Headlines: Supreme Court Denies Post-conviction DNA Testing; Senate Approves $106 Billion War Funding Bill

Democracy Now Headlines: Supreme Court Denies Post-conviction DNA Testing; Senate Approves $106 Billion War Funding Bill

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Backs Vote Outcome

In his first public response to days of protests, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has defended Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the rightful winner of last week’s presidential election. Addressing thousands of people at Tehran University, the ayatollah appealed for calm and called for an end to the protests calling for a new election. Khamenei’s comments come after six days of massive street demonstrations organized by backers of presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. On Thursday hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters rallied in Tehran to mourn those killed over the past week. Meanwhile the Iranian human rights attorney and Nobel Peace Prizer winner Shirin Ebadi has called for new elections under the watch of international monitors.

Shirin Ebadi: “I think that if new elections are organised but if there are no international observers, no matter what the outcome of these new elections would be, it could be protested and rejected by one or the other parties.”

Senate Approves $106 Billion War Funding Bill

The U.S. Senate has overwhelmingly approved a $106 billion emergency spending bill to expand the war in Afghanistan and to continue the war in Iraq. The vote was 91 – 5. Voting against the war-spending bill was Democrat Russ Feingold, Independent Bernie Sanders and three Republicans: Jim Demint, Mike Enzi and Tom Coburn. The spending bill also includes $420 million for the Mexican government to fight the drug war as well as increased funding for the International Monetary Fund. The House passed a similar war-spending bill earlier this week. Much of the spending bill will go toward expanding the U.S. war in Afghanistan. On Thursday Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted civilian casualties in Afghanistan have become a major strategic vulnerability in that war.

Robert Gates: “It is clear that we need to do much more to overcome what I believe is one of our greatest strategic vulnerabilities. The Afghan people must be reassured that US and NATO forces are there as friends, partners and, along with Afghan security forces, their protectors as well.”

U.S. Moves Missile Defense System to Hawaii

Defense Secretary Gates has said the U.S. is moving ground-to-air missile defense systems to Hawaii as tensions escalate between Washington and North Korea Robert Gates said that the U.S. is concerned that Pyongyang might soon fire a missile toward Hawaii.

Supreme Court Denies Post-conviction DNA Testing

Prisoners attempting to challenge their convictions have been dealt a major setback by the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled Thursday that criminals do not have a constitutional right to DNA testing after their conviction. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said it is up to the states and Congress to decide who has a right to testing that might prove innocence long after conviction. In the dissenting opinion, John Paul Stevens wrote QUOTE “there is no reason to deny access to the evidence and there are many reasons to provide it, not least of which is a fundamental concern in ensuring that justice has been done.” The Innocence Project says DNA testing has exonerated 240 people nationwide, at least 17 of whom had been sentenced to die.

Court Ruling Limits Workplace Age-Discrimination Lawsuits

The Supreme Court has also issued a ruling that will make it much harder for older workers to win workplace age-discrimination claims. In another 5-4 decision, the court ruled that workers bear the full burden of proving that age was the deciding factor in their dismissal or demotion. The business community praised the decision, while the National Senior Citizens Law Center and AARP sharply criticized it.

Immigrant Rights Group Criticize Lax Sentencing in Penn. Murder Case

Immigrant rights groups are outraged over the sentencing of two white teenagers involved in the beating death of a Mexican immigrant in the town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. The teenagers will serve as little as six months in jail. Last month an all-white jury exonerated the two former high school football players of the most serious charges in connection with the fatal beating.

100 U.S-Born Children Filed Suit to Block Deportations Of Their Parents

100 U.S.-born children have filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the deportations of their parents until Congress overhauls U.S. immigration laws. The Miami-based American Fraternity organization argues that the constitutional rights of these children are being violated because they will likely have to leave the country if their parents are deported.

14 Anti-Coal Activists Arrested at West Virginia Mine

In West Virginia, 14 anti-coal protesters were arrested Thursday when then attempted to scale a 150-foot-high excavating machine at a mine owned by Massey Energy and unfurled a huge banner that read, “Stop Mountaintop Removal.” The piece of equipment, known as a dragline, can remove house-sized chunks of blasted rock and earth. The protest shut down Massey’s Twilight Mine for several hours.

LA Teachers End 24-Day Hunger Strike

In Los Angeles, a group of teachers have ended their 24-day hunger strike to protest budget cuts. The teachers said they will now organize a campaign to recall some members of the Los Angeles Unified School Board. Thousands of Los Angeles teachers may soon be fired as the district faces a $700-million budget gap.

Peru’s Congress Overturns Land Laws

The Peruvian Congress has overturned two controversial land laws that led to an indigenous uprising and dozens of deaths in the ensuing police crackdown. The laws would have opened large areas of the Peruvian Amazon to logging, dams and oil drilling. Indigenous leader Daysi Zapata praised the decision by the Peruvian Congress.

Daysi Zapata: “Today is a very historic day for all indigenous people and the entire country of Peru. We, the indigenous peoples, are present here because we believe that the demands of the indigenous peoples were just.”

Texas Billionaire Stanford Surrenders to FBI

Texas billionaire R. Allen Stanford has surrendered to FBI agents. The chairman of the Stanford Financial Group is to appear in court this morning. Earlier this year the Securities and Exchange Commission filed civil charges against Stanford and his top executives of conducting an $8 billion fraud.

Court Overturns Ban on Military Recruitment of Minors

In California a federal judge has struck down laws in two Northern California cities banning military recruitment of minors. Voters in Arcata and Eureka passed the laws last November.

Senate Apologizes For Slavery

The U.S. Senate has unanimously approved a resolution apologizing for slavery and segregation of African-Americans. A disclaimer tacked on at the end of the bill said nothing in the resolution authorizes or supports reparations for slavery.

Aung San Suu Kyi Turns 64

Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi turns 64 today. She remains under house arrest. Activists across the world are marking her birthday with vigils and protests.

Hortensia Bussi, 94, Widow of Salvador Allende, Dies

And Hortensia Bussi, the widow of former Chilean President Salvador Allende, has died at the age of 94.

Advertisements

Headlines: Questions about when Obama Administration Knew of AIG Bonuses; New Mexico Abolishes Death Penalty

Democracy Now Headlines: Questions about when Obama Administration Knew of AIG Bonuses; New Mexico Abolishes Death Penalty

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Fed to Buy Up $1.2T in Bonds, Securities

The Federal Reserve has announced a massive new government intervention in the U.S. economy. The Fed says it will buy up $1.2 trillion dollars in government bonds and mortgage-linked securities to free up the frozen credit market. The purchases will increase the Fed’s holdings in financial markets to $3 trillion dollars–an increase of fifty percent. The new mortgage securities purchase will account for more than half of the new spending, at $750 billion dollars. That’s on top of the $500 billion in securities previously bought. According to analysts at Wachovia bank, the federal government could end up funding up to seventy percent of mortgages issued this year.

