In the USA...
August 12, 2013Justice Dept. Seeks to Curtail Stiff Drug Sentences
By CHARLIE SAVAGE
WASHINGTON — In a major shift in criminal justice policy, the Obama administration will move on Monday to ease overcrowding in federal prisons by ordering prosecutors to omit listing quantities of illegal substances in indictments for low-level drug cases, sidestepping federal laws that impose strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., in a speech at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco on Monday, is expected to announce the new policy as one of several steps intended to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and help correct what he regards as unfairness in the justice system, according to his prepared remarks.
Saying that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” Mr. Holder is planning to justify his policy push in both moral and economic terms.
“Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” Mr. Holder’s speech says. “It imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”
Mr. Holder will also introduce a related set of Justice Department policies that would leave more crimes to state courts to handle, increase the use of drug-treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration, and expand a program of “compassionate release” for “elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences.”
The policy changes appear to be part of Mr. Holder’s effort, before he eventually steps down, to bolster his image and legacy. Turmoil over the Congressional investigation into the botched Operation Fast and Furious gun trafficking case ensnared him in the Obama administration’s first term, and more recently, controversy has flared over the department’s aggressive tactics in leak investigations.
In recent weeks, he has also tightened rules on obtaining reporters’ data in leak cases and started an effort to strengthen protections for minority voters after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The move continued an assertive approach to voting rights and other civil rights enforcement throughout his tenure.
Mr. Holder’s speech on Monday deplores the moral impact of the United States’ high incarceration rate: although it has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of its prisoners, he notes. But he also attempts to pre-empt political controversy by painting his effort as following the lead of prison reform efforts in primarily conservative-led Southern states.
Under a policy memorandum being sent to all United States attorney offices on Monday, according to an administration official, prosecutors will be told that they may not write the specific quantity of drugs when drafting indictments for drug defendants who meet the following four criteria: their conduct did not involve violence, the use of a weapon or sales to minors; they are not leaders of a criminal organization; they have no significant ties to large-scale gangs or cartels; and they have no significant criminal history.
For example, in the case of a defendant accused of conspiring to sell five kilograms of cocaine — an amount that would set off a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence — the prosecutor would write that “the defendant conspired to distribute cocaine” without saying how much. The quantity would still factor in when prosecutors and judges consult sentencing guidelines, but depending on the circumstances, the result could be a sentence of less than the 10 years called for by the mandatory minimum law, the official said.
It is not clear whether current cases that have not yet been adjudicated would be recharged because of the new policy.
Amid a rise in crime rates a generation ago, state and federal lawmakers began passing a series of “tough on crime” laws, including mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession. But as crime rates have plummeted to 40-year lows and reduced the political potency of the fear of crime, fiscal pressures from the exploding cost of building and maintaining prisons have prompted states to find alternatives to incarceration.
Driven in part by a need to save money, several conservative-leaning states like Texas and Arkansas have experimented with finding ways to incarcerate fewer low-level drug offenders. The answers have included reducing prison terms for them or diverting them into treatment programs, releasing elderly or well-behaved inmates early, and expanding job training and re-entry programs.
The policy is seen as successful across the ideological divide. For example, in Texas, which was an early innovator, taxpayers have saved hundreds of millions of dollars on what had been projected as a need to build prison space. With crime rates remaining at generational lows, the space is no longer necessary.
Several years ago, a group called Right on Crime formed to push what it calls the “conservative case for reform.” Its Republican affiliates include Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor; Edwin R. Meese III, an attorney general during the Reagan administration; and Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker.
“While the federal prison system has continued to slowly expand, significant state-level reductions have led to three consecutive years of decline in America’s overall prison population — including, in 2012, the largest drop ever experienced in a single year,” Mr. Holder’s speech says. “Clearly, these strategies can work. They’ve attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in ‘red states’ as well as ‘blue states.’ And it’s past time for others to take notice.”
Still, in states that have undertaken prison and parole overhauls, the changes were approved by state lawmakers. Mr. Holder’s reform is different: instead of going through Congress for legislation to modify mandatory minimum sentencing laws, he is invoking his power of prosecutorial discretion to sidestep them.
