Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Trial of the Century

Standardized Test Cheating Trial Open in Atlanta:

The criminal trial of a dozen public school educators opened here Monday with prosecutors alleging that the teachers and administrators had engaged in a “widespread, cleverly disguised” conspiracy to cheat on standardized test scores in an effort to protect their jobs and win favor and bonuses from administrators.

It was a near-guarantee that the trial, which is expected to last three months or more, will generate more unpleasantness for these former colleagues at Atlanta public schools. The urban school district has already suffered one of the most devastating standardized-testing scandals of recent years. A state investigation in 2011 found that 178 principals and teachers in the city school district were involved in cheating on standardized tests. Dozens of former employees of the school district have either been fired or have resigned, and 21 educators have pleaded guilty to crimes like obstruction and making false statements.
Remember, this was the "crime of the century" that resulted at one point in more than 25% of the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) agents in the state working on the case. Apparently, other criminal activity had dried up and vanished that summer of 2011.
In a lengthy opening statement, peppered with both slangy Southernisms and pointed indignation, Fani Willis, an assistant district attorney in Fulton County, argued that the dozen educators in the courtroom, as well as Dr. Hall, had violated Georgia’s RICO statute, by using the “legitimate enterprise” of the school system to carry out the illegitimate act of cheating.

Whistleblowers who raised concerns about cheating were punished within the school system, Ms. Willis said. She also described cheating parties, in which educators erased wrong answers and replaced them with correct ones.

At some of them, she said, educators “ate fish and grits — I can’t make this up.”
That's not a little racist. And yes, you read that right, they used the RICO Act (normally reserved for organized crime, terrorism, drug cartels, and so on) and racketeering statutes to prosecute elementary school teachers for alleged erasure tampering (thugs, all of them).

I also love how Fulton DA Paul Howard is supposedly hanging his "legacy" on the outcome of this crime of the century prosecution.
The outcome of the trial is likely to define the legacy of District Attorney Paul L. Howard, Jr., who has served as Fulton County’s top prosecutor since 1997. The district attorney’s official website describes Mr. Howard as “a visionary and trailblazer whose innovative ideas have left an indelible mark on the local justice system and on the community at large.”
LOL. See also: Ray Lewis, Brian Nichols, Asset Forfeiture Malfeasance, thousands of felony cases never prosecuted, ad nauseum.

What a circus. Make sure you stay tuned for every detail. And if you can't stay home watching it on t.v. all day, check back here and I'll have summaries over the next few months (not).

Sunday, September 28, 2014

They Learn From Us

One of the funnier things I've read about ISIS lately is that they adopted the brutal, graphic, violent methods they did in order to "shock and awe" American society and draw us into a conflict we are too weak to prevail in. Funny because I'm not sure how you can shock American culture through brutality or violence when we remain one of the most violent cultures on the planet. ISIS has a long way to go to catch up to the 16,000 American who are murdered by their fellow Americans annually, or 44 people EACH DAY killed right here in the good ol' U.S. (throw in suicides, and we take out an average of 150 fellow citizens each day via violence).

Further evidence that we are violent and getting more violent is the rise in mass shootings in just the last seven years. According to this new FBI report, the prevalence of spree and mass shooting has jumped from 6 each year to 16 per year, killing on average 50 people or more annually. Since 2000, spree or mass killings have killed or wounded over 1000 people.

A report released by the F.B.I. on Wednesday confirmed what many Americans had feared but law enforcement officials had never documented: Mass shootings have risen drastically in the past half-dozen years.

There were, on average, 16.4 such shootings a year from 2007 to 2013, compared with an average of 6.4 shootings annually from 2000 to 2006. In the past 13 years, 486 people have been killed in such shootings, with 366 of the deaths in the past seven years. In all, the study looked at 160 shootings since 2000. (Shootings tied to domestic violence and gangs were not included.)
And the police are powerless to stop them.
Many of the sprees ended before the police arrived, the report said. In 44 of the 64 cases in which the F.B.I. was able to determine the length of the shooting, the gunfire lasted less than five minutes. Twenty-three shootings ended in less than two minutes. In 64 of the 160 total cases, the gunmen committed suicide.

