20 February 2010

Give your child some prussic acid

Hmmm, I don't think that he liked it. Sunday Express editor James Douglas (1867-1940) is now best known for his condemnation of Radclyffe Hall's 1928 The Well Of Loneliness -
I would rather give a healthy boy or girl a vial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul.
One dose of Ms Hall and it's eternal perdition, apparently.

Laura Doan's intelligent Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture (New York: Columbia Uni Press 2001) features other expressions of Douglas' spleen, including denunciation of authors as -
Mimes, Cads, Bounders, Sniggerers, Innuendists, Pornocrats, Garbage Mongers, Purveyors of Pruriency, Vendors of Vice, Sewer Rats, Carrion Crows, Maggots of Decadence, Hookworks of Salacity, Literary Lepers and Yahoos.
I do like the "Hookworks of Salacity", presumably residing just around the corner from the academic Tapeworms of Indolence and Nits of Ineptitude.

In another review Mr Douglas told an author that -
Vermin like you are expelled from the schools when they are detected, but you are not thrown out of our drawing rooms. You crawl everywhere and there is no insecticide with which to spray you ... You are the deadliest bacteria in our blood, but we have discovered no anti-toxin that prevents you from multiplying ... Not long ago I retched over a novel by a female procuress which explored abysmal horrors that hitherto have been the monopoly of psychoanalysis. Sweet girl graduates read it and discussed its esoteric abominations and fetid mysteries ... In every degenerate era of history parasites like you have appeared. You are the lice of decadence.

18 February 2010

Substance Statistics

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) has released its 159 page annual Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) report, promoted by the national Attorney-General as revealing "a significant decline in the use of methamphetamines and other illicit drug types among police detainees".

Introduced in 1999, DUMA involves police detainees at nine sites across Australia providing a urine sample and completing a voluntary questionnaire about their drug use. It was introduced in 1999 and has been characterised as providing -
law enforcement authorities and policy makers with valuable data on drug use, treatment and market participation, and the relationship between drug use and crime.
Given that Australian governments do not snatch people off the street for mandatory drug testing - a counterpart of roadside breath testing of drivers - and do not systematically receive the results of drug testing conducted by employers DUMA provides some indication, if used with caution, about the substance intake of the overall population

In this year's report the AIC indicates that methamphetamine use fell in 2008 by five percentage points from the previous year to the lowest level recorded since 1999. 21% of detainees testing positive for the drug. The DUMA figures for heroin and cannabis use also declined: the rate of heroin use was 70% lower than when it peaked prior to the heroin shortage in 2000. Cannabis, the most commonly detected drug, was at its lowest point of detection in 11 years. Use of cocaine (1%) and ecstasy (3%) remained consistently low. (6% of detainees at the Footscray site tested positive to cocaine, up from 1% in 2007). Of those detainees identified as dependent on drugs, 38% were participating in a treatment program at the time of interview.

In 2008, 44% of adult detainees reported that they had taken drugs prior to committing at least one of the offences for which they were charged. Violent offences were most prevalent among male detainees (28%). Property offences were most prevalent among female detainees (36%). 42% of adult detainees who tested positive attributed at least some of their offending to their drug use, as one presumably would.

The new report features a new section on inhalants, glossed as showing that -
their use is not just a problem for remote Indigenous populations and that at some metropolitan sites, up to 17 percent of those surveyed had tried them.
The report continues to show a considerable overlap between the heavy use of alcohol and illicit drug use. Three-quarters of male detainees and two-thirds of female detainees self-reported at least one episode of heavy alcohol use during the past year. The number of detainees dependent on alcohol increased from 32% to 34%between 2007 and 2008.

Aggregated across all sites, 23% of detainees self-identified as Indigenous, with
detainees from Alice Springs (99%), Darwin (68%) and East Perth (32%) most likely to identify as Indigenous. 3% of detainees at the Footscray site identified themselves as Indigenous. 13% of detainees were aged 18 to 20 years, 21% were aged 21 to 25 years, 19% in the 26 to 30 year cohort, 16% were aged 31 to 35 years and 29% were aged 36 years or over. 47% of the detainees had fewer than 10 years formal education, 18% had finished a TAFE course and 11% were currently attending TAFE or university. 5% of adult detainees reported having completed university. 32% of adult detainees were working full-time. 41% reported that they were unemployed, currently looking for work or not looking for work.

