Nel's New Day

April 20, 2017

Join the March for Science

The GOP War on Science is not new, but it gained massive traction with the election of a Republican president and Congress with the possibility of a totally Republican Supreme Court. The idea that science is vital to protecting humanity through effective decision-making is now passé among federal government leaders with the mighty dollar—or billions of them—leading the way. Draconian budget cuts to the EPA, National Institutes of Health, NOAA, NASA, and BLM aren’t enough to satisfy these people; all that funding is going to nuclear weapons and the military. In addition, leadership is muzzling people, attacking evidence, and erasing information about climate change from websites.

This coming Saturday is the 47th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970. Instead of sitting by and letting conservatives destroy the planet, scientists are coming out of their labs and research areas for the March for Science. The main one is in the U.S. capital, but 200 organizations are planning another 500 marches around the world—all kicking off a week of action culminating in the People’s Climate March on April 29. According to the March for Science website, organizers are “advocating for evidence-based policymaking, science education, research funding, and inclusive and accessible science.”

The March’s Facebook page is 850,000 strong with information about people, posters, slogans, science and “misinformation” that the anti-science Heartland Institute sends to schools and science teachers. The March’s participants vary from a neuroscientist marching “for the thousands of people suffering from spinal cord injury” to SF fans marching “because you can’t have science fiction without science!”

One segment of the marchers is protesting the current policy regarding drug use in the United States overturning gains in the last eight years for an evidence-based drug policy. Throughout the nation’s history, drug laws have criminalized minorities: opium laws in the 1800s targeting Chinese immigrants, marijuana laws directed toward Hispanics in the early 1900s, and then crack laws of the 1980s disproportionately incarcerating black men. Research shows that drug prohibition contributes to worse health and higher mortality rates among drug users while growing an illicit drug market. Targeting minorities negatively affects family and social support and eliminates economic opportunity.

Fear-based drug control tactics fail to provide information in their efforts to terrify policymakers and the public in opposition to success for drug control demonstrated in other countries that expand treatment access and decriminalize drugs. The current administration ignores research on these successes for a racial “law and order” position, always a failure.

According to the federal government, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, the highest level of “potential for abuse” and no medical value. It is considered more dangerous than meth, opium, or cocaine. With cannabis in this category, medical researchers are helpless to examine studies from other countries that refute the U.S. position. Across the nation, this one “drug” is legal in 28 states for medical purposes and in another eight states for recreational use. Its popularity has caused companies to develop synthetic “look alike” drugs that increase the chance of overdoses and other negative side effects.

Earth Day’s goal, 47 years ago and now, is to mobilize people around environmental issues. The first march of 20 million people led to the Environmental Protection Agency, created by GOP President Richard Nixon, and vital environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. The Earth Day revolution began at a time of dangerous air pollution, rivers on fire, genetic changes in wildlife, and children with diseases and birth defects in the United States. Last year the nation signed the Paris Climate Agreement with 174 other countries.

After Dictator Donald Trump (DDT) appointed a climate-change denier for EPA Secretary, he signed a directive to reverse President Obama’s progress toward slowing down climate change. DDT’s goal is to promote oil, coal, and natural gas over all other objectives at a time when fossil fuel companies are switching to renewable energy sources. The order mandates suspension, revision, or rescinding any policies that “burden” the production of domestic energy resources, including nuclear power. Gone are the order to consider climate change in environmental reviews, including locations of oil drilling, and the one to factor in the potential economic damage from climate change. DDT’s order also removes the moratorium on new coal leases on federal land and remove regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Fracking companies will also not be required to seal off waste water in storage tanks and to disclose chemicals they pump underground. Methane emissions from oil and gas operations no longer need to be reduced.

Other DDT “climate crimes” include his reinstatement of two pipelines (at a profit to himself), allowing lead ammunition on federal lands and waters, ordering the EPA to reconsider car emissions requirements, and all his appointments.

Scott Pruitt, DDT’s EPA Secretary, set the new “tone” in his speech a week ago at a coal mine that was fined for contaminating waterways with toxic materials. His “back to basics” agenda devolves oversight of clean air and water in exchange for jobs in industries such as coal, oil, and gas. The new direction is support of the coal industry. The company owing that mine had almost entirely divested itself of West Virginia coal mines and is looking for buyers for this last one to be completely out of the business.

According to the EPA website:

Our mission is to protect human health and the environment.

