29 September 2014

War Between JeffCo School Board And District Continues

A sickout closed some Jefferson County high schools on Monday, following mass walkouts by students every day in the previous week and a sick out the week before that.  The protests are driven by a partisan and ideological effort of a three person Republican slate of the Jefferson County school board to overhaul the district.

SCOTUS Cuts Short Early Voting In Ohio

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, had cut the early voting period in Ohio from five weeks to four, overruling an order of a District Court judge affirmed by a three judge panel of the 6th Circuit.  The reasoning behind the decision was not announced.

The ruling, made upon partisan lines in the U.S. Supreme Court, hurts democratic party efforts to get out the vote.

The preliminary ruling applied to a one week period, and this denial of preliminary injunction effectively moots much of the case of those challenging Ohio's election administration decisions.

Belgium's Priorities

While other countries fret about clean water, failing bridges, high speed rail, or developing comprehensive cell phone and Wi-Fi access, the Belgians have other infrastructure priorities.  They are busy inventing and installing an underground beer pipeline.

Thailand, not to be outdone by a fellow monarchy, have invented, at public expense, a robot that can evaluate the authenticity of restaurant offerings of supposedly Thai food.

A How To Guide For Bad Academic Writing

Steven Pinker, who writes both academic prose and trade non-fiction, offers up a field guide on what distinguishes bad academic writing.

Meanwhile Bryan A. Garner, the undisputed guru of modern legal writing style, has his own ten tips of good legal writing. His top ten:

1) Be sure you understand the client's problem.
2) Don't rely exclusively on computer research.
3) Never turn in a preliminary version of a work in progress.
4) Summarize your conclusions up front.
5) Make your summary understandable to outsiders.
6) Don't be too tentative in your conclusions, but don't be too cocksure, either.
7) Strike the right professional tone: natural but not chatty.
8) Master the approved citation form.
9) Cut every unnecessary sentence; then go back through and cut every unnecessary word.
10) Proofread one more time than you think necessary.

Douthat on the Decline of Cults

Cults seem far less relevant these days than they did a generation ago.  Why?

Conservative NY Times columnist Douthat explores possibilities from the decline of creativity, to the implausibility in our modern society that any important knowledge is secret.

26 September 2014

Colorado's 2014 Judicial Retention Elections

Once appointed, state judges in Colorado must face periodic retention elections held in general November elections in even numbered years, one after two years in office and again at intervals that vary from court to court.  Voters can vote to retain or not retain a judge.  If there are fewer "not retain" votes than "retain" votes, the judge stays in office for another term,  Most voters always vote to retain, and a minority of voters don't vote at all on these issues, or always vote not to retain.

For those voters who make their decisions on a case by case basis, there is a commission on judicial performance that recommends that a judge be retained, recommends that a judge not be retained, or makes no recommendation.  There is a separate volunteer committee for each judicial district in the state and another for appellate judges.

More than 98% of judges are recommended for retention and are almost always retained by the voters.  About half of those judges not affirmatively recommended for retention, usually only a few each year, are not retained by voters.  When a judge is not retained, a vacancy is created.  A different commission advertises the position and vets applicants.  Three finalists are selected.  Usually, the Governor makes the final pick, but in the case of Denver county court judges, the final choice is made by Denver's mayor since Denver county court judges are simultaneously Denver's municipal court.

This year, 160 judges end their terms and would normally face retention elections.  Of them, 14 can't run because they have reached mandatory retirement act.  Two more judges, upon learning that they would not be recommended for retention, voluntarily stepped down from office effective at the end of their current terms.

Four county court judges have not been recommended affirmatively for retention.  These are judges of the state's limited jurisdiction courts that handles misdemeanor cases, most evictions, most temporary restraining orders, most name changes and most civil cases where less than $15,000 is not in dispute and title to real estate is not at issue.

Three of the judges not receiving an affirmative recommendation to retain, one in Boulder (Karolyn Moore), one in Pueblo (Valerie Haynes) and one in the City and County of Denver (Dianne Briscoe), are rookie judges facing their first retention election.  A fourth, in Grand County which is home to Winter Estes Park (Ben McClelland), is an experienced county court judge [Ed. 10-29-14 corrected claim that Estes Park, which is actually in adjacent Larimer County, is in Grand County, which is home to Winter Park and Granby per comments; my apologies for the error].  In Boulder, Pueblo and Grand Counties, the recommendation to "not retain" was unanimous."  In Denver, where the judge agreed to enter into a supervised improvement plan, the commission was split and there was no recommendation made to retain or not to retain.  For what it is worth, all three of the rookie judges failing to secure retention recommendations are women.

