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A Noose & Racial Bullying In a Santa Monica High Locker Room

June 30th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon



Here is what we know of the story:

A sophomore on the Santa Monica High School wrestling team says that, on May 4, he walked into the school’s wrestling room and saw the team’s brown practice dummy with a noose around its neck. As this same student, who happens to be black, headed for the locker room, he was approached by two of his team members who, he says, enfolded him in a “bear hug.” Then, using a cable and a lock, they chained the black wrestler to a locker. According to his mother, Victoria Gray, her son said that the teammates-turned-tormenters, at that point, shouted “Slave for sale.”

Such actions are alarming enough on their face, but what is most perplexing is the actions of the adults in the hours and days and weeks that followed the noose and the chaining and the racial slurs.

The Santa Monica Daily Press reports a part of the sequence of events:

A few things are known for certain.

After the incident, which occurred on May 4, counseling sessions were held on site for other members of the wrestling team that wanted to talk about the experience.

At those sessions, students were told to go home and tell their parents what happened.

Victoria Gray, the mother of the boy who was chained, was never informed, neither by her son nor by school officials.

She found out over three weeks later when a woman she had never met called her to tell her one version of events.

The two boys who allegedly did the chaining have been disciplined by the school with a three-day suspension. They will also have to help teach a freshman seminar on hazing.

The matter first came before the Board of Education at its meeting June 16, when Gray used public comment time to express her dissatisfaction with how the incident had been handled.

The Santa Monica Evening Outlook reports that Gray said her son, ” told her he didn’t want to make a big deal about the whole thing because he didn’t want to jeopardize the wrestling program.”

Gray said that her son told her that Leslie Wells, the principal of H House at Samohi, told him that the incident could get the whole wrestling program canceled.

Great.

It has also been reported that administrators insisted that students who snapped cell phone photos of any aspect of the noose and chaining incident, must turn in their phones, at which time the administrators deleted the photos.

The California penal code on the matter reads that: “Any person who hangs a noose, knowing it to be a symbol representing a threat to life, on the property of a primary school, junior high school, high school, college campus, public park, or place of employment….. shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, or by a fine not to exceed five thousand dollars ($5,000).

Community organizer Najee Ali of Project Islamic Hope held a press conference in front of the high school on Wednesday afternoon to call for an investigation into the incident as a hate crime,. When I spoke to Ali on the phone afterward, he too said he was particularly angered and dismayed by the behavior of school administrators.

“I’m more shocked by the adults behavior than by the students,” Ali said then noted that the student’s mother has said that she was not informed of the incident, “Which meant the student didn’t get the support he needed.”

Ali is also troubled by the cell-phone-picture-deleting part of the story.

“If that happened, legally, they destroyed evidence. It sounds like they were more interested in protecting the school than in protecting the student who was bullied, or in using this incident as a real teachable moment.” Ali sighed. “And all that needs to be investigated. It also needs to be brought out into the open and talked about.”

There will be a chance to begin that conversation Thursday night, June 30, when there is a school board meeting scheduled at which school board member, Oscar de la Torre, said the noose and chaining incident will be discussed, and there will be a time for public comment.


PS: As bad as this incident is, the lock-’em-up zero tolerance reaction to the acts of teenagers helps no one. Emotionally violent actions such as these require meaningful consequences, which means more than a few days suspension, but they do not call for legal vengeance.

A few serious consequences for the adults, however, are clearly in order. They are the ones who should have been instantly protective toward Victoria Gray’s son then precipitated some kind of school-wide assembly or action to address the the myriad implications of the incident—and the deep damage actions like it can wreak.

Instead, it seems, the adults mostly ran to hit the “delete” button.

Posted in Civil Rights, Education | 1 Comment »

Heroic Officers, University Tuition Hikes, & Springsteen’s Eulogy for Clarence

June 30th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon



TWO OFFICERS RESCUE WOMAN LOCKED IN A BURNING CAR ON MONDAY

This is from the LAPPL Blog:

LAPD officers are trained to expect the unexpected. A dramatic case in point: Hollywood Area Officers Michael Kim and Jimmy Lam were working traffic control after a Monday morning hit-and-run traffic collision near Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue.

