Mojo - May 2010

When Punishing Teens Is Cruel and Unusual

| Mon May. 17, 2010 4:49 PM PDT

The US Supreme Court today barred a practice that is already considered unconscionable in the rest of the world. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole for any crime short of murder violates the Constitution's 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court ordered a parole hearing for Terence Graham, who was sentenced to LWOP for crimes committed when he was 17. Graham was convicted of taking part in an armed robbery and home invasion in which no one was killed. The Court also struck down laws in 37 states that allow sentences of LWOP terms for non-homicides by juveniles. Currently, 129 inmates nationwide are serving such terms; 77 of them are in Florida.

According to the Los Angeles Times, "Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the court, said a life prison term with no chance for parole is too extreme for a juvenile criminal whose offenses involve robbery or assault. He also noted that prior to today, 'The United States is the only nation that imposes life without parole sentences on juvenile non-homicide offenders.' Kennedy said these young criminals are not entitled to a 'guarantee' of eventual release, but they do deserve ‘some realistic opportunity to obtain release' if they can show they are no longer a danger to the community.

The issue of juvenile LWOP is closely tied to solitary confinement, since as we have written previously on Solitary Watch, a large number of young offenders end up in long-term isolation in adult prisons, either because they are considered disciplinary problems, because they feel compelled to join prison gangs, or because they have to be isolated from adult offenders "for their own protection."

The ruling will help a small group of prisoners, including Ian Manuel, who was given LWOP for a botched robbery attempt in Tampa, in which a woman suffered a non-fatal gunshot wound. According to one of several pieces on his case by Meg Laughlin in the St. Petersburg Times, when Ian Manuel "arrived at the prison processing center in Central Florida [in 1991], he was so small no one could find a prison uniform to fit him…Someone cut 6 inches off the boy's pant legs so he would have something to wear." An assistant warden told Laughlin that Manuel was "scared of everything and acting like a tough guy as a defense mechanism…He didn't stand a chance in an adult prison." Within months, Manuel was placed in solitary, where he has remained ever since.

Laughlin wrote a new piece about Manuel last week, as he awaited the Supreme Court decision that would determine how he spends the rest of his life:

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VIDEO: Glenn Beck Speaks at Liberty U.

| Mon May. 17, 2010 3:51 PM PDT

Liberty University, the evangelical conservative college founded by Baptist pop star Jerry Falwell, demonstrated its enduring commitment to learning, charity, and truth last weekend by inviting TV actor shock jock political commentator college dropout Glenn Beck to offer a commencement message to the faithful.

There's no word yet on whether Beck took time out to visit the university's creationism museum. But the chancellors did fork over an honorary doctor of humanities degree to Beck, a man who once tried to explain how a Diego Rivera mural proved that the Rockefellers and NBC were simultaneously socialists and Nazis. He then started his speech by crying, and he pretty much finished up the same way.

And while Beck didn't spend much time railing against social justice in the Gospel, or socialism, even, he did manage to take an earlier commencement speech by President Obama distressingly out of context. The reason: So he could explain Obama's hatred of knowledge and free expression...to alumni of a school that bans Democrats, campus organizing, distribution of unapproved literature, viewing of most movies, and playing of music that's "offensive to Liberty's Christian stand." (They call this the "Liberty Way," no shit. It's viewable here, though the university's official policy is limited to students with a login.) Beck bitched:

Last week, I heard the president speak at a ceremony much like this. He said that there is now too much information available! That it is sometimes too confusing! This is a course that has been charted before in the past. And it always ends with those who are willing to burn books. There is no such thing as too much information! There is no such thing as a question that should not be asked!

Except, of course, this one:

This is now the second time in a week that I've found hardcore conservative evangelical Protestants cozying up to Beck—a member of the Latter-Day Saints—to lambast socialism and churches that hate poverty. Strange, isn't it: As the US emerges from a Great Recession—fueled in no small part by right-wing governance, corporate deceit, and investor avarice—there's one stock selling like hotcakes among evangelicals: the pro-free-market, anti-charity histrionics of a white-bread millionaire whose religious beliefs are as odious to most of Christendom as atheistic evolution. (Quick, somebody charge up Mitt Romney's batteries before he misses his chance to ride this wave!)