 

EPA’s purpose is to ensure that:

  • all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work;
  • national efforts to reduce environmental risk are based on the best available scientific information;
  • federal laws protecting human health and the environment are enforced fairly and effectively;
  • environmental protection is an integral consideration in U.S. policies concerning natural resources, human health, economic growth, energy, transportation, agriculture, industry, and international trade, and these factors are similarly considered in establishing environmental policy;
  • all parts of society — communities, individuals, businesses, and state, local and tribal governments — have access to accurate information sufficient to effectively participate in managing human health and environmental risks;
  • environmental protection contributes to making our communities and ecosystems diverse, sustainable and economically productive; and the United States plays a leadership role in working with other nations to protect the global environment.

Demographics – Electric power generation and fuels, Q4 2016

In addition to Prutt failing to meet his agency’s mission and purpose, he claimed that ending regulations will boost the economy and create jobs. Last month, however, the Institute for Policy Integrity released a study showing that environmental regulations have essentially no effect on the employment rate in the long term. The government would be better economically to support jobs in renewable energy as shown by the chart on the right

A four-year EPA review shows that three pesticides–chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion–“pose a risk to nearly every endangered species they studied.” Dow Chemical claimed that these substances are safe, and Pruitt sided with Dow against his own agency in the case of chlorpyrifos and is poised to agree with Dow on the other toxic substances. Dow gave DDT $1 million for his inauguration, and the company’s CEO is a presidential adviser.

When questioned during his confirmation hearings, Energy Secretary Rick Perry testified that “science tells us that the climate is changing, and that human activity, in some manner, impacts that change.” After his confirmation, the agency’s staff was told to never use phrases “climate change,” “emissions reduction,” and “Paris agreement” because these terms would cause a “visceral reaction.” Instead, DOE employees are to use words such as “jobs” and “infrastructure.”

New banners for the Bureau of Land Management demonstrate the shift from environmental concerns to coal. The image of two hikers looking over a magnificent vista of green mountains capped by snow has been replaced by these banners:

 

Can’t march? You can participate through livestreaming Washington, D.C.’s event from Democracy Now starting at 10:00 am ET.

 

December 17, 2015

Prison Reform: Don’t Trust the Koch Brothers

The United States is the largest police state in the world, with more prisoners than China or Russia both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population. Charles and David Koch, worth over $100 billion by ripping off the middle class and poor as well  as heavy investors in the oil industry, are now backing a bipartisan attempt to reduce the number of incarcerated people in the U.S. which has the highest imprisonment rate in the world, especially burdening the poor and people of color.

While the press has been complimentary about the Koch brothers’ efforts in this arena, the two wealthy men may have a nefarious motive—protecting their corporations to block prosecution of corporate violations of environmental and financial laws designed to protect the public. Their proposed changes would, at the public’s expense, effect more problems in holding executives and their employees responsible for violating U.S. laws while protecting financial interests of the wealthy and corporate leaders. For at least five years, the Kochs and their American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have pushed to increase the “intent” standard for criminal violations, particularly for so-called “white collar” crime and executive suite criminals. The result would provide huge benefits for Koch Industries and their corporate friends.

After the Senate passed bipartisan legislation to make the criminal justice system fairer, the House took a Koch idea that has now passed its Judiciary Committee. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s (R-WI) bill fails to address mass incarceration but instead requires prosecutors to prove that a person or corporation “knowingly” engaged in illegal conduct and additionally “knew” or should have known that the conduct violated federal law. If passed, the bill “would make it much harder for prosecutors to criminally prosecute companies that swindle the public, endanger their workers, poison the environment or otherwise imperil consumers,” said Rob Weissman, President of Public Citizen. Koch Industries is one of Sensenbrenner’s top contributors in this election cycle.

An “intent” requirement called “mens rea” requires that prosecutors prove a person intended to cause harm and violate the law before imposition of long prison sentences. Criminal laws for acts of violence typically have this mandate, but federal law does not have to prove intent in many federal laws for white collar crimes such as environmental violations and financial crimes under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. For example, federal law does not require proof that a company or its leaders intended to violate the law by polluting waterways or crashing the economy. Just the existence of these acts can hold corporations and their leaders criminally liable because of complexity of hierarchy and authority.

The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster killing 29 workers from cost-cutting led to an unusual criminal conviction for the former CEO of Massey Energy. This conviction could not happen with the Koch brothers’ bill in the House. Frank O. Bowman, law professor at the University of Missouri, explained:

“Requiring that prosecutors prove that a corporate executive is both consciously aware of the conduct of their subordinates and consciously aware that the conduct of those subordinates violates criminal law is very, very difficult. This would make [white collar] prosecutions more difficult than they now are, and they are already hard.”

