11 March 2011

Friday News Dump

In Colorado

* Colorado's unemployment rate in February, of 9.1%, is the highest the state has experienced since the Great Depression and above the national rate of 8.9%. The oil bust of the early 1980s brought the rate to its previous peak of 8.8%. Also, unemployment estimates for Colorado over the last couple of years turn out to have been greatly understated, since the census revealed that the population figures used in making the original unemployment predictions were too low in high unemployment areas. Colorado's record lowest unemployment, since 1976, was at the turn of the millenium when it dropped to a little under 3%.

State officials have blamed migration to Colorado and the decision of many people who have given up looking for work to return to the workforce. Still, the fact that unemployment is climbing, rather than falling, long after the "recovery" in GDP terms has been underway, is discouraging. Unemployment is alawys a lagging indicator, but the employment situation has been worse and longer lived in the current employment recession than any since the Great Depression.

* Despite an immense state budget deficit, House Republicans in Colorado are still proposing large new tax cuts, in excess of $60 million.

* Colorado's proposed state budget will include more cuts to the Fort Logan psychiatric hospital, continuing a trend of decreasing mental health hospital capacity. The current cuts would close a juvenile ward that current houses an average of a dozen inpatients. The Joint Budget Committee argues that private facilities in the state offer the same services at a lower price and can handle another dozen patients.

In Other State Legislatures

* Both houses of Wisconsin's state legislature has passed a bill ending collective bargaining for public sector workers in Wisconsin's state and local governments. Republican Governor Walker has promised to sign the bill, which he championed. Naturally, the bill received voted only from Republicans, and a few Republicans broke ranks to join with Democrats in opposing it. Protests continue in Madison, with farmers set to encicle the state capitol with tractors next. Public opinion in Wisconsin has shifted decisively away from the Republicans and towards President Obama and the public employees unions in Wisconsin as a result of the union fight. Recall efforts are underway targeting a number of legislative anti-union Republicans, although it isn't clear if these will make the ballot or have a realistic chance at succeeding. Similar efforts are making progress in other Republican controlled states.

* The Governor of Illinois signed a bill abolishing the death penalty in that state, appropriating the funds that would have been used for death penalty litigation to a trust for murder victims, and pardoned the fifteen people on death row there. Illinois is the 16th state in the United States to abolish the death penalty.

* Kentucky has joined the list of states addressing state budget shortfalls with sentencing reforms, particularly with milder sentences for non-violent drug users.

Kentucky . . . became the latest to make the shift when Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law a measure increasing spending on rehabilitation programs and intensive drug testing. The law also reduces penalties for many drug offenses and may allow some traffickers and users of smaller amounts of drugs to avoid prison.

Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are among those that have pending bills to reduce penalties for drug offenders, in some cases by directing defendants into treatment programs. Similar laws have taken effect in South Carolina, Colorado and New York in recent years. States have maintained stiff penalties for more-serious drug crimes.

While the changes are part of broader belt-tightening efforts, they also reflect a growing belief among state lawmakers that prosecuting drug offenders aggressively often fails to treat their underlying addiction problems and can result in offenders cycling in and out of prisons for years — a critique long voiced by groups that advocate in favor of defendants' rights. . .

The state measures mark a sharp retreat from the war on drugs, which gathered steam in the 1980s and '90s with mandatory-minimum and three-strikes prison sentences that resulted in some drug offenders being locked up for decades. Drug arrests nationwide climbed from about 580,000 in 1980 to about 1.6 million in 2009, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Although some states started rethinking drug punishment before the recession, many more states have come on board in the past two years. In 2007, Texas began shifting more drug offenders away from prison, which helped hold down the inmate population. The changes cost $241 million, less than half what the state anticipated it would have spent to build three new prisons.

* Ohio's criminal sentencing commission has released a new report on the causes of that state's prison overcrowding problem. According to the report, "recent growth in Ohio’s prison population — even with mandatory sentences and scores of bills that increase penalties for particular offenses — is not driven primarily by intake (although it is a factor). It’s largely fueled by increases in inmates’ average length-of-stay."

