Monday, May 17, 2010

Weekend Update; Supreme Court and Sex Offender Incarceration; Small Victory for BP

Hi. Hope the weekend was good.
Mine was good. Went by too fast. Highlights included breakfast with Ryan, Jamie, and Heather, a Saturday crawfish boil that was put on by Ken Gibson's office (which was really nice- good food, live music, and a chance to hang out and talk with courthouse people without having to argue about the ridiculous tomfoolery of criminal defendants), and some hanging out with Mandy and Vikki over at Mandy's house. I also spent some time recording/editing music, and I took Cassidy to the dog park.

What else? Well, I don't really talk about matters involving criminal law a whole lot on this blog (or at least not a super lot, given that I practice criminal law for a living), but I found this sort of interesting: the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law today which allows inmates who are considered "sexually dangerous" to be held in custody indefinitely on civil commitments, even after these inmates have completed their initial prison terms (so after they complete their original sentence for whatever crime they initially committed, the federal system may continue to hold them in custody if they are deemed to still be "sexually dangerous" at the time when they normally would be released).
I find the ruling interesting because I have some very mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I find it troubling that law enforcement/prison/mental health officials can continue to hold a person in custody indefinitely, even after a person has served out the maximum amount of time for which they've been sentenced. The skeptical, suspicious, paranoid part of my mind immediately wonders how many sex crime inmates are going to be held for indefinite periods of time, not necessarily because they legitimately continue to pose a significant risk to society, but because law enforcement officials didn't think that a particular inmate got a long enough sentence in the first place, because the inmate has been a pain in the butt to deal with while they've been in custody, or for any number of reasons. Hopefully, in practice, these determinations of "sexual dangerousness" will be conducted by some sort of independent, qualified mental health/behavioral science experts who operate separately and make their assessments without undue influence from law enforcement officials (who may have their own, unrelated reasons to favor or oppose continued custody). Also, there's part of me that worries about a system which may take a less serious offense (perhaps a case where an inmate tried to commit a sexual assault, but never actually did), and then holds a person in prison indefinitely for it (with the inmate spending more time in jail than people who have committed actual murders and other serious crimes).
So part of me is pretty wary of a system which can continue to hold an inmate long after the sentence handed down by the judge or jury has expired.
On the other hand, back when I was doing work as a defense attorney, I worked on some sexual assault cases, both as a lead attorney, and, on some particularly bad cases, as a second chair. (People used to ask me how I could handle working on those cases, and while it wasn't easy, I always felt like there would be almost nothing worse to be accused of than sexual assault if you didn't actually commit the crime.) Anyway, in most of my other defense work, I usually felt like the defendants were just people who made some really bad choices and did some dumb things (sometimes insanely dumb, and often fueled by drugs and/or alcohol), but at least most of the time I felt like I could understand where my clients were coming from, in one way or another (i.e., drug dealers usually want to make money and feed their addiction, the assaults were usually the result of fighting over money, drugs, gang stuff, or members of the opposite sex, burglars wanted to steal stuff and sell it, etc.).
The sex offenders, though, were often a breed apart. Once you really got into a serious conversation with them, you often realized that they just had a different view of other people and the world than a normal person might have. Not only did they often have a sort of predatory mindset, but they had a compulsive desire to do bad stuff, which a number of them admitted was beyond their ability to control (defendants will tell their lawyers all kinds of crazy things if the lawyer is willing to just sit there and be nonjudgmental while they tell their story). The behavior on these sex cases was even more troubling and difficult to comprehend on cases where children were involved (yup, I was involved in a few of those cases, too- not exactly my favorite things to work on).
All of this to say that while part of me is wary of this Supreme Court ruling, another part of me thinks its probably a good idea to take these predators away from society and just lock them up until some kind of expert can give us assurances that they're not going to hurt anyone again. Sexual predators can really, truly be some dangerous, damaged folks. They can suffer from compulsions that they have a really difficult time controlling, they can seem totally harmless even when they're actually pretty dangerous (I had a number of cases where the defendant's family and friends were totally outraged by accusations, insisting that there was no way the defendant would ever do such a thing- even though, privately, the client had already admitted his guilt to me), and sex offenders can be very good at covering their tracks (preying upon children and other people that they think are unlikely to report the crimes or that no one will believe).
Anyway, I know it's an area of study with a high "ick" factor, but we really actually need a lot more research regarding predatory sex offenders. The problem with simply locking all of them away for life is that sometimes the person may not really have actually done a whole lot wrong when we first get ahold of them (and we don't really lock people away in this country simply for having bad thoughts). It might not be feasible to lock away a person for life when he gets caught spying on or talking to children inappropriately for the first time, but from everything I understand, these are the people who are most likely to continue to reoffend, and to increase the egregiousness of their behavior over time. If we could actually treat sex offenders for their dysfunction and find a way to get them to control their impulses (hopefully even before they start acting on them), that might be an important step in terms of public safety. Plus, it could help to alleviate the need for locking people up for almost indefinite periods, regardless of their actual crime.
Anyway, sorry to start out your week with talk about sex offenders, but I've thought about some of these issues before, back when I was doing defense work.