Uncertainty Grows on When Admin Knew of AIG Bonuses

The Obama administration is facing questions on when it knew of AIG’s plans to hand out $165 million dollars in bonuses after receiving its $170 billion taxpayer bailout. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says he didn’t know until last week, and only told White House officials two days after finding out. But testifying on Capital Hill Wednesday, AIG CEO Edward Liddy said government officials were informed three months ago. The Washington Post reports the Treasury was told at least one month ago.

AIG Exec: Employees to Give Back Half of Bonuses

Liddy meanwhile also defended the bonuses, saying they were essential to retaining top employees.

AIG CEO Edward Liddy: “Make no mistake. Had I been CEO at the time, I would never have approved the retention contracts that were put in place over a year ago. It was distasteful to have to make these payments. But we concluded that the risks to the company, and therefore the financial system and the economy, were unacceptably high.”

Liddy says he’s asked a few hundred AIG executives and employees to give back at least half of the extra pay but refused to give details on who is keeping their bonuses. AIG is also facing questions on the billions of dollars in taxpayer money it used to repay other financial firms.

Dodd: Bonus Protections Added to Stimulus Bill at Admin’s Request

Questions meanwhile are also surrounding treasury officials and lawmakers for political maneuvering that effectively authorized the executive bonuses with the passage of the stimulus bill last month. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden says he introduced a provision that would have forced bailout recipients to cap bonuses at $100,000 and tax those exceeding it at thirty-five percent. The measure passed through the Senate but was inexplicably removed during talks with the House. Meanwhile the chair of the Senate Banking Committee, Senator Christopher Dodd, is claiming he inserted a provision protecting contractually-promised bonuses at the request of the Obama administration. Dodd didn’t name the administration officials who told him to insert the provision. He says he wouldn’t have done so had he known it would have allowed the bonuses at AIG.

Fannie Mae to Hand Million Dollar Bonuses

As the controversy over payments grows, the government-backed mortgage giant Fannie Mae has announced plans to give four top executives at least one million dollars in what it calls “retention bonuses.” The bonuses are being handed out amidst Fannie’s request for some $15 billion dollars in government aid.

Judge Orders Disclosure of Merrill Lynch Bonuses

Meanwhile a New York judge has ordered the disclosure of employee bonuses paid out at Merrill Lynch just before Bank of America bought out the firm in a government-backed deal. The ruling came in New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s attempt to subpoena several top Merrill Lynch executives who were each paid more than $10 million dollars in cash and stock. Overall, Merrill Lynch handed out over $3 billion dollars in bonuses just before the Bank of America deal. For its part Bank of America has received $45 billion dollars in government aid.

Obama: No More “Business As Usual” for Wall Street

Meanwhile at the White House, President Obama invoked the controversy surrounding AIG to call for changes to the financial system.

President Obama: “As we get out of this crisis, as we work towards getting ourselves out of recession, I hope that Wall Street and the marketplace don’t think that we can return to business as usual. The business models that created a lot of paper wealth but not real wealth in the country and have now resulted in crisis can’t be the model for economic growth going forward.”

Obama later traveled to California for a tour to promote his economic stimulus plan. Speaking at a town hall-style event in Costa Mesa, Obama said he takes responsibility for the AIG controversy.

President Obama: “I know Washington is all in a tizzy pointing fingers at each other and saying its the democrat’s fault and the republican’s fault. Listen, I will take responsibility, ‘I’m the President.'”

Military to Phase Out Forced Extensions by 2011

The Pentagon has announced it will all but end the controversial “stop loss” policy forcing soldiers to serve extended tours of duty. More than 13,000 troops are currently involuntarily serving in the military under a policy imposed in 2004. Some have described the ‘stop-loss’ practice as a backdoor draft. On Wednesday, Gates admitted the military has forced soldiers to serve “against their will.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “As of the end of January there were 13,200 soldiers in stop loss. I am pleased to announce that I have approved a plan to eliminate the use of stop loss for deploying soldiers… When somebody’s end date of service comes up, to hold them against their will, if you will, is just not the right thing to do.”

Gates says the Pentagon intends to end “stop/loss” across the entire armed forces by March of 2011. But he left open the right to continue it under what he called “extraordinary circumstances.” Soldiers under “stop loss” will also now be paid an additional $500 per month, retroactive to last October.

Czech Government Forced to Drop Vote on U.S. Missile System

In the Czech Republic, overwhelming opposition has forced the Czech government to drop attempts for parliamentary approval of a U.S. missile radar site. The Czech government had agreed with the Bush administration on hosting part of the so-called “missile defense” system along with a missile site in Poland. But on Wednesday, the government withdrew a planned vote fearing it would be defeated. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek vowed to seek another vote.

Czech Prime Minister: “The government decided in tonight’s negotiations that it will take back the treaty instruments, both of the treaties from the United States about the placement of radar units in the territory of the Czech Republic. That doesn’t mean that we’ve entirely resigned from the process of missile defence because we can return this back to parliament at any time.”

According to the anti-radar group Campaign for Peace and Democracy, two thirds of Czechs have consistently opposed the radar plans. Czech peace activists have led calls for a national referendum and have been credited with pressuring lawmakers to oppose the U.S. missile program.

Minister: Iraq Considers Increased Stake for Oil Companies

The Iraqi government has hinted at further concessions for international oil corporations operating in Iraq. On Wednesday, Iraq’s oil minister told an OPEC gathering in Vienna that Iraq will consider granting foreign companies a share in oil production profits, rather than the current system of receiving fixed fees. Earlier this year Iraq raised the amount foreign companies can recoup from oil projects from 49 percent to 75 percent.

Judge Orders Continued Marri Jailing

A federal judge has ordered the continued imprisonment of Ali al-Marri, who has been the only so-called ‘enemy combatant’ jailed in the United States. Marri has been held in isolation at a naval brig in South Carolina for more than five years. He has never stood trial or been convicted of any crime. The Obama administration charged him last month to avoid a Supreme Court hearing challenging his indefinite jailing. Marri will be transferred to Peoria, Illinois for an arraignment hearing on Monday.

Senators Back Increased IMF Aid

Back on Capital Hill, a bi-partisan group of Senators is voicing support for an Obama administration plan to increase U.S. contributions to the International Monetary Fund. Obama has asked Congress to grant the IMF $100 billion dollars to aid struggling nations hurt by the economic crisis. Senator John Kerry backed the proposal after meeting IMF and World Bank officials.

