Monday, April 24, 2017

Prisoner's have rights — and Sheriff David Clarke needs to be held responsible for violating them


David Clarke should be removed from his position as sheriff


Prisoners have rights.

That statement shouldn’t be so profound. But too often, many in our society tend to forget, purposely or not, that prisoners have legal rights that must be adhered to. Even if prisoners have committed a heinous crime, if these rights are violated an injustice has occurred.

The founders of our nation recognized this fact. They enshrined, within the Eighth Amendment, that “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted” on those serving time behind bars.

So when an injustice is performed upon a member of the prisoner population, who’s to blame? It depends on a variety of factors: who issued the order, and who allowed it to happen; who carried out the action, and who turned a blind eye.

In Milwaukee County’s jail, which is overseen by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s department, a prisoner died because he was not allowed to drink water while in solitary confinement.

From the Journal Sentinel (emphases in bold added):
When [Terrill] Thomas arrived in solitary confinement on April 17, 2016, a corrections officer went to a utility panel and turned off the water in Thomas' cell, surveillance video showed.

"This order to shut off Mr. Thomas' water was highly irregular and contrary to standard operating procedure in the jail," Benkley said. The cutoff of water was never marked in a jail log or written on a whiteboard used to note significant events on the solitary confinement wing, Benkley said. Surveillance video also showed nobody approached the utility panel to turn Thomas' water back on, Benkley said.

...

Although it likely doesn't factor into his death, prosecutors also noted Thomas was never once taken out of his solitary confinement cell during his seven days there. Inmates are typically given one hour of recreation time per day.
I’ve previously written about the dangers of solitary confinement, and how the practice ought to be curtailed. But this goes beyond problematic policies and ventures into prisoner neglect and abuse.

For Thomas to be deprived of water for that long of a period — even a single day would be outrageous — is demonstrative of a prison system in Milwaukee County jails that is in need of serious attention. Unfortunately, it’s not the only case we have to concern ourselves with.

Three other individuals died under Sheriff David Clarke’s watch in 2016. Two died of heart issues while in jail cells. A third hadn’t committed a crime at all — an infant, born while their mother was imprisoned in the jail, died shortly after birth. Prison guards allegedly “laughed off” the concerns of the mother when she tried to explain she was going into labor.

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I'll repeat myself: Prisoners have rights. This includes the right to defend themselves in court, as well as the right to be given proper and safe living conditions in jail or prison until that time comes.

These inmates weren’t granted those rights. It’s disturbing enough that this happened to one inmate. That four have suffered the consequences of gross negligence in Milwaukee County jail demonstrates that the blame goes to more than one individual.

Harry Truman famously said, “the buck stops here.” The responsibility for problems in his administration rested at his feet, and nowhere else.

Sheriff David Clarke offers a different point of view, one that we should reject. He regularly harasses people at airports and on social media. Four individuals have died while under his watch. And he doesn’t seem to see why some might think he has a role to play in that.

A Wisconsin lawmaker from Milwaukee recently requested that Gov. Scott Walker remove Clarke from his duties, a privilege that governors have if they wish to do so. Walker has said he won’t make that move.

But it would be the right one to make. It won’t provide justice for the victims who died on his watch, but it might prevent the occurrence of future victims of his cruel and unusual style of management.

Memo to Democrats: people STILL WANT CHANGE! Here's three electoral reforms to get behind


Three electoral reforms could help Dems get support


This weekend’s beautiful weather allowed me to grill outside, and to contemplate some ideas that had been brewing in my mind for a while. Among them, I got to thinking about what is and what isn’t working in the messaging against President Donald Trump and conservatism in general.

For starters, it’s important that we recognize a takeaway from this past election that not too many Democrats are going to embrace easily: that Trump’s rhetoric (though brash, crude and at times dog-whistle racist) was similar in some respects to what Barack Obama channeled in 2008.

Obviously Obama and Trump have different visions for what the nation should be, and for what government’s role in our lives should become. I'm not saying their ideas are similar, nor even that their rhetorical styles are the same. On messaging, however, there is a sliver of similarity. Trump, like Obama, promised significant change in DC. In that respect, we have to recognize that the messaging that Obama laid out in 2008 — “Change we can believe in” — is at the very least the distant cousin of Trump’s line of “draining the swamp.”

Trump’s promise of “draining the swamp,” of course, was hollow. He never intended to do as much, and Washington is every bit the same as it was before Trump came in (in many ways, it’s even more swamplike). But his messaging was what people wanted — he promised change, and millions of Americans believed him, whether rightly or not.

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So what can we learn from this? Here’s my take: the message of “change” is still a very strong idea that American’s are desperate to seek out. They wanted to embrace it so much, in fact, that they were willing to give Trump, the example of the most ridiculous choice for president in modern times, the keys to the White House rather than allow another person with the last name of Clinton back in as president.

I wholly endorsed Hillary Clinton for president after she won the Democratic Party’s nomination contests. But she did not portray herself as a candidate looking to change things in America during an election where voters wanted something different, something that would affect real change that they could see for themselves. Though she won the popular vote by millions of ballots, what ultimately won Trump the presidency was the idea that he was going to drastically change things in Washington in a radical way.

Democrats, if they wish to be relevant in the future, need to embrace this idea as well — though not in a way that is as disastrous as Trump’s presidency is becoming. Rather, they need to exemplify change in a way that will come to benefit the people of this nation in a manner they can understand.

