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Writing Guantanamo

March 31st, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


In the upcoming April 17 issue of the New York Review of Books,
veteran investigative reporter Raymond Bonner reviews four books that cover aspects of Guantanamo. But as is often the case for the best NY Review of Books stories, Bonner’s piece is less review than it is a comprehensive essay on the issue that the books generally cover—which is, in this instance, the ghastly moral and legal bungling that has characterized the Bush administration’s handling of terrorists suspects both at Guantanamo Bay and the various “black sites” that we, the lowly American public, have learned about only in disturbing dribs and drabs.

Here’s the opening of Bonner’s essay:

On February 11, 2008, the Pentagon announced that charges were being filed against six men in connection with the September 11 attacks, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the attacks and one of al-Qaeda’s most senior members, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a leader of the Hamburg cell that included several of the September 11 pilots. It has taken nearly seven years for these men to be indicted—while more than 240 other prisoners continue to remain at Guantánamo in a state of indefinite detention without charge. In contrast, Britain, after one of the longest and most expensive trials in its history, has already convicted and sentenced four men for the failed attacks on the London subway on July 21, 2005.

Last year, British officials also arrested
three other men for involvement in the deadly attacks on three London subway lines and a bus on July 7, 2005, two weeks earlier; they are scheduled to go on trial at the end of March. Spain has convicted twenty-one of twenty-eight men charged in connection with the terrorist attacks on commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004; and Indonesia has held lengthy trials and convicted four men who were accused of the terrorist attacks in Bali in October 2002, two of whom have been sentenced to death, and two to life imprisonment.

“Justice delayed is justice denied” is a guiding principle of the American criminal justice system. The Bush administration has ignored this principle with impunity, and America’s image abroad has suffered greatly as a result.

The administration could have avoided much of the criticism
it has received for its handling of terrorism suspects. It didn’t have to listen to the civil libertarians and human rights lawyers. All it needed to do was heed the advice of the country’s military lawyers…..


As the Bush administration, in the weeks
after the September 11 attacks, began hurriedly drafting rules to try suspects, the most senior military lawyers, from all four services, were “appalled” at the lack of rights that the administration proposed granting the defendants….

Bonner’s essay goes a lot further, including references to what the three presidential candidates have been willing to say—and not say—about Guantanamo and torture. For example there’s this:

“Only Obama makes a point in his speeches
that he would restore habeas corpus for Guantánamo prisoners,,” writes Bonner. “It generally brings loud applause.”

Posted in Civil Liberties, crime and punishment, Guantanamo, National politics | 7 Comments »

The James Q Wilson Factor – Part Deux

March 31st, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


It turns out I was not the only person annoyed
by Sunday’s James Q. Wilson Op Ed. Texas smart guy, Scott Henson, the public policy wonk who runs the excellent blog, Grits for Breakfast, fulminated mightily over Wilson’s one-sided natterings. Here’s some of what Henson posted on the issue.

For starters, his comment about incarceration vs. safety
results in states cannot survive a comparison between Texas and New York, for example, so I’d like to see the research backing up that statement. By relying on Mr. Levitt’s [Freakonomics] often controversial work, he’s identified a scholar whose estimates of the effectiveness of imprisonment fall on the high end of those produced in the last decade. Levitt thinks that imprisonment accounted for as much as 32% of the reduction in crime in the 1990s (See “Understanding why crime fell in the 1990s”).

Other econometric estimates
- including one by UT-Austin’s Bill Spelman – found that expanding the prison population accounted for about a quarter of the crime reduction in the ’90s. (Bill and I have enjoyed a friendly dispute about this in the past, because I think some of his assumptions overstate incarceration’s effectiveness and understate its harms). Overall, according to a recent paper by the Vera Institute, Levitt and Spelman “produced a fairly consistent finding, associating a 10 percent higher incarceration rate with a 2 to 4 percent lower crime rate.”

