Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Improving American Justice

Yesterday I blogged about the case of Troy Anthony Davis, not only here, but on other forums as well. Fortunately the U. S. Supreme Court in emergency session yesterday gave Davis a reprieve, at least until next Monday when they are scheduled to decide whether they take Davis' final appeal, and if they do, at least until it is resolved.

One of my posts yesterday, at PoliWatch, drew the response - and I paraphrase:
With all of the crises we face at this time, who really cares about justice for one man? You have lost your sense of proportion.
Here is my reply:

Thank you for daring to ask the salient question! And I do mean that sincerely. Why indeed should I focus on the case of one man? That question is in fact in the back of my head when I write these articles. With injustice rampant around the globe, wars ravaging hundreds of thousands, millions dying from hunger, fundamental rights denied those who are not in power, and a whole host of issues here in the United States that impact huge swaths of our population, and indeed nearly every one of us ultimately - What does it matter?

Why Troy Anthony Davis?

I am pleased to answer that question.

We tout our system of justice as exemplary and fair and deliberative. "Innocent until proven guilty"; "everyone gets their day in court"; "the blind eye of justice"; "justice will be served"; American justice should be among the best in the world. Now, of course there will be hiccoughs - instances where local corruption perverts the proper delivery of justice.

If the case of Troy Anthony Davis were only that - a rare and local instance, where perhaps overzealous prosecutors coerced witness testimony - then you would be right to suggest that my focusing on it would be a disservice to more important topics for discussion.

I don't believe it is a hiccough.

For me, Davis' case is symptomatic of a number of fundamental problems with criminal justice in the United States. Yes it is extraordinary in bringing together many of these issues in one case, but that is what makes it noteworthy.

Now let me quickly add here that there is also a lot that is right about our system of justice. There are many extraordinarily talented police officers and detectives who follow the book and get good results, and many fine and talented prosecutors and judges who combine knowledge of the law with an earnest desire to serve justice who are a credit to our system.

But I believe there are some systemic issues and prevailing mistaken attitudes which are poisoning our system, and this case highlights a number of them.

Capital Punishment
The most obvious for most readers is the very presence of capital punishment. For me it is not the most important issue here - but it is clearly the one which speaks loudest to the most.

When there is a chance (and there is always a debate in quantifying that) that the convicted person facing extermination might be innocent, would we not be better off simply taking the death penalty off the list of possible punishments, as have most of the worlds nations?

Pressure to Gain Convictions
Next there is a pervasive attitude which prioritizes conviction over justice. Whether it is haste and impatience, or an ego driven desire to run up the number of convictions one can claim, there is little denying that many in law enforcement and prosecution succumb to the pressure to solve every case, and are too willing to overlook contravailing evidence which might suggest that their first suspicion was wrong. Now some of that is just human nature, which is bound to show up in any system of justice. But I contend that a renewed emphasis on the deliberative intent of our justice system, and a reduction in incentive to just find somebody to charge and convict, could go a long way toward reducing the haste which often results in wrongful convictions.

This is the area where I see the issue as being far broader than just the case of Troy Anthony Davis. In fact the capital punishment aspect of his case unfortunately obscures a much broader issue. How many innocent people (regardless of whether Davis is innocent or not), are suffering the grave and extraordinary punishment of spending years or the rest of their lives behind bars, simply because some cop, or prosecutor, or judge, or jury, or combination thereof, was too impatient to come to a conclusion which resolved the case? How much have we as a society lost by not having these people be productive members of society rather than a drain on our resources?

This is not just the fault of law enforcement and the courts. We really are all to blame for bringing this pressure on the system to come up with convictions, no matter whether they are correct.

Resistance to Correct Miscarriages of Justice
It has always been one of my pet peeves, that once convicted, justice usually becomes anything but swift when newly uncovered contravailing evidence suggests that we might have locked up the wrong person. Troy Davis' case highlights this concern strongly. It is plain to me that there was sufficient contravailing evidence early in this case to suggest that a new trial should have been granted at any of numerous points along the way. When such evidence is strong enough, I believe that is cause for the immediate release of the prisoner. We now have technology such as electronic ankle bracelets which could serve as a precaution against the suspect skipping town before their new trial. If Davis gets a
new trial, and his conviction is overturned, then assuming that he is innocent, he still would have suffered a very grave injustice. Based on the percentage of cases which have been overturned with exonerating DNA evidence as a result of the Innocence Project, we have every reason to suspect that there are a large number of prisoners who are wrongly incarcerated in these United States.

