Author Archives: Doug Bedell

About Doug Bedell

I'm a former reporter and editorial writer, turned public relations manager and now retired as a blogger/proponent of fairness.

The Waste In Long Prison Sentences

Editorially, The Wall Street Journal has long been concerned about the overly long prison sentences that have become the norm in our American justice system. And in its February 9, 2019 issue, the Journal offers a piece by a state trial judge in Denver that points up the folly of “the American epidemic of overly long prison sentences.”

Judge Morris Hoffman notes that “the penitentiary wasn’t intended to be a criminal warehouse. Criminals were expected to work, pray and think about their crimes – to be penitent about them – in a kind of moral rehabilitation.”

Yet  today “America lead(s) the Western world in average length of prison sentences, at 63 months. According to the Justice Policy Institute, Canada’s average is four months, Finland’s 10, Germany’s 12 and even rugged individualistic Australia’s is just 36.” American lawmakers seem to have become infected with a throw-the-key-away approach to criminal justice.

What occurs when inmates recognize the folly of their actions yet still have years, maybe many more years, to rue their mistakes? Very likely, an abuse of human potential, of the ability of predominately younger people (mostly men) to learn from their mistakes and start anew. Would all be so chastened if released earlier? Maybe not. But most, we’d assume, would.

America shouldn’t be known for warehousing criminals but for seeking to understand and possibly mitigate the circumstances that produce them. Is this mistaken idealism? No, it’s fairness in the face of circumstances, in many cases, that even criminals can be expected to brood about.

“Note a day passes,” Judge Hoffman writes, “that I don’t think of that young robber I sentenced so long ago. As state and federal legislators ponder their next moves after the First Step Act, they should consider lowering historically extreme sentences for some offenses, including violent ones. It would not only be sensible public policy but would also help return our criminal law to its moral roots.”

“Our prisons are groaning because of long sentences, not large numbers of short ones.” Think about that.

Settings For Fairness, and Their Challenges

Fairness involves toleration, the ability to step back and ask, “What’s really going on here?” What may seem strange or unfamiliar, or uncalled for, from your own experience might seem fresh and entirely worthwhile to someone new to the same setting.

Retirement communities are a good example. As you become a longer term resident of one, your own perceptions and needs don’t change as much as those of newer people moving in. And the community’s management needs to respond to the expectations of its new residents, not only those who have been around for a while.

That’s not unfair, simply realistic. Not so endurable, perhaps, but a reflection of how experiences and expectations change over time. A community’s management needs to keep up with them or be left without enough new members.

It’s not a question of whether the new setting is fair or not , so long as management has planned ahead and saved up for the new building or accommodations that may be involved.  The costs deemed necessary to attract a “new generation” ought not be hung on those already on hand.

Provided that’s so, sit back, welcome and engage with the newcomers. This applies, of course, in settings beyond retirement communities. People grow up with different experiences and expectations, yet we have all to get along and be sufficiently understood to be companionable. And that, as we’ve said, involves toleration.

Transfer this principle to a national community, and seek to adapt it to the politics of those elected to run it, and the challenge becomes much more complex. We all grow up, but we don’t grow up in the same settings, or with the same advantages. We need to understand our differences as much as we embrace our similarities. And, sometimes,  differences tend to outweigh everything else.

It can get to be, almost, like running a pushcart on the street and making decisions high in the skyscraper behind it. That’s a long way to reach for accommodation, but it has to be attempted.  That’s how we’ll all get along, and the truly fair way to proceed.   Easy?  Maybe not. But necessary, yes.

We’re all human, but we all have had different experiences. That’s a truism,  but It matters.

 

Melania Trump’s Communication Embarrassment

imgresI am not a fan of Donald Trump and know nothing about his wife, Melania, except that she gave an impressive speech at the Republican National Convention. The next morning, I was saddened to learn she had become embroiled in a plagiarism controversy for allegedly lifting some lines from Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention eight years earlier.

But that’s the way it is with communication. It can be a treacherous discipline, especially when you’re in the high stakes throes of a presidential campaign. I was, thereby, particularly taken with the explanation that was provided by Meredith McIver, a Trump staff writer, for the lines in Melania’s speech. (Ms. McIver, incidentally, was once a ballet dancer under George Balanchine.)

