Category: National

Prison Reform On Uncertain Ground In 2018

One has to wonder if Congressional dysfunction has reached a breaking point.

Imagine legislation that was drafted with the help of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and, unsurprisingly, supported by President Trump himself. Imagine that this same bill is supported by such stalwarts of “The Resistance” as the Urban League and the Equal Justice Initiative, and also backed by prominent conservative groups such as FreedomWorks and the Faith and Freedom Coalition. The Koch brothers and Grover Norquist are advocates, and so is liberal commentator Vann Jones. In fact, imagine a bill so bipartisan that it passed even this deeply divided House on a 360–59 vote.

That legislation would be the “FIRST STEP Act,” a prison-reform bill. And, this being Washington in 2018, it is almost certainly not going to become law. Indeed, it looks doubtful that the Senate will even vote on it.

The FIRST STEP Act is hardly radical. It doesn’t reduce inmate sentences or otherwise deal with the intensely punitive approach to justice that has given the United States the world’s largest per capita prison population. Nor does it remedy the ongoing racial issues that continue to infect our criminal-justice system.

Instead, it would make a number of extremely modest humanitarian reforms to the way we treat prisoners. For example, it would make female health products more available in federal prisons and all but end the practice of shackling female inmates during childbirth. It would try to keep inmate families together by expanding visits, phone privileges teleconferencing, and opportunities to transfer to prisons closer to home. It would increase mental-health and substance-abuse treatment for inmates.

It would also provide a modest $250 million over five years for new inmate-education and -rehabilitation programs, and establish incentives (including time credits) for prisoners to participate. Prisons would also be required to conduct “risk assessments” of soon-to-be-released inmates and to tailor programs to meet these inmates’ needs.

Over the long run, most experts believe the legislation would save money. For example, studies have shown that every dollar spent providing needed mental-health and substance-abuse treatment to inmates ultimately saves taxpayers $1.27 to $5.47 in reduced crime and incarceration costs. One should always be skeptical of claims that government spending will save money, but this initiative clearly passes the common-sense test. Similarly, keeping families together is likely to reduce future welfare costs as well as crime. And since nearly all prisoners will eventually be released, programs to reduce recidivism are also likely to prove cost-effective.

So why is such a modest and humane bill almost certain to die?

In part, the FIRST STEP Act is a victim of the infighting and turf protection that helps explain Congress’s 18 percent favorability rating. Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who as chairman of the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over the bill, favors a much more expansive bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which he is co-sponsoring with Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. Grassley and Durbin are insisting that the FIRST STEP Act be rolled into their bill. But their legislation, which is indeed worthwhile, is being blocked by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell because the White House won’t sign off on some provisions. In the meantime, prison reform goes nowhere.

An even more significant roadblock is being provided by Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), who opposes nearly all efforts at criminal-justice reform. Senator Cotton, one of the few Americans who believe we have an underincarceration problem, in his words, has mounted an effective guerrilla campaign to undermine the bill’s support on the right. For example, Cotton is reportedly pushing law-enforcement groups to oppose the bill. His efforts have been drawing fruit. Recently the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association withdrew its endorsement of the bill after being pressured by Cotton’s office. Republicans, always fearful of being called “soft on crime,” will find it difficult to buck law enforcement.

Complaints about congressional gridlock are often exaggerated. The Founders intended legislating to be slow, deliberate, and challenging. But when even commonsense legislation with broad bipartisan support can’t so much as get a vote, one has to wonder if congressional dysfunction has reached a breaking point.

There is one possible way that this innovative bill could make it through Congress and onto the President’s desk. If determined members of the Senate refuse to vote in the upcoming confirmation of the candidate to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy there may be enough pressure to move the opposition out of the way.  Senators Cotton and McConnell both have vested interest in seeing a smooth confirmation hearing, and stand to lose critical local support in their home states and from the administration if their actions cause unnecessary delays or, worse, derail the confirmation entirely.

It’s a weak foundation  for prison reform advocates to stand on, but uncertain ground is better than having no place to stand at all.

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Air Force One To Get New Look For 2024

When President Trump confirmed that he wants to redesign Air Force One during his term in office, in an interview with CBS that aired on Tuesday, he told reporter Jeff Glor that he planned to repaint the iconic aircraft red, white and blue. When asked if he wanted to keep the current robin’s egg blue design he said he would not. “Air Force One is going to be incredible,” Trump told Glor. “It’s going to be the top of the line, the top in the world, and it’s going to be red, white and blue. Which I think is appropriate.”

