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Penal and Justice Reform

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Reefer Sanity. | Thought Followers.

“It took 13 years for the United States to come to its senses and end Prohibition, 13 years in which people kept drinking, otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals and crime syndicates arose and flourished. It has been more than 40 years since Congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol. The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.”

In a much-touted op-ed over the weekend, the NYT editorial board calls for the legalization of marijuana. “We recognize that this Congress is as unlikely to take action on marijuana as it has been on other big issues. But it is long past time to repeal this version of Prohibition.”

Well, I’m glad to see the NYT come down on this side of the ledger, and I appreciate them emphasizing the Prohibition angle. But their week-long Come-to-Jesus stance on this would be more impressive if they actually put action to words and stopped testing their employees for weed usage.

There’s also a strong and somewhat irritating element of Captain Obvious here. As Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan well put it:

“This is something that has been clear to the majority of American high school students for the past forty years. The fact that it took our nation’s paper of record this long to catch up does not inspire confidence. The only reason the Times gets attention for expressing this opinion is because it is the Times. This is not thought leadership. It is thought following. The Times’ endorsement of legal weed is remarkable not because we look to the Times for new or thought-provoking opinions, but because the Times is such a self-conscious, careerist, and cautious institution that if they want to legalize drugs, you know that shit is really mainstream now…

I do not say this to scold the newspaper for its position. Drug legalization is an issue that can use all the support it can get. I say it to kindly suggest that the New York Times editorial board — and all of the ‘serious’ mainstream media ‘thought leaders’ that define the boundaries of discourse acceptable on Sunday talk shows — ease back a wee bit on the self-importance. You’re not defining the times. You’re behind the times.”

Aaaannnd speaking of those “serious” mainstream media thought leaders, several of them aren’t quite on board yet anyway: “MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said at the time he didn’t ‘get the legalization thing’ and offered a pithy defense of prohibition. ‘Pot just makes you dumb,’ he said. Former Newsweek/Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown said that ‘legal weed’ will make the United States ‘a fatter, dumber, sleepier nation even less able to compete with the Chinese.'”

Er…first off, Scarborough better hope, for his own sake, that we don’t exhaust our domestic reservoirs of dumb anytime soon, or he and his morning ilk are out of job. I was going to post a longer retort to this ridiculous pundit kvetching — which could only really come from deeply privileged people who’d never, ever have to worry about being arrested for weed — but Wonkette‘s Kaili Joy Gray has already done the heavy lifting:

“[E]ven if pot makes you fat and stupid, so does watching Fox ‘News’ and eating Big Macs, but last time I checked, none of these Very Serious People were on the Sunday shows pearl-clutching about that. Also…recall that Michael Phelps has been known to take hits from the bong, and he’s the fastest swimming motherf**ker on the planet, and he is not fat or dumb and can compete with the Chinese just fine, thanks, and he has eleventeen trillion gold medals to prove it, so, you know. There’s that.” What she said.

One Nation, Under Lock and Key.

“On Wednesday, the National Research Council published a 464-page report, two years in the making, that looks at the stunning four-decade rise of incarceration in the United States and concludes that all of its costs — for families, communities, state budgets and society — have simply not been worth the benefit in deterrence and crime reduction…It synthesizes years of evidence on crime trends, on causes driving the growth in prisons, and on the consequences of all this imprisonment. It argues that the U.S. should revise its current criminal justice policies — including sentencing laws and drug enforcement — to significantly cut prison rates and scale back what’s become the world’s most punitive culture.”

Upon the release of the abovementioned report, the WP’s Emily Badger gives a concise overview of our country’s unhealthy addiction to incarceration (white collar criminals notwithstanding, of course.) “The ‘war on drugs’…also ensured that drug crimes received more attention from police and harsher punishment in courtrooms…As a result, between 1980 and 2010, the incarceration rate for drug crimes increased tenfold.”

Cold Irons Bound.

“Our prison system is increasingly built and run by for-profit corporations, who have a financial interest in increasing the number of people in prison while decreasing the amount of money it costs to house them. Since 1980, the US prison population has grown by 790%. We have the largest prison population of any nation in the history of the world. One in three African-American men will go to jail at some point in his life.”