17% of detainees reported using a handgun to commit crime in the past year, 16%reported using a long-arm firearm, 12% reported using a military firearm and 21% reported using a knife. One-half of adult detainees had been charged on a prior occasion during the past 12 months. 15% of detainees had one previous charge, 20% had between two and four previous charges and 15% had five or more charges. 5% of detainees reported that they had served time in prison over the past 12 months for a drug-related offence.

17 February 2010

Jury Fairness

An 88 page report [PDF] by Professor Cheryl Thomas of UCL for the UK Ministry of Justice asks Are Juries Fair? in examining whether all-white juries discriminate against what it characterises as "black and minority ethnic" (aka BME) defendants. The report also asks whether juries rarely convict on certain offences or at certain courts and whether jurors understand legal directions, are aware of media coverage or look for information on the internet about cases.

The report draws on a multi-method approach: case simulation with real juries at Crown Courts (involving 797 jurors on 68 juries); large-scale analysis of all actual jury verdicts in 2006–08 (over 68,000 verdicts); and post-verdict survey of jurors (668 jurors in 62 cases).

It found little evidence that juries are unfair but identifies "several areas where the criminal justice system should better assist jurors in performing this vital role". The study also demonstrates that section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 (UK) does not prevent comprehensive research about how juries reach their verdicts and that research from other jurisdictions should not be relied upon to understand juries in the UK.

In exploring decision-making at the jury verdict level Thomas found that the verdicts of all-White juries did not discriminate against BME defendants. Jury verdicts at showed no tendency for all-White juries to convict a Black or Asian defendant more than a White defendant. Local population dynamics may play a role in jury decision-making.

The study also examined the votes of individual jurors who sat on juries, with the report concluding that White jurors serving on racially mixed juries and on all-White juries had similar patterns of decision-making for White, Black and Asian defendants. White jurors on racially mixed juries had lower conviction rates overall. White jurors in a racially diverse area (Nottingham) appeared sensitive to cases involving inter-racial conflict. These jurors were significantly more likely to convict the White defendant when he was accused of assaulting a BME victim compared to a White victim. No similar trend was found with White jurors in Winchester. White jurors serving on all-White juries did not racially stereotype defendants as more or less likely to commit certain offences based on race. The same result was found with both White and BME jurors serving on racially mixed juries.

The only other personal characteristic that appeared to affect juror decision-making was gender. Female jurors were more open to persuasion to change their vote in deliberations than male jurors. Male jurors rarely changed their mind.

Dancing with the dead?

