Keeping Sex Offenders Imprisoned After Their Sentences End

I have written a number of posts about the draconian laws against sex offenders that make it extremely difficult for many of the offenders to ever be rehabilitated.   For example, see this about a teenager in Iowa who was put on the sex offender registry because, at age 16, he had sex with a girl he thought was 15, but turned out to be 13, and, as a result, could not live anything resembling a normal life.   And see this about offenders having to live in the woods because laws prohibit them from living near schools, churches, and day care facilities.

Another draconian trend has been for states to continue to incarcerate sex offender prisoners even after their sentences are finished. Well, that trend might now be having some difficultly because of the escalating amount of money it is costing the states to keep the offenders imprisoned.  In Virginia, the legislature passed a law about 10 years ago to keep some sex offenders  locked up even after their sentences ended, as long as they get treatment.   They are held indefinitely, subject to annual reviews by doctors.  However, that is a bit of a sham because there have only been 11 prisoners released since the program began.   (There are currently 252 offenders in indefinite incarceration.)

Virginia is different than other states with similar programs because, in Virginia, an offender can be kept incarcerated because of a single crime, whereas other states require multiple crimes.  In addition, Virginia originally had 4 crimes that were eligible for extended, indefinite commitment after the sentences ended.  That has since been expanded to 28 eligible crimes, which has caused the number of offenders admitted to the program to rise from one per month to 6-8 per month.

Not surprisingly, the escalating number of offenders who can be kept locked up after their sentences end has caused budgetary problems.  The cost in Virginia is expected to rise to $32 million next year, costing more than $100,000 per prisoner each year.

And, so, of course, the Virginia legislature is considering what to do about the cost.  Mind you, they don’t care that the program may essentially eliminate any chance that some of the offenders could be rehabilitated, all the legislature cares about is the money.  The best that can be said for this is that budgetary constraints may push some states to re-look at the fairness and effectiveness of their programs.  It may be that there is a need for some offenders to stay incarcerated.  But that would only be the correct thing to do if the programs really do keep only those offenders imprisoned and ensure that the others are released when their sentences end.

(And, by the way, over the weekend, I saw the award-winning play Frozen, by Bryony Lavery, which takes on the difficult questions of whether a serial child killer is “evil” or mentally ill and whether the mother of one of the murdered children can ever “forgive” the killer.  It’s a very disturbing play to sit through, but makes one think about the issues. )



The Army’s Wrong-Headed (and Discriminatory) “Spiritual Fitness Test”

It’s hard to believe that the U.S. Army has something known as the “Spiritual Fitness Test.”  According to an NPR report, Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, director of something called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness,” supposedly found data that “spiritual fitness has a positive impact on quality of life, on coping and on mental health.”  Since that “finding,” the army has had a required survey for soldiers to assess their “spiritual fitness.”  One question in the survey asks a soldier to rank herself or himself on the statement: I am a spiritual person. I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all of humanity. I often find comfort in my religion and spiritual beliefs.”  Another asks to rank herself or himself on “In difficult times, I pray or meditate.”

Obviously, atheists and other non-religious soldiers will get ”low” marks on the test.  In fact, most atheists might be expected to get 100% of the questions “wrong.”  A “low” mark on the test results in an assessment that:

Spiritual fitness may be an area of difficulty… You may lack a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and to others around you. You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself. You may question your beliefs, principles and values…Improving your spiritual fitness should be an important goal.

This is so wrong-headed that it’s beyond belief.  Cornum defends the “test” as “merely a helpful resource for soldiers,” saying that: “There’s no pass-fail, nothing happens. No one sees it but the guy who takes it.”  Another spokesman for the Army, Lt. Col. David Patterson, insists that the military respects the various beliefs of soldiers:  “Although spiritual fitness is offered to all soldiers, it is not meant by any means to influence, dissuade nor entice soldiers to believe in a deity, endorse religion, or in any way state that a soldier is unfit to serve if they lack spiritual fitness.”

Yeah, right.  Giving that kind of spin is nonsensical.  How can anyone possibly believe it?  “If an official survey tells you you’re deficient in some area, the implication is that you need to improve. Otherwise, why would the Army even ask?”  Moreover, Cornum’s supposed “finding” of data that “spiritual fitness has a positive impact on quality of life, on coping and on mental health”–and the implication that a soldier without “spiritual fitness” is harming those areas–is just plain wrong.  I can find just as many studies that find that being an atheist has absolutely no negative impact on one’s quality of life, coping, and mental health.  Cornum’s “findings” go back to the completely unfounded, self-serving religious canard that a person’s value system has to be based on the religion and whatever “Bible” that religion uses.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, as the many “new atheism” books in the past 5-10 years make absolutely clear.

I do agree that “coping” and “mental health” are areas for which the Army should try to help soldiers.  But coming at those areas from “spiritual fitness’ is not the way to do it.  In fact, in the same way that the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule can accurately be said to have harmed the “coping” and “mental health” of gay and lesbian soldiers, it is easy to see how things like the “spiritual fitness test” can harm atheist and non-religious soldiers.  What the Army needs to be doing is to make sure it is not condoning discrimination toward those soldiers and not finding new ways to extend the discrimination by things like the “spiritual fitness test.”

Thankfully, people in the Army are fighting back.  There is an organization called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation that represents non-religious soldiers.  Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer who founded the group, says that the group has 220 soldiers ready to sue next week if the survey doesn’t drop the questions.

Defense Secretary Gates’ Bogus Statements on Ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

I’ve always suspected that Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ statement that he supported the elimination of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was very possibly bogus.  His coupling of his supposed support for elimination of the policy didn’t quite jibe with his repeated emphasis on the supposed need for a full year of study by the Pentagon.  In my mind, the policy should have been eliminated immediately, but the military would have time to decide exactly how to implement any changes.  (There are really no changes necessary, but I’ll give Gates the benefit of the doubt that there are some details that might have to change.)