The CBS interview confirmed an earlier report by Axios, which said Trump planned to ditch the “Jackie Kennedy color” for something “more American.”

The new Air Force One planes, which will be made by Boeing, will not be ready until 2024. (Though “Air Force One” designates the aircraft on which the President flies, it’s not actually one single plane.) The new planes will be replacing a set that, according to the Department of Defense, have been in the air since 1987. At that time, President Ronald Regan chose to keep the Air Force One design that had been selected during the Kennedy administration.

That longevity sets the presidential plane apart: While the presidential cars are upgraded every few years for the newest, safest models, and the Oval office is regularly redecorated to reflect the changing times and the presidential personality, the design of Air Force One has remained the same since 1962.

But that design wasn’t part of the original plan for Air Force One.

In May of 1962, in anticipation of a new pair of planes to serve as Air Force One, Boeing’s exterior designs for the planes— which included the typical red and orange military plane markings and type-font lettering — were released to the public. According to the New England Historical Society, Raymond Loewy, a well-known French industrial designer who had created designs for Coca-Cola, Lucky Strikes Cigarettes and Studebaker cars, made it known to a White House aide that elements of the proposed sketch were “gaudy” and “amateurish.”

When Jackie Kennedy heard that such a well-respected designer had critiqued the design of the iconic planes, she asked her husband to hire Loewy for the job.

Ever-conscious of appearances and trends, the First Lady wanted to make sure the planes that served as a foreign country’s first impression of JFK would represent the U.S. leader well. During Loewy’s first meeting with JFK in the West Wing, he had the president sit on the floor with him as they sketched a new paint scheme, according to the book Air Force One. Kennedy, who wanted a design with less military nomenclature, changed the traditional “U.S. Air Force” markings on the side to a more neutral designation of “The United States of America.” He also added the presidential seal near the nose of the plane, and an American Flag on the tail. In order to select the best font, Loewy looked to historical U.S. documents for inspiration; when he saw the typeface of the original Declaration of Independence, he knew he had found the perfect model. Widely spaced letters in all capitals, using the font Caslon, were then applied for the lettering on the planes.

For the color palette of the aircrafts, Loewy went with a simple but striking design. Knowing Kennedy’s affinity for blue, the designer came up with the paint scheme that is now synonymous with the presidential planes, using slate and cyan blue for the middle and wings, and leaving the top of the plane white with a silver underside.

The new design, like most things the Kennedy family did, was received with great fanfare from the American public. In 1961, when the Kennedy couple went to France on one of the first flights of the upgraded planes, TIME’s Hugh Sidey reported that the new look was a hit:

Then, while it was still dawn in his own country, President John F. Kennedy‘s scarlet-nosed Boeing 707 jet (code name: “Air Force One”) angled down through the pattern of clouds that covered northern France, and it came time for John Kennedy to prove that the words of the song had real meaning. Five minutes ahead of schedule, the huge craft eased onto the runway at Paris‘ Orly Airport. A light haze filtered the bright sun, and there was no hint of rain to come later in the day; except for the chill (58°), it was Paris at its seductive springtime best. As the jet taxied toward the terminal, Kennedy pulled up the knot in his tie, brushed down a stray lock of hair; Jackie Kennedy carefully settled her pillbox hat—blue, to match the spring coat created by Designer Oleg Cassini—on top of her well-combed, bouffant hairdo. Press Secretary Pierre Salinger came forward with a last-minute report on details of the arrival ceremony; Kennedy listened, nodded his approval.

When the presidential plane wheeled to a stop in front of the terminal, the drums of a French air force band rolled out a rhythmic welcome. Dressed in a double-breasted grey suit, the Savior of France led his welcoming party—including Madame de Gaulle, U.S. Ambassador to Paris James Gavin, France‘s Ambassador in Washington Herve Alphand—along 75 yards of red carpet to the debarking ramp. With a grin and a choppy, campaign-style wave. Kennedy stepped from the plane, Jackie a pace behind him. When the President of the U.S. and the President of France shook hands, De Gaulle gave greeting in his stilted, seldom-used English: “Have you made a good aerial voyage?” When Kennedy, grinning, answered yes, De Gaulle said: “Ah, that’s good.”

Sidey would later recall that he was “deeply touched by the majesty of the moment” and that the plane’s paint job was a testament of the First Lady’s impeccable sense of style.

