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“Hypocrisy Watch”: When Bernie Sanders, Conventional Politician, Called For Still More Mass Incarceration

Could Bernie Sanders be starting to look ever so slightly like just another pol? Not to his besotted legions, of course. For them, nothing can tarnish the great man. But for other voters, the past week may mark a turning point in the way he’s perceived.

I have three events in mind. First was the Hillary-is-not-qualified business. Yeah, he walked it back fast, but not before he grossly mischaracterized what Clinton had said on Morning Joe and then went out and raised money off of his own mischaracterization! Far be it from me to suggest that the righteous one ever reads a poll, but I bet he does, and I bet his were showing that the controversy was killing him.

Second was the Vatican dust-up. What really happened there, who knows. But if your behavior leads two Vatican officials to start cat-scratching each other on the record, you have not won the morning. Given that he’s apparently not meeting with the Pope, I have no idea at this point why he’s even going. We all get that it’s a pander for Latino votes in New York, but why not just spend that time meeting actual Latino voters?

But third and biggest by far is Sanders’s continuing hypocrisy regarding the 1994 crime bill. Hypocrisy is a strong word. Is it fair? Well, he’s been going around for months criticizing both Clintons on the bill. But of course, as we know, he voted for it. And as we learned Sunday from Clinton surrogate John Podesta on ABC, Sanders boasted as recently as 2006 that he was tough on crime because he supported the ’94 bill.

Say what you want to say about the bill. It was really bad in many respects. It did help contribute to mass incarceration, especially of young black men. These arguments weren’t secrets at the time. Many people made them. In the House, about one-third of Democrats voted against the bill, most of them liberal or African-American (or both) critics of the bill on exactly these grounds. So Congressman Sanders was sitting on the House floor, or in the Democratic cloakroom, being exposed to these arguments, and he still voted for it.

He says it was because of the provisions that cracked down on violence against women. Fine; laudable, even. But if he gets credit for the good parts, don’t Bill and Hillary get that credit, too?

The story gets worse for Sanders. Over the weekend, an excerpt of remarks Congressman Sanders had inserted into the Congressional Record in 1995 started making the rounds. A debate was raging at the time about the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparities (black people were more often arrested on crack charges, for which the sentencing guidelines were much harsher). The U.S. Sentencing Commission had recommended to Congress that it eliminate the disparity (PDF). It meant that Congress should do so by lowering the guidelines for crack so that they’d be equal to those for powder. Most Democrats, of course, supported this change.

Sanders? Well, he wanted to eliminate the disparity—but by raising the powder guidelines to those for crack! Here are the salient sentences, from the Record of Oct. 18, 1995, tweeted over the weekend by James E. Carter IV, President Carter’s grandson:

“This Congressman thinks that drugs are a scourge on America, and I strongly believe we must fight cocaine use in any form. We should be addressing the fairness issue by raising the punishment for powder cocaine, not lowering the sentence for crack offenses. I am deeply disturbed that this was not given as an option today.”

Well, I’ll give him this much. The Sanders option would have eliminated the disparity. But it would have done so by throwing millions more people behind bars for years, ruining that many more lives, black, white, and otherwise. It’s totally at odds with Sanders’s rhetoric, which I agree with by the way, about how we need to give young people from difficult circumstances more opportunity. Bernie wanted to give young people from all circumstances less opportunity. He may never have used the word “superpredators,” but he sure seems to have believed in their existence.

Why was Sanders such a law-and-order type? It’s hard to know, since of course he never talks about it and now says just the opposite, with all that imperious moral thunder that some find bewitching and others bothersome or bewildering. But this excellent Yahoo! News piece from early February lays the record out. He even voted against a bill in 1995 that would have established separate drug courts and taken steps to demilitarize police departments, preventing them from using any money in the act in question (which failed) for the purchase of Army-style tanks or aircraft.

It’s hard to imagine that crime was raging across the state from Burlington to Brattleboro. Maybe it was, by Vermont standards. Or maybe he just believed it was. But if he did believe it, he ought to just say so and explain why.

Hillary Clinton’s record on these matters is compromised as well. But at least the Clintons acknowledge error. Bill said last summer that the crime bill made mass incarceration worse. Hillary, in her first major speech of her campaign, also last year, ducked mentioning the crime bill by name but clearly spent parts of the speech criticizing it.