In The Guardian Jill Filipovic examines the national shame that is our private prison-industrial complex. “Imprisoning that many people, most of them for non-violent offenses, doesn’t come cheap, especially when you’re paying private contractors…who are doing quite well living off of American corporate welfare -– at the expense of the American taxpayer.” $50 billion a year — that funds a lot of stadium.

This article was found, by the way, in Slate‘s discussion of Sesame Street’s new incarceration kit, which helps explain to 3-8-year-olds that their parent has gone to jail. “That this even has to exist in the first place shows how much pointless damage our prison system does not just to people who are caught up in the overly punitive, often racially biased justice system, but also to their families.”

It’d be nice to say this fiasco is on the national agenda, but, Jim Webb’s efforts in 2009 and some green shoots earlier in the year notwithstanding, Congress and the Obama administration, for all their talk of belt-tightening, seem pretty content with this ridiculous status quo. (One key reason: felons can’t vote.) But, hey, you know who they still don’t put in jail these days? Wolves of Wall Street. So there’s that.

Twilight of the Drug War?

“Change is ‘snowballing in the right direction,’ said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. ‘I think you’re going to see a lot of action on the state level in the next several years and action will trickle up to the federal level…For a long time people would agree with us behind closed doors, but they would be afraid to say that in public,’ he said. Now, even in Washington, things are changing. ‘There was just a lot of cynicism and pessimism … I think that attitude is really going away.’

More fruits from Californication: With public support for legalizing marijuana over 50% for the first time, and a new documentary, The House I Live In, once again calling attention to the many cruel absurdities of the Drug War$1 trillion spent, 2.2 million in prison — signs suggest the ill-advised War on Drugs may finally be receding as a sacrosanct institution in Washington.

“For decades, the politics of the drug war were straightforward: Being tough could help at the polls and came with no political downside; being open to reform had few advantages, but would be used against a candidate on the campaign trail. That calculation is no longer so simple.”

The Shawshank Bowl.

“‘It’s startling to see a stadium will be named after them,’ Libal said. ‘It’s like calling something Blackwater Stadium. This is a company whose record is marred by human rights abuses, by lawsuits, by unnecessary deaths of people in their custody and a whole series of incidents that really draw into question their ability to successfully manage a prison facility.'”

Our culture veers even closer to self-parody upon the news that Florida Atlantic University will name its stadium after a private prison conglomerate. “GEO Group reported revenues in excess of $1.6 billion in 2011, income generated mostly from state and federal prisons and detention centers for illegal immigrants.”

What the?! Honestly, how shameful is it that we ostensible lovers of freedom — mainly on account of our ridiculous incarceration rates (for anything other than white-collar crimes) — not only have a private, for-profit prison industry flourishing in our country — one that routinely maintains substandard prisons and undercuts workers’ wages by outsourcing their captive labor force — but that we’re sufficiently unembarrassed about it to start naming stadiums after them? Pathetic.

Update: FAU students make their displeasure known.

It’s Time for the Brown Bag.


The Attorney-General’s kind remarks are noted and appreciated. I’ve spoken to Ed Burns and we are prepared to go to work on season six of The Wire if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanising drug prohibition.

I saw this a few weeks ago, and Follow me Here reminded me of it: As we pass the fortieth anniversary of the failed war on drugs, Wire creator David Simon makes a deal with Attorney General Eric Holder: End the drug war for a Wire season six. As if there weren’t already enough good reasons to do so, S6 would be the cherry on top.

Obama Ghraib.

“‘There can be no conceivable justification for requiring a soldier to surrender all his clothing, remain naked in his cell for seven hours, and then stand at attention the subsequent morning,’ he wrote. ‘This treatment is even more degrading considering that Pfc. Manning is being monitored — both by direct observation and by video — at all times.‘”

Sometimes I don’t post here because I’m really busy. Sometimes I don’t post here because the news is too damned depressing: The United States takes another big step towards Miniluv by applying Dubya-era torture and intimidation techniques to an American citizen in custody for leaking, Bradley Manning. (Y’see, it’s a four lights = five lights kinda thing. Manning has to break — and then, like Zubadayah and KSM, voice untruths — for there to be any sort of possible criminal conspiracy case against Wikileaks.)

