Department names

A very quick post this week because once again I’m traveling.

My older daughter is binge-watching Dexter right now, and she asked me why Dexter works for the Miami Metro Police. Why the metro, she wanted to know.

Actually, the city of Miami calls its police the Miami Police Department, while the sheriff’s department for that region used to be called the Metro-Dade Police Department, but is now Miami-Dade Police Department. All of which is slightly confusing. The TV show’s creators seem to have used artistic license in merging the names, much as Reno 911! involved the fictional Reno Sheriff’s Department (in reality, there’s the Washoe County Sheriff and Reno Police).

But also this should be a lesson to authors to take care with department names, whether real or fictional. Agencies differ in nomenclature. Portland, Oregon, for instance, has the Portland Police Bureau. An interesting historical example involved 19th century New York City which, due to political conflict, ended up with two competing police departments: the New York Municipal Police and the New York Metropolitan Police. The competing agencies rioted with each other!

So, do your research and choose your department name carefully!


Female offenders

When I discuss offenders on this blog, I often use the male pronoun. This is a deliberate decision, a reflection of the fact that men make up a much larger proportion of offenders than women.

How big is this difference? About 83% of felony defendants in the United States are male. The difference is even larger for violent crimes, where men make up about 86% of violent offenders. Although the gap has been narrowing in recent years, the large majority of felony defendants are men.

There are also distinctions between male and female offenders. Compared to men, women felons are more likely to be HIV-positive, to have significant mental health problems, or to have been victims of physical and sexual abuse. They are also more likely to have abused drugs, and 70% of female prisoners have minor children. Compared to men, women are more likely to have been drawn into criminal activity by relatives, partners, and friends.

Because there are fewer female inmates, there is often a smaller range of prison programs available to them. On the good side, however, violence between female inmates is less common than among males, and gang activity is a less prevalent problem in women’s prisons. Here’s an article that outlines some of the specific challenges of female offenders.

Female offenders can make interesting literary characters. If you’re tempted, I’d urge you to do some research on the reality of female offending. You might even gain some plot ideas.


Sympathetic bad guys?

Today’s post is a result of conversations I’ve had with a couple of author friends—and a situation I’ve faced myself. Suppose your plot demands that your protagonist has been charged with a crime. Maybe he’s even been convicted. But you also want to make sure that the protagonist remains a sympathetic character. You don’t want your readers to reject him due to his background. How can you pull this off?

One obvious answer is to make sure the readers know he’s innocent. The poor lamb has been wrongfully accused. This can make a juicy plot driver in itself, but it has also been done a lot (as in The Fugitive), and if not handled well can come of as trite.

I think there’s much more potential when your protagonist is actually guilty. He did the deed. Ah, but why? Maybe he was desperate. Maybe he was young. Maybe he foolishly let himself get pulled in by the wrong crowd. Maybe he had a really rough background and the crime seemed, at the time, his best choice. Not only are all of these realistic and interesting, but they also reflect true life: most criminals aren’t especially different from the rest of us. They just made some bad decisions.

It’s probably easier to rehabilitate your protagonist for some crimes than for others. It’s harder to sympathize with a violent offender, for instance. And some offenses, such as rape and child abuse, are probably just about hopeless. If your guy commits one of those, it’s unlikely you’ll ever endear him to readers. But never say never, I guess. Hannibal Lecter comes to mind.

Whatever crime your guy has committed, you may also face the issue of how to keep him from doing hard time. If it was a relatively minor offense and he didn’t have much of a record, you can probably get away with giving him probation. If someone else committed the crime with him, perhaps your guy will testify against him in exchange for immunity or a plea deal. If his circumstances were really extreme, he might even seek clemency (which in most states can be granted by the governor; the president can grant it for federal crimes). But in real life, clemency is an extremely rare event.



Prison tour

If you’ve been following this blog lately, you won’t be surprised that I love touring places related to the history of law and criminal justice. Last month, my older daughter and I did a 10-state, 4500-mile road trip. And as we were zooming through Wyoming (at a gloriously legal 80 mph) I was delighted to see a sign advertising the Wyoming Frontier Prison. We exited the freeway in Rawlins so we could take a tour, and I’m so glad we did.

 From 1901 until 1981, this was the Wyoming State Penitentiary (a new state pen eventually opened in the same town; that’s where Wyoming’s felons are now incarcerated). It must have been a miserable place to do time. In the early years, there was no electricity or running water, and our guide said the temperature inside was never more than 20 degrees warmer than the outside temp. Picture that during a Wyoming winter, when the thermometer regularly drops below 0F. Two or even three men would share a single 5 by 7 cell—which at least might have added a bit of body heat.

The state also executed people here. At first they hung them using an interesting—and pretty horrifying—contraption called the Julian gallows. Later they switched to the gas chamber. Which I got to sit in. Yes, some of us have weird vacation thrills.

As you might suspect, many of the prison’s inmates had colorful histories. Train robbers, gunslingers, outlaws of all stripes, the desperate and the downtrodden. Women were housed here too. Some inmates escaped or were released, only to end up back behind these walls. Others were murdered by their fellows.

Nowadays it makes for a fascinating tour. As a bonus, we even got to see a couple of the marmots that live in the exercise yard.

Here are some more photos. If you’re ever in Rawlins, Wyoming, I recommend a stop.