The commission noted with regard to Judge McClelland, in Grand County, that:
Survey results and observation by Commissioners regarding Judge McClelland were mixed. To the positive, it was generally regarded that Judge McClelland is consistent in his rulings, works to learn the law, gives the parties a fair chance to present their cases, and is accommodating when it comes to scheduling. He moves his docket forward, is efficient in court, and is a hard worker. His oral communications in court are clear and direct and he maintains control over his courtroom. 
To the negative, commenters, including some Commissioners, described Judge McClelland as arrogant, defensive, impatient, and lacking appropriate judicial demeanor. His lectures from the bench tend to be grandiose, offensive, and off-putting. It was commented that Judge McClelland has a tendency, or at least the appearance, to rule based on his personal bias or opinion. These characteristics do not meet required judicial criteria of communication and judicial temperament. Among surveyed attorneys, Judge McClelland’s “retain” recommendation of 56% was significantly under the state average for all County Court judges (78%) and his “do not retain” recommendation of 32% was likewise higher than the state average (13%). Among non-attorneys, his “retain” recommendation of 78% was lower than the average (86%) and his “do not retain” recommendation of 14% was higher (8%). Although Judge McClelland received an average grade of 3.0 in the surveys, that score is below the 3.43 average combined grade for all county court judges standing for retention in 2014.
For Judge Moore, in Boulder County, a former deputy district attorney, the commission noted that:
Judge Moore’s survey results raised many concerns for the Commission. Among attorneys surveyed about retention, 45% recommended to retain, 40% not to retain, and 15% made no recommendation. Among non-attorneys, 90% recommended to retain, 5% not to retain, and 4% made no recommendation. When compared to all county judges by non-attorneys (including jurors), she received a slightly higher recommendation for retention (90% versus 86%) and was rated slightly higher than judges overall on a number of measures such as demeanor in court. She also received many positive comments from the non-attorneys particularly regarding demeanor and communication skills. 
On the other hand, she was seen as being biased toward the prosecution and harsh in her sentencing in comparison to other county judges. Judge Moore’s survey ratings by attorneys were very different from the non-attorneys. In all five categories, including all 17 subcategories, attorneys gave Judge Moore lower ratings when compared with all county judges. The categories include case management, application and knowledge of law, communications, demeanor, and diligence. Her overall score among attorneys was much lower than the average for all county judges – 2.51 compared to 3.29. Judge Moore was seen as being very biased in favor of the prosecution by 46% of the attorneys while on average all county judges were so rated by only 10% of attorneys. She was also perceived as being somewhat biased in favor of the prosecution by a higher percentage – 33% compared to 25%. The surveys provided similarly negative results for Judge Moore regarding a recommendation for retention. The same sampling methodology was used to survey attorneys and non-attorneys for all nine judges standing for retention. Judge Moore’s survey results were substantially more concerning than any of the other judges reviewed by this commission. Although she received positive comments from some attorneys, there were many explicit comments detailing concerns attorneys had with Judge Moore. The Commission is not convinced that Judge Moore fully understands the extent of her shortcomings as a judicial officer. 
Judge Karolyn Moore’s Response: I’m honored to serve the people of Boulder County. As a new judge, I’m focused on improving my judicial skills and initiated an improvement plan with my chief judge. Among the attorneys surveyed regarding my performance 93 criminal defense attorneys and 19 civil attorneys responded. I value their comments, however the surveys were not sent to prosecuting attorneys and other important voices were not heard, leading to imbalanced results. 
For Judge Haynes, in Pueblo County, the commission noted that:
Judge Haynes is polite to jurors, is perceived by the public as fair, and generally imposes consistent sentences. 
Judge Haynes does regularly reject plea agreements that the attorneys have worked out, and does so without providing support for her decision. This has contributed to a very heavy jury trial schedule, averaging almost one trial per week. Judge Haynes imposes requirements upon the attorneys practicing in front of her that have no basis in rule or law, and she renders inconsistent rulings on legal objections. The commission heard complaints that there are issues with efficiencies in the courtroom, including not starting her docket in a timely manner. Judge Haynes is not willing to work with others in order to resolve issues and has created a hostile environment in her courtroom. Proper mentoring of attorneys is noticeably lacking. The most significant criticism evidenced throughout this process was Judge Haynes’ lack of judicial temperament. She is described as rude, curt, having little compassion, and inappropriately raising her voice at those who appear in her courtroom. These concerns were evident in her May 2013 evaluation survey results, and no improvement is shown in the current survey. Judge Haynes acknowledges the results of both surveys and has only made recent attempts to improve her communication skills, which she believes are the root of the problem. The Commission believes that Judge Haynes fails to fully understand and acknowledge her contribution to the negative survey results and comments, which leaves little reason to expect improvements to occur.
Judge Briscoe, in the City and County of Denver was described by the commission as follows:
Judge Briscoe’s first two years as a judge were in the juvenile division, for which there are no survey results. Judge Briscoe had prior experience in juvenile law and believes that experience helped her perform well in the juvenile division. However, in her current assignment, in each area of case management, application and knowledge of the law, communications, demeanor and diligence, Judge Briscoe received scores from attorneys significantly below the average of scores for all other county court judges standing for retention. Her scores from non-attorneys in most areas were consistent with the average scores received for other county court judges. 
While the survey sample from lawyers was small (20 respondents), courtroom observations by members of the Commission and review of her oral rulings confirmed many of the concerns raised by the survey results. While Judge Briscoe displayed appropriate judicial demeanor and was patient and respectful to those appearing in her court, the Commission has significant concerns about Judge Briscoe’s application and knowledge of the law. Especially concerning was her apparent lack of familiarity or understanding of relevant law and rules even though she had been in her current assignment in the municipal criminal division for over 15 months at the time of her interview. In her interview, Judge Briscoe acknowledged her deficiencies in application and knowledge of the law. Judge Briscoe’s apparent lack of preparation on some matters and the difficulty she experienced in making sure some defendants without lawyers adequately understood the proceedings also concerned the Commission.
My general attitude towards judicial retention election is not to be lenient.  Very few judges are not recommended for retention at all, and their stand out status deserves attention.  The relevant issue is not whether they did something wrong, but whether there are better than even odds that a replacement would be better.  Given that the consequence for the judge is merely the need to find a new job for someone with a professional degree and considerable professional success, but that the broad discretion a judge has may impact thousands of cases, I generally argue that when in doubt, one should not retain.