Indeed the lines were from Michelle Obama’s convention speech in 2008. But they weren’t lifted from it in a predatory manner. Quite the contrary. When Melania Trump was working with Ms. McIver on her own speech, she read some of the lines she admired in Ms. Obama’s speech over the phone to Ms. McIver as examples of the sentiments she wanted to convey in her own message

“I wrote them down,” Ms. McIver explained when the plagiarism furor erupted, “and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech. I did not check Mrs. Obama’s speeches. This was my mistake…”

Truly, it was, and an oversight that’s now been compounded in the current presidential season.   Ms. McIver,  who has co-authored several books with Donald Trump, offered to resign but Trump rejected that option, telling Ms. McIver  that “people make innocent mistakes and that we learn and grow from these experiences.”

Wow! A primetime political embarrassment provided evidence that Donald Trump can be gracious and fair, and isn’t entirely the boor he so often appears to be.  We can be thankful for such a revelation – on with the campaign in a somewhat cheerier context!

(Photo PBS.org)

Good Luck, Joe Biden

static2.politico-1We wish all possible progress to Vice President Joe Biden as he seeks not only to promote, but accomplish, greater sharing of cancer research data among scientists for the benefit of cancer patients. Accomplishing that life-affirming aim may not be easy.

Biden’s son, Beau, died of brain cancer last May. We don’t precisely know the pertinence of that to the vice-president’s follow-up resolve, but it can’t have been an entirely uplifting experience. For Biden is now calling for a cancer “moon shot” to bring together streams of data for enhanced progress against the disease.

The vice president noted, Politico reports that “vast troves of research were ‘trapped in silos, preventing faster progress and greater reach to patients.'”

How often similar refrains are heard! On a less lofty, but still critical, level, here’s the Standard-Times in San Angelo, Texas, reporting on its City Council’s frustration in trying to get direct answers on how city departments are handling new communication technology.

In one jarring discovery, the council learned that a technology upgrade at the Public Safety Communications division didn’t work with the Fire Department’s older system. The two branches of city government simply didn’t coordinate their actions. And so insensitive communication goes – it has long been the bane of bureaucracy, virtually its definition.

“(Assistant Fire Chief Jeff) Fant likened the Fire Department’s Zetron (system) to a bicycle tire that has been patched too many times and continues leaking. When it fails, there will be no more patches available because the parts for it are hard to find.”

And this in a crucial area of public service! Why are we so often clumsy with communication, hampered in getting into confident accord, even when lives may be in the balance?

“We didn’t replace it because it has been working fine,” said Fire Chief Brian Dunn. “It just won’t work with the Police Department’s new CAD system.”

Turf and presumptions, presumptions of correctness, instances of good intentions not thought through – these are examples of our core doggedness often to plow ahead without gleaning how our words, policies and actions are affecting others.

Communication can have great reach for the common good – that’s what Joe Biden is trying to accomplish, and what San Angelo’s procurement officials should have been aiming for in the actions unfolding there. Effective, other-focused communication – or its lack – can make or break any of us who may not be mindful of what’s involved as we plunge ahead.

Grace, The Highest Value

Church-goers wait to enter the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina June 21, 2015, for the first service in the church since a mass shooting left nine people dead during a bible study. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Church-goers wait to enter the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina June 21, 2015, for the first service in the church since a mass shooting left nine people dead during a bible study. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The past couple of weeks in Charleston, South Carolina have been both ghastly and beautiful, and they will be remembered that way. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was brought to our attention by a horrible act of evil, and, later, was held in mind by feelings expressed in a court hearing room of forgiveness and, as The New York Times put it, “a moment of grace”.

Not fairness – nothing that occurred at the Emmanuel Church when the weekly Bible study there ended in gunshots was fair. But grace, which goes beyond fairness when an act of seemingly inconsolable horror occurs and is forgiven.

“The occasion,” The Times reported, “was a bond hearing, the first court appearance of the suspect, Dylan Roof, for the murders, thought to be racially motivated, of nine black men and women” during Emanuel’s Bible study class.

“You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know,” Felicia Sanders told Roof, who was watching from confinement on closed-circuit television. “Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.”

When fairness is forgotten, or doesn’t even come into the picture, there are still higher values that we must cherish. They were expressed by the relatives of those who were killed by Roof’s pistol. Forgiveness seemed to come readily to the relatives who spoke at his hearing, but that was likely because they honored their family members more than the court proceeding itself.

So, yes, of course, let’s be fair, by all means. But in the face of ultimates, of promptings we can’t readily comprehend, let’s be grace-filled too, in the belief that something awful can occur that might indeed be made comprehensible. Should that happen, it would clearly be of the highest value.

