Thursday, March 31, 2016

Give second chances a chance -- March 31, 2016 column


Before the New Hampshire primary in 1992, Gov. Bill Clinton denied clemency to a mentally incapacitated death-row inmate and flew home to Arkansas to oversee the execution.

Back then, presidential candidates needed to show they were tough on crime.

Today, they’re tough on the criminal justice system.

Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both favor criminal justice reform. Republican Ted Cruz originally supported reform but has backed off. Reform is one thing about which Donald Trump hasn’t said much.

Interestingly, though, none of the GOP presidential hopefuls in this snarling campaign called Clinton as soft on crime when she proposed ending mass incarceration, reducing sentences for non-violent drug offenders and reforming mandatory sentencing laws.

A rare consensus has developed among Democrats and Republicans that the criminal justice system is, as former Attorney General Eric Holder said, broken. In the 1990s’ War on Drugs, voters wanted to lock up criminals and throw away the key. 

President Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act that created longer mandatory sentences and made felonies of lesser crimes.

Now, with nearly half the inmates in federal prisons incarcerated for drug offenses at a per-inmate cost of nearly $30,000 a year, attitudes have changed. Most people think the law is unduly harsh, locks up too many people -- especially minorities -- costs too much and does not make us safer.

President Barack Obama, who has made criminal justice reform a priority, Wednesday commuted the sentences of 61 nonviolent drug offenders. This brought his total commutations to 248 -- more than the last six presidents combined, the White House said.

 Two Alabama prisoners had their sentences commuted: Ian Kavanaugh Gavin of Eight Mile and Jerome Harris Jr. of Mobile. Both were convicted of intending to distribute crack cocaine and having a firearm in their possession.

Since he has been president, Obama has commuted 92 life sentences. Among them: Dwayne Twane Walker of Charlottesville, Va., who received life for a conviction of conspiracy to distribute cocaine base.

 “The power to grant pardons and commutations…embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws,” Obama said in a letter to the prisoners who will be freed.

While he has issued only a fraction of the 10,000 clemency grants for nonviolent offenders Holder predicted last year, Obama vows to do more. The Justice Department’s pardon attorney quit earlier this year because she was frustrated with the slow pace and the backlog of clemency requests.

No one, though, expects clemency to solve our prison problems.

White House Counsel Neil Eggleston wrote on the White House blog: “Clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals, but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just.”

Reform requires legislation, and some states have taken the lead. In Congress, there’s bipartisan interest, and House Speaker Paul Ryan promises the House will take up reform sometime this year.

Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia are among cosponsors of the bipartisan sentencing reform bill in the Senate. Sen. Mike Lee, a conservative Republican from Utah, favors easing mandatory sentencing laws.

Not all are convinced, however. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a conservative Republican from Alabama, is among those who worry that violent criminals might be freed and commit more crimes.

In the 1990s, fear of recidivism motivated the sledgehammer approach to judicial discretion, replacing it with mandatory minimum sentences.

Eight years ago, although he opposed easing sentencing laws, President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act, which provides grants to faith-based and other groups to help prisoners train for jobs, fight substance abuse and learn other skills to reenter society.

Since 2009, more than $400 million in Second Chance grants has been distributed, and other federal programs also help offenders get on their feet. Even so, our recidivism record is appalling.

Almost half of federal offenders released in 2005 were rearrested for a new crime or for a violation of supervision conditions within eight years – most within two years, the U.S. Sentencing Commission said in a study released March 9. Of these, almost one-third were reconvicted.

The current epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction is worse than the cocaine epidemic of the 1990s. We need to stop warehousing nonviolent drug offenders and invest instead in prevention, treatment, rehab, education and recovery. We can’t afford to do anything else.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Bald eagles show us hope in a not-so-silent spring -- March 24, 2016 column


In the 1960s, anyone who saw a bald eagle soar across the sky felt lucky indeed.

The population of bald eagles had dwindled in 1963 to about 400 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. Our national symbol since 1782 was on a fast track to oblivion.

More than 50 years later, though, seeing eagles in the wild is a delight -- but no longer a miracle. Thanks to public support and laws protecting eagles, something like 10,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles survive in the wild in the continental United States.

More than 200 pairs of bald eagles were seen along the James River in Virginia in 2013, the Center for Conservation Biology said after an aerial survey.

In Alabama, January surveys for several years have found an average of 100 to 150 bald eagles, with concentrations on Pickwick Lake near Waterloo and Guntersville Lake near Guntersville State Park, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said last year.