What is there to say, really? State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley already correctly stated that this abusive treatment of Manning was “ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid,” and, within days, he was fired for stating the obvious.

The president, meanwhile, assures us everything is ok because the Pentagon said so: “I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assure me that they are.” This, as Glenn Greenwald (who’s been on top of this all the way) points out, is exactly the same rationale Dubya used to use: “‘When [Bush] asked ‘the most senior legal officers in the U.S. government’ to review interrogation methods, ‘they assured me they did not constitute torture.’” Well, ok then.

So let’s review. Dubya’s administration constructs an illegal and unconstitutional torture regimeNobody goes to jail, and nothing changes. (Look forward, not backward!) The Dubya administration lies to the American people in order to prosecute a war of choice in Iraq. Nobody goes to jail, and nothing changes. Through greed and outright fraud, Wall Street traders implode the global economy to the tune of trillions of dollars, and, with the convenient exception of Bernie Madoff, nobody goes to jail, and nothing changes. (Synthetic junk, anyone?) Big banks continue their crime spree by engaging in a massive epidemic of foreclosure fraud, and nobody goes to jail (but we’ll make them promise not to do it again!)

Oh, and an Army private leaks “secret” documents (so secret they were available to millions of people) because “[h]e wanted people held accountable and wanted to see this didn’t happen again” — the very definition of whistleblowing — and now we’re treating him like Winston Smith. (Then again, our president does despise whistleblowers.)

Should Manning be in U.S. custody right now? Yes. He took an oath to the United States military and, knowing full well the consequences, broke it in an act of civil disobedience. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime — I get that. But should Manning be abused and tortured in U.S. custody? Of course not — Nobody should be. In fact, I thought we elected Barack Obama as president to make sure this never happened again.

Nope, sorry. Instead, President Obama fired Crowley and is owning what’s happening to Manning right now. He also just reinstated and normalized indefinite detentions at Gitmo. (Obama the constitutional scholar? Meet the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.) And when not perpetuating Dubya-era illegalities, he (and new lefty-bashing chief of staff) spend their days talking up the deficit, talking down regulation, and hoping the Chamber and the NRA take their meetings. Feel those winds of change, y’all. (Obama meme pic above via here.)

Update: “Based on 30 years of government experience, if you have to explain why a guy is standing naked in the middle of a jail cell, you have a policy in need of urgent review.P.J. Crowley reflects on his recent firing. “I stand by what I said. The United States should set the global standard for treatment of its citizens – and then exceed it. It is what the world expects of us. It is what we should expect of ourselves.

Respect the Stripes? Not Hardly.


But publicly, let me state that The Wire owes no apologies — at least not for its depiction of those portions of Baltimore where we set our story, for its address of economic and political priorities and urban poverty, for its discussion of the drug war and the damage done from that misguided prohibition, or for its attention to the cover-your-ass institutional dynamic that leads, say, big-city police commissioners to perceive a fictional narrative, rather than actual, complex urban problems as a cause for righteous concern.

I’ve been meaning to blog this for a few days, via Genehack: After the show is harangued by Baltimore’s current police commissioner, the consistently take-no-guff David Simon sticks up for his creation, The Wire. “As citizens using a fictional narrative as a means of arguing different priorities or policies, those who created and worked on The Wire have dissented.

Come, Ye Huddled Masses, to Prison.


According to Corrections Corporation of America reports reviewed by NPR, executives believe immigrant detention is their next big market…In the conference room, the group decided they would turn the immigration idea into a model bill. They discussed and debated language. Then, they voted on it…Four months later, that model legislation became, almost word for word, Arizona’s immigration law.

This will probably be the most disgusting story you read all day. On what happens to be the 124th birthday of the Statue of Liberty, NPR’s Laura Sullivan delves into how the private prison industry got Arizona’s racial profiling law passed.

Even accustomed as I am now to stories of how money in politics has completely broken our republic — and why in holy hell do we countenance a private prison system in America anyway? — this is truly vile. “The law could send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to prison in a way never done before. And it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison companies responsible for housing them.

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