Lawmakers near prison reform deal, but Trump support crucial
By KEVIN FREKING and LISA MASCARO
Tuesday, November 13
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators have reached a tentative accord on the first major rewrite of criminal justice sentencing in a generation, but now it’s up to President Donald Trump to decide if it’s worth making a push for the sweeping bipartisan bill during the lame-duck session of Congress.
The package has been a top priority of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and senators presented the ideas to Trump at the White House over the summer. Congressional aides and advocacy groups said the lawmakers are close to an agreement on the legislation, which would boost rehabilitation efforts for federal prisoners and give judges more discretion when sentencing non-violent offenders, particularly for drug offenses.
Holly Harris, executive director of Justice Action Network, a lead advocacy group, said “we’re hoping for a full-throated endorsement” from the president.
“This will be the most significant departure from the failed mandatory minimum policies of the 1990s,” Harris said. With support from a bipartisan coalition of senators — and top law enforcement groups — she said it’s “decision-making time.”
The bill is a rare bipartisan endeavor in a typically log-jammed Congress and has attracted support from a unique coalition of liberal and conservative groups, including the ACLU and groups backed by the political donors Charles and David Koch. Critics say current sentencing guidelines are unfair and have had a lopsided impact on minority communities.
Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries and a longtime champion of prison reforms, said an endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police has been critical in generating momentum for the bill.
“You have a lot of people who want to get this done,” Holden said. He said the legislation should help federal inmates be better people when they leave prison than when they entered. “We wouldn’t be in favor of it if it didn’t protect public safety,” Holden said.
The Senate package overhauls some of the mandatory sentencing guidelines that have been in place since 1994 legislation approved by Congress and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Talks involved a bipartisan group headed by Sen. Chuck Grassley, the GOP chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, and others.
But Trump’s backing remains key to proceeding with any final product.
“Senator Durbin has been negotiating in good faith but there won’t be any agreement on a criminal justice reform compromise unless and until President Trump supports it and asks the Republicans who control both chambers of Congress to move it forward,” said Emily Hampsten, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Democrat.
Kushner may play an outsized role in the final outcome after having steered the legislation this far. “History will say this was a man with a mission,” Harris said. “He was really the critical voice that was able to hold the bipartisan alliance together.”
The federal inmate population has been on the decline since 2013, when it peaked at just more than 219,000. The total now stands at about 181,400, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Still, that’s about triple the number of inmates in federal detention 30 years ago.
The House approved a prison reform bill in May, but the Senate package makes additional changes and adds the sentencing component.
The Senate bill would end the shackling of pregnant women while the sentencing reforms would restrict so-called enhancements that can be added on to extend sentences. The Senate approach would also allow thousands of federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would test support for the measure during the lame-duck session after the election, which begins Tuesday.
The bills would need to be merged. All but two Republicans voted for the House bill when it was overwhelmingly approved in May, 360-59. Democratic lawmakers supported by bill by about a two-to-one margin, but opponents voiced concerns that the bill did not go far enough to give judges more discretion to make the punishment fit the crime.
The House bill directs the Bureau of Prisons to conduct assessments for every offender once they’re sentenced and to offer rehabilitation plans designed to lower the chance of recidivism. The plans would include vocational training, education, counseling and substance abuse treatment.
The legislation also allows federal prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or in home confinement. It would also prohibit female inmates from being shackled during child birth and provide individuals leaving custody with identification documents that are often pre-requisites for employment.
The debate comes after Florida voters approved a measure restoring the voting rights of felons who have served their sentences. The Koch-brothers backed Freedom Partners Action Fund and the ACLU chapter in Florida called the measure a way to provide a second chance for Floridians who have served their time and paid their debts.
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Blasts from the past: how massive solar eruptions ‘probably’ detonated dozens of US sea mines
November 7, 2018
Senior lecturer, RMIT University
Emeritus Professor, University of Newcastle
Brett Carter receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the Australian Antarctic Science Program.
Victoria State Government
RMIT University and Victoria State Government provide funding as strategic partners of The Conversation AU.
An extraordinary account of the impact space weather had on military operations in Vietnam in 1972 was found buried in the US Navy archives, according to a newly published article in Space Weather.
On August 4, 1972, the crew of a US Task Force 77 aircraft flying near a naval minefield in the waters off Hon La observed 20 to 25 explosions over about 30 seconds. They also witnessed an additional 25 to 30 mud spots in the waters nearby.
Destructor sea mines had been deployed here during Operation Pocket Money, a mining campaign launched in 1972 against principal North Vietnamese ports.
There was no obvious reason why the mines should have detonated. But it has now emerged the US Navy soon turned its attention to extreme solar activity at the time as a probable cause.
The more we can understand the impact of such space weather on technology then the better we can be prepared for any future extreme solar activity.
A solar theory
As detailed in a now declassified US Navy report, the event sparked an immediate investigation about the potential cause(s) of the random detonations of so many sea mines.
