Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent the last year hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

If You're Born Poor, You'll Probably Stay That Way

| Tue Jun. 3, 2014 12:08 PM EDT
Inner City Baltimore

In 1997, before The Wire made him a household name, then-Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon published The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, a book about an open-air drug market at West Fayette and Monroe Streets in Baltimore. The book painted a grim portrait of the urban ghetto and the people trapped there. It was hailed as a landmark work of immersion journalism.

But Simon can't hold a candle to Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins sociologist who followed nearly 800 people from the neighborhoods surrounding Simon's corner since they started first grade in 1982. Alexander and his Hopkins colleagues are now publishing the final results of that 30-year study, their own version of The Corner, called The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth And the Transition to Adulthood. What they've found isn't quite as grim as what Simon described, but it's not much more encouraging.

Alexander set out to look at how family influences the trajectory of a low-income child's life. Thirty years later, he's decided that family determines almost everything, and that a child's fate is essentially fixed by how well off her parents were when she was born.

Alexander's findings conflict with the sort of Horatio Alger stories of American mythology, but not with other social science research on upward mobility. His are especially dispiriting. Of the nearly 800 school kids he's been following for 30 years, those who got a better start—because their parents were working or married—tended to stay better off, while the more disadvantaged stayed poor.

Out of the original 800 public school children he started with, 33 moved from low-income birth family to a high-income bracket by the time they neared 30. Alexander found that education, rather than giving kids a fighting chance at a better life, simply preserved privilege across generations. Only 4 percent of the low-income kids he met in 1982 had college degrees when he interviewed them at age 28, whereas 45 percent of the kids from higher-income backgrounds did.

Perhaps more striking in his findings was the role of race in upward mobility. Alexander found that among men who drop out of high school, the employment differences between white and black men was truly staggering. At age 22, 89 percent of the white subjects who'd dropped of high school were working, compared with 40 percent of the black dropouts.

These differences came despite the fact that it was the better-off white men who reported the highest rates of drug abuse and binge drinking. White men from disadvantaged families came in second in that department. White men also had high rates of encounters with the criminal justice system. At age 28, 41 percent of the white men born into low-income families had criminal convictions, compared with 49 percent of the black men from similar backgrounds, an indication that it is indeed race, not a criminal record, that's keeping a lot of black men out of the workforce.

Alexander doesn't call it white privilege, but it's basically what he describes. His data suggests that the difference in employment rates between white and black men with similar drug problems and arrest records stems from better social networks among white men, who have more friends and family members who can help them overcome many of their obvious impediments to employment.

He does find some silver linings in the data and in the interviews with people he's been talking to since they were six years old. Included in one random sample from a single, very poor public school close to Simon's corner were 22 African-American men. Alexander was able to stay in touch with 18 of them through 2005, when they were adults. Of that 18, 17 had been arrested and convicted of a crime at some time in their lives. (Seven of the interviews in 2005 were done in prisons.) But a fair number of that group had also gone on to get post-secondary education of some sort, and nine were also working full time—two making more than $50,000 a year, indications that not everyone from the 'hood was doomed to a life of poverty and crime. "These are young black men from The Corner working steadily and drawing a decent paycheck," Alexander writes.

Even so, he admits that his substantial data trove proves pretty conclusively that social status in the inner city is relatively immobile. 

“The implication is where you start in life is where you end up in life,” Alexander said in a press release. “It’s very sobering to see how this all unfolds.”

 

 

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Can Mental Health Courts Fix California's Prison Overcrowding?

| Wed May 28, 2014 4:00 PM EDT

Passed in 1994, California's "three strikes" law is the nation's harshest sentencing law. Designed to imprison for life anyone who commits three violent crimes, the law has inadvertently resulted in the incarceration of a lot relatively harmless people, for a long time and at great public expense. Crimes that have earned people life sentences: Stealing a dollar in loose change from a car, breaking into a soup kitchen to steal food, stealing a jack from the open window of a tow truck, and even stealing two pairs of children's shoes from Ross Dress for Less. The law is one reason that California's prison system is dangerously, and unconstitutionally, overcrowded. More than 4,000 people in the prison system are serving life sentences for non-violent crimes.