The officers noticed a Dodge Caravan unrelated to the traffic collision stopped at a nearby traffic light; heavy black smoke was coming from beneath the vehicle. After calling the Los Angeles Fire Department, the officers attempted to free the occupant from the van. However, she was unaware of the danger and did not understand what the officers wanted her to do.

But as thick smoke filled the van, the driver finally realized she needed to unlock the doors. Then the understandably frenzied occupant could not free herself from her seatbelt. Officer Kim used his pocketknife to cut her loose; and as toxic smoke and flames engulfed the vehicle, the officers used fire extinguishers from their police car to fight the fire until the fire department arrived.

We join the LAPD in commending Officer Michael Kim and Officer Jimmy Lam for their decisive action and heroism in rescuing the occupant unharmed and containing a dangerous situation.

Yep. We all cheer the quick acting, heroic officers too!


YET ANOTHER ROUND OF 10% TUITION HIKES PREDICTED FOR CALIF. UNIVERSITIES

The LA Times Larry Gordon and Carla Rivera have the story:

Students at the University of California and Cal State University systems are likely to face a second round of tuition hikes this fall in response to deeper funding cuts in the new state budget, officials and student leaders said Wednesday.

Discussions are underway for tuition increases of at least 10%. That hike would come on top of an 8% increase at UC and a 10% boost at Cal State that already are set to take effect this fall.

An early victim of the state budget cuts is a new medical school at UC Riverside. Campus officials said Wednesday they would delay opening the school by a year, until fall 2013.

Student leaders expressed disappointment about their soaring tuition and said that Sacramento is putting the brunt of the state’s budget problems on them. A decade of increases has more than tripled tuition to about $11,000 a year at UC and $4,884 at Cal State, not including room, board and other fees.

Depressing.


THE BOSS RELEASES THE TEXT OF HIS EULOGY FOR THE BIG MAN

Rolling Stone has it. I don’t want to excerpt it because, it needs to be read as a whole. Bruce covers the waterfront.

(And thanks to Kevin Roderick at LA Observed for the heads up on this.)

Posted in LAPD, LAPPL | 2 Comments »

The Inalienable Right to Call School Officials “Douchebags” & Other Must Reads

June 29th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon



SCOTUS REVIEW IS SOUGHT FOR 2 ONLINE FREE SPEECH CASES, ONE INVOLVING STUDENTS AND “DOUCHEBAGS”

(Yes, you’re right, my inner 9-year-old does think it’s funny each time I type the word “douchebag.”)

Ahem…

The Student Press Law Center reports that the lawyers for two cases that involve online communication by students, and First Amendment rights, hope that the US Supremes will agree to hear their cases. Both address similar issues and have the potential to set precedent. Here are the rundowns on the cases, as reported by SPLC:

CASE 1: The Right to Mock in MySpace

“J.S.” was a student at Blue Mountain Middle School in Pennsylvania in 2007 when she was suspended for 10 days after creating a MySpace profile mocking the school principal, James McGonigle. Her parents sued the school district on her behalf for violating her First Amendment rights and their due process rights to discipline their child as they wished.

Both the district court and a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit found in favor of the school district. However, when the full Third Circuit court reheard the case along with an extremely similar one, Layshock v. Hermitage School District, it found in favor of the students in both cases.

CASE 2: The…er….Douchebag Matter

On April 25, a panel of judges from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Connecticut student Avery Doninger’s First Amendment rights were not violated when she was prevented from running for class office, and later prevented from accepting the office she was elected to by write-in ballot, after calling school administrators “douchebags” on her blog in 2007.

The Second Circuit determined that the district had been “objectively reasonable” in their decision to punish her for her blog post. It granted the district immunity from the lawsuit but did not address whether Doninger’s rights were violated.

Doninger attorney John Schoenhorn wrote in an email that he intends to ask the Supreme Court to hear an appeal in this case as well because the conflict between the Second Circuit and Third Circuit’s decisions could create confusion.

Here’s a more detailed account of the Doninger case.

Let us hope that the Supremes take on or both cases as the arguments will be interesting.


LAUSD AND THE NEW HOMEWORK POLICY

The LA Times Howard Blume writes about the Los Angeles Unified School District’s new homework policy, and how it is not a simple wrong/right matter.

Here’s how it opens:

Vanessa Perez was a homework scofflaw. The Marshall High School senior didn’t finish all of it — largely because she worked 24 hours a week at a Subway sandwich shop.

