Why Last Night Was Not Just Huge For Pot, But The Entire Criminal Justice System | Think Progress

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Last night wasn’t a good night for Democrats. But when asked instead to vote on issues that many Democrats care about, voters backed progressive ballot initiatives around the country. This is particularly true in the area of criminal justice, which has become a rare point of bipartisanship among some Democrats and Republicans. In a spate of ballot initiatives around the country, voters sent a signal that they are ready to reform a system that has sent more people in the United States to jail than in any other country in the world.

Each of these initiatives embraces a notion known as “Smart on Crime.” The phrase is a replacement for the old adage of “tough-on-crime” and means that, rather than threatening heavy punishments for a long list of so-called crimes, jurisdictions focus instead on doing what actually, empirically, makes communities safer. In reducing or eliminating penalties for some actions that would be better addressed through public health or rehabilitative policies, jurisdictions can focus more resources on serious, violent crimes. Or, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder put it last year, “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason.”

Marijuana

Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. put pot legalization on the ballot, and all three passed it. As of last night, there are now more than double the number of jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, even as it remains federally prohibited. In Washington, D.C., where African Americans make up almost half the population, the margin of victory was staggering, with voters supporting the measure by a ratio of 7 to 3.

Alaska and Oregon were not as certain to pass the initiatives. But both passed by margins of several points ballot initiatives that don’t just legalize possession and growth of pot, but also its sale and taxation. (Washington, D.C. is not permitted to tax and regulate by ballot initiative, and lawmakers plan to follow up with a bill to achieve this).

In each of these jurisdictions, different messages dominated. In libertarian-heavy Alaska, where pot policy was already liberalized, the focus of the campaign was that marijuana is no less safe than alcohol, and those who use it shouldn’t be penalized differently. In Washington, D.C., by contrast, a significant population of very liberal gentrifiers mixed with longtime African American residents who are sick and tired of criminal justice policies that arrest African Americans for pot at eight times the rate of whites.

Majorities also voted in favor of medical marijuana. In Guam, a measure to pass medical marijuana passed early in the day. And in Florida, a medical marijuana ballot initiative that became heavily politicized with a well-funded opposition movement failed, but only because it required a 60 percent vote to amend the Constitution. Despite the initiative’s failure, a solid majority — 58 percent — voted in favor of the measure. The initiative’s loss is still a bit of a surprise, because polls have shown that support among Florida residents for the idea of medical marijuana is as high as 90 percent. In fact, lawmakers passed a much narrower medical marijuana provision last year that, remarkably, had the support of almost every state lawmaker. If their goal in passing it was to pick off support for the more expansive measure on the ballot, they succeeded.

Rounding off the evening, two cities in New Mexico — Santa Fe and Bernalillo — voted to decriminalize pot.

The statewide initiatives won’t go into effect today. There will be months of policy-making, political wrangling, and pushback from Congress. But majorities in every jurisdiction where the question was posed voted to reduce the penalties for marijuana.

Proportional Penalties

In California, voters passed an initiative that embraces that Smart on Crime notion in a more comprehensive way. Proposition 47 reduces the penalties for low-level nonviolent offenses including many drug and property crimes, on the notion that locking people up who haven’t done anything dangerous doesn’t do anybody any good. The initiative changes a number of offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, meaning the sentence for conviction is much lower, and that the impact on an individual’s criminal record won’t be as significant. Many job and voting restrictions, for example, only apply to felonies. Offenses that will be affected by the measure include drug possession offenses, as well as shoplifting, credit card fraud, and forgery.

The initiative also means that some 10,000 individuals already behind bars will be eligible for re-sentencing. This is particularly relevant for California, which has been struggling to reduce its prison population since the U.S. Supreme Court declared its prisons so overcrowded that they violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

With a passage rate of 58 percent, the initiative may serve as a model for other states. The state already decriminalized marijuana possession several years ago, and has seen arrests go down without significant adverse consequences.

