I’ve just attended the first day of a terrific workshop on the aesthetics and visualities of prosecuting aging and frail defendants. The papers are fascinating and take on not only multiple sites of international criminal trials, but also philosophical positions about the value and drawbacks of putting very old people on trial for very serious crimes. Coming to the workshop with what seems to be the only paper on domestic (albeit internationally renown) criminal justice, I found the similarities and differences very thought-provoking.

For one thing, there is a robust body of literature on the complicated jurisdictional, institutional, and thematic distinction between “international” and “domestic” criminal justice (for just one example, here’s an excellent paper in which Shirin Sinnar complicates the international/domestic distinction for terrorism.) What counts as a “mass atrocity” is also complicated to define. The subjects of my paper–the Manson Family members, whom I wrote about in Yesterday’s Monsters–are not that easily distinguishable from some of the perpetrators of international atrocities tried in international courts. The heinousness and notoriety of the crimes in both places is a factor (the Manson murders were internationally infamous) and the setting for the crimes was not dissimilar: young people during turbulent times committing heinous crimes with mob mentality at the behest/out of fear of charismatic and threatening leadership.

Because of these similarities, I was struck by how much my experience studying aging in the CA prison system has placed my opinions outside the cultural norm of international legal scholarship. The first thing that surprised me was the notion that aging and/or frailty do not matter in the context of criminal dangerousness, which stands in opposition to the robust field of life course criminology, which consistently finds that people age out of crime. I obviously don’t reject the idea that aging, frail people can give orders to do horrible things (we’ve just had four years with just such a person at the helm) but I wonder whether, as to people actually committing the atrocities with their bodies, we should reject life course criminology outright as it applies to defendants before international courts (that these people may continue to uphold racist ideologies in old age is deplorable, but uncoupled from the ability to act upon these ideologies it’s less worrisome unless they’re in some sort of power position.)

Another theme that emerged was the question whether “justice delayed”–because the person was apprehended decades after the fact–necessarily decreased the quality of justice. One of the arguments made was that time has led to a reevaluation of some atrocities (e.g., rape was not seen as a genocide strategy for a long time.) I appreciate the logic but am not sure that, in every single instance, the passage of time is going to bring about more justice, or that our current perceptions of justice are universally better than the ones in times past. Nor do I think it’s fair in 100% of cases to impose our current standards of behavior on people who operated in a different contextual realm (I think it goes without saying that, in the rape example, this is valid–but am not sure that subjecting people who committed crimes in the 1970s to the kind of sentencing that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s is fair.) I also have to wonder why the question of innocence/mistaken identity is absent from the conversation.

Some assumptions were made about defendants in these trials–namely, that they were “posers” and that their frailty was a charade. That may be true for some people–a few examples pop to mind–but my experience studying aging in prisons has taught me that these are the exceptions, rather than the rule.

Finally, there was the idea that treating aging people with leniency was ageist and robbed them of their dignity, which is philosophically interesting; generally speaking, placating people rather than engaging them in debate is infantilizing them. But that assumes that the way accountability and punishment is meted is, indeed, an expression of dignity, and I that is the last word I would use to describe the experience of incarceration in the United States.

Given that I don’t really buy a hard-and-fast distinction between international and domestic criminality in these respects, I had to think long and hard about why my feelings on aging on parole (particularly, Susan Atkins’ 2009 hearing and the reluctance to release aging people now because of COVID) differed so much from those expressed in the international scholarship, and I realized that there was one pertinent difference: for the most part, the international conversation revolved around the international law equivalents of Joseph DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer, who evaded justice for decades, and whose spectacle of aging is their first encounter with the criminal justice apparatus. The people I studied had been embodying the experience of being subjected to justice for decades.

This is important, because the embodiment of justice matters. It’s not just about how much time has passed; it’s about how it passed. By contrast to corporeality (the relatively unmediated materiality of the body,) by embodiment I refer to the body as a vehicle or medium of social agency (e.g., as related to spaces and contexts that surround it, specifically the carceral space.) When a person’s body is on display at a parole hearing, the body itself is a meaningful social fact in five ways:

  • An aging body is a nonverbal reminder of time that has passed since the offense was committed–more specifically, the contrast between the youthful, violent body at the time of the offense and the aging body present in the room.
  • Moreover, an aging body evinces the impact of decades of prison life on the body (the embodied evidence of the action of “justice”)
  • Because, as I explain at length in Yesterday’s Monsters, performance is a key factor on parole, the body is also a physical container for expressions of insight/remorse (this is why a commissioner telling a large black parole applicant “you seem angry” is a response to embodiment.)
  • Because parole is, at least in part, a site of prediction of the parole applicant’s prospective future on the outside, the body is also a site of prediction of work prospects, healthcare needs, etc.
  • Finally, the very presence of the parole applicant’s body is often explicitly contrasted to the absence of the victim’s body–particularly by the prosecutor and the victim’s next-of-kin.

The impact of this embodiment–a body evincing a life under carceral authority, as opposed to a body allowed to age freely on the outside–cannot be overstated, and can go a long way toward explaining why I saw things differently at today’s workshop. To the workshop participants’ great credit, they could see the important difference between the trial’s role of accountability and social processing and the question of subsequent punishment for someone old and frail.

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