Racism / Classism / Influence
Finally it is never wrong to point out that we must always struggle to keep justice blind, and avoid the influence of race, class, and position in both who law enforcement suspects, and how we administer justice, and how we sentence the convicted. It is impossible to eliminate influence, no matter how perfect a system of justice might be. But eliminating such influence should be the beacon for which we aim, and evidence as shown by the statistics of who is incarcerated, and who isn't, strongly indicates that we fall far short of the mark.

In Conclusion
Individual stories make for compelling cases which individual readers can comprehend. I find the case of Troy Anthony Davis to be compelling. No doubt that is partly because I am a native Georgian, and also because I have heard the compelling testimony of his sister broadcast on my community radio station here in the Seattle area. I am pleased that the U. S. Supreme Court has given him a reprieve from his sentence, at least until next Monday when they decide whether or not to hear his last appeal, and if they do until they resolve the case.

The individual story allows the reader to connect at a more personal level with issues which we all should be concerned with. The media often gives undue attention to certain cases because of their celebrity or sensationalism, whether that be O. J. Simpson, Jon Benet Ramsey, or Paris Hilton. Those cases often distract us from more important issues.

I contend that in contrast to those, the case of Troy Anthony Davis has the potential to bring our attention to issues worth facing. If we care about our system of justice, then we all should care.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Troy Davis' Last Chance

The U.S. Supreme Court is in emergency session reviewing the case of Troy Anthony Davis according to CNN.

This is a story of a likely wrongful prosecution which I've been following since Amy Goodman brought it to my attention about a year ago. So I was dismayed yesterday morning to wake up to the news that Davis' execution for the 1989 murder of a police officer was scheduled for this evening. Then I got busy and woke up this morning to the same news. I had planned to at least make a phone call yesterday. A man's life was in the balance, and I forgot!

Of course I was extremely unlikely to have any effect. Though I grew up in Georgia, I no longer live there. At this point we can only pray that a stay is granted, or better still a new trial. I am thoroughly convinced this man is innocent, but how anyone can suggest that there is not a reasonable doubt after 7 of 9 witnesses recanted is quite beyond me.

My earlier posts on the case are here and here.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

My Quick Sheet

As PCO (Precinct Committee Officer) for my precinct, I've created a "quick sheet" to hand out to my neighbors as I canvass for Obama, Gov. Gregoire, and Lands Commissioner Challenger Peter Goldmark.

We all already get tons of mailers from so many campaigns, that I hate to add to the paper - so it had to be small, informative, and cover issues people might not know about.

I decided it would be excessive to yack on about every single Democratic Candidate, so I focused on the races I felt are most important, and give out web site URLs where recipients can start their research for those, and for those important "non-partisan" races and initiatives, for which I'm not lacking an opinion.

Attaining brevity is my biggest challenge, but I managed to fit readable type on a half sheet (though you'll have to click on the image below to make it a readable size), and stuck my modified version of the Washington Post graphic showing the impact of the tax plans of our two Presidential candidates on the other. I print two to a sheet, and cut them down the middle.

Flip side rotated:

The Washington Post image while very informative at a glance, unfortunately has the potential to reinforce some of the faulty stereotyping that the free market fundamentalist right (and libertarian) elements in this country do of liberal policy. Because the graph shows CHANGE in taxation after the Bush tax cuts to the very wealthiest individuals expire, some will look at it and wrongly interpret it as radical wealth redistribution. In the original image, the problem was exacerbated by the width of the lines showing tax increases for segments of the population representing 1/1000th and 1/100th of the total population being just as wide as the lines showing the tax reductions for much larger portions of the population. So I made those lines much thinner and widened the other ones to partially make up for this visual misrepresentation. I also highlighted the salient summary points in circles to the side. Finally you should note that the totals at the bottom show averages as a mean, heavily weighting the tax increases for the very wealthy rather than giving the median tax cut for those families that fall in the middle in terms of income. What's interesting about that, is that shows that Obama's plan is much more fiscally responsible in providing revenue, while still advantaging a huge percentage of the population in ways that will really help them.

