Law

The House Takes Mass Incarceration to Task

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AP Photo I n today's Washington, the formation of a bipartisan committee and/or commission is generally reason to cringe . Today, however, Congress created a bipartisan committee that could deserve optimism. The House Committee on the Judiciary Over-Criminalization Task Force will address an extremely severe problem: mass incarceration in the United States. There is very good reason for the formation of the committee. The rates of incarceration in this country are staggering . The United States imprisons more people per capita than any country in the world—not only far more than any comparable liberal democracy, but more than the world's authoritarian regimes as well. Even worse, this mass incarceration reflects and exacerbates racial and economic inequalities. As scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Becky Pettit have shown in chilling detail, mass incarceration has taken a massive toll on racial minorities. One in every 36 Hispanic men over the age of 18—and one in 15 African-...

Schneiderman Strikes Back

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who headed a group of state attorneys general that won homeowners and former homeowners a $26 billion settlement from five mega-banks over their foreclosure abuses, announced yesterday that he’d sue two of the banks—Wells Fargo and Bank of America—for allegedly violating the terms of the settlement. The February 2012 settlement with those two banks, as well as JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC), had required the banks to adhere to a set of standards that would end the kind of abuses that had led to wholesale foreclosures of homes when they could have worked out alternative arrangements with the homeowners. Some of those standards—such as requiring the banks to notify struggling homeowners within five days that they had received the documents required to modify mortgages—sound so obvious they shouldn’t have needed to be codified, yet it was precisely such practices that the banks had repeatedly shunned. Homeowner...

You Think We Have Lots of Guns Now...

The first working gun made (almost) entirely on a 3-D printer.
There's even more exciting gun news today, coming from a small nonprofit organization called Defense Distributed . They announced that they have successfully test-fired a gun made almost entirely in a 3-D printer. The only part that wasn't 3-D printed was the firing pin. And the bullet, of course. Now previously, people had made gun components in 3-D printers, but prior tests of entire weapons had been unsuccessful. This raises some rather troubling questions, which we'll get to in a moment. But first, here's their short video, which shows the firing and construction of the gun, inexplicably interspersed with shots of World War II-era bombers: They may call this thing "The Liberator," but it's a little too impractical to be able to liberate anyone at the moment. It's probably highly inaccurate, and it holds only one bullet. But this is more a proof-of-concept than anything else, and if you want to, you can go to their website and download the plans, then print one out on your own 3-D...

Emotion and Reason in the Gun Debate

Images from the web site of Crickett Firearms, which sells guns for kids.
You may have heard the story of Caroline Sparks, the 2-year-old Kentucky girl who was killed this week when her brother, all of 5 years old himself, took the rifle he got for his birthday and shot her in the chest. I suppose we should be thankful this kind of thing doesn't happen even more often; as a Kentucky state trooper told CNN, "In this part of the country, it's not uncommon for a 5-year-old to have a gun." I'm sure that when gun-rights advocates heard the story, they said, "Oh geez, here we go again." They'd have to deal yet again with people being upset when innocents get killed with guns. They'd have to explain that as tragic as Caroline's death is, it doesn't mean that we should change the law on background checks. After all, that 5-year-old boy got his gun from his parents, not at a gun show. Whatever you think about gun advocates, could they be right on this point? Sure, it's a little rich coming from people who are constantly stoking fears of home invasions, fascist...

The Sequester v. The Sixth Amendment

Flickr/David Baron/Mark Fischer
Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court famously declared in Gideon v. Wainwright that the government was required to supply counsel to defendants who cannot afford it. The noble ideals of the Bill of Rights, Justice Hugo Black wrote in that case, "cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him." Unfortunately, as journalist Karen Houppert demonstrates in exhaustive detail in her terrific new book, Chasing Gideon , in practice the requirements of Gideon have often been flouted by governments. This week provides two excellent examples of the way in which the dysfunctions of American government have translated into inadequate legal representation for those accused of crimes. First of all, the sequester that resulted from Republican hostage-taking in 2011 is undermining both public safety and the rights of defendants. Because of the sequester, people working in the federal public defender's office in Boston will face furloughs—...