But, ultimately each case must be judged individually on its own merits.  Extensive source data for evaluating those hard calls is available at the Commissions on Judicial Performance website.

25 September 2014

Jefferson County School Board Catastrophically Failing

In Jefferson County, Colorado, a first ring suburb of Denver that is home to the second largest school district in the state, a slate of three conservative Republicans with a strong partisan agenda took control of the Jefferson County School Board in the November 2013 election.

Their efforts to impose a conservative agenda on the district have met immense resistance.  There have been school board process disputes.  The Superintendent resigned early and was replaced in a manner that didn't follow the usual channels.  The teachers union and its non-union member allies who are teachers offered up a unanimous vote of no confidence in the principal.  An informally coordinated teacher "sick out" by 50 teachers at two schools forced those two high schools to close.  Now, the district is in a fourth consecutive day of walk outs by hundreds of students at four different high schools that is only gaining momentum.

The most recent revolts revolve around a proposal by the conservatives to change the curriculum of AP History.  The board proposal would require teachers to teach material presenting the "positive aspects" of "U.S. heritage" that promote citizenship, patriotism, the essential and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights," while not encouraging or condoning "civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law."

Apparently, topics such as the Revolutionary War, labor strife, woman's suffrage, the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the Progressive movement, Vietnam War protests, Nixon's resignation, the Great Depression and the New Deal are all now inappropriate to teach in Jefferson County classrooms.

The blatant partisan effort to manipulate history in a course that already has a nationally mandated curriculum hasn't gone over well with students or teachers.

The Jefferson County partisan takeover with disastrous results follows a similar move a few years earlier in exurban Douglas County, which has also led to strife and has dramatically reduced the quality of the school district there.

In both communities, historically, strong schools had been a major draw to bring affluent families to the respective school districts, but the partisan Republican takeovers of the institutions have left these areas as undesirable places for affluent families to move if they care about their children's educations.

The Denver Post and JeffCo Pols have extensive coverage of these developments.  The Colorado Independent discusses developments with links to national coverage.  A critical point:

Will the JeffCo school board sour critical independent voters in Jefferson County on the entire Republican county ticket in a county critical to GOP efforts to regain control of the state house?

Does Deporting Immigrants Reduce Crime?

Deporting immigrants who are arrested for crimes, surprisingly, has no discernible impact on the crime rate.  This is according to a study comparing a large data base of county level, monthly deportation of arrestee statistics (mandated by the Secure Communities Act) to crime rates in those countries.

Does immigration enforcement actually reduce crime? Surprisingly, little evidence exists either way — despite the fact that deporting noncitizens who commit crimes has been a central feature of American immigration law since the early twentieth century. We capitalize on a natural policy experiment to address the question and, in the process, provide the first empirical analysis of the most important deportation initiative to be rolled out in decades. The policy initiative we study is “Secure Communities,” a program designed to enable the federal government to check the immigration status of every person arrested for a crime by local police. Before this program, the government checked the immigration status of only a small fraction of arrestees. Since its launch, the program has led to over a quarter of a million detentions. We exploit the slow rollout of the program across more than 3,000 U.S. counties to obtain differences-in-differences estimates of the impact of Secure Communities on local crime rates. We also use rich data on the number of immigrants detained under the program in each county and month — data obtained from the federal government through extensive FOIA requests — to estimate the elasticity of crime with respect to incapacitated immigrants. Our results show that Secure Communities led to no meaningful reductions in the FBI index crime rate. Nor has it reduced rates of violent crime — homicide, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault. This evidence shows that the program has not served its central objective of making communities safer.
Why this has had no impact when it is perfectly logical that it should, is a mystery.

24 September 2014

Imagine Harry Potter Rewritten As Christian Fiction

Actually, you don't have to, because a fundamentalist Christian mom who doesn't want her kids to be influenced by witchcraft has done it for us (the source for that article with more excerpts is here).

It is even more horrible than the usual Christian fiction offerings in a particularly unsettling and almost vomit inducing kind of way.

What Is The End Game In The War Against ISIS?

The Status Quo in the Fertile Crescent

ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, aka ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has transformed the political reality of the Fertile Crescent.