Bail Reform

In New Jersey, Democrats and Republicans have joined forces over the past year to pass a package of measures that ensure those behind bars are those who pose a greater danger to society, not the ones who can’t afford to pay bail. Lawmakers took up the issue after a study found that some 40 percent of those who are jailed after they are arrested but before their trial or conviction are there simply because they were poor.

The idea behind bail is that individuals who are charged with a crime put up a bond of significant value to increase the likelihood that they will return for future court dates. But the system creates a class divide. Many are charged with bail under $2,500 — a sum that many wealthier individuals can pay, but is completely out of reach for low-income defendants. Those who end up stuck behind bars pending their trial do not have the same capacity to defend their case. They are more likely to eventually plead guilty, and many have called pretrial detention “ransom” intended to extract such guilty pleas.

Two companion bills were passed by the New Jersey legislature to make the bail system less about how much money defendants have, and more about whether they pose a danger to the public. One bill passed by the legislature took income out of the equation for less dangerous offenders by conducting risk assessments of defendants, and allow those not deemed dangerous to participate in a monitoring program until their trail, rather than to sit in jail. A second bill put Tuesday’s ballot initiative before the voters. That ballot initiative asked voters to give judges power to hold the most dangerous offenders behind bars before their trial — even if they could afford bail. By passing this measure Tuesday, the bail reform package is now fully in effect.

Gun Violence

The idea of “Smart on Crime” initiatives is to eliminate the counterproductive criminal policies and re-allocate resources toward those policies that actually reduce violent crime. To that end, some might also consider it a win that in Washington State (where pot is already legal), voters both approved a measure to close a loophole in firearms background checks, and rejected a competing ballot initiative that would have narrowed the state’s gun laws. The measure means that gun sellers and buyers can’t get around limitations on who can own a guy by selling them in private online sales or at gun shows.

Source:  Think Progress

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Shocking Facts About America’s For-Profit Prison Industry | Truthout

By Beth Buczynski

As long as their have been human societies, there have been criminals. Despite the best efforts of lawmakers and religions, humans can’t be trusted to do the right thing, even when we’re aware of the consequences. The prison system used to be a last resort, a place you sent people when other forms of punishment were ineffective. Now it’s grown into something much darker, and even less rehabilitative.

Unbeknownst to many, the prison system has become a for-profit business in which inmates are the product–a system that has shocking similarities to another human-based business from America’s past: slavery.

In late 2013, a new report from In the Public Interest (ITPI) revealed that private prison companies are striking deals with states that contain clauses guaranteeing high prison occupancy rates–sometimes 100 percent. This means that states agree to supply prison corporations with a steady flow of residents–whether or not that level of criminal activity exists. Some experts believe this relationship between government and private prison corporations encourages law enforcement agencies to use underhanded tactics–often targeting minority and underserved groups–to fill cells.

“The report, ‘Criminal: How Lockup Quotas and ‘Low-Crime Taxes’ Guarantee Profits for Private Prison Corporations,’ documents the contracts exchanged between private prison companies and state and local governments that either guarantee prison occupancy rates (essentially creating inmate lockup quotas) or force taxpayers to pay for empty beds if the prison population decreases due to lower crime rates or other factors (essentially creating low-crime taxes),” reports Salon.

As a result, there are now over 2 million people living behind bars in the United States. That’s half a million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. Many are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, like the use or possession of marijuana, and other problems that would be far better served through a rehabilitation or education program.

The worst part is that once captured by the prison industry, inmates are forced to work for pennies an hour, providing cheap labor for some of the most profitable enterprises in the world, including the U.S. Military.

According to the Left Business Observer, “the federal prison industry produces 100 percent of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98 percent of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93 percent of paints and paintbrushes; 92 percent of stove assembly; 46 percent of body armor; 36 percent of home appliances; 30 percent of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21 percent of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.”

When you can get that kind of labor for less than a dollar a day, it’s hard to see the government’s motivation for incarcerating fewer people. And it’s all done at the taxpayer’s expense.

