strong drugs because they alter the chemical balance in the brain and can have serious, even fatal, side effects.

With the immediate urgency out of the way, the appellate panel did not give a date for their ruling on the medication issue.

Where is this heading?

This skirmish holds the promise of clearing up confusion over when the government may forcibly drug a captive without a formal court hearing. But, no matter which way this skirmish ends, Loughner will likely never be released from custody. His case may take one of several directions.

One likely next step is that he will be granted a Sell hearing, as his attorneys seek. If so, it seems likely that forced medications will be authorized. After all, if ever there was a compelling government interest in seeing that a defendant goes to trial, it is here. The 22-year-old Arizona man faces 49 felony charges in a Jan. 8 shooting rampage that killed six people and wounded 13, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

If he is given antipsychotic medications, Loughner will most likely be rendered competent to stand trial, probably within a year. The standard for competency to stand trial requires only that a defendant have a factual and rational understanding of the proceedings and an ability to rationally assist his attorney in his own defense.

Once Loughner is found mentally competent, his attorneys will likely raise the defense of insanity. In order to be found insane, his mental disorder must have prevented him from knowing that his actions were wrong at the time he committed them. If he is found insane, he will be committed to a locked psychiatric hospital.

In contrast, if he is found guilty he faces the death penalty. However, there is a good chance that attorneys will negotiate a plea deal that spares his life. This is what happened in the case of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Such a resolution has the advantage of avoiding the internationally embarrassing spectacle of the U.S. government trying and executing someone who was floridly psychotic at the time of his crimes.

There is also the remote possibility that Loughner will not be restored to competency and so will never face trial. This could happen either if his attorneys succeed in fighting forced medications (a highly unlikely event), or in the event that medications do not work to restore his sanity. In either of these circumstances, prosecutors could seek to have him civilly committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Bottom line, he will never be released back into the community.

I have made the June 24 defense motion available HERE. My previous essay on the Loughner case, “The Arizona rampage: Analyzing the analyzers,” can be found HERE. My other prior coverage of legal wrangling in this case is HERE.

July 2, 2011

Steffan's Alerts #6: Tattoos, bias, homicides and death penalty attitudes

In a new issue of Child Abuse and Neglect, Mark Everson and Jose Miguel Sandoval surveyed 1,106 child maltreatment professionals in order to explore personal biases and attitudes that might account for how professional judgments of child sexual abuse differ based on the same evidence.

In a new issue of Crime and Delinquency, Scott Camp and colleagues report data suggesting that the answer is "yes" but the extent of the effects depends on personal characteristics.

Alicia Rozycki Lozano and colleagues examine the connection between prison tattoos and criminality in their new article in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. As a group, offenders with prison tattoos are at higher risk for recidivism and incur more institutional infractions than do offenders with non-prison tattoos or no tattoos, the authors report.

Several articles in the new issue of Homicide Studies might pique your interest: 
  • Amy Nivette reports on the limitations of using cross-national research to identify predictors of homicide.
  • Sharon Smith and colleagues of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used qualitative analyses to derive four categories that they hope will improve understanding of sexually motivated homicides.
  • Melanie-Angela Neuilly and colleagues present a classification tree analysis, based on  320 homicide offenders in New Jersey, that they contend is useful in predicting recidivism.
  • Jeff Gruenewald compared homicides committed by extremists with those perpetrated by other types of persons in the United States. He found both similarities and differences.
    Click on a title to read the article abstract;   
    click on a highlighted author's name to request the full article.   

Steffan's alerts are brought to you by Jarrod Steffan, Ph.D., a forensic and clinical psychologist based in Wichita, Kansas. For more information about Dr. Steffan, please visit his website.