December 2, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 152

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team. End notes written by Kelley.

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Topics: Big Ideas for Reforming American Governance — Criminal Justice and Prison Reform. People: Bill, Kelley, Nate. Produced: November 29th, 2015.

NOTE: Our show is now officially on hiatus until September 2016; details at the end of the episode. Thank you all for listening.

Episode 152 (51 min):
AFD 152

Discussion Points:

– Overburdened courts and public defenders
– Systemic, compounding racial bias in the criminal justice system: Arrest, representation, pleas, juries, sentencing, parole
– Mandatory minimums: What went wrong?
– The purpose of prisons: Inmate storage or rehabilitation?
– The economics of prisons: Let’s build local economies not dependent on prisons
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President Obama stands up for second chances

Last week, on Monday, July 13th, President Obama announced that he would commute the sentence of 46 Federal prisoners, non-violent drug offenders who he believed were serving punishments disproportionate to their crime.

In his Facebook video to explain his decision, the President noted:

“These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years.

I believe that at its heart, America is a nation of second chances. And I believe these folks deserve their second chance.”

 

Barack Obama signing clemency grants to convicted non-violent drug offenders with disproportionate sentences, July 2015. (Credit: The White House)

Barack Obama signing clemency grants to convicted non-violent drug offenders with disproportionate sentences, July 2015. (Credit: The White House)

Obama’s decision is not a singular event, but part of a series of events throughout his presidency aimed at bringing awareness to some of the broken parts of the American criminal justice system.

Since taking office, Obama has commuted 89 men and women serving time, 76 of whom were nonviolent drug offenders.

On Tuesday, July 14th, President Obama addressed the NAACP on the need for reform in our criminal justice system.

The Marshall Project notes, “no sitting president has ever publicly spoken at such length and in such detail as Obama now has about the persistent problems of crime and punishment in this country.”

Obama’s no-holds-barred speech touched upon everything from the over-sentencing of non-violent drug offenders to racial injustices in the criminal justice system to the school-to-prison pipeline to the detriments of solitary confinement.

He offered specific and necessary reforms to improve our criminal justice system, such as lowering or eliminating mandatory minimums and addressing crime prevention at the community level. (Check out more details here.)

Then, on Thursday, July 16th, Obama became the first sitting president to ever visit a Federal prison. There, he met with six, non-violent drug offenders who explained their hopes for the future and the obstacles they’ll have to overcome as they eventually re-enter American society.

Obama’s recent push to call attention to the failings of our justice system may just be working.

While there is still a wide divide between philosophies on justice and a general overuse of rhetoric which calls for politicians to be “tough on crime”, there is currently bipartisan support for bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate which would reduce the number of low-level drug offenders in prison by reforming prison sentencing and creating pathways for early release.

During his speech to the NAACP, Obama made an impassioned plea that all Americans should pay attention to if they desire to make common sense changes to make our criminal justice system more fair and effective.

“While the people in our prisons have made some mistakes, and sometimes big mistakes, they are also Americans. And we have to make sure that as they do their time, and pay back their debt to society, that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around.”

 

Is Colombia any closer to a meaningful peace deal?

The Colombian government and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) have been at the negotiation table in Havana since November 2012. While progress has been made – the two sides agree on the need for more economic and social development in rural areas of the country and on the rebels’ political participation if a peace deal is brokered – a permanent peace still appears to be a long way off.

FARC, a leftist group involved in the armed Colombian Conflict since 1964, has been labeled by the United States and other governments as a terrorist organization.  In fact, many Colombians believe that their country’s leaders should not be negotiating with them at all. Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory reports that 220,000 people have been killed in the armed conflict, 80% of those killed have been civilians. FARC is not responsible for all of the deaths directly, but their presence has led to violence and instability in the country for decades. The National Center for Historical Memory reports that more than half of the deaths are a result of the right-wing forces originally intended to stop FARC.

Still, there might have been a hint of a breakthrough in recent days. FARC has been insisting that the Colombian government enters into a bilateral cease-fire. July 5th Colombian officials indicated for the first time that they are open to the idea of a bilateral ceasefire. 

Lesser measures have not been successful in reaching peace. Last December, FARC entered into a unilateral ceasefire, which lasted until mid-April, when a FARC ambush left 11 dead. Since then 30 rebels have been killed, making peace a more distant dream. FARC’s announcement of another unilateral ceasefire beginning on July 20, independence day, probably won’t go far enough, but maybe it opens the door to new possibility of a bilateral truce.

While violence has declined in Colombia in the past decade (2014 was the most peaceful year in Colombia since 1984) and FARC has not been able to recruit as many rebel soldiers in recent years, there is still a long road ahead for Colombia as they deal with ever-present drug wars and the challenge of helping rebels to reintegrate into their country, should peace even be negotiated.

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Mexico’s war: Still a bigger threat to the US than Syria’s

There are heavily armed militant groups with substantial military experience terrorizing, extorting, and beheading people in a major oil-producing desert country to the south of a NATO member, who have had a destabilizing effect across borders in a wide region encompassing many countries. They lack popular support and rule their territory primarily by fear. They are the Mexican cartels, and we haven’t bombed them at all (unlike ISIS), even as they have captured and held territory for years on end.