Scroll through the following infographic below for more shocking facts about America‘s prison industry, and how much it‘s costing taxpayers like you.

PrivatePrisons

Source: Truthout

Criminal: How Lockup Quotas and “Low-Crime Taxes” Guarantee Profits for Private Prison Corporations | In the Public Interest

This report discusses the use of prison bed occupancy guarantee clauses in prison privatization contracts and explores how bed occupancy guarantees undermine criminal justice policy and democratic, accountable government. The report sheds light on the for-profit private prison industry’s reliance on high prison populations, and how these occupancy guarantee provisions directly benefit its bottom line. Also discussed are the prevalence of bed guarantee clauses, drawing on set of contracts that ITPI obtained through state open records requests.

We also address how occupancy guarantees have harmed states, focusing on the experiences of Arizona, Colorado, and Ohio — three states that have agreed to these provisions to detrimental consequences. Lastly, the report discusses our recommendation that governments can and should reject prison occupancy guarantees.

Download the full report:
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Criminal-Lockup-Quota-Infographic

Source: In the Public Interest

Islamic charity founder Pete Seda ‘vindicated’ by ruling saying feds tried to turn tax fraud into terrorism | The Oregonian

By Bryon Denson

A federal appeals court Friday overturned the 2010 criminal conviction of Pete Seda, a key figure in an Ashland charity accused of supporting terrorism by smuggling money 10 years earlier to Chechen guerrillas at war with the Russian Federation.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion accuses federal prosecutors of improperly influencing the outcome of Seda’s trial by concealing that they had paid a witness. The government also exceeded the scope of a search warrant and omitted facts that might have helped the defense, the court ruled.

“This is a tax fraud case that was transformed into a trial on terrorism,” Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote in the panel’s 2-1 opinion.

The Iranian-born Seda, whose formal name is Pirouz Sedaghaty, was charged with falsifying a 2000 tax form filed on behalf of the U.S. wing of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation Inc., a Saudi Arabian charity. The U.S. government accused the charity of sending $150,000 through Saudi Arabia to fund terrorist activities and support the Chechen mujahideen “under the guise of humanitarian aid,” McKeown wrote.

Seda’s defense team, headed by Federal Public Defender Steven T. Wax, argued that Seda’s accountant caused the discrepancy in his client’s 2001 tax form and that Seda had a long, fruitful history as a man peacefully advancing the word of Islam.

A jury in Eugene’s U.S. District Court found Seda guilty of defrauding the U.S. government by making false statements on the tax return. He was later sentenced to 33 months in prison.

Wax told The Oregonian that he and Seda had waited nervously for the 9th Circuit opinion since arguing the case before the panel last December. When he got the news, Wax phoned Seda at a Portland halfway house — where he was serving the final day of his sentence since leaving prison in May.

“Pete was quite pleased to finally have some vindication of his position,” Wax said. “He has denied his guilt from the outset of these proceedings and is quite happy that the circuit has recognized that the trial was not a fair one.”

Amanda Marshall, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, said her office is reviewing the opinion and considering its options. Those range from dismissing the case to holding a new trial to filing appeals that might take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Any decision about whether we will seek further review will have to be made in consultation with the (U.S. Department of Justice) Criminal Division and Solicitor General’s Office,” Marshall said in a prepared statement.

Government prosecutors withheld “significant impeachment evidence” by not telling the trial court that one of its key witnesses had been paid by the FBI, the appeals court found.

The panel also concluded that FBI agents, who obtained a search warrant from a U.S. magistrate for Seda’s home and the charity’s office, “went well beyond” the limitations imposed by the order when they searched Seda’s computer hard drives.

“The appeal illustrates the fine line between the government’s use of relevant evidence to document motive for a cover-up and its use of inflammatory, unrelated evidence about Osama Bin-Laden and terrorist activity that prejudices the jury,” McKeown wrote.