In Iraq, all of the inhabited territory to the north of Baghdad that is not controlled by the Kurdish regional government that had de facto control of Kurdish Iraq even before the Iraq War and has its own military forces, despite its official subordination to the Iraqi government, is controlled by ISIS.  These areas have long been majority Sunni Arab, the ethnic group that controlled the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and a close ally of the Baathist regime of Syria which was controlled by crypto-Shiite Alawites.  But, in the U.S. led Iraq War the Baathist regime in Iraq was deposed and replaced with an elected government dominated by Iraq's majority Shi'ites, mostly from the Southeast, and favorably inclined towards Shi'ite controlled Iran, although Kurdish and Sunni participation was maintained, at least for show. Also, during the Iraq War and subsequent U.S. led occupation of Iraq, ethic violence broke out and led to the massive increase in ethnic segregation in the country.  Sunnis fled the majority Shiite Southeast and Shiite neighborhoods in the capitol mostly heading to the Sunni majority north that resisted U.S. led occupation most fiercely; Shiites and Kurds fled to Sunni majority regions in the North, to regions where their ethnic groups held majorities.  Smaller minorities hunkered down in their local communities when they could.

ISIS have forcibly displaced or killed many of the people who were not Sunni Arabs who remained, particularly smaller ethnic communities in the north, and have tried, with only slight success, to take cities and oil refineries in Kurdish areas.

ISIS controls most of the inhabited territory of Syria to the east of its coastal mountain range outside greater Damascus, and most of the Tigress and Euphrates river valley to the north of Baghdad, as well as some towns in Iraq's largely uninhabited empty quarter in Southwest Iraq.

The remainder of Syria's territory is controlled by the Baathist, one party dictatorship that controlled the country for decades.  But, when people marched in the streets to demand political reforms in the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia producing regime change there, and spread to Libya and Egypt where it also produced regime change, the Syrian protests gave rise to a civil war.

Early in the Syrian civil war, the U.S. refrained from intervening with air power as it had in Libya, in part, because it didn't want to cross Russia (which is now preoccupied in its military and political efforts to reclaim the Ukrainian province of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine), and in part, because it feared that the Islamist rebels opposed to the Baathist regime would triumph in the civil war (as ISIS now has in Eastern Syria).

After Syria bombed its people indiscriminately with aircraft and used chemical weapons on its own people, earlier in this civil war, the U.S. and its Western allies have ceased to recognize this regime of war criminals as legitimate and have more or less openly backed some of the rebel factions that oppose it in an ongoing Syrian civil war that has resulted in immense numbers of deaths and serious injuries, and many more refugees.

This Syrian Baathist regime has largely ruled Lebanon as a tributary state for most of that time period, and southern Lebanon has also been a base for Hezbollah fighters launching missile attacks against the Golan Heights and other areas in northern Israel, without formal Lebanese support, but Lebanon has not vigorously suppressed Hezbollah fighters either.

Meanwhile, in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip are effectively Palestinian colonies, with local self-government with U.N. humanitarian support that intermittently backs armed attacks on Israel and the abolition of the Israeli state.  But, Israeli forces are militarily superior, have instituted tight border controls to shut down Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel proper, has embargoed the Palestinian region from international travel and trade, and has when push comes to shove, militarily and legally supported illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank that threaten to demographically and economically overcome the Palestinian population there and make the West Bank an area that is in substance Israeli and Jewish.

Israel mounted a major military campaign in the Gaza Strip this summer to reassert military control over the region, to close tunnels under the border between Gaza and Israel, and to bring to a halt a campaign of rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.

Recent Events

Campaigns of ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, genocidal mass murders and rapes of civilians, taunts at the U.S. and U.K. by the high profile beheading of several of their citizens, and the kidnapping of many Turkish citizens with the threat that they will be killed if Turkey intervenes, has made the ISIS regime intolerable.

So, the U.S. has intervened with air strikes against ISIS in both Iraq (with the Iraqi regime's permission) and in Syria (without consulting the Baathist regime).  The U.S. seeks to support non-ISIS Syrian rebels, Kurdish militias and Iraqi military forces on the ground against ISIS.

The U.S. claims that it has also discovered an anti-Western terrorist organization gaining power in the liminal area near Aleppo that is between areas controlled by ISIS and the areas controlled by the Baathist Syrian regime, which it has bombed.

What Is The End Game?

It is certainly within the realm of possibility, even probability, that the U.S. and its allies will be able to destroy the ISIS regime in Syria and Iraq.  But, it remains far from obvious that once that goal is achieved, that Iraq and Syria should be put back together again.

The Kurdish regional government in Iraq doesn't need or want to be under the Iraqi government's rule, and does so only because international politics make it expedient at the moment, and because the central government has granted it de facto near total autonomy.

A triumphant U.S. coalition in Syria will be loath to hand over a Syrian majority that was oppressed by the Syrian Baathist regime and rose up against it with U.S. support to a reconstituted Syrian government, particularly because the Baathist regime is showing no signs that it will be successfully removed from power.

The Sunni Arabs of northern Iraq gave into the ISIS regime's rise to power because they feel marginalized by the dysfunctional new Iraqi central government that is openly Shi'ite and allied with Iraq's historically Iranian nemesis, rather than just because they fear the ruthless tactics that ISIS has employed to cow people into submission.  They will not be eager to reinstate the central Iraqi region of control and their sense of identity with ethnic compatriots in Eastern Syria has been heightened by the ISIS regime in a manner that goes beyond the particular kind of Islamic State that ISIS has sought to impose.