Earlier in Mr. Obama’s presidency, the administration went through Congress to achieve policy goals like reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder forms of cocaine. But it has increasingly pursued a strategy of invoking unilateral executive powers without Congress, which the White House sees as bogged down by Republican obstructionism.
Previous examples, like Mr. Obama’s decision last year to issue an executive order allowing immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children to remain without fear of deportation and to work, have drawn fire from Republicans as “power grabs” that usurp the role of Congress.
Mr. Holder’s speech marches through a litany of statistics about incarceration in the United States. The American population has grown by about a third since 1980, he said, but its prison rate has increased nearly 800 percent. At the federal level, more than 219,000 inmates are currently behind bars — nearly half for drug-related crimes — and the prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above their official capacity.
*************A Texan tragedy: Plenty of oil, but no water
By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Sunday, August 11, 2013 13:35 EDT
Beverly McGuire saw the warning signs before the town well went dry: sand in the toilet bowl, the sputter of air in the tap, a pump working overtime to no effect. But it still did not prepare her for the night last month when she turned on the tap and discovered the tiny town where she had made her home for 35 years was out of water.
“The day that we ran out of water I turned on my faucet and nothing was there and at that moment I knew the whole of Barnhart was down the tubes,” she said, blinking back tears. “I went: ‘dear God help us. That was the first thought that came to mind.”
Across the south-west, residents of small communities like Barnhart are confronting the reality that something as basic as running water, as unthinking as turning on a tap, can no longer be taken for granted.
Three years of drought, decades of overuse and now the oil industry’s outsize demands on water for fracking are running down reservoirs and underground aquifers. And climate change is making things worse.
In Texas alone, about 30 communities could run out of water by the end of the year, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Nearly 15 million people are living under some form of water rationing, barred from freely sprinkling their lawns or refilling their swimming pools. In Barnhart’s case, the well appears to have run dry because the water was being extracted for shale gas fracking.
The town — a gas station, a community hall and a taco truck – sits in the midst of the great Texan oil rush, on the eastern edge of the Permian basin.
A few years ago, it seemed like a place on the way out. Now McGuire said she can see nine oil wells from her back porch, and there are dozens of RVs parked outside town, full of oil workers.
But soon after the first frack trucks pulled up two years ago, the well on McGuire’s property ran dry.
No-one in Barnhart paid much attention at the time, and McGuire hooked up to the town’s central water supply. “Everyone just said: ‘too bad’. Well now it’s all going dry,” McGuire said.
Ranchers dumped most of their herds. Cotton farmers lost up to half their crops. The extra draw down, coupled with drought, made it impossible for local ranchers to feed and water their herds, said Buck Owens. In a good year, Owens used to run 500 cattle and up to 8,000 goats on his 7,689 leased hectares (19,000 acres). Now he’s down to a few hundred goats.
The drought undoubtedly took its toll but Owens reserved his anger for the contractors who drilled 104 water wells on his leased land, to supply the oil companies.
Water levels were dropping in his wells because of the vast amounts of water being pumped out of the Edwards-Trinity-Plateau Aquifer, a 34,000 sq mile water bearing formation.
“They are sucking all of the water out of the ground, and there are just hundreds and hundreds of water trucks here every day bringing fresh water out of the wells,” Owens said.
Meanwhile, residents in town complained, they were forced to live under water rationing. “I’ve got dead trees in my yard because I haven’t been able to water them,” said Glenda Kuykendall. “The state is mandating our water system to conserve water but why?… Getting one oil well fracked takes more water than the entire town can drink or use in a day.”
Even as the drought bore down, even as the water levels declined, the oil industry continued to demand water and those with water on their land were willing to sell it. The road west of town was lined with signs advertising “fresh water”, where tankers can take on a box-car-sized load of water laced with industrial chemicals.
“If you’re going to develop the oil, you’ve got to have the water,” said Larry Baxter, a contractor from the nearby town of Mertzon, who installed two frack tanks on his land earlier this year, hoping to make a business out of his well selling water to oil industry.
By his own estimate, his well could produce enough to fill up 20 or 30 water trucks for the oil industry each day. At $60 (£39.58) a truck, that was $36,000 a month, easily. “I could sell 100 truckloads a day if I was open to it,” Baxter said.