Alvaro Ramirez, a junior at the Santee Education Complex, doesn’t have his own room and his mother baby-sits young children at night. “They’re always there and they’re always loud,” he said, explaining his challenges with homework.

The nation’s second-largest school system has decided to give students like these a break. A new policy decrees that homework can count for only 10% of a student’s grade.

Critics — mostly teachers — worry that the policy will encourage students to slack off assigned work and even reward those who already disregard assignments. And they say it could penalize hardworking students who receive higher marks for effort.

Some educators also object to a one-size-fits-all mandate they said could hamstring teaching or homogenize it. They say, too, that students who do their homework perform significantly better than those who don’t — a view supported by research.

But Los Angeles Unified is pressing forward.….


IS THE LOCKE TAKEOVER BY GREEN DOT WORKING? A REPORT CARD

It’s been three years since Green Dot Charter Schools fought for and won the right to take over and try to transform LAUSD’s desperately failing Locke High School. So how is the grand experiment doing?

An LA Times editorial says the progress is not exactly dramatic, yet it is slow, steady and in small increments.

That’s what I’ve heard too. In my experience, however, some miracles occur, not in a blinding flash of light, but in slow motion. Yet they are miracles nonetheless. Maybe the changes at Locke could be said to fall in that category.

Let us hope so.

The editorial is a good one. Here’s a clip. But read it all.

How did Green Dot do at stemming the tide of students who disappear from campus into lives usually plagued by high unemployment and low wages? Solidly better, but not the quick and extraordinary transformation everyone had hoped for. Not yet, anyway.

Charter schools are not the ultimate solution to bad public schools; rather, the solution lies in improving public schools so that they have adequate resources, good teachers and a stimulating curriculum. Like many charter operators, Green Dot has had financial help from outside foundations, help that isn’t available to most public schools.

Still, well-run charter schools have played a valuable role in pressuring public schools to improve, and they can be a lifeline to students who are sinking in crummy neighborhood schools or, in many cases, leaving school far too soon. In the case of Locke, the switch appears to be working, albeit more slowly and haltingly than Green Dot expected.

The charter operator deserves praise for its massive and earnest effort at Locke. It was the first charter school in Los Angeles to accept all of the students within its attendance boundaries, just as public schools do, rather than restricting enrollment and accepting students through a lottery. Students who choose their charter schools are motivated to follow the rules and achieve; public schools take all comers. The Locke takeover served as the model for L.A. Unified’s Public School Choice initiative, in which new schools and some failing schools were turned over to outside groups that filed the most promising applications. Some of those were groups of teachers, others were charter schools. All had to follow Green Dot’s example and admit all students within their enrollment boundaries.


BILL WANTS TO ABOLISHED THE DEATH PENALTY IN CALIFORNIA

Don Thompson of the AP has the story. Here’s how it opens:

A state lawmaker on Monday introduced a bill seeking a public vote on whether California should abolish capital punishment and convert death sentences to life in prison, citing a study that said most condemned inmates die of suicide or old age despite billions in taxpayer costs.

Democratic Sen. Loni Hancock, of Berkeley, said the state can no longer afford the cost of trying capital cases, defending them through a lengthy appeals process and housing inmates in the nation’s most populous death row.

She cited a study prepared by Judge Arthur L. Alarcon of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell that calls the capital punishment system “a multibillion-dollar fraud on California taxpayers.”

Their analysis, to be published next month, estimates California has spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. In that time, California has executed just 13 inmates, which works out to $308 million per execution.

“Capital punishment is an expensive failure and an example of the dysfunction of our prisons,” Hancock said in a statement. “California’s death row is the largest and most costly in the United States. It is not helping to protect our state; it is helping to bankrupt us.”

Yeah. What she said.

NBC San Diego also has a report on the bill.

Posted in academic freedom, California budget, Civil Liberties, Death Penalty, Education, Green Dot, Supreme Court | No Comments »

A Sobering Tale of Innocence, of Jailhouse Violence & Other Must Reads

June 28th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon



IS LOUIS GONZALEZ III A CALCULATING MONSTER IN A BANKERS’ SUIT—OR AN INNOCENT MAN SET UP FOR A FALL?

The LA Times’ Christopher Goffard has written a rigorously reported and entirely gripping narrative tale of a man accused of unspeakable things, who would have gone to prison for the rest of his life…..but then some cracks in his case began to appear.

