Justice, Peace, and Hate Crime: Looking at Matthew Shepard’s Law

By , October 25, 2009 9:47 pm
Matthew Shepard
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To many civil rights activists, the passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act in the Senate on Thursday was an unequivocal victory. The legislation, now headed to Obama’s desk, would expand federal laws against hate crimes to include those based on sexual orientation (along with gender and disability), allowing for enhanced sentencing that may apply to cases of race-based attacks. Yet the political triumph is dampened by the endemic tragedy of the system served by hate crimes legislation. So what is there to celebrate?

The bill is a milestone primarily because of the political moment it signifies: it gives unprecedented recognition to the struggle of LGBT communities for equality. It also serves as a marker of incremental progress in that struggle—a milestone between a heinous murder and the distant aspiration of a day when such special punishments are no longer needed. It also solidifies LGBT activists’ stake in a movement fraught with tensions between queer and racial justice advocates.

Setting aside the pride of having pushed the law through Congress, some question the wisdom of investing so much political capital in building a new category of criminal punishment.

via Justice, Peace, and Hate Crime: Looking at Matthew Shepard’s Law | RaceWire.

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Arizona May Turn Death Row Over to Private Companies – NYTimes.com

By , October 24, 2009 7:30 pm
Prison-cell-like but private
Image by Casey Serin via Flickr

FLORENCE, Ariz. — One of the newest residents on Arizona’s death row, a convicted serial killer named Dale Hausner, poked his head up from his television to look at several visitors strolling by, each of whom wore face masks and vests to protect against the sharp homemade objects that often are propelled from the cells of the condemned.

It is a dangerous place to patrol, and Arizona spends $4.7 million each year to house inmates like Mr. Hausner in a super-maximum-security prison. But in a first in the criminal justice world, the state’s death row inmates could become the responsibility of a private company.

State officials will soon seek bids from private companies for 9 of the state’s 10 prison complexes that house roughly 40,000 inmates, including the 127 here on death row. It is the first effort by a state to put its entire prison system under private control.

via Arizona May Turn Death Row Over to Private Companies – NYTimes.com.

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Risks and Returns: Exploiting the Immigrant Detention Industry

By , October 24, 2009 3:23 pm

Last winter, a remote Texas prison convulsed in a cry of outrage, voicing the desperation of the immigration system’s silenced captives.

Two recent articles in the Boston Review and Texas Observer reflect on violent uprisings at the Reeves County Detention Center in Pecos last December and January. Tom Barry and Forrest Wilder describe a system of calculated lawlessness in the heart of Dixie.

The clash was driven by detainees’ protests about inhumane conditions, particularly poor medical care and overcrowding. The catalyst was the death of Jesus Galindo, an epileptic who had been isolated in solitary confinement. Immigrant detention has become a political flashpoint for the Obama administration amid reports of abuse and miserably inadequate healthcare.

Although the White House recently pledged to improve detention conditions, there’s been little real questioning of the economic underpinnings of the system. The Pecos rebellion illustrated the consequences of marrying America’s prison-industrial complex with zero-tolerance immigration enforcement.

via Risks and Returns: Exploiting the Immigrant Detention Industry – Working In These Times.

Jury trial rate at all-time low in Va. | Richmond Times-Dispatch

By , October 20, 2009 7:49 pm
This is Swampyank's copy of "The Jury&quo...
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Jury trials remain a favorite of American film and literature but not of the criminal-justice system, where their use long has been in decline here and across the country.

The trend has accelerated in recent decades as tougher sentencing laws leave more defendants unwilling to assert a right found in Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution and that is recognized by all states.

In the year that ended June 30, 2008, little more than 1 percent of felony convictions in Virginia courts were at the hands of jurors. Nearly 90 percent were the result of guilty pleas and the rest in trials before judges.

Guilty pleas help keep courts running efficiently, but as relatively fewer people perform one of the most serious of civic duties, experts believe public confidence in the criminal-justice system, if not justice itself, might suffer.

