Category Archives: Crime and Punishment

The importance of understanding politicians (and media types) as people

There I am after the show, second from left, followed by Eva Moore, Cynthia Hardy and Will Folks...

There I am after the show, second from left, followed by Eva Moore, Cynthia Hardy and Will Folks…

Having heard my limit of cynical statements bordering on paranoia, I resolved, on live radio over the weekend, to do The Most Daring Thing a Journalist Can Ever Do.

I decided to stick up for politicians. And for the media, for that matter.

I learned long ago, well before I started blogging, that the surest way to be the target of derision and contempt — from the public, and even one’s peers — is to praise someone in politics. It’s way more damaging to your reputation than criticizing people. We’re expected to do that. And those of you who know me know that I do my share of that. (In fact, some of you claim, hyperbolically, that it’s all I do, when the subject is Mark Sanford or Nikki Haley.)

But just let me say something laudatory about a politician — say, Lindsey Graham, who I believe is more deserving of such defense than anyone in high office in our state — and here comes the tsunami of cynicism. (Try to say “tsunami of cynicism” several times really fast.)

Journalists tend to relish the criticism that comes from being critical. It means we’re tough, and hard-hitting. Nobody pulls the wool over our eyes! We’re no saps. Cutting remarks make us sound like John Lennon. Saying nice things makes us sound like Paul McCartney. And everybody knows which one was the cool one, right?

Anyway, as Sunday’s show wore on, I endured a number of cynical remarks about media, politics and politicians, letting them pass by because of my long experience of knowing how hard it is to change people’s minds when they say things like, “They just stress all that negative stuff to sell papers,” or, “You can’t trust the MSM because they take advertising and are in the grip of corporate America,” or “He’s no different from all politicians; they’re all crooks.” (These are reconstructions; I wasn’t taking notes. But I’ve heard these kinds of comments SO many times.)

But finally, I couldn’t sit still, and I explained:

  • People who think advertisers control content in a newspaper have probably never worked at one. In my 35 years in newspapers, most of it as an editor, I never once was involved in a decision that was in any way influenced by money considerations, either involving advertising or circulation. (The only way money affected what we did was that the lack of it prevented us from having the people we needed, or to pay for travel, to do everything we wanted.) I DID find myself making decisions that I knew made life miserable for the ad people, and even lost the paper money. I mentioned a situation in which we took, and maintained (and the newspaper maintains to this day) an editorial position that cost the paper hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of several years. That didn’t make me happy or anything, but it had no impact on our position.
  • As for Will Folks’ assertion that we were supportive of lawmakers he despises because of the newspaper industry’s sales tax exemptions, I had to ask how he explained our ongoing repeated calls, year in and year out, for comprehensive tax reform that would put all exemptions on the table? (Doug likes to talk about that one, saying we should have called specifically for eliminating the newspaper exemption. But the truth was, I’ve never seen that one as in any way more egregious than the rest, and I would have been lying, and grandstanding, to say otherwise.)
  • Those who say this or that gets published because “it sells newspapers” don’t understand what makes journalists tick. There CAN be the temptation to be sensational, and we’re always trying to grab your attention, but not for anything so normal and sensible (the way most people see the world) as selling papers. What we wanted, what we want, is to be read. In terms of indulging my deep-seated need, no one had to buy the paper. They could steal it, just as long as they read it. Bryan loved that. After he wrote about it on his blog, I felt compelled to explain a bit. It’s not that I was advocating stealing the newspaper, mind you…
  • People talk about there being too much “bad news.” Well, I’m sorry, but to a great extent, the definition of news is something that has gone wrong. You don’t report on the 10,000 cars that pass a certain intersection safely in the course of a day; you report on the fatal wreck that occurred there. You don’t write about the thousands of buildings that didn’t catch fire; you report on the one that burned down. And you don’t write about the vast majority of politicians who are honest and doing their best; you write about the ones who are derelict and/or have their hands in the till — because that’s what people, as voters, need a heads-up about.
  • On that last point… I blame my profession, and particularly my generation of Watergate-influenced journalists, for the cynicism about government and politics that infects so many in our society today, from Will Folks and many other bloggers to the Tea Party to some of our best friends here on the blog. Maybe that’s one case where we DID overemphasize the “bad news.” We were so adversarial toward public officials and public institutions, so aggressive in chasing after scandal — and (seemingly sometimes) nothing but scandal — that we created an indelible impression among the reading and viewing public that government is a bad thing full of bad people. When it isn’t. We’re just trying to let you know about the bad parts that need addressing.

When I stated that probably 90-something percent of politicians were good people trying to do the best by their lights for their communities (even though they might, in my opinion, be really wrong about what’s best), Will erupted in derision, both on the air and on Twitter:

But I insisted it was true. I might think most of the things lawmakers try to do is stupid sometimes, but I don’t doubt their sincerity or honest intentions. As for the idea that people go into public life to enrich themselves monetarily — well, they’re really have to be stupid to do that, because the greater potential is definitely in the private sector, and the chance of getting caught is a lot lower than in public office.

Not that there aren’t some politicians for whom the pathetic renumeration that legislators receive is the best job they ever had. We had some people like that in the Legislature in the late 80s and early 90s. Lost Trust caught people selling their votes for pathetically small things, such as a new suit or some such.