Senator John Kerry: “We are convinced that the IMF needs to have additional funding. Secretary Geithner has made a proposal for additional funding. I speak for myself and say that I support that. I think it is an essential ingredient of our ability to send a message regarding stability and regarding our preparedness to help countries face the banking challenges and the consumer and food challenges that we face across the globe.”

It’s unclear what kind of conditions recipient nations would face for accepting the new IMF aid.

African Leaders: Economic Crisis Could Reignite Regional Conflicts

African leaders are warning of renewed conflict on their continent if they’re not aided during the global economic meltdown. Meeting ahead of next month’s G20 summit, several African officials issued stark warnings on the consequences of price drops in African goods, loss of tourists and a sharp reduction in foreign remittances. The head of the African Development Bank, Donald Kaberuka, said the potential fallout from the global economic crisis is an “emergency” in Africa.

U.S. to End Raids on Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

The Justice Department has confirmed plans to end the Bush administration’s policy of raiding distributors of medical marijuana. On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said drug law enforcement would be restricted to traffickers falsely posing as medical dispensaries. Under Bush, medical dispensaries accused of violating federal law were raided even if they complied with state law.

Rep. Waters Introduces Bill to End Minimum Drug Sentencing

Meanwhile, Democratic Congressmember Maxine Waters has introduced a bill to end mandatory minimum sentencing in drug-related cases. The Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act would repeal mandatory minimum sentences and grant judges discretion to determine sentences.

New Mexico Abolishes Death Penalty

New Mexico has become the fifteenth state to outlaw the death penalty. On Wednesday, Governor Bill Richardson signed a bill barring capital punishment following its approval in the state legislature. New Mexico is the second state to end the death penalty since the Supreme Court restored it in 1976.

Study: Latinos Largest Ethnic Group in U.S. Prisons

A new study says Latinos now constitute the largest ethnic group in federal prisons. Mark Hugo Lopez of the Pew Hispanic Center says Latinos account for forty percent of prisoners nationwide.

Hugo Lopez: “Between 1981 and 2007, the share of all federal offenders who are Hispanic has risen from about 24 percent in 1991 to 40 percent in 2007. So they have really almost doubled their share of all sentenced federal offenders. Also, Hispanics represent the single largest group of sentenced federal offenders. The 40 percent share Hispanic is larger than the white share at 27 percent and the black share at 23 percent in 2007.”

Nearly half of the Latin prison population has been jailed on immigration charges, followed closely by drug charges.

Reparations, Israel Dropped from UN Racism Text

Negotiators drafting the declaration for next month’s UN Conference Against Racism have acceded to U.S. and European Union demands and dropped references to Israel and reparations for slavery. The Obama administration has vowed to boycott the conference unless the two issues are dropped from conference text.

Actress Natasha Richardson Dies at 45

And the Tony-award winning stage and film actor Natasha Richardson has died at the age of forty-five. She suffered a brain injury in a ski accident in Canada and was taken off life support yesterday. Richardson was the daughter of the British actor and activist Vanessa Redgrave. The two were said to be in talks to appear together in a stage production of “A Little Night Music.” Our condolences to Vanessa, as well as Natasha Richardson’s husband, the actor Liam Neeson, her aunt and uncle Corin and Lynn Redgrave, her sister Jolie Richardson and her two sons.

Juvenile Crime Down 20% in Grand Rapids

Youth Crime is Down in Grand Rapids, but Media Coverage Still Focuses On It

Last week, the City of Grand Rapids released its annual Grand Rapids Juvenile Offense Index (GRJOI) Report. It found that arrests for crime decreased 20% among youth aged 8 to 16 years old.

The report tracked three areas: family domestic issues, “status offenses” (such as curfew violations), and juvenile criminal offenses. Of the tracked areas, only 39% were actual crime.

It’s good news to be sure, although it might come as a surprise for many as the traditional media approach on juvenile crime is to create an atmosphere in which we are taught to fear youth–particularly youth of color.

This is created through a variety of means–including stories that report on isolated cases of violence as if it were epidemic, stories that simply relay the police versions of events, or stories that focus on laws aimed at criminalizing youth (for example, see Representative Dave Agema’s proposal to arm teachers). Think about how many stories we have seen or read about crime in Grand Rapids–whether that be stories focusing on gang violence, shootings, or fights–do these stories shape your perception of youth crime in Grand Rapids? How does race factor into these stories? What about class, age, and immigration status?

Studies have shown that the media tends to focus their coverage of youth on crime to the exclusion of other issues:

“…television news devoted more than 47 percent of all its news coverage of youth on crime and violence, and newspapers devoted about 40 percent of their stories to these topics. In the same survey, television devoted only about 15 percent of its stories to education issues, while the print media focused 25 percent of its coverage on the schools. Issues such as child poverty, child care, and child welfare occupied only about 4 percent of the attention of the media, both electronic and print. Very little space in either medium was devoted to policy discussions about possible solutions to youth problems. (Dale Kunkel, The News Media’s Picture of Children (1994).) A comparable survey of local television news coverage of youth in the State of California in 1993 concluded that over half of the stories on youth involved violence, while more than two-thirds of the violence stories concerned youth. By way of contrast, only 14 percent of all arrests for violent crime in California that same year were of youth. Thus, more than two-thirds of the TV news coverage of violent crime was focused on juveniles who were responsible for about 14 percent of that violence.”

This kind of coverage has persisted across the United States, despite an overall decline in juvenile crime over the past several years.

GVSU Shooting Representative of Failed Drug War

A Drug Raid Using a Militarized SWAT Team

The shooting of Derek Copp, an unarmed twenty-year-old student at Grand Valley, by an Ottawa County deputy as part of a drug investigation is absurdly tragic. Sadly, so is the War on Drugs this country has been engaged in since the 1970s.

According to an article in the Grand Rapids Press, police were raiding Copp’s apartment in search of drugs when they shot him in the chest. Police have confirmed he was unarmed. Additionally, no arrest was made. The incident begs the questions: how did it become acceptable to shoot an unarmed person in the chest while carrying out what was presumably an investigation of simple drug possession? How have we arrived at a place where someone’s personal drug use (no press reports have mentioned any allegations of dealing) in the privacy of their own home has resulted in a student’s near-death?

The answer lies in an examination of the War on Drugs, that abysmal failure to legislate morality that has resulted in countless lives scarred, ruined, and lost. Over the past seven decades, twenty million people have been arrested for marijuana-related offenses in this country; since the 1990s, the annual number of arrests (90% of which are for minor possession, not trafficking) has tripled . Though these crimes are almost entirely victimless, drug users pay an incredibly heavy toll, most notably in mass incarceration–which, in turn, has increased the use on private prisons, now a multi-billion dollar industry with significant influence on corrections legislation.