There is a simple way to do that: the Democratic Party needs to support fundamental changes to the way our government is designed. Not in ways that will lead to autocratic rule, or that will come at the detriment of the American people — instead, they should pick up where the Progressive Movement at the start of the 20th century left off, expanding democracy and small-d democratic reforms that makes Washington more responsive to the people’s needs

Runoff voting

This includes demolishing the primary system itself in favor of a runoff system where candidates from both parties (or, gasp, multiple parties) are part of an initial round of voting. Georgia and Louisiana already have this system in place, and it allows people to vote their conscience rather than compromise their vote for a candidate they deem to be more likely to win.

But where Georgia and Louisiana have a second round for voting, the reforms Democrats should promote should include Instant Runoff Voting (also known as ranked choice voting). Voters should choose their favorite candidate in the election, but also their second, third, etc. choices. FairVote describes the process like this:
First, every vote counts for its first choice. If a candidate has more than half of the vote based on first-choices, that candidate wins. If no candidate has more than half of those votes, then the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. The voters who selected the defeated candidate as a first choice will then have their votes added to the totals of their next choice. This process continues until a candidate has more than half of the active votes or only two candidates remain. The candidate with a majority among the active candidates is declared the winner.

Supreme Court term limits

Another reform Democrats should push for is term limits for Supreme Court justices. In no other branch of government do we accept lifetime appointments. We’ve put term limits on the president, and Congress routinely toys with the idea of term limits for elected representatives there.

I oppose term limits in elections where the people are in control of selecting their legislator — if a constituency is happy with their representative, why strip them of their preferred choice? — but lifetime tenure to the Supreme Court is just plain nuts. By instituting limits, presidential elections become much less dire, as their Supreme Court choices won’t potentially last 20-40 years. And new faces, ideas and legal minds will consistently enter the Court.

It’s an idea that has overwhelming support: shortly after last year’s elections, more than two-thirds of respondents in a poll said they supported term limits for Court justices. Only 16 percent said they didn’t support the idea.

Redistricting reform and Proportional Representation

Democrats should endorse instituting a hybrid system of electing legislators in statehouses across the nation that includes implementing proportional representation. And if that reform goes well, they ought to support a Constitutional amendment expanding it in Congress as well.

What might PR look like? I elaborated on the idea in 2014:
PR works in a very simple way: rather than electing individual candidates, voters choose their preferred party on the ballot. That party would then select the representatives to be sent to the [legislature] depending on the proportion they received.
Proportional representation shouldn’t be the only way of selecting elected officials, however. Geographical districts should remain, allowing a person to have a legislative representative that caters to the concerns of their community. But with PR blended into the current system, voters will be assured, in most cases, of having a representative in their statehouses responding to their needs — even if their geographical district representatives aren’t who they voted for in elections, PR allows voters to have someone in office that they DID support.

But districts aren’t always drawn in ways that make sense either. So redistricting reform has to be supported by Democrats also. The boundaries of districts need to be drawn by independent authorities, not by the party that happens to be in power at the time of the census. And the Iowa method of doing this seems to be the model other states should adopt, as it hasn’t failed yet after decades of being implemented.

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These are just some ideas that Democrats should propose in order to prove that they’re the party of true change. Other ideas include the abolition of the Electoral College or the implementation of citizens’ vetoes in states across the country.

But whatever Democrats do, they cannot suggest to voters that they are the party of change without following through. If, by some miracle, Democrats are able to regain power in Congress in 2018 and the presidency in 2020, and if they’re able to have similar outcomes in states across the country, they need to institute these reforms right away so that citizens can see they mean business.

These changes would allow citizens to voice their concerns more loudly, and to be heard more frequently by their lawmakers. Don't get me wrong: these reforms might come at the expense of the Democratic Party's own chances of winning, at times. But Democrats cannot win in the years ahead unless they recognize the desire for drastic change in Washington and beyond. They should embrace and enact these reforms, and others, and continue to engage with the people about how they can make government more responsive for everyone.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

WisGOP seeks to restrict abortions for state workers — even if a woman’s life is endangered


But don't worry, vasectomies are still covered for men


Wisconsin Republicans are aiming to make it so that state employees cannot have their abortions paid for through insurance plans offered to them — even if the abortion is a necessary medical procedure that could save their lives.

Besides being absurd on its face — the right to choose is a natural right — this bill seems to be a solution in search of a problem. The Beloit Daily News reports that the bill, if it does indeed become law, wouldn’t have much impact at all.
That's because the state currently requires health plans to cover only therapeutic abortions for its members. How those are defined is left up to the health plan, but they generally are only those considered to be medically necessary, said Nancy Ketterhagen, spokeswoman for the Department of Employee Trust Funds, which administers state worker benefits.
It’s unclear right now whether the proposed bill would make the exception for the health of the mother, but from what I’m reading in the news, it seems like that exception will be removed as well.

Which is pretty telling: Republicans are hoping to force women who are employed by the state to pay for their own abortions even if their lives are at risk. Their health care provider will be barred from helping them pay for the procedure, even if their health depends on it.

In defending the law, Rep. Dave Murphy (R-Greenville) tried to make a weird comparison to gun ownership.

Though some may relate to that allegory (how...I don’t honestly know...), it gets the point completely wrong. Women employed by the state of Wisconsin deserve to have their health coverage pay for such medical expenses. They bought the insurance, after all, to pay for unforeseen medical events. The harsh reality (that Republican lawmakers can’t fathom apparently) is that includes the sometimes necessary expense of paying for a life-saving abortion.

Meanwhile, if any male worker wanted to get a voluntary vasectomy, that’d be paid for in part by the state (as would reversal of that procedure if he changed his mind).

But a medically necessary abortion, one that could save the life of the mother? Republicans want to do away with that.

Because, of course they do.