A New Approach to Prisoner Treatment

Statistics about America’s prison system are disturbing.The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world; as of 2008, it was 756 inmates per 100,000 people. There were 2,310,984 inmates in American prisons and jails as of June 2008.  This number has quadrupled since 1980, due not to an increase in violent crimes but rather as a result of the “get tough” movement, which included such policies as mandatory sentencing, ‘three strikes’ laws, and a reduction in the use of parole, and has resulted in striking increases in arrests for drug possession. As Scott Turow has noted, “these days, you can get life in California for your third felony, even if it’s swiping a few videotapes from a Kmart.” In light of such startling figures, it is important to consider why we lock people up.

The goals of incarceration are various and can run counter to one another. Retribution, deterrence, and incapacitation are all reasonable purposes of incarceration, and the American prison system seems to have embraced such approaches.  But rehabilitation is also a legitimate goal. And there are a variety of programs attempting to improve the lives of those convicted of crimes. These include efforts outside of prisons, such as drug courts, which give non-violent substance abuse offenders the opportunity to choose treatment over jail time. They also include programs inside of prisons, such as ‘restorative justice’ which is based on the idea that all sides would benefit if offenders could come to terms with what they have done and try to make amends with those they have harmed.  A 2007 documentary explores one intriguing effort to make the goal of rehabilitation a reality.

The Dhamma Brothers, directed by psychotherapist/anthropologist Jenny Phillips, shows the remarkable and profound effects a silent meditation course has on a group of inmates, including rapists and murderers, at Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Alabama, in 2002. Over the course of ten days, the inmates learn Vipassana meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique which originated in India and was transmitted and preserved in Burma for centuries. Vipassana has in recent years seen somewhat of an explosion in the West; there are many centers throughout the world, including throughout the United States and Canada. The course is rigorous and challenging. Participants meditate for 10 hours per day, starting out with breathing exercises, and around the fourth day switching to a focus on bodily sensations. Meditators pledge to maintain ‘noble silence’ until the final day; and no activities are allowed other than meditating, sleeping, walking, and eating; this means no reading, no writing, no exercising.

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Published in: on November 13, 2009 at 11:41 pm Comments Off on A New Approach to Prisoner Treatment
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William Van Alstyne Speaks on Citizens United v. FEC

Today, William Van Alstyne, a professor at William and Mary Law, spoke on Citizens United v. FEC, a case heard before the Supreme Court this fall, and he offered his projections as to how this case is likely to be resolved. Van Alstyne pointed out that the case has vast implications for First Amendment rights and could greatly affect corporations’ abilities to become involved in political campaigns.

It is clear that the First Amendment applies to US citizens. What is not clear, however, is to what extent it applies to corporations. The Court has held that a corporate entity is considered a “person” under the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments; however, the Court has not considered, until now, whether a corporation has rights protected by the First Amendment.

It is important to note, as Van Alstyne points out, that there is a distinction between strictly commercial corporations (like GM) and corporations that are non-profit but advancing ideological principles (like Citizens United). In addition, there is a further distinction between corporations that expend money from their general treasury to advance a cause and those that advance certain causes through PACs (political action committees), which solicit shareholders and others for specific funds.

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Published in: on November 11, 2009 at 5:22 pm Comments Off on William Van Alstyne Speaks on Citizens United v. FEC

On the Slippery Slope to Gay Marital Bliss

On Friday, November 6, Andrew Koppelman, the John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern, visited William & Mary School of Law and gave a talk on gay marriage. His speech was presented by the Institute of Bill of Rights Law and the American Constitution Society.

Koppelman stated that the gay marriage movement is one of the mot successful such movements in U.S. history; ten years ago, no gays could marry; in 1999, Vermont was the first state to allow it, and at present there are nine states, representing almost 25% of the United States by population, that give same-sex couple all the rights of married couples (though only four states actually use the term ‘marriage’). There is a clear trend towards continued acceptance of gay marriage: 58% of 18-34 year olds support it, whereas only 24% of those over 65 do.

