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“Shaping The National Conversation”: President Obama Sends A Signal To Governors On Commutations

Last Friday I noted that President Obama had commuted the sentences of 95 federal prisoners – mostly non-violent drug offenders. It turns out that “mostly” was accurate because two of them didn’t fit that description.

Carolyn Yvonne Butler of Texas, convicted of three counts of armed bank robbery and using a firearm during a violent crime, and George Andre Axam of Georgia, convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon.

Activists within the criminal justice reform movement noticed and weighed in.

“It’s a good message to send to governors across the country, given that they have similar commutation and pardon powers that could be exercised this way,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, told TakePart.

The reason Mauer says that is because at some point, in order to effectively deal with mass incarceration, we’re going to have to deal with “violent offenders.” And that is primarily an issue for the states, where their prison population is broken down like this:

Consider the nation’s largest incarcerated population, the 1,315,000 held in state prisons. Only 4 percent are there for drug possession. An additional 12 percent are incarcerated for drug sales, manufacturing, or trafficking. Eleven percent are there for public order offenses such as prostitution or drunk driving, and 19 percent for property crimes such as fraud and car theft, including some property crimes that many consider serious or violent, such as home invasion. That leaves a full 54 percent of state prisoners who are incarcerated for violent crimes, including murder, kidnapping, manslaughter, rape, sexual assault, and armed robbery.

The federal government (and the President) are somewhat limited in what they can do to address the problem of mass incarceration. That is because only 13% of those incarcerated are in federal prisons – 48% of those are drug offenders. Between the President’s Clemency Initiative and the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, that number will be dramatically reduced in the coming year. But as the numbers above demonstrate, non-violent drug offenders are a small part of the enormous state prison population.

John Pfaff, professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, described President Obama’s commutations of the sentences of Butler and Axam this way:

“The most powerful thing Obama can do is shape the national conversation,” he said. “There’s certainly no downside to Obama having done this, but more governors have to have the courage to come out and actually start commuting violent offenders’ sentences.”

In other words, President Obama has opened the door for a conversation about the much tougher issues involved in ending mass incarceration. Time for governors to step up.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, December 23, 2015

December 26, 2015 Posted by | Commutations, Criminal Justice System, Governors, Mass Incarceration | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In American Politics, Business Interests Come First”: Rubio And Cruz Won’t Be Able To Reverse U.S. Overture To Cuba

Pity Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

The two Cuban-American senators are relatively young, in their mid-40s. And their political rise coincides with a change in U.S.-Cuban relations that neither particularly welcomes.

Cruz and Rubio will likely be in office when full trade relations with Cuba are finally restored. Though both are vying for the Republican presidential nomination, it’s unlikely that either will be in the White House when that evolution occurs. That’s just as well, as both have taken the firmly anti-engagement posture of their Republican elders.

Yet the winds of U.S. commerce are blowing strong against the famous seawall protecting Havana, the Malecón. And these are strong gusts, able to topple the Cold War-era groundings of Rubio and Cruz.

The coming year will be crucial.

January 1 will mark the 57th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Fulgencio Batista. A year ago, President Barack Obama’s announcement to press for normalized relations kicked off a flurry of activity. Much of it was organizing by business interests with strong Republican ties, eager for Cuban markets.

The U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, a group of corporations and trade groups, officially stepped forward to press for lifting the embargo in the month after Obama’s announcement. A bipartisan committee was organized in the House to look at normalizing relations. In May, Cuba was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. In August, in another milestone, the U.S. Embassy was ceremonially reopened in Havana.

Governors of numerous states have sent exploratory trade delegations to Cuba, especially those eager to increase agricultural exports. The most recent trip had Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visiting in November. Cuba imports nearly 80 percent of its food.

Despite the movement, it will be impossible to fully unwind the bureaucratic stalemates between our two countries quickly.

How much can be accomplished between now and the end of Obama’s term is crucial. As with immigration reform and so many other measures, there is only so much Obama can do through executive action and policy change. Congressional cooperation will be necessary to lift the embargo and to manage the details of banking and a related thorny issue: the nearly $8 billion in claims (including interest) of U.S. corporations and citizens whose assets and property were seized by Castro after the revolution. Those losses were a key reason for the embargo in the first place.