Over-incarceration is not a problem for corporations and their leaders because the Justice Department has a large number of deferred prosecutions in exchange for defendants’ promises not to break the law in the future. Koch’s “intent” standard on all federal crimes would undermine the few corporate criminal prosecutions that could take place. Sensenbrenner’s bill prevents such guilty pleas as the one from Jensen Farms, that killed 33 people from a failure to follow food safety standards with its cantaloupe. The default intent requirement would lessen prosecutions of violations in the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Resource Recovery and Compensation Act (RCRA), etc.

Naturally the Koch brother’s bill protects the Koch Industries. In 2000, Forbes reported that “a federal grand jury indicted the privately held company and four of its employees in September on 97 related charges for alleged violations that took place at the company’s refinery in Corpus Christi, Tex.” The Koch brothers may not have deliberately intended to spew 91 metric tons of toxic chemical benzene into the air and water before hiding their actions from federal investigators. Yet the lack of protections and emissions monitoring resulted in 15 times the legal limit of benzene to be emitted from the refinery. Benzene is a Group 1 carcinogen causing acute myeloid leukemia, lymphocytic leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, reduced production of bone marrow, suppression of T-cells, chromosomal aberrations, reduction of birth weight, and other health problems.

The Koch brothers donated $378,500 directly to George W. Bush’s campaign and the GOP as well as unknown quantities of money to other groups. Bush’s AG, John Ashcroft, reduced the charges for violations, which could have cost the company over $500 million, and dropped all except one count for the Koch Petroleum Group. Koch paid only $20 million.

The Koch brothers said that this experience inspired their interest in criminal justice reform. For example, Koch Industries Associate General Council Marsha Rabiteau gave a presentation titled “Overcriminalization: Liberty, and More, At Risk for Corporations and Their Employees,” with the “intent” requirement to solve any prosecution of corporations. Heritage Foundation has an “Overcriminalization” project, and the Koch-backed National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has a report called “Without Intent: How Congress Is Eroding the Criminal Intent Requirement in Federal Law.”

Rabiteau also maintains that corporations cannot form any “intent” to be held liable for a criminal act—despite the Supreme Court’s declaration that a corporation is a “person” for the purposes of “free speech.” She argues corporate criminal justice law reform is vital to punish wrongdoers “with laws that are clear and adhere to our Anglo-American heritage.” This reference furthers separates white collar criminals from a criminal justice system that largely falls on non-Anglo-Americans.

The debate over the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in 2010 led to two Koch-backed groups, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Heritage Foundation, issuing a comprehensive joint report and project, “Without Intent,” criticizing “overcriminalization” and the lack of intent requirements in the federal criminal code. The report’s co-author, Tiffany Joslin, is Deputy Chief Counsel for the House Judiciary Crime Subcommittee—chaired by Sensenbrenner—and the report has been repeatedly cited in the congressional debate on criminal justice reform. Fortunately, even intense lobbying didn’t keep “intent” out of the Dodd-Frank Act criminal provisions–at least then. A large part of Koch brothers’ business comes from oil speculation; they created the first oil derivatives in 1986 and worked with then-Sen. Phil Gramm to deregulate energy speculation with credit default swaps in 2000 with the “Enron Loophole.”

Although the Koch brothers’ NACDL received positive press, the group has a large section focused on helping some of the wealthiest white-collar defense firms in the country and reshaping the law to address “overcriminalization” just for corporations. The current Director of NACDL’s White Collar Crime Project, Shana-Tara Regon (now Shana-Tara O’Toole), has testified on Capitol Hill in favor of an intent requirement for white-collar crimes. She has also co-authored op-eds with the Heritage Foundation favoring intent laws, and has represented the organization on the “Congressional Task Force on Overcriminalization.” In 2011, Regon testified before Congress to put “intent” into the white collar crime law, the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which prohibits U.S. corporations from bribing foreign public officials. The FCPA prosecutes an average of 14 cases per year. While Regon testified, the Kochs were involved in a bribery scandal in France.

The Koch-backed ALEC, which increased the number of prisoners and length of prison time through its success in “three strikes you’re out” and “truth in sentencing” bills, now criticizes the lack of intent for white collar crimes. An ALEC focus, however, is prison privatization to benefit its corporate funders such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). When Walmart started funding ALEC, the group pushed bills to create mandatory minimum sentences for shoplifting, enacted new penalties for retail theft, and even added sentencing enhancers for using an emergency exit when shoplifting to fill the private prisons. For corporations however, ALEC adopted the Criminal Intent Protection Act as a “model” bill for states to impose a strict criminal intent requirement.