Much of Koppelman’s talk focused on presenting a response to the work of the so-called  ‘new natural law’ theorists, such as Robert George, John Finnis, and Patrick Lee. These thinkers have attempted to sketch out what makes the relationships of heterosexual couples intrinsically more valuable than those of homosexuals, even when the former couple is unable to conceive a child.

According to Koppelman, one of the approaches taken by these theorists includes the argument that heterosexual sex involves some ‘two in one-ness,’ or a biological unity, that gay sex doesn’t. According to this argument, each human is an incomplete, potential part of a mated pair that becomes one during the sex act.

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Published in: on November 9, 2009 at 11:17 pm Comments Off on On the Slippery Slope to Gay Marital Bliss
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Conspiracy

This week has been extremely hectic, so instead of gathering research, I will simply tell a personal story of mine.

In college, I was president of a national honor society, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS.)  In 2008, we held our national convention at the Coronado Springs Hotel in Orlando, Florida.  It was here where I met Jeff Smith.  Jeff was a politician who, at the age of 30, ran against Russ Carnahan for the 2004 Missouri congressional seat.  The Carnahan family is synonymous with the Kennedy’s of Massachusetts.  The Carnahan’s are a very prominent political family.  Jeff entered as an unknown and throughout the campaign made a documentary titled “Can Mr. Smith get to Washington Anymore?”  Jeff ran against nine other candidates in this crowded race and built an impressive foundation of political support.  The end result?  He narrowly lost against Russ in the democratic primaries.

Jeff would later go on to win a state senate seat in 2007 and, in 2008, flew down to Florida to speak with members of my organization.  Jeff was a very nice guy and very charismatic.  Despite his loss in 2004, I really could see his political career flourishing.

Let’s fast forward to two night ago.  A friend of mine who writes for a national magazine contacted me.  He was looking for stories of politicians who really made an impact in their communities.  Instead of finding prominent politicians, however, he wanted to find people who are not nationally known.  The theme was “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

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Published in: on November 7, 2009 at 9:47 pm Comments Off on Conspiracy
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Debate Out of Control: What is Healthcare Reforms’ Public Option Anyway?

We’ve all heard the, “You lie!” and “die quickly” quotes in the media. The 2009 Healthcare Reform Debate will go down in historical archives as a contentious battle royal. One small piece of this debate has garnered far more attention than it actually deserves. Described as a “sliver” of healthcare reform even by supporters – the Public Option has taken a center stage in the debate.

A recent headline, however, suggests there is broad support for a public option included in the overall healthcare reform package. Another news source showed polls swinging wildly based on how the questions were phrased. For example, in a Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll if you asked, “In any healthcare proposal, how important do you feel it is to give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government, and a private plan for their health insurance?” 72% of the people said “Extremely or Quite important.” If you change that to, “Would you favor or oppose creating a public health care plan administered by the federal government that would compete directly with private health insurance companies?” the support fell to 48%. The truth is that the public option debate has become entrenched in scary and false images of government death panels, people facing terrible diseases with no insurance to pay for their treatment, and partisan competition to be as rude, controversial, and divisive as possible. What are they fighting about and what does it mean for Americans?
The Public Option would entail a government run insurance plan to cover people not covered by other health insurance plans – state or private. The plan would compete directly with private insurers. The current House Bill would allow healthcare providers to negotiate their reimbursement rates. A public option would require the government to provide money for the initial set-up, which in the proposed Senate bills would require to be repaid over the next ten years. The insurance plan would then be self-sustained by member premiums. The current bill proposed by the Senate includes an opt-out for states; that means that states can choose for themselves not to offer a public option. Support is divided mostly along party lines with Democrats in favor and Republicans against.

Supports of the Public Option Pros:
Provides coverage for some of the estimated 46 million people without insurance in the United States. Recent estimates, however, say that only 2 percent of the population under 65 would take the public option as laid out in the current House Bill.
Provides choice of plans so people can select the better of either their employer’s or the federal option.
Intended to drive down industry-wide premiums by encouraging competition especially in markets with local monopoly providers.
Intended to provide people who lose their coverage through unemployment with an affordable option.

