Here at The Needlefish, we don’t get a lot of action in the Comments section. Were there was anyone reading this column, he or she would probably now be thinking well that’s because nobody ever reads your stuff, so who would comment?, which, yes, fair enough, but even among the few readers that I do manage to attract, hardly any leave comments. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The only reason I maintain this barren blogspot is to vent in a more or less constructive way, as a sort of therapy, and if I wanted a bunch of critiques and “constructive” criticism, I wouldn’t have retired – after all, bad as things are, at least you can still collect a paycheque for submitting yourself to abuse, so far, anyway (I don’t know about you, but I sense a yearning for a return of serfdom and indentured servitude in the current corporate agenda).
The other day, though, I got some feedback. It was in response to the column in which I decried the rather cold-blooded plotting through which The Donald hoped to defuse tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia – it’s complicated, don’t worry about it – in which I concluded that:
The United States President was, to loosely quote David Simon, scheming to deliver a US resident into the tender embrace of one foreign despot in order to help insulate another foreign despot from the consequences of brutally assassinating another US resident.
In other words, to quote Dr. Evil, pretty standard stuff. The cathartic expression of such thoughts is the only reason I keep shouting down the well in this lonely space. It was also completely true, and exactly what Trump was trying to do.
The fellow who decided to comment was perfectly civil, and even, quite decently, gave me a “like”, but opined that “it was a bit of chore getting through the invective”, or words to that effect. His view was that I should chill.
Those who know me know I don’t have a “chill” mode, exactly, but I do wish to be fair, and my critic was implying that I was failing to see both sides, hard to do when you’re dealing with Republicans and Trumpism, but I thought that perhaps the good fellow had a point. I thus resolved to find something nice to say about something that some Republican, any Republican, was doing with respect to anything, anywhere, be it something significant, or merely something trivial, so long as it was nice. Keen to leap upon the first opportunity, I scoured the many news sources that feed into my lair here in the treehouse. Fat chance you say? No! It happened! Something nice, and not trivial either! No fooling, and get this, both Donald and son-in-law Jared were front and center!
The unexpected decency involved criminal justice reform. This is something the reader probably already understands to be dearly needed in America, where the past few decades have witnessed unprecedented mass incarceration within what’s come to be known as the “prison industrial complex”. Still, permit me to refresh your memory with some astonishing statistics.
The United States, between its various levels of government and separate prison and detention systems, locks up more people not only per capita, but in absolute terms, than any other nation. There are about 2.3 million people behind bars at any given moment, either having been convicted of something, or awaiting trial. Amazingly, the United States, a purported liberal democracy with an impartial justice system, locks up more people – about 450,000 more – than totalitarian China, despite having less than 1/3 the population of the Communist autocracy. There’s also a huge “churn” of people going into and out of detention each year, as many as 10 million, a lot of them because the bail system particularly disadvantages the poor folk who tend to end up in the grasp of the criminal justice system. Many accused simply can’t afford to post bond, and wind up spending long stints in cages despite being innocent in the eyes of the law.
I attach a couple of links to sites where you can read all about it:
The size of the American prison population owes much to the many “tough on crime” measures added over the past three decades at both the State and Federal levels, such as mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes and you’re out” laws, and the like. Such draconian measures have been a particular facet of the disastrous War on Drugs, which has disproportionately caged minorities and poor people. I will leave it for another day how these policies, combined with laws disenfranchising ex-convicts in several States, dovetailed perfectly with the Republican voter suppression agenda, as well as the financial interests of the for-profit private prison industry, which donated about 1.6 million dollars to Republican candidates in 2016. Must avoid undue snark!
The vast bulk of America’s prison population is beyond Federal reach, but the Federal system itself incarcerates about 200,000 people. The War on Drugs swelled the ranks there, too, with about three times as many behind bars as in the 1980s, when the push to be tough on crime began under Reagan (and yes, Democrats did all they could to prosecute this war themselves, in later years, particularly under Clinton). This is expensive, and generally arbitrary and unfair. For example, sentences for possession of crack cocaine, a drug especially prevalent in poor African-American communities, are much more severe than those for powdered cocaine, the preferred choice of more affluent white people. Meanwhile the drug war itself, having wrought all this damage, has been a spectacular failure, as politicians on all points of the spectrum are now willing to admit. Momentum behind reform efforts has built steadily, and for a few years now there’s been a bi-partisan – yes, you read that right, bi-partisan – initiative in Congress to do something about the present mess.
A reform bill has been kicking around since 2015, but it was Jared Kushner – Jared Kushner!*- who decided to put his shoulder to the wheel and get something done, and just last week, after a lot of behind the scenes work by Jared, a bill passed out of Committee in the Senate that was a more comprehensive reworking of a similar bill that cleared the House.
Titled the First Step Act, in overt acknowledgement that it leaves much still to be done, it would enact some fairly modest reforms, amounting to an incremental improvement on what was achieved by 2010’s likewise modest Fair Sentencing Act:
- Prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offences before the Fair Sentencing Act came in would get the chance to petition for a reduced sentence. To petition, mind you – nothing automatic.
- Mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offences would be lowered. Not done away with – lowered.
- Life sentences handed to drug offenders under “three strikes” laws would be reduced to 25 years – 25 years! – since “life” in the U.S. often means just that, life, for real.
Like the title said, a first step. It hardly amounts to letting the doors swing in the Federal prison system.
A press conference was held at which Trump himself praised all concerned, and promised to sign it as soon as it hit his desk (I know, I know, Trumpian promises, but he seemed sincere). The Senate is now in “lame duck” session, but it’s still in session, it can still pass bills, and the passage of this one would be uncontroversial with majorities in both parties. The ball was now in Mitch McConnell’s court, he being the Senate Majority Leader in charge of the agenda, to bring it to the floor for a vote of the full Senate.
You can guess what came next, can’t you? YES YOU’RE RIGHT – Mitch decided not to bring it to a vote. He claims there just isn’t time between now and the end of the session. This might sound reasonable enough, and you might think fine, he’ll revisit it next session, but seasoned observers are convinced that Mitch really means to kill it dead. He first raised the objection that he needed sixty votes to pass it (for procedural reasons to do with a potential but in this case unlikely filibuster), and when the sixty votes were duly committed, he decided there just wasn’t time. Democrats, Republicans and outside observers all feel that the measure is now as good as dead:
Now am I allowed to spew invective? Is it OK to be dismayed? Might I be so bold as to ask why, oh why Mitch F*%$ing McConnell is always there to block anything decent and worthwhile? Is it within proper decorum to wonder why he seems to do nothing all day but think of ways to make sure that nobody who deserves a break in America will ever get one? Is it typically un-chill of me to question why he’s satisfied to have lived an entire career as Senate Republican leader, a tenure which has now lasted a dozen years, having achieved almost nothing save stealing a seat on the Supreme Court and enacting the recent and fiscally irresponsible tax cut for the rich? He bent every sinew to obstruct the Obama agenda, brooking no compromise; now he can’t even bring himself to do something his own party wants? Why not?
Honestly, what’s an outside observer to make of all this? Assuming one cares about things generally, and indeed fears the spread of Republican ideology to his own country, is there really any sensible way to maintain benign equanimity? Is it even decent to be that way in the face of this sort of government for the rich, and the rich only?
Supplemental: is this thing even human, or has the Federalist Society or some such perfected the LegisBot5000ZX?
Another invective-stuffed chore of a read, I’m afraid. Ah well. There must be something nice to write about. I’ll see what I can do.
*It’s personal. Jared’s father went to the slam.