The force seen in Copp’s arrest is typical of how the drug war has been carried out. Examples abound: a 92-year-old Atlanta woman was shot dead in her home when police, looking for drugs, executed a no-knock raid. The officers had mistakenly broken down the door of the wrong house. A Denver man sleeping after completing a night shift was shot and killed by police, leaving family in the US and Mexico without support. Again, no knock. Again, wrong house. Baltimore police have been using the SWAT team to carry out drug raids–many of which have, again, turned out to be the wrong house. That the raid in Copp’s apartment was a mistake should not be ruled out–as Media Mouse has reported, he was not arrested.

In addition to its brutality, the drug war has been overtly racist. From its start under the Reagan administration, the War on Drugs has criminalized people of color, despite the fact that drug use is relatively even, proportionally, across racial lines. Marijuana is an excellent example: despite the fact that African Americans are no more likely to use drugs than whites, they are two-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for possession. The result of this racist and unwarranted criminalization is debilitating to communities of color: mothers and fathers are taken away from their children, ex-convicts are unable to find jobs to support themselves and their families, large swaths of time that could be spent on job training or education are instead wasted behind bars.

The case of Derek Copp is a part of this long, tragic tradition. It should remind us all how senseless the War on Drugs has been from its inception–and why, in addition to continuing to demand justice for Copp, we must demand the drug war’s end now.

Headlines: 2/3rds Support Investigating Bush Crimes

democracy now logo

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Blair: Financial Crisis Is Top Security Threat to US

The nation’s new Director of Intelligence Dennis Blair warned Thursday that the current global economic crisis has become a greater security concern to the United States than terrorism. Blair said the crisis has already increased questioning of U.S. stewardship of the global economy.

Dennis Blair: “And I would like to begin with the global economic crisis because it already looms as the most serious one in decades if not in centuries… Economic crisis increase the risk of regime threatening instability if they are prolonged for 1 or 2 year period. And instability can loosen the fragile hold that many developing countries have on law and order which can spillout in dangerous ways into the international community. There are some silver linings with low oil prices, Venezuela faces financial constraints this year. Iran’s president faces less than certain prospects for re-election in June.”

While discussing other global threats, Intelligence Director Dennis Blair highlighted the potential for an Iran-Israeli confrontation.

Dennis Blair: “The Levant is the key focal area for these strategic shifts. Recent fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip has deepened Palestinian political divisions. It is also widened the rift between regional moderates led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan and hardliners including Iran, Hizbollah, and Syria. With Hamas controlling Gaza and Hizbollah growing stronger in Lebanon progress on a Palestinian-Israeli accord is going to be more difficult. With Iran developing a nuclear power capability and with Israel determined not to allow it, there is potential for an Iran-Israeli confrontation or crisis.”

Sen. Gregg Withdraws As Commerce Pick

Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire has withdrawn his nomination as Commerce Secretary saying he had “irresolvable conflicts” with President Obama on the economic stimulus and the Census.

Sen. Judd Gregg: “You know I am a fiscal conservative as everybody knows. A fairly strong one. And it just became clear to me it would be very difficult, day in and day out, to serve in this cabinet or any cabinet for that matter and be part of the team but not be able to be 100 percent with the team, 110 percent with the team. You know you can’t have a blocking back without who only pulls out every second or third play.”

Judd Gregg is the third prospective cabinet secretary to bow out from consideration. Gregg would have been the third Republican in Obama’s cabinet.

Poll: 2/3 Americans Support Investigating Bush Crimes

In a new USA Today / Galllup Poll, two-thirds of Americans say they want investigations into the role of Bush administration officials in torture, warrantless wiretapping and the politicization of the Justice Department. 40 percent of respondents said they want to see prosecutions. Senator Patrick Leahy recently proposed the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate Bush administration crimes. On Monday President Obama was asked about Leahy’s proposal.

President Obama: “My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards. I want to pull everybody together, including, by the way, the–all the members of the intelligence community who have done things the right way and have been working hard to protect America and I think sometimes are painted with a broad brush without adequate information. So I will take a look at Senator Leahy’s proposal, but my general orientation is to say let’s get it right moving forward.”

Some Obama administration officials have already ruled out prosecutions. Earlier this month the new head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, said CIA officers would not be prosecuted for harsh interrogations authorized by the Bush White House. On Thursday the Senate confirmed Panetta by a voice vote.

Lawyer: Torture Evidence ‘Hidden From Obama’

Meanwhile the Guardian newspaper reports US defense officials may be preventing Barack Obama from seeing evidence that Binyam Mohamed, a former British resident held in Guantanamo Bay, has been tortured. The prisoner’s lawyer Clive Stafford Smith says he sent Obama evidence of what he called “truly mediaeval” abuse but substantial parts were blanked out before the president could read it. Smith says Obama should be aware of the “bizarre reality” of the situation. Smith said: “You, as commander in chief, are being denied access to material that would help prove that crimes have been committed by U.S. personnel. This decision is being made by the very people who you command.” The Guardian reports US defense officials might have censored the evidence to protect the president from criminal liability or political embarrassment.

Documents Reveals CIA & Pentagon Worked Closely on Rendition

In related news, three human rights groups released more than a thousand pages of Pentagon and CIA documents Thursday that reveal the two agencies worked closely together in rendering terrorism suspects to black sites. The documents also confirm the existence of secret prisons in Iraq and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

49 Killed in Continental Plane Crash Near Buffalo

A Continental flight from Newark to Buffalo crashed Thursday night killing 49 people. The dead included 44 passengers, four crew members and a person on the ground. The crash occurred about five miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport. It was the nation’s deadliest air crash in more than two years. One of the passengers killed was the widow of a businessman who died in the September 11 attacks. Beverly Eckert had been traveling to Buffalo to mark what would have been her late husband’s 58th birthday.

Judges Admit Taking Bribes From Private Juvenile Prison

In Pennsylvania, two judges have plead guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking bribes in return for placing youths in privately owned jails. Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan are said to have received $2.6 million for ensuring juvenile suspects were jailed in prisons operated by the companies PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care. Some of the youths were jailed over the objections of their probation officers. An estimated 5,000 juveniles have been sentenced by Ciavarella since the scheme started in 2002.

Pakistan Arrests Six Connected to Mumbai Attacks

Pakistani security forces have arrested the alleged ringleader and five others believed to have been involved in the conspiracy behind the attacks in Mumbai, India that killed 179 people. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik said gunmen had sailed from Karachi in Pakistan. Malik admitted at least part of the conspiracy had been organized in Pakistan.