Healthcare Reform Protests Cons:
Some claim that competition with the government would cause the health insurance industry to collapse. According to Aetna’s CEO, “when you have a government plan, you have in essence a player in the industry who is a participant in the market, but also is a regulator and a referee in the game. And we think that those two roles really don’t work well.” President Obama and other proponents state that the reform would include rules to level the playing field between the government and the insurance companies. Others claim this is just the response of insurance companies that don’t want to compete.
Some people against the public option believe that this would encourage employers to stop providing health insurance benefits for employees. Proponents claim this would just provide a less expensive option for small businesses and the self-employed.

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Published in: on November 3, 2009 at 11:03 pm Comments Off on Debate Out of Control: What is Healthcare Reforms’ Public Option Anyway?

Deeds v. McDonnell (round 2)

Deeds (D) and McDonnell (R) faced off once before, when they ran for attorney general. For those unfamiliar with Virginia politics, McDonnell won that race. This time Deeds and McDonnell are in a battle for governor. At this point, the odds are against the democratic candidate.

As of October 27, 2009, Deeds was thirteen points behind McDonnell in the polls. If anything could have given Deeds a boost, it should have been President Obama’s campaign appearance at Old Dominion University. The President’s appearance actually made 39% of those polled, less likely to vote for candidate Deeds. Voters seem to be more trusting of McDonnell on the major issues, such as government spending, transportation, and taxes.

One thing that continues to haunt McDonnell, is the thesis he wrote while he was a student at Regent University. McDonnell was thirty-four when he wrote his thesis, so the propositions he made cannot be blamed on his youth. As a student at Regent, McDonnell believed that women with careers were harmful to families, and that the government should “ favor married couples over fornicators and homosexuals”. He also thought access to birth control should be limited to married couples. McDonnell prefers to focus on the issues rather than his questionable beliefs. He does claim that he no longer harbors any negative feelings towards working women, fornicators, or homosexuals.

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Published in: on at 11:00 pm Comments Off on Deeds v. McDonnell (round 2)

Beware the Prison-Industrial Complex

President Eisenhower’s last address to the American people warned them to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. . . in the councils of government.” He warned that, unchecked, the interests of an industry devoted to war could endanger the liberties and democratic processes of the American people. There is a similar, yet overlooked danger to our liberties as well today. The prison-industrial complex.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania not even a week ago overturned 6500 convictions and prison sentences of juvenile offenders in Luzerne County. No, it was not a “soft on crime” decision that declared imprisonment for juveniles unconstitutional. It declared that virtually every single juvenile to appear before the court in Luzerne County in the last five years had been the victim of the prison-industrial complex. Two judges, Mark Ciaverella and Michael Conhan, have been charged with accepting 2.8 million dollars in bribes from the owners of private prisons in Luzerne County to send some extra business their way. The judges were not only accepting bribes from the owners of the prison, but had convinced the county in 2002 that the current, government-run prison was unsafe, and that they should hire a private firm to do the job. Kids were sent to jail for stealing change from unlocked cars, and shooting out windows with a BB gun, among other minor offenses.

Well, at least they were caught, you might say. That is true. They will hopefully spend just as long, if not longer, in prison than the children they sent away for their own material gain. The children’s records will be expunged. But they cannot get back the months or years of their lives they spent in prison, the terror they likely experienced. The scars will follow them for a long time.

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Published in: on at 6:29 pm Comments Off on Beware the Prison-Industrial Complex

ACS Election Guide

The American Constitution Society has prepared the following Election Guide, which provides a brief summary of the positions of the candidates in tomorrow’s election for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and the House of Delegates (64th District).

As a nonpartisan organization, ACS does not endorse or take a position on any candidate, but we hope this guide will be helpful to you as you make your choices tomorrow.