At the same time as the publication of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, ALEC and other Koch-backed groups worked on voter suppression laws to greatly decrease voting power for people of color. The high-level Koch operative Mike Roman led the perpetuation of voter fraud myths through race-baiting after Barack Obama was elected president.

When the Koch brothers talked about incarceration reform, I had a slight ray of hope. It’s gone.

October 12, 2015

Time for Native American Day

Today is Columbus Day. The federal holiday has caused millions and millions of children to be taught myths as truth because President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the Knights of Columbus a gift of a federal holiday honoring a Catholic man. Evidence shows that Leif Eriksson led a band of Vikings to North American five centuries before 1492 and established a settlement before the indigenous peoples drove them off. It is also thought that Irish monks, the Chinese, Africans, and others “discovered” the continent before Columbus—a place already discovered by the people who had moved to the New World across the Bering Land Bridge 10,000 to 15,000 years earlier. Even when Columbus died, 16 years after he landed on the island, he thought he had found a path to Asia, his original purpose. But still, the United States celebrates Christopher Columbus.

The first Columbus Day celebration in the United States was in New York in 1792 to honor Oct. 12, 1492, the day that Columbus and his ships first made landfall on an island in the Caribbean Sea. It was to honor Italian-Americans because people believed Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, instead of Spain’s Catalonia region. One-hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation asking people to celebrate the day with patriotic festivities to mark the 400th anniversary of the voyage. In 1971, the national holiday established in 1937 was moved to the second Monday in October as the U.S. decided three-day weekends are important.

About the Taino people who Columbus encountered, he wrote, “With 50 men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one might wish. [They were] fit to be ordered about, to sow, and do everything else that may be needed.” A former slave trader, Columbus captured “seven head of women, young ones and adults, and three small children” to take back to Spain.

Columbus’ journals of his voyages document graphic acts of rape and brutality. He and his men chopped off the hands of Taino slaves who failed to get a daily quota of gold, and female slaves were forced to leave their babies on the road sides. Spanish conquistadors bet who could chop a Taino body in half with just one blow. In 1499, Columbus was arrested, chained up, and brought back to Spain.

History has described Columbus as “self-centered, ruthless, avaricious, and racist,” and he left a legacy of death, pillage, and rape of the land filled with colonialism, enslavement, discrimination, and land grabs. Thanks to people who followed Columbus, one-third of Native Americans died of disease—chicken pox, measles, cholera, malaria, typhoid, bubonic plague, etc.

People who think that the indigenous people in the United States no longer suffer as they have in the past need to consider what the government is doing to them in the 21st century. Native Americans didn’t get the right to vote in 1924 because the Fourteenth Amendment excluded Indians. Yet states found ways to keep Indians from voting for most of the 20th century through methods such as literacy tests. Despite lawsuits, some states refuse to recognize tribal IDs for voting and will not set up satellite polling locations on reservations, forcing Indians to drive as far as 163 miles or even to fly to a polling place. No access to early voting makes the process even more difficult.

White men are still allowed to abuse Indian youth. Last year, 57 Lakota students between 8 and 13 were rewarded for academic achievements by attending a hockey match in Rapid City (SD). At the game, a group of men in an executive suite poured beer over their heads and shouted, “Go back to the Rez!” Only one perpetrator faced criminal charges, and he was acquitted when a judge declared that the beer was just sprayed in excitement over a goal. The children are afraid to leave the reservation now.

Until last April, South Dakota’s Department of Social Services routinely placed Native children in white foster homes while denying Indian parents and guardians any due process rights in the hearing process. Parents were not allowed to examine evidence or cross-examine witnesses in hearings that sometimes lasted less than one minute, on average less than five minutes. One judge, Jeff Davis, ruled against Indian parents every time. Judges also told parents that their jurisdictions could ignore the law. An average of 740 Indian children was taken from their homes each year, some of them sexually abused in their foster homes.

Years ago, Indian children were taken from reservations and sent to “schools” where they were forced away from their culture. Putting children into white foster homes serves and same purpose, and white entitlement in the United States supports this “assimilation.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), currently a GOP presidential candidate, said that if Native Americans were “assimilated,” that it would take only a decade for them to “probably be doing as well as the rest of us.” That’s his excuse for taking all the reservation lands and forget the way that white people refused to “assimilate” to the native culture of the country where they committed genocide.

