Thursday, June 26, 2008

Let them Lead Lives of Quiet Contemplation

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling authored by Justice Kennedy, struck down the law under which Patrick Kennedy (who is not related to the Supreme Court Justice) was sentenced to death. Kennedy was convicted of raping his 8 year old stepdaughter, and Louisiana is one of six states that, until yesterday, allowed the imposition of the death sentence for child rape.

Now, officials in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and other states across the South, where all six of these states sit, are looking for ways to get around the ruling. The opinion essentially said that it is unconstitutional to execute someone for a crime where the victim did not die. "We cannot sanction this result [execution] when the harm to the victim, though grave, cannot be quantified in the same way as death of the victim." Harm to a victim can never be calculated in any comprehensive or convincing way. The closest we can ever come to accurately calculating the damage done is the binary "is the victim alive or dead" calculation. Otherwise, we risk imposing the death penalty in an arbitrary manner, which the Supreme Court has over and over again declared unconstitutional and in violation of the 8th Amendment.

For officials to try to find a way around the court's ruling is repugnant to the theory of justice that we operate under as a society. Yes, laws can change, but the Court did not just strike down the individual laws of six different states. The Court struck down the idea that a death sentence could be imposed for anything other than a crime where the victim died.

Besides, spending the rest of his life in a Louisiana prison is not going to be a walk in the park for Patrick Kennedy. The lowest person on the totem pole of prison life is not the former law enforcement official, nor is it the snitch. The lowest person on the totem pole is the child molester, child abuser, and the child rapist. Life in prison is never easy, but if your crime included harming a child, it is even harder.

The death penalty is not an incentive to not commit crimes. Justice Kennedy even wrote in the opinion that restricting the imposition of the death sentence to crimes where the victim died could help preserve the life of a rape victim, as otherwise there may be no reason for the rapist to not kill.

Death is different. The Supreme Court has this for decades, in case after case. We treat it differently when it is caused, and we consider it differently when there is the possibility of it being imposed.

So, here is my message to officials in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia: Let Patrick Kennedy and his ilk sit in prison for the rest of their lives. Throw away the key and let them live out their days away from society. There is no need, little purpose, and rarely, if ever, closure when a perpetrator no longer breaths. Lock them up and forget about them. Better to let them spend the rest of their natural time considering their own horror, locked away from public consciousness, rather than putting them front and center, like a supernova, burning bright at the height of public awareness before blinking out and leaving the victim to deal with the crime on their own all over again. And above all else, better to respect the rule of law and the principles of justice, rather then to cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of temporary local satisfaction over national consensus and conscience.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Pulling our Heads out of the Sand

Still think abstinence-only education programs work?

Seventeen girls at a high school in Glaucester, Massachusetts got pregnant during this recently concluded school year. And apparently there was some kind of pact. It has been reported that girls were more disappointed when they found out they were NOT pregnant than when they found out they were expecting.

I spent a quarter working at a juvenile court in Massachusetts. I saw more young girls walking through the courtroom with multiple children in their care then I like to think about. Girls without a high school diploma, many of whom will never get one, trying to raise children. And now I hear about this group of teens who were TRYING to get pregnant.

The local school board is set to discuss the possibility of giving easier access to contraception. One parent interviewed questioned the wisdom of the decision, saying that there was not going to be someone following the girls around to make sure they take the pill. First of all, Let this be considered a big smack on the back of the head of every member of the school board. Of COURSE you need to provide easier access to birth control. But more important than access to items, schools need to be a place where there is easy access to information. Information about how to prevent pregnancy. Information about how to effectively use birth control. Information about how to grow up smart and healthy.

What students need, more than anything in this area, is an effective program of sex education. Abstinence should be part of the program, of course, but abstinence-only programs are a classic example of sticking your head in the sand. High school students are going to have sex, whether the schools teach them how to be safe and smart about it or not. So can someone please explain to me why it is better to not teach them?

An effective sex education program would not have kept all 17 of the girls at Glaucester High School from getting pregnant this year. But it could properly arm them and their classmates with the information that they need to make their way in the world.

Mark Twain said "I never let my schooling interfere with my education." Effective sex education programs are an instance where a class can bridge the gap and be both schooling and education. It is long past time to pull our heads out of the sand and accept the world as it is. Seventeen new children will hopefully be able to learn from such a program as they go through school.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert (1950-2008)

Tim Russert, the long time host of NBC's Meet the Press, died today at the age of 58 of a heart attack.

A sad day in the world of journalistic politics, Russert has been a consistent and calming voice in an ever-changing world. He will never be forgotten by those he grilled, and by those he spoke to.

Our hearts go out to his family, his colleagues, and his subjects.

He will be sorely missed.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Gaining Respect by Giving Up Gold

I never liked Michael Johnson.

It is not that I ever thought he was cheating. I just did not like the way he conducted himself. I always felt that he was obnoxiously overconfident, wearing gold shoes as he ran his races. I enjoy watching great athletes, and especially like to hear humility in their voices. The all time greats that let others judge their greatness earn my everlasting respect and admiration.

Today, however, I must profess my respect and admiration for the man. In the wake of Antonio Pettigrew's admission that he was doping when he helped the 1600 meter relay team win the gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Johnson has said that he will return his gold medal from that event to the International Olympic Committee. Saying that he does not want the medal, as he feels "cheated, betrayed and let down," Johnson has stated that he does not want the tainted medal on display with the four golds that he rightfully earned.

Johnson's revelation of humility is a refreshing breath of fresh air in the acrid atmosphere surrounding track and field. Other athletes have turned over their medals, but only when disgraced by their own conduct, exemplified by the Marion Jones situation. Johnson, on the other hand, is not waiting for the IOC, the IAAF, or the Court of Arbitration for Sport to order the relay results changed and the medals turned over. Instead, he is standing on his own principles, and acknowledging that, through no fault or failure of his own, he does not deserve one of the accolades that he has received.

Voicing support for the current crop of young (and hopefully 100% clean) runners who are making headlines around the world, such as new 100 meter world record holder Usain Bolt of Jamaica, Johnson is doing his part to propel the sports world forward, and out from under the cloud of performance enhancing drugs that have tainted every record, medal, and result for at least the better part of two decades. Hopefully, Johnson's success through discipline, and his personal standards, will stand as a shining example to this and future generations of athletes and stars.