Lost Trust was the low point in South Carolina, leading to indictments of 10 percent of the Legislature. But I turned that around to say that, when an aggressive federal prosecutor did his best to catch every lawmaker open to bribery or some other form of corruption… he could only get 10 percent. Which fits my 90ish-percent thesis.

Bottom line, people in politics are people, like any other. Oh, they may be more extroverted and given to exhibitionism of a sort, but they are not worse than other people. They might not be the wise solons that they should be — and I, for one, would prefer that they were a good deal wiser than average — but they’re just people.

So are journalists, for that matter, just to come full circle…

Urgent! This van and trailer stolen, last seen in Cayce

10403313_10150410217284963_6346795741073221518_n

Burl Burlingame, way off in Hawaii, sends me a heads-up on this dire situation right here in Cayce:

URGENT!! PLEASE READ!! Our van (Oregon license plate: 146 FRN, white 2010 Ford Econoline 350 w/tinted windows) and trailer (white 18’ double axel) were stolen from outside our hotel room last night in Cayce, South Carolina. We are stranded here in Cayce now and are figuring out how to proceed. Unfortunately we will have to miss the show tonight in Charlotte NC with Foxy Shazambut we want to carry on with the rest of this tour if at all possible. If anyone in the North Carolina or South Carolina area has a van we can borrow and return to you after this tour ends in Ohio on June 28th, we would be more grateful than you can possibly imagine.

And if anyone wants to DONATE any money in any amount towards helping us buy a van/trailer, you can do so via PayPal at larryandhisflask@gmail.com. Needless to say, we are deeply and humbly grateful for any help in any manner than anyone out there can provide. Thank you all so much for always supporting The Flask…we hope and pray we can get through this horrible situation and carry on.

If any friends or fans or other kind souls can possibly let us BORROW any gear (ESPECIALLY a banjo, an upright bass and a trombone) in each city for the rest of the tour, we would be incredibly grateful…this is the only way we can continue on this tour and we want to carry on for sure. If you can help in any way, please email us at larryandhisflask@gmail.com. You can see our upcoming shows with Foxy listed under the “EVENTS” tab here on our Facebook page, under our main photo.

Here is what was stolen in addition to our van and trailer, if you have any leads once again email us at larryandhisflask@gmail.com.

King trombone
Holton trumpet
1952 olds baritone horn
Pbone trombone
Palomino upright bass
2 Deering good time banjos
SJC Custom Drums drum kit
Phil Jones 1200 bass amp
2 Godin 5th ave. guitars
Breedlove Guitars acoustic guitar
Ampeg 6 by 10 bass
Carvin 600 bass amp
3 venue DI’s
Fender Guitar blues junior
Camp gear
A ton of Larry and His Flask merch (tshirts mainly)
Skateboards
Nikon d-50 camera
Sennheiser USA wireless systems
2 summit audio tla 50
DBX 1231 dual 31 band eq
BBE 4821 sonic maximizer
@Gator rock case

If you’ve seen the missing vehicle and equipment, or can help in any other way, contact the Cayce police, or these guys at their Facebook page. You can email them at larryandhisflask@gmail.com.

They were supposed to play tonight in Charlotte, so hurry.

Below is video of the band. They seem to have a sort of “Willy and the Poor Boys” feel about them…

Um… is this debate about bikers at the beach really about race? (If so, excuse me for being so slow on the uptake)

A couple of weeks ago, I spent the night in Surfside Beach after attending the Galivants Ferry Stump Speaking. As I was leaving the next morning, I stopped for coffee on the way off the Strand to Tweet this:

Obviously, bikers were much in evidence up and down Highway 17. I sort of had those bikers in mind (you know, ones who look, ethnically, like they could be Visigoths) when I read earlier this week about all the violence on the Strand, which was being reported in the context of Atlantic Beach Bikefest.

But today, it dawned on me that we’re talking about black biker week rather than white biker week. It didn’t hit me until I read that Nikki Haley was adding her voice to the calls to end the event, and it was evident that the one obvious pocket of resistance to such a ban was coming from the administration of Atlantic Beach Mayor Jake Evans.

The tone of this had a certain flavor to it, and I found myself suspecting that the folks wanting to end this event were white, and the defensive-sounding mayor was black. And not just because of Atlantic Beach’s long history as the “black beach” on the Grand Strand.

Yup. At least, I was right about the mayor. I haven’t seen pictures of all of the folks on the other side.

(People following this on television probably realized this way before I did. The one news story I had read told me nothing about potential racial sensitivities, aside from the mention, way down — the 11th graf — of Atlantic Beach. Sometimes the Victorian Gent, as Tom Wolfe has called the press, is just entirely too discreet to give us a hint what’s going on.)

Now that I know this, I tend to read some of the things I’d read earlier in a somewhat different light. Such as the statement by Rep. Tracy Edge that it was time to “take back the streets and make the Grand Strand safer for residents, business owners and visitors.”

Up to the point of my belated epiphany, I had been inclined to agree — ban the bikers. Now, I’d like to know more. Are the people wanting to end this event eager to end the invasion by white bikers as well? If not, are there clear data indicating that there’s less violence and other crime associated with the white influx than the black one?