Governments are still taking land away from Native Americans. For example, a section in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act transferred the San Carlos Apache tribe’s sacred area of Oak Flat in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest to mining company Resolution Copper. The land had been protected since 1955 when President Eisenhower declared it closed to mining because of its cultural and natural value, and President Nixon’s administration renewed the decree in 1971. Mining will destroy the area, but Arizona GOP Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake supported the land grab after they received contributions from Rio Tinto, mining company’s parent corporation. Flake was also a paid lobbyist for Rio Tinto Rössing Uranium in Namibia before being elected to Congress.

When Phil Stago of the White Mountain Apache Tribe protested the removal of his tribe’s land, Arizona’s 4th District Rep. Paul Gosar told him, “You’re still wards of the federal government.” Gosar was repeating the position that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall took in the 1830s. Although Congress controls Indian affairs, tribes are known as sovereign nations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ website describes the federal government as trustee of Indian property, not the guardian of all American Indians and Alaska Natives.

McCain has a history of taking Indian land. In 1974, Senator John McCain wrote the 1974 Relocation Act which moved over 14,000 Navajo and 100 Hopi from their homelands to the site of a uranium mining accident in Chambers (AZ) where they developed lung cancer and their babies were born with birth defects. The excuse was to settle a land dispute between the two tribes, but the real purpose was to exploit mineral resources by creating two of the biggest coal strip mines in the nation. Ceasing operations in 2005, the mine left a 273-mile abandoned coal-slurry pipeline and 325 million tons of climate pollution in the atmosphere.

The state of Michigan wants to give 13,000 acres (about 20 square miles) of Native American treaty land to a Canadian company to develop a limestone mine. The state will get $4.53 million. It’s not a done deal yet, but Native Americans must fight for their land.

Like other minorities, Native Americans are victimized by the U.S. justice system with an incarceration rate 38 percent higher than the national average and four times the rate of white men. Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other racial group and fall victim to violent crime at more than double all other citizens. While Native American women are incarcerated at six times the rate of white women, 88 percent of violent crime committed against Native American women is by non-Native perpetrators. Native American youths are 30 percent more likely than whites to be referred to juvenile court than have charges dropped.

A movement to honor Native Americans on October 12 has been growing in the past decades. Both Hawaii and the Bahamas call October 12, “Discovery Day,” and South Dakota began to use the term Native American Day in 1989. In 1992, Berkeley (CA) changed the name to Indigenous Peoples Day. Nine cities—including Albuquerque, Portland (OR), and Olympia (WA)—have followed suit. It’s not much, but it’s a start to recognize white entitlement, the belief that nothing has value or exists unless a white man is in charge. That’s a belief that may become more predominant in states such as South Dakota, which not longer requires Native American history to be taught in the public schools. Schools that do teach Indian history treat the subject as if Native Americans are gone—that they no longer exist. But that’s what many white people want.

July 22, 2015

U.S. Justice for the Top 1 Percent

Mass media is gradually turning to the criminal (in)justice system within the past few months. One publicized tragedy is a teenager’s suicide after he was incarcerated at Rikers for three years with no trial following his arrest for allegedly stealing a backpack. When the case was finally dismissed, he was so traumatized by the years in solitary confinement and abuse that he couldn’t survive.

President Obama, the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, has recently been addressing the serious problem that the U.S. incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other industrialized country. The discussion about a system that imprisons almost twice as many people as two decades ago and that disproportionately jails people of color is long overdue.

prison_pop_increase

Adam Benforado is one person who has researched the differences between freedom and imprisonment—not only class and race but also juror life experience and the fatigue level of parole boards. In his new book, “Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice,” he describes the great emphasis of unreliable confessions on convictions. The Innocence Project, responsible for over 330 exonerations, found that “more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.” Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, stated, “Once the confession is taken, it trumps everything else…its effects cannot be reversed.”

Police who initially focus on behaviors showing that a suspect lies, use methods from false ideas about body language and leading lines of questioning. Detectives ask provocative questions and then look for “jittery limbs or averted gaze.” Benforado explained that “frequently someone who’s committed a horrible crime will look you straight in the eye and tell you that they’re innocent.” Techniques  to get admissions of guilt employ coercive “good-cop, bad-cop” routines. Vulnerable people such as those with low IQs, a history of mental health problems, or with less life experience such as teenagers often make false confessions in efforts to appease interrogators. Over 80 percent of people who confess but please not guilty are convicted because the confessions are almost impossible to erase.

