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“Ceding To The Language Of Reform”: The Senate’s Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Bill Only Tackles Half The Problem

Determination to “do something” about the issue of mass incarceration has, at last, moved from the academic and activist worlds into the halls of Congress: At the beginning of October, a bipartisan coalition of Senators, including Chuck Grassley, Dick Durbin, Cory Booker, John Cornyn, and Tim Scott, unveiled a criminal-justice-reform plan. Whether that “something” they’re doing is commensurate to the scale of the problem, though, depends on the terms of the debate.

So far, the growing cost of imprisonment and the injustice of long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders have been the centerpieces of conversations about reform. But if that is all the criminal-justice reformers focus on, the “something” that gets done about the United States’ prison problem will fail to address the root causes of the explosion in the incarcerated population that has occurred over the past 40 years.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, as it is currently known, reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders, replaces life sentences for “three strikes” violations with 25 years, provides judges more discretion in sentencing low-level drug offenders, mostly ends solitary confinement for juveniles, and funds reentry programs, among other reforms. The bill is expected to pass in the Senate, be supported in the House (which introduced its own reform bill earlier this year), and ultimately be signed into law by President Obama.

In the immediate future, it will mean shorter sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison; when applied retroactively, it will lead to the release of others. The prison population will shrink slightly, and the federal government will save a bit of money. But the United States will remain free to continue locking away millions of people.

Many reform advocates have praised the Senate proposal, and understandably so. Organizing around prisons and incarcerated people—those written off as the dregs of society—is tough, and any win is a welcome one, particularly one that will directly benefit people currently serving unjust sentences. “I spent 12 years behind bars because of mandatory minimum sentences in New York,” Tony Papa of Drug Policy Alliance said in a statement, “and I’ve been fighting to end them since my release in 1996. I’m proud to say DPA worked with members of Congress to reach this…historic deal. It’s a great step in the right direction.”

“But,” he added, “we must remember it is just a step.” These changes only affect federal sentencing guidelines and don’t end mandatory minimums (in fact, the bill imposes new minimums, on certain crimes related to domestic violence and gun possession or sale linked to terrorist activity). Despite such moderate reforms, it is being hailed as “historic,” “major,” and a “game changer.” Why? Because a true agenda for change has been ceded to the language of reform. The debate started and has effectively ended without considering the injustice of the very existence of prisons. We never considered abolition.

In a reply to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover story “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” political scientist Marie Gottschalk calls for a “third Reconstruction.” She argues that any plan to reduce the prison population cannot focus only on those already incarcerated, but must include a massive investment program to ameliorate the conditions that produce the violence that leads to arrest and imprisonment. “If the US is serious about reducing high levels of concentrated violence,” Gottschalk writes, “then addressing the country’s high levels of inequality and concentrated poverty should become a top priority, not a public-policy afterthought.”

Gottschalk is using language that will be familiar to longtime Nation readers. It was at the onset of Bill Clinton’s presidency that historian Eric Foner made the case in these pages for a “third Reconstruction” to repair the damage of done during the Reagan/Bush era. The Reconstruction, of course, is the period after the end of the Civil War, when federal investment and military protection made it possible for the formerly enslaved to relocate, vote, run for office, start their own businesses, and begin the building of thriving communities. The second Reconstruction is considered to be the fruit of the civil-rights movement, which ended legalized segregation, implemented federal protections to ensure the right to vote, and led to the passage of the Fair Housing Act. Gottschalk sees room to invest in the sort of programs that would drastically reduce the crimes used as a pretext for mass incarceration. To her, the “only legitimate long-term solution to the crime crisis is another Reconstruction.”

But the language of “reconstruction” can’t be employed without considering what preceded it—abolition. We abolished the institution of slavery. We abolished legalized segregation. If we want a third Reconstruction to take place, the abolition of prisons should be on the table.