Our forebears couldn’t have imagined our live, 24-hour viewing access to the family life of eagles. “Eagle cams” trained on nests around the country are Internet favorites.

This spring, one bald eagle couple – named “Mr. President” and “The First Lady” – and their offspring have captured imaginations.

Two HD cameras closely observe the eagles’ nest 95 feet above the earth in a tulip poplar tree at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington. The nest has had more than 9 million views in the project by American Eagle Foundation, a nonprofit in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the Arboretum.

The First Lady produced two eggs, and the eaglets hatched on March 18 and 20. Mom tidies and sits on the ample nest, keeping the babies safe. Dad flies home with a fat fish or tasty squirrel for supper. Two adorable eaglet heads pop up to accept morsels from a parent’s yellow beak. Bald eagles aren’t actually bald. They have snowy white heads on charcoal-brown bodies.

It’s mesmerizing to watch when something happens -- and even when it doesn’t. 

Sometimes, when The First Lady sits on the nest, you’re sure your screen must be frozen. Look again: Her head is turning. You are experiencing the slow time of nature.

“If you have high blood pressure, just watch the eagle cam and feel your stress go away,” a friend told me.

There is a warning for tender-hearted humans, however, on 

“This is a wild eagle nest and anything can happen…Things like sibling rivalry, predators and natural disasters can affect this eagle family and may be hard to watch.”

Eagles mate for life, and the same pair nested last year in the same tree in the Arboretum’s Azalea Collection, and sent one eaglet into the world. They are the first eagles to nest in the area since 1947.

The return of the bald eagle is one of the success stories of the Endangered Species Act, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, and the ban on DDT, which we used widely in our war on weeds after World War II. Its use weakened shells of the eggs of eagles and other birds, with disastrous results.

Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” alerted us to the dangers of chemical pesticides in 1962. The title refers to a nameless American town in the future in which birdsong and other creature sounds are absent because of pollution.
Bald eagles’ remarkable comeback led to their removal from the endangered list in 2007. They remain protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Act.

Still, eagles need all our help. Last month, 13 bald eagles were found dead in Federalsburg, Md. State and federal officials are investigating the deaths and a $25,000 reward is offered. A few days later, five more bald eagles were found dead in Delaware.

Bald eagles also may need protection from glib politicians.

Ted Cruz, a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has said: “One of the worst things that can happen to a species is to be listed on the Endangered Species Act. If it gets listed it’s almost certain to become endangered.”

Several fact-check organizations called Cruz off base. The law has recovered some species and for others it represents hope for survival. Just ask Mr. President and The First Lady.

(C) 2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Change the Constitution? Don't count on it -- March 17, 2016 column


It’s spring break in America, so swarms of school kids are visiting the nation’s capital, texting and snapping selfies. Sometimes, they even glance up and learn something.

They aren’t the only ones.

Grumpy about the low tone of the presidential campaign, I went to the National Archives to see “Amending America,” a new exhibit about how we amend the U.S. Constitution.

That sounds dry, but it’s fascinating to see politics in historical perspective. Politicians are forever waving the Constitution in our faces, promising to repeal this or add that. Fortunately, it’s not that easy.

As the exhibit reminds us, a beauty of our system is that it runs on consensus. While it’s always possible to amend the Constitution, it’s never probable.

Members of Congress have proposed more than 11,000 constitutional amendments since the Constitution was written in 1787, but only 27 have been ratified. The exhibit celebrates the 225th anniversary of the first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791 and on permanent display in the Archives Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.

Jostling for space, I leaned over the cases in the dim Rotunda light and looked at the ancient documents. Watching the kids lean in, too, brought unbidden tears to my eyes. We are all de facto heirs of those long-ago patriots.

President Thomas Jefferson recognized in 1803 that the Constitution was a work in progress.

“Let us go on perfecting the Constitution by adding, by way of amendment, those forms which time and trial show are still wanting,” he wrote.

Most proposed amendments fade away. Some were serious attempts to solve problems, others intended only to score points.

Shall we have a constitutional amendment requiring everyone to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” – or face 20 years of hard labor? Shall we outlaw divorce? Or public drunkenness? How about we choose the president by lottery? No, no, no and no.

The process of “perfecting” the Constitution was laborious by design. To approve an amendment takes two-thirds of the House and Senate or a constitutional convention made up of two-thirds of state legislatures. Then, three-quarters of the states must vote to ratify it. Only then is it part of the Constitution.