In early December, the first talks were held in Havana by State Department officials to settle the claims. Early reporting indicated they didn’t get very far. Some experts have speculated that the Castro regime threw down its’ own counterclaim, asking for reparations for the economic costs of the trade embargo, which Cuba has put at more than $100 billion.

In another year, the U.S. will have a new president and it is unlikely to be one as headstrong as Obama has been about opening to Cuba, even if it is Hillary Clinton.

Rubio, Cruz and other Republicans can be counted on to stall the progress that Obama has made. But they won’t completely stop it.

The crux of their opposition is dismal human rights record of Fidel and Raul Castro. Rubio and Cruz don’t sidestep the jailing of dissidents and other human rights abuses as so many Americans, particularly business interests, conveniently do. Yet they differ from many of their middle-aged Cuban-American contemporaries, who increasingly support lifting the embargo.

The two senators have come of political age in a fast-changing era for Cuba-U.S. relations.

Regardless of who prevails in the GOP presidential nomination, Cuba is no longer a geopolitical threat. And in American politics, the interests of business come first.

 

By: Mary Sanchez, Opinion-Page Columnist for The Kansas City Star; The National Memo, December 23, 2015

December 26, 2015 Posted by | Businesses, Cuba, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Exact Opposite Of Reality”: Rubio’s Principal Talking Point Starts To Crumble

One of the more dramatic flaws in Marco Rubio’s presidential candidacy is a brutal contradiction: he’s a career politician, winning six elections before his 41st birthday, with no real accomplishments to his name.

In the enormous Republican field, voters can choose between established, experienced candidates who’ve done things in public office (Kasich, Bush) or insurgent outsiders with non-governmental records (Trump, Carson), but Rubio is burdened with the worst of both worlds, winning several elections without having done much in the way of meaningful work.

It’s a point about which the Florida senator appears increasingly sensitive. In fact, in October, Rubio tried to take credit for others’ work during his tenure in the state legislature. This week, Rubio’s begun telling voters that he actually has a major federal accomplishment – he helped undermine the American health care system – and his allied super PAC is pushing the line in a commercial:

“On Obamacare, some Republicans gave up. Some talked tough but got nowhere. For all the Republican talk about dismantling the Affordable Care Act, one Republican hopeful has actually done something.”

For some GOP voters and much of the media, this seems compelling – Rubio hasn’t just spun his wheels for five years on Capitol Hill; when he’s bothered to show up for work, he invested real time and energy into interfering with families’ access to medical care.

There are, however, two important flaws in the pitch. The first, of course, is the fact that deliberately trying to undermine the American health care system is not an accomplishment upon which to build a presidential campaign.

The second, as the Washington Post explained today, is that Rubio didn’t do what he claims to have done.

Success always has many fathers, but Rubio goes way too far in claiming credit here. He raised initial concerns about the risk-corridor provision, but the winning legislative strategy was executed by other lawmakers.

The irony is, Rubio has recently tried to take credit for others’ work as a way of differentiating himself from President Obama. “I’m not like that other one-term senator who ran for president,” the Florida Republican has effectively argued, “because I’ve gotten things done in Congress.”

It’s not just a lazy lie; it’s actually the exact opposite of reality.

As we discussed a few months ago, Obama put far more effort into his congressional career than Rubio, and as a result, he had more success. As a senator, Obama developed a reputation as a work horse, being well prepared for briefings and hearings, introducing a lot of bills, and developing an expertise on serious issues like counter-proliferation.

There’s a great story from 2005 in which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a day-long hearing on U.S. policy in Iraq, and then-Chairman Dick Lugar (R-Ill.) praised Obama for being the only other senator who was on hand for the entire thing, start to finish. As Salon’s Simon Maloy noted, “It was minor stuff, but it gave Obama a reputation as someone who was willing to do the basic work needed to get things done.”

Rubio has never developed that kind of reputation among his colleagues. On the contrary, he’s seen as a senator who misses a lot of votes, skips a lot of hearings, and fails to show up for a lot of briefings.