But if we are to be honest about the state of empirical research on the topic, one cannot declare emphatically, as Wilson does, that “deterrence works” or that expanded incarceration “reduces crime.” According to the Vera Institute, “One could use available research to argue that a 10 percent increase in incarceration is associated with no difference in crime rates, a 22 percent lower index crime rate, or a decrease only in the rate of property crime.”

What’s more, even the highest estimates,
like Mr. Levitt’s, still contend that 2/3 of the crime 0reduction had nothing to do with incarceration. So the decline in crime, according to these sources, mostly wasn’t because of putting more people in prison.

Wilson says as much when he writes that, “Several scholars have separately estimated that the increase in the size of our prison population has driven down crime rates by 25%.” But crime has declined much more than that since the early ’90s, and Texas’ prison population tripled since then, for example, so if it takes a 300% increase in prison capacity to get a 25% reduction in crime, how far can we really take that strategy?

Wilson similarly ignores research that suggests real, immediate limits to the benefits of incarceration in states that have large prison systems, again from the Vera Institute (p. 7):

Raymond Liedka, Anne Piehl, and Bert Useem have confirmed, moreover, that increases in prison populations in states with already large prison populations have less impact on crime than increases in states with smaller prison populations. States experience “accelerating declining marginal returns, that is, a percent reduction in crime that gets ever smaller with ever larger prison populations,” they argue. Thus, increases in incarceration rates are associated with lower crime rates at low levels of imprisonment, but the size of that association shrinks as incarceration rates get bigger.

There’s more here. Go Scott!

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, prison, prison policy | 7 Comments »

The James Q Wilson Factor

March 30th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


In Sunday’s LA Times Opinion section,
famous conservative criminology prof, James Q. Wilson, is once again trotting out his contention that locking up masses of people is a fabulously effective crime-fighting tactic. This time Wilson busily opines that the fact that 1 in every 100 American adults is behind bars, and 1 in 9 African American men between the ages of 20 to 34 is locked up (as revealed by the recently released Pew Center on the States’ study)…..isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Aside from the jaw-dropping level of cynicism required for such a perspective, it doesn’t hold water.

For years, Wilson (AKA Mr. Broken Windows Theory) has attempted to draw a straight line between incarceration patterns and crime patterns, but to do so he has to cherry-pick his studies and statistics. I’d launch a study-filled counter argument but fortunately, Robert Gordon writing for the New Republic, has done it for me here.

PS: Before I turn you over to Wilson and Gordon,
a couple of facts and figures: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics drug offenders account for about 25 percent of local jail inmates, 21 percent of state prisoners, and 55 percent of federal prisoners. Since 1980 the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased by 1,200 percent, more than four times the increase in violent offenders.

And have our drug use, abuse and sales stats gone down a commensurate 1200 percent in that time? Has this crazy incarceration binge reduced the number of drug users, gangs and gang members? You do the math.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, prison, prison policy | 34 Comments »

Royal Government

March 30th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


Three separate stories tonight—one on television, two on radio
—addressed the idea that the Bush Administration has created what many have called an Imperial Presidency—a presidency that believes itself above the US courts, above the necessity to honor long-standing government treaties, and above international law.

The first of the three stories was the much ballyhooed 60 Minutes segment
about Murat Kurnaz, a German traveling in Pakistan who was nabbed three months after 9/11 and transported to Afghanistan where he says he was tortured severely. It seemed to matter little that the FBI, U.S. intelligence and German intelligence had reportedly concluded that Kurnaz was innocent of the terrorism charges brought against him. He was subsequently transferred to Guantanamo where charges against him fell further apart. In 2002, German intelligence agents wrote their government, saying, “USA considers Murat Kurnaz’s innocence to be proven. He is to be released in approximately six to eight weeks.” Instead, Kurnaz was kept in Guantanamo for an additional three and a half years.

When contacted, the US Department of Defense
responded to 60 Minutes in letter form that called Kurnaz’ accusations outlandish and unsubstantiated.