Meanwhile, Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal columnists who often writes more stridently, the other day proposed the surviving Charleston relatives for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yes!

Futile Freeways: Who Slows Down to Move Ahead?

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When you try to go faster on a thruway, you can go slower. Whenever everybody tries to go faster, traffic slows to a crawl, or stops. The fairest way to drive on a busy highway is to take your time; that way, everybody around you – if they only knew the secret – has a better chance of moving safely along.

These thoughts arose while reading a fascinating column in The Wall Street Journal recently by Jo Craven McGinty – “See a Quick Way Through Traffic? Not So Fast”. Sometimes, often, in fact, wisdom is counter-intuitive.

What happens when traffic is thickening is that “if something unexpected happens, it leads to sudden braking and what might have been a manageable slowdown becomes a miserable crawl…” Traffic engineers, McGinty reports, are considering an array of technical approaches to heading off snarls – measures like variable speed limits, ramp meters and “zipper mergers” to alleviate congestion. But, at their core, human consciousness, highway backups are attitudinal.

If we all try to get ahead, heedless of what’s beginning to occur around us, we’ll all get slowed down, or stopped. What can we do to induce more reflection, more shared awareness, in daily living? That’s a tough one. It arises not only on highways, but in workplaces, in government offices and legislative halls. Driver education instructors may attempt to acquaint trainees with the relational realities of traffic buildups, but not all the “finer points” are recalled when licensed drivers are behind the wheel. The instinct is to get ahead, before the guy coming up from behind.

“We’re telling them to slow down to reach their destination faster,” says a highway engineer quoted by Ms. McGinty. Yet that’s counter-intuitive. “It’ll be hard for the driver to recognize that,” the engineer adds.

How much about living is counter-intuitive? A lot. If we realized just how much, unwanted results might ease up and we’d all be happier. But that won’t be happening any sooner than freeway travel improves in heavy traffic.

As Ferguson Points Up, Police Aren’t Soldiers

Ferguson_SWAT-490x295 In light of the chaotic situation at Ferguson, MO, we have to get serious in considering what a local police force is about. “Preserving peace and order,” used to be the instinctive answer. Yet, in virtually any human activity, trappings make a difference. And at Ferguson, the appearance of police officers suited up as though they were military attack squads raises misgivings.

The police have sometimes difficult, occasionally threatening, and always somewhat unpredictable jobs. They do great and important work, and they knew it would be challenging when they signed on as recruits. But they’re still local police, community employees, not military occupiers, and why would they want to create an impression of being something they’re not? Especially when, as in Ferguson, it’s apt to be a provocative one.

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Communication Comes Readily, But Not Assuredly

Human communication occurs instinctively, but it doesn’t always occur instinctively well. Far from it. Communication shouldn’t be considered an impromptu trait. In moments of stress, or in organizational settings (not that organizations need be stressful), communication can, and often does, go awry.

Rather than an impromptu exchange, communication needs to be well-considered. Fairness, indeed, requires that.

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Fairness at TMI, Back Then and Now

three mile island
Turns out, I’ve had an abiding interest in fairness since boyhood. Don’t know why, but at least since I had my paper route all those years ago, I wanted to be a reporter so I could go out, get people’s stories and tell them accurately.

That’s what I did for 20 years, principally on the late, lamented Philadelphia Bulletin. But then, in 1979, the accident at Three Mile Island Unit 2 occurred and, a couple of months later, a former colleague at The Bulletin called to advise that he’d just been named TMI’s Communications Manager, and did I want to come out to be its Media Relations Manager? He was calling on behalf of the GPU Nuclear Corp., which was being formed to apply the lessons of the Unit 2 accident on behalf of General Public Utilities, TMI’s owner/operator.

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San Francisco’s Digital Tides

People looking at San Francisco skyline from Twin Peaks
Recalling Jane Jacobs, The New Yorker recently had an article on San Francisco, by Nathan Heller, that suggested, not the life and death, but the life and tides of a great American City. Not so long ago, it seems, San Francisco was host to the beat generation, and they weren’t an especially upscale lot. Now, Heller notes, prosperous techies are dominating the San Francisco scene. The city has become an extension of the South Bay Silicon Valley area.

That’s got plusses and some decided minuses. San Francisco is becoming gentrified and residents who don’t qualify to stick around are being bought out or evicted. The city now has the second highest median income in the U.S.

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