Nel's New Day

August 31, 2016

Florida: Rubio In for Now, Corey Out

Florida’s primary yesterday had bad news and good news. GOP Sen. Marco Rubio is still on the path to re-election after defeating his Trump-supported opponent. He won’t promise to stay the entire six years if elected, obviously using the Senate as a stepping stone for another presidential run in 2020. Whatever Rubio promises, however, is always subject to change, for example, his assertion—10,000 times by his own count—that he wouldn’t run for re-election. Within months, he made these claims: people who don’t want to vote, shouldn’t run for the Senate; all government workers who don’t do their jobs should be fired; he needs to vote only on important issues; and “there is really no other job in the country where if you don’t do your job, you don’t get fired.” The last one was said on the Senate floor, and he’s right—while he takes home $174,000 every year. He said that he didn’t need to vote because he was running for president.

Although Rubio never used the word “hate” for his feelings about the Senate, he did say that “we’re not going to fix America with senators and congressmen.” After Rubio had possibly the worst voting record ever in the Senate, missing almost one-third of his votes last year, newspapers such as Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, which had originally endorsed Rubio, called on him to “resign, not rip us off.”

The good news from yesterday’s Florida primary is that 4th Judicial State Attorney Angela Corey lost to a little-known corporate lawyer and former prosecutor, Melissa Nelson, 64 to 26 percent. Nelson still has to defeat write-in candidate Kenny Leigh in the general election, but no write-in candidate has ever been elected to such a position. Leigh has made no campaign appearances and not raised any money. Corey departs the office as the first incumbent state attorney in “modern history” to lose a contested election.

corey-AP_imgPeople may remember Angela Corey as the woman who botched the prosecution of George Zimmerman and saved him from prison after he stalked and killed teenager Trayvon Martin. But the Florida state attorney has a much broader reputation in destroying lives.

Corey was the person who put Marissa Alexander into prison for 20 years after she fired shots into a wall to protect herself from her abusive husband. In Florida, the “stand your ground” law seems to apply only to non-black males. A public outcry got Alexander another trial, but Corey was determined to put her back for 60 years. Alexander finally managed a plea that kept her under house arrest for three years. Two years before Alexander’s conviction, Corey’s territory, Duval County, had the highest incarceration rate in the state despite an historic low of crime in Florida.

With under five percent of Florida’s population, Duval County has 25 percent of the state’s death sentences and one of fewer than 20 counties that handed out more than five death sentences from 2010 to 2015. Two-thirds of the death sentences between 2009 and 2014 were for blacks, including 19-year-old Michael Shellito who suffers from extreme mental illness and has a low IQ.

cristianCristian Fernandez, 12, was another of Corey’s victims. Five years ago, he was questioned with no adult present and then convicted of killing his two-year-old brother, David. The children were left alone, and their mother waited over eight hours to take David to a hospital after Cristian said the toddler had hurt himself. She was sentenced to probation with no jail time. After Cristian said that he had pushed David against a bookshelf, he was charged with first-degree murder as an adult.

Florida law requires intent to kill for first-degree murder and carries a mandatory life sentence; in Corey’s terrain, all juveniles charged with murder are charged as adults, 1,475 in the Jacksonville area as compared to 34 in Miami-Dade (the most populated judicial district with higher rates of youth) between 2009 and 2013. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced with mandatory life imprisonment but can still be charged as adults. According to this ruling, neuroscience shows that young people, because of their “immaturity, recklessness and impetuosity,” are less culpable than adults.

To protect juveniles in adult prisons from being physically assaulted or raped, these inmates were typically put into complete isolation until President Obama banned this practice earlier this year. Adult prisons have no educational or counseling facilities—no opportunity for rehabilitation. Put into solitary, Cristian had two visits from a mental-health counselor in 30 days along with a few phone calls.

Corey’s office also blackmails juveniles to plead guilty to the maximum juvenile sentence by threatening them with charging them as adults. She had strong support from elected public defender Matt Shirk, who is supposed to be on the defendant’s side. He fired most of the longtime public defenders in the office and appointed his friend Refik Eler as his second-in-command. Shirk was investigated by the Florida Commission on Ethics for violations including sexually harassing women he hired and then firing them because his wife threatened him with divorce if he didn’t. The Florida Commission on Ethics suggested that Shirk resign immediately; he didn’t.