The sea mines deployed had a self-destruct feature. But the minimum self-destruct time on these mines was not for another 30 days, so something else was to blame.
On August 15, 1972, the Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Bernard Clarey, asked about a hypothesis that solar activity could have caused the mine detonations.
Many of the mines deployed were magnetic influence sea mines that were designed to detonate when they detected changes in the magnetic field.
Solar activity was then well known to cause magnetic field changes, but it wasn’t clear whether or not the Sun could cause these unintentional detonations.
Early August in 1972 saw some of the most intense solar activity ever recorded.
A sunspot region, denoted MR 11976, set off a series of intense solar flares (energetic explosions of electromagnetic radiation), coronal mass ejections (eruptions of solar plasma material that typically accompany flares) and clouds of charged particles travelling close to the speed of light.
Those conducting the investigation into the mine incident visited the Space Environment Laboratory at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) near Boulder, Colorado, to speak to space scientists.
One of the scientists at NOAA at the time was the now Emeritus Professor Brian Fraser, from Australia’s Newcastle University, and it’s an event he told me he remembers well:
I was on my first sabbatical leave at NOAA working with Wallace (Wally) Campbell’s group, and one day in Wally’s office I noticed a group of US Navy brass hat gentlemen and a couple of dark suits.
Brian said he had later quizzed Wally on what was going on, and Wally explained they were concerned about geomagnetic field changes triggering sea mines laid in Hai Phong, North Vietnam.
There was no mention whether or not they had exploded but maybe Wally was being coy. And of course it was all probably top secret then.
The outcome of this investigation, as stated in the declassified US Navy report, detailed “a high degree of probability” that the Destructor mines had been detonated by the August solar storm activity.
Declassified: excerpt from U.S. Navy Report, Mine Warfare Project Office – The Mining of North Vietnam, 8 May 1972 to 14 January 1973. 1070416001, Glenn Helm Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University
Solar storms cause strong magnetic field fluctuations, which impact large power grid infrastructure, particularly in the high-latitude regions beneath the northern and southern auroras.
The storms of early August 1972 were no different. There were numerous reports across North America of power disruptions and telegraph line outages. Now that light has been shone on the impact of these events on sea mine operations in 1972, the scientific community has another clear example of space weather impacts on technologies.
The intensity of the early August activity peaked when an X-class solar flare at 0621 UT August 4, 1972, launched an ultra-fast coronal mass ejection that reached Earth in the record time of 14.6 hours. The solar wind normally takes two to three days to reach Earth.
Scientists think that the previous slower ejections from earlier flares had cleared the path for this fast disturbance, similar to what was observed by the STEREO spacecraft in July 2012.
It’s the impact of this fast disturbance in the solar wind on the Earth’s magnetosphere that probably caused the detonation of the Destructor mines.
Using the past to predict the future
The Dst index, measured in nano-Tesla (nT), is a typical measure of the disturbance level in the Earth’s magnetic field – the more negative, the more intense the storm.
Some recent extreme solar storms, according to this scale, include the 2015 St Patrick’s Day storm (-222 nT) and the 2003 Halloween storm (-383 nT).
Interestingly, the extreme activity in August 1972 was far less intense on this scale, only weighing in at -125 nT.
Exactly why this storm reached extreme level on some measures, such as its high speed from the Sun, but not on the typical Dst scale is a topic of significant discussion within the scientific literature.
Given the complexities of this event, this new paper lays out a grand challenge to the space weather community to use our modern modelling techniques to reexamine this solar event. Hopefully, understanding these strange events will better prepare us for future solar eruptions.
I deliberately sent myself to prison in Iceland – they didn’t even lock the cell doors there
November 6, 2018
Professor of Criminology, University of Portsmouth
Francis Pakes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University of Portsmouth provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.
Iceland is a small country tucked away on the edge of Europe. It has a population of only about 340,000 people. Iceland’s prisons are small too. There are only five, altogether housing fewer than 200 prisoners. Of these five, two are open prisons. I had visited them both before, and they left me intrigued. I wanted to get to know them better.
When I asked the prison authorities in Iceland if I could spend a week in each of the two open prisons they were surprisingly receptive. I got the impression that they quite liked the idea: a foreign academic who wanted to get under the skin of these places by assuming the role of a prisoner. They promised to keep a room free for me. I was grateful and excited. I was going to experience both prisons from the inside. While I knew that they were calm and safe, they do house people convicted of some serious violent or sexual offences. How do prisons without walls or fences even work?
Iceland’s open prisons are simply very open. The absence of security features was striking. The first prison I stayed in, Kvíabryggja prison in the west of the country, had little in the way of perimeter security. There is, however, a sign instructing passers by to keep out – mainly aimed at tourists.
I could simply drive up to the small, mostly single-storey building and park up. I then walked in (yes, the doors were open) and said hello. And I was immediately made a dinner by one of the prisoners, who recognised me from a previous visit. I spent the week experiencing daily life as a prisoner.