Here is Part 1 and Part 2:

Note the photos, many of them by Anne Cusack, as well.

And here are a few clips to persuade you that you need to read this puppy:

He kept thinking that there had been a mistake, that he’d be out in no time. That the system, set into motion by some misunderstanding or act of malice, would soon correct itself.

That was before the detective informed him of the charges, and before the article in the Ventura County Star. “Man held after woman found raped and tortured,” read the headline, and there was his name, along with a quote from a police officer: “In 19 years of police work, this has to go down as one of the most brutal attacks I have ever seen.”

The sky was beautiful that afternoon. Louis Gonzalez III remembered it felt like spring…..

[SNIP]

Minutes before Gonzalez’s arrest around 2 p.m. on Feb. 1, 2008, Tim Geiges placed a frantic 911 call. By the account he would give consistently in years to come, he’d just returned from work and found his wife, Tracy West, naked and bound in an upstairs bedroom of their Simi Valley home in the 1900 block of Penngrove Street.

The dispatcher tried to calm him. “Sir, somebody beat your wife up?”

“Somebody tied her up, and I just got home — oh my God…” He was whimpering. “I just untied her head just now. She’s crying. I need somebody, please!”

He managed to say that his wife’s attacker would be at the Montessori School, a mile away.

“Who is this person?”

“Louis. Louis Gonzalez the Third.”

When paramedics arrived at the house, they found West on the bed leaning forward, crying, with purple duct tape tangled in her hair…..


A TRIAL MOVES FORWARD FOR THE CASE OF AN OC JAIL INMATE BEATEN TO DEATH IN 2006

The OC Register has the story. Here are a few clips that give you the gist of the matter:

A judge is mulling whether to allow statements made by an Orange County jailhouse inmate on the day he was beaten to death in an upcoming trial.

Prosecutors allege the inmate was beaten by nine other inmates. Three of the inmates charged in the October 2006 slaying of John Chamberlain, 41, who was wrongly identified as a child molester, have pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and a fourth is expected to plead.

[SNIP]

An Orange County grand jury investigation into the incident found that Orange County Sheriff’s deputies at Theo Lacy jail often used jailhouse bullies – identified as shot-callers – to punish unruly inmates.

That investigation came after The Orange County Register obtained confidential documents and published a story about deputies’ actions before and after Chamberlain’s death.

The upcoming trial is the first in Orange County involving a jailhouse beating death of an inmate reportedly at the hands of several other inmates.

Investigators believe the group targeted Chamberlain on Oct. 5, 2006, under the mistaken belief that he was a child molester, perceived as the worst kind of person in inmate culture. Chamberlain had been awaiting trial on a misdemeanor charge of possessing child pornography.

I find this story particularly unsettling because a student of mine at UC Irvine wrote an extremely well-reported story on another OC inmate who was accused of a sex charge (with no priors) who proclaimed his innocence. Lke,Chamberlain, was awaiting trial. However, in early June 2006, the inmate, who was then 21, was beaten by a group of inmates to the point of permanent brain damage. Same jail, same issue, just four months prior to the beating of Chamberlain.


DEAR JACK SHAFER AND PHIL BRONSTEIN, ABOUT YOUR JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS COMMENTARY—PUT A SOCK IN IT!

In Sunday’s New york Times Magazine, Pulitzer-winning reporter Jose Antonio Vargas revealed that he is undocumented—a fact that he’d kept secret from friends and employers all of his adult life. (Vargas was sent to the US from the Philippines by his mother when he was 12.) After observing the courage of a lot of the DREAM ACT-supporting college kids who have risked deportation by coming out about their own immigration status, Vargas finally decided that he needed to come out too.

Vargas’ essay—which was posted online well ahead of the Sunday pub date— was brave and terrific and, as expected, it stirred up a lot of comment and controversy. However the one kind of comment I would never have expected was the self-righteous tripe that came from the keyboards of Slate’s Jack Shafer and SF Chronicle editor-at-large Phil Bronstein, for whom Vargas once worked. “Jose has disqualified himself from being a journalist,” sniffs Bronstein.

Daniel Denvir at the Guardian has some good commentary on the high-horse-ish commentary of the other guys.