Perhaps so; I just don’t know. I think a good start for getting to the bottom of this would be an up-front admission by everyone that this issue is complicated by the great cognitive divide between black and white in our state and nation. Assuming that that’s the case. And it’s looking to me as though it is.

 

wistv.com – Columbia, South Carolina |

Does it matter that Harrell’s PAC contributed to ethics panel members? Uh, yeah, I think so…

While I believe Kenny Bingham is saying what he truly believes when he says he would not be swayed by past contributions from a PAC associated with Speaker Bobby Harrell, I’m gonna have to come down on the side of those who would say that this means the House Ethics Committee should in no way be passing judgment on their boss:

The five Republican members of the 10-member House Ethics Committee — which House Speaker Bobby Harrell wants to decide allegations against him — have received some $13,000 in campaign contributions from a political action committee associated with the Charleston Republican.

Those committee members, who have received contributions from the Palmetto Leadership Council PAC, include Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington. In 2008, 2010 and 2012, Bingham received $1,000 contributions each election cycle from the Palmetto Leadership Council….

Actually… I would question the impartiality of the panel even if no one on it had received a dime from the PAC. But the money raises sufficient additional questions that the House ethics cops should leap to recuse themselves and let other competent authorities deal with this matter. Such as, you know, the attorney general

Oh, and on a related matter…

It looks like whoever did the coding on John Monk’s story had a bit of a Freudian slip. The story appears on the website under “Crime” instead of under “SC Politics.” Very interesting…

crime

Cindi Scoppe’s latest dead-on column about Harrell case

You may recall that Cindi Scoppe worried earlier that maybe Judge Manning himself came up with the outrageous idea that maybe there was some doubt about whether the attorney general had the authority to investigate crimes allegedly committed by legislators, without special permission.

She writes today that her fears were realized:

I respect the idea enunciated Friday by Circuit Judge Casey Manning that, before this case proceeds any further, he wants a thorough examination of subject-matter jurisdiction. That is, he wants to make sure that the State Grand Jury and Attorney General Alan Wilson actually have jurisdiction to investigate this case without the House Ethics Committee asking them to.

But honestly, the idea that they don’t … . Well, it remains too bizarre to even comprehend….

You want to know how out-there an idea it is that the state constitution prohibits the attorney general from investigating legislators without other legislators’ blessing? It’s so out there that even Mr. Harrell’s attorneys didn’t think of raising it.

That’s right. Mr. Harrell has some awfully audacious attorneys… But even they didn’t dream up this crazy theory. They quickly embraced it, of course; they’d be crazy not to. But the idea was not, as so many people had assumed, the brainchild of Bart Daniel and Gedney Howe.

It was, as Judge Manning acknowledged in court on Friday, Judge Manning’s idea.

How preposterous is the idea? Listen to former Attorneys General Henry McMaster, Charlie Condon and Travis Medlock, who served as South Carolina’s chief prosecutors for the past 30 years, showed up in the courtroom to make a point and issued this statement:

“Over the past thirty years, not one of us ever imagined the Attorney General needed authorization from a legislative committee or political body in order to investigate or prosecute alleged criminal behavior by an elected official. Such a restriction would undercut the core Constitutional authority of the Attorney General. And even more importantly, it would violate the fundamental basis of our system of government that all people should be treated equally under the law.”

Not one of us ever imagined such a thing.

This is not a close call….

So we all wait with bated breath, while the judge considers something that, given the law, should be beyond consideration. Or at least, it appears so to this layman.

Here’s hoping he reaches that same conclusion.

Cockfighting and meth — nothing like a traditional Easter weekend

meth

Glancing at the homepage of thestate.com looking for blog fodder just now, I saw the main focal point of the page was a couple of mugshots with the headline,

Sheriff: Two arrested in record setting meth bust in Kershaw County

Then, immediately below that, I saw:

SC deputies arrest nearly 50 in cockfighting bust

Wow. Not exactly an appealing couple of snapshots of life in the Palmetto State. What is this, the Wild West? Actually, that may not be fair to the Wild West…

Gregory shocker: Who throws it all away for 100 grand?

Gregory's former office.

Gregory’s former office, on Tuesday evening…

This morning at the Capital City Club, which sits 25 stories up from Columbia’s economic development office, the regulars were all abuzz with the news that one of their number, Wayne Gregory, was in the county jail on embezzlement charges.

You know how shocked everyone was at his club when Winthorpe was arrested in “Trading Places?” It was like that, only not funny. There was a good deal of breathless talk about “one of our number” and so forth.

It had only been a few months since Gregory, 36, had replaced a longtime regular, Jim Gambrell, but we had started getting used to seeing him around. I had not had a chance to get to know him, but I knew who he was, and figured we’d cross paths at some point. Maybe not, now.

As I said in a comment yesterday (yeah, this whole post consists mostly of stuff I said before, but I thought this was worth a separate post):

Here’s what I want to know… Who risks it all for 100 grand? Who — among people who have good jobs (and his base pay was $110,000) — risks prison for a year’s pay, essentially?

Assuming I were someone who would steal, I’d be the sort of thief who would abscond with something more like $100 million. And that’s borderline… I mean, even if one has no morals, one should have a sense of proportion. A year’s pay just wouldn’t be worth it, aside from moral considerations.

Maybe it’s because, as a journalist, I’ve been in a lot of jails and prisons. I’m telling you, people, you don’t want to go there.