Just two of the 160 shootings involved more than one gunman, and six of the killers were women. Two of the twelve shootings that occurred at colleges or universities were by women.

Roughly 45 percent of the shootings occurred in offices or stores, and about 25 percent at schools or universities. Other sites included military bases, government offices, homes, places of worship and medical facilities. In 24 of the 160 shootings, the gunmen attacked more than one location. Mass shootings occurred in all but 10 states.
Interesting if you delve into the report, almost all the college, high school and middle school shootings were done by students who attended there; only the elementary schools involved deranged adults intent on wreaking havoc among the most innocent and unable to defend themselves.

Unfortunately the report doesn't have any other demographic information on the shooters themselves, which would help in profiling/prediction/prevention. My guess is that they were overwhelmingly white and working class/lower middle class disaffected individuals. The precise group which bore the brunt of the Great Recession layoffs and who have yet to return to full employment. Just a guess.

Bottom line: we sanitize our own violence and up-sell other cultures in order to assuage our collective guilt in the whole thing. Sure, we don't film and upload to Twitter videos of our crime scenes in the U.S. but can you imagine what that might look like if we did? Day after day, 45-150 times each day, law enforcement uploads still photos and video of every violent homicide/suicide death in the U.S.? The ISIS terrorists in their ninja turtle get ups would run for hills.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Subprime Auto Loans: The Bottom Feeders Are Back

Miss A Payment? Good Luck Moving That Car:

Auto loans to borrowers considered subprime, those with credit scores at or below 640, have spiked in the last five years. The jump has been driven in large part by the demand among investors for securities backed by the loans, which offer high returns at a time of low interest rates. Roughly 25 percent of all new auto loans made last year were subprime, and the volume of subprime auto loans reached more than $145 billion in the first three months of this year.

But before they can drive off the lot, many subprime borrowers must have their car outfitted with a so-called starter interrupt device, which allows lenders to remotely disable the ignition. Using the GPS technology on the devices, the lenders can also track the cars’ location and movements.

The devices, which have been installed in about two million vehicles, are helping feed the subprime boom by enabling more high-risk borrowers to get loans. But there is a big catch. By simply clicking a mouse or tapping a smartphone, lenders retain the ultimate control. Borrowers must stay current with their payments, or lose access to their vehicle.
Awesome...it's like Big Brother meets Repo Man. Check this clown out, who the article calls the "GPS Man", a new kind of virtual repo superhero for the 21st Century:
“I have disabled a car while I was shopping at Walmart,” said Lionel M. Vead Jr., the head of collections at First Castle Federal Credit Union in Covington, La. Roughly 30 percent of customers with an auto loan at the credit union have starter interrupt devices.

From his office outside New Orleans, Mr. Vead can monitor the movements of about 880 subprime borrowers on a computerized map that shows the location of their cars with a red marker. Mr. Vead can spot drivers who have fallen behind on their payments and remotely disable their vehicles on his computer or mobile phone.

The devices are reshaping how people like Mr. Vead collect on debts. He can quickly locate the collateral without relying on a repo man to hunt down delinquent borrowers.

Gone are the days when Mr. Vead, a debt collector for nearly 20 years, had to hire someone to scour neighborhoods for cars belonging to delinquent borrowers. Sometimes locating one could take years. Now, within minutes of a car’s ignition being disabled, Mr. Vead said, the borrower calls him offering to pay.

“It gets their attention,” he said.

Mr. Vead, who has a coffee cup that reads “The GPS Man,” has been encouraging other credit unions to use the technology. And the devices — one version was first used to help pet owners keep track of their animals — are catching on with a range of subprime auto lenders, including companies backed by private equity firms and credit unions.

"GPS Man", don't you love it? "GPS Man...he can disable cars in a single key stroke!" (I feel like I'm reading a really bad Marvel Comic that was pulled from the shelves for lack of sales).

