Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

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Tim Murphy is a senior reporter at Mother Jones. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy@motherjones.com.

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Bernie Sanders is pledging big things when it comes to criminal justice reform, vowing that by the end of his first term as president the nation would no longer be the world leader in incarceration:

But, as racial-justice activist Deray McKesson pointed out in response, Sanders' promise raises a serious question: Is that even possible, considering that the vast majority of the nation's inmates are held in state, not federal, prisons?

The Sanders campaign did not respond to multiple requests for an explanation, but the short answer is that the Democratic candidate couldn't realistically fulfill his promise. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 2.2 million Americans were locked up as of the end of 2013. Of those, only 215,000 inmates (9.6 percent) were in federal prisons. The rest were in state and local facilities. So even if President Sanders abolished federal prisons altogether, the United States would still have more prisoners than any other country by a pretty large margin. China, which is No. 2 in the world, has 1.7 million prisoners. To edge below China, Sanders would need to cut the national prison population by about 25 percent, with most of that coming from places that are outside federal jurisdiction.

To slash the prison population, Sanders' racial justice platform prescribes the following fixes:

  • We need to ban prisons for profit, which result in an over-incentive to arrest, jail and detain in order to keep prison beds full.
  • We need to turn back from the failed "War on Drugs" and eliminate mandatory minimums which result in sentencing disparities between black and white people.
  • We need to take marijuana off the federal government's list of outlawed drugs.
  • We need to allow people in states which legalize marijuana to be able to fully participate in the banking system and not be subject to federal prosecution for using pot.
  • We need to invest in drug courts and medical and mental health interventions for people with substance abuse problems, so that they do not end up in prison, they end up in treatment.
  • We need to boost investments for programs that help people who have gone to jail rebuild their lives with education and job training.
  • We must investigate local governments that are using implicit or explicit quotas for arrests or stops.
  • We must stop local governments that are relying on fines, fees or asset forfeitures as a steady source of revenue.
  • Police departments must investigate all allegations of wrongdoing, especially those involving the use of force, and prosecute aggressively, if necessary. If departments are unwilling or unable to conduct such investigations, the Department of Justice must step in and handle it for them.

There are a lot of good ideas there, but again, it's unclear how it adds up to a 25 percent reduction in national incarceration numbers. Just 16 percent of federal inmates are in privately operated facilities, and the percentage of state prisoners in private facilities is less than half that. The mandatory minimums in question are for federal crimes only. And Sanders' proposal to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level would by his own explanation leave states the option of continuing to ban it. The closest he comes to an explanation of how he'd bring the United States' levels below that of China is by a seismic cultural shift at the state and local level to prioritize treatment for drug offenses and to disincentivize "implicit quotas" for low-level crimes. But that a lot's different from having a plan to get there.

Update: The Sanders campaign sent along this response, emphasizing previously announced plans to form a commission to propose more concrete fixes after the inauguration:

Senator Sanders is committed to accomplishing the goal of the United Stares not having more people in jail than any other. During his first hundred days, he will appoint a commission of criminal justice experts, leaders in the African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities, and others who have had success on the local level in reducing the number of young adults going to jail and in transitioning people out of prison to other settings.

The Sanders Administration will rely on both legislative and executive actions to reorient the criminal justice system. What the campaign has done is lay out just some elements of what those actions would be. We envision this commission would propose even more.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has a plan to make America great again: Add nine new amendments to the Constitution. On Friday, fed up with Supreme Court rulings that have gone against conservatives as well as the regulatory actions of the Obama administration, the first-term Republican issued a 92-page report outlining his proposed tweaks to the founding document and calling for a national constitutional convention to make it happen.

The "Texas Plan" is as follows:

I. Prohibit Congress from regulating activity that occurs wholly within one State.

II. Require Congress to balance its budget.

III. Prohibit administrative agencies—and the unelected bureaucrats that staff them—from creating federal law.

IV. Prohibit administrative agencies—and the unelected bureaucrats that staff them—from preempting state law.

V. Allow a two-thirds majority of the States to override a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

VI. Require a seven-justice super-majority vote for U.S. Supreme Court decisions that invalidate a democratically enacted law.