ON A “FREE SPEECH” ROLL, SCOTUS STRIKES DOWN CA LAW BANNING SALES OF VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES TO MINORS

Every newspaper with a Supreme Court reporter has a story about this Monday ruling, including the NY Times’ Adam Liptak.

Here’s Liptak reporting on what Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion:

“Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world),” Justice Scalia wrote. “That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”

Depictions of violence, Justice Scalia added, have never been subject to government regulation. “Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed,” he wrote, recounting the gory plots of “Snow White,” “Cinderella” and “Hansel and Gretel.” High school reading lists and Saturday morning cartoons, too, he said, are riddled with violence.

The California law would have imposed $1,000 fines on stores that sold violent video games to anyone under 18.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, immigration, jail, media | 1 Comment »

Monday SCOTUS Codifies the Old Saw “Money Talks.” Literally..

June 27th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


The same group of five Supreme Court justices that gave us
Citizens United have used the First Amendment as a means to strike down a 13-year-old Arizona campaign finance law that provided matching public $$ for candidates who agreed to use only public funds for their campaigns and who were facing extremely well-heeled opponents.

The reasoning given by Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, was that balancing the campaign expenditures of the wealthy violated free speech. Or something to that effect. To wit:

“We hold that Arizona’s matching funds scheme substantially burdens protected political speech without serving a compelling state interest and, therefore, violates the First Amendment.”

“….. ‘Leveling the playing field’ can sound like a good thing.
But in a democracy, campaigning for office is not a game. It is a critically important form of speech.”

The LA Times David Savage has one of the better reports on the ruling with a good overview of the POV’s of both sides. He notes that Justice Elena Kagan took on Roberts directly in her dissent:

She said Arizona’s law, adopted by voters in 1998 after an election scandal in which state legislators were caught on video stuffing campaign cash into gym bags, would produce more speech by the candidates, not less.

“Less corruption, more speech,” Kagan wrote. “Robust campaigns leading to the election of representatives not beholden to the few, but accountable to the many. The people of Arizona might have expected a decent respect for those objectives,” she wrote. “Today, they do not get it. …Truly, democracy is not a game.”

Robert Barnes of the Washington Post also has a very good report on the decision, which—thankfully—does not outlaw public campaign financing altogether.

In truth, despite my snarky tone, it’s a complicated issue so before you form an opinion I recommend you read up a bit.

Posted in elections, Supreme Court | No Comments »

LA Press Club Awards: WitnessLA Wins 1 (& Places in 2 More)

June 27th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon



The 53rd Annual LA Press Club Awards were held on Sunday night
at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel downtown.

The Crystal Ballroom was packed with print, online and on-air reporters, editors and producers who’d donned dressed-up finery to munch rubber-ish chicken dinners while an evening’s worth of awards were handed out, all of which in one way or another celebrated the news gathering profession.

I am pleased to announce that WitnessLA won 1st place for the Best Individual Weblog. (Wooo-hooo!!!)

The judges’ comments accompanying the award were
: “Good reporting, passionate writing, righteous anger – the facts.

We placed in a couple of categories too!

Specifically, our “Follow the Gang Money” series [here and here and here] that we did in partnership with Spot.Us, took 2nd place for Advocacy Journalism. (Reason Magazine won in that category.)

And Part 2 of that same “Follow the Gang Money” series, written by Matt Fleischer, won 3rd place in the Online Investigative category.

WitnessLA was also a finalist in the category of Best Website, Exclusively to the Internet. (Truthdig deservedly won in that category.)

In addition to a a very long list of other awards given, there were four special awards handed out during the night:

1. The Public Service Award went to Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives of the LA Times for their fine work uncovering the Bell Scandal.

2. The Joseph M. Quinn Award to John Schwada of KTTV Fox 11

3. The President’s Award went to Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes.

4. The Daniel Pearl Award, which is always given out by Daniel Pearl’s father, was presented to Richard Engel of NBC News.

PLUS, at the end of the night, in a surprise award, Reason Magazine’s Radley Balko, who was Print Journalist of the Year (circulation under 50,000) was named Best of Show Journalist of the Year—and received a $1,000 check. (Balko, who has recently moved to Huffington Post, is doing some GREAT criminal justice work, like these stories.)

We were also very happy to see our pal Daniel Heimpel of FosteringMediaConnections.org, win for Online Journalist of the year.