He rejected the idea there should be any curbs on selling water during the drought. “People use their water for food and fibre. I choose to use my water to sell to the oil field,” he said. “Who’s taking advantage? I don’t see any difference.”
Barnhart remained dry for five days last month before local work crew revived an abandoned railway well and started pumping again. But residents fear it is just a temporary fix and that next time it happens they won’t have their own wells to fall back on. “My well is very very close to going dry,” said Kuykendall.
So what is a town like Barnhart to do? Fracking is a powerful drain on water supplies. In adjacent Crockett county, fracking accounts for up to 25% of water use, according to the groundwater conservation district. But Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, argues fracking is not the only reason Texas is going dry – and nor is the drought. The latest shocks to the water system come after decades of overuse by ranchers, cotton farmers, and fast-growing thirsty cities.
“We have large urban centres sucking water out of west Texas to put on their lands. We have a huge agricultural community, and now we have fracking which is also using water,” she said. And then there is climate change.
West Texas has a long history of recurring drought, but under climate change, the south-west has been experiencing record-breaking heatwaves, further drying out the soil and speeding the evaporation of water in lakes and reservoirs. Underground aquifers failed to regenerate. “What happens is that climate change comes on top and in many cases it can be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back, but the camel is already overloaded,” said Hayhoe.
Other communities across a bone-dry south-west are resorting to extraordinary measures to keep the water flowing. Robert Lee, also in the oil patch, has been hauling in water by tanker. So has Spicewood Beach, a resort town 40 miles from Austin, which has been trucking in water since early 2012.
San Angelo, a city of 100,000, dug a pipeline to an underground water source more than 60 miles away, and sunk half a dozen new wells.
Las Cruces, just across the border from the Texas panhandle in New Mexico, is drilling down 1,000ft in search of water.
But those fixes are way out of reach for small, rural communities. Outside the RV parks for the oil field workers who are just passing through, Barnhart has a population of about 200.
“We barely make enough money to pay our light bill and we’re supposed to find $300,000 to drill a water well?” said John Nanny, an official with the town’s water supply company.
Last week brought some relief, with rain across the entire state of Texas. Rain gauges in some parts of west Texas registered two inches or more. Some ranchers dared to hope it was the beginning of the end of the drought.
But not Owens, not yet anyway. The underground aquifers needed far more rain to recharge, he said, and it just wasn’t raining as hard as it did when he was growing up.
“We’ve got to get floods. We’ve got to get a hurricane to move up in our country and just saturate everything to replenish the aquifer,” he said. “Because when the water is gone. That’s it. We’re gone.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
August 10, 2013On Fate of Wild Horses, Stars and Indians Spar
By FERNANDA SANTOS
It seemed at first like a logical alliance for boldface names in the interconnected worlds of Hollywood and politics. Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, and the actor Robert Redford, a staunch conservationist, joined animal rights groups in a federal lawsuit to block the revival of horse slaughter in the United States, proclaiming that they were “standing with Native American leaders,” to whom horse slaughter “constitutes a violation of tribal cultural values.”
Soon, though, the two men, who recently started a foundation to protect New Mexico’s wildlife, found themselves on a collision course with the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest federally recognized tribe, whose president released a letter to Congress on Aug. 2 asserting his support for horse slaughtering.
Free-roaming horses cost the Navajos $200,000 a year in damage to property and range, said Ben Shelly, the Navajo president. There is a gap between reality and romance when, he said, “outsiders” like Mr. Redford — who counts gunslinger, sheriff’s deputy and horse whisperer among his movie roles — interpret the struggles of American Indians.
“Maybe Robert Redford can come and see what he can do to help us out,” Mr. Shelly said in an interview. “I’m ready to go in the direction to keep the horses alive and give them to somebody else, but right now the best alternative is having some sort of slaughter facility to come and do it.”
The horses, tens of thousands of them, are at the center of a passionate, politicized dispute playing out in court, in Congress and even within tribes across the West about whether federal authorities should sanction their slaughtering to thin the herds. The practice has never been banned, but stopped when money for inspections was cut from the federal budget.
