State-sponsored torture, American-style

Powerful piece from Masha Gessen about the Trump administration’s decision to forcibly separate parents and children among immigrants seeking asylum:

Hostage-taking is an instrument of terror. Capturing family members, especially children, is a tried-and-true instrument of totalitarian terror. Memoirs of Stalinist terror are full of stories of strong men and women disintegrating when their loved ones are threatened: this is the moment when a person will confess to anything. [emphases mine] The single most searing literary document of Stalinist terror is “Requiem,” a cycle of poems written by Anna Akhmatova while her son, Lev Gumilev, was in prison. But, in the official Soviet imagination, it was the Nazis who tortured adults by torturing children. In “Seventeen Moments of Spring,” a fantastically popular miniseries about a Soviet spy in Nazi Germany, a German officer carries a newborn out into the cold of winter in an effort to compel a confession out of his mother, who is forced to listen to her baby cry…

The threat is clear: children who have been detained at protests may be removed from their families. At least one parent has already been charged with negligence as a result of his son’s detention at one of the demonstrations last weekend.

Another possible explanation is that Putin and the system he has created have consistently, if not necessarily with conscious intent, restored key mechanisms of Soviet control. The spectacle of children being arrested sends a stronger message than any amount of police violence against adults could do…

A few hours after Putin took his fourth oath of office, in Moscow, Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed a law-enforcement conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. He pledged to separate families that are detained crossing the Mexico-U.S. border. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you,” Sessions said. The Attorney General did not appear to be unveiling a new policy so much as amplifying a practice that has been adopted by the Trump Administration, which has been separating parents who are in immigration detention from their children. The Timesreported in December that the federal government was considering a policy of separating families in order to discourage asylum seekers from entering. By that time, nonprofit groups were already raising the alarm about the practice, which they said had affected a number of families. In March, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the hundreds of families that had been separated when they entered the country with the intention of seeking asylum.

The practice, and Sessions’s speech, are explicitly intended as messages to parents who may consider seeking asylum in the United States. The American government has unleashed terror on immigrants, and in doing so has naturally reached for the most effective tools.

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Want to end mass incarceration? Start with prosecutors

Some good news on this front in yesterdays primaries from my very own North Carolina (Vox’s German Lopez on the case):

While congressional and gubernatorial races got much of the attention during Tuesday night’s 2018 primary elections, there were some very big victories in local races for anyone who cares about ending mass incarceration.

According to Matt Ferner at HuffPost, two progressive prosecutor candidates running for district attorney won their primary elections in North Carolina — putting them in a crucial spot to determine how the criminal justice system works.

In Durham County, Satana Deberry, a former criminal defense attorney, won her Democratic primary on a platform promising to oppose cash bail, hold police accountable, and resist the war on drugs — all key progressive demands for the criminal justice system. Since she’s so far not facing another challenger in November, her primary victory means she should become the next district attorney for Durham County, barring a write-in campaign.

Meanwhile, in Pitt County, Faris Dixon, who’s currently a defense attorney, won in the Democratic primary as well. According to Ferner, “Dixon supports the formation of a conviction integrity unit to review closed cases and ensure that defendants were not wrongfully convicted, expanding the use of drug courts in the region and creating more transparency out of the DA office” — again, major progressive planks. But he’s facing a Republican candidate in November, so his position isn’t a sure bet yet.

These may seem like minor local elections, but they are exactly the kinds of races that need to happen to significantly change the criminal justice system. These prosecutor offices are perhaps the most powerful in the criminal justice systems — helping decide who goes to prison, for what, and for how long. And since the great majority of people in jail and prison are held at the local and state level, district attorneys (who enforce state laws) have the biggest role where the bulk of criminal justice action happens in America. [emphases mine]

Lopez continues on by discussing the work of John Pfaff (have assigned his book for my summer Criminal Justice Policy class that starts next week)

John Pfaff, a criminal justice expert at Fordham University, has found evidence that prosecutors have been the key drivers of mass incarceration in the past couple of decades. Analyzing data from state judiciaries, he compared the number of crimes, arrests, and prosecutions from 1994 to 2008. He found that reported violent and property crime fell, and arrests for almost all crimes also fell. But one thing went up: the number of felony cases filed in court.

Prosecutors were filing more charges even as crime and arrests dropped, throwing more people into the prison system. Prosecutors were driving mass incarceration.

Pfaff provided a real-world example of this kind of dynamic in his book Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform: “Take South Dakota, which in 2013 passed a reform bill that aimed to reduce prison populations. The law did lead to prison declines in 2014 and 2015, yet at the same time prosecutors responded by charging more people with generally low-level felonies, and over these two years total felony convictions rose by 25 percent.” In the long term, this could lead to even larger prison populations.

We’re a long way from ending mass incarceration, but elections like these are steps in the right direction.  Those desiring meaningful reform need to talk less about non-violent drug offenders (not a major cause of mass incarceration) and more about prosecutors.

Coolest map ever!

Friend shared this on twitter.  Every ship currently at sea and you can zoom in and click on a ship and learn what it is, where it’s going, etc.  Amazing!

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