Howard Markel's editorial 'King Tutankhamun, Modern Medical Science, and the Expanding Boundaries of Historical Inquiry' in 303(7) Journal of the American Medical Association (2010) 667-668 discusses another autopsy of Tutankhamun, which suggests that that Tut wasn't poisoned, strangled or otherwise disposed of by underlings or relatives but instead experienced -
several inherited disorders that led to an inflammatory, immunosuppressive, and constitutionally weakening condition. Death, they assert, was not attributable to foul play; rather, a sudden fracture of the leg (perhaps resulting from a fall) progressed to a life-threatening condition because of his malarial infection.
The autopsy, which features the inevitable Zahi Hawass, reports at pp 638-647 that -
Genetic fingerprinting allowed the construction of a 5-generation pedigree of Tutankhamun's immediate lineage. The KV55 mummy and KV35YL were identified as the parents of Tutankhamun. No signs of gynecomastia and craniosynostoses (eg, Antley-Bixler syndrome) or Marfan syndrome were found, but an accumulation of malformations in Tutankhamun's family was evident. Several pathologies including K√∂hler disease II were diagnosed in Tutankhamun; none alone would have caused death. Genetic testing for STEVOR, AMA1, or MSP1 genes specific for Plasmodium falciparum revealed indications of malaria tropica in 4 mummies, including Tutankhamun’s. These results suggest avascular bone necrosis in conjunction with the malarial infection as the most likely cause of death in Tutankhamun. Walking impairment and malarial disease sustained by Tutankhamun is supported by the discovery of canes and an afterlife pharmacy in his tomb.
Markel notes that -
The use of radiography, DNA technology, and other modern scientific tools to better elucidate the historical record has been progressing rapidly for many years. For example, in 1998, Foster et al, using specimens obtained from descendents of both Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, presented provocative DNA evidence that Jefferson may have fathered at least 1 child with Hemings. Similarly, the use of viral samples extracted by Taubenberger et al1 from persons who died from influenza during the pandemic of 1918 helped elucidate the precise genetic characterization of that virus as well as a better understanding of several influenza strains that threaten society today. These studies were conducted with either full consent (the Jefferson study) or using specimens donated to a central laboratory for scientific purposes (the influenza study). With meticulous attention and respect for the dead, Hawass et al studied mummies (and antiquities) discovered millennia after the subjects' demise.
He goes on to comment that -
Moving forward, what is less clear is the development of ethical guidelines with which to conduct subsequent DNA, genetic, radiological, and other medical inquiries into human history. What will the rules be for exhuming bodies to solve vexing pathological puzzles? Are major historical figures entitled to the same privacy rules that private citizens enjoy even after death? Most pragmatically, what is actually gained from such studies? Will they change current thinking about and prevent threatening diseases such as influenza? Will they change the understanding of the past, such as the Jefferson study's powerful elucidation of intimacy during the era of slavery and the Tutankhamun study's window on the conduct of the royal family of Egypt?

All historians are guilty of enjoying reading the mail and personal materials of others. Yet before disturbing the dead with the penetrating wonders of 21st-century medical science, it is essential to follow the lead of these authors by pondering all the ethical implications of such inquiries to avoid opening a historical Pandora's box.
in practice we've already opened the box and thrown away the lid, with exhumations of participants in Franklin's one-way trip in search of the North West Passage (did they die of malnutrition or lead poisoning? were they eaten by polar bears or each other?), permafrost-preserved victims of the 1919 influenza epidemic, unfortunates found in Alpine glaciers or peat bogs (eg Ireland's Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man) and sundry mediaeval royals deposited in Magdeburg or other cathedrals (eg Queen Eadgyth, disinterred last year).

If we regard human dignity as a function of humanity, rather than something with which notables have a greater endowment, we might wonder whether the remains of 'ordinary people' should be probed, sampled and scanned. We might also wonder whether there's a statute of limitations on restrictions on archaeological autopsies, ie if you're dead long enough the forensics experts can do their work without fretting about Pandora.

The European Society for Comparative Legal History has meanwhile launched a blog.

16 February 2010

Worse than Bikies, Fouler than Adelaide water

There are times when it's difficult to take the street theatre seriously, or wonder whether something's been lost when a raised eyebrow and ironic tone wasn't translated to cold dead newsprint. The online Adelaide Advertiser, still rapt in its embrace of the SA Attorney-General (yes, that one, positioning himself as the leader in the national war on outlaw motorcycle gangs and not averse to giving the SA Supreme Court a bit of biff), quotes Mr Atkinson as stating that he's more at risk from computer gamers than the likes of the Coffin Chasers, Bandidos and other OMGs.

Oh dear, the other OMG.

Mr Atkinson is quoted as saying -
I don't know who sends me this filthy material but I get my electorate office email spammed, about 2 o'clock in the morning I had a threatening note from a gamer shoved under my door ...

I feel that my family and I are more at risk from gamers than we are from outlaw motorcycle gangs, who also hate me and are running a candidate against me.

The outlaw motorcycle gangs haven't been hanging around my doorstep at 2am - a gamer has.
As yet I seem to be hated by neither gamers nor OMG members - please, please don't enlighten me - but I have noticed a possum hanging around my doorstep at 2am. (Like all good possums it has been known to burst into song, particularly when other possums or cats are in the vicinity, although somehow I doubt that it will get a gig at the SA Opera.)

The Minister can seek assistance from the SA Police, and indeed may already have done so, if the threats are serious. Public office is not a shield against any and all unpleasantness: getting the occasional nasty message from LAN kiddies is part of the job.