In Navajo territory, parched by years of unrelenting drought and beset by poverty, one feral horse consumes 5 gallons of water and 18 pounds of forage a day — sometimes the water and food a family had bought for itself and its cattle.
According to the latest estimates, there are 75,000 feral and wild horses in the nation, and the numbers are growing, Mr. Shelly said. They have no owners, and many of them are believed to be native to the West. The tribes say they must find an efficient way of reducing the population. Although it is common to shoot old and frail horses — and more merciful than a ride to the slaughterhouse — there are too many of them to be dealt with, and there is some money in rounding them up and selling them at auction.
There is also the question of sovereignty, one of the points raised in a resolution endorsing horse slaughter that was issued by the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments. Citing hillsides and valleys denuded by overgrazing by feral and wild horses, which on reservations throughout the West “are nearly everywhere you look,” the resolution accuses the federal government of failing to consult the tribes before proposing language in the Agriculture Department’s appropriations bill to again withhold money for slaughterhouse inspections.
In a letter to the House Appropriations Committee, Jefferson Keel, the national congress’s president and the lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, said slaughter plants “represent a viable and humane method of assisting tribes and other entities in this country to stop the detrimental impact of tens of thousands of feral horses on our land.” Because of the horses’ numbers, the only practical solution is slaughtering, some in the tribes say.
Mr. Richardson, in an interview, acknowledged the conflict, which has sown divisions even among members of the same tribe. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include tribesmen like Paul Crane Tohlakai, a Navajo, and David Bald Eagle, the chief of the Minikoju Band of the Cheyenne River Tribe of Lakota Indians. In impassioned tones, they spoke of American Indians’ special relationship with horses, “the magnificent four-legged” animal “who has a part in our creation stories,” as Mr. Tohlakai put it.
“Institutionally,” Mr. Richardson said, responding to the claims by the Navajos’ president, “there have to be some issues that have to be dealt with, and that’s why the ultimate solution is to find a natural habitat, or a series of natural habitats, and adoption for the horses.” (Mr. Redford, a part-time resident of New Mexico, is on a hiatus, according to a representative, and unavailable for comment.)
The United States has never fostered a market for horse meat, a dietary staple in places like Belgium, China and Kazakhstan. It does have a history of horse slaughtering, though; at one point, there were more than 10 such slaughterhouses in the country. The last three, one in Illinois and two in Texas, closed in 2007, after Congress banned the use of federal money for salaries for personnel whose job was to inspect the horses and the facilities where they would be slaughtered. (One thing inspectors look for is evidence of drug use on the horses, not uncommon among those once used for racing.)
In their last year, the three plants slaughtered a total of 30,000 horses for human consumption and shipped an additional 78,000 for slaughter in Canada and Mexico, according to statistics by United States and Canadian authorities. Congress’s subsequent unwillingness to finance inspections made slaughtered horse meat ineligible for the seal of inspection it needs to be commercially sold, effectively ending the practice.
Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit and one of the groups lobbying Congress to end horse slaughter, said its efforts were focused on preventing the killing of horses for human consumption “to avoid creating an industry that would turn horses into a global food commodity.”
The language that would have continued the lack of funding for inspections did not make it into the Agriculture Department’s appropriations bill approved for the 2012 fiscal year, which did not change for the current fiscal year.
Valley Meat, based in Roswell, N.M., sued in October, accusing the department of thwarting its efforts to open a horse slaughter plant even after the facility had met all the necessary requirements. The department acquiesced, eventually granting the company its permits.
The plant was to open last Monday. On Aug. 2, however, Mr. Redford, Mr. Richardson and the animal rights groups scored a legal victory when a judge in Albuquerque issued a restraining order halting inspections of horse slaughter plants for 30 days.
Another proposed horse slaughterhouse, in Missouri, also had a legal setback on Monday. A county judge ordered a delay in issuing its wastewater permit until a lawsuit, asserting that runoff from the plant could contaminate the soil, was heard in court.
Mr. Pacelle said there were alternatives to slaughter, like using contraceptives to control the horse population, a method already employed by federal agencies elsewhere.
For Mr. Shelly, his question has been whether it is best to slaughter free-roaming horses or let them die slowly of thirst and disease, as many have done on the Navajo reservation.
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WS16KFSrhRs