U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan did not properly follow the Classified Information Procedures Act as he tried the Seda case, the appellate panel found.

The law, known as CIPA, is intended to protect government secrets from disclosure at trial while ensuring that defendants are given substitute documents — typically written summaries — of classified materials. The appeals court found that the substitution approved by Hogan did not provide Seda “with substantially the same ability to make his defense as would disclosure of the specified classified information.”

Government prosecutors in Oregon have used CIPA to protect U.S. secrets in a number of national security cases. Those include the 2002 Portland Seven terrorism case, the 2009 spy case against former CIA officer Jim Nicholson and the trial of Mohamed Mohamud, the man found guilty in January of attempting to set off a bomb at Portland’s 2010 holiday tree-lighting ceremony.

The appellate ruling on CIPA won’t change the law, but it’s likely to give judges who find themselves trying national-security cases some pause, said Tung Yin, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School who has followed the Seda case.

The ruling, he said, will serve as “a reminder to pay a little more attention to the substitutions and make sure they are crafted neutrally.”

Source: The Oregonian

Crime is plunging in the rich world. To keep it down, governments should focus on prevention, not punishment | The Economist

IN THE 1990s John DiIulio, a conservative American academic, argued that a new breed of “superpredators”, “kids that have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future”, would terrorise Americans almost indefinitely. He was not alone. Experts were convinced that crime would keep rising. Law-abiding citizens would retreat to gated communities, patrolled by security guards. Politicians and police chiefs could do little except bluster and try to fiddle the statistics.

Mr DiIulio later recanted and it is clear that the pessimists were wrong. Even as he wrote, America’s crime wave was breaking. Its cities have become vastly safer, and the rest of the developed world has followed. From Japan to Estonia, property and people are now safer than at almost any time since the 1970s (see article). Confounding expectations, the recession has not interrupted the downward trend. Even as America furiously debates the shooting of Trayvon Martin (see article), new data show that the homicide rate for young Americans is at a 30-year low.

Some crimes have all but died out. Last year there were just 69 armed robberies of banks, building societies and post offices in England and Wales, compared with 500 a year in the 1990s. In 1990 some 147,000 cars were stolen in New York. Last year fewer than 10,000 were. In the Netherlands and Switzerland street dealers and hustlers have been driven out of city centers; addicts there are now elderly men, often alcoholics, living in state hostels. In countries such as Lithuania and Poland the gangsters who trafficked people and drugs in the 1990s have moved into less violent activities such as fraud.

The receding tide

Cherished social theories have been discarded. Conservatives who insisted that the decline of the traditional nuclear family and growing ethnic diversity would unleash an unstoppable crime wave have been proved wrong. Young people are increasingly likely to have been brought up by one parent and to have played a lot of computer games. Yet they are far better behaved than previous generations. Left-wingers who argued that crime could never be curbed unless inequality was reduced look just as silly.

There is no single cause of the decline; rather, several have coincided. Western societies are growing older, and most crimes are committed by young men. Policing has improved greatly in recent decades, especially in big cities such as New York and London, with forces using computers to analyse the incidence of crime; in some parts of Manhattan this helped to reduce the robbery rate by over 95%. The epidemics of crack cocaine and heroin appear to have burnt out.

The biggest factor may be simply that security measures have improved. Car immobilisers have killed joyriding; bulletproof screens, security guards and marked money have all but done for bank robbery. Alarms and DNA databases have increased the chance a burglar will be caught. At the same time, the rewards for burglary have fallen because electronic gizmos are so cheap. Even small shops now invest in CCTV cameras and security tags. Some crimes now look very risky—and that matters because, as every survey of criminals shows, the main deterrent to crime is the fear of being caught.