The second two stories were on this week’s This American Life. In one episode, TAL tells about the more than a hundred foreign women who got married to Americans, then had their spouses die less than two years after the marriage. The US government responded to their grief and loss by curtly informed the widows “You’re no longer married to Americans. Your citizen application is denied. Now get out of the country.” The widows went to court over the matter, and the court told the government that it had to let the women stay. But the US government ignored the court and told them they have to leave anyway.

Story three was about an American couple who lived on the Canadian border and decided to build a retaining wall inside the ten-foot buffer zone that is on either side of the international boundary. The International Boundary Commission told the Americans that they couldn’t have the wall inside the buffer zone and would have to take it down. The Americans sued the Commission, the bi-national entity created by a 1925 treaty to inspect and oversee the US Canada border. And that’s when the Bush administration stepped in….

You can hear the rest on
This American Life here. (The promos up now, and podcasts will be available of the program in a few days)

In a way this is all an old issue. We have long been aware that in instances ranging from FISA to signing statements, when the Bush administration doesn’t like a law or a legal ruling it pretty much does what it pleases regardless of restrictions placed on it by Congress or courts.

But the real question is, what will happen next January
when we have a new president? Wll he or she keep the newly established Imperial presidency, or dismantle it.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Guantanamo, International politics | 11 Comments »

Who’s Driving the Latest Reverend Wright Controversy?

March 27th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


For days we saw (over and over and over)
that Barack Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright has, at times, said some outrageous and offensive stuff. And since Obama was clearly close to the man, we needed to have him explain himself regarding Wright and the controversy. Which he did. And you either bought or you didn’t.

Then it was time to move on
—which the electorate did, if the newest poll is to be believed.

But now it appears that Wright not only said
outrageous things, he may have written outrageous things too. (A Newsday blogger reported it. CNN couldn’t verify it. But they reported what the Newsday guy wrote anyway.)

That’s not all. It seems that people who are not Rev. Wright
have occasionally written outrageous things that are critical of Israel for the Trinity Church bulletin. All of which somehow is supposed to reflect badly on Obama.

And that’s the story that led off CNN’s 360 news hour with Anderson Cooper Thursday night, and also occupied most of Larry King Live.
Clearly the church bulletin story was of weightier import than the newly spiraling violence in Iraq, or the fact that investment banks and broker dealers are borrowing from the Fed at a drunken-sailor rate of $30 billion a day, or that lenders have grown so jittery that they’re starting to freeze even homeowners’ perfectly healthy equity lines of credit.

Nope, both shows featured pundits
speculating with happy vigor about whether or not sporadic political comments appearing in some Trinity church handout are going to hurt Obama’s Presidential chances.

Even Drudge and NewsMax aren’t bothering to push this story.
But CNN is. And Clinton-supporting Newsday is.

Thank you Liberal Media. This really furthers the important issues in America’s presidential primary dialog.

Posted in Elections '08, media, Presidential race | 57 Comments »

The City Grieves

March 27th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


LA Times story here, Daily News here, LAFD blog here.

Posted in LAFD | 1 Comment »

Cut Education, Wound the Economy?

March 27th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


Two thousand students, administrators and education advocates
gathered at Cal State Long Beach on Wednesday afternoon to send a message to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that the proposed $313 million dollar cut out of the California State University system will not only do harm to students, but it will have an adverse affect on the economy.

Among other things, say CSU officials,
the cuts are set to feature a ten percent student fee increase, and could reduce planned CSU enrollment by up to 10,000 students.

The University of California system is targeted for a similar hit.

Republican lawmakers don’t want to raise taxes, said one speaker, but students are “are swimming in taxes, which we call fees.”

Other CSUs like San Diego State and Sacramento State have also held rallies.

In Sacramento, 900 Sacramento State administrators,
faculty, staff, students and alumni packed the University Theater and several additional rooms to listen to speakers.

