As of last year, according to a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 3,200 people were serving life in prison without parole for nonviolent crimes. A close examination of these cases by the ACLU reveals just how petty some of these offenses are. People got life for, among other things…
Possessing a crack pipe
Possessing a bottle cap containing a trace amount of heroin (too minute to be weighed)
Having traces of cocaine in clothes pockets that were invisible to the naked eye but detected in lab tests
Having a single crack rock at home
Possessing 32 grams of marijuana (worth about $380 in California) with intent to distribute
Passing out several grams of LSD at a Grateful Dead show
Acting as a go-between in the sale of $10 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop
Selling a single crack rock
Verbally negotiating another man's sale of two small pieces of fake crack to an undercover cop
Taking a television, circular saw, and power converter from a vacant house
Breaking into a closed liquor store in the middle of the night
Making a drunken threat to a police officer while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car
Being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm
Taking an abusive stepfather's gun from their shared home
These are not typically first offenses, but nor are they isolated cases. The vast majority (83 percent) of life sentences examined by the ACLU were mandatory, meaning that the presiding judge had no choice but to sentence the defendant to a life behind bars. Mandatory sentences often result from repeat offender laws and draconian sentencing rules such as these federal standards for drug convictions:
Families Against Mandatory Minimums
The data examined by the ACLU comes from the federal prison system and nine state penal systems that responded to open-records requests. This means the true number of nonviolent offenders serving life without parole is higher.
What's clear, based on the ACLU's data, is that many nonviolent criminals have been caught up in a dramatic spike in life-without-parole sentences.
Among the cases reviewed, the vast majority were drug-related:
And most of the nonviolent offenders sentenced to life without parole were racial minorities.
All graphics by Associate Interactive Producer Jaeah Lee
Obviously, housing all of these nonviolent offenders isn't cheap. On average, for example a single Louisiana inmate serving life without parole costs the state about $500,000. The ACLU estimates reducing existing lifetime sentences of nonviolent offenders to terms commensurate with their crimes would save taxpayers at least $1.8 billion.
In August, Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled a reform package aimed at scaling back the use of mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. As Dana Liebelson noted:
[U]nder Holder's new policy, mandatory minimums as they apply to specific quantities of drugs will no longer be used against offenders whose cases do not involve violence, a weapon, and selling to a minor, and they will also not be used against offenders that do not have a "significant criminal history" and ties to a "large-scale" criminal organization.
Yes on 522 logos on Dr. Bronner's soap bottles: "Totally unprecedented in the world of product labeling."
It's midmorning at the hive of cheap buildings that serves as the global HQ of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, and, as usual, David Bronner isn't working on anything to do with soap. Sure, his phone is ringing off the hook with business calls and a rep from Trader Joe's is visiting tomorrow, but the 40-year-old CEO—who looks like a 6-foot-5 raver version of Captain Jack Sparrow—could care less. A Burning Man amulet dangles on a hemp necklace over his tie-dye shirt as he leans in toward his computer screen, staring at what really matters to him: the latest internal poll results for Washington Initiative 522, a ballot measure that would require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms.
The initiative, which Washingtonians will vote on tomorrow, is one of the costliest in state history: Its proponents have spent a little more than $7 million, while their opponents in biotech and agribusiness have poured in $22 million.* Dr. Bronner's has donated a whopping $1.8 million to the Yes on 522 campaign. (That's on top of $620,000 it gave in support of a similar California ballot measure last year.) At stake, Bronner says, is consumers' right to decide what they put in their bodies. "If we don't win the right to label and enable people to choose non-GMO, then everything is going to be GMO."
In response to a recent lawsuit, the Grocery Manufacturers Association recently revealed the source of $7.2 million in dark-money contributions it had solicited to fight Washington's Initiative 522, a measure on next week's ballot that would require food companies to label products with ingredients made from genetically modified organisms. Pepsi was the largest contributor to the trade group's anti-labeling effort, donating $1.6 million. Coca-Cola wasn't far behind, chipping in another $1 million.
If you don't like GMOs, then you probably shouldn't drink either of America's leading soda brands. But let's say Coke and Pepsi products are your only options. How do the two soda giants compare on the social-responsibility index? Here's our totally subjective guide to the relative malevolence of America's favorite pop-making multinationals.
deadliness in excess
Coke: Guzzling between 6 and 10 liters of Coke daily contributed to the sudden death this February of 31-year-old Natasha Harris of New Zealand, according to her coroner's report.
Pepsi: Nobody would ever drink this much Pepsi.
Most evil: Coke
Coke: Faces an ongoing class-action lawsuit over the health claims of Glacéau Vitaminwater, which contains eight tablespoons of sugar per bottle. Vitamins? Not so much.
Pepsi: In 2011, settled a $9 million class-action lawsuit over Naked Juice's claims to contain "all natural" and "non-GMO" ingredients.
Coke: Two of its bottlers hired a Colombian paramilitary group to murder union organizers, according to a 2001 lawsuit filed in the US by the United Steelworkers union. The case was dismissed in 2009, but these and similar allegations in Guatemala have sparked boycotts and street protests. Coke denies the claims.
Coke: An interactive online ad that ends, in one scenario, with a woman standing next to a bed in her underwear, was lambasted by Sweden's sexist ad watchdog for portraying women as "pure sex objects."
Pepsi: To promote an energy drink, released an iPhone app (above) that coaches men on pickup lines and encourages those who "score" to post details such as name, date, and comments to Facebook and Twitter.
Most evil: Pepsi (Objectifying women = bad. Posting names of sexual conquests online = ick!)
