Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Divide

Not that Matt Taibbi needs me to shill for him, but his new book "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap" is out and sharply summarizes his years of investigating the financial crimes of the elite in this country. Tour de Force gets thrown around a lot these days, but this book is definitely one.

Below is an interview Taibbi did with Jon Stewart on last night's "Daily Show" wherein he lays out, among other hypocrisies, the absurdity of the logic behind the infamous "Holder Memo" which said you can't prosecute corporations for criminal wrong doing because it might hurt their stock prices and other people's feelings who work in the company. Or something. Holder wrote it in 1999 when he was a low-level federal prosecutor, but later would make it Justice Department policy when dealing with the financial rip off, er crisis, of 2008.

Also, I thought Taibbi's assertion that "moral hazard" is only something that applies to individuals, not to corporations or their shareholders, was dead on. His "those people aren't appropriate for jail" comment is an exact summary of everything I and others have been pounding our fists about for more than five years.

Click here to watch and get his new book asap.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Halfway Back to Society

Preventing recidivism should, of course, be a central goal of any correctional system. But too many halfway houses are understaffed, poorly supervised and generally ill prepared to do that job, and as a result the men and women who pass through them often leave them no better off

On March 24, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. took a step in the right direction by announcing new requirements for federally financed halfway houses — the most recent example of his aggressive push for reform across the criminal justice system.

Last August, Mr. Holder issued new guidelines advising federal prosecutors not to pursue the most severe charges against low-level drug offenders. He has supported congressional legislation that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes. And he has called on states to repeal laws that prevent people from voting even after they have been released from prison — an outdated and unjust punishment that serves only as another obstacle to successful re-entry. 

These are all smart and worthy reforms, but many depend on the cooperation of other government officials or legislative bodies. In contrast, Mr. Holder has the power to issue the new halfway-house regulations and put them into effect.
Well, when you spend 5.5 years bungling, dropping, losing and ignoring every major white-collar criminal case in the country (and earning yourself the moniker "the worst Attorney General ever") I guess reforming criminal justice is a way to save your legacy, such as it is.

But as usual, the devil is in the detes.
Starting in early 2015, halfway houses must provide more rigorous and standardized cognitive-behavioral treatment for inmates with mental health or substance abuse issues, both of which are rampant in prison populations. 

They will have to give inmates more assistance in seeking employment, for example, by giving them cellphones and public transportation vouchers. 

The new requirements also expand the use of electronic monitoring devices like ankle bracelets, allowing more inmates to serve out their sentences at home, which can hasten their readjustment to the outside world.
Or allow Big Brother to exert more control, via the digital panopticon, than good old fashioned razor wire and steel bars wold allow (and more cheaply). In other words, outfitting these inmates with more electronic monitoring can be seen as more than just "hastening their adjustment to the outside world." It's also hastening the growth of our surveillance society.

The NYT editorial board does, however, eventually stumble into the truth.
Perhaps an even better approach is to send fewer low-risk offenders to prison in the first place. Well-run halfway houses and other forms of community-based supervision should be the first choice for many convicted of nonviolent crimes.
In other words, stop sending people to prison who don't belong in prison in the first place. Non-violent, low-level drug offenders should be receiving the benefit of programs designed as alternatives to incarceration long before they actually go to incarceration. 

Halfway Houses are an excellent, underfunded, long-overlooked way to help stop the recidivism rates for those incarcerated. But a better alternative might be sentencing reform. The fact remains we simply have far too many people in prison who don't belong in prison.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Media as Malcontents

Undercover TV Reports on School Security Raise Concerns:

The three news reports followed the same format: Television reporters walked into schools with hidden cameras, under the premise of testing the security measures. Each time, the anchors provided a sobering assessment of the findings.

“One of the more depressing reports I’ve seen in a long time,” said Matt Lauer, the “Today” show host, after a report showed unsettling lapses in security. 

