Category Archives: Criminal Justice

Defending The Indefensible

The Independent, among other publications, reports that the United States has voted against a U.N. resolution condemning laws that punish same-sex couplings with death. The lede suggested that America’s vote was yet another example of the Trump Administration’s homophobia.

The US is one of just 13 countries to have voted against a United Nations resolution condemning the death penalty for having gay sex.

Although the vote passed, America joined countries such as China, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in opposing the move.

The Human Rights Council resolution condemned the “imposition of the death penalty as a sanction for specific forms of conduct, such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations”.

 It attacked the use of execution against persons with “mental or intellectual disabilities, persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the crime, and pregnant women.”

Although racism, homophobia, and misogyny are central to this administration, and are core elements of Trump’s appeal to his base, attributing this vote to those bigotries is misplaced.

Not that the absence of those motives is exculpatory. The real reason for the “no” vote was something equally indefensible: support for America’s continued use of the death penalty.

Heather Nauert, State Department spokesperson, told The Independent: “The headlines, reporting and press releases on this issue are misleading. As our representative to the Human Rights Council in Geneva said on Friday, the United States is disappointed to have to vote against this resolution. We had hoped for a balanced and inclusive resolution that would better reflect the positions of states that continue to apply the death penalty lawfully, as the United States does.

“The United States voted against this resolution because of broader concerns with the resolution’s approach in condemning the death penalty in all circumstances and calling for its abolition.

I believe her–but to use language appropriate to criminal justice, that explanation doesn’t exonerate us. It just confirms our position as an outlier among civilized countries.

Forget the moral arguments, compelling as many of us find them.

Decades of scholarship have confirmed that capital punishment is not a deterrent to violent crime.  When I last researched the issue, in 2010, I found that states with the death penalty reported murder rates higher than the rates in states without it. Police agree. In multiple polls, police chiefs rank the death penalty last among ways to reduce violent crime; they also consider it the least efficient use of taxpayer money, and complain that it diverts money from more effective crime control measures.

Then there are the fiscal issues.

In 2010, Indiana’s Legislative Services analyzed capital punishment costs in Indiana, and determined that the average cost of a capital trial and direct appeal was over ten times the cost of a life-without-parole case.  In California, taxpayers pay 114,000,000 more each year than it would cost to keep those same offenders imprisoned for life. In Kansas, capital cases are 70% more expensive than non-capital cases, even including the costs of lifelong incarceration. In Texas, a death penalty case costs three times what it would cost to imprison someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years.

Advocates of the death penalty often complain that the higher costs are a result of “interminable appeals,” but that isn’t actually true. Appeals do add costs, but a capital trial is very expensive. Cells on death row and extra staff also cost more.

Of course, we could eliminate appeals and execute people immediately upon conviction. That would save money. Unfortunately, that “remedy” raises another pesky problem with capital punishment—the fact that America’s courts convict innocent people, and do so a lot more frequently than we like to admit.  Between 1973 and my 2010 research, over 130 people had been released from death row because they were found to be innocent. These were not folks freed on a “technicality,” they were people who had been wrongfully convicted.

It isn’t just death penalty cases that result in wrongful verdicts, of course; since the establishment of the Innocence Project, the substantial number of exonerations in all categories has testified to the persistent flaws in America’s criminal justice system.

Making “crimes” like blasphemy, adultery or gay sex punishable by death is worse than medieval. But so is continued imposition of the death penalty.

The Whistleblower Conflict

Okay–I take back every qualm/criticism I’ve ever had about the U.S. Intelligence community. (I might resurrect them at some future date.) It may end up saving America.

A number of media outlets have reported on the Whistleblower complaint filed by an Intelligence officer who was evidently appointed by Trump. This story was originally from the Washington Monthly.

The whistleblower complaint that has triggered a tense showdown between the U.S. intelligence community and Congress involves President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, according to two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a “promise” that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, said the former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

It was not immediately clear which foreign leader Trump was speaking with or what he pledged to deliver, but his direct involvement in the matter has not been previously disclosed.

The communication in question evidently came in the form of a phone call. Reporters tracked down the president’s phone conversations with foreign leaders around that time;  the three that occurred in the two months before the complaint was filed were Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Macron, and Vladimir Putin.

Also around the same time, Dan Coates, Director of National Intelligence, resigned. And shortly after that, the U.S. pulled out of the INF treaty with Russia.

Inspector General Atkinson (the Trump appointee) identified the whistleblower complaint as a matter of “urgent concern.” That triggered a requirement that the complaint be reported to Congress. But according to the Washington Post, Maguire–the acting head of DNI (this whole bloody Administration is “acting”) asked Bill Barr’s Justice Department for legal guidance and–surprise!– was told to withhold the information.

At that point, Atkinson informed Congress that a complaint had been made, but Maguire continued his refusal to share the information with the House Intelligence Committee.

While it’s tempting to speculate based on the timeline of events, what we actually know is that someone in the intelligence community was so concerned about what transpired on that phone call that he or she filed a whistleblower complaint. The inspector general found the complaint to be not only credible, but of “urgent concern.” When the new acting DNI refused to inform Congress, he took the extraordinary step of telling them that the complaint existed. In other words, to use Joe Biden’s vernacular, this is a Big Fuckin’ Deal.