Because I'll be handing these out, I hope to make some of these points as I go. You should feel free to make your own quick sheet for your own district and use this graphic if you like in your own canvassing. There is a 2-up pdf of the graphic here.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Failed Economic Philosopy

What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed.

In contrast McCain yesterday morning repeated his quip that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong"
oops! McCain later yesterday: "We are in a total crisis."

And the Republicans, including John McCain, want to privatize Social Security. At least the Democrats (and a few Republicans who got an earful from their constituents) stopped that disaster. Can you imagine if Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and AIG were taking care of some huge chunk of that public trust?

Obama has it right - and he's been consistent. It's "I still need to be educated [on the economy]" McCain whose message bounces around to suit the latest story. Looking at his record, however, he has a consistently deregulatory approach.

After years of relaxing the rules for financial institutions, and failing to properly enforce those which remain, the party which decries any liberal inclination to tighten regulations as "socialist" is essentially nationalizing troubled corporations, allowing taxpayers to take on the risk, while bailing out the speculators. Sure Democrats collaborated on this disaster, but Republicans, free market fundamentalists, and the greed-heads on Wall Street have led the charge. I expect we will see a few sacrificial lambs among the worst of the speculators, but plenty of folks will flee the scene with millions while tens of thousands of victims will face foreclosure or worse as a result of this fiasco.

And yet McCain claims Obama will "raise your taxes", in spite of independent analysis of the two campaigns' promises which shows Obama's plan lowers taxes MORE than McCain's for over 80% of Americans.

courtesy Washington Post; Alchemy Today; and a study by the Tax Policy Center

McCain's charge is only true if he is talking to the wealthiest 1% of Americans, and even then the raise in taxes is only based on allowing Bush's tax cuts to expire. Calculate your estimated tax cut under the two plans to discover whether McCain is talking to you.

America wake up! McCain only has your economic interests at heart if you earn over $300,000 annually, and even then what good is tax relief if the economy is falling apart around you. I don't think he wants to screw up, but he doesn't even have a clue who he should surround himself with for economic advice. His pal Phil Gramm was his chief economic advisor up until a week after Gramm opined America had become "a nation of whiners", inflicted with only a "mental recession".

Obama in contrast picks his people based on their intellect, and includes many who don't always agree with him. Now there's a refreshing change.

The AIG rescue is only the latest shoe to drop. America we can't afford much more of this. It's time for real leadership. It's time for new inspiration. Obama is clearly our best hope. As he says
The dream of the American people must not be endangered anymore!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Being Partisan without Partisan Blinders

What is best for our nation? What is best for our society? What is best for our planet?

In a complex world, there is no one simple answer to such questions. World views can help us shape how we approach solving the world's problems, but those views can also blind us to solutions that others may offer.

If you consider yourself a Republican, you may be convinced that most Democrats are more interested in seeing Republicans fail than in working across the aisle to solve problems. If you consider yourself a Democrat, you may be convinced that most Republicans are more interested in seeing Democrats fail than in working across the aisle to solve problems. Many Independents and supporters of third parties are convinced that partisan blindness in both parties has stalemated Washington's ability to solve anything.

We partisans are often guilty as charged. But not always. It is possible to be partisan without partisan blinders. But it takes discipline.

It is easier to remove the blinders in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. I can honestly say that in the days following 9/11 seven years ago, I was looking to our President - to MY President - with great hope that he would make good decisions, based on sound reasoning and a long view of the future. The polls which showed Bush's approval climb to 90% in the aftermath of that crisis are testament to the fact that most Democrats were NOT wanting Republicans to fail at that frightening moment in history. Even among the 10% who continued to express disapproval of Bush, I am quite confident that a large fraction did not WANT him to screw up. 90% approval did not mean that the country was momentarily mostly Republican, but rather that we were Americans first. It was an expression of hope that we would rise above partisanship.