“What we uncovered may shock you,” Chuck Scarborough warned viewers of WNBC in New York.
Similarly, an anchor with the NBC affiliate in St. Louis prefaced a story by saying, “Some of it will disturb you.”
Incidentally, if you ever hear verbiage like that from local or morning news anchors, you can bet none of it will shock, disturb or alarm you. That language is simply a wolf-whistle for "don't turn the channel."

But I digress...
That’s what happened in suburban St. Louis in January when an employee of the news channel KSDK walked into Kirkwood High School unannounced and began to roam the hallways. After several minutes, he aroused the suspicion of the school’s office staff. 

Soon, the whole school was in lockdown. Police officers rushed to the scene, teachers turned off the lights and crowded students into the corners of their classrooms, and worried parents raced to check on their children.

The episodes often do not end smoothly. The Tampa reporter was detained, questioned and scolded by federal agents before being released. In Fargo, N.D., a correspondent who entered a school clandestinely in December was investigated for trespassing but avoided charges when her station agreed to keep her away from school-related news coverage for 90 days.
Snicker.
Some journalists contend that the news value of covert reporting outweighs the potential downsides. The story that was broadcast during the “Today” show in December served as a warning to parents that they should become aware of what is going on in their children’s schools, said Alexandra Wallace, senior vice president of NBC News. In that news package, a reporter visited five schools in the New York area and was able to get into one without being stopped by any security guards or school staff.

“I don’t know how you see what the truth is if you don’t go in that way,” Ms. Wallace said, referring to the hidden camera technique. “The moment you show up with a big camera, things look a lot better.”

Ms. Wallace, who has two school-age children, says she and other parents regularly think about school safety precautions. Indeed, news outlets often portray themselves as valuable members of the community in framing their undercover reports. Jeff Rossen, who reported the “Today” show piece, opened by saying that his daughter was in elementary school, “so this really hits home for me.”
For that reason alone, Rossen and the others should never have done the reports. What should be done with these reporters, frankly, is imprisonment. There's nothing in the 1st amendment that guarantees the right to break the law purposefully in order to "report" on the ease with which one can break the law. 

It's like robbing a bank to test out bank security and saying "I have a bank account here, so this really hits home for me." Or as the one outraged school superintendent put it, "Is it O.K. for them to set a fire and see how fast the fire department responds? It’s a safety issue. It’s not responsible. It’s the wrong way to do it.”

The only thing worse than the local news is the morning "news" programs on the big networks and cable networks. I'd rather put an ice pick through my eye than have to suffer another minute of Matt Lauer, Morning Joe or the the Fox & Friends dopes.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ode To High School

This is really a long Quote of the Day, but is so pitch-perfect, from Maureen Dowd:

High school looks like the beginning of adulthood and feels like it, but it isn’t adulthood. It’s some kind of dress rehearsal. It’s the first experience of a grown-up emotional and physical life, where you feel the rush of your powers and your vulnerability. Every reversal is gigantic. It’s a perfect storm of potency and ignorance, power and inexperience.

High school is the place where people get wounded — somebody else does better, an endless source of injuries, slights and offenses. Everyone comes out of high school needing vindication or revenge or compensation. It’s all about somebody else getting the pretty girl or the cute guy or the higher grade or the position on the sports team. Or the opposite: the Biffs, the quarterbacks who look back and realize they can never be that again.

The two kinds of people who never let go are the injured and the injurers, people who got slammed and the prom kings and queen bees who swanned at the top only in their teens. In a way, you could define adulthood as a passage into a time when you realize high school no longer matters.
It's a political column, ostensibly, but I'm not sure I've ever heard the high school experience encapsulated so eloquently.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Twighlight Zone: The Sequel

NSA Creates Children's Website:

The turtle wearing a hat backward, baggy jeans and purple sunglasses looks just like other cartoon characters that marketers use to make products like cereal and toys appealing to children.

But the reptile, known as T. Top, who says creating and breaking codes is really “kewl,” is pushing something far weightier: the benefits of the National Security Agency.