Rehman Malik: “Fact remains that it’s not only Pakistan but system of other countries has also been used. As I said earlier, the telephone SIMs from Austria, the web service, the payment from Spain and the payment in Italy and the domain name is in Houston; and therefore we will be requesting, through Interpol, the FBI to help us because it is also a good piece of evidence.”

Afghanistan Probes Pakistan Link to Taliban Raid on Kabul

Afghan intelligence agents are investigating links between Pakistan and the Taliban militants who killed 26 people in three simultaneous suicide bomb and gun raids earlier this week on state offices in the capital Kabul.

30 Shiite Pilgrims Killed in Iraq

In Iraq, at least 30 Shiite pilgrims have been killed by a female suicide bomber south of Baghdad. The pilgrims were heading to the city of Karbala to take part in a religious ceremony.

Israeli Election Results Confirm Livni Won Most Seats

The final results of Israel’s parliamentary election confirmed Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party won the contest by a single seat over Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party. Both candidates are attempting to form coalition governments.

Report: Hamas To Sign Deal To Release Israeli Soldier

Meanwhile the Arabic daily Al-Hayat is reporting Hamas is prepared to sign a deal next week for the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as part of a long-term truce agreement with Israel. According to the report, Shalit would be freed in exchange for 1,000 Palestinians jailed in Israel.

UN To Probe Israel Attacks On UN Facilities in Gaza

In other news from the region, the United Nations has launched a formal inquiry into Israel’s bombings of UN installations and convoys during its 22-day attack on Gaza.

African Union and Arab League Criticize Possible Indictment of Bashir

African Union and Arab League diplomats are urging the U.N. Security Council to suspend an expected war crimes indictment of the Sudanese president over atrocities in Darfur. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is the most senior figure pursued by the court since it was set up in 2002. If the warrant is issued as expected, he will be the first acting head of state indicted. China, the African Union and Arab League have all suggested that an indictment of Bashir could destabilize the region and worsen the Darfur conflict.

Canada Restricts Use of Taser Stun Guns

The Canadian federal police have issued new guidelines restricting the use of taser stun guns. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police now bar officers from using stun guns against suspects who are merely resisting arrest or refusing to cooperate. At least 20 Canadians have died after being shot by stun guns. In 2007, an unarmed Polish man died at Vancouver International Airport after he was repeatedly tasered.

San Jose Man Dies After Police Tasering

Another taser death has been reported in the United States. In San Jose California a man in his 20s died Wednesday night after police shot him with a Taser. The death is the sixth to occur after the use of Tasers by San Jose police since 2004.

TVA: Coal Ash Spill To Cost Up To $800 Million To Clean

The Tennessee Valley Authority says it may cost over $800 million to clean up last year’s massive coal ash spill at a Tennessee coal plant. One point one billion gallons of coal ash sludge spilled from a containment pond flooding homes and nearby water sources.

Gay and Lesbian Couples Protest Marriage Laws

Hundreds of same-sex couples attempted to get married Thursday in a national day of action to protest laws prohibiting same-sex marriage. Couples went to marriage bureaus, county clerks’ offices and county courthouses to apply for marriage licenses only to be turned away. In New York activists wore signs reading “Just Not Married” after they were turned away by officials. The protests were organized as part of the 12th annual Freedom to Marry Week.

Obama Marks Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday

Ceremonies were held across the nation Thursday to mark the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. At a ceremony in Washington, President Barack Obama praised the nation’s16th president as a visionary of great courage.

President Obama: “As we mark the bicentennial of our 16th President’s birth, I cannot claim to know as much about his life and works as many of those who are also speaking today, but I can say that I feel a special gratitude to this singular figure who in so many ways made by own story possible-and who in so many ways made America’s story possible.

Hampshire College Students and Official Argue Over Divestment Decision

A dispute has emerged between officials at Hampshire College and student organizers over the school’s recent decision to divest from a mutual fund run by State Street Global Advisors. Activists with the group Students for Justice In Palestine said the move came after it had pressured Hampshire’s Board of Trustees to divest from six companies that provide the Israeli military with equipment and services in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza. Hampshire College officials admit they reviewed the State Street fund after receiving a petition from the group but the school said the divestment decision “did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country.” The trustees said they divested from the fund after learning the fund held stocks in more than 200 companies engaged in business practices that violated the college’s policy on “socially responsible investments.” The six companies that formed the basis of the student group’s complaints were: Caterpillar, United Technologies, General Electric, ITT Corporation, Motorola, and Terex. Students for Justice In Palestine are hailing the divestment decision as a major victory. They say Hampshire has become the first college in the country to break financial ties with companies specifically because they do business with Israel. In 1977, Hampshire became the first college in the nation to divest its South African holdings.

Jewish Activists Protest World Zionist Organization

Here in New York a group of Jewish activists have been staging a 24-hour protest in front of the Midtown Manhattan building that houses the World Zionist Organization and The Jewish Agency.

Jury: Florida Smoker Died Because of Addiction

And in Florida, a jury will soon decide whether tobacco giant Philip Morris should pay millions of dollars in a damage to the family of a smoker who died of lung cancer after being addicted to cigarettes for 40 years. Lawyers for the family of Stuart Hess argue he became hooked on cigarettes because of deceptive practices by Philip Morris that hid the dangers of smoking. On Thursday the jury Hess was helplessly addicted to nicotine and that he did not continue smoking by his own choice.

Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

By their very nature, prisons are something that is kept out of sight. The community doesn’t want to notice them and those housed within prisons have been temporarily (although in many cases the effects of incarceration remain long after release) removed from society. This out-of-sight nature makes it difficult to find out information about conditions in prisons. Beyond government statistics and agencies, it can be difficult to find out what happens inside prison walls.

This lack of transparency has accelerated in recent years as the number of privately run prisons–often with even more limited forms of disclosure–has risen. Private prisons have appeared in response to mass incarceration in the United States, with over two million people in prison. Private companies have realized that there is a fortune to be made in housing prisoners.

However, it isn’t just through the construction of private prisons that companies are making money from mass incarceration. Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration looks at the other ways in which corporations are profiting from the prison boom. The book is the third in a series that look at unprecedented increase of mass incarceration since the 1980s. The others include Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor and The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the US Prison Industry.

Prison Profiteers features eighteen essays divided into three sections–“The Political Economy of Prisons,” “The Private Prison Industry,” and “Making Out Like Bandits.” The essays expose a host of problems with the prison system ranging from inadequate prison care to misuse of public funds. All of the examples share the same motivation: profit. The essays on the prison healthcare system were particularly striking, with distributing examinations of horrific healthcare given to inmates by companies such as Correctional Medical Services. In some cases, this grossly negligent care has resulted in unnecessary deaths. The book spends a significant amount of time on the increasing number of private prisons, looking at problems and the companies behind them. In one particularly interesting chapter, Samantha Shapiro reports on the increase of evangelical Christian programs in prisons. These programs–of which Prison Fellowship Ministries is the largest–are sold to prisons as a way of minimizing violence and improving prisoner behavior. While they have had some success, the author raises important questions about the ethics of these programs. The book looks at lesser known ways in which private companies profit from mass incarceration as well, including prisoner transport, prison phone service, and jail fees.

