Sunday, November 01, 2015

Willie Horton Revisited - Criminal Justice Reforms Take Root

Still image from Republican television commercial
The announcement that some 6,122 federal prisoners convicted of non-violent drug offenses under unfair mandatory sentencing guidelines would be released earlier this week reflects broad and growing public support for prison reform in the United States.

Both conservatives and liberals from both ends of the political spectrum back initiatives to reduce America's massive prison population.

But that didn't stop Republicans from airing a deceptive television ad (pictured above) designed to cultivate the subconscious fears of conservative Americans that a liberal black president is planning to unleash hoards of violent offenders onto public streets to menace the innocent.

It's typical Conservative media distortion, a dusted-off version of the racist Wille Horton ad used by Republicans to smear Democratic presidential candidate Mike Dukakis and bolster support for George W. Bush during the 1988 presidential race.

The television commercial, which aired in some U.S. broadcast markets on Friday and was denounced by the NAACP, comes just ahead of the off-year general elections taking place this Tuesday November 3rd.

There are only three gubernatorial elections and three Congressional special elections in play, but for the most part, voters headed to the polls across the U.S. this Tuesday will be pulling the lever for local municipal elections, some mayoral races and some important citizen ballot initiatives as well.  
Speaking of voter turnout, the NAACP and the ACLU are making some progress in fighting Republican efforts to suppress voter turnout in states across the nation.

GOP voter suppression-king, Ohio Sec. of State Jon Husted
As announced on the NAACP Website, activists and voter rights groups in the state of Ohio have reached a settlement with Ohio's controversial Secretary of State Jon Husted  (pictured left) to expand voting hours for both the 2016 presidential elections and 2016 general elections as well.

The deal also expands early voting hours and expands voting hours for municipal elections too.

Those changes will apply for the elections this Tuesday, when Ohio voters will cast votes on some important ballot initiatives to change the state constitution to address the kind of illegal gerrymandering that has created false Republican majorities in stage legislatures across the U.S. by creating a bipartisan process of drawing up legislative districts in Ohio; and a vote will be cast on decriminalizing marijuana by making it's possession and recreational use legal.

As an avid political junkie, I've already read up on what's at stake in my home district of Hamilton Township, New Jersey and also read up on the policy positions of the various candidates.

On Tuesday we'll be voting for two General Assembly seats, County Executive, County Clerk, three freeholders, the Mayor and two Township Council seats.

As a single guy without kids, I've got less skin in the game for the three Board of Education seats, but I still read up on them to make an educated vote.
The pricey commercial spots for national campaigns may get a lot of our attention (whether we want it or not) but it's really the local elections where Americans can make the kind of difference that impacts the broader national elections.

Especially when you're talking about elections that can have an impact on how legislative districts are drawn up or impacting state Electoral College votes for the 2016 presidential race.

Local municipal elections might not be as "sexy", but they have teeth and it's where the rubber meets the road politically speaking.

Republican and Democrat politicians in Washington might not not agree on much, but in the past few years there's been growing bipartisan support for the kinds of systematic legal reforms that will begin to address the issue of mass incarceration in the American prison system.

Senator Chuck Grassley announces bipartisan reform bill
Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 which addressed the huge disparity in sentencing laws for crack and powdered cocaine.

After three years of negotiations on the Hill, a group of Republican and Democratic Senators chaired by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa (pictured left) recently unveiled the 141-page Sentencing Corrections and Reform Act of 2015.

Billed by Grassley as the "the biggest criminal justice reform in our generation", the Senate bill tackles issues like mandatory drug sentences and juveniles held in solitary confinement.

But as Shane Bauer reported on, the Senate legislation while significant, only impacts federal prisons which house only 13 percent of the 2.5 million Americans currently incarcerated across the United States. 

It's important that these kinds of legal reforms are part of the current presidential debate, Hillary Clinton was in the process of announcing her own proposals for reforms in the justice system at the historically black Clark Atlanta University on Friday when a group of protesters in the audience began chanting "Black Lives Matter" and disrupted her speech for ten minutes until they were removed form the room so she could continue speaking.

But any meaningful efforts for the United States to give up the distinction of being the nation that incarcerates the highest percentage of it's population in the world are going to have to come from the individual state level where the majority of prisoners are held.

Initiatives by voter rights groups, activists and politicians alone aren't going to be enough to make it happen.

In some cases, amendments to state constitutions will be necessary, and in other cases state legislatures are going to have to be prodded into action through grass roots support for state ballot initiatives.

That means Americans themselves are going to have to register to vote and make the effort to boost participation in local municipal and state elections - there's nothing complex about it.

People just have to take the time to go to the polls and vote.

It's curious, you look back at the decades of struggle it took in America for blacks and Hispanics to gain the right to vote, or look at the trailers for the new film 'Suffragette' that's coming out about the fight for women to gain the right to vote, and voter turnout in this nation still remains anemic.

Voter turnout for the critical mid-term elections was the worst in 72 years; the lowest since WWII.

Americans are fed up with gridlock in Congress, but just 36.4 % of the population voted in the mid-terms last year.

Certainly, some people who wanted to vote were prevented from doing so through various voter suppression tactics, but that still leaves millions of Americans simply ignoring the opportunity to participate in the Democratic process.

Is it apathy? Or just disgust with the all the robo-calls, petty mudslinging and political commercials like the Willie Horton ad that appeal to the lowest common denominator?

There's something wrong when under 40% of the population bothers to come out to vote in a nation that spends billions in military spending to (in part) support democracy around the world.

Makes you wonder.

Hopefully we can do better than 36.4% on Tuesday, I know I'll do my part.

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