Criminal Justice

  • February 21, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Thanks to scholars like Michelle Alexander, Americans and policymakers are increasingly questioning the effectiveness the nation’s system of mass incarceration and taking note of its great harm to certain populations of Americans.

    In this ACS Book Talk, Alexander, a former ACLU attorney and now a law professor at Ohio State University, explains how mass incarceration has disproportionately targeted African Americans. She wrote that more “African Americans are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

    The widespread use of solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons is also coming under greater – and long overdue – scrutiny, as noted in this ACSblog post, which highlighted a 2011 statement from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that blasted solitary confinement as “a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation” that “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

    The conservative columnist George F. Will is also weighing in on the matter, noting in a Feb. 20 piece for The Washington Post that “tens of thousands of American prison inmates are kept in protracted solitary confinement that arguably constitutes torture and probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’”

    Will cites federal law on torture barring “conduct ‘specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.’” He notes what others have long known, that “severe mental suffering from prolonged solitary confinement puts the confined at risk of brain impairment.”

    Although solitary confinement was once considered a humane tool for rehabilitation, it is now widely considered debilitating, creating inmates who are unfit for social interaction.

    “Americans should be roused against this by decency – and prudence,” Will writes.

     

  • February 19, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Lawmakers, on national and state fronts, seem a bit more interested in knowing more about the Obama administration’s use of drones in targeted killings abroad and possibly some regulation of the counterterrorism measure. After the weak “white paper,” apparently a brief summary of several documents created by lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel was made public by NBC, lawmakers and a few more journalists have discovered greater interest in the administration’s use of drones to take out suspected terrorists overseas.

    But reporting for Salon, Joan Walsh points to some polling that suggests that the administration’s expanding and secretive use of drones is getting a pass from and even winning over some liberals, who were not shy about blasting the Bush administration’s egregious legal reasoning used to justify torture of military detainees.

    A poll of 1,000 voters from last summer, conducted by Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler, “found significantly more support for targeted killing of suspected terrorists among white ‘racial liberals’ (i.e., those liberal on issues of race) and African Americans when they were told that Obama supported such a policy than when they were not told it was the president’s policy.”

    Walsh’s piece explains Tesler’s work, including some caveats, but concludes the polling suggests that respondents “reaction may be informed by their support for the president, which is at least a little bit troubling. The U.S. is moving into uncharged political, military and moral territory with the use of drones, as well as expanded claims of presidential powers on targeted killings, on what seems to be a global battlefield in time of endless war.”

    The support for counterterrorism policy solely or mostly on favorability of the president is highly disconcerting. Especially since the legal reasoning we’ve seen so far looks a lot like a just-trust-me policy. Indeed from a Dish post a couple weeks back, Andrew Sullivan blasted the wobbly white paper for its “corruption of the English language” and for coming “perilously close to the equivalent of ‘Because I said so.’ And the core message is trust me.’”

    Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi notes the “histornics and gymnastics some people have resorted to in their efforts to defend this infamous drone program. Extralegal murder is not an easy thing to manufacture consent around, and the signs of strain in the press have been pretty clear all around.”

     

  • February 13, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    For far too long the gun lobby has loudly proclaimed that the Constitution bars almost any kind of law aimed at curbing gun violence. But since a string of mass shootings last year culminating in the Newtown mass shooting that took the lives of 20 children, there’s been a growing chorus of voices pushing back against the gun lobby’s platitudes and simplistic, often misleading, interpretation of the Second Amendment.

    More than 50 constitutional law scholars signed a letter explaining why the Second Amendment is not absolute or unlimited. Very few of rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution are absolute. One of the scholars who signed that letter is among the nation’s greatest constitutional law scholars -- Laurence H. Tribe, a distinguished Harvard Law School professor.

    Hours before President Obama, a former student of Tribe’s, gave his State of the Union Address, Tribe testified before a Senate Judiciary committee examining ways to curb gun violence without trampling the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

    In his oral and written testimony Tribe made it clear that efforts to reduce – not eliminate – gun violence through government action are not beyond reach because of the Second Amendment. In current Supreme Court rulings, such as D.C. v. Heller, Tribe explained the justices took certain policy choices off the table for consideration and “thereby cleared the path to reasonable regulations to be enacted without fear that those policy choices would ever open the door to unlimited government control or be imperiled by exaggerated interpretations of the Second Amendment.” (Click picture of Tribe for video of his opening remarks, or see here.)

    Tribe noted that Justice Antonin Scalia author of the majority opinion in Heller noted that the court’s interpretation of the “Constitution leaves open a variety of regulatory tools to combating the problem of gun violence in this country.”

    In his written testimony, Tribe put it this way: “Proposals to disarm the American people, to leave firearms solely in the hands of the military and the police, have been decisively taken off the table – if they were ever truly on the table – by the Supreme Court’s Second Amendment decisions in 2008 and 2010 [Heller and McDonald v. Chicago respectively].”

     

  • February 12, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    There was a time, a long time ago, when major pieces of social safety net legislation could get through Congress with some bipartisan support. For example, the Violence Against Women Act, which extended government services to victims of domestic violence, passed Congress in 1994 with bipartisan support.

    But as noted here last year the reauthorization of the VAWA proved too difficult for the 112th Congress, primarily because of the Republican-controlled House, which is all about cutting services for the nation’s most vulnerable, while coddling the superrich. A Senate reauthorization version, championed by Sen. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would extend government services to help more victims of domestic violence – such as providing limited jurisdiction to tribal courts to prosecute violence committed on tribal lands by those who are not living on the land or not members of the community.

    Today the 113th passed a VAWA reauthorization similar to the one it passed last session – one aimed at bolstering the services provided to victims of domestic violence and extending services to more victims of domestic violence. And the reauthorization measure had some Republican support – 23 voted in favor. All Democrats supported the measure. Twenty-two Republican rejected reauthorization.

    Once again it was the extension of services that prompted Republicans to vote against reauthorization. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he couldn’t support reauthorization, in part, because of “concerns regarding the conferring of criminal jurisdiction to some Indian tribal governments over all persons on Indian country, including non-Indians,” Pema Levy reported for TPM.

    In an ACS Issue Brief, law professor Matthew L.M. Fletcher urged national lawmakers to help with an epidemic of domestic violence on Indian reservations partly by “recognizing tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians for domestic violence misdemeanors.”

     

  • February 7, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Stephen Vladeck, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Scholarship, Washington College of Law, American University

    The more that I grapple with the so-called “white paper” prepared by the Department of Justice to provide at least some overview of the legal rationale behind the targeted killing of U.S. citizen terrorism suspects such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the more I’m reminded of Justice Robert Jackson’s dissenting opinion in the Mezei case -- decided in March 1953 at the height of the Cold War. As Jackson there explained:

    Only the untaught layman or the charlatan lawyer can answer that procedures matter not. Procedural fairness and regularity are of the indispensable essence of liberty. Severe substantive laws can be endured if they are fairly and impartially applied. Indeed, if put to the choice, one might well prefer to live under Soviet substantive law applied in good faith by our common-law procedures than under our substantive law enforced by Soviet procedural practices.

    Although Jackson lost in Mezei, his understanding of due process eventually became hard-wired into the Supreme Court’s due process jurisprudence, culminating in a number of decisions in the 1970s in which the Court recognized that the heart of the Due Process Clause was an individual’s entitlement to a hearing before a neutral decision maker.