Only time and critical review will tell if Trump’s “more American” red, white and blue Air Force One will be able to match the ability of Loewy’s design to exude presidential power with simple elegance — but for the next 6 years the iconic “Jackie Kennedy Blue” will continue to represent the U.S. abroad.  The President certainly has his own unique flair, now he’ll get a chance to shown is he has style as well.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions Turns Asylum On It’s Ear – Moving To Expel Rape & Violence Victims

“The asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune,” Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III wrote as he moved to further restrict U.S. acceptance of immigrants by ruling Monday that fear of domestic abuse or gang violence is not an acceptable basis for granting asylum. Ripping discretion, once again, from local authorities.

Sessions wrote a formal legal opinion, exercising his authority to overturn decisions by federal immigration judges, but not on a case-by-case basis as would normally be done, and finding that very real cases of repeated rape, sexual slavery and viable threats of murder – often against young people who have just watched their parents murdered before them – are not grounds for asylum, ever.

“The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes — such as domestic violence or gang violence — or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime cannot itself establish an asylum claim.”

He acted in the case of a woman from El Salvador who entered the U.S. illegally in 2014 and sought asylum, claiming that her husband repeatedly abused her “emotionally, physically and sexually.”

Under U.S. and international law, a person may seek asylum based on past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Four years ago, an immigration court recognized “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” as such a social group.

In overturning that ruling, Sessions said it did not conform with the requirements of federal law that a social group must have well-defined characteristics that are socially distinct. The claims of the woman in this case, who said her social group was “El Salvadoran women unable to leave their domestic relationships where they have children,” did not fit the law’s requirements, he said.

“I do not minimize the vile abuse that the respondent reported she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband or the harrowing experiences of many other victims of domestic violence around the world,” Sessions said. “I understand that many victims of domestic violence may seek to flee from their home countries to extricate themselves from a dire situation or to give themselves the opportunity for a better life. But the asylum statute is not a general-hardship statute.”

Advocates for immigrants immediately condemned the ruling.

“We’re not talking about chronic illegal immigration, and this isn’t a defense against a hoard of unwashed heathens swarming our boarders,” opined Michael Spillan, a Sentinel Justice Contributor. “Asylum for women and children who have been and will be subjected to a life of actual physical and sexual slavery is a humanitarian act.”

“I find it dichotomous that we have in President Donald Trump a chief executive so in touch with the will of his base and yet an Attorney General as out of touch with reality itself as Jeff Sessions”

Beth Werlin of the American Immigration Council said it would “result in sending countless mothers and children back to their abusers and criminal gangs. Turning our backs on victims of violence and deporting them to grave danger should not be the legacy sought by any administration.”

Earlier Monday, in a speech to Justice Department immigration lawyers in Tysons Corner, Virginia, Sessions said the asylum system is being abused and “was never meant to alleviate all problems, even serious problems, that people face every day all over the world.”

He said that the number of asylum claims jumped to 94,000 in 2016, compared with 5,000 in 2009, and that only about one-fifth of claims in the past five years have been found to be justified.

The Sentinel has stood strongly against illegal immigration, and will ever continue to do so.  That being said, we are likewise opposed to “one-size-fits-all” cooker cutter type “zero tolerance” policies such as AG Sessions continually attempts to effect.

The Attorney General’s “Kill’em all, let God sort’em out” discretion stripping approach to government, justice, immigration and probably life itself is disturbing.

The People of the United States, through our elected representatives, have spent two and a half centuries building a corps of intelligent, educated and we’ll trained professionals who have been tasked with the job of making determinations, on a case-by-case basis, about who and how life changing decisions impacting the lives of  people within our nation should be made.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has, since his first week in office, moved to strip Congressionally mandated discretionary authority away from those federal professionals, the ones living and working in our local communities, in order to vest it apparently in himself.

He has moved consistently, acting by fiat, to rip case-by-case discretion away from our neighbors, the local United States Attorneys, the local immigration judges, and other people we have direct access to, other people who we trust to understand the needs of our communities – ones they share with us – better than career bureaucrats in Washington.

The Sentinel is a conservative new source, and stands opposed, firmly opposed, to any act by AG Sessions, to dismantle the authority given to our friends and neighbors to determine what’s right and needed in our local communities and replace that authority with his own brand of un-American extremism.

And unlike Mr. Sessions, we do not believe that legitimate fear of rape and murder constitute “misfortune”.

AG Sessions Restricts Administrative Closure Of Immigration Proceedings

 On Thursday, May 17, 2018, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III issued a 26-page opinion and order in Matter of Castro-Tum, Respondent, 27 I&N Dec. 271 (A.G. May 17, 2018), restricting immigration judges from administratively closing cases before they issue decisions.  Sessions’ new order says “the current practice of administrative closure lacks a valid legal foundation”:

I hold that immigration judges and the Board do not have the general authority to suspend indefinitely immigration proceedings by administrative closure.  Accordingly, immigration judges and the Board may only administratively close a case where a previous regulation or a previous judicially approved settlement expressly authorizes such an action.