Within two or three years after 2001, we returned to a state of deep division, and now seven years later we remain largely divided on where to go from here, in spite of having two candidates who both profess the intent to put country ahead of party. There have been times when I confess to wishing that a particular (usually Republican, but sometimes bipartisan) economic policy would fail, because I felt so certain that it was part of a larger policy direction which I saw as directly harmful to large segments of the populace. It's rather like hoping that your child who has an obvious gambling addiction does not have a run of luck luring him into taking foolish risks with larger portions of his nest egg.

In the arena of foreign policy, however, I have never been so cynical. As convinced as I was in 2003 that invading Iraq was an awful blunder, I truly prayed that those weapons would be found, Saddam would be toppled to the cheers of Iraqis, and order would be restored to Iraq in a fairly democratic fashion. I feared with good reason that it would not be so neat, but what transpired eclipsed even my fears. When the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were revealed in 2004, I was deeply saddened, but still hoped that Rumsfeld would quickly resign or be dismissed, the policies which nurtured such atrocities would be unambiguously repudiated by the Bush administration, some of our international reputation would be restored, and then surely we would elect a Democrat to the Presidency to restore it further. When I and many fellow Democrats were calling on my party in 2007 to be tougher about funding the war at current levels and demanding a commitment to a withdrawal process, and Bush responded instead (after the Democrats' capitulation) with a plan for a surge, I thought that was foolish. I believed it was too little too late, but nonetheless, I hoped in spite of my fears that it would work. Honestly, I have been relieved at the reduction in violence that has resulted since, certainly in part due to the surge. Though there is plenty of evidence that serious political problems remain unresolved in Iraq, the resultant reduction in violence may put us in a better position to draw down our overstressed troops. I am happy with good news, even if it may be spun politically to the advantage of those who advocate policies that I disagree with.

You can always find cynics or partisans who are so blinded by their own world view that they will spin ANY news to the advantage of their ideology. That is true of any party or any world view, so the existence of these cynics is NOT evidence either against or for whatever ideology they are trying to advance. Often we focus on the cynics or the demagogues or the corrupt politicians as if they prove the wrongness of their side, rather than recognizing that we should instead debate the issues directly. Often that focus is cynically intentional, due to the historic success of straw man arguments in lieu of solid analysis.

Partisanship is not evil in and of itself. I still believe that government ought to play an important role in regulating industry to protect the concerns of employees, consumers, and our environment. I believe my party is more likely to advocate such a role than is the Republican Party. But when Republicans and conservatives counsel that we must pay heed that regulation does not cripple the natural ability of markets to provide goods to consumers at competitive prices, we should see the truth in that and be willing to compromise accordingly, and make sure that new regulations are not too onerous or restrictive.

On a whole host of issues, from civil liberties - to foreign diplomacy - to a healthy partnership between science and government - to the rights of workers to engage in collective bargaining - and so on, I am more inclined to take a more liberal position and agree with Democrats more often. But that doesn't mean that I cannot also respect reasoned conservative cautions against excesses which might give too much authority to government or honor the rights of some to the detriment or danger of others. I am proud of my liberal values, but that doesn't mean that I don't have conservative values as well. Bush and Republican Congresses of the past have angered me often by their dismissive disdain for liberal values which I cherish, but they have angered ME as well for their abandonment of some of the best conservative values which they supposedly espouse.

This year we face a choice between candidates who both claim to represent a break from the partisan politics of the past. I will be heartily endorsing and arguing in favor of Obama whose speeches and writing eloquently and closely reflect my own beliefs and values. I will also be pointing to reasons to be suspicious that McCain and Palin will not be likely to become the change agents they claim, as they surround themselves with lobbyists and Republican partisans with heavy ties to politics as usual, and often when researched, real political corruption.

But let me also here confess to two things which my fellow partisan Democrats will cringe to read. I have no crystal ball assuring me that if he is elected that Obama won't capitulate to forces that honor the status quo, the influence of big business, and the most powerful lobbying groups of the traditional Democrats. In fact I am pretty certain he won't be able to completely avoid such influences, as we can already see in his pragmatic inclusion of advisors suggesting some of that. But the extent to which his campaign has been financed by many different individuals gives me real hope that he will be able to chart new ground in breaking with lockstep adherence to DLC initiatives or the politics of the past.