Actually, we cheered for the victories of many very deserving friends, Advice Goddess (and fabulous dresser) Amy Alcon, a pile of terrific LA Weekly folks, Larry Mantle and Madeleine Brand from KPCC…..to name just a few off the top of my head.

The LA Press Club’s full list of winners may be found here.


It’s the wee hours as I type, so I’ll wait to catch up on the rest of Monday’s news on Tuesday morning.


Posted in writers and writing | 5 Comments »

Warden for Notorious Angola Prison Argues for Release of the Elderly and Ill

June 24th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

This week Louisiana passed a new bill that will allow some of the state’s elderly prisoners to be eligible for parole.

The ACLU is overjoyed.

So is conservative Angola Prison Warden Burl Cain as he explains in the video above.

This is from the ACLU statement:

Louisiana should not be using taxpayer dollars to lock up elderly individuals when they pose no danger to our communities,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “The state’s legislature deserves credit for tackling the state’s problem of overincarceration by passing bills like this one.”

Louisiana has the largest incarcerated population of any state in the nation, and half of those behind bars in Louisiana are there for non-violent offenses. The state has 1,224 people over the age of 60 locked up – three percent of the state’s total prison population.

So, if Louisiana can make such a move, why can’t California? Our elderly prisoners make up 8 or 9 percent of the prison population.

Listen to the video. Burl Cain says it all about why we should save money by paroling the elderly and incapacitated inmates who can no longer hurt anybody.

[NOTE: light blogging today.]

Posted in prison policy | No Comments »

True Crime Saga: The Whitey Bulger Arrest

June 23rd, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


NINJA REPORTERS

Congrats to Andrew Blankstein and Robert Lopez for their very cool scoop breaking the story of the Wednesday night arrest of fugitive Boston Mobster Whitey Bulger in Santa Monica—and the ongoing updates on the story unfolding in real time into the wee hours, courtesy of Twitter and LANow.

PS: The LA Times Baxter Holmes was also in Santa Monica helping to provide those rapidfire updates.


ANOTHER MUST READ: PULITZER WINNING REPORTER COMES OUT AS UNDOCUMENTED

In a preview of a story in this Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, former WaPo Pulitzer winner, Jose Antonio Vargas, comes out of the shadows to admit his immigration status.

(Pass the Dream Act!!!)

Posted in crime and punishment, immigration | No Comments »

Federal Judge Calls War on Drugs A Failure

June 23rd, 2011 by Celeste Fremon



A FOURTH CIRCUIT JUDGE GETS FED UP

On June 19, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole was indeed the legally correct one for Tony Gregg, a Richmond, Virginia cocaine addict and sometimes penny ante drug dealer.

The appeals court ruling came about after the federal judge who originally presided over Gregg’s trial tried to a way around the federal sentencing guidelines that mandated an automatic life sentence for a 3rd felony drug conviction. Instead, the judge attempted to reduce Gregg’s sentence to 25 years in prison.

The 4th Circuit’s three judge panel ruled that the original judge had erred by trying to reduce the sentence, and that Gregg was obliged to serve an iron clad LWOP. Period, end of story.

While the 4th Circuit’s panel was unanimous in their decision, one of the three justices, Judge Andre Davis, couldn’t let the matter go quite so simply, thus wrote his own concurring opinion—in the form of what amounts to a long Op Ed.

Davis is a skilled and impassioned writer and his essay/opinion is worth reading in its entirety. (It starts on p. 19 of the appeals ruling which you can access here.)

I’ve excerpted (and edited) some of the most relevant sections below:

The distinguished district judge was aghast that the now forty-year-old Tony Gregg would spend the rest of his life in federal prison for selling small amounts of crack cocaine over a period of several weeks out of a hotel room in a run-down section of Richmond.

[So] the judge….elected to reconvene the sentencing proceeding and to impose, instead, a twenty-five year, within Guidelines sentence. As the panel opinion makes clear, we are constrained to undo the district court’s stab at achieving a more just sentence.

The record shows that Gregg was a classic “utility player” in America’s forty-year “war on drugs”: user, seller, “snitch.” A tenth-grade drop-out (after repeating the second grade and the seventh grade) with four half-siblings, he began to use illegal narcotics in his early teens. For a time, he lived in an abusive family environment; later, he moved between his mother, grandmother, and father, sometimes in Virginia, sometimes in Ohio.

