January 09, 2014
By HENRY C. JACKSON
An unusual alliance of tea party enthusiasts and liberal leaders in Congress is pursuing major changes in the country’s mandatory sentencing laws.
What's motivating them are growing concerns about both the fairness of the sentences and the expense of running federal prisons.
The congressional push comes as President Barack Obama and his Cabinet draw attention to the issue of mandatory sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders.
Supporters say mandatory minimum sentences are outdated, lump all offenders into one category and rob judges of the ability to use their own discretion.
They also cite the high costs of the policies. The Justice Department spends some $6.4 billion, about one-quarter of its budget, on prisons each year, and that number is growing steadily.
“People are coming here for different reasons, but there is a real opportunity,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the Senate’s leading proponents of sentencing changes.
The push is being led by the Senate, where Durbin has worked with tea party stalwarts such as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, on legislation that would give judges more flexibility to determine prison sentences in many drug cases. At the same time, a right-left coalition is pressing for changes in the House.
Prison costs have soared in the past 30 years, when laws requiring mandatory prison time for many drug offenses were put in place.
The yearly cost for one federal inmate ranges from $21,000 to $33,000 depending on the prison's level of security. About half of the nation's more than 218,000 federal inmates are serving time for drug crimes – and virtually all of them faced some form of mandatory minimum sentencing.
Tough-on-crime drug policies once united Republicans and Democrats who didn’t want to appear weak on crime. Now reversing or revising many of those policies is having the same effect.
The Fair Sentencing Act, passed in 2010, drew bipartisan support for cutting penalties on crack cocaine offenses. The bill reduced a disparity between crack-related sentences and sentences for other drugs, though it only addressed new cases, not old ones.
Durbin, one of that bill’s chief sponsors, has written a much broader bill with Lee, called the Smarter Sentencing Act. It would expand a provision that gives judges discretion for a limited number of nonviolent drug offenders. The new law would allow judges the same latitude for a larger group of drug offenders facing mandatory sentences.
It’s one of four bills dealing with sentencing that the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up early in the year. The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he wants one consensus bill to clear the committee.
Leahy is a co-sponsor on the Durbin-Lee bill but has also introduced legislation with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would expand the safety valve even more, to all federal cases with mandatory sentences if certain conditions are met.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced legislation late in December that is based on changes in Texas’ state prison system.
A separate bill, sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, allows inmates to earn credit for completing programs designed to reduce recidivism.
Leahy’s committee delayed writing a sentencing bill several times in 2013. But supporters noted that the last sentencing legislation took months to negotiate and said that the committee has delayed work until early 2014 in large part because behind-the-scenes talks are proving fruitful. Durbin said he and Lee had been lobbying their fellow committee members – Durbin talking to skeptical Democrats, Lee to Republicans.
In the House, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a tea party conservative, and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., are co-sponsors of a companion to Durbin and Lee’s bill.
A number of outside groups have expressed support for the Durbin-Lee bill, too, and they run the ideological spectrum, including the conservative Heritage Action, the American Bar Association, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.
In August, Attorney General Eric Holder called on Congress to make permanent changes in sentencing laws and instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences.
Just before Christmas, Obama used his presidential powers to press the issue. He commuted the sentences of eight people serving long drug sentences.
January 09, 2014
The Sullivan Museum and History Center at Vermont's Norwich University is going to be hosting a new exhibition in its Civil War series.
The title of the exhibit that opens Jan. 13 will be ``1864: Some Suffer So Much.''
Norwich is the nation's oldest private military college.
The exhibit will tell the stories of Norwich alumni during the bloody Civil War year of 1864.
It will examine the role of military surgeons who treated wounded soldiers on the battlefields and in the three Vermont Civil War hospitals in Brattleboro, Burlington and Montpelier. It also traces the history of post-traumatic stress disorder from the Civil War to the present.
Norwich alumni played a significant role in the United States Colored Troops, African American combat units that fought in 1864.
January 09, 2014
By George E. Curry
PRETORIA, South Africa (NNPA) – Nearly a month after his death, there is a bitter struggle to define – and, in many instances, re-define – the legacy of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
“There is an attempt to do in his death what they could not do in life – take away his story,” Jesse Jackson said in a speech at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg. “… He did not go to jail as some out-of-control youth who needed to be matured. He went in as a freedom fighter and came out as a freedom fighter.”
The effort to soften the image of Mandela as a freedom fighter began long before his death.