Loosen the cuffs

Many conservatives will think this list omits the main reason crime has declined: the far harsher prison sentences introduced on both sides of the Atlantic over the past two decades. One in every hundred American adults is now in prison. This has obviously had some effect—a young man in prison cannot steal your car—but if tough prison sentences were the cause, crime would not be falling in the Netherlands and Germany, which have reduced their prison populations. New York’s prison population has fallen by a quarter since 1999, yet its crime rate has dropped faster than that of many other cities.

Harsh punishments, and in particular long mandatory sentences for certain crimes, increasingly look counterproductive. American prisons are full of old men, many of whom are well past their criminal years, and non-violent drug users, who would be better off in treatment. In California, the pioneer of mandatory sentencing, more than a fifth of prisoners are over 50. To keep each one inside costs taxpayers $47,000 a year (about the same as a place at Stanford University). And because prison stresses punishment rather than rehabilitation, most of what remains of the crime problem is really a recidivism issue. In England and Wales, for example, the number of first-time offenders has fallen by 44% since 2007. The number with more than 15 convictions has risen.

Politicians seem to have grasped this. In America the number of new mandatory sentences enacted by Congress has fallen. Even in the Republican South, governors such as Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal have adopted policies favoring treatment over imprisonment for drug users. Britain has stopped adding to its prison population. But more could be done to support people when they come out of prison (at the moment, in Britain, they get £46) and to help addicts. In the Netherlands and Switzerland hard-drug addiction is being reduced by treatment rather than by punishment. American addicts, by contrast, often get little more than counseling.

Policing can be sharpened, too—and, in an era of austerity, will have to be. Now that officers are not rushed off their feet responding to car thefts and burglaries, they can focus on prevention. Predictive policing, which employs data to try to anticipate crime, is particularly promising. More countries could use civilian “community support officers” of the sort employed in Britain and the Netherlands, who patrol the streets, freeing up better-paid police officers to solve crimes.

Better-trained police officers could focus on new crimes. Traditional measures tend not to include financial crimes such as credit-card fraud or tax evasion. Since these are seldom properly recorded, they have not contributed to the great fall in crime. Unlike rapes and murders, they do not excite public fear. But as policing adapts to the technological age, it is as well to remember that criminals are doing so, too.

Source: The Economist

A desperate protest by prisoners at Guantánamo has shamed Barack Obama

GuantanamoHungerStrike“YOU have to hand it to some of these IRA boys,” Margaret Thatcher once remarked of the republican hunger-strikers who embarrassed her in 1981. “What a terrible waste of human life!” she said of the ten who died. Since some of the hunger-strikers at Guantánamo Bay are being force-fed through nasal tubes, Barack Obama may be spared Mrs Thatcher’s grief. But he has been shamed by their desperate gambit all the same. The protest is a reminder of one of his most glaring failures in office.

Officials count 100 hunger-strikers; lawyers for the detainees say there are 130; on any reckoning, a majority of the 166 remaining inmates are starving themselves. Through their lawyers, detainees complain of a rougher regime since the army took over guard duties from the navy last autumn. In particular they allege that their Korans were mistreated during an inspection in February, when the hunger-strike began (prison authorities vigorously deny that). A cell-block raid by guards on April 13th (provoked by the covering up of security cameras), during which some prisoners were shot with rubber pellets, hardened rather than broke the strikers.

But the underlying cause is simpler, and more personal. “The reason they’re willing to die”, says Carlos Warner, a federal defender who represents 11 of the detainees, “is President Obama.”

Mr Obama said this week that Guantánamo “hurts us in terms of our international standing.” That echoed the view he espoused when, on his second day in office in January 2009, he ordered the prison to be closed within a year. Its existence since 2002, he said, had “likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained”—an opinion eventually shared by assorted veterans of George W. Bush’s administration. And yet the only Guantánamo-related closure so far has been the shutting, in January this year, of the diplomatic office charged with resettling the inmates.