Make ‘Em Plead?

The House's “Gang of Eight” immigration compromise may require 11 million court dates.

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At a time when the backlog of cases before the courts has reached staggering proportions, Republicans on the House immigration working group have come up with a proposal to lengthen judicial waits beyond all imaginable horizons. According to a Roll Call report , the eight House members (four from each party) devising an immigration legalization bill they hope can win bipartisan support have hit upon a compromise that might make the bill more palatable to the GOP’s nattering nativists. They’d require undocumented immigrants to appear in federal court and plead guilty to breaking U.S. immigration law. The immigrants would then be sentenced to five years probation, to be followed by five more years of hanging around legally, whereupon they could apply for citizenship, which they could achieve in another three years. The waiting period, in other words, would be the same 13 years that the Senate’s own "Gang of Eight" has proposed, but with a guilty plea thrown in for good measure. I’m not...

Meet the Stalkers

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AP Photo/Fareed Khan E very day, without even knowing it, you share intimate personal details about your life with people you’ve never met. The medical symptoms you search online follow you: first to the pharmacy where you pick up a prescription, then to a database of specialists looking to add you as a patient, or to an insurance company creating a risk pool. The car you’ve researched on the Web has been broadcast to your local dealerships before you’ve even left the house. When you walk in the door, the salesman already knows which color you want—as well as your salary and driving history—and pulls the shiny new car of your dreams around front. Americans worship privacy, railing when our favorite websites alter their terms of service to collect just a bit more information about us. Yet from the moment you swipe your rewards card at CVS or update Facebook, there are companies you don’t even know exist—often referred to as “data brokers”—watching, taking notes, and connecting the dots...

Black, Brown, and Blue

AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File
AP Photo/Colleen Long W hat Jamaal Vassell describes as one of the most challenging days of his life actually began at night, in 2010. An outgoing and popular presence at his neighborhood community center, Vassell, then 17, had traveled from his home in Canarsie, Brooklyn, to neighboring Brownsville to play basketball by himself at his favorite court. After making a few shots, a few younger boys, around 14 years old, joined in. They were all playing ball together until three New York City Police Department officers stopped them. Vassell was used to it. He had already been stopped twice by NYPD officers—once after popping into a convenience store after school and another time as he walked home from a local recreation center one night. The walk from the rec center ended with the officers handing him a summons for what he calls “smoking and hanging out too late,” two activities he vehemently denies doing. Nonetheless, he was ordered to show up in court. The summons seemed like being sent...

Boston Changed Nothing

Flickr/Pete Tschudy
We've all seen how the bombing in Boston, as so often happens with events like this, brought out the best in the people who were there. But it also—not surprisingly either—brought out the worst in some other people who were back in Washington. It gave them the opportunity to let loose their most vulgar impulses, the satisfaction they get from stoking fear, and their absolute disdain for so many of the things that make America what it is, has been, and continues to be. You'll recall that after September 11, the phrase "this changes everything" was repeated thousands of times. In too many cases, what that meant was, "This gives me the opportunity to advocate changes pulled from the darkest recesses of my imagination, the things I never would have dared suggest before. This is our chance." We can toss aside those pesky constitutional amendments that protect against unreasonable search and seizure or provide for due process, because we never liked them anyway. Hell, we can even torture...

Read Him His Rights

AP Photo/vk.com
AP Photo/vk.com Dzhokhar Tsarnaev T he capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev presents an important test for federal and state authorities: Can the United States resist the temptation to violate the civil liberties of people suspected of engaging in acts of terrorism? In some important respects, we seem to have avoided the systematic civil-liberties violations of the Bush administration. But when it comes to informing Tsarnaev of his Fifth Amendment rights, Obama is buying into the myth that ordinary police process is inadequate for dealing with domestic terrorism. It is not clear what the Obama administration will do with Tsarnaev, who has not been read his Miranda rights and who is engaging only in written communication from his hospital bed. But U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz has cited a "public-safety exemption in cases of national security and potential charges involving acts of terrorism" and indicated that Tsarnaev will be interrogated for at least a 48-hour period without being informed of...