Since this article was written, Atkinson has testified behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee, and several media outlets have suggested that more than one “impropriety” is involved. This might finally be enough to move Democrats off their reluctance to impeach….

Stay tuned….

 

 

 

The “Best People”

Remember when Trump promised an administration populated by the “best people”?

I thought I’d devote a post to former Secretary of Labor Acosta before his particular scandal is eclipsed by others–most recently, Trump’s effort to appoint a nutcase supporter with absolutely no credentials to the Intelligence post being vacated by Dan Coats.

Gail Collins, as usual, summed up the Acosta situation with pith and vinegar:

On Wednesday, Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta tried to hold back the outrage that’s been building since people learned that, as a federal prosecutor in South Florida, he had brokered a very lenient punishment for Jeffrey Epstein, a rich guy who liked to have sex with underage girls.

Explanation: It was a good deal. You know how this administration feels about good deals.

“The Palm Beach state attorney’s office was ready to let Epstein walk free,” Acosta said in his calm, sort of toneless voice. “Our prosecutors … presented the ultimatum.” Which was that Epstein, who had molested a parade of teenagers, some only 14, had to serve at least a little jail time. The punishment Acosta wrangled with his alleged best possible efforts involved 13 months in prison, during which Epstein was free to spend most days at his office as long as he slept overnight in the clink.

Before the uproar caused Acosta to resign, Trump (of course!) defended him–in terms that, as Collins notes, displayed his total ignorance of what it is the Department of Labor does:

Ever since the Epstein scandal arose, Trump has been defending Acosta, stressing what an “excellent” job he’s doing. After all, the president told reporters, “our economy is so good, our unemployment numbers are at record lows.” You might have thought he was under the impression the secretary of labor had something to do with boosting the economy. As opposed to things like workplace safety and collecting job statistics.

And oh, yeah, human trafficking. Very embarrassing that Acosta is one of the people who’s supposed to protect underage women from being sold as sex slaves.

Hmm. Before this week, what do you think Donald Trump thought the Department of Labor did?

My husband and I recently spent a week with a cousin who lives near Palm Beach, the nexus of this scandal. She recommended a book by James Patterson and two co-authors, written in the wake of the sweetheart deal negotiated by Acosta. (The book was written long before Epstein’s recent arrest.) I downloaded and read it, and it was eye opening–if you can be nauseated and have your eyes opened at the same time.

Titled Filthy Rich: The Billionaire’s Sex Scandal–The Shocking True Story of Jeffrey Epstein, the book offered a view into a lifestyle enjoyed not just by Epstein, but by the obscenely rich milieu in which he traveled–a lifestyle incomprehensible to most Americans. Patterson is known for his fiction, but this book was solid reporting, with sources clearly identified.

Leaving aside the predatory sex (and the inevitable curiosity about which of Epstein’s “pals” participated, or at least were aware of his proclivities), what the book most vividly described is the gigantic gap between the criminal justice system encountered by the rich and that system as applied to the rest of us. The local police detectives who did their jobs and documented Epstein’s abuse–and the incredible extent of that abuse–were no match for Epstein’s high-powered lawyer friends, including Alan Dershowitz.

Donald Trump was a member of Epstein’s milieu for a number of years. Whether or not he participated in the sex (a reasonable question given his history), he clearly and fully accepted the billionaire club’s cultural assumptions, including the belief that the rules that apply to the “little people” don’t apply to them.

One “takeaway” from the book: In Trumpworld, the “best people” are pretty despicable specimens.

 

 

Adventures In Privatization

For a considerable period of time in the late 1900s, privatization of government functions was all the rage. (Not that it was true privatization; as I’ve noted before, actual privatization  requires that government completely withdraw from whatever activity was involved, leaving its provision entirely to the private sector.)

What public entities call privatization is almost always contracting-out or outsourcing–providing a service through a third-party surrogate rather than through government employees.

Enthusiasm for the practice has abated considerably, as research has steadily deflated the claims made by proponents. Contracting out doesn’t usually save money, for one thing, and the ability of government to monitor those with whom it contracts has proved to be less than ideal, to put it mildly.

Also, in far too many situations, contracting has become the new patronage.

There are certainly public functions that lend themselves to outsourcing, but thanks to the American penchant to go “all in” on the latest management fad, contracting has often proved disastrous. From poor outcomes, to cost overruns, to outright corruption, analyses have been increasingly negative.  A recent research project adds one: government outsourcing decreases employee diversity.

A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia revealed that when governments contract work out to private companies, fewer  African-American, Hispanic, and female employees are hired.

Over the past twenty years, private contracting has become a popular way to improve efficiency in the public sector.

“Increasingly, services that were once performed by public employees, are provided under contract by private firms,” explained study author J. Edward Kellough, a UGA professor of public administration and policy in the School of International and Public Affairs. “The question,” he added, “is whether this growth in contracting has been detrimental to minority and female employment.”

That’s not nearly the worst of it.