Even recordings can result in viewer bias. According to Benforado, the point of view can make a huge difference:

“When people watched the footage shot from the perspective of the interrogator, they tended to say, well, this looks like a completely fine, voluntary confession. But when they watch the videotape from another perspective, through the eyes essentially of the suspect, suddenly they notice all of these coercive factors. And they tended to think, well no, actually that confession cannot come into court because it is so badly influenced by the actions of the interrogator.”

Benforado also pointed out how facts have little relationship with jury verdicts. Black men typically get longer prison terms and have a higher incidence of death sentences than white men. Jurors’ backgrounds and experiences, “cultural cognition,” weigh more heavily in guilt or innocence than legalities. For example, in trials of rape date, “women who were older, who were more conservative, who adhere to more traditional gender norms, were far more likely to let the man off in this particular case than women who were liberal and younger.”

Parole boards may be the most alarming part of injustice because of how the time of day plays a big part of whether prisoners are released or returned to prison. The worst time to get a parole is before the first break of the day.

The saddest conclusion of Benforado’s study is that the legal system is primarily created by and composed of white, wealthy, highly-educated older men. At this time, white people in the United States think that they are at risk. That’s the reason that a young man went to a Bible study at a church in Charleston (SC) and killed nine people.

One major tragedy  in the United States criminal justice system is that 2,500 people in the United States were sentenced to life without parole when they were teenagers. The country will pay $4 billion to keep them there for the rest of their lives. All UN-affiliated countries in the world have signed and ratified a treaty to ban life imprisonment for juvenile offenders except for the United States, Somalia, and South Sudan.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama by a 5-4 vote that these life sentences violate the 8th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. and the court banned mandatory life sentences for minors. The ruling, however, left the decision of whether the ruling is to be applied retroactively up to individual states. Eleven states have thus far ruled in favor of retroactivity, but five have ruled against retroactivity.

One of these 2,500 juvenile lifers is Efren Paredes, who went to prison in Michigan when he was 15 and has been there for 26 years. An honor roll student with no criminal record, he was arrested but claimed that he was at home with his family watching TV when a convenience store clerk was shot and killed in a robbery. The Supreme Court announced last March to hear Toca v. Louisiana in the upcoming session that would determine whether Miller would be retroactive nationwide.

Michigan is second only to Pennsylvania in the number of juvenile lifers. According to Michigan law, teenagers as young as 15 years old are automatically tried in adult courts for murder cases, and convicted teens go directly to adult prisons. If the court rules in favor of retroactive treatment, convicts tried as juveniles must have a re-trial with the hope that a jury grants the possibility of parole because they plead their cases before a parole board. Even if the Supreme Court rules for nationwide retroactive application of Miller in Toca v. Louisiana, Parades’ parole could be in danger because he has always maintained his innocence when parole boards demand for a showing of “remorse.”

Another tragedy is that female victims of abuse are sent to juvenile detention halls that fail to treat them for mental health issues. “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” produced by the Human Rights Project for Girls (Washington, DC), the Center on Poverty and Equality (Georgetown University Law Center), and the Ms. Foundation, reported that girls’ involvement in juvenile justice systems nationally is “growing disproportionately” and that girls of color are especially affected.

Many infractions, such as running away from home or school truancy, should not have led to incarceration, and the Human Rights Projects for Girls is fighting for legislature that would require prompt help for sex trafficking victims who are foster-care children and expose sex trafficking of minors. Most youth are confined in facilities lacking licensed professionals as mental-health counselors. Congress could fix loopholes in treatment of girls in crisis by tying funding to federal law requirements.

The biggest sin of prisons, however, is that privatization has made prisons a chief money raiser for the top one percent in the United States. With the rise of privately-owned prisons, incarceration has become big business in America. Holding a population of over 130,000, private prisons hold about 17 percent of federal and 7 percent of state inmates, bringing over $3.3 billion in revenue to just two corporations, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, just last year. Almost half the immigrant detention population is in private prisons. Corporations fiercely lobby against any reduction in their population, whether from reductions in mandatory minimum sentencing laws, immigration reform, or drug legalization and decriminalization. There’s not much danger of losing their prisoners, however, because privately-owned prison companies usually include an occupancy level of 90 percent or above in their contracts.