Coke: Coca-Cola ads that first appeared in 1931 in the Saturday Evening Post and other national magazines popularized the modern image of Santa Claus as a pudgy guy dressed in red. The rest is history.
Coke: Its ad (above) about fighting America's obesity epidemic may have actually contributed to the problem by spinning Coca-Cola products as components of a healthy lifestyle. Critics responded with a parody video that ends with the exhortation: "Don't drink Coke."
Pepsi: "We firmly believe companies have a responsibility to provide consumers with more information and more choices so they can make better decisions," PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi wrote in a PR essay that appeared in one of the country's most respected annual reports on obesity. Huh?
Most evil: Coke (There's a reason the parody video has more YouTube views than the actual ad.)
And the winner is…
Index of Soda Evil
Now about that Izze you're drinking…Oh, dang! PepsiCo owns Izze, too.
1) Use open-source software
Software whose source code is publicly available is more secure than anything developed by Microsoft, Apple, or Google: Its transparency means developers can't easily conceal security holes at the behest of hackers or governments. You'll want open-source platforms for your browser (Firefox, for example), email (Thunderbird), and instant messaging (Jabber), all of which are virtually idiot-proof to install. Switching to open-source for your operating system (Linux is the most popular choice) seems more intimidating, but ultimately isn't much harder than changing the format on a text document. Nerd factor: You've tweaked the default settings in your apps.
2) Hide your location
Install the easily downloaded Tor Browser, which comes preconfigured to mask your IP address and, therefore, your location. Tor's software bounces your data through several of its thousands of volunteer servers; anyone intercepting traffic will think the data came from the last server in the chain. It's like a lightning-speed version of trying to shake a stalker by racing around town and repeatedly switching cars—it may not always work, but it makes you much harder to follow. Downside: The FBI recently acknowledged that it hacked into some Tor servers. Nerd factor: You've downloaded software.
Though we learned in September that the NSA has defeated most commercially available encryption, scrambling your online activities will still foil hackers. The easily installed browser extension https Everywhere encrypts your web activity; for instant messaging, try Off-the-Record Messaging. For email, the program Pretty Good Privacy will let you set up a system of security "keys" to safeguard correspondence. Nerd factor: You likely ride the Google bus.
4) Mind the "air gap"
If you're serious about becoming a digital Deep Throat, buy (or better yet, build) a computer that has never been connected to the internet. If you want to give somebody else a file, encrypt it on the secure computer and physically deliver it to the recipient on a USB stick. Nerd factor: You own The Matrix on Blu-ray.
5) Ditch your phone
In July, a federal appeals court ruled that the government can obtain your location data from carriers without a warrant. You can minimize what you share by disabling tracking functions on your apps and turning off your phone when you aren't using it. Better yet, remove its battery (though iPhone owners don't have that option). Nerd factor: You own a phone.
6) Use a passphrase
A string of random common words—"jose llama tequila mountain"—is way easier to remember and way harder to crack than a single word. Because passphrases are significantly longer than passwords, they contain, as cryptographers like to put it, more bits of entropy. Now if only your bank would stop demanding at least one capital letter and one number and leave you to picture a llama on a mountain of Jose Cuervo. Nerd factor: You remember which "o" is an ø, in your previous password.
Last week, the Whatcom County Council in northwestern Washington voted to buy six new SUVs for the local Sheriff's Department and introduced its annual road construction plan. These were significant developments in this sleepy rural enclave of scarcely 200,000 people, but nothing compared to what's on the horizon: A proposal to build the largest coal export terminal on the West Coast, capable of annually shipping a whopping 48 million tons of Montana and Wyoming coal to Asia.
Its role in deciding the fate of Peabody Coal's proposed $700-million Gateway Pacific Terminal has thrust the unassuming Whatcom County Council into the national political spotlight. The coal industry sees the export terminal as a lifeline from sinking domestic sales. Environmental groups view it as the worst climate threat since the Keystone XL pipeline. Each side is backing its own Whatcom County Council candidates in a November 5th election that has become an expensive proxy fight in the global war over the future of coal.
The money pouring into four council seat races dwarfs anything ever seen in this county of lumberjacks, farmers, and banana slugs. Compared to fundraising during the last county election in 2011, money raised by council candidates and their allies has increased more than seven-fold, to roughly $1 million. Much of it comes from fossil fuel interests such as Cloud Peak Energy and Global Coal Sales, and, on the other side, from A-list environmentalists such as California billionaire Tom Steyer.
Backers of the Gateway Pacific Terminal claim it will create 4,400 construction-related jobs and 1,250 permanent positions at the docks and in associated professions—no small thing in a county where the unemployment rate is fifty percent higher than it was six years ago. Yet environmental groups warn of endless pollution-spewing coal trains passing in the vicinity of Bellingham, the liberal college town near where Peabody wants to load cargo ships with coal bound for China. The council will likely vote to approve or deny the coal terminal sometime in the next two years.
As it stands, four or five of the seven council members are believed to support the terminal. So environmental groups want to flip one or two of the seats and coal companies want to stop them. But here's where things get weird, explains Brian Rosenthal of the Seattle Times:
The word "believed" is necessary because of one more quirk in this unusual election: In largely rural Whatcom County, council members have quasi-judicial duties and are supposed to remain impartial about matters that might come before them in the future.
So the candidates have avoided giving specific opinions about the coal terminal, instead offering code words like "proven environmental values" and "committed to creating jobs."
If that approach sounds familiar, it's probably because state and national politicians often do the same thing—though, admittedly, not often during an extended meet-and-greet with a handful of passerby in a small-town Indian casino, flanked by poker tables and slot machines.