Thursday, January 29, 2009

Common Ground on the Death Penalty

An important theme emerged this past weekend at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s annual conference in Harrisburg: the death penalty is not just about what a particular defendant deserves, but about what is best for society at large. There are those who are morally opposed to state-sponsored killing, and there are those who believe that the perpetrators of particularly horrific crimes deserve to die, but there are many things we can all agree on.

1. The safety of society is a major concern for everyone.

We all want to protect ourselves and each other from the worst offenders. While death penalty proponents feel that taking the lives of these offenders is the best way of accomplishing this goal, this may not be the case.

There is a great deal of doubt as to whether the death penalty is a deterrent to individuals who might commit capital crimes, a way to prevent murders from taking place. In fact, a survey of experts from the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the Law and Society Association found that the overwhelming majority – over 80% – do not believe that existing research supports the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent to homicide.*

While the death of a defendant who has already committed a homicide certainly removes him or her from society, there are other options – such as life in prison without parole – for doing this.

* (M. Radelet and R. Akers, Deterrence and the Death Penalty: The Views of the Experts, 1995. Cited on the Death Penalty Information Center website.)

2. Victims’ families have suffered devastating and unacceptable harm, and they deserve some type of restitution.

Again, many feel that if we do not sentence offenders to death, we are denying victims’ families the revenge they deserve and sending a message that their loved ones were not important.

Many families of victims, however, do not want to see the killer of their loved ones sentenced to death. This may be a moral standpoint, or it may be due to the very real ways in which the death penalty harms victims’ families. While executing the offender will not bring their loved one back, families will be forced to endure the lengthy capital appeals process, testifying again and again over the course of years – or even decades – and seeing media coverage of the crime over and over. Clearly, this impedes families from healing and moving on with their lives.

In addition, the most important thing to many families after a loved one has been murdered is information about exactly what happened to that person. The offender may be the only person who has this knowledge to give to the survivors. The death penalty may prevent families from ever getting this knowledge. Marietta Jaeger Lane, the mother of a kidnap/murder victim, did not know the whereabouts of her 7-year-old daughter Susie for a full year until the kidnapper called her on the phone. Her forgiveness of him over the phone not only led to his capture, but allowed her to have her questions about what had happened to her daughter answered.

While the current system offers victims’ families retribution – “we will kill the person who did this” – it often provides little of the ongoing help they need, such as mental health care and financial assistance. The capital punishment system expends enormous resources to execute the offender, rather than allocating these resources to programs that work with survivors to address the emotional and practical consequences of the loss of a loved one.

3. The idea that the state could execute an innocent person for a crime he or she did not commit is horrific.

Nonetheless, innocent people are sentenced to die and are executed far too often. The Death Penalty Information Center reports that since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1973, 130 inmates have been released from death row due to evidence of their innocence. This is not solely a result of new DNA technology – in fact, the DPIC says that DNA was a major factor in proving innocence in only 17 of these cases.

Strong evidence also exists that innocent people have actually been executed by the state. For example, investigative reporting by the Chicago Tribune cast serious doubt on the guilt of Carlos De Luna, executed in Texas in 1989. (See story: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Editorial)

4. If the death penalty is to exist, it should be applied fairly and used only to punish the worst offenders.

Overwhelming evidence demonstrates, however, that the death penalty is applied in a racially-biased manner, with non-white defendants and defendants whose victims were white being far more likely to receive a death sentence than white defendants or defendants whose victims were non-white.

The beliefs of individual prosecutors and the financial resources of the jurisdiction in which the crime took place are also major factors in determining who will live and who will die. For example, USA Today reported that while only 9% of murders in the state of Ohio took place in Hamilton County, 25% of the state’s death sentences were imposed there.**

** (R. Willing and G. Fields, "Geography of the Death Penalty," USA Today, December 20, 1999. Cited on the Death Penalty Information Center website.)

5. The death penalty costs a lot of money.

Due to court costs associated with capital appeals and the increased cost of housing an inmate on death row, it costs more to execute a man than it does to jail him for life.