A room with a view
It was clear from the outset that prisoners and staff do things together. Food is important in prisons and in Kvíabryggja the communal dining room is a central space. It is where prisoners have breakfast, lunch and dinner together with staff. Prisoners cook the food, and with an officer they do the weekly food shop in a nearby village. Food was plentiful and tasty. It is considered bad form not to thank the prisoner chefs for their efforts. And you have to clean up after yourself.
Despite this emphasis on communal living, a prisoner’s room is their own space. And with in-room internet (with obvious restrictions) and a mobile phone, some prisoners, like teenagers, spend a lot of time in there. Prisoners have their own room keys but they leave their doors unlocked, pretty much at all times. This is a potent symbol: life in Kvíabryggja is all about trust. I found that difficult at first, knowing that my passport, rental car keys and research notes were all in my room. In the end I did what prisoners do and even slept with the door unlocked. I slept like a baby. And looking out of my room window every morning I saw sheep, grass and snowy mountain tops.
The outside space in Icelandic prisons is important as well. The iconic and much photographed Kirkjufell mountain loomed large to the east and I was next to the sea, with a nice beach and plenty of grassland. This allows for the prisoner to feel “away” in some sense while still being on the premises. Prisoners, I was told, like to walk up to the entrance gate, where the only barrier to the outside world is a cattle grid. It yields that strange feeling of sensing freedom, just one footstep away.
It was the informality of the interactions that struck me most. We watched football together. Rather than being shy or furtive I saw sex offenders shouting at the screen when Iceland played. Vulnerable prisoners were having banter with drug dealers. I saw problematic drug users chatting and giggling with staff. And I felt I fitted in, both as a researcher and as a person. I got teased a bit of course, as all prison researchers do. But prisoners also shared gossip and many prisoners and staff alike shared very personal, even intimate feelings and stories with me. When Pétur gained his freedom and his dad arrived to pick him up, he hugged many prisoners and staff goodbye, including me. We all got a bit emotional.
Kvíabryggja is of course still a prison. Many prisoners feel frustrated, angry, anxious, struggle with their health and worry about the future. But the environment is safe and the food a delight. There is contact with the outside world, generous visiting arrangements, and there is always a listening ear. As prisons go, this means a lot.
This remote prison and with no more than 20 prisoners, and around three staff around at most at any time, is a tiny community. Prisoners and staff smoke together in the cramped but ever busy smoking room. They need to get on.
Life is defined by these informal interactions. This is not necessarily easy. This prison population is highly mixed. There are female prisoners, foreign nationals and prisoners of pensionable age or with a disability all mixed in together.
As far as I could see the general conviviality is extended even to the sex offenders – a population almost universally reviled in prison and at risk as a result. Sometimes this conviviality is a stretch. But it did seem to work. Despite tensions inherent in any prison, people here got on.
The importance of getting on is a take away message. This is far harder to achieve in large busy prisons where new prisoners arrive and leave every day. But just like community policing works best if most public interactions are friendly, a prison is a more positive place if most interactions are friendly and benign too. Where prisoners and staff share space, stories and a sense of community the chances of prisoners changing for the better are much improved.
The Iceland open prisons are, to a degree, unique. Perhaps it is their size. Perhaps it is their population. Perhaps it is the relaxed nature of the regime. Or perhaps they typify Iceland, a country where historically, you need to rely on each other to survive the harsh climatic conditions of the North Atlantic. Whatever it is, living together, in this calm, remote, tiny prison, in a strange way, made sense.
The names in this article have been changed.
Whitaker will consult with ethics officials over recusal
By MICHAEL BALSAMO
Tuesday, November 13
NEW YORK (AP) — Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker will consult with Justice Department ethics officials about “matters that may warrant recusal” amid pressure from Democrats to step aside from overseeing the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Whitaker is “fully committed to following all appropriate processes and procedures,” including consulting with senior ethics officials about his “oversight responsibilities and matter that may warrant recusal,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement Monday.
Since his appointment last week, Whitaker has faced mounting pressure to step aside from overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, due to critical comments Whitaker made about the investigation before joining the Justice Department last year.
In an interview with CNN in July 2017, Whitaker suggested the Mueller probe could be starved of its resources by cutting the budget “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”
He also penned an op-ed last year that said Mueller would be straying outside his mandate if he investigated Trump family finances. In an interview with a talk-radio host, Whitaker maintained there was no evidence of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
Whitaker, a Republican Party loyalist and chief of staff to just-ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was elevated last week after Trump forced Sessions out. Mueller’s investigation had been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein until Sessions’ ouster.
The Senate’s top Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer, called for Whitaker to step aside from overseeing Mueller’s investigation and said Democrats would seek to tie a measure protecting Mueller to must-pass legislation if Whitaker did not recuse himself.
Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats sent a letter Sunday to Lee Lofthus, an assistant attorney general and the department’s chief ethics officer, asking whether he had advised Whitaker to recuse himself.
Follow Michael Balsamo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MikeBalsamo1 .