Speaking at an African National Congress (ANC) celebration a year before Mandela’s death, South African President Jacob Zuma said, “Inside our country, even those who were are who are still, fundamentally opposed to the ANC, and who fought tooth and nail to keep South Africa a racist pariah state, now claim Nelson Mandel as their own.”
In in trying reclaim Mandela as their own, many Whites are trying to sanitize him image, Jackson argues.
Part of that effort begins with attributing many of Mandela’s outstanding qualities to his 27 years in prison. For example, television commentators in the U.S. and in Africa say Mandela learned to love his enemies in jail and cite his forgiveness of his former jailers as evidence to support that assertion.
However, Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, traces that lesson back to his youth.
“On this first day of classes I was clad in my new boots. I had never worn boots before of any kind, and that first day, I walked like a newly shod horse. I made a terrible racket walking up the steps and almost slipped several times. As I clomped into the classroom, my boots crashing on that shiny wooden floor, I noticed two female students in the first row were watching my lame performance with great amusement. The prettier of the two leaned over to her friend and said loud enough for all to hear: ‘The country boy is not used to wearing shoes,’ at which her friend laughed. I was blind with fury and embarrassment.
“Her name was Mathona and she was a bit of a smart aleck. That day I vowed never to talk to her. But as my mortification wore off (and I became more adept at walking with boots) I also got to know her, and she was to become my greatest friend at Clarkebury,” a Wesleyan missionary school Mandela began attending at the age of 16.
In his autobiography, Mandela gave another example of not humiliating his opponents.
“I learned my lesson one day from an unruly donkey,” he recounted. “We had been taking turns climbing up and down its back and when my chance came I jumped on and the donkey bolted into a nearby thornbush. It bent its head, trying to unseat me, which it did, but not before the thorns had pricked and scratched my face, embarrassing me in front of my friends. Like the people of the East, Africans have a highly developed sense of dignity, or what the Chinese call ‘face.’ I had lost face among my friends. Even though it was a donkey that unseated me, I learned that to humiliate another person is to make him suffer an unnecessarily cruel fate. Even as a boy, I defeated my opponents without dishonoring them.”
Many public reflections understate the depth of Mandela’s hatred of apartheid, a system where a White minority of 10 percent controlled the 90 percent Black majority.
“In their relationship with us, South African whites regard it as fair and just to pursue policies which have outraged the conscience of mankind and of honest and uprights men throughout the civilized world,” he said in his famous speech from the dock on Oct. 22, 1962, the first day of his trial. “They suppress our aspirations, bar our way to freedom and deny us opportunities to promote our moral and material progress, to secure ourselves from fear and want. All the good things of life are reserved for the white folk and we blacks are expected to be content to nourish our bodies with such pieces of food as drop from their tables of men with white skins. This is the white man’s standard of justice and fairness. Herein lies his conceptions of ethics. Whatever he himself say in his defense, the white man’s moral standards in this country must be judged by the extent to which he has condemned the vast majority of its inhabitants to serfdom and inferiority.”
In that same speech, Mandela said, “I hate the practice of race discrimination, and in my hatred I am sustained by the fact that the overwhelming majority of mankind hate it equally… Nothing that this court can do to me will change in any way that hatred in me, which can only be removed by the removal of the injustice and inhumanity which I have sought to remove from the political and social life of this country.”
There have been some efforts to depict Mandela as South Africa’s version of Martin Luther King, Jr. But unlike America’s apostle on nonviolence, Mandela was in charge of the military wing of the ANC.
“Some of the things so far told to the court are true and some are untrue. I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage,” Mandela said in his statement from the dock. “I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the whites.
“I admit immediately that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto we Sizwe [the military arm of the ANC], and that I played a prominent role in its affairs until I was arrested in August 1962.”
Mandela explained, “We felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.”
His widely-praised leadership skills were also honed during Mandela’s youth.
“As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated by the regent [the man who took him in after his father died] at the Great Place. I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion. I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
January 02, 2014
By Dorothy Rowley
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer
Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, the parents of slain teen Trayvon Martin, have reportedly met with two publishing executives to discuss writing a book.
The book would be the first time since their son’s death that the couple publicly recounts his character and share their personal struggles and experiences during the trial of George Zimmerman, according to the New York Times.
Zimmerman, 30, was acquitted in July of second-degree murder in Trayvon’s February 2012 shooting death in Florida. He has had several subsequent minor run-ins with law enforcement.
One publishing executive told the Times that Martin and Fulton spoke extensively of race and religion during one meeting.
Publishers described meetings with Fulton and Martin as “somber” and “moving,” according to the Times report.