ACS Election Guide (click to download) (PDF)
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Published in: on November 2, 2009 at 10:19 am Comments Off on ACS Election Guide

Stimulating the Local Economy with My Stomach

At every downturn in the economic cycle, consumers look to save money by cutting back on expenses. I include myself in this group of penny pinchers but I believe I have formed a habit that will outlast any recession. This summer I began to do my weekly shopping at the local farmers market three blocks from my house. What began as a cheap and fast way to get my groceries turned into an exercise in economics.

With the government spending billions of dollars in an effort to end a recession, I decided to do my part. By spending my weekly grocery money at the local farmer’s market I keep my money in the hands of my fellow community members. Farmers who sell their crops to industrial food suppliers earn pennies on the dollar from the products sold containing their crops. In contrast, farmers who sell their crops at farmers markets keep 90 cents of every dollar. The financial hardships that small, organic, and sustainable farmers perpetually endure are often masked in the media by stories of massive government subsidies and the rising cost of crops. Despite the seemingly prosperous status of the farming industry, the media coverage mostly reflects the large industrial farming system that mass-produces meat and other “food” products. These industrial farming operations have taken over our food system and are running small family farms out of business. By spending my grocery money at the farmer’s market, I encourage a healthier, more sustainable food system that also supports my local community.

In addition to keeping my money in my community, buying my food from my local farmers market reduces my carbon footprint. The average American meal travels over 1,500 miles before it reaches the dinner table. And 40% of the fruit in our grocery stores in shipped in from overseas. That is an incredible amount of resources to bring something to my table that can be grown just as well down the street. By simply buying my food from my local farmers market I support a sense of collegiality and partnership with my neighbors that contributes to a healthier, more prosperous community while rejecting the industrial food supply and its reliance on an unsustainable system of growth and transportation.

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Published in: on October 30, 2009 at 12:36 pm Comments Off on Stimulating the Local Economy with My Stomach

Copyright Infringement: Worse Than Murder?

I am a criminal. I have years of experience with a certain criminal activity. I started in high school on advice from a friend, and pretty soon I found a group of similarly-inclined friends to roll with and we ratcheted up our involvement some more. I learned new techniques in college and avoided the crackdowns happening all around me. I don’t do it anymore, and I’ve never been caught and punished, but I can assure you that if I had been caught, my punishment would have been harsher than if I had kidnapped a child, burned down a house, started a dogfighting ring, or even committed second-degree murder. No joke – it’s that bad.

What am I talking about? File-sharing. Copyright infringement. Piracy. Call it what you want: one way or another it’s about downloading somebody’s property without paying for it. Sixty million Americans are guilty of it, by the way; chances are you’ve done it before, and if you haven’t, your kids probably have BitTorrent chugging along in the other room as we speak (that’s why this page loaded so slowly.) Is it a crime? You’re darn tootin’ it is. Is it wrong? Well…sure, maybe, I guess. Are our laws against it just and effective? Absolutely and emphatically not.

It’s difficult to come up with arguments defending file-sharers that don’t make me, a self-avowed file-sharer, come off as a self-congratulating twit. At the end of the day you’re taking the work product of an artist you love, the very sweat of Beyonce‘s brow, without paying for it in return. That’s not something to be proud of. There’s more in play here, though, than that simple characterization reflects. First of all, the record label generally holds the copyright to a recording and makes most of the money from the sale of a CD. If you steal a CD, you’re only taking a dollar or two our of Beyonce‘s pocket. Mostly you’re robbing the record company — of course, you’re still robbing them, but they’re less sympathetic targets to be sure. It’s a similar deal with online purchases, say, through iTunes: artists get about ten cents off a 99-cent download. In fact, most artists arguably benefit from piracy: they forego the dollar in royalties for increased exposure to their fanbase and attracting new listeners who aren’t interested enough (yet) to pay to hear them, which can translate into increased ticket sales at concerts and more “star power”. For every Kid Rock or Lars Ulrich who complains about evil file-sharers, there’s a hundred lesser-known artists who couldn’t get their music heard until they started giving it away for free on the internet.

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Published in: on October 26, 2009 at 10:10 pm Comments Off on Copyright Infringement: Worse Than Murder?