When Fear Threatens Freedom

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Throughout American history, whenever the United States has felt threatened, our response has been repression. In hindsight we come to realize that the nation was not made any safer from the loss of civil liberties. This is a crucial lesson to be remembered as the country deals with the terrible tragedy of Monday’s bombings in Boston. The impulse to take away constitutional rights to gain security must be resisted because, in reality, complying with the Constitution is not an impediment to safety. If history repeats itself, there are likely to be calls to make it easier for police to search people and their possessions without warrants or probable cause or even reasonable suspicion. Once more, there will be proposals to allow the authorities to detain individuals, even indefinitely, on suspicion of their supporting terrorism. There are sure to be calls to allow law enforcement to more easily intercept electronic communications, even of those conducted entirely within the United States...

Is the Single-Issue Gun Voter Another Myth?

Over the last year or so, I've written at more length than most readers can probably tolerate about the myth of the gun lobby's power. But there's one part of that myth that I haven't addressed too much, and it comes up today as the Manchin-Toomey background-check proposal is being voted on in the Senate (as of this writing it looks like it will be unable to overcome a Republican filibuster). This part of the myth isn't completely false, it's just dramatically overstated. As you've probably heard, one of the reasons the gun lobby is successful is that gun owners are "single-issue" voters who not only won't consider voting for anyone who isn't right on guns, they're highly energized, writing and calling their representatives all the time, while the other side is passive and disengaged, not bothering to get involved on the gun issue. That means that representatives feel intense pressure from the right and no pressure from the left, making it all the more likely that any measure to stem...

Five Lessons from the Gosnell Abortion-Clinic Controversy

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The hot conservative story of late last week, starting with a USA Today op-ed by Kristen Powers, was the failure of the mainstream media to cover the horrifying case of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia doctor accused of committing infanticide, and maiming and, in some cases, killing his patients (most of them poor women) in an unsanitary abortion clinic. Perhaps the story does deserve more coverage than it has received, but the lessons to be drawn from it are different from the conclusions conservatives are making. Here are five points currently being overlooked in the coverage of the controversy. Feminists Were on It Whether the mainstream national media has given adequate attention to the Gosnell case is a matter of judgment, although claims that it's been entirely ignored are incorrect. (Consider, for example, Sabrina Tavernise's lengthy New York Times story from 2011.) But it should be remembered who hasn't been ignoring the story: feminist writers . Many prominent feminists, for...

California Fights Back

Flickr/ Neon Tommy
Last fall, California voters were confronted with two major and hotly-contested ballot measures—Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal (Proposition 30) to raise taxes on the rich to end the state’s chronic budget shortfalls, and a conservative initiative (Proposition 32) which would have curtailed unions’ ability to spend their treasuries on political campaigns. Proposition 30 passed and Proposition 32 was soundly defeated, but they had to overcome a joint, well-funded campaign by rightwing interests to prevail. As we reported in the January-February issue of the Prospect, the anti-30, pro-32 campaign received an $11 million contribution a few weeks before the election whose source could not be traced. The money came into the campaign from an Arizona-based 501c4—a “social welfare” organization that spends its funds on political campaigns but is not required to list the source of its funding. Under public pressure and in response to a court order, the Arizona group did reveal shortly before...

Closing the Gun Show Loophole: Better Than Nothing?

Flickr/Brittany Randolph
Ah, bipartisan compromise, just what the country is yearning for. We saw some yesterday, as NRA favorite Pat Toomey and NRA favorite Joe Manchin got together to see if they could come up with a plan for universal background checks, which as everyone knows are supported by 90 percent of the public in just about every poll that's been taken on the subject. What they produced, however, wasn't anything like "universal." Is it better than nothing? Sure. Should it be celebrated? Eh. Toomey and Manchin's proposal would close the "gun-show loophole," meaning if you buy a gun at a show you'll have to submit to a background check. It also covers sales over the Internet. What it doesn't cover is private sales between one person and another. You've probably heard the figure that 40 percent of gun sales happen outside licensed dealers, and while the evidence for this figure is thin , nobody really knows if it's too high or too low. Furthermore, nobody knows what proportion of that 40 percent...

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