The Clintons, quite imperfect the both of them, live in a world where things are complicated, history advances and changes, and you have to rethink and explain. Sanders lives in a world where no explanation is ever required of him. Clinton has a week to change that.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, April 12, 2016

April 14, 2016 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Crime Bill 1994, Hillary Clinton, Mass Incarceration | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“More Inmates Equals More Revenue”: Prison-Industrial Complex Morphs Into Treatment-Industrial Complex

Nancy Reagan’s recent death was a reminder of the shallow moralizing of the Just Say No anti-drug campaign she once championed.

Thankfully, attitudes have changed. We’re more attuned to the fact that untreated mental health issues are often a precursor to drug use. Nancy’s slogan to fight peer pressure won’t help much there.

Most people realize that the War on Drugs, begun under Nixon, has failed.

And there’s growing public awareness that we’ve let our jails and prisons become warehouses for people who need treatment — and who needed it long before they took a criminal turn.

Mandatory sentencing guidelines have been changed, and the days of presidential administrations following the whims of a drug czar are over.

Incarceration rates are dropping. To most, this is good news. But it’s not if your business model revolves around keeping people locked up.

The for-profit prison industry has kept one step ahead of the trend. They got wise quick, sensing the winds shifting away from mass incarceration and toward the need to address mental health issues within the nation’s prisons and jails.

For those familiar with the term “prison-industrial complex,” meet its offspring — the “treatment-industrial complex.”

A report released in February by Grassroots Leadership, a civil and human rights organization, rings some warning bells. The report, “Incorrect Care: A Prison Profiteer Turns Care into Confinement,” is part of a series of reports that has focused on reducing the nation’s dysfunctional criminal justice system.

This latest installment takes an in-depth look at the privatization efforts in Texas, Florida and South Carolina. In particular, it goes after the shifting business models of for-profit prison operators Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, as well as spinoff rehabilitation companies like Correct Care Solutions.

The charge is that just as prisons are often not about rehabilitation, these new for-profit treatment places are not about helping people regain their mental stability and, therefore, their release. The report also challenges the quality of care being offered, citing cases of violence and patient deaths.

One startling figure from the report: 50 percent of people in correctional facilities suffer from mental health and substance abuse disorders. This compares to estimated rates of only 1 percent to 3 percent within the U.S. population. Prisoners represent a huge market for mental health care. If the prison operator also has a side business in mental health care, a conflict of interest presents itself.

Under normal circumstances, a person can get out of prison after serving his sentence. In fact, 90 percent of people who are sentenced do just that. But inmates can be placed by a judge into a for-profit mental health program in a prison — say, under civil commitment laws now on the books in about 20 states — and be detained there past the end of the sentence. The operator has a clear incentive to keep a person there indefinitely, to increase the return on its investment.

The Grassroots Leadership report points out that these private operators offer cost savings to a state when the facility is full: Thus the cost per head goes down. Assigning inmates to these facilities can be very appealing to lawmakers trying to balance tight budgets. Potentially, it becomes even more alluring when a lobbyist with the industry is making a hefty donation to a re-election campaign.

A basic set of circumstances and decisions has set the stage in many states. Legislatures have cut public mental health budgets, resulting in understaffing and poor conditions in state-run facilities. Community-based mental health programs are also being shorted. That leads to more untreated people who act out and then find themselves in a criminal justice system.

By virtue of their mental state, many of these people are not in a position to self-advocate for better care. Locked up, they are easily forgotten. One question must continuously be asked by legislators, advocates and the taxpayers whose dollars are being spent: In a for-profit model — in which more inmates equals more revenue — what possible incentive does a rehabilitation company have to help people regain stability and rejoin society? If such an incentive doesn’t exist and outweigh the profit motive, it’s hard to see how private-sector rehab programs won’t make matters worse.

 

By: Mary Sanchez, Opinion-Page Columnist for The Kansas City Star; The National Memo, March 18, 2016

March 19, 2016 Posted by | Mass Incarceration, Mental Illness, Prison-Industrial Complex | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Death By Privatization In US Prisons”: Maximizing Profits Means Minimizing Medical Staffing And Care

More than 20,000 immigrant prisoners are serving their sentences at 11 privatized, immigrant-only contract prisons run by three companies: the Geo Group, the Corrections Corp. of America and the Management and Training Corp. Many of these prisoners are convicted only of illegal entry.