Second-in-command Eler was cited four times by Florida courts for ineffective counsel, including telling clients not to argue that they have a mental disease or defect in death-penalty cases. Eight of Eler’s clients have gone to death row, more than any other Florida public defender. Some indigent defendants now opt to represent themselves, for example a man who lost a 12-month plea deal after the public defender failed to follow up. The man was released after seven years because he filed a federal habeas petition.

Cristian’s fate changed when pro bono lawyers took up his cause, but Corey retaliated by filing another adult charge of Cristian sexually abusing his five-year-old brother. Investigators interrogated Cristian with neither his lawyer nor his guardian ad litem notified, and Shirk continued to sabotage Cristian’s case although he no longer had any involvement. Cristian’s new lawyers reviewed unexamined evidence and built a case for the boy’s defense. They managed a plea deal that put him into a juvenile therapeutic facility rather than risk a jury trial that could lead to an adult prison. Cristian may be released in two years when he is 19 and then remain on parole for five years.

Currently, Corey is running a smear campaign against Darlene Farah, the mother of a murdered daughter. Farah opposes the death penalty for her child’s killer, and Corey accuses her of being “more interested in publicity than actually grieving for her daughter.” James Rhodes, the 24-year-old black man convicted of the killing, has not been sentenced because a temporary halt on death penalty sentences. The Supreme Court ruled the state’s death penalty law to be unconstitutional because judges could overrule juries and sentence defendants to death. Corey has tried to get support from Farah’s teenage son, Caleb, by showing him video of his sister’s murder. After briefly caving in, Caleb supports a life sentence for Rhodes.

As the district’s state attorney, Corey is the primary advocate for those sentences, making her one of the deadliest prosecutors in the country. Corey also used $108,439 of taxpayer money to upgrade her pension plan, and $425,000 in bonuses for her office staff. Corey was able to maneuver around a Florida statute that bans such bonuses for public employees by claiming the disbursements were “one time” pay raises.

Nelson’s win is not unadulterated good news: she was endorsed by the NRA who thought that Zimmerman should not have been charged at all. After a prosecutor for 12 years in the 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s office, however, she switched to private practice and was one of the defense attorneys for Cristian Fernandez. Maybe there’s hope for kids in the northeastern Florida judicial district. 

Trump Watch: Before Trump’s immigration speech in Arizona, he flew to Mexico to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto. After the meeting, Trump said that they didn’t discuss who would pay for Trump’s wall between the U.S. and Mexico, but Peña Nieto said that he “made it clear” to Trump that Mexico would not pay for the wall. The president of Mexico also told Trump that illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S. peaked years ago and complained to him about the vast number of guns that crossed the border and made Mexico’s drug wars much worse. Trump did get his photo-op with Peña Nieto, who has a 23 percent approval rating in Mexico.

Tonight, Trump gave his ten points of controlling undocumented immigrants with no solid methods of doing so, much of the content expanded from his GOP convention speech. Some Republicans who want more voter support for Trump called it a “softening”; Ann Coulter heard it the same way that many other listeners did. She called it a magnificent speech because there was “no pivot. Illegals will have one path to legal status: To go home and apply through legal channels like everyone else.” The only difference between Trump’s lies and white nationalism tonight was that he read it from a teleprompter.

December 18, 2013

Affluenza in the U.S.

Have you ever had a case of affluenza? If you aren’t wealthy, chances are that you escaped this disorder. But 16-year-old Ethan Couch suffers from this horrible problem. In a recent Texas case, psychologist Gary Miller testified that the teenager who killed four pedestrians while driving drunk—three times the legal limit for adults in the state—should be excused for his behavior because of his affluenza. Couch and several of his seven passengers in a pickup truck got the alcohol by stealing two cases of beer from a local Wal-Mart. In addition to the alcohol, Couch’s blood test noted valium.

According to the psychologist, Couch’s condition is caused by a child’s sense of entitlement that make them irresponsible because parents, usually wealthy ones, fail to set appropriate boundaries. Miller told the story of Couch’s dysfunctional life with neglectful, divorced parents who failed to discipline him for driving when he was 13 or being found two years later in a pickup with a naked unconscious 14-year-old girl. “This kid has been in a system that’s sick,” Miller said. “If he goes to jail, that’s just another sick system.”

Fortunately for Couch,  Judge Jean Boyd understood the terrifying disorder and gave Couch ten years of probation for the deaths although prosecutors asked for the maximum 20-year prison sentence. The parents are sending their son to a rehab facility in California that costs $450,000 a year. During his year there, he’ll participate in horseback riding, yoga, and art therapy. Miller’s justification for the ten years of probation was that Couch always got everything he wanted. Miller has succeeded in reinforcing Couch’s “anything-I-want” lifestyle.