The 27th and most recent amendment was first introduced in 1789 but wasn’t ratified until 1992. The measure makes sure that when Congress raises its pay, the raise doesn’t go into effect until the next congressional term.

“Amending America” continues through Sept. 4, 2017, and is especially relevant this Election Year. The Founders limited voting to white, land-owning men. The exhibit traces the five amendments have expanded our voting rights.

“Could you vote in 1869?” asks an interactive display. Visitors answer questions about their gender, race, age, poll tax and residence. Many adults discover that, no, they could not have voted in 1869. 

Not until the 15th Amendment in 1870 were all people guaranteed the right to vote  --regardless of race. It took another half century for women to get the vote, with the 19th Amendment in 1920. The 23rd Amendment in 1961 allowed residents of the District of Columbia to vote for president, though they still lack full congressional representation.

The 24th Amendment in 1964 prohibited poll tax fees for voting in federal elections. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled state poll taxes unconstitutional. The 26th Amendment in 1971 lowered the voting age to 18.

The exhibit features more than 50 original documents, including rarely seen letters from citizens for and against amendments. A faded Western Union telegram from 1962 from Augustus C. Johnson of Springfield, Va., to Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, urges an end to the poll tax.

“No man who has studied the history of the adoption of this tax by Virginia can honestly deny that its basic purpose was to curtail the vote of our Negro citizens,” wrote Johnson, a Democratic congressional candidate at the time.

A 1964 letter from W.J. Isbell Jr., secretary of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, asks Congress to reject an amendment authorizing school prayer. Isbell supported the Supreme Court ruling that held forced prayers and Bible readings in school unconstitutional, reflecting the view that the state had no right to decide which prayers were said in school.

“I said, `Amen.’ For this is as it should be,” Isbell wrote about the court’s ruling. “I personally felt that the news media would inform the people and sanity would prevail, but this did not seem the case.”
Today, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald J. Trump wants to repeal the 14th Amendment, which grants anyone born in this country citizenship.

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton favors an amendment to reverse the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which said the government cannot ban corporate spending in campaigns.

Conservative Republicans hope to convene a constitutional convention to consider amendments.

Talk is talk. But a new amendment to the Constitution? Don’t count on it.  

 ©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

No lie -- politicians do -- March 10, 2016 column


Since Jimmy Carter said in 1976 that he would never lie to us, presidential candidates have faced the question: Will you lie to the American people?

Here’s how Hillary Clinton handled the question last month:

“You’re asking me to say, `Have I ever?’ I don’t believe I ever have…I don’t believe I ever will. I am going to do the best I can to level with the American people,” she told Scott Pelley of CBS News.

Her critics say Clinton lied about the Benghazi attack to families of the fallen, her private email account at the State Department and other things. She denies lying.

So here’s another question: Do a politician’s lies matter anymore?  

Republican Donald Trump, Clinton’s likely competitor in November, is such an equal-opportunity prevaricator that no one asks him if he will lie. People expect him to change his story. His supporters like his bluff and bluster enough to forgive his whoppers.  

After Trump jumped into the presidential race last June, he played so loose with truth that PolitiFact, a fact-checking site, awarded him the 2015 Lie of the Year for his collective misstatements. 

When primary voters weigh the most important characteristics of candidates, “honest and trustworthy” is not high on the scale. Among Democratic voters in Virginia on Super Tuesday, for example, only about one in four rated “honest and trustworthy” the most important candidate quality, while 36 percent rated “the right experience” most important.

It may seem quaint to us now, but voters in 1976 saw the pledge of a peanut-growing Georgia governor as a refreshing change after the lies, scandal and bad odor that permeated the Nixon years. 

Only a few years later, though, the oil crisis hit and Carter’s scolding tone turned off voters.

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns,” Carter said in his “Crisis of Confidence” speech in July 1979. It’s known as his “malaise” speech, though he never uttered the word.

We may like the idea of our president telling the truth and only the truth – but in practice we punish those who say things we don’t like. In 1980, voters joined Ronald Reagan in booting Carter back to Georgia.

In 1984, Democrat Walter Mondale, running against President Ronald Reagan, said at the Democratic National Convention: “Let’s tell the truth. President Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

Mondale’s politically motivated honesty help bury him that November. It’s worth remembering that while Reagan did not propose any tax increases in his second term, he did go along with those sent his way by Congress. Revenue enhancements, anyone?

Voters also turn on presidents who honestly change their minds. Just four years after Mondale’s debacle, George H.W. Bush declared at the Republican National Convention in 1988, “Read my lips:  no new taxes.” When the economy did not improve as he expected, Bush agreed to a bipartisan plan that raised taxes in 1990.