Private companies are in control of extending prisoners’ sentences through doling out infractions—twice as many as government-run prisons—adding about $3,000 of costs to taxpayers per prisoner. When released, prisoners from private prisons are more likely to go back into the system. CCA has provisions in its contract to keep the most costly inmates—those with health issues—from going into its prisons. They had 14 different exclusion criteria including HIV-positive, disabled, elderly, or those with “sensitive medical conditions and/or high risk diagnoses.”

Current laws that incarcerate millions have not resulted in any greater safety for the country’s population and are a giant waste of money. Yet politicians support these failed policies because lobbyists pay them. While Chairman of the Florida House of Representatives, now-Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) took $75,000 for his state campaigns, hired a former GEO trustee as economic advisor, and made sure that GEO got a $110 million contract for the state’s largest private prison facility. A federal inquiry found tens of thousands of dollars in kickbacks to Florida lawmakers and ended up indicting Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom. Moving on to being a U.S. senator, Rubio pushed Florida Gov. Rick Scott to turn 27 state prisons to GEO. For that, Rubio’s PAC got $114,000 in 2011.

The U.S. is horribly over-incarcerated. The 2.4 million men, women, and children in jails and prisons are more people per capita than any nation except for Seychelles. This 700-percent increase has come since 40 years ago when the U.S. was comparable to other nations. During that time, the War on Drugs cost $1 trillion and arrested 45 million people. Imprisoning people means that they cannot get treatment for the reason behind their drug use, and the prisons resort to solitary confinement. Portugal decriminalized all drug use and now treat addition as a medical issue with humane correctional methods. Drug-use rates have markedly declined.

The criminal justice in the United States is totally skewed toward the privileged who will fight to keep the status quo because it gives them money and position.

December 26, 2013

Stop Poverty

It’s been a half century since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty.” Fifty years later, the income inequality in the United States is much worse. Poverty in other countries is obvious: we see films of people with no food living in cardboard boxes. But in the United States, many people think that the only reason for poverty is laziness. There’s a resentment that people in poverty still have cell phones and television sets. There’s the feeling, especially among conservatives, that truly poor people would be those in the cardboard boxes without food or possessions.

As the recession kept wages down and the middle-class shrinking during the past half decade, the people of the nation are going downward, making less and less while the wealthy have a rapidly increasing upward trajectory. Poverty in our country is malnutrition that leads to poor health with the effects passed on from one generation to the next. Poverty is losing a job and then a home so that they had to declare bankruptcy and move in with friends or relatives.

Greg Haufmann has found solutions from activists around the country:

Sister Simone Campbell, leader of “nuns on the bus” and anathema to Catholic Church directors who want her to concentrate on fighting abortion and marriage equality instead of helping the poor:  “Support an increase in the minimum wage to more than $11 per hour.” Of people below the poverty line, 57 percent of individuals and family members either worked or lived with a working family member in 2011. Walmart could pay its workers $12 an hour by raising its prices just 1 percent. That would cost each shopper an average of $12.50 for an entire year. year.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers: “Help end sexual harassment, wage theft, and forced labor in the fields—join the Fair Food Program today.” In the past, countless workers in Florida’s fields growing and harvesting oranges and tomatoes suffered daily humiliation and abuse ranging from wage theft to sexual harassment and even forced labor. A new program has set the highest human rights standards in fields today, working to stop its slavery in the 21st century. Publix Super Markets, a large supermarket chain across six Southern states, refuses to support the program.  Almost 100,000 people have asked CEO William Crenshaw to join the program to end slavery in Florida.

Ralph da Costa Nunez, president and CEO, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness: “Make a Personal Commitment to Helping Homeless Families.” Over one-third–over 500,000—of people living in the U.S. in shelters are parents and their children. Family homelessness has increased by more than 13 percent in the past five years.

Dr. Deborah Frank, founder and principal investigator, Children’s Healthwatch: “Fund the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) at the maximum authorized level.” Insufficient heating and cooling is responsible for poor health, increased hospitalizations, and developmental delays in young children. Although current funding at $4.7 billion in 2014 won’t meet all the needs of people in poverty, it can help.

Sarita Gupta, executive director, Jobs with Justice/American Rights at Work and Co-Director, Caring Across Generations: “Support of a living wage and basic labor protections for home care workers.” Homecare workers compose one of the largest occupations in the nation, but many of them make below minimum wage. The “companionship exemption” excluded most homecare workers from basic labor protections for almost all other workers in the U.S. Two years after President Obama promised federal minimum wage and overtime protections for most homecare workers—and a year after the public comment period closed—there is still no new rule.