Abolition makes sense, though, only if we see prisons as a site of injustice in and of themselves. And they are—not only because of the violence of rape and murder that exists within prison walls, the psychological damage, the lack of educational opportunities, and the denial of due process that locks up innocent people. Prison is the means by which we tell ourselves we are dealing with our societal ills, but only creating more. Prison makes us lazy thinkers, hungry for revenge instead of justice. Prison is a violent representation of our failure to fight inequality at all levels. In abolishing prison, we force ourselves to answer the difficult question: How do we provide safety and security for all people?

Abolition will not win right now. But an abolitionist framework for crafting reforms would lead to more substantial changes in the US prison system. An abolitionist framework makes us consider not only reducing mandatory minimums but eliminating them altogether. An abolitionist framework would call for us to decriminalize possession and sale of drugs. Abolition would end the death penalty and life sentences, and push the maximum number of years that can be served for any offense down to ten years, at most.

With these reforms in place, we as a society would have a huge incentive to rehabilitate those in prison, and we would ensure the incarcerated are capable of socialization when they are released. And without being able to depend on prison as a site of retribution, we would have to find new ways to address things like gender-based violence, sexual assault, and domestic violence. And we could then start making the kinds of investments in alleviating poverty that Gottschalk calls for.

But we can’t do that so long as prison exists as a fail-safe. Abolition may not win today, but neither did it win when it was first introduced as solution for slavery or segregation. So long as we allow the terms of the debate to be shaped by what is politically possible, we’ll only ever be taking tiny steps and calling them major.

 

By: Mychal Denzel Smith, The Nation, October 14, 2015

October 18, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Criminal Justice System, Mass Incarceration | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Taking Stock Of The Global Dysfunction On The Right”: Raising The Debt Ceiling Won’t Prove House Republicans Are Sane

After House Speaker John Boehner announced his decision to resign at the end of October, and then more urgently when the Treasury Department alerted Congress that the deadline to increase the statutory debt limit had advanced to the beginning of November, a sense of dread momentarily overwhelmed official Washington.

Budget experts, economists, and anyone with a political memory going back at least four years were abruptly consumed with the likelihood that the responsibility for increasing the debt limit would fall to an untested new speaker—and, more troublingly, a speaker whose election would require him to placate House hardliners with dangerous promises.

The solution to the dilemma was obvious at the time, and remains so: An unencumbered Boehner could place legislation to increase the debt limit on the House floor, and it would pass. But until this week it was unclear how aggressively he intended to clean house before his departure, or whether he’d leave multiple obligations to his successor.

Though the speakership crisis and the debt-limit crisis remain unresolved, the sense of alarm has drained out of the story almost as rapidly as it emerged. Cooler heads have seemingly rescued the debt limit from conservative hostage-takers. And that has created a temptation to celebrate averted catastrophe as a triumph of political reality over right-wing fanaticism.

Succumbing to that temptation would be a huge mistake. It is crucial at this point to take stock of the global dysfunction on the right, and appreciate just how badly it has imperiled our system of government.

We owe the prospect of an uneventful debt limit resolution to a deus ex machina. Boehner’s heir presumptive, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, abandoned the race for speaker to the tune of Yakety Sax, denuding the House Benghazi Committee along the way and compelling Boehner to consider increasing the debt limit—either without precondition, or as part of a genuinely bipartisan agreement—before he leaves Congress.

Despite rumblings from the other chamber, this should go down fairly smoothly in the Senate. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s chief deputy, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, said in a recent CNN interview that he’s “ready to raise the debt limit ‘until 2017’ in order to get the matter off the table during an election year. McConnell, sources say, feels the same way, and the two sides are discussing the possibility of raising the debt limit until March 2017, just two months after a new president and Congress are sworn in.” Crisis deferred.

Debt-ceiling dramas like this aren’t borne of necessity. They’re concocted to appease reactionaries in the House. In this way, they’re an artifact of the Tea Party insurgency five years ago, and the untenable promises GOP leaders made to conservatives after President Obama was first elected. The legislative landscape is littered with such artifacts—past hostage crises, consensus immigration legislation, even the Benghazi committee itself—and it’s our good fortune that several of them are now at the forefront of U.S. politics simultaneously.