California Faculty Association President Lila Jacobs led a chant of “Stop the cuts,” and then outlined the stakes. “We graduate teachers, nurses, engineers, police, state workers; we graduate the infrastructure,” she said. “When we can’t do our job, the whole state is negatively impacted.”

California State University Employees Union President Pat Gantt added that cuts to the CSU budget will harm all Californians. “CSU is part of the American dream because without a prepared workforce, California cannot move forward,” he said.

Arnold and both Dem and Repub state lawmakers would be wise to listen.

Posted in academic freedom, Economy, Education, State government, State politics | 29 Comments »

Another &^%$##&$ Gang Plan: THE SEQUEL

March 26th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon



Yesterday I was critical of what appeared
to be one more gang report, this one ordered by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Like most gang policy watchers—I’d reached a state of near apoplexy regarding the plethora of expensive reports, and the absolute dearth of real action resulting from them. Thus I found the idea of one more plan/report/audit entirely maddening.

But after I posted I got an email from attorney
Susan Lee from the Advancement Project who told me very nicely that I’d gotten it wrong. This wasn’t just another report at all, Lee wrote, but a set of specific recommendations designed to get LA County to actually take some of the steps that we’ve be clamoring for.

Here’s the deal: One of the things that all the previous reports have made clear is that the only long term solution to LA’s gang violence is to change the community ecology in which the gangs exist. To put it another way, if we really want to get the upper hand on gang violence in a given area we have to change everything: the schools, access to services, the mental and emotional health of the families, the neighborhood. And we have to add new elements to the mix: mentoring, jobs, parenting classes, mental health treatment, youth development sites that feature recreation, arts, job training, and sports….and on and on.

Do we have the money or the organizational
wherewithal to make those kinds of changes in LA’s poorest and most gang-fraught communities? Of course not. At least, not right now. (We can’t manage to get our urban schools to work. for God’s sake.)

BUT, what we can do-–as Susan pointed out when we talked later in the afternoon—is to “lay the tracks” for such an endeavor, and from there make changes by increments, but with an uber strategy in mind—instead of the ineffective piecemeal chaos we’ve got now. (That last was my phrasing, not hers.)

It sounds daunting. Okay, it is daunting.
But the County plan awaiting approval is designed to pick out several “demonstration sites,” do a comprehensive “needs assessment” in those communities, and then get to work. Once the Board of Sups gives the go-ahead, the ball will begin rolling.

The idea is not without precedent. Probably the closest existing analogue is the Harlem Children’s Zone project in New York which aims to blanket all the kids in a particular low income area with tightly linked services throughout their childhoods into young adulthood, and thus change their ability and opportunity to succeed.

There will be no overnight miracles. This is an in-it-for-the-long-haul deal. And, as Susan said, given the fiscal realities, in the next year everybody’ll be mostly be laying track.

One small reason to be hopeful here is the fact that LA’s most essential players have bought in to the plan and have agreed on the broad strokes planning—namely Chief Bratton, Sheriff Baca, LAUSD’s David Brewer, Jeff Carr from the mayor’s office, Connie Rice, plus the big county health agencies and more.

It is also cheering that LA County CEO Bill Fujioka (the former LA City CAO) is the person
chosen to integrate the best elements of past reports and form them into plan of action. Fujioka is an extremely smart dude who is very skillful at finding the hidden money lurking in any given budget and “re-prioritizing” it to meet a pressing need.

Alright, here’s the bottom line: While City Hall remains bogged down in turf battles, the main players have clustered around the County figuring it was the place they might cut through the crap and get something going.

With any luck, a month from now, that’s exactly what will happen.

Posted in Gangs, LAPD, LASD, LAUSD | 4 Comments »

Suicide on the Force

March 26th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


Yesterday, the LAPD’s chief psychologist, Kevin Jablonski,
told the Police Commission that cops were twice as likely to kill themselves as to be killed in the line of duty. And to help turn those stats around, the Los Angeles Police Department is starting its first suicide prevention program. (Both the Daily News and the LA Times have short articles on Jablonski’s report.)