VII. Restore the balance of power between the federal and state governments by limiting the former to the powers expressly delegated to it in the Constitution.

VIII. Give state officials the power to sue in federal court when federal officials overstep their bounds.

IX. Allow a two-thirds majority of the States to override a federal law or regulation.

Clearly, Abbott has been listening to way too much of the Hamilton soundtrack.

 

 

Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage told a town hall audience on Wednesday that heroin use is resulting in white women being impregnated by out-of-state drug dealers with names like "D-Money."

LePage was asked by an attendee to explain what he was doing to curb the heroin epidemic in his state. "The traffickers—these aren't people that take drugs," he explained. (You can watch the exchange beginning at the 1:55:00 mark.) "These are guys with the names D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty—these types of guys—that come from Connecticut and New York; they come up here, they sell their heroin, then they go back home. Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue that we've got to deal with down the road."

Watch:

State legislators may attempt to impeach the governor as early as next week, over charges that he threatened to block funding from a charter school if it hired a political rival.

Update: LePage says his comments have nothing to do with race:

Over the last few days, Republican front-runner Donald Trump has suggested that Sen. Ted Cruz should ask a court for a written declaration that the Canadian-born Texan is eligible to be president. That's to be expected—Trump rose to prominence among conservatives by questioning the eligibility of the sitting president. On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, one of the Republican Party's elder statesmen, told a talk radio host that he wasn't sure if Cruz was eligible to be president. That's less expected but still easily explained—McCain hates Cruz with the fire of a thousand suns.

And now House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has joined the fray. "I do think there's a difference between John McCain being born into a family serving our country in Panama than someone being born in another country, but again this is a constitutional issue that will be decided or not," she told reporters on Thursday.

 

This is absurd. Cruz is eligible to be president because his mother was an American citizen. And as National Review explains, it's not even an especially unusual situation:

[T]here is nothing new in this principle that presidential eligibility is derived from parental citizenship. John McCain, the GOP's 2008 candidate, was born in the Panama Canal Zone at a time when there were questions about its sovereign status. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee in 1964, was born in Arizona before it became a state, and George Romney, who unsuccessfully sought the same party's nomination in 1968, was born in Mexico. In each instance, the candidate was a natural born citizen by virtue of parentage, so his eligibility was not open to credible dispute.

It shouldn't be a hard question for Pelosi or McCain to answer unambiguously—we've spent roughly eight years rehashing the constitutional requirements for the office over and over again (in part because of Trump and the kinds of people who support him). The fact that McCain and Pelosi both—for perfectly legitimate reasons—can't stand Cruz is just not an appropriate justification for Trumpian nativism.

The New York Republican presidential primary is in 106 days, on April 19. It is the 37th nominating contest, coming more than three months after the first votes are cast in Iowa on February 1. So naturally Ben Carson is campaigning there on Monday night.

This is kind of strange. Carson's campaign is a mess right now. When three of his top aides quit before the New Year, Armstrong Williams, Carson's top advisor, found out about it on Twitter. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, once was at the top of the polls, but his numbers have plummeted in Iowa and elsewhere. Still, he insists he's plowing ahead and remains a contender. If so, what's he doing in Staten Island, while the other candidates rightly focus on Iowa and New Hampshire in the pre-voting homestretch? Some possibilities:

  • The ferry offers a great view of the harbor at a low price.
  • Carson wants to run for mayor of New York and is learning from Harold Ford's mistake.
  • Fresh Kills is a cool name for one of the world's largest garbage dumps.
  • Great pizza.
  • ???

There's no real explanation for this stop. (Has Carson sold every book he can possibly sell in Iowa?) It's the latest sign his campaign—though it collected $23 million in the most recent quarter—cannot be considered a serious effort.

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