Carlisle Sentinel: "The death penalty has served its time"

On Tuesday, the Carlisle Sentinel became the latest PA newspaper to recognize that

The death penalty is useless.

The editorial follows up a series of articles published last Sunday about capital punishment in the Commonwealth and around the country. The Sentinel has moved in the same direction as public opinion. Last year’s Gallup poll showed that more Americans support life without parole over the death penalty.

Death penalty supporters point to the victims and their families as they argue for the punishment. But what about the families? What about the lengthy trial that compounds the anguish of their loved one’s awful death? What about the years of awaiting appeal court decisions? And perhaps most important, what about their feelings on the occasions the defendant was wrongfully convicted?

As has been pointed out here before, the issue of capital punishment is clearly moving in our direction with death sentences at a 30-year low, executions down, and public opinion coming our. The Sentinel’s editorial further proves that point. When a small town paper recognizes that the death penalty is failed public policy, we know we are moving forward.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Newt’s free speech problem

Old white guys who have been in power for a while seem to have trouble maneuvering through race issues. In November, it was Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), who referred to Miami as a “third world country.” In February, Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) referred to Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) as the first “clean” and “articulate” black presidential candidate.

Now former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has referred to languages other than English as “the language of living in a ghetto.”

“We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English,” he told the women’s group last weekend, “so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.”

Newt, of course, backpedaled quickly from his statement. Maegan la Mala of Vivir Latino said…

Don’t you love how politicos use Spanish when it works for them and when it doesn’t, they trash it?

And all three of these guys want to be president.

Besides the racial overtones, there is also a free speech issue here. But, then again, Newt has made it clear before that he’s no fan of free speech.

Andy in Harrisburg

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"You can take care of your cow but you can’t take care of your kid"

The Widener Civil Law Clinic, in conjunction with the ACLU of PA and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, filed suit today on behalf of a sixteen year old mother against the Central Dauphin School District in suburban Harrisburg. According to the suit, the school has charged the student with truancy on multiple occasions when she has missed school to tend to her son when he is sick. She and her mother have paid fines, and the student has served a variety of in-school punishments. The Magisterial District Judge threatened to revoke custody of her son if she does not pay the fines and continues to miss school. (Mind you, she’s missed some days of school to care of her sick kid.)

We contend that the school has violated her rights under the 14th Amendment (Equal Protection), Title IX, and the Equal Rights Amendment of the PA Constitution.

As a silly sidenote, under Pennsylvania’s Compulsory School Attendance Law, “farming” and “agriculture activities” are excused absences. Monica Cliatt, supervising attorney at the Widener Civil Law Clinic, said at today’s press conference, “You can take care of your cow but you can’t take care of your kid.”

You can read our press release here and read the complaint here. The debate has begun over at the Patriot News’ website, too.

Litigation is like war- it’s the last option. We tried our best to work with the school. Calls and letters went unanswered. According to Cliatt, the best answer we got from one administrator was, “We only talk in court.” That’s unfortunate.

To be honest, I usually find students’ rights cases to be boring. Don’t get me wrong. They’re important. The Constitution covers people of all ages, not just those over 18. I just find situations where a kid fights over his/her right to wear a t-shirt to be very ho-hum.

But this touches a nerve. Here is a young woman who is in a tough spot. She got herself into a life-altering situation but is now doing everything she can to make the best of it. She is responsibly tending to her child in the present moment and responsibly tending to her education- she’s an honor student- with plans to go to college, which will give her and her son a brighter future.

So many teen moms neglect their children or their education or both. And don’t get me started about the teen fathers.

Despite our client’s best efforts, the school goes after her for truancy and levies detentions, suspensions, etc. An MDJ even has the nerve to threaten to take the child away.

This is government run amok. And that’s why, in the words of one local columnist, the ACLU is “an essential institution in a free society.”

Andy in Harrisburg

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Maxed out on minimums?

PHILADELPHIA- Members of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly confronted the question of the burden of mandatory minimum sentences on the Commonwealth’s criminal justice system at an informational meeting today in Philadelphia. The meeting was convened by the PA House Subcommittee on Courts in reference to House Resolution 12.

“I come at this from the perspective of justice,” said Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware County), the primary sponsor of the resolution who stated that mandatory minimums take the “leeway” out of judges’ hands.

HR 12 would initiate a study of mandatory minimums by the PA Commission on Sentencing. A similar study was undertaken in 2004, but the judiciary committee had supervision of that project while the HR 12 study will be supervised by the Commission on Sentencing. In addition, the previous study lasted just eight months while the new one will last two years.

Several of the meeting’s witnesses echoed Vitali’s concern about giving judges greater discretion.

Jules Epstein, Associate Professor at Widener School of Law, observed that there are more than 1,000 people serving a mandatory sentence of life without parole for second degree homicide in Pennsylvania, and some of them “didn’t touch a hair on anyone’s head.”

William DiMascio, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, talked about an example, Michael Anderson, who recently had his life sentence commuted by Governor Rendell. According to DiMascio, Anderson found a knife and took it with him on a bus en route to a concert. Another passenger took the knife from Anderson and used it to stab and kill a third passenger.

Under mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, Anderson got LWOP. The perpetrator served seven years and was paroled. He then went on to commit a series of crimes in Philadelphia and became known as the Center City Stalker.

Peter Rosalsky of the Philadelphia Defenders Association talked about another situation in which giving the judge leeway in sentencing may have been prudent. At a wedding, a fight broke out between the bride’s father and her step-father. One of the men, who was 61, fell and broke a bone. The uninjured participant, who was 59, was sentenced to 2-4 years under mandatory minimum sentencing because the injured man was considered elderly by state law.

Several witnesses also addressed the deterrence effect of mandatory minimum sentences.

“Once the commission does this study, what they will find is that higher and higher sentences do not deter,” said Arthur Donato, Jr., sociology professor at Villanova University and the past president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He went on to say that crime is deterred “when people have a stake in society and they have hope.”

Epstein pointed to research from the 1990s that shows no deterrent effect with mandatory minimums.

“Whether or not deterrence works depends on the population we’re focused on” and mandatory minimums are not a deterrent for street level drug dealing, he said.

Donato also raised concerns about checks-and-balances with a high concentration of power in the hands of prosecutors.

“Mandatory minimum sentences never apply unless a prosecutor wants it to,” he said. “The amount of power is overwhelmingly in the executive branch.

“I’ve seen judges weep in giving a mandatory minimum sentence. I’ve never seen a judge say, ‘Gosh, I wish the sentence could be harsher here.'”

The committee will hold another informational meeting with district attorneys and judges in the first week of May.

Andy in Harrisburg

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No excuse for ignorance of the law

Is it just me, or does it make one just a tiny bit nervous that FBI Director Robert Mueller, the man who keeps assuring Congress he’s on top of correcting his agency’s recent abuses of the USA Patriot Act, doesn’t even know what the act says?

According to an AP story, Mueller said the following at Senate hearing about national security letters:

“I would give up NSLs for administrative subpoenas…. We do not have an enforcement mechanism for national security letters.”

Oops. Turns out that the FBI actually does have that power already, thanks to the reauthorization of the Patriot Act a year ago.

I really can’t say it better than the first paragraph of the same AP story:

FBI Director Robert Mueller blames poor training and supervision for the bureau’s Patriot Act abuses and promises new training programs. He might want to sign up for the first class himself.

Sara in Philly

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