Prison Profiteers also looks at the relationship between the growth in the private prison industry and the growth in prisoners, finding that the correlation doesn’t always work as one might expect. Logic would seem to indicate that private prison companies have grown as the number of prisoners grow, however, in some cases it appears that the privatized prison services companies–many of which often have close relationships with governments–are in some ways fostering an increase in the number of prisoners.

Overall, Prison Profiteers sheds light on an issue that many likely have not considered, while offering a larger critique of the prison system as a whole.

Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, Eds., Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration, (The New Press, 2008).

Headlines: Israel Shells Hospital and UN Compound, Supreme Court Loosens Rules for Illegally Obtained Evidence

democracy now logo

Headlines from Democracynow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Israel Shells Crowded Hospital, UN Compound

Israel continues its relentless attack on Gaza with more bombings of civilian targets, including a crowded hospital. The past hours have seen some of the most intensive Israeli bombing of the twenty-day assault. The Al-Quds hospital was hit by Israeli shells, setting it ablaze. Around 500 patients were being treated inside. The attack followed an earlier Israeli strike that hit the main United Nations aid compound in Gaza City. More than 700 Palestinians had taken shelter there.

UN: White Phosphorus Used in Attack; Fire Will Destroy Stockpile of Gaza Aid

United Nations Relief and Works Agency spokesperson Christopher Gunness said the compound is burning with flames from white phosphorus shells.

UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness: “There have been three hits on the UNRWA headquarters, the UNRWA compound in Gaza, including, I’m told by [UNRWA head] John Ging, white phosphorus. Three of our staff members have been injured. The workshop in our compound is in flames, and nearby are loaded fuel tankers. So the situation is extremely dangerous and extremely serious. We have been on the phone to the Israeli authorities, asking them to call off their fire from around the compound of a neutral international organization. We have not had the answer we want.”

The UN says the fire will burn down an entire warehouse storing thousands of tons of food, medical supplies and other aid.

Israeli Shelling Hits Media Building

A nearby Israeli shelling hit an office building housing several media organizations. A journalist for the Abu Dhabi television channel was injured. Reuters bureau chief Alastair Macdonald said the attack came despite contact with the Israeli military.

Alastair Macdonald: “We were, in fact, at that time in contact with the Israeli army, checking with them that they knew where our staff were and where they were working. We were assured that they were. Shortly after that, an explosion hit the floor just above us. Shrapnel entered the office. It also struck the offices of another media company two floors above ours. One person, at least, there was wounded, we understand. We have evacuated our office.”

Thousands Flee Homes as Toll Passes 1,000

Thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes today, as Israel escalates its assault on densely populated residential areas. Gaza resident Nasser Mohammed said his family was forced to relocate twice after coming under Israeli attack.

Nasser Mohammed: “We were inside a house with the children, and then the Israeli army started to shoot at us with bullets, so we moved to another house with the children. Then the second house came down on top of us.”

The Palestinian death toll now stands at at least 1,045–at least half of them civilian. Another 4,860 have been injured. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, including four by friendly fire.

Israeli Rights Groups Call for War Crimes Investigation

The latest attacks came after a coalition of nine Israeli human rights groups called for an investigation into whether Israel is committing war crimes. In a statement, the groups, including the Israeli sections of Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights, condemned what they call the “wanton use of lethal force” against Palestinian civilians. They continue, “This kind of fighting constitutes a blatant violation of the laws of warfare and raises the suspicion…of the commission of war crimes.” There are worldwide calls for prosecuting Israeli leaders. On Wednesday, hundreds gathered outside the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Sobhi Khansa of the International Coalition Against Impunity said Israeli leaders should be tried for crimes against humanity.

Sobhi Khansa: “The crimes of Israel against Gaza increase day after day. And now it’s terrorist crimes, you know? They are using terrorist weapons, murder, crimes against humanity, war crimes. So, for this, we came to the Hague to ICC Court. We want the court to go and start investigation about these crimes.”

The Guardian of London reported this week diplomats are considering asking the United Nations General Assembly to refer Israel’s actions in Gaza to the World Court. The UN’s special rapporteur to the Occupied Territories, Richard Falk, has said Israel’s attack on Gaza could be in violation of the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, international law and international humanitarian law.

Bolivia, Venezuela Cut Israel Ties in Protest

Bolivia and Venezuela, meanwhile, have cut diplomatic ties with Israel in protest of the Gaza assault. Bolivian President Evo Morales also backed calls for investigating Israeli leaders.

Bolivian President Evo Morales: “The most serious international crimes should not go unpunished. Any government can back the investigation and punishment of these crimes. Bolivia, a sovereign state that shows it is against violence and respects life, will work with other governments and humanitarian organizations to ask for an investigation in international court for the crimes committed in the Gaza Strip by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other members of the Israeli cabinet.”

Second Free Gaza Ship Abandons Aid Mission Following Israeli Threat

A ship trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza says it has aborted its mission after the Israeli navy threatened the civilian passengers on board. The Free Gaza movement boat left Cyprus on Wednesday seeking to deliver doctors and medical supplies. It was the group’s first attempt to reach Gaza since an Israeli navy vessel deliberately rammed another humanitarian boat last month, almost forcing it to sink. According to a Free Gaza statement, five Israeli gunboats surrounded the Spirit of Humanity ship in international waters 100 miles off the Gaza coast. In a radio transmission, the Israeli navy threatened to open fire on the ship unless it immediately turned around. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has intercepted an Iranian ship headed to Gaza for the second time. The ship is carrying food and medicine and had planned to arrive in Gaza this past weekend. It tried to reach Gaza again on Wednesday, but was intercepted by the Israeli navy.

Greece Refuses to Host US Weapons Shipment to Israel

Meanwhile, the US has been forced to cancel a weapons shipment to Israel after the Greek government refused to allow it to pass through its ports. The US says it will seek an alternative site.

Bin Laden Tape Calls for “Holy War” Over Gaza

Osama bin Laden has resurfaced in a new audiotape calling for a holy war over the Israeli attack on Gaza. The undated recording condemns Israel and the United States.