One last point: I’ve seen a lot of comments about “Here we go again” with our poorly run city. Well, yes and no. The one thing that distinguished this from some of the other recent messes is that the city immediately fired Gregory. In the long, painful separations of police chiefs, city managers and the like in recent years, we seldom saw such a moment of clarity and decision.

Of course, as Kathryn pointed out yesterday, Gregory had been charged with a crime. And I suppose that draws a bright line that has been missing in other situations. But in any case, the quick action makes this instance quite different.

Would you have locked Hitler away forever?

Andrew Sullivan brought this to my attention the other day, under the suitable headline “Time and Punishment,” and I’m just getting around to sharing it. Ross Anderson interviewed philosopher Rebecca Roache on the moral implications of life-extending technologies. An excerpt:

Suppose we eventually learn to put off death indefinitely, and that we extend this treatment to prisoners. Is there any crime that would justify eternal imprisonment? Take Hitler as a test case. Say the Soviets had gotten to the bunker before he killed himself, and say capital punishment was out of the question – would we have put him behind bars forever?

Roache: It’s tough to say. If you start out with the premise that a punishment should be proportional to the crime, it’s difficult to think of a crime that could justify eternal imprisonment. You could imagine giving Hitler one term of life imprisonment for every person killed in the Second World War. That would make for quite a long sentence, but it would still be finite. The endangerment of mankind as a whole might qualify as a sufficiently serious crime to warrant it. As you know, a great deal of the research we do here at the Oxford Martin School concerns existential risk. Suppose there was some physics experiment that stood a decent chance of generating a black hole that could destroy the planet and all future generations. If someone deliberately set up an experiment like that, I could see that being the kind of supercrime that would justify an eternal sentence.

So, just to carry the absurdity a bit farther… Would the rest of us be around when he got out, having had our own lives extended? Would any of us be Holocaust survivors? Would we have to watch him walk out, a free man? After millions of lifetimes, would anyone care, or would we have been changed over time in ways we can’t even imagine. If one of us shot him as he walked out, what would our sentence be?

Bottom line, only God gets to hand out eternal sentences. It’s probably a good thing that we lack the ability to usurp that authority…

Florida sheriff wants to amend ‘Stand Your Ground’

Don’t know how I got on this sheriff’s mailing list, but I thought some of y’all would be interested in his perspective:

Sheriff Scott Israel is the most outspoken sheriff in Florida when it comes to changing the “Stand Your Ground” law.

Click to view a recent article about his stance in Huffington Post  

Now that Tallahassee legislatures are considering amendments to “Stand Your Ground,” Sheriff Israel is making sure his voice and his view is heard.

Below is an op-ed available for publication that clearly states the necessity for change in this law.

Contact me for interview opportunities or additional information.

Thanks!
Jen

Jen Hobbs
JenMHobbs@gmail.com
845-863-6448

Where I Stand On Stand Your Ground
Sheriff Scott Israel

I stand with the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis in their fight to amend Stand Your Ground – to grieving mothers who lost their children to senseless gun violence.  Last Monday, these two brave mothers-turned-activists led a peaceful march with hundreds of protesters on the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee.  The women were joined by families of other victims of this law.

A bipartisan proposal by Florida State Senators David Simmons (R) and Chris Smith (D) passed the State Senate Judiciary Committee on October 15 by a 7-2 vote, and now heads to other committees for consideration before coming to the Senate floor for a full vote.  The original 2005 law was written by none other than Sen. Simmons.

I applaud Sen. Simmons for recognizing that the law is not perfect, and for reaching above partisan politics on this tremendously important public safety issue.  The proposed Simmons-Smith amendment makes clear that the statute should prohibit people from later claiming self-defense if they started or unnecessarily escalated a conflict when safe withdrawal outside the home was an option.

Many people have made the case that the George Zimmerman trial, which spurred the interest in revising Stand Your Ground, had nothing to do with the self-defense law.

This opinion is misguided.

In February 2012, when Zimmerman shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, the police who were called to the scene, unable to refute Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense.  By law, they were unable to file charges and follow through with normal procedures, thus compromising the investigation from the start.  Sanford city officials stated: “By Florida Statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.”

The Stand Your Ground law effectively tied the hands of law enforcement in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, and will continue to do so until this law is fixed.  In the case of Mr. Zimmerman, the threat was not immediate.  He should have been obligated to get in his vehicle, leave the area, and avoid that confrontation.  If the law had read differently, maybe he would have.

When Michael Dunn fired nine bullets into a Dodge Durango at four seemingly unarmed teenagers, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida, his actions were facilitated by this broken law.  Deadly force should never be a first choice; it should be a choice used only after all other reasonable options have been exhausted.

The law is not stagnant.  It is open to change, particularly when the change leads to less violent incidents and more accountability.

As one of only a small handful of sheriffs in Florida to support a change in the Stand Your Ground law, I feel the need to be active and vocal in this all-important discussion. Florida was the first of at least 22 other states that have enacted similar Stand Your Ground statutes, so it is also right that we lead in the effort to fix it.  More than 26 young people in Florida have already lost their lives in Stand Your Ground cases.  This law, here and elsewhere, must be fixed before more needlessly die.