Josh Bowers, a professor of law at the University of Virginia, said, “We’re already at what would seem to be almost a bare minimum of jury trials for a criminal-justice system that recognizes a jury trial right.”

via Jury trial rate at all-time low in Va. | Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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DPIC Releases New Report on Costs of the Death Penalty and Police Chiefs’ Views

By , October 20, 2009 7:27 am

The Death Penalty Information Center has released its latest report, “Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis.” The report combines an analysis of the costs of the death penalty with a newly released national poll of police chiefs who put capital punishment at the bottom of their law enforcement priorities.

via DPIC Releases New Report on Costs of the Death Penalty and Police Chiefs’ Views | Death Penalty Information Center.

Jaded justice

By , October 19, 2009 5:10 pm

ON ITS FACE the proposition seems reasonable enough: Anyone who pleads guilty to a federal crime must give up the right to use DNA evidence in the future to challenge that conviction. This Bush-era policy would work just fine in a perfect world, where only those who actually committed crimes pleaded guilty to those offenses.

But the facts show that this is not always the case. Defendants sometimes cop to a plea for reasons having nothing to do with guilt. Some are coerced or intimidated into a confession and subsequent plea bargain. Others accept a plea offer if it provides for a much lighter sentence than could be expected if convicted at trial. In short, not everyone who pleads guilty is guilty — and prosecutors understand this.

Yet according to The Post’s Jerry Markon, the Bush Justice Department lobbied strenuously during the early part of this decade against legislation to assure inmates of access to post-conviction DNA evidence that could prove their innocence. When the bill appeared on the verge of passing, the administration succeeded in jamming through a provision that allows defendants to waive that right. Prosecutors in the Bush administration were then instructed to insist on such waivers when negotiating a plea bargain. While not all U.S. attorneys in the country went along, many routinely abided by the mandate, including federal prosecutors in the District and in Alexandria.

Attorney General Eric J. Holder Jr. has called for a reexamination of the Bush policy — and rightly so.

via Jaded justice – washingtonpost.com.

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Feds to issue new medical marijuana policy

By , October 19, 2009 8:34 am

WASHINGTON – Federal drug agents won’t pursue pot-smoking patients or their sanctioned suppliers in states that allow medical marijuana, under new legal guidelines to be issued Monday by the Obama administration.

Two Justice Department officials described the new policy to The Associated Press, saying prosecutors will be told it is not a good use of their time to arrest people who use or provide medical marijuana in strict compliance with state law.

The guidelines to be issued by the department do, however, make it clear that agents will go after people whose marijuana distribution goes beyond what is permitted under state law or use medical marijuana as a cover for other crimes, the officials said.

The new policy is a significant departure from the Bush administration, which insisted it would continue to enforce federal anti-pot laws regardless of state codes.

via Feds to issue new medical marijuana policy – Yahoo! News.

As rehab programs are cut, prisons do less to keep inmates from returning

By , October 17, 2009 7:44 pm
Schools Not Jails
Image by aclu.socal via Flickr


As rehab programs are cut, prisons do less to keep inmates from returning

Reporting from Sacramento – Gina Tatum spends her days in a compound surrounded by electrified fence in the sun-baked heart of the Central Valley, hoping to change her life.

She will soon turn 50, and after two decades in and out of prison, she says she is tired of victimizing others, tired of stealing, tired of doing drugs.

“I can’t afford any more years up here — I’ve lost too many,” said Tatum, who is serving a four-year stint for forgery at the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla. “I’m trying to learn things to change my thinking, change everything about me, so I can go home. It’s so easy to get caught up here and never leave. I don’t want to die in prison.”

But because of cuts in the state budget, Tatum and thousands of other inmates and parolees in California are about to lose access to many of the programs the prison system has offered to help them turn their lives around.

via As rehab programs are cut, prisons do less to keep inmates from returning — latimes.com.

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California gives the poor a new legal right

By , October 17, 2009 7:36 pm

California is embarking on an unprecedented civil court experiment to pay for attorneys to represent poor litigants who find themselves battling powerful adversaries in vital matters affecting their livelihoods and families.

The program is the first in the nation to recognize a right to representation in key civil cases and provide it for people fighting eviction, loss of child custody, domestic abuse or neglect of the elderly or disabled.