What else? BP finally got a tube inserted into the massive oil leak at the Deepwater Horizon well site, but they're reporting that this device is only recovering about 1,000 barrels of oil a day (the apparatus takes oil from the leak site and funnels it up to an oil recovery vessel at the surface). Given the fact that BP has reported a flow of 5,000 barrels of oil a day from the well site and that other experts are claiming the flow could actually be much higher, I don't feel all that comforted by a fix which is addressing, at best, maybe 20% of this huge oil spill. I'm glad BP has come up with something, but... keep working, guys. You still have a long way to go in getting this thing fixed (let alone cleaned up).

Well, I guess maybe that's about it for now. Maybe more later.
Once again, I apologize for sex crime talk on a Monday. I promise not to kick off next week the same way.


Paul Toohey said...

I've read that the Russians have 5 times stopped sub-ocean oil well leaks by detonating an Atomic Bomb underwater. I don't know what that would do to sealife, but I think we are pretty much at the point of stop it at all costs...I just hope that they are doing what is best for everything OTHER then money while planning these measures

J.S. said...

I'm not saying you're right or wrong, Paul, but I DO want to commend you for being the first person to suggest (at least to my knowledge) that we just nuke the whole freaking thing! I'm not exactly clear on how that would stop the leak, but it would LOOK awesome!

Paul Toohey said...

I'm just regurgitating what I've read. for more info.

I have a feeling it would work to stop the flow, but I wonder if they really care about stopping the flow. I heavily question whether they are still at the "We need to not ruin this well" stage, rather then the "we need to do anything to stop this problem" stage. I'm pretty cynical though.

J.S. said...

Well, I'm pretty cynical, too, but I think BP has long since passed the point where they would be happy to trade away the existence of this well (and probably the whole field beneath it) for a chance to contain this disaster. I'm not sure exactly how much they could possibly make off the well, but right now they are facing the serious possibility that litigation and cleanup efforts will run well over 10 billion dollars (not to mention the negative effect on BPs brand name and the long term damage that this accident will have upon national and international drilling policies). On the whole, I think this whole thing has been a disaster for BP which far surpasses the profits they could stand to make off of any single well (and BP has lots and lots of wells at all kinds of locations all around the world- they can really afford to lose one without any sort of lasting effect upon the company- a company which turned in a profit of something like $17 billion last year). Also, I took a look at the Russian nuke deal.

It sounds like the Russians were actually using those nukes to extinguish natural gas fires that were occurring in their oil wells, the detonations were actually occurring using specially designed charges that went into the shafts in the ground, and the procedure was never attempted at depths anywhere near as deep as what they're dealing with now. No one's really sure how that procedure would work if it were used a mile under the ocean.

Paul Toohey said...

You're probably right about them preferring the well be shut-down at no cost. And I guess basically, regarding the nuke solution, you're saying it's NOT "Easier Than Shooting Womp-Rats In Beggars' Canyon Back Home"? If only Luke Skywalker could shoot a charge into the well, a la the end of Star Wars(: A New Begining (for you younger kids)).

Did you notice the other Supreme Court decision? Looks like today they've said "It's OK to imprison someone you think might not be safe indefinitely" AND "You CANNOT imprison someone for something they did as a teen for life". Don't those two things sort of, kinda, counteract each other?

J.S. said...

I DID notice that kind of weird logic by the Supreme Court! Not sure what to say about it except that the courts just hate seeing kids locked away at a young age. I used to defend some cases in juvenile court, and I would see kids get slapped on the wrist for things that adults would have gotten some serious time for. Oh well. On balance, it's probably good that the courts don't want to give up on people at a young age. On the other hand, in order for a kid to be facing a life sentence in the first place that kid would have to have done something REALLY bad...