Private prisons cost less than federal prisons because they provide less. Immigrant prisoners — who are deported after serving time — don’t receive rehabilitation, education or job training, services considered essential for U.S. citizens held in government-operated prisons.

Even worse, these prisons fail to provide minimally adequate health care to inmates, leading to death for some and misery for many. Basic human rights standards require prisons to provide adequate medical care to inmates, regardless of their legal status.

Reports show a pervasive pattern of inadequate medical care at privately run immigrant prisons in the United States. A Jan. 28 report by Seth Freed Wessler, a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, analyzed medical records of 103 immigrant prisoners who died in private prisons from 1998 to 2014. It concluded that in at least 25 of those cases, subpar care “likely contributed to the premature deaths of the prisoners.”

Mexican immigrant Claudio Fagardo-Saucedo was one of the prisoners whose death was investigated by Wessler. Fagardo-Saucedo arrived at a private prison in Texas on Jan. 27, 2009, with a positive tuberculosis screen. Medical protocols call for an HIV test for anyone with a positive TB screen. But he wasn’t tested for HIV. Over the next two years, he went to the prison clinic numerous times in pain, but a doctor never saw him. Instead, the clinic’s licensed vocational nurses, who receive only one year of training, prescribed ibuprofen or Tylenol. Fagardo-Saucedo was hospitalized on New Year’s Day 2011 after he collapsed. He died four days later, shackled to his hospital bed. An autopsy showed an HIV-related infection in his brain.

Martin Acosta, a Salvadoran immigrant who served time at the Texas prison for illegal re-entry at the same time as Fagardo-Saucedo, “began complaining of abdominal pain late in the summer of 2010,” according to Wessler’s report. He went to the prison clinic more than 20 times in less than five months. Despite his complaints of vomiting blood and having blood in his stool, no lab tests were performed. In December 2010 he landed in a hospital, where he was diagnosed with severe metastatic stomach cancer. He died in January 2011.

Nestor Garay had a stroke during the night at another Texas immigrant prison. His cellmates called for help. Prison personnel refused to take him to the emergency room, instead isolating him in another cell. By morning, when he was finally taken to the hospital, it was too late for the clot-busting medication that could have saved his life.

Medical care is dismal across the U.S. prison system. Even in publicly run prisons, health care is frequently privatized, penny pinching and inhumane. The Brennan Center for Justice has characterized prisoner medical care as “atrocious.”

But the lack of medical care at these immigrant-only private prisons receives less scrutiny than any public or other private prisons. Families of immigrant inmates often live outside the United States. This limits their ability to fully advocate for imprisoned family members. They have little access to visit or maintain phone contact with prisoners. They don’t have access to U.S. courts for medical malpractice or wrongful death lawsuits. They cannot vote and are not represented in Congress.

The way forward

All prisoners deserve humane treatment and adequate medical care while incarcerated. It is immoral to intentionally discriminate against noncitizen prisoners and segregate them in private prisons with fewer services and woefully inadequate care. A prison sentence should never be a sentence to a miserable, unattended death. Privatization of medical care is deadly and must be stopped not only in immigrant-only prisons but also in all prisons — state and federal — across the country.

When government takes away people’s liberty and exerts total control over their lives, it needs to be held accountable for what happens to those in its custody. Prisoners are vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment by authorities. Some degree of accountability still exists in publicly run prisons. Voters can demand answers from elected officials and can vote them out of office. Accountability is diluted to the vanishing point when the government delegates the running of prisons to for-profit companies.

The first step toward adequate medical care for immigrant inmates is to end the segregation that isolates them in private prisons. The two Democratic presidential candidates — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — have pledged to end privatization of federal prisons.

A second and crucial step is to end the privatization of prison health care and ensure equitable access to medical care for all prisoners. Privatized prison health care is a multibillion-dollar industry, with more than half the states contracting out part of or all prison medical care. But for-profit companies have failed time after time to provide adequate medical care to inmates. And prisoners, particularly noncitizens, have little recourse and no other options for treatment.

