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Pistols and paranoia

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment February 27, 2012 08:30 AM

There is one thing that makes me even more uncomfortable than the thought of being surrounded by lots of strangers with concealed weapons beneath their coats. It is the thought of being surrounded by any strangers with concealed weapons beneath their coats and paranoid ideas floating around their brains. Pistols and paranoia are a scary mix indeed.

According to the non-psychiatric vernacular, paranoia is “a tendency on the part of an individual or group toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others.” As such, there is now and has been in previous years the rather unrealistic fear on the part of many gun advocates that some autocrat holding the keys to the White House will decide to round up all of their guns.

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Inmate safety and emergency preparedness

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment February 20, 2012 08:22 AM

Note: This also appeared on the op-ed page in the February 18, 2012 Boston Globe.

The recent prison fire in Honduras that engulfed and killed more than 350 inmates who were unable to escape their locked and crowded barracks may have occurred in a faraway land where life is cheap and human rights are few, but such tragedies are waiting to happen much closer to home.

With the high level of disregard and disdain that so many US citizens have for criminals secured away in our state prisons and county jails, few ever consider the plight of prisoners in the face of disaster, be it sudden or foreseen.

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Habitual offenders: Third strike or check swing?

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment February 17, 2012 09:00 AM

No surprise that there aren’t many criminologist jokes floating about, at least as far as I’m aware. Still, I do recall one I heard back in graduate school that may actually have some relevance to the ongoing debate up on Beacon Hill concerning the best approach to punishing the worst offenders.

It is told that there was once a very old land ruled by a very old King who, in a gesture of compassion from his deathbed, ordered all prison sentences to be immediately cut in half. By the King’s decree, a robber’s ten-year prison term was commuted to five years, and the rapist who was serving a 30-year sentence saw his penalty reduced to 15 years. But prison officials, having to carry out the King’s wishes without deviation, had no clue on how to proceed with halving the sentences of murderers serving life. The Warden was just about as confused as many appear today about the House and Senate bills pertaining to habitual offenders.

To make a long and lame story short and painless, the punch line came in the advice that the Warden received when consulting with a local criminologist about how to administer half a life sentence. “Let the murderer go free tomorrow,” recommended the criminologist. But before the Warden could utter a word of dismay, the learned advisor continued detailing the plan. “Then bring him back to prison the next day, and continue the release/return process for alternating days of freedom and incarceration until the convict dies a natural death.” Never was the term “revolving justice” any truer.

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About the author

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He has written 18 books, including his newest, "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." More »

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