“In the world of diplomacy, knowing what your enemy is planning helps you to prepare,” the turtle says. “But it is also important that your enemies do not know what you have planned. It is the mission of the National Security Agency and the Central Security Service to learn what it can about its potential enemies to protect America’s government communications.”
[crickets chirping]
As the website says: “It is never too early to start thinking about what you want to do when you grow up.” 

To enter the “How Can I Work for N.S.A.?” section of the site, children click on a picture of a bucktoothed rabbit, who says in his biography that he likes listening to hip-hop and rock. In his free time, the bunny says, he participates in cryptography competitions with other cartoon characters named Decipher Dog and CryptoCat.

“As a signals analyst, you will work with cutting edge technology to recover, understand and derive intelligence from a variety of foreign signals found around the world,” children are told in the future employment section. “You will also attempt to identify the purpose, content, and user of these signals to provide critical intelligence to our nation’s leaders.”
I really had to check this article several times to make sure it wasn't an Onion spoof. Apparently, it isn't.

I checked the website and my favorite is "Cy" the Cyber Twin rabbit (or whatever it is) saying, "The internet is an amazing tool for learning, games and more. It makes our live richer, letting us share more and faster than ever before. But it's important to protect yourself online."

Yeah, from us!
Civil libertarians, not surprisingly, said the website was propaganda. Experts on early childhood education and marketing to children said the tactics used by the N.S.A. were similar to the way McDonald’s puts toys in its Happy Meals.
Or similar to the way Camel cigarettes put Joe Camel on their packs.
Vanee Vines, a spokeswoman for the N.S.A., said that “like many government agencies,” the N.S.A. “has a special website for children.”

“The site,” she said, “is designed to help children learn about cryptology and N.S.A.’s mission to defend the nation.” The site complies with a policy memo from President Bill Clinton that called on all federal agencies to develop ways to educate children about government. The F.B.I. and the Central Intelligence Agency are among the other government agencies that have their own sites to try to educate children about their missions.
She's right, which of course doesn't make it any less strange, borderline fascist or just simply loony tunes weird. 

Here's the link the NSA kids site. You can click on the FBI and CIA links above to see theirs.

I have to confess, I had absolutely no idea these things existed. But I'm going to show my kids them this evening to get their take.

UPDATE: My kids pronounced them "lame."

Friday, January 24, 2014

The E-Cigarette As Pacifier

Jails Allowing E-Cigarette Sales and Collecting Revenue:

As city governments and schools across the country move to ban or restrict the use of electronic cigarettes, one place increasingly welcomes the devices: the rural county jail.

Though traditional cigarettes are prohibited from most prisons and jails because of fire hazards and secondhand smoke, a growing number of sheriffs say they are selling e-cigarettes to inmates to help control the mood swings of those in need of a smoke, as well as address budget shortfalls, which in some jails have meant that guards are earning little more than fast-food workers. 

The trend stands in contrast to restrictions on e-cigarettes approved in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and other big cities. County jails in at least seven states have permitted the sale of a limited selection of flavors of e-cigarettes to inmates. They have quickly become one of the most sought-after items in jail commissaries. And although federal prisons ban e-cigarettes, the inmate market has so much potential that Chinese and American manufacturers now produce “jail-safe” versions made of plastic instead of metal.
It goes without saying, but while I don't advocate anyone smoking at all, this is very positive news for correctional officers throughout the country. Not only does it ensure a more cooperative and docile inmate, it also cuts down on the tobacco gangs that have surfaced in every prison in the country where cigarettes were banned during the 90's and 2000's.  
Despite the unanswered questions, the use of e-cigarettes has increased significantly in the past three years. There are now more than 350 varieties and global sales have reached nearly $2 billion, according to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, an industry group.uction in violence and tension in jails, which are often overcrowded and where minor disagreements can quickly escalate into fights, endangering the safety of guards.