For these reasons, I support these important first steps in amending this valuable law.

Claire Underwood’s proposal fails in real-life Senate

Sen. Gillibrand

Sen. Gillibrand

OK, technically, it wasn’t the fictional Mrs. Underwood’s plan. It was pushed instead by the real-life Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — who, as tacky as it may be in the context of talking about sexual crimes (but it’s true), is also a rather striking blonde.

A more relevant coincidence is that her proposal was the very same one that caused the majority whip to stop the Underwood bill on “House of Cards.” To wit, according to The Washington Post:

The Senate rejected a controversial proposal Thursday to remove military commanders from decisions on whether to prosecute major crimes in the ranks as the concerns of Pentagon leaders trumped calls from veterans groups to dramatically overhaul how the Defense Department handles assault and rape cases.

Congress has already voted to revamp the military’s legal system by ending the statute of limitations on assault and rape cases, making it a crime to retaliate against victims who report assaults and requiring the dishonorable discharge or dismissal of anyone convicted of sexual assault or rape.

But on Thursday senators rejected a plan by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would go further by taking away from military commanders the power to refer serious crimes to courts-martial. The decision would shift instead to professional military trial lawyers operating outside the chain of command.

The proposal fell five votes short of the 60 votes necessary to clear a procedural hurdle and proceed to a final vote. In a reflection of the complexity of the issue, 10 Democrats voted against Gillibrand’s plan, while 11 Republicans — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — joined her in voting to proceed….

I think the Senate acted wisely. It moved to toughen the law without undermining the military system of justice. I realize the Underwood/Gillibrand approach has attracted growing support — witness how close it came today. But while I’d like to throw military rapists under the treads of an Abrams tank, I don’t think it’s right to take commanders out of the equation. In other words, I agree with the position taken by the fictional Jackie Sharp, and I really identified with her discomfort when she broke the news to Claire. Although it might have been easier for her, as a woman, to take that position than it would for a man.

I know I, for one, hesitate to voice it. But I thought it would be a copout to mention the issue without doing so….

ad_126949220

The fictional Claire Underwood.

‘Stand Your Ground’ asserted in high school stabbing

Don’t know whether you’ve seen this yet today:

LEXINGTON, SC — An attorney for the 18-year-old former Lexington High School student accused of stabbing to death a student at a rival school said Thursday his client will seek to invoke South Carolina’s “Stand Your Ground” law and not face murder charges.

At a bond hearing Thursday morning before Circuit Judge William Keesley, attorney Todd Rutherford said Kierin Dennis was in “fear for his life” and a “victim” rather than the aggressor in the death of Dutch Fork High School senior Da’Von Capers on Feb. 17 following a tension-filled high school basketball game between their two schools….

You may have last seen Rep. Rutherford in court action defending Rep. Ted Vick against a DUI charge, saying that the reason his client was walking so unsteadily was that he had a rock in his shoe. That made The Daily Mail. (OK, that’s the second time today the Mail has been invoked on this blog. It’s a steady job, but I want to be a paperback writer…)

We continue to lock up too many people, for too long

The badly overcrowded San Quentin Prison in California.

The badly overcrowded San Quentin Prison in California.

Federal Judge Michael A. Ponsor, celebrating the fact that the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has reported out the “Smarter Sentencing Act,” laments all the years that he was forced to put away prisoners for long terms that they are still serving, even though in recent years Congress and the courts have thought better of those mandatory minimum sentences:

In 1984, at the start of my career, 188 people were imprisoned for every 100,000 inhabitants of the United States. Other Western industrialized countries had roughly equal numbers. By 2010 that figure had skyrocketed to 497 people imprisoned in the U.S. for every 100,000 inhabitants. Today, we imprison more of our people than any other country in the world.

How did “the land of the free and the home of the brave” become the world’s biggest prison ward? The U.S. now houses 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. Either our fellow Americans are far more dangerous than the citizens of any other country, or something is seriously out of whack in the criminal-justice system.

The capricious evolution of federal sentencing law makes the moral implications of this mass incarceration especially appalling. In 1987, all federal sentencing became subject to sentencing guidelines designed to smooth out disparities among sentences of different judges. This move was not in itself a bad thing; sentences for similarly situated offenders obviously ought to be roughly the same. The problem was that the appellate courts interpreted these guidelines so rigidly that judges like me were often forced to ignore individual circumstances and hit defendants with excessive—sometimes grossly excessive—sentences….

Now, his sleep is haunted by all of those people who are still imprisoned, and he can do nothing to free them from the unjust sentences to which he condemned them.

I’ve said it before — I see little point in locking up people who have not demonstrated that they pose a physical danger. Unless, of course, they have repeatedly refused to cooperate with more sensible punishments — restrictive paroles, payment of restitution, community service and the like.

Had I been forced for decades to impose the sentences this judge has, I’d likely be sleepless, too.

I recommend you read the whole piece, in The Wall Street Journal today.

AP: No executions in SC in two years

Here’s some good end-of-year news from the AP’s Meg Kinnard:

COLUMBIA, S.C. — For the second year in a row, South Carolina had no executions in 2013.

It mirrors national trends that have moved away from putting inmates to death. In a report that came out this month, the Death Penalty Information Center says fewer and fewer people are being executed nationwide.