Come 1992, Bill Clinton used Bush’s broken tax pledge very effectively, torpedoing Bush’s re-election bid. In 2014, the elder Bush received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award.

Hillary Clinton has a sterling resume but her image for honesty has long been tarnished. Eight years ago this week, when she was battling Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, only 44 percent of Americans thought she was honest and trustworthy, the Gallup organization reported.

Her stature has diminished since then. Today, just 37 percent of Americans see Clinton as honest and trustworthy, the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll reported Tuesday. Clinton says such polls are painful to her. The silver lining for Clinton: Only 27 percent see Trump as honest and trustworthy.  

Back in 2008, candidate Barack Obama told Clinton in a debate, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”

Forty years after a presidential candidate promised never to lie, we’re heading for a November showdown between two candidates most voters see as not honest and trustworthy. This election may come down to which one is likable enough.

© 2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

Trump not yet the inevitable man -- March 3, 2016 column


With Super Tuesday behind us, it’s hard to argue that Donald J. Trump won’t be the Republican presidential nominee -- but let’s give it a try.

Yes, Trump swept seven of 11 states on Super Tuesday and won 10 of the first 15 presidential contests. Yes, he’s ahead in the delegate count and, yes, his news conference Super Tuesday night struck some observers as presidential. That was because he wasn’t as crude and bombastic as he is in rallies.

Some prominent Republicans, like Chris Christie, have joined his campaign.

But Trump is not the inevitable GOP nominee.

In a bizarre, perhaps unprecedented, display of angst, a movement is building among Republican lawmakers, party leaders and donors to derail a Trump nomination.

Desperation is in the air. After endorsements of other candidates by Republican members of Congress and party leaders failed to sway angry voters, the GOP establishment is repudiating the party frontrunner. 

Even Mitt Romney, the party’s defeated 2012 presidential nominee, got into the act, calling Trump a phony and a fraud.

If Trump is the nominee, some Republicans say they won’t vote for him in November. 
One of the first to come forward was Rep. Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican.

“I reject Trump as our nominee based on his judgment, temperament and character, all of which point to a reckless, embarrassing and ultimately dangerous presidency,” Rigell wrote in an open letter Tuesday.

Rigell, who is not running for reelection after three terms in the House, is supporting Marco Rubio. If Rubio doesn’t make it, Rigell said he’ll write in someone else’s name.

I get it that the Republican Party is in a tizzy over Trump. He’s a boor and a bigot who plays to our worst instincts. But Trump waltzed through the door Republicans opened for him with years of carping about the dreadful direction of the country, Washington and the federal government.

With millions of new voters rising up to change the status quo, the party establishment now says no, that’s not what we meant at all.  Really.

On the other hand, for all his success, Trump is not a majority candidate. In the contests through Super Tuesday, he won just 34 percent of Republican votes cast. In other words, nearly two-thirds of Republicans wanted another GOP candidate.

In Virginia, Trump won with 35 percent of the Republican primary vote. In Alabama, he scored 43 percent and in Tennessee 39 percent. His strongest showing was in Massachusetts with 49 percent. It was a five-man race, so the votes naturally were split.

We haven’t even reached the halfway point of the primary process. After Super Tuesday, 71 percent of delegates to this summer’s Republican National Convention remained to be chosen.

Super Tuesday kept alive the hopes of other Republican candidates (except for Ben Carson) at least until the next major contests on March 15 -- winner-take-all primaries in Florida and Ohio and other states. Florida and Ohio are must-wins for Marco Rubio and John Kasich, who hope, along with Ted Cruz, to be the Trump alternative.

Dozens of Republican donors who backed GOP candidates no longer in the race now are trying to dump Trump. Our Principles PAC, a Super PAC, is running ads against him in key states.

Trump’s divisive presence has enlivened the primary system even more than Barack Obama did in 2008. All the Super Tuesday states reported record turnout this year, except Vermont.

In Virginia, a record 1 million people voted in the Republican primary on Tuesday – more than the Democrats in the hot 2008 primary race between Obama and Hillary Clinton.

More people have voted in Republican than in Democratic contests this year, and that should worry Democrats, who are indulging in more than a little schadenfreude over the Republican meltdown.

Most voters in this country consider themselves neither Democrat nor Republican but independent. The party that cobbles together an alliance with the most independents likely will win in November.

Trump claims he’s a “unifier.” We’ll see March 15 whether he unifies voters for – or against – him. Republican primary voters will decide that question.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.