Advocates for the poor say the law, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed this week, levels the legal playing field and gives underprivileged litigants a better shot at attaining justice against unscrupulous landlords, abusive spouses, predatory lenders and other foes.

via California gives the poor a new legal right — latimes.com.

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The Long Shadow of Willie Horton

By , October 17, 2009 6:02 pm
Willie Horton's mug shot on the "Weekend ...
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Joe Donovan is not an innocent man. That much is clear from the events of September 18, 1992, the night he threw the punch that forever changed his life. It was three weeks past his 17th birthday, and Donovan was prowling the streets of East Cambridge with two guys he knew from the neighborhood: 18-year-old Alfredo Velez and a scrawny 15-year-old named Shon McHugh. They were looking to make their way to the Mass. Ave. bridge to cross into Boston and score some beer. Walking along Memorial Drive, Donovan bumped shoulders with a Norwegian MIT student named Yngve Raustein, who was with a fellow student. An argument ensued, and thinking Raustein was making fun of him, Donovan punched him in the face, so hard it dropped Raustein to the ground and broke Donovan’s hand.

As Donovan doubled over in pain, Velez confronted Raustein’s friend, demanding his wallet. But McHugh had other plans. As Raustein tried to get up, McHugh unfolded a 7-inch hunting knife and stabbed Raustein, repeatedly and fatally, in the chest. Mere seconds after Donovan’s punch, all three teens fled over the bridge into Boston. It was only then, says Donovan, that he saw the knife and realized that McHugh had stabbed the man. By then it was too late. The three were arrested and tried under the “joint venture theory,” a law holding all accomplices responsible for a murder committed during the course of a felony such as armed robbery. McHugh was tried as a juvenile and served almost 11 years in prison. Velez cut a deal to testify and was out in eight. Alone among the three, Donovan was convicted of first-degree murder and received the mandatory sentence of life without parole.

Seventeen years later, he is still in prison, long after the actual murderer has gone free. At a meeting in the visitors’ lounge of Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Donovan is tall and thickset, with an oval face and pale green eyes. He twists his big hands as he tries to explain why he threw that punch. “I don’t even know what the hell I was thinking,” he says, speaking so quietly it’s hard to hear him. “I was just a dumb kid.” On the other hand, he can’t wrap his head around the discrepancy between his sentence and McHugh’s. “He murdered a kid and they think he can be rehabilitated, and I am a year or two older and I didn’t kill anyone, but I can’t be? That makes no sense.”

The judge, at least one juror in the case, and even Raustein’s family now support Donovan’s release. But his chances of seeing daylight are near zero, because his only hope is commutation, a power held by the governor (and influenced by the state’s parole board) to reduce prison sentences. The practice is common in many states, and Donovan, eligible to be considered for the first time, was planning to file his petition this month. In Massachusetts, however, there hasn’t been a single commutation approved by a governor since 1997 — and there were only seven in the previous 10 years (four for murderers). Over the past 22 years, more than 650 petitions have been denied. In that same period, Delaware has approved hundreds, 12 for convicted murderers. Michigan’s Democratic governor has approved 23 in the past five years; in the prior 12 years, her Republican predecessor approved 34. And from 2003 to 2007, Maryland’s Republican governor granted 15 commutations, including five for life sentences for murder.

It’s no secret why Massachusetts has lagged behind: the memory of Willie Horton, the convicted murderer who terrorized a couple, raping the woman, in 1987 after escaping while on a weekend furlough allowed by then governor Michael Dukakis. The act pretty much torpedoed Dukakis’s presidential campaign a year later when ads showing Horton’s picture and images of inmates going through a revolving door hit the airwaves. Even years later, it lays bare the thorny political calculus of letting a felon out of jail. There is almost nothing for a governor to gain and everything for him to lose should the criminal commit another crime. “Ever since what Willie Horton did to Mike Dukakis, governors are going to think not twice but 10 times before they ever commute anyone,” says retired judge Robert Barton, who presided over the Donovan case. Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey Berry agrees. “If I was a governor’s adviser,” he says, “I would recommend he be very cautious.”

via The Long Shadow of Willie Horton – The Boston Globe.

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