Creating a new more moderate democratic state with more respect for human rights and international expectations for the conduct of a sovereign in the territory now controlled by ISIS may be a more viable end game than trying to restore the pre-ISIS boundaries of Iraq and Syria, which neither government was able to maintain control of on their own.

Or, perhaps, this territory ought to become a protectorate of, or annexed to, some better behaved Sunni Arab state in the region, such as Jordan, rather than letting Islamist leaning majorities reinstate ISIS via the ballot box.  The coalition against ISIS shouldn't be above rewarding states in the region like Jordan's constitutional monarchy (with a balance between elected and hereditary power similar to England ca. 1700 CE), that best exemplifies their vision for a future Near East, while punishing those, like the incompetent, dysfunctional and demagogue run Southeastern Iraq dominated rump regime, or the war criminal led Syrian Baathist dictatorship.

It is hard to see that rule of ISIS as a Saudi Arabian protectorate would be any great improvement over ISIS.  We should not deceive ourselves into thinking that merely because we can buy cooperation from Saudi Arabia with weapons, oil purchases and the like, and because Saudi Arabia can maintain control of its own territory, that it medieval regime can ever really be a true ally that shares our vision of the future for the region.  Saudi Arabian elites were behind 9-11, funded the Taliban in Afghanistan, and drive Islamic terrorism worldwide, despite the efforts of the absolute monarchy there to distance itself from them.

Turkey is another possible protectorate ruler for the region, and is even closer geographically and has more resources to do so, as well as being a full fledged Republic and more moderate than any other predominantly Muslim country in the region.  But, its long standing conflict with Kurdish insurgents in its own country, and apparent lack of interest in intervening militarily on the ground in ISIS territory, casts doubt on its suitability in this role.

Quite frankly, Jordanian annexation of the West Bank, and Egyptian annexation of the Gaza Stripe, as a means of resolving the "Palestinian problem", also makes sense.

Perhaps, in a reversal of roles, rump Syria could be turned over, either via annexation, or as a protectorate, to Lebanon, which has historically been multi-ethnic and has greater affinity and similarity to rump Syria than any other state in the region.

Perhaps we should strive towards a future Near East in which:
(1) Syria is removed from the map,
(2) Palestine ceases to have a political identity of its own,
(3) the Syrian coast and greater Damascus are annexed by Lebanon,
(4) Jordan annexes the West Bank, ISIS controlled territory and Sunni regions in Southwest Iraq,
(5) Egypt annexes the Gaza Strip,
(6) the Kurdistan regional government is granted sovereignty as a Kurdish state, and
(7) rump Iraq is reconstituted as a predominantly Shi'ite state of Sumer rather than a multiethnic Iraq.

These redrawn boundaries in the Middle East, might be more governable than those that existed prior to the ISIS crisis, where political regimes that have behaved well would be rewarded and where those who have behaved badly would be permanently ended.

Egypt would be better a restraining local militants in the Gaza Strip than Israel or the local authority in Gaza, and would provide Gazans with long overdue access to the outside world.  Jordan would similarly be better at restraining local militants in the West Bank and provide them with long overdue access to the outside world, a role that they already fulfill to some extent.

Jordan would be more capable of securing some sort of meaningful acceptance of their legitimacy than a Shiite dominated, incompetent civilian regime in Baghdad, or actively hostile regime in Damascus, while preventing the emergence of an Islamic State, in ISIS territory and Southwest Iraq, and maintaining so level of tolerance for ethnic minorities.  Its king can rule with clarity, while its emerging genuine parliament can provide a path for transition to a more democratic regime for a people not yet socialized enough to be ready for full fledged democracy.

A civilian government for Shiite Southeastern Sumer would be more humanly possible to run without the need to maintain a fragile Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish-minority ethnicity coalition, and with less territory to control and few people actively opposed to the regime and taking up arms against it.

Lebanon's regime provides a better model for how coastal Syria ought to be governed than the Syrian Baathist regime.

The Kurds have long had their house in order and the existence of a Kurdish state might encourage relocation of Kurds elsewhere to it rather than trying to fight local insurgencies.  Running the Kurdish state would also be easier without Iraqi central government concerns to consider.

23 September 2014

Different States, Different Crimes

Colorado, unlike Virginia, does not have a crime of "abduction with intent to defile", which is simply called "kidnapping" out here in the American West.  Perhaps in Virginia, there are other purposes for which you may lawfully abduct someone.  Is a suspect arrested on that charge eligible for release if it turns out that robbery was his motive instead?

22 September 2014

Vote No On Colorado Ballot Issue 104

Colorado Ballot Issue 104 is an initiated state statute summarized as follows in the official ballot title:
Shall there be a change to the Colorado Revised Statutes requiring any meeting of a board of education, or any meeting between any representative of a school district and any representative of employees, at which a collective bargaining agreement is discussed to be open to the public?
In other words, this is a measure designed to make it harder for unions for teachers and other school employees to secure union contracts for their members.

There are many matters that are subject to open meeting laws, but personnel matters are virtually never subject to them.  The same open meeting rules would not be applied to negotiations of senior administrator's contracts.

The measure is sponsored by the conservative Independence Institute and is an effort to engage in public sector union busting, pure and simple.