The concept of affluenza is not new. Jessie O’Neill, granddaughter of a former president of General Motors, popularized the term in the late 1990s in her book, The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.  Over a decade ago, documentary filmmaker John de Graaf and Duke Economics Professor Thomas Naylor explain in Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, “It’s as if we Americans, despite our intentions, suffer from some kind of Willpower Deficiency Syndrome, a breakdown in affluenza immunity.” But only Miller seems to be exonerating Couch’s crime because of the disorder.

Last year, Judge Boyd sentenced a 14-year-old black male to ten years in juvenile detention after he punched a man who died after fallingl and hitting his head on the pavement. It’s obvious that this teenager didn’t suffer from affluenza. According to the judge, he needed punishment and personal responsibility for his action. He also didn’t have the money for an expensive attorney.

Both the teenagers pled guilty to their acts; they just went in different directions. One of them is white, and the other black. Nationwide, blacks represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 44 percent of detained youth, 46 percent of youth judicially waived to criminal court, and 58 percent of youth in state prisons. Minorities receive harsher treatment in the juvenile justice system from arrest and detention through adjudication and incarceration even if they allegedly committed the same crime as white youth.

For all youth, however, the increasing prevalence of privatized prisons means greater overcrowding and violence toward the incarcerated. Putting delinquent youth together makes them more deviant and more of a threat to themselves and others in a situation called “peer delinquency training.” At the same time, being in prison aggravates mental illness.

Couch may benefit from his mandated rehabilitation, but the 14-year-old black teenager sentenced to ten years won’t have any of this benefit. Like other kids in prison, he will face greater risk of self-injury and suicide—two to four times more than the general youth population. Threats of suicide create greater danger to the youth by putting them in solitary confinement.

Even if prisoners survive, they will lack education and training when they get out. About 43 percent of them won’t return to school after they are released, and two-thirds to three-quarters of those who enroll will drop out within a year. The result is high unemployment, poor health, shorter life spans, low income, and threats to public safety. Those imprisoned for delinquency are less likely to grow out of this than those who “age out” through maturation and experience.

Prison may be one answer for violent or high-risk youth, but up to 70 percent of young people in prisons, jails and detention centers are serving time for nonviolent offenses.

Blacks constitute almost one million of the 2.3 million prisoners in the United States and are incarcerated at almost six times the rate of whites. Although the U.S. has five percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. If blacks and Hispanics were imprisoned at the same rate as whites, the country’s prison and jail population would decrease by 50 percent. Current trends, however, indicate that one in three black males born today will spend time in prison.

About 14 million whites and 2.6 million blacks report using an illicit drug. Although five times as many whites as blacks admit using drugs, ten times as many blacks are imprisoned for drug offenses as whites. Blacks represent 12 percent of the total population of drug users but 59 percent of those imprisoned for drug offenses. In addition, blacks serve almost as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites to for a violent offense (61.7 months).

In 2002, blacks constituted more than 80 percent of the people sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws and served substantially more time in prison for drug offenses than did whites. Yet more than two-thirds of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic.

A recent study by economists Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. shows that juvenile detention is a highly counterproductive. The United States spends about $6 billion on juvenile corrections each year (about $88,000 per bed), despite evidence that other strategies might be more effective. Illinois, for instance, is using electronic monitoring and well-enforced curfews as alternatives to detention for a number of nonviolent crimes. While these types of alternative punishments can often do just as much to deter crime, they don’t do nearly as much long-term damage to the kids involved.

Eleven states passed laws that keep most young offenders out of adult jails and prisons, and eight states passed laws that alter mandatory minimum sentencing for young offenders charged as adults. Laws in four other states enabled juvenile courts to take cases in which juveniles would automatically been tried as adults.  Twelve other states have made it more likely that juveniles won’t be transferred into the adult system. 

29juvenile-graphic-popup

In the last few decades, the number of girls confined to youth prisons has been rising, and many of them are subjected to sexual assault from guards and other prisoners. The number of women in prison, disproportionately women of color, is increasing at nearly double the rate for men. Again they face gendered violence.

The good news is that youth incarceration is declining—41 percent from its peak in 1995. In 2010, 70,792 young people were behind bars, compared to 107,637 fifteen years earlier. The sharpest decline came in the last five years. The bad news is that the decline is mostly with white youth. That’s affluenza.

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