That parallel occurred to me a number of weeks ago, when I was reading up on the development of Los Zetas, the cartel that emerged from the Mexican military itself, but I didn’t have enough hard numbers to back up the argument. Then I read this article by Musa al-Gharbi.

The overall numbers are astonishing:

A recent United Nations report estimated nearly 9,000 civilians have been killed and 17,386 wounded in Iraq in 2014, more than half since ISIL fighters seized large parts on northern Iraq in June. It is likely that the group is responsible another several thousand deaths in Syria. To be sure, these numbers are staggering. But in 2013 drug cartels murdered more than 16,000 people in Mexico alone, and another 60,000 from 2006 to 2012 — a rate of more than one killing every half hour for the last seven years. What is worse, these are estimates from the Mexican government, which is known to deflate the actual death toll by about 50 percent.

 
ISIS is held up, as well, for its barbarity. But the cartels in Mexico have them beat there too:

Statistics alone does not convey the depravity and threat of the cartels. They carry out hundreds of beheadings every year. Beyond decapitation, the cartels are known to dismember and otherwise mutilate the corpses of their victims — displaying piles of bodies prominently in towns to terrorize the public into compliance. They routinely target women and children to further intimidate communities. Like ISIL, the cartels also use social media to post graphic images of their atrocious crimes.

The narcos also recruit child soldiers, molding boys as young as 11 into assassins or sending them on suicide missions during armed confrontations with Mexico’s army. They kidnap tens of thousands of children every year to use as drug mules or prostitutes or to simply kill and harvest their organs for sale on the black market. Those who dare to call for reforms often end up dead. In September, with the apparent assistance of local police, cartels kidnapped and massacred 43 students at a teaching college near the Mexican town of Iguala in response to student protests, leaving their bodies in a mass grave, mutilated and burned almost beyond recognition.

 
There has been a far more systematic campaign against reporters and citizen journalists in Mexico than anything we’ve seen from ISIS.

While the Islamic militants have killed a handful of journalists, the cartels murdered as many as 57 since 2006 for reporting on cartel crimes or exposing government complicity with the criminals. Much of Mexico’s media has been effectively silenced by intimidation or bribes. These censorship activities extend beyond professional media, with narcos tracking down and murdering ordinary citizens who criticize them on the Internet, leaving their naked and disemboweled corpses hanging in public squares.

 
The treatment of women is at least as bad under the Mexican cartels as under ISIS but on a much vaster scale:

[…] Westerners across various political spectrums were outraged when ISIL seized 1,500 Yazidi women, committing sexual violence against the captives and using them as slaves. Here again, the cartels’ capture and trafficking of women dwarfs that of ISIL’s crimes. Narcos hold tens of thousands of Mexican citizens as slaves for their various enterprises and systematically use rape as a weapon of war.

 
U.S. airstrikes this summer in Iraq began when ISIS forces came within a few dozen miles of the U.S. consulate in Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, while U.S. airstrikes in Syria came after two beheadings in Raqqa, Syria. How does that stack up with Mexico?

U.S. media have especially hyped ISIL’s violence against Americans. This summer ISIL beheaded two Americans and has warned about executing a third; additionally, one U.S. Marine has died in efforts to combat the group. By contrast, the cartels killed 293 Americans in Mexico from 2007 to 2010 and have repeatedly attacked U.S. consulates in Mexico. While ISIL’s beheadings are no doubt outrageous, the cartels tortured, dismembered and then cooked one of the Americans they captured — possibly eating him or feeding him to dogs.

 
ISIS has not staged any attacks in the United States, or killed large numbers of U.S. citizens anywhere for that matter. In contrast, the Mexican cartels have not only staged attacks and assassinations inside the United States but have killed more U.S. citizens inside the United States itself than were killed by al-Qaeda on 9/11.

The cartels’ atrocities are not restricted to the Mexican side of the border. From 2006 to 2010 as many as 5,700 Americans were killed in the U.S. by cartel-fueled drug violence. By contrast, 2,937 people were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Over the last decade, some 2,349 Americans were killed in Afghanistan, and 4,487 Americans died in Iraq. In four years the cartels have managed to cause the deaths of more Americans than during 9/11 or either of those wars.

 
Cult-like pseudo-military organizations controlling large swathes of territory and local government administrations in one of the world’s largest oil producers, while threatening and attacking American citizens and interests regularly, but the United States doesn’t intervene militarily? How bizarre.
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AFD 70 – Afghanistan, Ukraine, Christie

Latest Episode:
“AFD 70 – Afghanistan, Ukraine, Christie”

Greg joins Bill to talk about opium in Afghanistan, protests in Ukraine, and the Christie bridge closure scandal.

Related Links

– Atlantic: The Looming Narco State in Afghanistan
– The Globalist: “Ukraine: The Key to Restoring Greater Russia
– AFD: “Deja vu in Ukraine and Thailand
– NYT: “Dangers of Giving In to Impulse for Revenge