As a young man, he attempted suicide more than once (although he described the episodes as mere attempts to “get high”). Throughout his 20s and early 30s, he was in and out of jails and prisons on a regular basis, sometimes for assaultive behavior. He was convicted of illegal gun possession in 2001 and served a three-year federal prison sentence.

Later, once again released from incarceration and having adjusted reasonably well upon his return to free society, in consideration for unspecified monetary compensation, he became a highly-valued, highly-effective confidential informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Violent Crime Task Force in Richmond, on whose behalf he engaged in half a dozen undercover drug transactions from mid-2008 through early 2009.

Sometime in early 2009, during his habitual association with drug users and dealers while working on behalf of the FBI to prosecute others involved in the drug trade, Gregg fell off the wagon and began to use and sell illegal narcotics again……

…[P]rior to trial, Gregg was offered a plea agreement for a twenty-year sentence; when he rejected the government’s offer, the government went all out for the life sentence found to be unjust by the district court. Of the government’s four non-law-enforcement witnesses at the one-day trial below, all four were women who were themselves, like Gregg, users and sellers of crack cocaine and heroin who worked with Gregg to sell crack cocaine.

Understandably, perhaps, to many, Gregg is not a sympathetic figure; they will think: he got what he deserved. To many others, perhaps, matters are not so clear. Indeed, many would say that Tony Gregg seems to be one more of the drug war’s “expendables.”

This case presents familiar facts seen in courts across the country: a defendant addicted to narcotics selling narcotics in order to support his habit. Unfortunately for Gregg and countless other poorly-educated, drug-dependant offenders, current drug prosecution and sentencing policy mandates that he spend the rest of his life in prison…..

The mass incarceration of drug offenders persists into the second decade of the twenty-first century despite the fact that research consistently demonstrates that the current approach to combating illegal drug use and drug trafficking is a failure…. Even the U.S. drug czar, a position created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, admits the war on drugs is failing, stating that after 40 years and $1 trillion, “it has not been successful … the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

I share the district judge’s dismay over the legally mandated sentence he must impose in this case. While the controlling legal principles require us to order the reimposition of a sentence of life without parole in this case, the time has long passed when policymakers should come to acknowledge the nation’s failed drug policy and to act on that acknowledgement.

As a nation, we are smart enough to do better.

(NOTE: A thank you to Doug Berman and Sentencing Law and Policy for pointing out the eloquence of Davis’s concurring opinion.)


AND ABOUT THAT DRUG WAR—40 YEARS AND A TRILLION DOLLARS LATER, THINGS HAVE GOTTEN WORSE, NOT BETTER

Now that we’re on the topic, it seems like a good time to highlight an exceptionally illuminating report on the cost/benefit of the drug war by my friend, the AP’s Martha Mendoza.

Here are a few relevant clips:

After 40 years, the United States’ war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.

Even U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn’t worked.

“In the grand scheme, it has not been successful,” Kerlikowske told The Associated Press. “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

This week President Obama promised to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes” with a new national policy that he said treats drug use more as a public health issue and focuses on prevention and treatment.

Nevertheless, his administration has increased spending on interdiction and law enforcement to record levels both in dollars and in percentage terms; this year, they account for $10 billion of his $15.5 billion drug-control budget.

[SNIP]

Using Freedom of Information Act requests, archival records, federal budgets and dozens of interviews with leaders and analysts, the AP tracked where that money went, and found that the United States repeatedly increased budgets for programs that did little to stop the flow of drugs. In 40 years, taxpayers spent more than:

$20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than $6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico — and the violence along with it.

$33 billion in marketing “Just Say No”-style messages to America’s youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have “risen steadily” since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.

$49 billion for law enforcement along America’s borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.

$121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.

$450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the U.S. were serving sentences for drug offenses.

At the same time, drug abuse is costing the nation in other ways. The Justice Department estimates the consequences of drug abuse — “an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity, and environmental destruction” — cost the United States $215 billion a year.

Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron says the only sure thing taxpayers get for more spending on police and soldiers is more homicides.

“Current policy is not having an effect of reducing drug use,” Miron said, “but it’s costing the public a fortune.”