In 2012, with corrections costs consuming ever more of the state budget, the voters in the state had had enough, and they approved a reform measure that would spring many of these low-level offenders from a lifetime of costly confinement. By August of last year, more than 1,000 inmates had their life sentences changed and were released; recidivisim rates for this group has also been extremely low. But further progress in the reform effort is being stymied by one thorny problem: Nearly half of the inmates serving time in California prisons suffer from a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. So far, judges have been reluctant to let these folks out of their life sentences.

A new report from Stanford Law School's Three Strikes project notes that the number of mentally ill prisoners denied relief from a life sentence is three times larger than those without a brain disease. The disparity largely stems from the fact that judges and juries tend to give people with brain diseases much harsher sentences to begin with.

Once in prison, their illnesses go untreated, and the prison conditions exacerbate their behavioral symptoms. As a result, they are at greater risk of getting in trouble for breaking prison rules and being sanctioned with severe disciplinary measures, including solitary confinement—a vicious cycle that can make their symptoms even worse, getting them in even more trouble. A long record of rule-breaking is one thing judges consider when weighing a request to reduce a life sentence under three-strikes reform, and a reason so many mentally ill people have been denied resentencing.

All of these factors are now driving a push in California to work harder to ensure that people with brain diseases don't end up in the correctional system in the first place. Led by State Senator Darrell Steinberg and Stanford law professors who published the new report, the effort includes a call for more investment in mental health courts that focus on treatment rather than punishment. California currently has 40 such courts in 27 counties, and people like Steinberg think they should be expanded state-wide thanks to their effectiveness and cost-savings.

In 2006, Santa Clara County calculated $20 million in savings from its mental health court's success in keeping mentally ill people out of prisons. Sacramento County saw the cost of keeping mentally ill people out of traditional courts fall 88 percent thanks to its mental health court. Other research has shown that the specialized courts also keep mentally ill people from cycling back into the justice system. Mentally ill people in Michigan's mental health courts commit new crimes at a rate 300 percent lower than those who weren't in those courts.

But money isn't the only reason Steinberg wants to see mental health courts expanded. He notes in the Stanford report that this new approach "saves lives from being forsaken." He invokes the moral cost of failing to treat sick people with compassion, and the tragedy of the lost human potential that occurs when the only place for a person with a brain disease today is in a prison.

Watch the video directed by Kelly Duane de la Vega and Kattie Galloway of Loteria Films (above) about the mental health courts that makes his point and shows just how powerful such venues can be in reclaiming lives and helping sick people return to normal functioning in the community. 

All charts courtesy of Stanford Law School's Three Strikes project

This Pharmacist Is One of Greg Abbott's Biggest Donors. Here's Why.

| Wed May 28, 2014 12:27 PM EDT
Texas Attorney General and GOP Gubernatorial Candidate Greg Abbott

Greg Abbott, the Republican attorney general of Texas, has many of the usual suspects funding his gubernatorial campaign: Energy tycoons, construction company magnates, leveraged buyout moguls, sports team owners. But one of his biggest backers hails from an industry not typically known for bankrolling political campaigns. J. Richard "Richie" Ray is the owner of a compounding pharmacy, one of those loosely regulated entities that have been mixing up lethal injection drug cocktails for prisons as these pharmaceuticals have become harder and harder to obtain. According to a new report from the nonprofit Texans for Public Justice, Ray, the owner of Richie's Specialty Pharmacy in Conroe, Texas, has given Abbott $350,000 to help him defeat democratic challenger Wendy Davis. 

Ray's big investment in Abbott comes as death row inmates and good-government groups are trying to force Texas to disclose the supplier of its lethal injection drugs, thought to be a compounding pharmacy. The pharmacies themselves are under fire for selling tainted and mislabled medicine that has killed dozens of people in recent years. During Abbott's tenure as AG, he has already taken on one Texas compounder, ApotheCure, after three people in Oregon died after taking painkillers from the pharmacy that were eight times more potent than the label indicated. (In 2012, Abbott settled state civil charges against the company.) Last summer, tainted medicine from an Austin compounding pharmacy caused blood infections in 17 people; two deaths are suspected to be related to the products, which are still under investigation.