In the end, though, we all know why Liberty chose Beck: He's a magnet for media attention. He's a handy way to raise the school's profile, through blogs such as this one. He's the latest manifestation of a conservative stageplay in which the shepherds and right-leaning tastemakers whip up a well-meaning but credulous flock for fun and profit. He's a cynical icon of the death of whatever principles Liberty U., in its way, might once have stood for.

Also, he probably came cheaper than Sarah Palin.

GOP's Flip-Flops Again on Finance Reform

| Mon May. 17, 2010 12:26 PM PDT

Can Senate Republicans make up their mind on financial reform? During the past month, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and company have flipped and flopped and flipped again when it comes to writing and passing a bill overhauling how Wall Street, mortgage companies, auto dealers, payday lenders, and many more do business. With the latest stance taken by top Senate GOPers, the party has shown that it's in near-disarray when it comes to financial regulatory reform.

In late April, on three successive occasions, Senate Republicans blocked Democrats' efforts to open a full debate on financial reform on the Senate floor. Eventually, that filibuster broke, which in theory should have allowed the discussion to kick off. But Republicans refused to offer any amendments or participate in the debate until Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the top senators on financial reform, had worked out yet another backroom deal on the bill.

Once the debate began, top Democrats like Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) set a Memorial Day deadline for merging the Senate's bill with the House's and delivering the final product to President Obama. At that point, GOPers sought to prolong the Senate debate—Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) said any final vote by the Senate should be delayed by 30 days so the public could read the text. McConnell also predicted last week that the amendments process would last at least several more weeks, casting further doubt on Reid's deadline.

Protesters Take Over Banks, K St.

| Mon May. 17, 2010 10:49 AM PDT

It didn't take long for the handful of irritated Bank of America employees to abandon their desks and make for the doors. Their office, a small Bank of America branch on Massachusetts Avenue, had been more or less taken over by a boisterous rally of 75 or so protesters from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the organizer behind two days' worth of Wall Street-themed protests in or near Washington. Yesterday, many of the same demonstrators, brought to DC from all over the country by SEIU and National People's Action (NPA), a community organizing network, protested outside the houses of two financial lobbyists—one from Bank of America, another for JPMorgan Chase. The demonstrators railed against bailouts and demanded that the two lobbyists tell their respective CEOs to meet with SEIU and NPA's leaders.

Today, the demonstrators bounced between various office buildings and banks in downtown DC, most of the locations linked to Wall Street, lobbying, or big banks. The day began in the building that houses the Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company that's received hundreds of millions of dollars of government contracts. After that came the Bank of America takeover, then a second, ad hoc protest inside a nearby Citibank office, to the dismay of the tellers and bankers inside.

Standing outside the Bank of America office in the morning rain was DC resident James Crowder. A Bank of America customer, Crowder cheered on the purple-clad protesters, baring a wide grin short a few teeth. "I totally agree with this here," Crowder said. "They need to do this to all the banks."

A protester holds up a flier criticizing Tony Podesta, the head of a top Washington lobbying firm. Flickr/movementvisionA protester holds up a flier criticizing Tony Podesta, the head of a top Washington lobbying firm. Flickr/movementvisionSoon after, with a police escort of four squad cars and two bikes, SEIU demonstrators convened with several busloads of NPA members outside the Podesta Group, a top Washington lobbying shop that represents, among others, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Sallie Mae, the country's largest private student lender. There, as a light drizzle began to beat down harder, members of both organizations led chants and numerous speakers recounted their battles with big banks or mortgage companies.

With the rain now pouring down, the two-day stand by SEIU and NPA culminated around midday when upwards of a thousand protesters rallied in McPherson Square, then occupied the nearby intersection of 14th St and K Street. In the intersection, under a large cardboard cutout of a Lloyd Blankfein-esque Wall Street executive controlling a politician on a string like a marionette, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry and others spoke to the soaked crowd. "The American people have a deep desire to fix what’s broken with our economic and political system,” Henry said. "That’s why a movement is building across this country to challenge the toxic influence Wall Street and corporations have on our democracy."

Finally, the throngs of people ended up in front of a regal-looking Bank of America office a stone's throw from the White House and the Treasury Department. Even as members of the demonstrators peeled off to duck inside a coffee shop or head toward their buses, the chants—"We're gonna take our democracy back / We're gonna take-take our democracy back"—continued into the soggy afternoon.

