Erika Eichelberger

Erika Eichelberger


Erika Eichelberger is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She has also written for The NationThe Brooklyn Rail, and TomDispatch. Email her at eeichelberger [at] motherjones [dot] com. 

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Here Are the Chris Christie Emails Everyone Is Talking About

| Wed Jan. 8, 2014 1:01 PM EST

On Wednesday, news outlets released emails indicating that top aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blocked lanes on a major bridge last year in retaliation against a political opponent.

Last September, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey abruptly closed two lanes on the George Washington Bridge, causing a massive traffic jam that clogged the streets of Fort Lee, N.J. News outlets and New Jersey Democrats began to look into the circumstances surrounding the bridge closure, suspecting that the Port Authority closed the bridge lanes in an act of political retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who backed Gov. Chris Christie's opponent in the 2013 gubernatorial campaign. The emails released today suggest that was indeed the case:


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Court Beefs Up Protections for Workers Injured By Chemicals

| Thu Jan. 2, 2014 10:47 AM EST

Last week, a federal court issued a ruling strengthening protections for Americans injured by chemicals on the job.

Both state and federal statues dictate how companies are required to label harmful chemicals in the workplace. Federal law usually trumps state law, but victims injured due to inadequate chemical labeling are still allowed to sue their employer for damages under state law. Earlier this year, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) sued the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is the federal workplace safety regulatory agency, arguing that OSHA regulations only allow workers to sue under federal law, not state law. (Tort reform refers to proposed changes to the civil justice system that would cut down on personal injury lawsuits.) Last week, the powerful DC Circuit Court unanimously rejected ATRA's argument, which consumer advocates say is a win for workers.

"The court’s opinion is great news for those who want to hold chemical manufacturers liable for injuries to employees," Leah Nicholls, an attorney with the public interest law firm Public Justice, said in a blog post Tuesday.

While the ruling does not mean that other courts will agree that workers are allowed to sue under state law, the DC Circuit decision "will help persuade other courts that the existence of federal regulations does not prevent people from suing under state laws," Nicholls adds.

ATRA is a coalition of industry groups founded in 1986 whose members range from the chemical industry to the tobacco industry to the drug industry. The organization advocates for limits on corporate liability for damage caused by member industries' products and services. Since the group's inception, corporations including Dow Chemical, Exxon, Phillip Morris, and Aetna have helped fund it.

In the case before the DC Circuit, ATRA said that when OSHA issued its regulation governing how federal chemical injury law preempts state chemical injury law, it changed the definition of "preemption," which only Congress is allowed to do.

The US Supreme Court has issued several rulings in recent years scaling back Americans' ability to sue corporations for damages. The high court is also the most business-friendly since World War II. In that context especially, Nicholls says, "[T]his is a heartening decision."

Study: Pretrial Detention Creates More Crime

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 10:31 AM EST

Detaining certain defendants before trial makes them more likely to commit a new crime, according to a recent report.

Many pretrial detainees are low-risk, meaning that if they are released before trial, they are highly unlikely to commit other crimes and very likely to return to court. When these defendants are held for two to three days before trial, as opposed to just 24 hours, they are nearly 40 percent more likely to commit new crimes before their trial, and 17 percent more likely to commit another crime within two years, according to a report released last month by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a private foundation that funds criminal justice research.

"The primary goal of the American criminal justice system is to protect the public," the authors of the report say. "But…the pretrial phase of the system is actually helping to create new repeat offenders."

The report—based on studies of both state and federal courts—also found that the longer low-risk detainees are held behind bars before trial, the more likely they are to commit another crime. Low-risk defendants who were detained for 31 days or more before they had their day in court offended 74 percent more frequently before trial than those detained for just one day. The study found similar results for moderate-risk defendants, though for these offenders, the rate of increase in new criminal activity is smaller. When it comes to high-risk offenders, the report found no correlation between pre-trial detention time and recidivism.

The report noted that recidivism could be curbed if judges made an effort to distinguish between low-, moderate-, and high-risk offenders. "Judges, of course, do their best to sort violent, high-risk defendants from nonviolent, low-risk ones," the report says, "but they have almost no reliable, data-driven risk assessment tools at their disposal to help them make these decisions." Fewer than ten percent of US jurisdictions do any sort of risk-assessment during the pretrial stage.

Not only does unnecessary pretrial detention create repeat offenders, it costs taxpayers a lot of money. Pretrial detainees represent more than 60 percent of the total inmate population in the country's jails. The cost of incarcerating defendants pretrial is about $9 billion.

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