Mr Obama blames Congress—with some justification. It thwarted his original plan to transfer the detainees to a facility in Illinois. Then, either out of concern for national security, a yen to embarrass the president, or both, in clauses inserted into successive defence-spending bills Congress made it difficult for officials to transfer anyone anywhere. Difficult, but not impossible: Mr Obama can authorise transfers using a presidential waiver. He has chosen not to. (After a bomb plot with links to Yemen at the end of 2009, he also chose to halt transfers there—and most of the remaining prisoners are Yemeni.) He evidently calculated that, given the battles he is already waging with Congress, Guantánamo was one he could do without.

That stalemate has been an especial let-down for the 86 residual prisoners who, in 2010, were slated for transfer out of Guantánamo by a presidential review; some had already been designated for transfer under the previous administration. Many of these men claim to have committed no offence except being in the wrong place—Afghanistan—at the wrong time, or to have been sold to American forces for the bounties they offered. One such, and one of the hunger-strikers, is Shaker Aamer, a British resident picked up in Jalalabad in 2001 and allegedly tortured. His lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, points out that the British government is well-equipped to monitor Mr Aamer should he be repatriated.

According to the review, many of these men were low-level fighters rather than total innocents. But none has been charged with a crime—and most have been at Guantánamo for over a decade. In fact, only seven of the 779 prisoners who have passed through the camp have been convicted by its military tribunals (and two of those verdicts have been challenged). Of those still there, only three have been convicted and only six currently face trial, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11th attacks. Subject to multiple legal challenges, beset by scandals over hidden microphones and leaked defence documents, the tribunals are now regarded as a failure even by those untroubled by their dubious legal status. As Mr Obama pointed out, federal courts have proved a much more effective forum for prosecuting terrorists.

The result, at the camp, is near-total stasis. No new prisoner has arrived since 2008; none has left for over a year. Parole-style hearings planned for the group not designated for either trial or transfer have yet to begin. Prisoners have lawyers, but there is little the lawyers can do for them. This bleak situation, says Mr Stafford Smith, is worse than being on death row.

Last chance?

Beyond the feeling of personal betrayal by Mr Obama, the detainees also sense—correctly—that the attention of the foreign leaders, human-rights watchdogs and United Nations officials who once energetically protested at their predicament has wandered. The outrage that the manacled, blindfolded, jumpsuited figures first provoked has dimmed. Drone warfare has become a much bigger human-rights preoccupation. And yet, unpropitious as it might seem, the prisoners also fear that this may be their last chance to get out.

Mr Warner says that if, with the president’s views and legal background, Mr Obama “can’t get this done, I don’t know who could.” It is hard to see a future presidential candidate matching his troublesome pledge to shut the prison. And for Mr Obama as well, time is running out. Even if he chose to use his waiver powers, and leant on other governments to accept detainees, the diplomacy, including gathering the necessary assurances on security and humane treatment, would take time.

Meanwhile the Guantánamo authorities are seeking an extra $200m for refurbishments, on top of annual running costs that wildly exceed those for ordinary prisons. They are planning new medical facilities to care for elderly detainees.

This week Mr Obama vowed to re-engage with Congress. “I’m going to go back at this,” he promised. He should hurry. Once Guantánamo was a byword for an overmighty executive and the excesses of Mr Bush’s “war on terror”. Under Mr Obama it has become a victim and a symbol of the paralysing divisiveness of American politics. “It’s going to get worse,” he said this week. “It’s going to fester.”

Source: The Economist

Handcuffs Have no Place in Public Schools | Care2 Petitionsite

A student who was handcuffed to a railing for an entire day for not wearing a belt had to eat his lunch while handcuffed. Another student, 15 years old, was handcuffed to a railing for hours just for greeting her friend too loudly in the hallway.

This type of punishment is disturbing and inappropriate. Tell Jackson Public School District in Mississippi that you want it to end. »

These students are not being punished for criminal behavior, but for very minor offenses, like not wearing the right color of shoes. The punishments violate the U.S. Constitution and make the children feel like they are going to school in a prison, which ultimately will only increase their likelihood to become criminals.

A lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center is in progress.