Osama bin Laden: “We are with you, and we will not let you down. Our fate is tied to yours in fighting the Crusader-Zionist coalition, in fighting until victory or martyrdom. God has bestowed us with the patience to continue the path of jihad for another seven years, and seven and seven… The question is, can America continue its war with us for several more decades to come? Reports and evidence would suggest otherwise.”

Military Plans for Earlier Iraq Withdrawal

In Iraq news, Pentagon commanders are reportedly drafting contingencies for a speedier withdrawal of US troops than currently planned. The Washington Post reports military officials ordered the new withdrawal plan in case President-elect Obama rejects current proposals as too slow.

Judge Orders Release of Gitmo Prisoners

A federal judge has ruled the Pentagon must release a Guantanamo Bay prisoner over a lack of evidence to justify continued imprisonment. US District Judge Richard Leon says the Pentagon has failed to prove Mohammed El-Gharani is a so-called enemy combatant. A Chad national, Gharani was arrested in Pakistan in 2002. He has been held at Guantanamo for more than six years.

House Backs Child Healthcare Expansion

On Capitol Hill, the House has passed a measure expanding government health insurance for low-income children. President Bush has vetoed previous votes expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP. But President-elect Obama says it will be one of the first measures he hopes to sign into law when he takes office next week. The $33 billion bill would be funded in part by a tax increase on cigarette packs. A Senate vote is expected next week.

Supreme Court Restricts Protections for Illegally Obtained Evidence

The Supreme Court has ruled evidence obtained through illegal searches or mistaken arrests can still be used to prosecute criminal cases. In a five-to-four ruling, the court voted to impose new limits on the so-called exclusionary rule, which dismisses evidence obtained from unreasonable searches or seizure. In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the ruling leaves suspects in exclusionary cases with “no remedy for violations of their constitutional rights.”

Admin Claims Compliance in Email Request

The Bush administration is claiming it will meet a legal requirement to hand over millions of emails it’s long claimed to have lost. A government lawyer made the announcement at a hearing in a suit brought by civil liberties groups seeking the emails’ public release. The announcement came hours after a District Court judge ordered White House employees to search their hard drives for the missing emails, dated from 2003 to 2005. One of the plaintiffs, the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says the government’s claim to have recovered the emails should be verified independently. Another ruling is expected soon in a suit seeking to force Vice President Dick Cheney to hand over his personal records. Cheney says he should decide what gets publicly disclosed.

Treasury to Increase Aid to Bank of America

And the Treasury Department is reportedly finalizing a new plan to give Bank of America billions of additional dollars on top of the $25 billion infusion it’s already received in the taxpayer bailout. Bank of America says it needs the funds to complete the acquisition of the troubled firms Merrill Lynch and Countrywide. $10 billion of the $25 billion Bank of America received last year was earmarked for its purchase of Merrill Lynch.

The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal

The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal is an interesting book that looks at the case of one of the United States’ most well-known death penalty cases. It convincingly argues that Abu-Jamal was framed by the Philadelphia Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office.

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

When I first got into radical politics in the late 1990s, the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal was one of the first issues that I learned about. At the time, it was not uncommon to see people tabling with information about his case calling for a new trial at political events. In fact, Mumia’s case became the subject of an early Media Mouse project back in 2000–a pamphlet that used Mumia’s case as an introduction to talking about racial disparities in incarceration and the use of the death penalty.

Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, attention on Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case seems to have waned–due perhaps to the rise of the Bush administration and the “War on Terror.” However, journalist J. Patrick O’Connor’s new book The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal provides an important reminder of why this case has gained so much attention over the years. O’Connor’s book provides a thorough account of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case, arguing that the Philadelphia Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office framed Abu-Jamal for the killing of police officer Daniel Faulkner.

O’Connor provides a detailed and insightful primer into the case of one of the United States’ most famous death row prisoners. O’Connor’s book essentially tells the complete history of the case, examining court hearings, evidence, and the strategies used by the state. Beginning with the events of December 9, 1981 when Officer Faulkner was killed, O’Connor looks all facets of the case. He explores how the judge in the case–Judge Sabo–was biased against Mumia Abu-Jamal from the start and how the Philadelphia Police Department and the District Attorney used that to their advantage. O’Connor discusses how problems with Abu-Jamal’s rushed trial and ineffective counsel–the prosecutor telling the jury that their decision could be reversed in a series of likely appeals, preemptory challenges that excluded black jurors, and bias on the part of Judge Sabo–have led to the likelihood of Mumia Abu-Jamal getting a new trial in upcoming years.

Aside from the bias in the case, Abu-Jamal’s conviction happened with next to no forensic evidence. The police failed to conduct routine tests generally used in murder investigations. Similarly, testimony about the way in which the bullet that shot Abu-Jamal entered his body suggest that the prosecution’s version of events–that Officer Faulkner got off one shot and hit Abu-Jamal as he was falling to the ground–was not true. At the same time, witness testimony and Mumia Abu-Jamal’s “confession” were not credible, with evidence emerging in recent years–along with clues during his 1982 trial–suggesting that the prosecutors and/or the Philadelphia Police Department solicited perjured statements and testimony from two supposed eyewitnesses (one was a prostitute and the other was a convicted felon). Some of these flaws could have been highlighted in the Abu-Jamal’s trial, but O’Connor clearly demonstrates that Abu-Jamal’s counsel was ineffective and poorly prepared to handle the case.

O’Connor also provides contextual information that makes Mumia Abu-Jamal’s framing seem more likely. He talks about the rampant corruption in the Philadelphia Police Department, Abu-Jamal’s work as a journalist defending the disenfranchised and questioning the actions of the police, and his work with the Black Panther Party as a teenager. O’Connor argues that Mumia Abu-Jamal’s sympathetic reporting on the revolutionary group MOVE and its series of confrontations with the police and the City of Philadelphia made him a “marked man.” He says that the framing was set in motion by a corruption Philadelphia Police Inspector named Alfonzo Giordano who was aware of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s political sympathies. It was Giordano who arranged for prostitute Cynthia White to testify. White provided key evidence, yet it seems likely that her testimony was false.

The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal is a relatively quick read that is simultaneously gripping and enraging. It draws the read into particularly egregious example of how the justice system in the United States operates while at the same time serves as a reminder that institutional racism is an all too real component of the justice system. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could read this book without coming to the conclusion that Mumia Abu-Jamal deserves a new trial at the least–and possibly to be freed.

J. Patrick O’Connor, The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal, (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008).

Snitch: Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice

Snitch is a critical examination of the government’s use of informants and the rise of “tough on crime” policies over the past twenty years. Snitch argues that the use of informants has led to a situation where informants are rewarded for the quantity of information they provide and not the quality.