The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice estimated in a 2008 report that the current death penalty costs the state $137 million per year, while a system that used life imprisonment instead of the death penalty would cost just $11.5 million per year.

Likewise, a 2008 study by the Urban Institute found that Maryland taxpayers paid an average of $3 million in court costs per death sentence – nearly three times what they would pay to obtain a sentence of life in prison. These were only the costs to prosecute a capital case and did not include costs such as housing the prisoner on death row or carrying out the execution.

The money we now spend on the death penalty could be used instead for preventative programs, increased policing, and victim services .

It seems clear that the death penalty is not serving the function it claims to serve in our society. Given the harm to victims’ families, the harm to corrections staff asked to carry out the execution of another human being, and the high monetary cost of the death penalty, it is in the best interests of everyone, whether morally opposed to the death penalty or not, to find alternatives for accomplishing our shared goals of protecting society, providing restitution to victims, and seeing justice fairly applied.

Becca in Harrisburg

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, anti-choice group targets...Krispy Kreme?

What is more American than a big, beautiful, toasty, tasty Krispy Kreme doughnut? Not much I can think of. However, that’s probably because all that I can think about now is getting a doughnut. The chain store is one of many that sought to show its patriotism on Inauguration Day by offering one free doughnut to each customer. Another All American doughnut franchise, Dunkin’ Donuts, chose to celebrate the day as well, featuring a limited time only, red white and blue frosted “Stars and Stripes” doughnut. What a great day to be an American, right?

So why is Krispy Kreme now facing a litany of protests for their generous offer? Who are these protesters? I mean who has a problem with FREE doughnuts? That is just crazy to me. Well, apparently, the American Choice League does. Their problem is not the doughnuts themselves, but rather, Krispy Kreme’s promotional ad for the event. Here is the catalyst of their objection:

“Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc. (NYSE: KKD) is honoring American's sense of pride and freedom of choice on Inauguration Day, by offering a free doughnut of choice to every customer on this historic day, Jan. 20. By doing so, participating Krispy Kreme stores nationwide are making an oath to tasty goodies -- just another reminder of how oh-so-sweet 'free' can be.”

The American Choice League’s problem with the ad has nothing to do with the idea of pride or freedom, but the word “choice.” Apparently, in their minds, “choice” is now synonymous with access to abortion. There goes most franchises featuring “your choice of…” on their menus and in their campaigns.

“Choice” doesn’t have four letters, but at this rate it is well on its way to being known as the “Ch-word”. This is the problem with fanatics of any kind. They take seemingly harmless situations and contort them into something they can build a platform on. In doing so, they strive to ruin simple things like words. Words that the Constitution guaranteed to be used by all. I understand not wanting to offend others, but I like to think Choice is a great word. Our country is run on choice. The choice to decide what to eat in the morning, what to do for a living, where to live, and to make one’s own decisions and ideas. Maybe Krispy Kreme was celebrating the Anniversary of Roe v. Wade a couple of days early, or maybe they were celebrating the fact that we freely elected another president, or maybe they were just celebrating the ability to eat the doughnut of your choice for free. We just don’t know what they were trying to convey. It is an individual’s decision to decide how they perceive such a vague statement. It is their prerogative if the far-right chooses to see this as an abortion issue, but it does not make it true.

Despite the groundless nature of their claims, members of the American Choice League are allowed to exercise their constitutional right to choose not to purchase from the franchise. They should, however, realize that the constitution grants Krispy Kreme the right to free speech and may say what they wish. The franchise has issued a statement on their website announcing, “The Inauguration Day promotion was not about any social or political issue.” While this may abate some, the real fanatics will probably still complain. They will do what they do best; contorting words, issues, and situations, to better support their cause. It is the strategy of a weakly established institution, and one that only exacerbates social animosity. I am sorry they choose to do so.