Judith Lichtman, senior adviser, National Partnership for Women & Families: “Urge Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1286/S.631) and a national paid leave program.” More than 40 million workers in this country—and more than 80 percent of the lowest-wage workers—cannot earn a single paid sick day to use when they get the flu or other common illnesses. Millions more cannot earn paid sick days to use when a child is sick. For the average worker, taking off 3.5 unpaid days is equivalent to a month’s worth of groceries for the family. Because they do not have sick leave, they may be communicating contagious germs to everyone who comes in contact with the same items as the sick person—creating a chain of illness.

Tiffany Loftin, president, United States Student Association (USSA): “Increase regulation of private student loans and hold Sallie Mae accountable for its role in the student debt crisis.” Student debt was the only type of household debt that grew during the last five years. Each student owes an average of $27,000 by graduation. Sallie Mae, the largest private student lender, has high interest rates. The company fails to give borrowers their repayment options, promoting defaults on loans, and lends money at between 3.5 percent and 5 percent higher than it borrows.

Elizabeth Lower-Basch, policy coordinator, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP): “Support Pathways Back to Work.” Subsidized and transitional jobs are the best way to give unemployed workers the opportunity to earn wages, build skills, and connect to the labor market, while also giving businesses an incentive to hire new employees when they might not be able to do so otherwise.

Marci Phillips, director of public policy and advocacy, National Council on Aging: “Invest in the Older Americans Act.” This proposed bill includes a number of programs that keep seniors healthy and independent in their own homes instead of in expensive institutions. Services include healthy meals, in-home care, transportation, benefits access, caregiver support, chronic disease self-management, job training and placement and elder abuse prevention, but funding has not kept up with the need, especially after the sequester.

Rebecca Vallas, staff attorney/policy advocate, Community Legal Services: “Tell Congress no cuts to Social Security and SSI through the Chained CPI.” The two-year budget didn’t touch these programs, but fight is not over. The debt ceiling crisis comes in January, very likely complete with extortion. Although Social Security now matches inflation, the method of determining cost of living is highly inaccurate for seniors. Those on low-income won’t be buying new houses and cars, measures that keep inflation down. Their money goes for food, utilities, and drugs—items that are more rapidly increasing in cost than the other items that lower inflation. In just one example, my water bill has gone up an average of 5 percent every year for the past 20 years, and the city plans on an increase of 50 percent in the next five years.

Jim Weill, President, Food Research and Action Center: “Tell Congress: Increase, Don’t Cut SNAP (Food Stamp) Benefits.” House GOP members who tried to pass a farm bill without any food stamps ignored the fact that most people in the country understand the importance of this program: 73 percent of voters believe the program is important to the country; 70 percent say cutting it is the wrong way to reduce government spending; and 77 percent say the government should be spending more (43 percent) or the same (34 percent) on SNAP. This support crosses parties, demographic groups, and rural, urban and suburban lines.

Debbie Weinstein, executive director, Coalition on Human Needs: “Tell Congress to stop harmful cuts to anti-poverty programs now.” Sequestration cut education, food programs, jobs, housing, and clothing programs. They keep people poor, cost jobs and stall economic growth for everyone.

Johnson’s attempts to alleviate poverty worked for almost two decades until Ronald Reagan became president. During this two terms, the country quickly began to lose the painful gains of the century: increased productivity benefited only the wealthy, poverty concentrated in inner cities with chronic joblessness and racial segregation, and trade union membership plummeted along with pensions. The U.S. led the industrialized world in child poverty and incarceration. The value of the minimum wage eroded. Conservatives blamed the resulting problems on Johnson’s Great Society and began its three-decade war on social spending.

The above solutions may sound complicated, but a letter to today’s Oregonian from Rex Burkholder simplified several solutions. He makes a lot of sense to me.

“Here are a few ideas I’d like to see Oregon’s business community get behind in their effort to end poverty:

  1. Decriminalize drugs. Addicts are ill and need help, not incarceration.
  2. Shut down lottery and video poker, poor returns on investment.
  3. Treat the mentally ill instead of putting them on the streets.
  4. Raise the minimum wage to its 1970s equivalent, about $15 an hour in today’s dollars.
  5. Spend our public infrastructure funds through a Civilian Conservation Corps-type program instead of using out-of-state contractors.
  6. Put shop class back into every high school. We still need carpenters, plumbers and other tradespeople.

“How to fund it? Legalize and tax marijuana. Less damage than tobacco or alcohol and lots of demand.”

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