And secondly, as much as I worry otherwise, if McCain is elected you may be assured that I will be praying that his ascendancy to an executive role will free him to truly break with the past, root out corruption in government, return to his previous positions against torture, and against irresponsible tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans, and challenge his own party where they are unduly influenced by money. In terms of policy positions, I will necessarily be disappointed, because McCain will be aligned with positions I believe to be flawed, but if he is true to his "maverick" persona, and a Democratic Congress can act as a balance, that would truly be a step forward from the Bush years.

So I have risked having my own words used against me. For some that is a cardinal sin of politics. But I do so for this reason: I ask readers of this column or any other to bear in mind that every writer will tend to reveal that which supports their beliefs and not their doubts. The person behind those words may be an ideologue incapable of seeing any alternate view point, but maybe they are not. Perhaps that writer who seeks to convince that Obama is a disaster waiting to happen, or that McCain is a sure ticket to World War III, actually hopes they are wrong should the candidate of their fears be elected. In this post, let me assure all that I will hope for the best regardless of whom we elect this November. In future posts, I may not sound so much that way.

Fellow liberals, conservatives, libertarians, communitarians, greens, Americans, and humans, Peace be with you all, and may wisdom guide our electorate and our future leaders.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Another Deregulation Disaster

Eight years of Bush-Cheney have given us ample proof that simplistic allegiance to the mantras of free market fundamentalism give way to economic disaster. As Henry Paulson, pragmatic Treasury Secretary, moved to have the government take control of mortgage lending giants Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac, it is harder and harder to defend privatization and deregulation as the cornerstones of sound economic policy.

Of course none of this stopped most Republicans at their recent convention from acting like they still carry the torch for smaller government and freer markets. Economic ideologues steeped in the language of the supremacy of the market over government controls aren't likely to admit that blind adherence to their philosophy by so many since the Reagan years has cost us dearly.

I'm sure we will continue to hear about the evils of "burdensome regulations" proposed by Democrats and liberals. Conservative Senator Bunning of Kentucky amusingly called for the resignations of Paulson and Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke, saying "they have taken the free market out of the free market." Bunning has clearly sipped too much of the free market fundamentalism Kool-Aid.

But don't misunderstand. There IS plenty to criticize in the Paulson plan. Senator Obama while he generally supports the plan, expressed concern that we "not allow government intervention to protect investors and speculators who relied on the government to reap massive profits." Economist Max Fraad Wolff speaking on Democracy Now! this morning pointed to the government assumption of risk without fully taking over the institutions, and the likelihood that the government will end up taking on the role of a collection agency, gathering debt from homeowners to pay off debt to investors, foreign and otherwise. The help for struggling homeowners is meek in comparison. He offers a quick history lesson, and some amusing insights into Governor Palin's comments about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It is definitely worth a read.

Make no mistake that regulations can be burdensome. Often the mega-corporations which write them make them unnecessarily complicated, disadvantaging smaller firms who might want to compete. But if you are still convinced that deregulation and privatization are always necessarily better, let's review some recent troubles which had their genesis in deregulation:

  • Sub-prime lending

  • Wall Street investment scandals

  • Media consolidation

  • Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, etc corporate scandals

Yes, of course, there were also criminal acts involved in many of the corporate scandals, but deregulation allowed so much wrongdoing to go on legally, that disaster was simply bound to happen sooner or later.

Our economy is complicated. We need the best and the brightest conferring to determine the role government can play in regulating markets sanely. Not with some ideological pablum whether from the Heritage Foundation or the Socialist Labor Party.

America should be ready for some sane re-regulation. Regulation which allows markets enough freedom to flourish, but denies corporate bosses the authorship of all the rules. There is no reason that regulation can't be both stronger and less complicated. First we need to check the influence of lobbyists.

Fortunately both Presidential campaigns have decried the influence of lobbyists. I'm more inclined to go with Obama who has refused lobbyist money, than McCain who has former lobbyists as key campaign staffers. I understand that it's not all black and white. Obama's campaign is not void of lobbyist influence, and McCain has on occasions stood up to lobbyists. But on balance Obama will have less campaign obligations to lobbyists, and McCain may have significant blind spots where the former interests of his staffers are concerned. I'll hope for the best regardless who wins.

More importantly, America needs to turn the page, and say good bye and good riddance to the failed mantra of deregulation for deregulation's sake.