The fact that Republicans revealed the Benghazi Committee to be an elaborate farce, just in time for Hillary Clinton to testify before it, and that the’re likely to extend the Treasury Department’s borrowing authority without incident, can both be construed as side-effects of overreach—a natural political check on extremism that prevents the legislature from becoming completely weaponized. “Whether or not Boehner actually ends up sparing us the needless drama of a protracted confrontation,” writes Greg Sargent at The Washington Post, “the fact that he’s looking to resolve this without one itself confirms how this will ultimately end, no matter what has to happen along the way. And there’s no need for anyone to pretend otherwise.” 

There’s something comforting about that interpretation, and at a general level, it’s basically correct. But it doesn’t account for the enormous role coincidence played in saving the country from another near-catastrophe, or outright default, in this particular instance.

It would thus behoove us to be mindful of how badly things could have gone if events had transpired slightly differently—if the debt limit deadline hadn’t budged, if McCarthy had succeeded Boehner, by promising confrontation with the White House—before moving on to the next big story. Republican dysfunction has never caused the U.S. to default, but it does create a much higher-risk environment. One plausible remedy lies in the hope that the confluence of events—the speakership crisis, the debt-limit drama, the Benghazi admissions, the Republican primary meltdown—will, in James Fallows’ words, eliminate “the discomfort of reporters, old and young alike, with recognizing that the United States doesn’t currently have two structurally similar political parties approaching issues on roughly comparable terms [but] one historically familiar-looking party, and another converting itself into something else.”

In an interview with Bloomberg View, the political scientist Thomas Mann—who, along with his coauthor Norm Ornstein, has been at pains for years to awaken the press to the reality of modern American politics—explained that “the solution … must focus on the obvious but seldom acknowledged asymmetry between the parties.”

Under quieter circumstances, that would be a pipe dream. Under the extreme circumstances of the moment, it’s a little more plausible. First, though, everyone must resist the temptation to disaggregate these stories and chalk them up individually to dramatic, but ultimately normal, politics.

 

By: Brian Beutler, Senior Editor at The New Republic, October 16, 2015

October 18, 2015 Posted by | Debt Ceiling, House Freedom Caucus, House Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Obstruction And Destruction”: Republicans Will Be Destroyed If The Far Right Keeps Clinging To Its Unachievable Agenda

While Washington waits to see who the next speaker of the House of Representatives will be, the far right seems to be doing everything in its power to destroy the Republican Party.

When current Speaker John Boehner announced at the end of September that he would retire, he said that he did so because the controversy surrounding his leadership wasn’t good for his party. Other Republican leaders called on House Republicans to work on “healing and unifying” in the wake of the leadership upset. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening, and the badly needed party unity looks like it may be an elusive goal.

Instead of working with party stalwarts to find common ground, the far right continues to campaign against candidates for speaker they consider to be too “establishment.” The New York Times reported that their latest target is Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Boehner’s current draft pick to run for the House’s top spot. Ryan hasn’t even decided if he will enter the race yet, but is already being criticized for being “too liberal.” Ryan’s positions on immigration and his past work to find consensus on fiscal issues seem to be the cause for the ire against him.

The criticism is misplaced and calls into question the intentions of those who are lobbing it. Ryan has long been one of the most conservative members of the House. Additionally, as the vice presidential nominee in 2012, he was standard bearer for his party. To categorize Ryan as “too liberal” for his party’s conservative base is a bridge too far.

As Rep Tom Cole, R-Okla., told the Times, “Anyone who attacks Paul Ryan as being insufficiently conservative is either woefully misinformed or maliciously destructive. Paul Ryan has played a major role in advancing the conservative cause and creating the Republican House majority. His critics are not true conservatives. They are radical populists who neither understand nor accept the institutions, procedures and traditions that are the basis of constitutional governance.”