One might ask though whether the SA election campaign isn't getting a tad too emo ... the brave minister (presumably supported by all the "decent people", a category which seems to exclude major parts of the SA Bar and SA Supreme Court) beset on all sides by ghastliness - bikers, gamers, the "sewer" that's operated by News Corp (I'm referring of course to the Advertiser and its online presence, not Adelaide tap water) ...

Time to toughen up, princess, in the words of one of my students, and wind back the hyperbole?

Workplace Discrimination and the differently abled

The National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) has released What would it take? Employer perspectives on employing people with a disability [PDF], a 42 page study by Peter Waterhouse, Helen Kimberley, Pam Jonas & John Glover.

The study examines Australian employer views on employing people with a disability. It is predicated on two ideas, ie that there are people with disabilities who are willing and able to work (but find it difficult or impossible to obtain suitable employment) and that the voices of employers have been lacking.

The study is based on focus groups with 40 employers from small-to-medium-sized enterprises, identifying factors which influence them to include (or exclude) people with disabilities. Apart from describing employer attitudes it sets out some strategies to assist businesses to take on employees with a disability.

It suggests that even when employers are open to the idea of employing a person with a disability, they are often not confident that they have the knowledge, understanding and capability to do so. Disclosure (or lack of disclosure) of a disability is a key concern for employers, especially in relation to mental illness, although employers conceded that this issue is mitigated if there is trust between the employer and employee. Small-to-medium-sized enterprises expressed frustration at their difficulties in accessing information relevant to their businesses, with the role of trusted brokers and mediators emerging as a key issue. Employers are not looking for formal training in 'disability employment', instead seeking assistance in building their capacity to support productive employment of people with a disability.

Irrespective of resource or human rights considerations, the study is interesting because it is traversing unmapped territory. The authors comment that -
A review of the literature confirmed that the employer’s perspective was largely absent from the research literature and policy discourse on employment of people with disabilities. For the most part, disability employment issues have been framed from a 'supply side' point of view. That is to say, most studies have focused upon what people with disabilities need, or need to do, to gain employment. There has been relatively little attention given to the 'demand side' of the employment equation—the employer's perspective. What employers might have to say, or what employers might need, has not been widely investigated or canvassed.

15 February 2010

All decent folk and true

One of the saddening, albeit on occasion momentarily amusing (what one friend characterises as 'WTF Moments'), aspects of looking at the way politicians shape public debate about justice is seeing the hyperbole used by people who are sincere & misguided or merely desperate.

Preceding posts in this blog have criticised the South Australian 'anti-bikie' legislation as bad policy and bad drafting, badly implemented but boldly presented.

It is perplexing to see the South Australian Attorney-General's media release [PDF] regarding the High Court's consideration of an appeal by the SA Government against the SA Supreme Court's decision that the legislation was defective.

In the media release the Attorney-General states that "Decent South Australians support the measures this Government introduces to make our streets safer". 'Decent'? Some decent South Australians - including the members of the SA Supreme Court who held that part of the legislation was invalid - presumably have qualms about particular measures. A commitment to justice is not a monopoly of a particular party, faction or profession. The implication that non-support for the measures reflects a lack of 'decency' is troubling. It is possible to be decent, keen on public safety yet not supportive of specific measures.

Mr Atkinson goes on to state that "The challenge is important as the Supreme Court judgment could affect the Parliament's powers in legislating on behalf of the people of South Australia". Indeed. From a constitutional law perspective that is one reason why we have supreme courts: they restrict the legislature from behaving improperly.

One might hope, for example, that the Supreme Court (and the High Court) would deal with an enactment by the SA Parliament that purported to authorise the Attorney-General to incinerate any Victorian who crossed the border without his permission, ordered parents to turn their first-born into catfood or condemned citizens in lifelong imprisonment at the Premier's whim.

Ramping up rhetoric about crime and law enforcement may be an inevitable feature of elections where a Government, as in NSW, is on the nose. However we should be wary about perceptions that the judicial arm cannot and should not deal with defective statutory drafting.