“When these guys get in here they’re wound up anyway, and then you tell them they’re not getting cigarettes, and it’s on,” said Jason Armstrong, who runs inmate accounts at the Greene County Detention Center in eastern Tennessee, which began selling e-cigarettes in September. “Now, they’re pretty much getting their nicotine fix, so it’s cut down on altercations.”
For the time being, until the science can be sorted out about long term use, this is good new for correctional facilities in the U.S. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Follow The Law

States Skirting Supreme Court Rulings on Life Without Parole for Juveniles:

In decisions widely hailed as milestones, the United States Supreme Court in 2010 and 2012 acted to curtail the use of mandatory life sentences for juveniles, accepting the argument that children, even those who are convicted of murder, are less culpable than adults and usually deserve a chance at redemption.

But most states have taken half measures, at best, to carry out the rulings, which could affect more than 2,000 current inmates and countless more in years to come, according to many youth advocates and legal experts.

Lawsuits now before Florida’s highest court are among many across the country that demand more robust changes in juvenile justice. One of the Florida suits accuses the state of skirting the ban on life without parole in nonhomicide cases by meting out sentences so staggering that they amount to the same thing.

The plaintiff in one of the Florida lawsuits, Shimeek Gridine, was 14 when he and a 12-year-old partner made a clumsy attempt to rob a man in 2009 here in Jacksonville. As the disbelieving victim turned away, Shimeek fired a shotgun, pelting the side of the man’s head and shoulder.

The man was not seriously wounded, but Shimeek was prosecuted as an adult. He pleaded guilty to attempted murder and robbery, hoping for leniency as a young offender with no record of violence. The judge called his conduct “heinous” and sentenced him to 70 years without parole.

Under Florida law, he cannot be released until he turns 77, at least, several years beyond the life expectancy for a black man his age, noted his public defender, who called the sentence “de facto life without parole” in an appeal to Florida’s high court.
As the article notes, the Court never addressed retroactivity or de facto life sentences (sentencing a 15 year old to a 75 year sentence with no parole) in the Graham or Miller cases; something that has been argued in this forum since the decisions were released.
The 2010 decision, Graham v. Florida, forbade sentences of life without parole for juveniles not convicted of murder and said offenders must be offered a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” The ruling applied to those who had been previously sentenced.

In its 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court declared that juveniles convicted of murder may not automatically be given life sentences. Life terms remain a possibility, but judges and juries must tailor the punishment to individual circumstances and consider mitigating factors.

The Supreme Court did not make it clear whether the 2012 ruling applied retroactively, and state courts have been divided, suggesting that this issue, as well as the question of de facto life sentences, may eventually return to the Supreme Court.
Predictably, the get tough bloggers are pushing back.
Misgivings about the federal Supreme Court decisions and efforts to restrict their application have come from some victim groups and legal scholars around the country.

“The Supreme Court has seriously overgeneralized about under-18 offenders,” said Kent S. Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a conservative group in Sacramento, Calif. “There are some under 18 who are thoroughly incorrigible criminals.”
Nothing like a blogger, with zero training in juvenile matters, passing judgment on the psyche of juvenile offenders.
Some legal experts who are otherwise sympathetic have suggested that the Supreme Court overreached, with decisions that “represent a dramatic judicial challenge to legislative authority,” according to a new article in the Missouri Law Review by Frank O. Bowman III of the University of Missouri School of Law.
Better reasoned, but no. The problem with the Graham and Miller decisions wasn't overreach. It was that they didn't go far enough.

In the spirit of Roper, the court should have invalidated life without parole sentences for any juvenile under the age of 18. There may some "thoroughly incorrigible criminals" under the age of 18, but just as we can't whack them anymore, we shouldn't be playing games with life without parole sentences either.

The court should draw the bright line, eliminate de facto life sentences, and make these decisions retroactive to the thousands of kids (men) who are lingering in prison today, with no chance of release, for crimes they committed when they were teenagers.