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.

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

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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.

 

Will Rick Perry Execute A Mentally Disabled Man Tonight?

| Tue May 13, 2014 10:47 AM EDT
Texas Governor Rick Perry

Update (5:24 pm): The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed Robert Campbell's execution on the grounds that the new evidence of his intellectual disability was "more than sufficient" to warrant a closer look by the courts. His lawyer, Robert C. Owen, said in a statement, "Given the state’s own role in creating the regrettable circumstances that led to the Fifth Circuit’s decision today, the time is right for the State of Texas to let go of its efforts to execute Mr. Campbell, and resolve this case by reducing his sentence to life imprisonment. State officials should choose the path of resolution rather than pursuing months or years of further proceedings."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has presided over more executions than any other governor in American history. He's ignored pleas for clemency for people who committed crimes as juveniles, who were mentally disabled, or who were obvious victims of systemic racism. He even signed off on the execution of a likely innocent man. So the odds don't seem good for Robert Campbell, a man set to be executed in Texas tonight. This is despite the fact that new evidence has surfaced showing that the state withheld information documenting an intellectual disability that should make him ineligible for the death penalty.

Unlike Clayton Lockett, the Oklahoma murderer whose botched execution last month has become a rallying cry for abolishing the death penalty, Campbell is actually something of a poster child for all that's wrong with capital punishment in this country. 

Four months after his 18th birthday, Campbell commit three armed car jackings. In one of those, a 20-year-old bank employee, Alexandra Rendon, was kidnapped at a gas station, sexually assaulted and shot to death. Campbell was quickly arrested, largely because he drove Rendon's car around his neighborhood, gave her coat to his mother and her jewelry to his girlfriend as gifts, and basically blabbed to everyone that he'd been involved in the crime. He wasn't alone during the commission of the crime. But his co-defendant, Leroy Lewis, was allowed to plead guilty and is already out on parole.

But Campbell, who is black, went to trial in 1992 in Houston during a time when prosecutors there were three times more likely to pursue a capital case against African-American men than against white men. He had an incompetent lawyer whose many missteps included failing to either investigate his case or to present evidence that would have mitigated his sentence, notably the fact that Campbell was mentally retarded. (This term generally isn't used anymore to describe people with intellectual disabilities—except with regard to the death penalty, where it has a specific definition in the law.)

More bad lawyering over the years, along with hostile Texas courts, left Campbell without many avenues to appeal, even though in 2002, the US Supreme Court banned the execution of the mentally disabled. What's more, Campbell's lawyers only recently discovered that prosecutors and other state officials long had substantial evidence of his limited cognitive functioning—including school records and test results placing his IQ at 68—that should have spared him from the death penalty. Yet they failed to turn it over to defense counsel until just days before his scheduled execution. Last week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals nonetheless denied Campbell's request to stay the execution, despite clear concerns from several judges on the court that his claims of mental retardation were compelling and justified further review.

“It is an outrage that the State of Texas itself has worked to frustrate Mr. Campbell’s attempts to obtain any fair consideration of evidence of his intellectual disability,” said Robert C. Owen, an attorney for Mr. Campbell. “State officials affirmatively misled Mr. Campbell’s lawyers when they said they had no records of IQ testing of Mr. Campbell from his time on death row. That was a lie. They had such test results, and those results placed Mr. Campbell squarely in the range for a diagnosis of mental retardation. Mr. Campbell now faces execution as a direct result of such shameful gamesmanship.”

Campbell's attorneys have filed an emergency request for relief with the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where his odds also seem relatively slim. The Fifth Circuit is notoriously hostile to death penalty appeals. One of its judges, Edith Jones, is famous for reinstating a death sentence for a man whose lawyer slept through his trial. She has said publicly that the death penalty provides criminals with a "positive service" because it gives them an opportunity to get right with God right before the state kills them. She's also facing an unusual ethics complaint over allegedly racist remarks she made at a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania last year, where she reportedly claimed that blacks and Hispanics were predisposed to crime and "prone" to violence. Notably, too, she insisted that defendants who raise claims of mental retardation "abuse the system" and she criticized the Supreme Court's decision prohibiting the execution of the mentally disabled. (She's said that anyone who can plan a crime can't be mentally retarded.)

If Campbell can't make any headway with the Fifth Circuit, his next appeal goes to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who reviews emergency death penalty appeals for the Fifth Circuit and is on the record as opposing the ban on executing the mentally retarded. (He also objected to the ban on executing juveniles.) So Campbell's best hope, at least in the short run, is Perry, the three-term GOP governor with presidential aspirations. Perry has the authority to issue a 30-day stay of execution, and if the parole board recommends clemency, as Campbell's lawyers are requesting, he could commute Campbell's sentence to life in prison.

Execution politics aren't pretty. As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton left the campaign trail in 1992 to personally oversee the execution of a brain-damaged man, Ricky Ray Rector, and prove his tough-on-crime bona fides. Perry, though, has long and documented track record of executing hundreds of people already, and the politics of the death penalty have unexpectedly and quickly started to change. A vote for clemency isn't likely to affect Perry's future political prospects. In this case, it might even help them. He has a few hours more to decide.

 

 

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