Last year, the center says 39 inmates were executed in nine states. That represents a drop of 10 percent from a year earlier.

South Carolina last executed someone in May 2011, when 36-year-old Jeffrey Motts was put to death for strangling his cellmate. He was already serving a life sentence for a 1995 double murder….

I don’t know about y’all, but I had no idea…

Police throw book at car-on-roof suspect

You may have heard about the car found on the roof of a house in Forest Acres.

Here’s more on the subject:

Police have arrested a known gang member whose vehicle landed on the roof of a Forest Acres home following a police chase early Saturday morning.

Antwon Ashley, 31, has been charged with headlights required, reckless driving, hit and run property damage over $10,000, failure to stop for blue lights, trafficking crack cocaine, distribution within the proximity of a school, littering and opposing law enforcement….

Wow. Busy night. Allegedly.

Unfortunately, no one has reported HOW the car got on top of the house. Which is the one thing we want to know, right?

Police say they don’t know.

Nathan Ballentine proposes solution for violent crime in Columbia: Sheriff Leon Lott

At the risk of seeming even more like a guy who thinks of himself as the Editorial Page Editor in Exile, allow me to call your attention to a second good piece on the opinion pages of The State today.

You should read Rep. Nathan Ballentine’s piece promoting Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott as the guy who can lead Columbia to solutions in dealing with its violent crime problem. An excerpt:

The answer to Columbia’s violent crime isn’t what, but who

Recently, the Midlands has seen a dramatic rise in gang violence and senseless shootings. Business leaders, elected officials, USC’s administration and many others have sought answers to the big question: What can we do to stop it? College students, victims’ groups and law enforcement officials all have met and pondered the same question: How can we combat violent crime?

Sheriff Leon Lott

Sheriff Leon Lott

There may not be just one answer, but I know one man who has the experience and sheer determination to find all the answers and get the job done here in Columbia: Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.

In the past, Columbia City Council has been reluctant to cede power to Sheriff Lott, apparently because of small turf battles and out of fear that council members might lose some control over the law enforcement they currently manage….

For many of us, the answer is clear: have Sheriff Lott take over control of city law enforcement efforts and allocate resources where he knows they will best be utilized, city or county. To do anything less is simply sanctioning further violence throughout Columbia.

Leon Lott is a unique individual who transcends politics and has a record of achievement…

Some may be surprised to see a conservative Republican lawmaker — one of Gov. Nikki Haley’s oldest and best friends in the House — praising a Democratic sheriff to the skies. Such people don’t know Nathan Ballentine very well. He will work with anyone, D or R, whom he sees as able to get the job done.

Others, unfortunately, will dismiss this as a white legislator (a Republican, no less — and from Chapin!) promoting a white lawman to ride in and show a town with a black mayor, black city manager and a series of minority police chiefs how to make Five Points safe for white college kids. Not that anyone will put it quite that bluntly, but there may be such a reaction, on the part of some, to that effect.

People who react that way will not be reassured by Nathan pointing out that Sheriff Lott was way out ahead of the city in recognizing the community’s gang problem, and doing something about it. That has long been a touchy subject along the demographic fault line in Columbia, with (and yes, I’m deliberately oversimplifying to make a point) white folks saying of course there’s a gang problem, and black folks saying, you white people see a “gang” wherever two or more young, black males congregate.

Setting race aside, some will react at the “great man theory” that underlies the Ballentine piece — the idea that this sheriff, this man, is the one to do the job. What happens, they’ll say, when Lott is no longer sheriff?

In other words, the barrier to communication runs a little deeper than “small turf battles.” Although that’s a part of it, too. There are multiple reasons why this hasn’t happened already.

There’s an opportunity here. Mayor Steve Benjamin has just gotten re-elected by a strong margin, and he has floated the idea of Lott taking over before. With the strong-mayor vote coming up the potential for change is in the air — although it’s tough to say whether the Lott idea has a better or a worse chance in light of that. (Better if it makes people more willing to give the major more power, worse if they say, if a strong mayor doesn’t run the police department, what’s the point?)

If he takes this up again, Benjamin has the political chops and stature to override a lot (if not all) of the gut-level objections out there, as well as the bureaucratic ones.

Is it doable? I don’t know. But letting the sheriff elected to serve the whole county actually run law enforcement for the whole county is an idea that deserves a full and fair hearing.

Have YOU been harmed by the DOR hacking?

Or do you know anyone who has?

I raised this question, sort of indirectly, earlier — I was questioning the value of Vincent Sheheen trying to get everybody outraged over the hacking, which broke a year ago, when we don’t know whether anyone has been harmed. I was reacting to this passage in an AP story:

It’s unknown if anyone’s identity has been stolen because of the hacking. A Federal Trade Commission attorney has said the selling and trading of stolen information makes it virtually impossible to trace an identity theft case to any particular security breach.

But since that was Friday afternoon, and things I post on Friday afternoons tend to drift off into a vague place, only a few comments were offered, none of them answering the question above.

So, let me know, straight up — do you know of anyone who has good reason to believe he or she was in any way harmed by the breach?

I know someone who has had a terrible time from having her identity stolen, although it happened well before any of this, so I don’t think it’s related.

Someone filed false tax returns for 2011 using my next-to-youngest daughter’s Social Security number and other info. It was a huge hassle getting it all straightened out.