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice is an essential look into an unsavory aspect of the United States’ criminal justice system–the use of informants and cooperators. Author Ethan Brown traces the use of informants to the rise of “tough on crime” laws in the 1970s and 1980s that emphasized tough sentences to fight crime, particularly drugs. With the advent of tough laws and penalties, the government began to offer incentives under section 5K1.1 of the United States Sentencing Commission to entice individuals to cooperate. In exchange for their cooperation, criminals had their only real chance at the possibility of lessening their sentence.

Snitch looks at the use of informants in a number of criminal cases–drug cases, murder cases, racketeering, fraud, and more–to show that while the specifics of the crimes always very, the use of informants is often strikingly similar. It is all too common to see prosecutors rely on testimony from informants who have negotiated for sentencing reductions. While this automatically should raise questions about self-interest in the informants, prosecutors are often hesitant to admit such concerns and are even more reluctant to admit previous crimes of informants.

For those of us reading Snitch from a left perspective, it is surprising that Brown does not include any discussion of the role of informants in eco-terrorism cases. In recent years, eco-terrorism prosecutions have relied heavily on government informants and FBI infiltrators, leading to substantial prison sentences. Informants have been instrumental in cases known as “The Green Scare” and are facilitating a new wave of repression directed at political activists. Many of the questions raised throughout Snitch are relevant to eco-terrorism informants, particularly questions of accuracy and motivation.

To combat the problems with a justice system that is overly reliant on informants, Brown advocates revising section 5K1.1 of the USSC to make prosecutors more accountable and to have increased oversight of informants. He calls for penalties aimed at deterring lying informants and lessening the great degree of discretion that prosecutors have in developing cooperation deals. Along with it, Brown suggests that the US consider revamping sentencing guidelines to address the fact that large numbers of federal prisoners are serving decades or life behind bars. Many of these recommendations are advocated by Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions who has been attempting to work on the issue in the Senate.

Snitch offers an important overview of a topic that is often portrayed in a one-sided fashion in the corporate media. Locally, we have seen an effort aimed at combating the “stop snitching” movement, but there has been little discussion of the substantive reasons behind the “stop snitching” campaign. Once people understand the problems of heavy reliance on informants for convictions, the “stop snitching” sentiment starts to make a lot of sense–no matter how reactionary it might be. While nobody wants to see violent criminals get away with their crimes, nobody wants to see innocent people locked up by a system that relies on a faulty system of informants and cooperators. Brown does an excellent job of describing the problems with the current system and offering some solutions. Hopefully with the issue out in the open, there will be some movement on the sentencing reforms that he speaks of at the conclusion of the book.

Ethan Brown, Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice, (PublicAffairs, 2007).

An Overview of Michigan’s Prison System: Highly Puntive, but Hope for Change

On Saturday, Barbara Levine of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending gave an overview of Michigan’s prison system at the “Michigan’s Prison System: How Does it Affect You” conference in Grand Rapids.

On Saturday, Barbara Levine–the executive director of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS)–gave the keynote address at the “Michigan’s Prison System: How Does It Affect You?” conference at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids. Levine’s speech gave an excellent overview of the state of Michigan’s prison system and set the stage for the sessions and workshops that took place later in the day.

Levine began by telling the audience that Michigan currently has 50,000 people incarcerated. This number has increased dramatically over the past two decades, with 15,000 people being incarcerated in 1984. Overall, the United States has an incarceration rate higher than most other country’s. Michigan’s system fits into that as an extremely punitive prison system, with the 11th highest incarceration rate in the United States–higher than the neighboring states and higher than Canada, Mexico, and Central America.

Levine attributed the increase in Michigan’s prison population to the “get tough” crime laws that began to emerge in the mid-1970s. While the crime rate was identical in 1974 to 1995, the numbers of those incarcerated shot up dramatically. Media, politicians, and some social scientists fueled the trend by advocating and responding to calls for “tougher” sentences.

To its credit, Michigan sends a lower percentage of felons to prison than many other states. However, those that do get sent to prison end up staying for a very long time. On average, Michigan’s prisoners stay for 16 months longer than prisoners in other Great Lakes do. The average length of stay for prisoners in Michigan is 42 months according to a recent study by the Citizens Research Council. Levine said that there is no empirical evidence that keeping people in prison longer reduces their likelihood of returning and a study by her organization found that there is “no magic length of time” that will reduce recidivism.

There are a number of factors responsible for Michigan’s lengthy average prison sentence. Aside from the “get tough” policies already noted, Levine said that prison sentences are driven in large part by fear–citizens are afraid of crime, politicians are afraid to look “soft” on crime, and the parole board is afraid to let someone out who later might commit a heinous crime. At the same time, the United States has an attitude in which “individual responsibility” is a predominant attitude that makes it hard for people to sympathize with prisoners, as many people ignore the societal factors that play a role in crime. Levine also said that prisons are a big money industry where contractors, communities, guards, etc all make money off prisons. At the same time, prosecutors are given almost total discretion to pursue charges, but they often feel pressured to pursue “tough” sentences to stay in office. Judges have similar discretion and often err on the high end of what are frequently vague sentencing guidelines (for example: 5 to 25 years, 10 years to life). The parole board also has guidelines but minimal oversight. Consequently, many who are eligible for parole are not let lout. In 2005, 45% of those who scored a high probability of release were not let out.

Levine said that this incarceration comes at a high financial price for the state of Michigan. Currently, the Michigan Department of Correction’s annual budget is $2.1 billion. That number is 20% of the state’s general fund. Spending on corrections comes at the expense of other programs.

Beyond the financial cost, there is a great societal cost to such a punitive incarceration system. One in six African-American males are incarcerated at some point in their life, and if current trends continue, that number will reach one in three. African Americans are imprisoned at five-and-a-half times the rate of whites. There are also now 1.5 million children in the United States who have a parent in prison. The stigma of incarceration also remains after people are released, with many former prisoners having a very difficult time finding jobs and housing once they are released.

However, despite all of the problems with Michigan’s prison system, Levine sees some prospects for hope. She said that Michigan’s residents are beginning to see the costs and futility of “get tough” policies and that legislators are starting to respond with policy changes. She said that drug sentences are slowly being reformed and that there is an ongoing conversation in Lansing about how to cut the MDOC budget. She also said that the Detroit Chamber of Commerce has made it a goal to reduce the MDOC budget by $500 million and is basing its cuts on recommendations made by her organization.

Overall, Levine’s talk gave a good overview of some of the problems in the prison system. For those that want to learn more about Michigan’s prisons, we encourage you to visit the following websites:

http://www.capps-mi.org

http://www.humanityforprisoners.org

http://www.legalaidwestmich.org

http://www.curenational.org

http://www.prisoneradvocacy.org

http://www.balancingourpriorities.org