While we can make fun of incidents such as this one, it is a sobering reminder of just how far we still have to go since the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade 36 years ago today. Before abortion was made legal many women died as a result of botched back-alley operations. The founder of the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project, Linn Duvall Harwell, was the daughter of one such woman. Clara Bell Duvall, a married woman and mother of five, lost her life because she was unable to obtain a safe surgery and had to resort to an unsafe, self-induced abortion. Had the laws been different Linn could have enjoyed growing up with her mother by her side, but instead she lived most of her life motherless. It is a tragic story but a good reminder as to how important Roe v. Wade is to women’s rights. On the anniversary of such an important judicial ruling we should celebrate but also remember to remain vigilant in the face of continued opposition to women’s reproductive rights.

Cassidy in Philadelphia

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Change we can believe in

Here at the ACLU, we are non-partisan. We praise public officials when they do right by the Constitution and civil rights. And we wack them when they fail our freedoms.

There's so much good news in Day 2 of the Obama administration, it's hard to know where to begin. So let me just bullet point them for you.
  • This morning, President Obama signed executive orders to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and the CIA's secret prisons around the world. The message is clear: The United States is not a country that holds people indefinitely without charge and without trial.
  • Yesterday Obama signed an executive order placing a presumption of openness on all government records. (I'm not sure how he did this without legislation, but hey, we'll go with it.) In the past, a person pursuing a government record had to prove why it should be open. Now the government must prove why it should be secret. This is the same reform that Pennsylvania passed into law last year.
But it wasn't all good news. Last night NSA whistle blower Russell Tice, who is a former analyst with the agency, told Keith Olbermann on MSNBC that the NSA spied on journalists inside the United States.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Quote of the day

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."
--President Barack Obama, January 20, 2009

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

ACLU Files Suit on HHS Rule

Today, January 15, 2009, the ACLU has filed a suit in opposition to the Bush administration's Health Care Denial Rule on behalf of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association (NFPRHA). Bush’s most recent attack on women’s reproductive rights is scary. Under the guise of protecting health care workers’ rights, these new rules would allow anyone in the health care field, from pharmacists to nurses to doctors to clerks in the drug store, the right to refuse medical procedures, referrals, or even unbiased counseling on any procedure they are opposed to, either morally or through their religious beliefs.

While we believe in the right to express one’s religious or moral beliefs, this rule fails to take patient rights into account. The HHS Department has stated that the rule will not interfere with patients’ abilities to obtain the health care they desire, saying, “It is one of the reasons for the common practice of patients meeting with several health care providers in order to find the one in whom they are most confident about entrusting their care.” This statement ignores the fact that many people do not have access to “several health care providers.” This is especially true of the poor, who may lack insurance as well as transportation to see “several health care providers.” Those in rural areas may also be limited in their choice of provider, especially where there are one or maybe two doctors in town. If the only doctor in town is morally opposed to a specific service, the patient is plain out of luck. This rule is perhaps the most frightening in the context of emergency care, where, for example, a provider may be opposed to providing an abortion necessary to save a woman’s life.

Since the rule was introduced in December, it has been widely opposed by medical organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, as well as numerous women's health organizations, members of Congress, state governors and attorneys general, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, religious advocates, and the general public. These groups, along with the ACLU, are working to stop this rule’s chances at becoming the law of the land. Once officially implemented, it is more difficult to revoke, leaving a large span of time when patients will be at risk of receiving inadequate care that may endanger their health.

We are proud to be joined in this effort to protect access to reproductive health care by numerous states and women’s health organizations. In addition to our legal challenge brought on behalf of NFPRHA, two other lawsuits were filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut: the state of Connecticut filed a challenge along with California, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts; and Planned Parenthood Federation of America with Planned Parenthood of Connecticut filed its own legal challenge to the Bush rule.