Then, just over a week ago, she got this seriously threatening letter from the IRS saying that she had ignored their previous notices (she had received no previous notices) and that if she didn’t pay more than $7,000 RIGHT NOW her property was going to be seized.

There was no way she had at any time owed the IRS $7,000.

Supposedly, that is now straightened out, also. A guy at the IRS named “Mike” — no surname that I know of — said just to tear up that letter; it was all a mistake. OK, so we’re, um, somewhat reassured. (I assume that if there are any more threats from the IRS, we’re just supposed to say, “Fuggedaboudit. Mike says it’s cool….” We’re counting on Mike being the guy behind the guy.)

I don’t know whether that particular incident is related to the earlier theft or not. I think it is. I’m somewhat confused by the fact that my daughter was out of the country last month, and her purse was stolen — with passport, driver’s license, everything. She had to get a provisional passport from the embassy to get back into the country.

Oh, yes; one other thing — last week I got a notice from Adobe saying that when I bought PhotoShop Express from them several months back, my information was stolen. They want me to sign up for monitoring on their dime, I believe. I guess I’d better get on that; I’ve been busy the last few days and had managed to shove that to the back of my mind…

Unfortunately for Vincent Sheheen, I don’t blame any of these incidents on Nikki Haley.

My point is, people’s identities do get stolen, and it does lead to hassles. So has anyone had any such hassles that they know or merely suspect were related to the Department of Revenue hacking?

And if not, isn’t that sort of odd?

Bradley Manning escapes, having been replaced in his cell by someone named ‘Chelsea’

Are any of y’all watching “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix? No, wait, that’s an archaic question in the age of binge-watching, and of series being released all at once. It should be more like “Have any of y’all watched all or part of ‘Orange is the New Black’?”

Well, we have been, and we’ve seen it through the third episode, which centers around a transsexual — a former fireman named Burset, now living as a woman, specifically as the inmate hairdresser — in the women’s prison in which the series is set. It’s a sympathetic portrayal in the fullest sense — sympathetic to him as a him (in flashbacks) and her as a her, as well as to Burset’s wife and child and the pain they’ve dealt with through the process. I also found myself feeling a bit for the criminal justice system and prison authorities, because of the questions they have to deal with: Do you put Burset in a women’s prison? If so, is the state obligated to provide continued hormone treatments? If the state withdraws such treatments (which it does, allegedly for medical reasons), should Burset still be kept in a facility for women? If Burset commits suicide because all that personal and family sacrifice was for nothing, is the state liable?

But at least in that case, Burset came to the system having already made the big change, and having paid $80,000 for it. (We are given to gather that the imprisonment has something to do with how that money was acquired.) Everybody knew what they were dealing with.

Now, we have the real-life case of Bradley Manning, a young man who served in the U.S. Army as a man, and was convicted and sentenced as a man, and now wants to become a woman. Or is a woman, as his missive on the subject states.

Wow. This has to be frustrating for the Army. Here they went to all this trouble to try and convict and sentence this guy named Bradley, and now there’s some dame in his cell instead.

That’s one of the slicker escapes I’ve ever heard of.

We’re No. 1! We’re number one! (In incarceration rate)

CIubsq7

Let’s see if I can get this gif to work. There’s supposed to be a tumbleweed blowing across the barren crossroad. It’s meant to illustrate this point: “this is what it looks like when you take all of the countries that jail more people than we do and put them into one GIF.”

In other words, nobody exceeds the US of A in this important statistic. And among your more-or-less advanced sort of nations, the OECD nations, No. 2 Israel is way, way behind us.

A list like this is totally unfair to us, of course. It ignores the special problems we have. For instance these other countries don’t have as many poor, black males as… Oh, wait. That doesn’t make us sound any better, does it?

On a brighter note, it seems that among the United Prisons of America, South Carolina is only at No. 9, way behind Louisiana, which has more than triple our rate.

Of course, last time I heard, we had the dubious distinction of spending less per prisoner than any other state — meaning less on security, less on rehabilitation, etc. I was unable to determine in a quick search whether that was still true…

Image vs. reality: The utter powerlessness of the mayor of Columbia

I thought this was an interesting contrast.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin’s re-election campaign sent out the above video, showing the mayor standing before a group of cops — the city’s anti-gang unit — and talking tough about how gangs won’t be tolerated (when he’s not talking about reaching out to troubled youth who are all “very talented” and just need a guiding hand, an apparent contradiction that reflects the different constituencies he’s trying to reach).

So there you have an image of a mayor who is in command of the city’s sentinels, pledging to protect us all from crime.

Then, you have what happened in the real world — the reminder last night that the mayor is not in charge of the police department, and has no control over the person who is:

COLUMBIA, SC — Columbia’s mayor and city manager had a public falling out Tuesday, barely seven months into a workplace relationship that critics once decried as too close.

The split occurred over Mayor Steve Benjamin’s proposal to ban city administrators and politicians from active police crime scenes. City manager Teresa Wilson said she took the proposal as a shot aimed to impugn her integrity because of her decision to go to the site of the July 12 arrest of state civil rights leader Lonnie Randolph.