* Connecticut voters in a survey favored the decriminalization of marijuana (79% favor medical marijuana and 65% favor decriminalization), legalizing Sunday liquor sales (65%), and reinstating the death penalty (68% up from 59% in 2005 after a high profile murder). But, majorities there don't favor allowing grocery stores to sell wine or liquor. Connecticut currently has a death penalty but its legislature is considering repealing it.

* Connecticut last year joined a list of states that automatically treat some teens under the age of eighteen as adults in the criminal justice process; New Hampshire changed its law in 2008. Similar proposals are pending in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. The only other state that automatically tries some teens under the age of eighteen as adults is New York State. Budget savings and increased sensitivity to the distinctiveness of juvenile offenders has prompted the changes. For example, a recent study found that:

[I]nmates in adult facilities (surprisingly) give better reports than youth in juvenile facilities on several measures (including criminal activity and victimization), they also fare much worse on other measures. Importantly, the inmates in adult facilities report substantially and significantly greater rates of PTSD and mental illness symptoms, and are much more likely to be afraid for their safety, compared to those in juvenile facilities.

Colorado never had a law that automatically tried older teens under the age of eighteen as adults, but did give prosecutors the authority to directly file many serious criminal charges against older juveniles as adults without court approval; that authority was recently narrowed by Colorado's General Assembly.

* California is building a new death row prison at a projected cost of $356 million, as a partial response to federal prison overcrowding litigation in the state, in which inmates have been successful on the merits, but not seen many results.

California has 713 inmates awaiting execution. . . . By comparison, Florida ranked second, with 398, and Texas was third at 337. . . About 700 condemned men are confined at San Quentin, north of San Francisco, in facilities built to hold 554, according to the Corrections Department’s website. (Nineteen women face execution and are held in Chowchilla, a prison in the Central Valley.) On average, the men are likely to spend 17 years in the aging cell blocks, according to the prison system. . . . Since 1978, when California reinstated capital punishment, 53 condemned inmates have died from natural causes while on death row. Eighteen committed suicide and 13 were executed. Six died from other causes.

Other Domestic News

* Long Island Republican Congressman King has launched hearings in the House Homeland Security Committee into the radicalization of Islam, over objections that this amounts of a McCarthyistic inquiry that is singling out a single religion that may incite further terrorist sentiment against the United States.

* In Skinner v. Switzer, the U.S. Surpeme Court found, in a narrow 6-3 decision, that a Section 1983 civil rights suit by a death row inmate (as opposed to a habeas corpus suit) was not procedurally barred by prison litigation reform statutes. The inmate challenged an interpretation of a Texas law that prevented him from securing post-conviction access to DNA evidence in his muder case that might implicate another suspect (now dead). The court ruled in his favor because DNA testing itself does not necessarily lead to the setting aside of his conviction, as it could show that he is guilty or be inconclusive (and hence is not duplicative of habeas corpus relief), and does not violate the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because while a "state-court decision is not reviewable by lower federal courts . . . a statute or rule governing the decision may be challenged in a federal action"). The ruling also provided yet another case where heightened pleading standards in federal civil litigation were held not to bar a straightforward lawsuit brought by a prisoner.

* Excessive federal child pornography laws continue to produce absurd results:

In the spring and summer of 2006, Eric Rinehart, at the time a 34-year-old police officer in the small town of Middletown, Indiana, began consensual sexual relationships with two young women, ages 16 and 17. One of the women had contacted Rinehart through his MySpace page. He had known the other one, the daughter of a man who was involved in training police officers, for most of her life. Rinehart was going through a divorce at the time. The relationships came to the attention of local authorities, and then federal authorities, when one of the girls mentioned it to a guidance counselor. Whatever you might think of Rinehart's judgment or ethics, his relationships with the girls weren't illegal. The age of consent in Indiana is 16. . . . Rinehart got into legal trouble because one of the girls mentioned to him that she had posed for sexually provocative photos for a previous boyfriend and offered to do the same for Rinehart. Rinehart lent her his camera, which she returned with the promised photos. Rinehart and both girls then took additional photos and at least one video, which he downloaded to his computer.