Except it's not a cartoon...it's Wall Street providing the capital for these subprime bottom-feeders who then scam low income individuals into taking out loans (up to 29% interest rates) they can't afford.  Sound familiar?
Without the use of such devices, said John Pena, general manager of C.A.G. Acceptance, “we would be unable to extend loans because of the high-risk nature of the loans.”
If you read the article, this is the same company that turned off a woman's car while she was on the interstate in Las Vegas, forcing her to cross three lanes and almost killing her and untold other drivers on the road that day.
Across the country, state and federal authorities are grappling with how to regulate the new technology.

Consumer lawyers, including dozens whose clients’ cars have been shut down, argue that the devices amount to “electronic repossession” and their use should be governed by state laws, which outline how much time borrowers have before their cars can be seized.

State laws governing repossession typically prevent lenders from seizing cars until the borrowers are in default, which often means that they have not made their payments for at least 30 days.

The devices, lawyers for borrowers argue, violate those laws because they may effectively repossess the car only days after a missed payment. Payment records show that Ms. Bolender, the Las Vegas mother with the sick daughter, was not in default in any of the four instances her ignition was disabled this year.
All of this is troubling on a number of levels. The fact that the gps tracking systems allows "debt collectors" and other unqualified people access to these borrower's every move is borderline stalking. And given that the debt collection industry is rife with criminals, thieves and other malcontents (a "Candy Store for Criminals"), you are basically ensuring this technology will be used in other criminal ways.

But as well all know, Wall Street is rife with criminals, thieves and other malcontents as well, so we shouldn't be surprised that the psychopaths on The Street have figured out a way back into the subprime scams of the 00's.  The regulations have been tightened to prevent similar predatory lending in the housing market, but apparently not when it comes to auto loans. Just another way the poor are scammed, ripped off, surveilled and controlled by the power-elite in society.

I need GPS Man to go kill ISIS terrorists or Russian insurgents. I don't need him hounding single mothers with kids and no money, shutting off their vehicles.

Cross Posted To: The Cranky Sociologists

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Your Militarized Campus

Grenade Launchers, Armored Personnel Carriers, M-16's, All Standard Fare on Campus:

At least 117 colleges have acquired equipment from the department through a federal program, known as the 1033 program, that transfers military surplus to law-enforcement agencies across the country, according to records The Chronicle received after filing Freedom of Information requests with state governments (see table of equipment).

Campus police departments have used the program to obtain military equipment as mundane as men’s trousers (Yale University) and as serious as a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (Ohio State University). Along with the grenade launcher, Central Florida acquired 23 M-16 assault rifles from the Department of Defense.
Luckily none around these parts, but nice to see Kennesaw University representing in the M-16 assault rifle's category. Go Owls!
Some argue that the procurement of tactical gear doesn’t help with the types of crimes that occur more frequently on college campuses, like alcohol-related incidents.
Are you kidding? Nothing would clear a rowdy, drunken frat party faster than a mine-resistant personnel carrier, grenade launchers and drawn bayonets.

Here's the typical myopic, bureaucratic response, justifying the unjustifiable:
“For me, this is a cost savings for taxpayers,” said Jen Day Shaw, associate vice president and dean of students at the University of Florida and chair of the Campus Safety Knowledge Community, a forum for members of Naspa: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. When police departments “have the ability to get equipment that will help them do their jobs at a greatly reduced price,” Ms. Shaw said, “it is a benefit for the whole campus.”
That's the first time I've ever seen scaring your student body into submission and intimidating student dissent referred to as a "benefit," but uh, go Gators.
“It is a force multiplier for us,” said David Perry, chief of police at Florida State University and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. “Typically, we are not staffed at optimum levels. We are not given budgets comparable to some large cities and municipalities, so we need to find ways to make it reach.”
Maybe you're not given budgets "comparable to large cities" because, uh, you're not a large city, Chief.
Michael Qualls, an associate professor of criminal justice at Fort Valley State University, in Georgia, agrees. A retired Army officer, Mr. Qualls worked for several campus police departments before he began teaching. “If we continue on with the 1033 program, as those items become obsolete at the military level and if they become available, why not get ’em?” Mr. Qualls said. “It’s better to be prepared than not prepared.”
For what? An invasion of Fort Valley State in south Georgia?