It would appear that the goals of the far right are not governance, but rather obstruction and disruption. Without fail, it has consistently pursued policy goals for which there is no likelihood of consensus and has viewed any type of compromise as a defeat and a betrayal of conservative causes. This stance is not realistic in a democratic government, nor is it responsible. The far right forgets that the foundation of democracy is based on compromise and that the principal job of a member of Congress is to participate in activities that keep the government operational. Threatening government shutdowns and turning the House into a chaotic mess because the most conservative members don’t get their way is an abdication of this basic duty.

That’s bad for the American people who elected them, but even worse for the Republican majority that’s trying to govern them. The far right’s obstructionist activities have made their party look divided and ineffective. It’s possible that their interference with the speaker’s race could leave the party in an even more vulnerable position without an effective leader. If the party can’t “heal and unify,” as its current leaders have suggested it should, how can it move forward?

Politico reported that Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., said the far-right movement isn’t about pushing conservative ideals, but rather about changing the way the House works. If that’s truly the case, Ryan’s idealism shouldn’t matter. In reality, it seems the far right is more interested in pursuing its unachievable policy agenda at any cost. And while that may seem like good politics right now, it may ultimately be the party’s undoing.

 

By: Cary Gibson, Thomas Jefferson Street Blog, U. S. News and World Report, October 16, 2015

October 18, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, House Republicans, Paul Ryan, Speaker of The House of Representatives | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Official Reports Usually Side With Police Officers”: Sorry, But It’s Going To Take A Hell Of A Lot More Than An “Official Report”

One day in April of 1880, a cadet named Johnson Whittaker was found unconscious in his room at West Point.

Whittaker, who was African American, had been gagged and beaten, tied to his bed and slashed on the face and hands. He said three white cadets had assaulted him. West Point investigated. Its official conclusion was that Whittaker did these things to himself.

He didn’t, should that need saying, but I offer the story by way of framing a reply to some readers. They wanted my response to news that outside investigators have concluded a Cleveland police officer acted responsibly last year when he shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black kid who had been playing with a toy gun. Specifically, the local DA released two separate reports Saturday from two experts on police use of force. Both said Officer Timothy Loehmann’s decision to open fire on the boy was reasonable.

As one reader put it: “What say you???”

I say a few things, actually. In the first place, I say this is not an exoneration. That question is still up to the grand jury, though it’s fair to suspect these reports might be a means of preparing the ground for a similar finding from that panel.

In the second place, I say these reports sought to answer a relatively narrow question: Was Loehmann justified in shooting once the police car had skidded to a stop within a few feet of the boy? They left aside the larger question of the tactical wisdom of pulling up so close to someone you believed to be armed and dangerous in the first place.

And in the third place, I say this:

Forgive me if I am not impressed by an official report. The experience of being African American has taught me to be skeptical of official reports. As an official matter, after all, Johnson Whittaker beat, bound, gagged and slashed himself. As an official matter, no one knows who lynched thousands of black men and women in the Jim Crow era, even though the perpetrators took pictures with their handiwork. As an official matter, the officers who nearly killed Rodney King while he crawled on the ground committed no crime. As an official matter, George Zimmerman is innocent of murder. For that matter, O.J. Simpson is, too.

I am all too aware of the moral and cognitive trapdoor you dance upon when you give yourself permission to pick and choose which “official” findings to believe. And yes, you’re right: I’d be much less skeptical of officialdom had these reports condemned Officer Loehmann.

What can I say? A lifetime of color-coded, thumb-on-the-scale American “justice” has left me little option but to sift and fend for myself where “official” findings are concerned. Indeed, the only reason I was willing to give credence to a report exonerating Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown is that it came from Eric Holder’s Justice Department, i.e., a Justice Department that gave at least the impression of caring about the civil rights of black people.