Palin: "We're All Arizonans Now"

| Mon May. 17, 2010 8:51 AM PDT

Governor Jan Brewer is increasingly under fire for signing Arizona's draconian immigration law, so she's called in some high-profile help. This weekend, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin stumped for Brewer's re-election campaign--and for the state's controversial immigration crackdown. Think Progress rounds up her choice comments on the trail:

  • “I think for most American people the reaction to that would be, ‘Why aren’t [police] already doing that?” Recalling a line from her former presidential running mate, Palin added, “We’re all Arizonans now“:
  • “It’s time for Americans across this great country to stand up and say, ‘We’re all Arizonans now,’” Palin said. “And in clear unity we say, ‘Mr. President, do your job. Secure our borders.’ "
  • Palin also said Arizona was an example for the rest of the nation to follow.

Brewer and Palin also announced a new joint web campaign, Securetheborder.org, which encourages supporters to sign a petition defending the law and rejecting the growing number of boycotts against the state. Cancelled hotel and convention business has already cost the state an estimated $6 - $10 million, with city councils from major hubs like Los Angeles now joining in.

In recent days, Brewer has admitted that Arizona has developed a serious PR problem because of its immigration policy. She's backing a $250,000 effort by the state’s tourism and convention industry to rehabilitate the state’s image. “The end goal is to reassert that we are a safe, inviting, diverse and culturally aware community," Steve Moore, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau, said last week. Bringing an inherently divisive figure like Palin seems like an odd way to ractchet down the tension.

Wall St. Cash Still Flooding Congress

| Mon May. 17, 2010 5:42 AM PDT

Here's a shocker: As lawmakers in Washington continue crafting a bill to crack down on Wall Street, their efforts to rake in donations from the financial services industry show no sign of stopping. Bloomberg News reports today that, in looking at fundraising calendars for House Democrats and Republicans and Senate Republicans, there have been at least 20 scheduled fundraisers for politicians held by finance lobbyists or organized with financial industry donors in mind. Lawmakers, then, are walking the finest of lines, claiming to support new financial reforms while wooing representatives of an industry fighting many of those same new rules.

Bloomberg cites the case of Rep. John Adler, (D-NJ). Last month, Adler said in a statement, "Our families demand accountability for Wall Street's actions and Congress must stand up to special interests and deliver." But this week, Adler will host a "financial services dinner" with a minimum contribution of $1,000. In a similar conflict, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a leading GOP figure on financial reform for months and member of the Senate banking committee, is scheduled to attend a fundraising dinner tomorrow that is co-hosted by Bank of America, the country's largest bank and a major lobbying force on financial reform.

These kinds of events, of course, part and parcel of the finance industry's efforts to blunt new reforms. To wit: In 2010, finance, real estate, and other business sectors have contributed $70 million to members of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Those same interests have spent more than $260 million on lobbying Congress. All told, that's $330 million—or 6,600 times more than the real median household income in the US—to sway Washington lawmakers and see things their way.

While several spokespeople for congressmen said these types of events don't "color" the way they vote on bills and amendments, there's no denying the obvious conflict of interest with lawmakers taking Wall Street's money at the same time they're rewriting how the financial markets function. "How hard are you going to be on somebody who’s handing you money?” Bill Allison with the Sunlight Foundation told Bloomberg.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 17, 2010

Mon May. 17, 2010 3:38 AM PDT

 

First Lt. Alan Sung, the leader of 11th Marine Regiment Civil Affairs Team 3, scans the open desert for possible improvised explosive devises during a security halt, on May 12 at Combat Center Range 220. Photo via the US Marines.

VIDEO: Protesters Swarm Wall St. Lobbyists' Homes

| Sun May. 16, 2010 4:31 PM PDT

Late Sunday afternoon, the well-heeled residents of Chevy Chase, Maryland, a bucolic suburb northwest of Washington, DC, witnessed a commotion rare for their neighborhood. Toting signs and megaphones, fired up and chanting at the top of their lungs, some 700 demonstrators from around the nation paid a visit to two residents who work as powerful lobbyists for the United States' biggest banks: Gregory Baer, a deputy counsel for Bank of America, and Peter Scher, a high-ranking executive and lobbyist for JPMorgan Chase.