Cassidy in Philadelphia

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Virginity Pledges: A Waste of Time and Money

Well surprise, surprise. Teens who take “virginity pledges,” (signed documents stating that they will wait until marriage before engaging in sexual activity) are not less likely to have sex than their peers according to a recent study conducted by Janet Elise Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins University. ( “Virginity Pledges don’t Mean Much, Study Says”)

Pledge is an interesting word. It is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “a binding promise or agreement to do or forebear.” Okay. Now let’s look closely at that definition so that it can be understood a little better. Promise and agreement are too pretty simple words, so I think those are understood. But what about binding? Webster’s went with “to exert a restraining or compelling affect.” Okay. What really makes something binding though? A piece of paper with a signature? If that were true there would be much more trust in regards to our local and federal governments. I mean, c’mon, how many signed “agreements” have been broken when the parties involved became less interested? Just take one look at our lame-duck President George W. Bush and his trail of broken promises or “agreements” because he had “executive power.” No, a signature on a piece of paper is not binding. What makes something binding is the ability of some group or person to enforce the signer’s agreement. This is true of legal documents (well most anyway.) It is this reason that virginity pledges just don’t work. There is nothing forcing these teenagers to follow through with their pledge in the face of love or even just lust. That is, unless their parents or clergy find out and, even then, it still is not binding. They won’t go to jail or be fined for breaking their promise…at least not yet.

So sex is forced to be secret, to be a shameful act, or one of delicious rebellion, depending on the kid. This need for secrecy is what makes policies like virginity pledges so dangerous. It is yet another barrier put up to stop teens from finding out about healthy sexual behaviors and the risks that are involved in unprotected sex. After hearing your Mom tell you how “truly proud!” she is of you for signing a virginity pledge, are you really going to feel like fessing up? “Oops!” probably won’t cut it. So you probably don’t tell, but you keep having sex. The problem here is schools that participate in virginity pledges probably only teach abstinence. Sex is off topic in home and at school, so knowledge on the subject comes from friends who have probably not discussed sexual health with an honest, knowledgeable adult. This is the reason why teens who take virginity pledges have sex as much as their peers but are much less likely to use a condom or contraceptives.

To make it even more obvious how ridiculous the use of virginity pledges are in light of the fact that they don’t work, is they are yet another example of wasted funds allotted for education. Pledges don’t work, plain and simple. Their usefulness is not being debated based on ideology alone, but rather, simple effectiveness. In a country that prides itself on creating effective systems and programs, virginity pledges should be erased due to their failure to produce results. That is not an ideological point of view; it is a logical one.

Cassidy in Philadelphia

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Defending truth and free speech takes a lot of effort

As part of his goals for the New Year, my husband wants to create global utopia in 2009.

OK, maybe that's night quite fair. He wants to come up with a plan for utopia in 2009. He admits that actual implementation may take a bit longer.

So now he's outlining his goals. And one of the things Jeff finds frustrating and would like to eliminate in his Utopian society is the prolific lying that so often passes in this nation for honest debate. (Think the tactics of the intelligent-design movement and its leaders like the Discovery Institute.)

Now maybe it's not fair of me to air my side of our marital disagreements like this (especially without allowing him to present his side) but hey, I'm a writer. That's just the way I roll. He knew this when he married me.

And this is just too fraught with opportunity to ignore.

So, as he says, in his utopia, "People wouldn't be allowed to spread lies."

To which I ask, "So, you're saying you want to criminalize free speech? In utopia?"

Oh sure, he hems and haws and insists that isn't exactly what he means. Then he tries to misdirect the argument and tells me that as long as I'm not willing to do something decisively to halt the deception foisted on the public, then nothing will change.

To which I reply: Darlin', I love you, but you're a freakin' moron. (Except I don't really say "freakin.'")

Then I tell him that I'm sorry that I just can't get down with his little tyranny thing.

To which he replies, "How is that tyranny?" even though he knows damn well what I mean by tyranny, but he's got an argument to win.

Sigh. And on and on it goes. He and I can't seem to schedule five minutes a week to balance our bank accounts, but we can fight for days over stuff like this.

(I should note, in the interest of fairness, that this is the way my husband processes things. He starts out with an extreme position and works his way back to a state of reason. But he always comes back.)