Sadly, most prosecutors don’t give that impression. And that failure colors these findings irrevocably.

Last November, two police officers responded to a call of someone brandishing a gun in a park. Rather than position themselves at a safe distance and try to establish contact, as would have seemed prudent, they screeched onto the scene like Batman and came out shooting. Tamir Rice, a boy who had been playing with a toy firearm, lay dying for four long minutes without either officer offering first aid. When his 14-year-old sister ran up and tried to help her little brother, they shoved her down and handcuffed her.

And I’m supposed to believe they acted reasonably because an official report says they did?

Sorry, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than that.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, October 14, 2015

October 18, 2015 Posted by | Police Brutality, Police Shootings, Tamir Rice | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Republicans Punish Their Own For Speaking The Truth”: Sometimes, The Biggest Sin You Can Commit In D.C. Is To Tell The Truth

“A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” — journalist Michael Kinsley

So another Republican congressman has come forward to admit that his party’s Benghazi obsession is little more than an undisguised effort to damage the presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner.

In a radio interview on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) defended his colleague, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who had acknowledged that obvious truth as well.

“Sometimes the biggest sin you can commit in D.C. is to tell the truth. This may not be politically correct, but I think that there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people and an individual: Hillary Clinton,” said Hanna.

Well, of course. Anyone who has been paying the slightest attention already knows that the unending series of Benghazi “investigations” began as a way to embarrass the administration of President Barack Obama, including his then-secretary of state. When Clinton announced her presidential campaign, the investigations began to center on her (and are now more focused on her use of a private email server).

If you only dimly recall the origin of the GOP battle cry “Remember Benghazi!” it started with a tragedy. On Sept. 11, 2012, Christopher Stevens, then U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans were killed in separate assaults by Islamic jihadists on U.S. installations in Benghazi, Libya. Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador killed in the line of duty since 1979.

The incident deserved a thorough probe to see whether there was anything that could have been done to prevent the deaths of diplomatic personnel in the future: Was security too lax? Intelligence ignored? The area too dangerous for diplomats?

But in the days after the deaths, it became clear that leading Republicans were much more interested in scoring their own attacks on Democratic targets than investigating the “Battle of Benghazi,” as it has been called. For one thing, they focused on such superficial and unimportant details as whether Susan Rice, then the president’s national security adviser, had clearly described the assault as “terrorism” or merely extremism. It’s not at all clear what difference that makes, but that line of attack derailed any shot she had at succeeding Clinton as secretary of state.

With that, Republicans were emboldened. And they haven’t given up their efforts to sink some notable Democrat with even a tenuous link to Libya and its national security implications.

They’ve not had any luck so far. After seven congressional and two executive-branch investigations, there has been no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, malfeasance or cover-up. The last was an exhaustive probe conducted by the GOP-led House Intelligence Committee; it found no evidence that either the U.S. military or the CIA had acted improperly. There was no delay in sending a military rescue team, as many conservatives have insisted.

So there was no genuine surprise at what McCarthy told Fox News in a September interview:

“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping,” McCarthy told Sean Hannity.

Still, he paid dearly for the slip. Criticized by Republican leaders for dropping the gauzy veil over their nakedly partisan smear campaign, he was forced to abandon his plan to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the house.

McCarthy was supposed to keep up the pretense that the House Select Committee on Benghazi is conducting a high-minded probe free of partisan tilt. And that pretense continues. Clinton will appear before the committee later this month.

If there is any better example of the excessive and stultifying partisanship that has laid waste to Washington, it’s hard to know what that may be. After all, it can hardly be considered shocking that an American diplomat was killed in a dangerous country full of Islamic militants. Tragic, gut-wrenching, awful, yes. Shocking, no.

Still, the GOP’s listing and rudderless Benghazi ship — white whale on the horizon — sails on.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, October 17, 2015

October 18, 2015 Posted by | Benghazi, House Intelligence Committee, House Select Committee on Benghazi | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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