Eight years ago, there was a talking point that made the rounds in GOP circles when going after then-candidate Obama: he’d never run a city; he’d never run a state; and he’d never run a business. The trouble is, the exact same talking point can be applied to Rubio, and can even be made a little worse: he’s never built up a legislative record, either.

It’s not fair to say Rubio never passed a bill, but it’s awfully close. According to congress.gov, the far-right Floridian, over the course of five years, took the lead in sponsoring a measure that was signed into law. It’s called the “Girls Count Act,” and it encourages developing countries to register girls’ births. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the policy, but it was a largely symbolic measure that passed both chambers without so much as a vote.

He also helped name September as National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month.

That’s about it.

If Rubio and his allied super PAC find that embarrassing, they should probably try to change the subject – because deceptive claims and taking credit for others’ work isn’t generally a recipe for an improved presidential campaign.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 23, 2015

December 26, 2015 Posted by | Florida Legislature, Health Care, Marco Rubio | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Children Are Off Limits”: If Ted Cruz Is Going To Use His Daughters As Props, He Should Be Mocked For It

Ted Cruz, a leading presidential candidate, released a new Christmas-themed ad — a lighthearted riff on familiar themes, in which he tweaked words from a well-known holiday story to fit his campaign platform. He appeared as himself, alongside his wife and his two young daughters, who dutifully recited lines that had been scripted to further their father’s agenda.

What’s a satirist to do?

Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Ann Telnaes decided not to focus on the candidate’s message, but the manner in which it was pitched — namely, the fact that Cruz used his children as mouthpieces for his campaign.

There wasn’t any mistaking her intent, either. The headline for the cartoon, which featured Cruz’s daughters as monkeys on a leash being controlled by a Santa-clad Cruz turning an organ grinder, laid it out: “Ted Cruz Uses His Kids As Political Props.” And she explained her feelings further, in a tweet:

Ted Cruz has put his children in a political ad- don’t start screaming when editorial cartoonists draw them as well. https://t.co/7hafBacOiK

— Ann Telnaes (@AnnTelnaes) December 22, 2015

She also made her case in a note that ran alongside the cartoon in the Washington Post:

“[T]here is an unspoken rule in editorial cartooning that a politician’s children are off-limits. … But when a politician uses his children as political props, as Ted Cruz recently did in his Christmas parody video in which his eldest daughter read (with her father’s dramatic flourish) a passage of an edited Christmas classic, then I figure they are fair game.”

Yet the cartoon was pulled.

The editor who pulled it, Fred Hiatt, said he didn’t agree with Telnaes and hadn’t viewed the cartoon before it was posted. Hiatt echoed Telnaes’s original disclaimer, saying in the editor’s note that has supplanted the cartoon on the Post’s site: “It’s generally been the policy of our editorial section to leave children out of it.” However, he said that he did not agree with her that an exception to that practice was warranted in the case of Cruz and his daughters.

Jeff Danziger, a political cartoonist and acquaintance of Telnaes, sided with her. “I think she’s right,” Danziger said in an email. “If [Cruz] uses his daughters to get votes, he’s the one putting them on the stage.” (Danziger’s work appears in The National Memo.)

So assuming Cruz’s actions were deserving of editorial comment in cartoon form, would there have been a more appropriate way to go about it? Perhaps the problem was a lack of context. Readers didn’t necessarily need to be familiar with the ad that Telnaes was referencing, which had been released three days earlier, on Dec. 19, although of course that would have helped.

It’s possible there was a broader satirical target than simply Cruz and his daughters. After all, candidates’ family members have often appeared in campaign materials: Whether it’s pictures of Hillary Clinton holding her infant granddaughter, Charlotte, or the McCain, Palin, and Romney progenitors gamely posing for group photos, children and families humanize the candidates and drive home campaign messages by putting a memorable face on abstract talking points about “safety,” “family,” and “the future.”

But the degree to which Cruz has been using his children – and his dad, and his mom, and his aunt – is worth noting. Buzzfeed recently unearthed footage posted by Cruz’s campaign for Senate that was culled from 16-hour videos of him interacting with his family, but it’s clear from the videos that these aren’t surreptitiously filmed get-togethers or spontaneous hangouts. They play eerily as though Cruz had sat down with his mom and dad, prompting them to sing the praises of their wonderfully competent son.