Most of this is driven by the "active-shooter" scenarios, along the lines of Virginia Tech in 2007. And while there is a remote possibility of this occurring on any campus anywhere in the U.S., the chances are infinitesimally slim.
For Mary Anne Franks, an associate professor of law at the University of Miami, the possibility that an extraordinary event could occur doesn’t justify the procurement of assault rifles and armored vehicles. The real danger Ferguson residents faced came not from a terrorist attack, she said, but from police officers armed with this sort of equipment.

“Mostly, I’m wondering why,” she said. “As much as one might wonder about why major cities are getting this type of equipment—which I think we should wonder about and ask questions about—it seems even stranger to talk about it happening in voluntary communities that don’t experience much violent crime.”

Ms. Franks raised another concern: As students become aware of the military gear some police departments possess, she said, that may curtail their willingness to express themselves and protest.
Precisely. Imagine protesting outside the dean's office for lower tuition (or whatever) and suddenly the jack boots and body armor, tanks and grenade launchers show up. "Hey, Hey, tuition's high, I'm going broke, but don't want to die!"

Anyway, it's just another extension of the militarization of policing that's been going on throughout the U.S. the past 40 years or so. At the end of the day, we deploy the same spectacle of brute, state force on college campuses for the same reason we do it in low-income and minority neighborhoods: social control.

Cross posted to: The Cranky Sociologists

Mean Reviews (via Mean Tweets)

I absolutely love this.

The Internet can be a nasty place, as academics know well from Rate My Professors.

It is on that website that faculty members might learn, for example, that their students think they are “useless” or a “general moron,” and say anyone “would enjoy eating the rectum of a brown, exotic Australian toad” more than taking their course.

Yes, those are real reviews.

Many professors assail the website and anything that might give it credence. But at least some faculty members have recently concluded that the best way to challenge the site and its unsubstantiated ratings is to mock it without mercy.

Lehigh University became the latest institution to use the website as fodder for comedy. Taking a cue from a popular late-night comedy trope in which celebrities read cruel tweets about them, Lehigh filmed faculty members reading negative comments about themselves from Rate My Professors, and posted the videos online.
Watch the clips. I'm just re-posting one of them, but they are all hilarious.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Racism and Criminal Justice

The new 44 page report on race and sentencing in America by the Sentencing Project is a tour de force condemnation of the criminal justice system, the racist drug laws and sentences of 80's and 90's, militarized policing and racial profiling, and an outright evisceration of the War on Drugs the past 30+ years.

Some of the conclusions:

  • “Whites are more punitive than blacks and Hispanics even though they experience less crime.”
  • “White Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color and associate people of color with criminality. For example, white respondents in a 2010 survey overestimated the actual share of burglaries, illegal drug sales and juvenile crime committed by African-Americans by 20 percent to 30 percent.”
  • “White Americans who associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies — including capital punishment and mandatory minimum sentencing — than whites with weaker racial associations of crime.”
  • “Whether acting on their own implicit biases or bowing to political exigency, policy makers have fused crime and race in their policy initiatives and statements. They have crafted harsh sentencing laws that impact all Americans and disproportionately incarcerate people of color.”
  • “By increasing support for punitive policies, racial perceptions of crime have made sentencing more severe for all Americans. The United States now has the world’s highest imprisonment rate, with one in nine prisoners serving life sentences. Racial perceptions of crime, combined with other factors, have led to the disparate punishment of people of color. Although blacks and Latinos together comprise just 30 percent of the general population, they account for 58 percent of the prison population.”
  • “By increasing the scale of criminal sanctions and disproportionately directing penalties toward people of color, racial perceptions of crime have been counterproductive for public safety. Racial minorities’ perceptions of unfairness in the criminal justice system have dampened cooperation with police work and impeded criminal trials. In 2013, over two-thirds of African-Americans saw the criminal justice system as biased against blacks, in contrast to one-quarter of whites. 
  • "Whites’ greater punitiveness relative to people of color is especially striking because whites are far less likely than blacks and Hispanics to be victims of crime. "
  • "Researchers have shown that those who attribute crime to individual dispositions are more punitive and less supportive of rehabilitation than those who emphasize environment factors.186 Whites who attribute crime more to individual failings rather than to social contexts are also more likely to believe that crime rates, rather than bias, drive the over-representation of blacks in prisons."
And so on. While much of this is common knowledge for those of us who teach crime and punishment in America, it's a concise history and very worth your time to spend an hour or so digesting the report in total. Even the solutions presented seem workable and easy to implement, given changing philosophies and "smart on crime" movement.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Justice For Sale