Posted in How Appealing, War on Drugs | No Comments »

Flogging for Flogging, Deporting Dreamers, & More Justice-Related Must Reads

June 22nd, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


IN DEFENSE OF FLOGGING

Suddenly everyone has taken notice of Peter Moskos new book,In Defense of Flogging“—-which is exactly what the author intended. Moskos, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, insists that he is not suggesting flogging law breakers as a thought experiment or something Swiftian.

He says he’s serious, that for many criminal offenses, flogging would be a far more humane (and certainly less expensive) sanction than putting a lawbreaker in prison. (Especially if one is talking about California’s overcrowded lock-ups, with their 8th Amendment issues.)

Salon Magazine decided to probe deeper into what Moskos had in mind with what certainly appears to be a stunt book title.

Here’s a clip from his answers:

People have to read beyond the title of the book because I’m not actually pro-flogging; however, I am entirely serious about my belief to offer it as a choice instead of prison. I was much more hesitant when I started working on the book, but as I did my research and writing, I succeeded in convincing myself!

I think flogging is evil, but it’s the lesser evil of the two. I think it’s strange for people to say that even though flogging might be better than prison, we still can’t do it because it’s bad. That’s not much of an argument. I always try to keep the focus on prison because that’s really what the book is about. But flogging is essential on a huckster level to get the book noticed. If I had written a book called “Why Prisons?” nobody would read it. I already wrote a book calling for drug legalization and no one read that one…..

Read the rest. It’s very good and pretty much dead on.


AN UNDOCUMENTED UNIVERSITY HONOR STUDENT VOTED “MOST LIKELY TO SAVE THE WORLD” BY HER H.S. IS ON THE BRINK OF BEING DEPORTED

I’m so, so sick of these stories.

Mandeep Chahal, a pre-med honor student at UC Davis, is facing deportation to India along with her mother. Mandeep was brought to the US when she was 6.

The DREAM act would, of course, call a halt to these depressing tales of brave young men and women who have served in our armed forces, or who are academic stars like Mandeep, yet who are either slated or at risk for deportation despite the fact that they are clearly assets to the US, not weights, were brought here at such young ages that they are utterly American in every way but in the eyes of the law.

The Sac Bee has the rest of the story.


BLOGGERS QUARREL LOUDLY OVER NY TIMES STORY ABOUT JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS’ RELATIONSHIP WITH WEALTHY FUNDER OF CONSERVATIVE CAUSES

Politico has a round-up of the liberal/conservative blogger battle over Thomas, ethics, and whether or not his associations affect his actions on the bench.

Sunday’s NY Times story up for discussion is here.


HUNTERS AND FISHERMAN HAVE DIMINISHED EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY RULES THE CALIFORNIA SUPREMES

More specifically, the court said that game wardens were entitled to stop hunters and fisherpersons to ask, “Say, how many fish you got in that cooler, dude?”—without having to satisfy the usual Constitutional requirement of “probable cause.”

The Sac Bee has the details.


ONE PERSON’S PUBLIC NUISANCE IS ANOTHER PERSON’S WORKING SINGLE MOM

LA Times columnist Sandy Banks went along with community activist, Najee Ali, as Ali went to talk to the streetwalkers who have the neighborhood parents up in arms. Banks finds that the the situation is a lot more complicated.

Los Angeles police officers will hold a community meeting Wednesday night to talk about law enforcement options to quell prostitution. In the meantime, Ali and his small band of warriors are taking a more personal tack:

“These women are someone’s mother, sister, daughter or neighbor,” Ali said. “If we don’t reach down and help them, who will?”

Read the rest.


N.J.’S GOV CHRISTY ORDERS STATE’S FLAGS FLOWN AT HALF MAST FOR “THE BIG MAN”

I am not exactly a fan of Gov. Chris Christy, but give the guy credit for doing the absolute right thing in this instance. Here’s the deal according to the NJ Star-Ledger:

Gov. Chris Christie ordered that flags be flown at half-staff on Thursday in honor of E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons “in special recognition of his contributions to the state, people, and culture of New Jersey.”

“Clarence Clemons represented the soul and spirit of New Jersey,” Christie said in a statement. “His partnership with Bruce Springsteen and the rest of the E Street Band brought great pride to our state and joy to every fan of this music around the world.”

Yep. Right is right.

(Christie, it turns out, has been to 125 Springsteen concerts.)

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, immigration, Sentencing, Supreme Court | No Comments »

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