The ACLU's new report, A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses, points to 3,278 people sentenced to life imprisonment for without parole for nonviolent offenses. And you need to read the whole thing.
A few victims of mandatory-minimum laws:
- Stephanie Yvette George, who was sentenced to life imprisonment at 23 because her boyfriend hid drugs in her attic.
- Clarence Aaron, sentenced to life at 23 for being present at a drug sale. He did not buy, sell, or manufacture the drugs, and both the buyer and seller have been released from prison after serving their sentences.
- Sharanda Purlette Jones, a single mother sentenced to life at 30 for asking a friend if he knew where drugs could be purchased.
79% of the offenders were sentenced for "drug-related" crimes. These crimes do not necessarily involve the sale, purchase, or manufacture of drugs.
The U.S. prison industry is already the largest in human history. As private prisons continue to lobby lawmakers for new contracts with higher minimum occupancy quotas, stories like these will become increasingly common.
This doesn't seem to bother us, as a country. Should it?
Related: Timeline of the War on Drugs
[O]n the whole, Tea Party members are not libertarians ... About one-quarter (26 percent) of Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement are libertarians. Twice as many Americans who identify with the Tea Party (52 percent) say they are a part of the religious right or conservative Christian movement.
The Tea Party is undeniably a state's rights movement, and it's a small-government movement in the sense that it supports lower taxes, but it has no serious underlying commitment to libertarian social policy. In fact, given the 2:1 ratio of Religious Right adherents to libertarians, it's a pretty safe bet that the Tea Party is against libertarian social policy.
What does this mean, in practice? Well, it means that I need to revise my understanding of what the Tea Party is. While I'd long suspected that it was a Republican anti-Obama movement, I had assumed the Ron Paul constituency held it together--and since Ron Paul was the Libertarian Party's 1988 presidential nominee, it would stand to reason that most Tea Party adherents would also identify as libertarians. That no longer appears to be the case. The Tea Party is more socially conservative than socially libertarian. It is, in other words, more Michele Bachmann's movement than Ron Paul's.
Related: What is a Libertarian?
Whether her office meant to throw the case, as medical examiner Shiping Bao alleges in his lawsuit, is a separate question--I'd have to be a mind-reader to know for sure--but it's clear that, at minimum, they were unmotivated. And that should come as no surprise; Corey is very active in the racially charged world of Florida Republican politics, and convicting Zimmerman would have effectively destroyed her clout in those circles, if not her career (she's up for reelection in 2016).
But there are some people she does feel comfortable throwing the book at--such as a young black mother named Marissa Alexander, who was initially sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot to ward off an abusive spouse. Last week, an appeals court gave her a new trial after learning that the trial judge had instructed the jury to either convict her or prove her innocence on grounds of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt, which is not generally how criminal prosecutions are supposed to work. The trial judge's error isn't strictly the prosecutor's fault, but they used the same "beyond a reasonable doubt" line in the closing argument, which suggests that both the prosecutor's office and trial judge were comfortable misrepresenting the content of Florida's self-defense statute to jurors (and, for reasons that are not immediately clear to me, misrepresented it in exactly the same way).
The U.S. Department of Justice still needs to take a hard look at the Sanford Police Department for sweeping the Trayvon Martin shooting under the rug--but while they're in the neighborhood, an aggressive investigation into Florida's Fourth Judicial Circuit state prosecutors also seems to be in order.
If you're conservative, you're probably not pleased with his gun control initiatives or his ridiculously paternalistic ban on sugary soft drinks. And if you're progressive, you're probably not all that crazy about his defiantly racist stop-and-frisk policy or his unhinged and suppressive reaction to the Occupy movement.
There's an old saying to the effect that if both political parties are angry at you, you must be doing something right. Bloomberg disproves that adage. If this is the record of an efficient centrist, let's stick to partisan gridlock.
AMC's Breaking Bad ended its remarkable five-season run last night. Haven't gotten into it yet (I don't watch much television), but I've seen enough to know the basic premise: a mild-mannered chemistry teacher gets cancer and starts baking meth to save his family from bankruptcy (or at least that's why he tells himself he's baking meth). And as Christopher Keelty's comic strip points out, this basic premise only works in a country that treats medical care as a finite commodity rather than a human right.
But the policy implications go even deeper than that, because by the second season the cancer plotline takes a back seat to Walter White's transformation into an unscrupulous drug kingpin who betrays and kills people on a fairly casual basis. And that only works in a country where the drug trade is so completely criminalized that it creates a lawless subculture around itself, giving otherwise ordinary people reasons to feed impulses that they'd otherwise never feel particularly compelled to feed.
It's a very dark premise. And very American.
Season 17 of South Park premiered Wednesday night with "Let Go, Let Gov," which--in typical South Park style--looks at the immediate, outrageous issue of government surveillance by poking (not especially gently) at the cultural forces that have made it possible.
I've written in the past about the Republican tendency to ignore surveillance under Bush, and how this mirrors the Democratic tendency to ignore surveillance under Obama, but South Park does a good job of moving past that and getting to the root of the problem: how we feel about government surveillance depends on how much we trust the government.
The one thing the Tea Party has gotten right, in their long, strange dispute with Obama, is that the executive branch isn't to be trusted. The progressive movement understood this principle when Bush was president, but many in the party seem to have forgotten it. What we need to get at, eventually--and it's something we haven't been able to do yet in the history of this country--is correctly recognize the problems that go along with the executive branch as matters of policy, and not as issues that can be resolved by shuffling the president's party identity back and forth.
Don't "support" the executive branch; don't "oppose" the executive branch. Regulate the executive branch. That's the only productive way forward.