Where a case has been administratively closed without such authority, the immigration judge or the Board, as appropriate, shall recalendar the case on the motion of either party.

As reported by the New York Times here, the order “is unlikely to reopen all the cases” that are currently administratively closed, but it “injects fresh uncertainty in the lives of undocumented immigrants living in the United States.”

The Sentinel is strongly opposed to illegal immigration into our great nation.  That opposition does not, however, limit concern for unnecessary restrictions being placed on our Administrative Law Judges, who work daily in the trenches, carefully reviewing each case before making individualized decisions regarding the particular merits of each case.

AG Sessions’ action takes authority away from the experienced men and women in our ALJ corp and places it in an absolutionism of regulation without the standards of public notice, review and consideration and review that Federal Regulations are required by law to have.

Actions such as this, promulgation of regulation by fiat, lead to despotism, which the Sentinel, though a Republican owned publication, stands firmly against, administratively mandated “zero tolerance policies” which strip officials of their congressionally granted discretion offend the American citizen’s duly constituted and ratified liberty based governmental model and should not br allowed to stand.

U.S. Seeks Continued Inspections if Iranian Nuclear Sites

The White House wants intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites to continue despite President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from a landmark accord on Tehran’s atomic program, US officials have told America media agencies.

Days after the president walked away from a three-year-old deal that mandated rigorous scrutiny of Iranian facilities, senior administration officials said monitoring should continue regardless.

Known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal between Tehran and major world powers forces Iran to open any site to inspectors within 24 days at most and introduced 24-hour remote surveillance at some sites.

Supporters of the Obama-era accord argue it provided “the world’s most robust” monitoring regime, allowing access to the Islamic republic’s most sensitive nuclear sites.

Speaking at a rally in Indiana on Thursday Trump said tough inspections were still needed.

“We must be able to go to a site and check that site. We have to be able to go into their military bases to see whether or not they’re cheating,” he said.

The White House is demanding the existing inspection regime, however imperfect, continue under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog.

“We expect Iran will continue to implement the Additional Protocol and cooperate with the IAEA whether or not the JCPOA remains in place,” one senior administration official said.

A second official confirmed on Thursday that Washington still wanted the inspections.

Other signatories to the Iran deal — including Tehran, China and European powers — have vowed to press ahead with the agreement’s implementation.

But officials are privately skeptical about how long it can survive, particularly if the United States imposes sanctions on European companies doing business in Iran.

And non-proliferation experts have warned that a vital window into Iran’s nuclear activities could be lost.

“If the agreement collapses, Iran is under no obligation to implement any of these provisions, either the Additional Protocol or the deal-specific measures,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.

“The nuclear deal with Iran put the country’s program under a microscope,” she explained, saying the measures serve as “an early warning system that will set off alarm bells if Iran tries to cheat on its commitments or conduct illicit activities.”

– Are inspections effective? –

Since the nuclear accord was reached in 2015, the IAEA has carried out hundreds of inspections inside Iran.

That includes monitoring at Fordo, an underground fuel enrichment plant inside a base used by Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The JCPOA adds an extra layer of scrutiny not found in existing accords, including monitoring of mines and restrictions on multi-point detonation systems and nuclear computer simulations.

The IAEA has so far confirmed that Iran is adhering to its “nuclear-related commitments,” although the US administration questions that conclusion.

“You cannot say that Iran is in compliance unless you are 100 percent certain that the IAEA and our intelligence are infallible,” said US national security advisor John Bolton.

That approach has left some questioning why the administration wants monitoring to continue at all.

“If they don’t trust the inspections, I don’t know why they would be strongly encouraging Iran to comply,” said Corey Hinderstein, a fuel cycle expert who previously worked on implementation of the deal at the Department of Energy.

“The fact is the inspections are and have been effective,” she said.

American citizens are working on the IAEA inspection team, but are based in Vienna, not on the ground in Iran.

Hinderstein said there is every indication that the US is preparing to pull out of other non-inspection mechanisms in the agreement, including converting the Arak heavy water reactor and the “procurement channel” that regulates the import of dual use materials to Iran.

Trump has described the agreement as “the worst deal in history” and vowed to renegotiate it.

He has also warned that Iran will be punished if it returns to military-scale uranium enrichment.

“If the regime continues its nuclear aspirations, it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before,” Trump said.

– The American Sentinel Newsletter