The measure was the last to appear on the Colorado ballot this year because it had just barely enough signatures to qualify to appear on the ballot.

Medical Billing Still Amazingly Abusive

A Sunday New York Time story highlights the fact that health care industry billing practices remain incredibly abusive and bear no meaningful resemblance to the markets seen for other kinds of services.

Somehow, when physicians are involved, it is perfectly O.K. for service providers to bill whatever they want, without entering into a contract agreeing on the price in advance, and without any meaningful connection between the amount charged and the services rendered.

They highlight services rendered by an assistant neurosurgeon in a neck surgery whom the patient never met and had no reason to expect who charged $117,000 for an afternoon's job, when in a Medicaid case, he would have been limited to $800.

It is not so much to ask that health care providers quote a single price in advance and that all bills for a single procedure flow through a single vendor, as it most ordinary markets do.  It is also not much to ask that all bills to insured persons be billed to insurance with the insured responsible only to pay his share to his insurer.  But, this is almost never how it actually works.

16 September 2014

Lousy Denver Post and Many Affiliated Papers Up For Sale

The Denver Post and a long list of affiliated newspapers are up for sale according to a Colorado Independent Report of September 12th.
Digital First Media is a dominant force in Colorado daily journalism, listing among its “products” The Post as well as Viva Colorado, The Boulder Daily Camera, Canon City Daily Record, Fort Morgan Times, Longmont Times Call, Loveland Reporter Herald, Estes Park Trail Gazette, Broomfield Enterprise, Lamar Ledger, Julesburg Advocate, Brush News Tribune and Burlington-Record. . . .

[Phillip] Anschutz, a Denver-based billionaire with growing media and other assets nationally and internationally, has bought The Colorado Springs Gazette, and sources have said he has been considering buying The Post.

The ailing Digital First Media manages papers in fourteen states altogether. It is particularly dominant in California, where it runs The Oakland Tribune, Los Angeles Daily News, San Jose Mercury News, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Long Beach Press-Telegram, Berkeley Voice, Contra Costa Times, Pasadena Star News, San Bernardino Sun, among many other newspapers.

Friday’s announcement comes as little surprise as the The Denver Post’s circulation, staff size and journalistic quality have dramatically waned. The paper’s newsroom is a skeleton of its former self, and many of its top staffers who have not been laid off in the past several years have jumped a ship they’ve felt is sinking. About 30 percent of The Post’s staff has been reduced since Digital First Media bought the paper, said Tony Mulligan, administrative officer for The Denver Newspaper Guild.
I've seriously thought about dropping the Denver Post, but with only one daily paper in town covering local news, have refrained from doing so, so far.

Federal Criminal Justice System Still Broken

[Edward] Young, now 43, was convicted of several burglaries as a young man but then resolved that he would turn his life around. Released from prison in 1996, he married, worked six days a week, and raised four children in Hixson, Tenn. 
Then a neighbor died, and his widow, Neva Mumpower, asked Young to help sell her husband’s belongings. He later found, mixed in among them, seven shotgun shells, and he put them aside so that his children wouldn’t find them. 
“He was trying to help me out,” Mumpower told me. “My husband was a pack rat, and I was trying to clear things out.” 
Then Young became a suspect in burglaries at storage facilities and vehicles in the area, and the police searched his home and found the forgotten shotgun shells as well as some stolen goods. 
The United States attorney in Chattanooga prosecuted Young under a federal law that bars ex-felons from possessing guns or ammunition. In this case, under the Armed Career Criminal Act, that meant a 15-year minimum sentence. 
The United States attorney, William Killian, went after Young — even though none of Young’s past crimes involved a gun, even though Young had no shotgun or other weapon to go with the seven shells, and even though, by all accounts, he had no idea that he was violating the law when he helped Mrs. Mumpower sell her husband’s belongings. 
In May, a federal judge, acknowledging that the case was Dickensian but saying that he had no leeway under the law, sentenced Young to serve a minimum of 15 years in federal prison. It didn’t matter that the local authorities eventually dismissed the burglary charges.
From here.

Another similar case more than ten years ago revealed the over breadth of the ACCA:
In 1998, Dan Yirkovsky was remodeling a home in Iowa and found a .22 caliber cartridge beneath some carpet. He put the tiny piece of ammunition aside and continued his work. Sometime later someone reported that Yirkovsky had stolen items and kept them at the home. Police searched the residence, found the bullet and arrested Yirkovsky.
Yirkovsky's previous crimes had been petty larceny and aggravated burglary, similar to Ed Young's. 
His appeals failed and he served a 15-year sentence. 
From here.

There is plenty of blame to go around in this case and cases like it.

Congress is at fault for passing the Armed Career Criminal Act that made it a federal crime for someone who was released from prison almost twenty years earlier on crimes that technically branded him an armed career criminal even though other federal statutes wouldn't even consider those convictions to be prior felonies because they are so old, with only one minor misdemeanor conviction since then that was more than five years old at the time, who didn't know he was violating the ACCA which he sincerely believed applied only to firearms and not ammunition, and had no intent to commit a crime, to a mandatory minimum fifteen year sentence.  It is also at fault for failing to take legislative action to reform this criminal statute which has long been known to be unjust.