And the truth is, I understand his frustration. Who doesn't?

Spend five minutes on the Internet and you'll easily come up with countless egregious acts of misinformation, like, oh say, here, here and here.

Those spreading these lies count on a public to be too ill informed and overwhelmed by information to understand their deceptions.

But, of course, as ACLU members know, the answer isn't to silence those lies with government restrictions. Rather, it's exposing them with the light of truth. Granted, the system isn't neat and tidy. And it takes a lot of work. But it can also be satisfying. So satisfying.

Take, for example, the Kitzmiller case. Remember how after the trial, the pro-intelligent design board members, who lied through their testimony, were voted out of office by an electorate that had grown tired of the deception? That was cool.

But now Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute wants to go back and rehash the trial, all in an effort to convince readers that intelligent design did not get a fair shake in Harrisburg's federal courthouse.

In a series of posts, he goes over the testimony of defendants' witness Michael Behe and plaintiffs' witness Ken Miller and the issue of irreducible complexity of the blood clotting cascade, which both scientists revealed during testimony to be an utter scientific fraud. (Even though I'm pretty sure that wasn't Behe's intention.)

Why would Casey Luskin be bringing up Dover more than three years after Judge Jones' decision? Doesn't he have something better to do? Like scientific research? ... Ummm, well, the Discovery Institute does no scientific research. It's sole existence is to engage in deceiving the public with lie-filled propaganda. The kind of institution that my poor misguided husband thinks he'd like to see banned from public discourse.

So Luskin goes to great contortions in a series of posts called Smoke and Mirrors (Here, here and here) to say that irreducible complexity, the idea that if a working part of the blood clotting cascade were removed, the entire system would collapse and we'd all bleed to death from a paper cut. So that must mean the system could not possibly have evolved through gradual evolutionary processes.

But it's not true. And no matter how many times he whines about it will never make it true.

Sure, it's tempting to want to make Luskin just shut up. Yes, Casey ... please... shut up. Sure, some people end up believing the lies he's peddling. Sure, his goal is to slip his religious views past the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and force them on our children. I get all that. And that's slimy stuff.

But of course, forcing Casey to shut up would only betray the foundations of democracy.

So, instead, we respond with the truth. As Ken Miller, guest blogging for The Loom, did in a series of terrific posts. Using a howitzer to swat a mosquito, as one observer put it.

His responses are here, here and here.

Miller writes:
Luskin's willingness to misread Behe is then followed by an even more brazen attempt to misrepresent, "irreducible complexity," ID's own argument against evolution. The one strength of that argument is that it makes a testable prediction, namely, that the individual parts of an irreducibly complex biochemical system should have no function until all of those parts are assembled together. The difficulty, which Luskin has worked mightily to obscure, is that "irreducible complexity" fails that test at every turn. So he pretends that the existence of fully-functional clotting systems that are missing as many as five parts of the "irreducibly complex" system is no big deal. It is, in fact, a very, very big deal — because it shows that his argument, the claim of "design," and his revisionist account of the Dover trial are all dead wrong.

So, why even respond to Luskin? The Judge Jones' decision was a decisive smack down more than three years ago. Why all the hoopla now?

In his conclusion, Miller explains:
The only relevant question at this point is why the Discovery Institute keeps highlighting its own failings in this way. Why are Casey and his employers now — three years after the Dover trial — trying to rehabilitate the tattered credibility of both Michael Behe and Pandas? What mischief are they planning now? The only conclusion I can draw is that they must be maneuvering for the next round of state board hearings or legislative sessions — and I'm concerned. These folks are a whole lot better at politics and public relations than they are at science, and that means that everyone who cares about science education should be on guard.

So, gear up for the next battle.

True, it's not exactly a Utopian ideal, where we all get to sit around and eat grapes and pick flowers. This system of governance takes a lot of diligence, and hard work, and rational debate in the face of frustrating arrogance and irrational behavior. But until my husband comes up with something much better, thank you very much, I'll keep defending what we've got.

Lauri in York

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