Abbott is also in the middle of a pitched legal battle over whether the state has to identify the supplier of its lethal injection drugs. Over the past several years, international pharma companies have started refusing to sell execution drugs, including pentobarbital, to US prisons for use in lethal injections, and the EU has banned their export. This has left state prisons desperate to find replacement drugs to continue moving the machinery of death. After several states were caught illegally importing the drugs from abroad, state officials have tried obtaining their execution drugs from compounding pharmacies, which can legally mix them up but that have been plagued with problems like those in Texas. Defense lawyers have argued that their condemned clients have a right to know what they're going to be injected with to ensure that the executions will not violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and they've cited the well-documented problems with drugs produced by compounders in their challenges. The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma only reinforced those claims.

In October, in response to a formal request under the state's open-records law, staff who handle such requests in the AG's office said Texas law required disclosure of the execution drug supplier, a move that resulted in the exposure of Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy as the state's lethal injection supplier. Woodlands promptly quit supplying execution drugs. As a result, the state is now fighting disclosure of the name of its new supplier, and Abbott is caught in the middle, with his lawyers arguing in state and federal court that the name of the pharmacy doesn't have to be disclosed, even as his open-records staff say it does.

In the midst of all this controversy, Richie Ray has become a major donor Abbott's campaign. He gave $100,000 in June 2013, just before the state bought several doses of compounded pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy. (By comparison, Ray has given only a little more than $40,000 to Rick Perry's campaigns.) Ray's pharmacy is not supplying execution drugs to the state, according to the Texans for Public Justice report, apparently because his pharmacy isn't certified as a "sterile" facility. However, Richie's is a member of the Professional Compounding Centers of America (PCCA), a Houston-based national trade group that not only owns the lab that tested some of the state's compounded execution drugs for purity but also sold Woodlans the raw materials to make one of the drugs.

Ray himself is active in fighting tougher regulation of compounding pharmacies. He's the director of the Texas Pharmacy Association PAC and chairman of the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists' federal PAC. His employees are the top donors to the campaign of Sen. John Barasso (R-WY), a doctor and the Senate's leading defender of compounding pharmacies like ApotheCure.

Given the massive conflicts between his current job and one of his biggest campaign contributors, Abbott can only hope that defense lawyers manage to drag out the legal battles over lethal injection long enough for him to get elected in November.

Obama Administration Sued for Refusing to Disclose Data on Student Loan Debt Collectors

| Tue May 20, 2014 2:27 PM EDT

President Barack Obama has taken several steps over the past few years to address the $1 trillion problem of student loan debt. He's pushed loan forgiveness programs and efforts to help borrowers reduce payments. One thing that apparently isn't factoring into his plans, though, is reining in abusive debt collectors that the Department of Education hires to collect student loans debt when people can't pay.

More than $94 billion of the nation's student loan debt was in default as of September 2013, according to a March report from the Government Accountability Office. And the percentage of people defaulting on school loans has increased steadily for six years in a row. In 2011, the Department of Education paid private debt collectors $1 billion to try to collect on that debt—a number that is expected to double by 2016. The tactics used by those debt collectors range from harassing to downright abusive. In March 2012, Bloomberg reported that three of the companies working for the Department of Education had settled federal or state charges that they'd engaged in abusive debt collection.

Consumer advocates have found that the debt collectors routinely violate consumer protection laws when trying to collect on student loan debt, which is especially problematic given that some of those firms are supposed to be helping borrowers "rehabilitate" their loans to reduce their debt burden. The student loan collectors have vast power, including the ability to garnish wages and seize tax refunds—tools not normally available to companies collecting ordinary consumer debt.

In March 2012, the Department of Education said it was reviewing the commissions it paid debt collectors in the wake of complaints that the contractors were abusing borrowers. But so far, there's not much evidence that anything has changed. The GAO report found that the Education Department still does little to oversee student-loan debt collectors, and has done little more than provide "feedback" when alerted to abuses.

The National Consumer Law Center has been highlighting the problems with student-loan debt collectors for a few years now, and watchdogging the Department of Education's work in this area. Or at least it's been trying to. Since 2012, the non-profit advocacy group has filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for information about the government's relationships with student-loan debt collectors. But so far, the Obama administration has stonewalled the requests. On Monday, after more than year attempting to peel back the secrecy around the debt collection contracts, NCLC filed a lawsuit demanding that the Department of Education comply with the Freedom of Information Act and release the data.