It never would have surprised me if Gates had come back after a year of review and said that there was still a need to keep DADT.  And it also never would have surprised me if President Obama went along with Gates.  Again, Obama could have easily stopped enforcement of DADT without Congressional action and without any need for a Pentagon review.  (Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said today that “[“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”] is a policy that is going to end,” but I remain suspicious of the true intent of the Obama administration.)

Now, there is more reason to think that Gates wants to keep DADT in place.  In the wake of the great rulings by U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips that, first, in September, found DADT unconstitutional, and, second, yesterday, that rejected an Obama administration request to delay an injunction and ordered enforcement of the 17-year-old policy permanently stopped, Gates said that “I feel strongly this is an action that needs to be taken by the Congress and that it is an action that requires careful preparation, and a lot of training.  It has enormous consequences for our troops.”  That doesn’t sound like someone who really wants DADT to be eliminated, does it?  Gates also said that, besides the changes in training, regulations will need revisions and changes may be necessary to benefits and Defense Department buildings.  I agree that computer systems will need to change to enable equal benefits, and I agree that there will be training necessary for the people who administer the benefits.  But changes to “Defense Department buildings?”  I can think of no possible reason that that will have to occur.  And, theoretically, the military does not discriminate against protected classes, does it?  Therefore, all that theoretically should be necessary to stop discrimination against gays and lesbians should be to say there will be no discrimination and to add that to the ongoing anti-discrimination training.

Let’s get on with the immediate elimination of DADT.  All President Obama has to do is to decide not to appeal Judge Phillips’ rulings and tell Secretary Gates to take immediate action to end the policy.

U.S. to Appeal Judge’s Decision that Held “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to be Unconstitutional

U.S. District Court Judge Virginia A. Phillips’ ruling on Thursday that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is unconstitutional was a great victory.   It held that the policy violated the constitutional rights of the military’s gays and lesbians and was detrimental to the military’s readiness.

You would think that the ruling would please President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates.  After all, Obama has said that he supports a repeal of the law.  And Gates, in February, ordered a review of the policy (reportedly to be completed in December) so that the military would know how best to make changes when the policy is repealed.  (I have been skeptical about the motives of Gates in ordering the review.  The repeal of enforcement could have been done almost immediately without an almost year-long study.  It still wouldn’t surprise me to see Gates order changes that provide far less than full equality.  But we’ll just have to wait to see what happens next.)

However, it seems probable that the Obama administrator will appeal Judge Phillips’ decision, including her decision to grant an injunction barring enforcement.  One of the main reasons for the appeal concerns money.  If the judge’s decision stands, it is likely that many service members who were discharged because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be in a much better position to sue the government for back pay and retirement benefits.

In my opinion, the government should not be fighting the ruling on those grounds.  The government discriminated against the service members and should have to pay the consequences.  In fact, wouldn’t it be nice if the government “voluntarily” paid the back pay and retirement benefits no matter what happens to the court case?  Former President Clinton’s compromise to get the bill passed was a terrible decision.  The government should not get off the hook for that decision.

Afghan Couple Stoned to Death by Taliban Order

In perhaps the most telling example yet of the consequences of the Taliban’s increasing return to power, a 19-year old woman and a 25-year old man were stoned to death pursuant to Taliban orders.  The two were in love.  They eloped when the man was unable to persuade family members to allow him to marry the woman.  The woman was engaged to marry a relative of her lover, but was unwilling to do so.

The death sentence for adultery was imposed by a religious “court” under Shariah law.  Horribly, the deaths were carried out by hundreds of the victims’ neighbors and even family members.  All of the people doing the stoning were male.

While many authorities condemned the stonings (A spokesman for the provincial government said: “It is against all human rights and international conventions.  There was no court. It was cruel.”), the supposed “mainstream religious authorities” in Afghanistan appear to be cowering to the Taliban.  In one example, a local head of the national Ulema Council said that stoning to death was the appropriate punishment for an illegal sexual relationship.  And, on August 10, a group of 350 religious “scholars” and government officials issued a joint statement “calling for more punishment under Shariah, apparently referring to stoning, amputations and lashings.”

Of course, none of this should be surprising.  The Taliban and their religious law were horrible when they were last in power.  When they started to resume power, they promised to curb their worst disgraces and then (certainly not surprisingly) resumed the oppression and brutality.  The Afghani government has made overtures to reconciliation and giving the Taliban even more power.  Maybe these stoning deaths will quash those overtures.

The Ban on Same-Sex Marriage and Gender Inequality — “That Time Has Passed”

Obviously, it was a great decision by Chief U.S District Judge Vaughn Walker to rule that California’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.  The ruling will certainly be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court (the NY Times gives reasons why the Supreme Court will have difficulty in reversing Judge Walker’s ruling) and, therefore, the important point now will be whether he allows same-sex marriages in California to resume during the appeals process.  Because of the length of time of the appeals process, the only fair decision on his part will be to lift the temporary stay he granted and allow the same-sex marriage process to resume immediately.

I found the following quote from his ruling to be particularly on point for not just same-sex marriage, but gender equality in general:

[The exclusion of lesbians and gays] exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage.  That time has passed.

(And BTW, there is a new documentary about the role the Mormons played in the passage of Prop 8.)

Update: French Lower House Passes Burqa Ban

An update to my post yesterday about the vote in the French Parliament to ban burqas: The French lower house today passed the bill by a 335 to 1 margin.  (335 to 1???)  The bill must still be approved by the French Senate, which is expected to vote in the week of September 20.