Stanford professor’s book explores violence and the law in the United States


In “A Pattern of Violence,” David Alan Sklansky highlights how the over-reliance of the US legal system on misinterpretations of violent crime has fueled some of today’s most pressing criminal and social justice issues.

The most important question of the virtual panel that Stanford Law School recently organized to discuss Professor David Alan Sklansky’s latest book, “A Pattern of Violence: How the Law Classifies Crimes and What It Means for Justice”, came in around 40 years. minutes after the start of the session.

“How do you define violence there, David?” asked his colleague and panel moderator, Dr Rabia Belt.

The question is crucial, because much of the discussion at this point has been about how social movements, technology, racism, and political change are shaping a concept that the criminal justice system inconsistently defines. Sklansky, a former labor lawyer and U.S. deputy lawyer in Los Angeles, acknowledged this complexity in his response.

“I feel like if we didn’t make that much distinction, it wouldn’t matter as much how we define it, but I would define violence as the use of force against another person.” or the threat of the use of force against another person, ”he said. “That would mean that there are many forms… of abuse that are not violent, and it is wrong to think that anything that falls into the category of violence will be categorically worse than anything that comes out of it.

The question underscored a wide-ranging discussion on April 12 of “A Pattern of Violence,” Sklansky’s book Belknap Press published in March, and his exploration of how muddled legal interpretations of violence allow for miscarriage of justice. In his opening remarks, Sklansky highlighted two particular “tragedies”: mass incarceration and the dissolution of police reform efforts.

“I started with this feeling that in criminal law, we often do too much violence, and in police regulations, we often do too little,” he explained. “And I wanted to understand why.”

Sklansky elaborated on that premise on Wednesday, saying his interest in how the law deals with violent crime has grown over the past decade.

“Before that, like most people, I tended to assume that violence was a pretty clear category and that violent crime was the worst type of crime,” he told Law360. “Over the past 10 years, I have noticed that the two major events [mass incarceration and the collapse of police reform] that have taken place in American criminal justice during my career seem to have roots in the way the legal system thinks about violence, and in the way the legal system is inconsistent in its thinking about violence. “

Sklansky’s professional history also informs his perspective on these matters. He was an assistant US attorney in Los Angeles during the trials and unrest related to the beating of Rodney King. Although he was not involved in any related lawsuits – he focused on white collar fraud, he said – he was subsequently special advocate for a blue commission that investigated the Rampart scandal, in which an LAPD anti-gang unit of detectives have been implicated in unprovoked violence against suspects, drug trafficking, bank robberies and cover-ups.

Looking back at this time, he thinks that even reform efforts like the community policing movement did not prioritize police violence.

“It’s not as if people stop thinking about police violence at all, but it was not the focus of the reform energy … I think, in part, because the scale of the police violence was not sufficiently appreciated, ”he said. “And that was not appreciated enough because the Department of Justice did not keep statistics, good statistics, on police shootings and other forms of police violence.”

Sklansky added that this institutional disinterest coincided both with a widely held belief that the police were getting better and, in the background, with the increased militarization of police services. But, as he notes in “A Pattern of Violence,” legal institutions do not always understand police brutality as a kind of violence.

During the panel – presented by Stanford Law School with its constituent criminal justice center, which Sklansky co-directs, and the university’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity – Belt and Sklansky drew on the experiences of their co panelists to further illustrate how these inconsistent perceptions of violence are rooted in racism and sexism, as well as challenged by social justice movements that struggle against oppression. For example, political journalist Adam Serwer of The Atlantic spoke about how the 21st century introduction of cellphone cameras matched a shifting public perception of police violence that Sklansky’s book deals with.

“It seems to me that one of the big changes in this conversation that David is writing about is that the invention of cell phone cameras means it’s much easier to capture those moments that happen outside, away from eyes of a courtroom, and in this sort of nebulous world of what cops are allowed to do before they try to convict you of a crime, ”Serwer noted.

Panelist Sujatha Baliga, a Bay Area lawyer turned restorative justice leader, also spoke about the problem of reform-minded district attorneys and others relying too much on legal norms of violence . For example, Baliga discussed how these DAs struggle without consensus around data on the effectiveness of diversion programs, versus the heavy sentences most prosecutors pursue instead.

“Sometimes I think in trying to implement these reform approaches [that are] getting too tangled up with the system means we have to deal with all these statutory definitions … It doesn’t really work well, in the restorative justice context, to have to juggle these things as well, “Baliga said” It hurts the restorative justice and, I think, produced poorer results. “

California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, another panelist, noted the difficulty in measuring violence as so many legal and political processes affect how it is viewed.

“I feel like the challenge is this: if somebody wants to say, ‘Well, the polluted river, which is doing violence to my community’, there is a sense in which we would want the society says, ‘Yeah, we recognize it’s a form of violence,’ and at the same time, know that the law shouldn’t treat it the same way someone who stabbed you in the stomach, ‘noted Cuéllar earlier. “And it’s hard, I think it’s not easy, because I think the very purpose of expanding the category [of violence] motivates voting initiatives, lawmakers to act, courts to fight it [and] jurors when they think about it, but we also want them to be technical and precise in an almost legal way. “

Sklansky said on Wednesday he appreciated the insight the panelists brought to his work, which he plans to pursue beyond “A Model of Violence.” He also pointed to one of Belt’s comments on how to focus on so-called “spectacular violence”, or where violence gets public attention because it’s a “spectacle,” eclipses d ‘other types of abuse that could be defined as violence.

“The daily stop-and-frisk violence has been ignored,” he told Law360. “In fact, even the words ‘stop-and-frisk’ are, as the Supreme Court itself has recognized, euphemisms for what can be quite a violent interaction, especially when police encounter minorities.”

Sklansky added that these inconsistent definitions have also affected women, who experience disproportionate sexual violence and intimate partners, and feminist activism. He observed that efforts to define these issues as violent crimes actually limited attention to the more subtle types of “sexual victimization and domination” that women experience in and out of relationships.

“More recently, reformers working on issues of rape and intimate partner violence have emphasized the importance of seeing the connection between these forms of violence and things that we generally don’t tend to label as violence,” like forced control within a relationship or the forms of sexual harassment that the Me Too movement has drawn attention to, ”he said.

While not completely ignoring the need to define violence legally, Sklansky said legal systems and access to justice should ideally not be based on these definitions as unilateral and impartial accusations.

“The problem arises when we treat the category of violence as a master category that we can use to distinguish people who are beyond pallor, incapable of redemption, not deserving of mercy, from people who deserve mercy, may to be redeemed and to be dealt with is part of humanity, ”he explained.

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– Edited by Kelly Duncan.

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