“Collection agencies routinely violate consumer protection laws and prioritize profits over borrower rights,” says Persis Yu, an attorney with NCLC. “Abuses by these debt collection agencies cause significant hardship to the millions of students struggling to pay off their federal student loans. Taxpayers and student loan borrowers have a right to information about the impact of the Education Department’s policy of paying outside debt collectors on the rights of borrowers. The Education Department should not insulate itself from public scrutiny.”

Georgia Supreme Court: Lethal-Injection Secrecy Helps Keep Executions "Timely and Orderly"

| Mon May 19, 2014 7:12 PM EDT

On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a remarkable ruling in a case challenging a Georgia law that designates the source and composition of its lethal-injection drugs as a state secret—one that can be kept hidden from everyone: the condemned, the public, and, most notably, the courts themselves.

That the state's high court would rule against a death-row inmate is hardly surprising. Georgia courts have rarely voted to spare anyone from execution. But that it would keep the courts ignorant of what goes on in the state's death chamber seems like an unusual abdication of judicial power.

Before passing its secrecy law, Georgia illegally imported expired drugs from a London company called "Dream Pharma," and used them in two executions.

Georgia passed its secrecy law in March 2013 after its supply of pentobarbital, its primary execution drug, expired. Officials were having trouble getting more, thanks to an export ban by the EU and the refusal of international pharmaceutical companies to sell the drugs for the use in executions. The new law was challenged on behalf of a prisoner named Warren Hill, sentenced to death after killing another inmate while serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend. His execution was put on hold last summer, pending the outcome of the challenge.

Under the law Georgia just upheld, the public has no right to obtain the name of any person or company, even under seal in a legal proceeding, who manufactures or sells an execution drug. It also lets state authorities hide the identities of doctors who participate in executions—a professional ethical breach. The secrecy requirements may also be an effort to protect state officials from embarrassment; in 2010 and 2011, the state was shamed by news that it had been illegally importing expired drugs with limited potency from "Dream Pharma," a London company operating out of the back of a run-down driving school.

Georgia actually used those drugs in two executions before the Food and Drug Administration stepped in and confiscated the supply. But what happened during those executions is one reason Hill wanted more information on the source of the drugs that would be used to kill him. In the first case, the condemned man, Brandon Rhodes, kept his eyes open through the entire process, an indication that the painful paralyzing drugs were administered while he was conscious. During the other state-sanctioned killing, inmate Emmanuel Hammond kept his eyes open, grimaced, and seemed to be attempting to talk. 

The high court dismissed these concerns, and insisted that the confidentiality law "plays a positive role in the in the functioning of the capital punishment process." The court admitted that releasing more information might help satisfy concerns that executions are humane, but found that it was more important that the secrecy made the process "more timely and orderly."

Really, the court said that.

Dissenting judges argued that the ruling creates a "star chamber" situation, which prevents constitutional scrutiny of the execution process.

Two justices dissented loudly, arguing that the ruling creates a "star chamber" situation the courts have long fought to avoid—one that prevents the courts from scrutinizing the execution procedures to ensure they don't violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The dissent also points out that the majority ruled against Hill on the grounds that his concerns about potentially contaminated or illegally procured execution drugs were solely "speculative." But Hill's claims are speculative, the dissenters wrote, precisely because the court is refusing him the right to information that might make them more concrete. In short, they wrote, there was no way Hill could win, and the majority decision clearly violated his rights to due process.

The decision paves the way for the state to continue making itself a a poster child for why the death penalty is on its way out. In 2002, the US Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally disabled people, and Hill, with an IQ of 70, falls into that category. But Georgia doesn't like being told what to do. So while its lawyers continue to haggle over Hill's mental state, Georgia may move on to another inmate first: Robert Wayne Holsey, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 1997, even though his court-appointed lawyer, a severe alcoholic, consumed a quart of vodka every night during his trial.

Cases like these suggest that there's a lot about its capital punishment system that Georgia might prefer to keep secret—not just the drugs it's using.

 

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