“I don’t care who it is. I’m not going to allow anybody to attack my personal credibility,” Wilson told The State newspaper after Benjamin’s proposal died in a 5-1 vote. The mayor was the only one of the six council members at the meeting to vote in support of his suggestion that would have allowed City Council members to be censured and employees to be disciplined…

Benjamin is fully aware of how powerless he is, the video image from that press conference notwithstanding. In fact, he put out a release about it today:

Serving as your mayor has been the dream of a lifetime and a great personal honor and I have used this office as forcefully as I can to advocate positive improvements in our city.
I’m proud of the progress we are making in building a safer city, creating jobs, improving education and providing a high quality of life for our citizens.
But recent news has helped to demonstrate that the present “weak mayor” system of governance in Columbia is outdated and structurally flawed. Like all Columbians, I’m frustrated by how long it takes to get things done.
Under the current system, I have:
But ultimately, I am limited to a role of advocacy. The Mayor of Columbia has only one vote on a seven-member council and no administrative authority.
It’s time for a change. It’s time to switch to a “strong mayor” form of government.
Columbia has grown to the point that we need a mayor with modern executive authority. The present system muddies the waters of accountability. The time has come to make me and all future mayors accountable to the voters for the quality and efficiency of city government.
That’s why I’ve asked City Council to meet on August 13 and support a referendum that would let the voters decide whether they want a modern strong mayor form of government or whether they want to continue our present system of city management by committee.
My request of City Council is simple: let the voters decide.
Some will argue that we should keep the present committee system. Some will say they don’t want mayors to have executive powers. That’s okay. Let everyone make their case in a public debate to be decided by the people of Columbia.
Surely no one who believes in the founding principles of America would stand in the way of allowing the public to vote on how they choose to be governed.
I hope my colleagues on City Council will join me in giving voters the chance to make their voices heard. And if Council fails to empower the people, then I will stand strongly behind a petition drive to give voters access to the ballot.
If you agree that it’s time for a change, please consider contacting your City Council members. Let them know you support giving the people of Columbia the opportunity to vote on their form of government.
As always, I thank you for your time and consideration.
Sincerely,


Steve Benjamin, Mayor
City of Columbia, South Carolina

As you know, I’m completely in agreement with the mayor on this. The executive functions of the city should be in the hands of someone elected by all of the city’s voters. There is simply no accountability under the current system.

But while I’m with him on the main point, I was struck by the irony of his mentioning his desire “to enact policies that remove all hints of politics from law enforcement,” on the same day his campaign is touting video of him posed in front of a row of uniformed cops…

rallybrand4

In speaking about race and justice in America, Obama makes good use of bully pulpit, only without the ‘bully’ part

This story about the speech in the WSJ this morning summed up the challenge:

The remarks, delivered without a teleprompter, were a striking example of America’s first black president seeking to guide the country’s thinking on race without inflaming racial tensions or undermining the judicial system.

He managed to do that, and he did it just right. While the topic was a sensitive as all get-out, the president didn’t make a big deal of it. He wasn’t making a pronouncement, or proposing policy. He wasn’t speechifying at all. He started out by lowering the temperature, reducing expectations, making the whole thing as casual as possible without making light of it. It came across this way:

This isn’t really a press conference — we’ll have one of those later. Today, I’m just this guy, talking to you, sharing a few thoughts that I hope will help help black and white people understand each other a little. Not that I’m some oracle or something, I just have some life experiences — just as we all have life experiences — that might be relevant to share…

It was the president using the bully pulpit, only without the bully part. No-drama Obama. Just talking, not speechifying. Thought, not emotion, even though some of the thoughts were about deep, visceral feelings, and the way people act as a result of them. Just, “I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit…”

He had said earlier, on the dispassionate level — what needed to be said: The jury has spoken, and that’s that. He repeated that (read the whole speech here):

The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a — in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.

Going beyond that, he downplayed any expectations that his administration would somehow take up the cudgels against Zimmerman as a way of undoing that verdict:

I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government — the criminal code. And law enforcement has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels…

This speech Friday was about trying to explore, just as calmly, the emotional reaction that causes such dissatisfaction with the verdict, appropriate as it may have been given the case:

But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.

In other words, look, a lot of white folks don’t understand why a lot of black folks react to this thing the way they do, and here’s my take on that:

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.

Furthermore, a lot of whites may be laboring under the impression that black folks are blind to the fact that young, black men are statistically more liable to be dangerous, especially to each other:

Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naïve about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context…

I think the African-American community is also not naïve in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.

So — so folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys, but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it or — and that context is being denied. And — and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different…

Oh, and in case you think he had some pompous, trite notion of launching something so grand as a “national conversation on race,” he deflated that:

You know, there have been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.

On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

Again, and again, his manner, his verbal cues, kept the intensity on the down-low: “watching the debate over the course of the last week I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit… And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but…” Throughout, he interjected the phrase “I think,” to make sure you knew he was just this guy talking, and not The Man, speaking ex cathedra.

Another thing that a lot of whites say about blacks is that they “talk about race all the time.” Well, Barack Obama certainly has not. He’s been the president, not the black president. But it’s a fine thing for America that when he does, on rare occasion, decide that OK, in this situation, maybe he should say something about the topic, he does it so deftly, so thoughtfully, so well.

Barack Obama, like any other presidents, has his strengths as well as weaknesses. Some of his strengths were on display Friday.

obamaspeak