The Trump Administration has been contracting with private prison companies to house refugees at our southern border. Private prisons are arguably the most striking misuse of government outsourcing, and their operation of border facilities has raised understandable outrage.

I’ll let Paul Krugman take it from here.

Is it cruelty, or is it corruption? That’s a question that comes up whenever we learn about some new, extraordinary abuse by the Trump administration — something that seems to happen just about every week. And the answer, usually, is “both.”

What about the detention centers at the border?

And the same goes for the atrocities the U.S. is committing against migrants from Central America. Oh, and save the fake outrage. Yes, they are atrocities, and yes, the detention centers meet the historical definition of concentration camps.

One reason for these atrocities is that the Trump administration sees cruelty both as a policy tool and as a political strategy: Vicious treatment of refugees might deter future asylum-seekers, and in any case it helps rev up the racist base. But there’s also money to be made, because a majority of detained migrants are being held in camps run by corporations with close ties to the Republican Party.

Krugman then sums up the whole sorry experiment with “privatization.”

Privatization of public services — having them delivered by contractors rather than government employees — took off during the 1980s. It has often been justified using the rhetoric of free markets, the supposed superiority of private enterprise to government bureaucracy.

This was always, however, a case of bait-and-switch. Free markets, in which private businesses compete for customers, can accomplish great things, and are indeed the best way to organize most of the economy. But the case for free markets isn’t a case for private business where there is no market: There’s no reason to presume that private firms will do a better job when there isn’t any competition, because the government itself is the sole customer. In fact, studies of privatization often find that it ends up costing more than having government employees do the work.

Nor is that an accident. Between campaign contributions and the revolving door, plus more outright bribery than we’d like to think, private contractors can engineer overpayment on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of public-sector unions.

Krugman makes an even more important point about accountability.

As he says, if you outsource garbage collection, it’s pretty easy to determine whether the garbage has been collected (although I’d note it’s not so easy to tell where it’s been dumped…). But if you hire a private company to do something the public can’t see–like prisons or migrant camps– it’s easy to hide poor performance and generous overpayments to political cronies.

And running a prison, which is literally walled off from public view, is almost a perfect example of the kind of government function that should not be privatized. After all, if a private prison operator bulks up its bottom line by underpaying personnel and failing to train them adequately, if it stints on food and medical care, who in the outside world will notice?

And of course, the administration and its cronies profit from these facilities. It’s hard to disagree with Krugman’s final observation:

Every betrayal of American principles also seems, somehow, to produce financial benefits for Trump and his friends.

 

This Is Chilling

As if the Trump Administration and its enablers in McConnell’s Court haven’t done enough to erode public confidence in America’s governing institutions, recent disclosures about the number of police officers involved in White Supremicist organizations should make the hair on the back of our collective necks stand up.

First, I ran into an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer reporting that the City of Philadelphia had pulled 72 officers off the street:

At the very beginning of June, a group called The Plain View Project—established in 2017 as a research group looking for racist, Islamophobic, and other hateful rhetoric posted and shared by law enforcement on social media—released some very harrowing results. The database they had compiled, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, included around 3,100 posts by some 330 active Philadelphia police officers. Of the 330, at least 16 were ranked officers. One of the issues with police officers’ private social media posts is that virtually all law enforcement agencies have some form of a social media policy that includes a restriction from posting things that could undermine public confidence in the law enforcement agent. The Plain View Project that collected this batch of law enforcement revelations, was led by Harvard Law graduate Emily Baker-White who told the Inquirer that she began this work because she had realized no one was aggregating police officer social media posts.

The results, published in Buzzfeed News, with the help of nonprofit newsroom Injustice Watch, was undeniable. While The Plain View Project was Philadelphia based, the disturbing posts from law enforcement were found from Dallas to Chicago to Florida, while the investigation was continuing,

The department took 72 officers off street duty during the investigation. At the time of the media report, none of the officers being investigated had yet been “disciplined,” but the Chief was quoted as predicting that such discipline would be forthcoming, and that “several” officers would likely be fired.

MeanwhileDispatches from the Culture Wars reports

Hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers from across the United States are members of Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups on Facebook, a Reveal investigation has found.

These cops have worked at every level of American law enforcement, from tiny, rural sheriff’s departments to the largest agencies in the country, such as the Los Angeles and New York police departments. They work in jails and schools and airports, on boats and trains and in patrol cars. And, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting discovered, they also read and contribute to groups such as “White Lives Matter” and “DEATH TO ISLAM UNDERCOVER.”

These organizations are deeply racist; they trade in anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant slogans, and a number are openly Islamophobic.  Worse still, the investigation found at least 150 officers involved with violent anti-government groups.

Thanks to the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, we’ve seen unsettling documentation of police behaviors consistent with the findings of this investigation. A lot of nice white middle-class Americans have been shocked by evidence that some police behavior changes rather dramatically in neighborhoods that are racially or ethnically different from their own.

We have a lot of housecleaning to do if we are going to mount an effort to live up to our ideals and the Constitution.

I just hope the rot hasn’t spread too far, and that it isn’t too late.