The LAPD’s suicide rate is higher than that of New York’s police and most other big city forces. Most, but not all. San Diego’s is higher. Higher still is the FBI. And highest of all are the suicide rates for US Customs officers.

The National Police Suicide Foundation
has some interesting articles on the subject. Here’s a thoughtful clip from one of them:

Ernesto Banuelos did not die on the street. He shot himself to death one morning in 1997. Despite a growing acknowledgement of the problem, the topic of suicide remains taboo among much of law enforcement’s rank and file. To some extent, psychologists say, that is merely a reflection of society as a whole — uncomfortable with the idea of people taking their own lives. But experts say that those who make their living projecting strength and control are especially reluctant to admit that they need psychological help. They fear they will be perceived as weak.

”Cops don’t talk about that kind of stuff,” says Jerry Sanders, former San Diego police chief. ”They either do it. Or they don’t.”

In many departments, ”if it’s known you’ve thought about suicide,
or you’re depressed, it’s next to impossible for you to progress through the ranks,” says Ivanoff, who worked on a 1994 project that evaluated New York City police officers’ attitudes about suicide. ”Because of the negative effect it can have on your career, officers are extremely reluctant to identify each other as needing help and will go to great lengths to ‘protect’ somebody who needs help rather than helping them get it.”

The stress that often leads an officer to commit suicide is at least partially the result of unrealistically high expectations of being a successful cop. ”If you’re a carpenter and you drop your hammer, you bend over and pick it up,” says Don Sheehan, director of the stress management program at the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit. ”What happens to a police officer who drops his gun during a bank robbery or misspeaks during a trial? They have to always be in control. Officers learn very early on that they have to always be right.”

It’s been my experience that police officers, like soldiers, often feel that there are few others outside their own ranks with whom they can discuss the intensity of what they experience on the job—and that’s not good.

Not an easy problem to solve. But kudos to the LAPD for taking it on.

Posted in LAPD, LASD, law enforcement | 5 Comments »

Another &^%$##&$ Gang Plan?

March 25th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


Yesterday a press release went out announcing that the new
“Countywide Gang and Violence Reduction Strategy” plan, which was supposed to have been delivered to the LA County Board of Supervisors today, is being sent back to the drawing board for another month. According to one of the Sups who’s seen the damned thing, the plan is “too vague”—hence the delay.

Too vague? Right. And what fabulously specific strategy do the Supervisors imagine this new report will outline that has not already been covered by:

1. Connie Rice’s half-million dollar, LA-City-Council-ordered Advancement Project Gang Activity Reduction Strategy report?

2. Mayor Villaraigosa’s Gang Reduction Strategy report?
3. Laura Chick’s half-million dollar “Blueprint for a Comprehensive Citywide Anti-Gang

But like it or not, it appears we’ll have said plan
in another month (which likely means it’ll be more expensive. Those report-making folks don’t come cheap).

In case you’re curious, the stated purpose of the forthcoming LA County report is to suggest a “holistic method of combating gang violence, bringing together a host of county departments to suppress violence while simultaneously attacking its causes.”

Alrighty then.

The report in its draft form says little about the specifics of this “holistic method,” however we do know that it intends to ask for $500,000 to pay “consultants” who will provide “technical assistance” during a proposed six-month “planning phase.”

Report. Consult. Plan. Rinse. Repeat.

In fairness, Chief Bratton, Sheriff Baca, City Gang Czar Jeff Carr
, LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer and others have signed on for the ride with this report in some kind of desperate attempt to get something going that addresses the gang problem from a community-wide public health perspective, as opposed to leaving everything to law enforcement, and a scattered group of prevention/intervention programs that have no coherent form of uber coordination.

But just to make sure we’re all on the same happy page here,
let’s review what has thus far been put into motion with the other three plans, all of which have similar agendas:




Posted in Board of Supervisors, City Government, Gangs | 3 Comments »

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