The U.S. Supreme Court is at fault for gutting the 8th Amendment protection under the United States Constitution from cruel and unusual punishments with precedents that essentially make it impossible to invalidate a criminal sentence for a term of years that is disproportionate to the crime, particularly in the case of sentences for individuals with prior criminal convictions.

The U.S. Supreme Court is also at fault for allowing a federal criminal sentencing hearing to consider flimsy evidence like criminal charges that are subsequently dismissed.

The trial court judge, and the three judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed the sentence, are at fault for failing to either construe the statute to avoid a reading that would impose a harsh statute, or for failing to have the guts to rule that a case that arguably could be invalidated under existing 8th Amendment jurisprudence, is invalid. All four judges acknowledged that this sentence was clearly unjust and affirmed the sentence anyway.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Poole, who worked the case, and his boss, the United States attorney for the judicial district, William Killian, is at fault was prosecuting a clearly unreasonable charge based not on the belief that the federal crime committed actually deserved to be punished, but instead because he wanted to federally punish the defendant for a completely unrelated state law crime which he believed that the defendant did commit, but for which he was not in fact punished in any way under state law, in defiance of federalism principles and due process considerations.

There seems to be pretty convincing evidence that Young committed another non-violent burglary, even though state officials dropped those charges.  But, the notion that it is appropriate to arbitrarily apply over broad federal criminal statutes in a way that the facts relevant to the federal crime do not support to address completely unrelated state law crimes is deeply flawed.

The Justice Department is at fault for continuing to press the case on appeal, despite knowing that the state law criminal charges had been dropped, and for trying to infect the appellate court record with factual claims outside the trial court record knowing fully well that this was inappropriate.

President Obama is at fault for not using his clemency powers to intervene to commute unjust sentences in cases such as this one, despite his clear constitutional power and obligation to do so. President Obama's timidity is matched, of course, by almost all other recent Presidents and Governors with clemency power.

The State of Tennessee's legislature is at fault for not removing collateral consequences of felony convictions after a reasonable time, mostly because this would allow more black men to vote, as most states outside the South do. If it had done so, Mr. Young would not have been guilty of any crime in this case under the ACCA.

Edward Young is inappropriately going to spend fifteen years in prison because every single one of these critical participants in the criminal justice process failed. Even if the law that sent Edward Young is later reformed, his odds of being released early from prison are negligible.

The U.S. Supreme Court could still grant certiorari and add some long overdue flexibility to their 8th Amendment and sentencing jurisprudence in this case. And, President Obama (or any subsequent President) could still commute the sentence of Mr. Young. But, both possibilities currently seem remote, and to nearly amount to miracles.

The only players in the saga who have done their jobs are the news reporters, bloggers, think tanks, and academics who have called out this case as unjust.  But, none of them have the power to change the result.

How can we survive as a functional state when we lack the institutional capacity to prevent such obvious cases of injustice?

15 September 2014

Against Permission Slips

The fact that institutions like public schools in the United States feel a need to go to extraordinary lengths to manage how ordinary, harmless, over the counter drugs are administered to minors in middle school and high school, with designated nurses following forms signed by doctors and parents, as if Tylenol were heroin, strikes me as a sign of the failure of the leaders of our institutions to command any kind of moral leadership.

The felt need for children on a school trip to have not just one, but dozens of forms signed, in another empty gesture in which form and bureaucracy triumph over substance.  How sick is our legal system that we must work around it with countless waivers in which we thoughtlessly surrender our legal rights, rather than develop standards are that workable and make them the norm?

Not all forms and paperwork of our institutions is so infantile and vacuous.  Schools have a practical need, for example, for contract information of parents and guardians.  But, so much of it is overkill driven by unreasonable fear that lets to many important outcomes hinge on who signed what for which occasion and precisely how a particular lawyer drafted a particular form.

Are we a nation of such frail and weak willed individuals that we make it a crime for even college students to drink alcohol, unlike almost all of the rest of the world, and then enforce those rules in a discriminatory and arbitrary fashion?

Are we a nation so sheltered that we can't trust professionally licensed teachers and our peer parent chaperons to take our children to a zoo or museum outside the school grounds without obtaining special signed permission in advance from a parent or guardian to do so for each trip?

Far too often, we turn to rigid protocols and zero tolerance policies, when a dialectic of trust and responsibility on the part of people in positions of leadership, would serve us better.  Is it possible to rebuild our culture on those kinds of foundations?  Or, is that too foreign to our bureaucratic and legalistic sensibilities?

Eight Schizophrenia Variants Subtyped

A new study has identified 42 clusters of genetic mutations that taken together predict one of eight sub-types of schizophrenia with distinct symptoms.  While individual genetic mutations (SNPs) are not very predictive of schizophrenia, genome wide associations with large sample sizes (4,200 people with schizophrenia and 3,800 controls) have demonstrated that clusters of multiple genetic mutations when found together are highly predictive schizophrenia genotypes.

The subtyping of symptoms, it turns out, was critical to finding the genetic clusters at all.  Even if a genotype is a match to one of the eight schizophrenia syndromes, it will show no significant correlation with the other seven and the signal that does exist may be diluted to the point where it cannot be seen.  In the same way, it is much easier to look for "tall statute genes" and "short stature genes" separately, than to look for "extreme stature" genes in a single statistical analysis.