Bussed into Washington by the Service International Employees Union (SEIU) and National People’s Action (NPA), a community organzing network, the protesters visited Baer's and Scher’s homes as part of a multi-day stand in Washington. On Monday, SEIU and NPA will lead a series of protests on K Street in Washington—a street synonymous with influence and lobbying. The groups are pushing for strong new financial reforms (as teh Senate continues debating legislation to bolster the rules governing Wall Street) and urging banks to stop foreclosures and to promote job creation.

But before Main Street arrives on K Street, a fleet of yellow school buses and motor coaches delivered the demonstrators, clad in red, blue, and purple t-shirts, to a park in Chevy Chase near the home of Bank of America’s Baer. After a quick briefing, the throngs of protesters, hailing from Chicago, San Francisco, Staten Island, and other locales, gathered on Baer’s front lawn and marched to his front door. Members of NPA delivered a letter to a family member who opened the door. Baer, this family member said, wasn’t home. The letter, addressed to Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, asks Moynihan to meet with groups "to address the critical problems facing our neighborhoods and our country—problems that were caused in part by Bank of America and that continue to fester due to Bank of America’s inaction."

Here's a video, courtesy of National People's Action, of the scene at Baer's home:

Undeterred by Baer’s absence, the boisterous group chanted—"Bank of America, Bad for America," "Take It Back," "Fired Up, Can’t Take It No More"—and, via megaphone, blasted Bank of America for foreclosing on homeowners and lobbying against financial reform. One woman who took the mic explained how she’d called Bank of America dozens of times to fight off foreclosure but hadn’t had any success with the bank’s unresponsive and unhelpful employees. People in the crowd booed references to the bank. Many hoisted signs that read, "People First Economy”"and "Hold Wall Street Accountable."

VIDEO: David Corn "Secret Holds" on the Rachel Maddow Show

Fri May. 14, 2010 8:33 PM PDT

Everyone knows about the filibuster. But do you know enough about the filibuster's bill-blocking cousin, the "anonymous secret hold?" David explains the details Friday night on the Rachel Maddow show; watch the video below.

Arizona's Next Target: 'Student' Amnesty?

| Fri May. 14, 2010 1:12 PM PDT

Arizona’s anti-immigration crackdown is only getting started—and students are increasingly in the state’s sights. Having passed one of the nation’s harshest laws against illegal immigration and a separate law targeting ethnic studies, state legislators could soon take up a new bill that would zero in on illegal immigrant children within the public schools. The Daily Beast’s Dana Goldstein reports:

A new bill would require them to record and report to the state the number of illegal immigrant children in their student population, along with an estimation of the costs associated with educating those children.

If passed, SB 1097 would compel teachers and administrators to determine the legal status of students and their families, almost certainly discouraging enrollment and parental participation at school.

The students bill was passed by the Arizona state Senate on March 31 and is now pending before the House. Sponsoring the legislation is none other than GOP state senator Russell Pearce, the primary sponsor of the recent immigration bill. As Goldstein notes, Pearce had previously tried to push for legislation that aimed to deny citizenship status to children born to illegal immigrant parents. He also wrote a ballot 2006 initiative that "denied students the right to in-state college tuition or scholarships if they had been brought to the country illegally as children."

The Arizona students bill mirrors legislation currently before the Oklahoma state legislature that would require all public schools to verify the immigration status of their students. Both bills could face a constitutional challenge: in 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Plyler vs. Doe that illegal immigrant students could not be barred from schools under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court ruled that the law discriminated against children who had no control over their legal status, adding, moreover, that eliminating them from schools would result in "the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries."

In Oklahoma, both Hispanic leaders and public school officials have warned that the proposal would deter immigrant children from attending school and force the school administrators to act as federal immigration agents. While proponents of the legislation argue that their only purpose is to obtain "accurate information" about the cost of educating illegal immigrants, such legislation appears to be a stepping stone toward pushing them out of the school system altogether. And the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal arm of the anti-immigration movement, makes their ulterior motives clear: the group praises both Arizona and Oklahoma bills for pushing back against "de facto student amnesty."