Bank of America Reaches $16 billion Settlement With U.S.:

The Justice Department said on Thursday that it had so far recovered nearly $37 billion from big banks for their role in selling shoddy mortgages before the financial crisis.

Such a large number — intended to deter misdeeds in the future — suggests that Wall Street is being made to pay for its role in stoking the subprime debacle. Yet the financial pain inflicted by the settlements may not be as great in the end.

Take the latest, and largest, mortgage settlement. Bank of America has agreed to a $16.65 billion deal with federal and state authorities. The actual financial burden for Bank of America, however, may not exceed $12 billion — certainly a large amount, but one significantly less than the number the government trumpets.
And get this: a lot of it can be written off on their taxes (i.e. YOU the taxpayer are going to pay for it). It's like you robbing someone on the street then having the victim pay a portion of your fine.
The actual pain to the bank could also be significantly reduced by tax deductions. Tax analysts, for instance, estimate that Bank of America could derive $1.6 billion of tax savings on the $4.63 billion of payments to the states and some federal agencies under the settlement. Shares of Bank of America jumped 4 percent on Thursday, suggesting investors believe that the bank could take the settlement in stride.

“The American public is expecting the Justice Department to hold the banks accountable for its misdeeds in the mortgage meltdown,” said Phineas Baxandall, an analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization. “But these tax write-offs shift the burden back onto taxpayers and send the wrong message by treating parts of the settlement as an ordinary business expense.”
For those who have inquired, this is why I think Eric Holder is the worst AG the United States has ever had. Yes, he's done a lot to help reform the criminal justice system, criminal sentencing, and the like. And his visit to Ferguson, MO this past week was well-timed and thoughtful in helping defuse the situation.

But it's astonishing that for this crime of the century, a crime so vast and huge it dwarfs literally every other financial or violent crime ever committed in United States history, not one single person went to prison for it.

What crimes did they commit, you say?
Documents released as part of the $16.65 billion settlement between Bank of America and the Justice Department read like a highlight reel of the mortgage sins that fed the 2008 financial crisis. As part of the deal, the bank and the Justice Department agreed to a “statement of facts” that offers a window into some of the darkest corners of the Countrywide and Merrill mortgage machine that was responsible for funneling a stream of troubled loans that helped devastate the global financial system.

The Justice Department documents also show the failings of the government’s efforts to protect itself against insuring defective mortgages.

One Bank of America employee describes trying to “trick” a system that screened mortgages that the Federal Housing Administration agreed to insure.
Only on Wall Street is "trick" an acceptable euphemism for fraud. 

I wonder how that would hold up on the street level? "No officer, I wasn't robbing the Quick Mart, I was trying to trick them into giving me money. That's all." Or, "Instead of prison time, can't I just settle with the DA?"

Holder et al (including the president) have said repeatedly that we need to "look forward, not backward" when it comes to the crimes of Wall Street. I wonder how victims of street crime would feel about that? "Rather than prosecuting this rapist or mugger or molester, I think it's better we look forward, not backward, and learn from these unfortunate events." Ugh.

It's the ultimate, ignominious ending to the biggest criminal enterprise ever at work in United States history. Pay your fine (most of which will be written off, thus footed by the taxpayer) and go on about your ways (for more, go here).

I can guarantee you two things: 
  1. If these sociopaths on Wall Street knew they were facing hard time in prison, with razor wire, barking dogs, solitary confinement, and sexual assault, this kind of criminal conduct would never have taken place. 
  2. Because they know in the future they'll never go to prison and can pay their way out of the legal system, this shit will happen again.