Schizophrenia, in general, is about 80% heritable, but some genetic clusters predict that someone has a 95%-100% chance of having the associated particular subtype of schizophrenia, while other clusters predict that there is as little as a 70% chance of having schizophrenia and generally clarifies what type of schizophrenia that person who develop if they develop it at all.
In some patients with hallucinations or delusions, for example, the researchers matched distinct genetic features to patients' symptoms, demonstrating that specific genetic variations interacted to create a 95 percent certainty of schizophrenia. In another group, they found that disorganized speech and behavior were specifically associated with a set of DNA variations that carried a 100 percent risk of schizophrenia. . . it was only when the research team was able to organize the genetic variations and the patients' symptoms into groups that they could see that particular clusters of DNA variations acted together to cause specific types of symptoms.

Then they divided patients according to the type and severity of their symptoms, such as different types of hallucinations or delusions, and other symptoms, such as lack of initiative, problems organizing thoughts or a lack of connection between emotions and thoughts. The results indicated that those symptom profiles describe eight qualitatively distinct disorders based on underlying genetic conditions.

The investigators also replicated their findings in two additional DNA databases of people with schizophrenia, an indicator that identifying the gene variations that are working together is a valid avenue to explore for improving diagnosis and treatment. . . .

Eight classes of schizophrenia were identified by independently characterizing each phenotypic feature included in a genotypic-phenotypic relationship; classifying each item based on the symptoms as purely positive, purely negative, primarily positive, or primarily negative symptoms; and clustering these relationships based on their recoded phenotypic domain using non-negative matrix factorization. SNP sets harboring only positive symptoms are indicated in red, whereas those displaying negative symptoms are in green. Intermediate combinations including severe and/or moderate processes combined with positive and/or negative and/or disorganized symptoms were also color-coded.
Of course, while this allows for powerful diagnostic tools that could, for example, definitively confirm a claim of insanity by a criminal defendant who was not privileged enough to receive a clear diagnosis from professional mental health professionals before being arrested, this understanding does little directly to help someone who is diagnosed with a particular schizophrenia subtype cope with that condition.  But, someday, knowing a person's schizphrenia genotype might help someone know, for example, which type of anti-psychotic drugs, if any, are likely to be helpful for them.

Foster Care System Still Broken

Kids in foster care in Colorado are about half as likely to graduate from high school as homeless kids and kids in poverty. 

Kids in foster care routinely get bounced from home to home, mistreatment and abuse of children in foster care (often at the hands of fellow foster children) is so common place that it is a cliché.  Ongoing support for foster children once they turn age eighteen in negligible. 

Social services also has a poor record of removing children from horribly abusive and neglectful environments despite clear warning flags.  Older children who are being abused or neglected, and people who might help them, are discouraged from taking action to invoke social services involvement, in part, because the conditions faced by foster children if they are removed from their parents are so bad.

A state audit has determined that child welfare departments in Colorado are greatly understaffed, and there are also not enough foster families.

When the outcomes for homeless kids, kids in poverty, and probably even kids in the juvenile justice system often looks better than those for foster kids, it is hard to argue that the state has met its obligations to children who have already been victims of criminally bad parenting.  These kids deserve better breaks than kids who have been fortunate enough to have at least mediocre parents, not state inflicted mistreatment that follows the abuse and neglect that they have already suffered.

The fact of that matter is that foster children are very frequently poor and are very frequently impaired as a result of the abuse and neglect that they have suffered.  They aren't going to graduate from high school as often as middle class kids from families that have nurtured them their entire lives.  But, it is abundantly clear that the absolutely abysmal academic performance of foster children compared to other populations facing seriously hardships has a lot to do with aspects of the foster care system that are broken and that our lawmakers (in Colorado and in most other states) are too cheap to fund in a way that can give these kids what they deserve.

When parental rights are terminated, children lose stability and their main source of economic support.  Since this condition is due in significant part to state intervention, it is appropriate for the state to spend what it takes to provide for these children properly.  If we can afford to spend $30,000-$50,000 to adequately care for adults who have committed felonies, we can afford to spend much more than we do on children who are innocent victims than we do.

08 September 2014

Computer Autoimmune Disease

It stands to reason that computers, as complex systems, can suffer diseases similar to those suffered by animals.  My computer certainly seems to think so.

Over the past few days, it decided to contract an autoimmune disease, like M.S. in humans.

The immune system of a computer is, naturally enough, its virus protection software.  And, when a computer's virus protection software gets overactive, it blinds a computer by treating all data coming to it over computer networks, wireless or otherwise, as viruses, much like M.S. can cause a body's immune system to attack its own nervous system.  If the virus protection software shuts down all network connections, no viruses can get it and it perfectly fulfills its virus protection mission.  Unfortunately, this also makes your computer, in a world where most of the data is in the cloud, useless.

Of course, discovering the nature of the problem and fixing it was a many hour matter that I entrusted to someone more qualified than me to solve.

Still, needless to say, this little bout of computer autoimmune disease was highly inconvenient, productivity reducing and illustrated once again that complex systems have a tendency to take on a biological nature, even when they are completely inanimate, in principle.