In 2007 Rinehart was convicted on two federal charges of producing child pornography. U.S. District Court Judge David Hamilton, who now serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, reluctantly sentenced Rinehart to 15 years in prison. Thanks to mandatory minimum sentences, Hamilton wrote, his hands were tied. There is no parole in the federal prison system. So barring an unlikely grant of clemency from the president, Rinehart, who is serving his time at a medium-security prison in Pennsylvania, will have to complete at least 85 percent of his term (assuming time off for good behavior), or nearly 13 years.

* An NPR executive resigned after remarking in a secretly recorded conversation that the Tea Party was full of racists, despite the fact that this is true.

* Oil prices are rising on Mideast turmoil.

* Blockbuster, the dominant player in the storefront video rental market, reached an agreement with its creditors to be auctioned as a business to the highest bidder, rather than having its assets liquidated. Netflix, video on demand, and kiosk video rentals have destroyed its profitability. The chain, which grew dramatically through acquisition of competitors, also probably simply had too many stores for the market's demand and hasn't been able to shutter them fast enough. For example, in Denver at 6th Avenue and Grant Street, it once had two stores less than a block apart - both are now shuttered.

* Department store H&M has decided to open up stores in greater Denver, with the Saks location at the Cherry Creek Mall which is closing likely to be one of them.


* Japan has had two major earthquakes in the last week. One was magnitude 7.2 on the Richter scale, and the last night there was an 8.8 magnitude quake that also gave rise to a Tsunami that reached as far as Hawaiii this morning and will be experienced as far off as Peru. The first Japanese quake produced only minimal damage. The current one killed about a hundred people and led to considerable property damage in a few industrial areas mostly from the tsunami waves rather than the earthquake itself. Similar magnitude earthquakes in Iran, Indonesia and Haiti have produced massive loss of life and long term devistation, but Japan's earthquake conscious building codes and better prepared people prevented the damage from being greater. A smaller earthquake in China this weak produced loss of life and property damage comparable to that experienced by last night's massive quake.

* Civil war continues to rage in Libya and France has recognized the rebels as the legitimate government of the country; NATO nations remain reluctant to intervene militarily there. Egyptians will vote on amendments to military proposed amendments its constitution this month to prepare for prompt democratic elections that will transfer power from a military council to civilians. Protestors in Jordan have complained that a new prime minister is stalling on proposals for political reforms, using the fact that the country's 32 political parties are too fragmented to produce quality elections; the main democratic reform that has been demanded is to shift control of the executive branch from the king to a prime minster selected by parliament. Police in a predominantly Shi'ite part of Saudi Arabia shot five protestors at a small demonstration; protests in the absolute monarchy have been muted compared to elsewhere in the region - in part because Saudi Arabia is more repressive and in part because the current Saudi King is popular with majority Sunnis in the country.

* The Daili Lama in Tibet proposed on the anniversary of the day of Tibet's failed 1959 bid to free itself from China, to transfer political power of the government in exile to elected leaders, leaving himself and his successors as spiritual leaders only. Proposed succession to his position is currently unclear as he has also proposed reforms to the traditional approach rooted in the notion that he is reincarnated. China remains officially outraged at any talk of Tibetan independence, or the notion that Taiwan is not part of China. China is also cracking down in an effort to prevent the Jasmine revolution of the Middle East from spreading to it.


* A drug to prevent the spread of M.S. has worked in a mouse model. A mouse model of a drug to treat Alzheimer's disease and damage from minor strokes in the brain has also been successful. A new drug to treat lupus has come on the market. Progress has been made in developing a new class of anti-malaria drugs based on a chemotherapy drug.

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