Lawfare's Robert Chesney does a brilliant job of extracting the specific policy points from the speech on surveillance that President Obama delivered last week. What the president suggests is promising, but a little vague:
- Unspecified reforms to Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act that would ostensibly promote "greater oversight, greater transparency and constraints on the use of this authority" ;
- The addition of a special advocate - essentially, a defense attorney - to the secret FISA courts, whose responsibility would be to argue against a specific act of surveillance ;
- The hiring of a full-time NSA civil liberties and privacy officer ;
- The appointment of a blue-ribbon panel to suggest further policy reforms and report back in 60 days.
If President Obama had done this during his first few months in office, I'd see this as a huge step towards a less problematic surveillance policy. The problem is that we're getting this during the fifth year of his administration, and many of the Bush-Obama surveillance precedents have been in place for over a decade.
Will it still help? Maybe. Depending on the specifics (the exact shape of the Section 215 reforms, the relative power of the new FISC advocate and NSA officer positions, the panel's membership and conclusions), it's easy to imagine a scenario where these reforms fix a huge chunk of the problem--and equally easy to imagine a scenario where these reforms accomplish nothing.
Congress has a very public opportunity, 12 years in the making, to finally close the Section 215 loopholes. It should take this opportunity. If leaders in both parties fail to do so, we may safely assume they are comfortable with the current level of unsupervised surveillance authority granted to the executive branch. That, for obvious reasons, would not be good news.
The New York Times published an editorial this morning that calls on the State of Texas to grant Duane Buck a new sentencing hearing. Buck was one of six defendants sentenced to death due in part to the expert witness testimony of controversial race theorist Walter Quijano, who argued that black defendants are more likely than white defendants to reoffend, and therefore automatically meet the "future dangerousness" standard required for a death sentence under Texas law. Buck, who is black, is one of six defendants originally sentenced to die based in part on Quijano's testimony; the other five have already been granted new sentencing hearings.
Quijano's views sound strange when they're stated explicitly, but the prejudices behind them aren't unusual. Juror B37 in the Zimmerman case, for example, said on CNN several weeks ago that George Zimmerman "had good in his heart" when he stepped out of his car, armed, in pursuit of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, it should be noted, never testified - Juror B37 vouched for the pure motives of a total stranger, while indicating no sympathy of any kind in the interview for Martin or his family. As was the case in the Duane Buck sentencing hearing, it's clear that race was a deciding factor - if not the deciding factor - in the deliberations.
George Zimmerman is a free man because the teenager he killed was the sort of person who would be classified, under Quijano's theory, as a potential future danger - he was young, black, and male. Walter Quijano is no longer part of our criminal justice system, and it is critical that we undo the damage he inflicted upon it, but Juror B37's testimony reminds us that he's an acute symptom of a chronic national disease - one that will remain difficult to treat, given the unwillingness of many Americans to accept the diagnosis.
Here's what the text of the Second Amendment actually says:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.There is nothing in that statute - nothing at all - that refers to the right to kill people with arms. It protects the right to keep and bear them. Period.
So if there's no Second Amendment justification for Stand Your Ground, is there a credible way to advocate it as a civil liberties issue at all? Not that I can see. Yes, the Fourth Amendment protects "the right of the people to be secure in their persons," et cetera, but that right also protects the people who would get shot.
You can argue for Stand Your Ground all you like, and clearly we need to have a national conversation about justifiable homicide statutes and why they originally included a duty to retreat, but there is no basic constitutional right to shoot people. Not under this Constitution, anyway.
It's clear that a good number of activists who were not terribly bothered by President George W. Bush's post-9/11 civil liberties abuses are less comfortable with President Barack Obama's. Most of this is simple partisanship, and I don't think partisanship is interesting enough to discuss, but I do see one factor that makes Obama's civil liberties abuses potentially more dangerous than Bush's, and that will no doubt make the next president's civil liberties abuses more dangerous than Obama's: the state of technology.
Take the anti-drone argument, for example. There's nothing we're saying about drone strikes in the Obama administration that wasn't equally true of cruise missile strikes in the Clinton and Bush administrations, but there's something about the idea of drones that's vaguely unsettling for those of us who remember The Terminator, RoboCop, and other robotics-based dystopias. The same is largely true of the recent NSA scandal. In practice, this is Spygate redux - but it's being done better, thanks to technological advances we've seen over the past six years, and that's reason enough for civil libertarians to get nervous and buy up another printing of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is all independent, of course, from the Tea Party's tendency to see Bush-era civil liberties abuses in a more sinister light when they're carried over to Obama. What I'm telling conservatives right now is the very same thing I told liberals in 2007:
...(J)ust as the solution to monarchy is representative government, not better kings, the solution to an overreaching executive is checks and balances, not just a different executive. An ideal scenario, to my vantage point, would be to revise the Constitution to permanently reduce the power of the president to a level comparable to that of a prime minister. The strong-executive model places entirely too much power in the hands of one person, and I would love to see it revised and replaced with a more parliamentary model that gives citizens and their elected representatives more control over the government's decisionmaking progress. Certainly, at the very least, the president's authority to wage war without congressional approval needs to be curtailed.
But those changes are unlikely because presidential candidates of both parties oppose them, so I'll settle for the next best thing: Not expanding the unwieldy power of the presidency even more. To that extent, I need to oppose--and we all need to oppose--the line-item veto, which gives the president unparalleled power to intervene in the legislative process, unbalancing legislative compromises and creating more unfunded mandates.
It was true of Clinton, it was true of Bush, it's true of Obama, and it will no doubt be true of his successor: the imperial presidency is a problem created by the presidency, not the person who happens to occupy that office at the time. Electing a perfect president, even if such a candidate exists, would only solve the problem for - at most - 8 years. What we really need is a longer-term, policy-focused solution.