Does anyone really think Telnaes was attacking Cruz’s children, rather than Cruz himself?

The cartoon’s depiction of the girls as monkeys was clearly an attempt to draw them in a stock role as a beggar’s pawns; it seems highly disingenuous to advance the argument that Telnaes was in any way criticizing the girls’ looks or character, which would, of course, be an ugly and reprehensible thing to do.

Telnaes criticized their father for using them in such a grossly crass way, trying to score political points by playing cute. And now, ironically — since the cartoon caricatured Cruz as a panhandler — by pulling the ad, the Washington Post has given the Texas senator a whole new excuse to ask for more money and more ammunition to use in his screeds about how the “mainstream,” “liberal” media treats him unfairly. Cruz is still grinding that organ, and getting his daughters to dance.

 

By: Stephanie Schwartz, The National Memo, December 23, 2015

December 26, 2015 Posted by | Campaign Advertising, Children, Ted Cruz | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“In The Name Of God”: If You Preach Religious Peace And Tolerance, Then Practice Them

The narrative of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s Gospel has retained its power beyond the realm of believers because it renders one of the most peaceful moments in all of scripture: a gathering of angels and shepherds celebrating the “good news” and “great joy” of the birth of a baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

Although my favorite Christmas song will always be “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” it is “Silent Night” that may be truest to the spirit of Luke’s account. There are no rumors of war, no clashing armies, only a bright and blessed calm.

This will not be the first or the last Christmas when the world mocks the day’s promise and when religion finds itself a source of violence, hatred and, among many not inclined toward either, a dangerous mutual incomprehension.

Killing in the name of God is not a new thing in history, and nothing does more to discredit faith. Believers regularly argue that religion is often invoked as a cover to justify violence carried out for reasons of politics, economics and power that have nothing to do with God. There is truth to this — and also to the idea that in the 20th century, secular forms of totalitarianism unleashed mass murder on an unprecedented scale.

Nonetheless, as Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi in Britain, argues in his remarkable book “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence,” believers must face the painful facts.

“Too often in the history of religion,” Sacks writes, “people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love and practiced cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.”

We are now focused on the thoroughly ungodly violence of the Islamic State, but Sacks is careful to document that wars of religion are not unique to Islam. He believes that to persuade religious people of the Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — arguments against religious violence must be rooted in theology, not in secular ideas alone. These have to do with the nature of God. “When religion turns men into murderers,” he insists, “God weeps.”

Sacks argues for a separation of religion from power because religion and politics “are inherently different activities.” This is tricky, since many of the genuinely ethical norms that religious people bring to public life are rooted in their faith. Nonetheless, he is surely right that religion “is at its best when it relies on the strength of argument and example. It is at its worst when it seeks to impose truth by force.”

And the strength of example must mean that those who preach religious peace and toleration should practice them. This is why the rank prejudice being shown against Muslims, usually for political reasons, is so destructive, as Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, argued in a powerful column this month in his diocesan newspaper.

“One of the most pernicious effects of terrorism is that it can instill prejudices and group hatred in people’s hearts and minds,” O’Malley wrote. “All of us are horrified by the evil perpetrated by radical terrorists, but we must not let their inhumanity rob us of our humanity.”

He also issued a warning that could usefully be repeated week after week during next year’s presidential campaign: “Fear can cause us to do terrible and stupid things.”

And there is an important lesson in the Christmas story that, God willing, will be heard from many pulpits. “As we mull over the debate about refugees, let us remember the doors that were closed in the face of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem,” O’Malley said. “We must ask our leaders to be vigilant and protect our citizens, but at the same time we cannot turn our back on so many innocent people who are hungry, homeless, and without a country.”

Muslims are constantly called upon to condemn violence. One who has done so consistently is Eboo Patel, an American whose argument in his book “Acts of Faith” parallels the lessons from Rabbi Sacks and Cardinal O’Malley.

“To see the other side, to defend another people, not despite your tradition but because of it, is the heart of pluralism,” Patel writes. “We have to save each other. It’s the only way to save ourselves.”

This idea is worthy of the good news in Luke where an angel tells us: “Do not be afraid.”

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, December 23, 2015

December 26, 2015 Posted by | Faith, God, Religion | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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