Unsurprisingly, private prison companies and the prison health care industry have well-paid lobbyists in Washington and in state capitals. Since prisoners can’t vote or lobby elected officials, voters must speak out for them. In the 2016 presidential election season, we must raise public awareness about the deadly consequences of privatizing prisons and continue to pressure candidates to honor their campaign pledges to end prison privatization.

 

By: Mary Turck, AlJazeera America, February 24, 2016

February 28, 2016 Posted by | Immigrants, Mass Incarceration, Privatized Prison System | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Pledge He Can’t Keep”: Bernie’s Prison Promise Is Too Good To Be True

Democrats’ embarrassment of riches was on display last night in Milwaukee. Watching the two candidates, the choice between Hillary Clinton’s pragmatism and Bernie Sander’s idealism feels less like a primary battle and more like a glimpse of the internal dialogue swirling in the average progressive brain.

Practicality doesn’t always mean granting concessions, says Clinton, and big dreams don’t signal naivety, says Sanders. Their campaigns are running on flip-sides of the same coin: Elect me, and I’ll make progressive policies actually happen.

That undercurrent of possibility is why something seemed off to me about a promise Sanders made early in the debate. Talking about criminal justice reform, Sanders committed to a specific pledge: “Here’s my promise, at the end of my first term as president we will not have more people in jail than any other country.”

It sounds too good to be true, but that could just be cynicism talking. Sanders is certainly right that the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country on earth, a point both he and Clinton have made repeatedly during recent months.

The horrifying statistic shifts only slightly depending on how it’s calculated: In raw numbers, there are approximately 2.22 million people incarcerated in America, the most of any country on earth, according to the most recent World Prison Population List released by the International Center for Prison Studies. Coming in second place is China with 1.66 million people incarcerated. (It’s important to note, however, that this count only includes the prisoners that China officially recognizes.) Russia comes in a distant third with 640,000 people in prison.

If you adjust for population size, the U.S. has the second-highest incarceration rate in the world. We held the title for years until the island nation of Seychelles overtook us in 2015. Comparing the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population, Seychelles has a rate of 799. (And its entire population isn’t even 100,000.) The U.S. and its mammoth population of nearly 320 million has a rate of 698 per 100,000. To put this in perspective: The majority of nations worldwide have incarceration rates of less than 150.

While it’s not much of a consolation to be second rather than first in global incarceration rates, Sanders could theoretically make good on his pledge just by maintaining the status quo and pointing to incarceration rates by population at the end of his first term. Of course that would do nothing of actual value for criminal justice reform, a top priority of both Sanders and most Democrats.

Thus, Sanders must be promising to simply, and drastically, reduce the raw number of people incarcerated in America. So could he do that?

In a word: Nope.

It’s a hollow promise, impossible for Sanders to keep given the powers of the presidency.

Of all the people incarcerated in the U.S., only about 13 percent are in the federal system. And while the Constitution grants the president pardon authority for “offenses against the United States,” the president has no such authority over state prisoners. As the White House simply explained in response to a Change.org petition to pardon the two men featured in the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer,” “the President cannot pardon a state criminal offense.” That power rests at the state level.

There are currently 210,567 people incarcerated in the federal system, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Even if Sanders were to unlock every single federal prisoner and set them free, there would still be approximately 2 million people incarcerated – we’d still hold the global crown for most people incarcerated, because even with zero federal prisons we’d continue to lead China by about 400,000 prisoners. As NYU professor Mark Kleiman, who literally wrote the book on America’s incarceration problem, put it, “Sanders was very specifically making a promise he has no way of keeping. Either he knows that or he does not.”

I want very badly to believe a President Sanders could fulfill his promise and remove the disgraceful crown of mass incarceration from our collective heads, all in his first four years. But that’s just not the reality of how our system works.

Math hasn’t been kind to Sanders on a couple of his platforms thus far. And without the potential for real change, passion just amounts to noise. Sanders understands this – he has detailed, solid ideas on justice reform. Perhaps more critically, he has easy lines of attack against Hillary for her support of her husband and then-President Bill Clinton’s enactment of minimum sentencing guidelines and law enforcement measures that sent the prison population skyrocketing. So why is he undermining himself with fairy-tale promises?

 

By: Emily Arrowood,  Assistant Editor for Opinion, U.S. News & World Report, February 12, 2016

February 15, 2016 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Criminal Justice System, Federal and State Prisons, Hillary Clinton, Mass Incarceration | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“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

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