a bird and a bottle


American Military Women Betrayed. Again.

Not so shockingly, the US government has sold out American military women yet again. There’s news today (via Majikthise) that Congressional Dems have withdrawn legislation that would have required U.S. military bases to stock emergency contraception. Here’s a snippet:

For reasons that remain unclear, Michaud [the sponsoring Congressman] withdrew the legislation the next morning. According to [his press secretary], it was purely a logistical snafu: “Key supporters had to be in their districts.” But sources close to the issue tell a different story: The legislation, an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, with bipartisan support, was dropped by a Democratic leadership unwilling to go to bat for pro-choice issues. Despite Michaud’s confidence that the votes were there, Democratic leadership wasn’t so sure, and they didn’t want to hang around long enough to find out. The legislation might not have sunk, but they jumped ship anyway.

Newsflash for all of you women in fatigues: if you are sexually assaulted by a fellow officer, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have access to EC. How’s that for supporting our people in uniform?

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More on the Dems and Ab Only

The fabulous Ms. Lindsay Beyerstein has taken a new job as a reporter for In These Times. Her first piece, up today, takes on the Democrats and their recent support for abstinence only funding. What do the Dems have to give up, she wonders, in order to secure the success of some of their other priorities? Here’s a snippet:

Even opponents of abstinence-only education might concede that a few extra million for abstinence education is a small price to pay for easing the passage of a very important domestic spending bill that contains a lot of spending that’s important to Democrats.

Yet, principle is at stake here. Few people realize that the CBAE program promulgates out-and-out quackery and barely disguised religious dogma. These programs don’t just encourage students to remain abstinent as teenagers. By law, they are required to teach “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity,” among many other stipulations. In other words, the program must teach that all sexual activity outside of marriage, even between consenting adults, violates some nebulous “expected standard.”

Go check out the whole thing here.



SCOTUS will review the crack/cocaine disparity
June 12, 2007, 8:34 am
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, drug war, law, news

Interesting news from ACSBlog: The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to hear a case challenging the disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and those for powder cocaine. As I have discussedat length — the fact that crack possession is punished 100 times more harshly than cocaine possession is both nonsensical and racist (which might make it sensical to some, I guess).

Anyway, the Supreme Court will hear the case, Kimbrough v. U.S., in its next term after a nice long summer vacation. Kimbrough concerns a question of judges’ sentencing authority: does a judge have the power to sentence outside the 100-to-1 guidelines? SCOTUSBlog has a more full (and somewhat technical) explanation.

It’ll be interesting to see how this one comes out. It’s not just going to be a decision about drug war policies. Scalia has been surprisingly pro-defendant on sentencing, and Breyer supports giving judges more leeway. We could end up with a strange group in the majority and perhaps finally an end to one of the most overtly racist practices in today’s criminal justice system.



Juries and Dodos (the bird)
June 4, 2007, 10:39 pm
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, law, news

Some days, I think that the jury system should go the way of the dodo. As in, go away. Go extinct. Die out. As it has in the UK and other parts of the world. Juries – if they are fair and reasoned – could be a good thing and a check to the power of a single judge. But as they operate today they are often neither fair nor reasoned.

Today, for example, there were two articles in the NY Times about how far the jury system has strayed from its ideal as a deliberative body that metes out real justice — not racially biased (or otherwise biased) “justice.” In the first article, the times reported on today’s Supreme Court decision that makes it much easier for prosecutors to strike any juror who is not gung ho in favor of capital punishment from a death penalty jury. The Supreme Court, in (yet another) 5-4 decision penned by swing vote Justice Kennedy, overturned notorious conservative judge Alex Kozinski’s opinion at the appellate court level. This Court is not a moderate one. Not on abortion rights. And not, it turns out, on issues of criminal justice and the basic fairness that is necessary to lend credibility to the American criminal justice system.

The second Times article — a column by Adam Liptak — points to a fatal flaw in today’s jury sytem. A flaw that today’s Supreme Court decision will only exacerbate. In his column, Liptak, who is himself a trained lawyer, discusses the practice of peremptory strikes. During the process of jury selection, the prosecutor and defense attorney each have a set number of peremptory strikes; that is, they can cut a certain number of potential jurors for no cause and without the acquiescence of the adversary. Legitimate reasons to do this might include the belief that a juror will not be fair to the state or to the defendant. The most obvious illegitimate reason to use a peremptory strike is racism. but that’s of course, exactly when peremptory strikes are often used and when they do the most to undermine the fairness of the trial process. Liptak provides a case in point:

Allen Snyder, a black man, is on death row in Louisiana. An all-white jury in Jefferson Parish, in the New Orleans suburbs, sentenced him to death in 1996 for the fatal stabbing of a man his wife was seeing.

It took some work to get an all-white jury in a parish that is almost one-quarter black, but the prosecutors were up to the task. They used peremptory strikes — ones not requiring a reason — to remove all five eligible potential jurors who were black. (Four more blacks were removed for cause, all at the request of the prosecution.)

The purge had a purpose, according to a dissenting justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court, who called for a new trial.

“The prosecutor’s intention to utilize racial bias became crystal clear when he commented during closing argument in the penalty phase that O. J. Simpson ‘got away with it’ in the California verdict that had been rendered shortly before this trial,” the justice, Harry T. Lemmon, wrote.

Peremptory challenges are at odds with the goal of driving racial bias (and other biases) as far away as possible from the criminal justice system. Yet their use in racist ways continue. Liptak has more:

According to a 2003 report of the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, which studied 390 felony jury trials in the parish from 1994 to 2002, the district attorney’s office used peremptory strikes to remove eligible black jurors three times as often as white ones.

In the two decades since Batson [the Supreme Court case supposedly ending exclusion of jurors based on race], there have been 20 murder trials in Jefferson Parish that ended in death sentences. Information about the race of the jurors is available in 18 of them.

Because the parish is 23 percent black, according to the 2000 census, you might expect to see about 3 black jurors on each 12-member panel. But of the 18 juries, 10 had no black members. Seven had one. One had two. None had three.

So today’s news and analysis provided a one-two punch that might prove to be a K.O. Now prosecutors have much more leeway to strike jurors they don’t like without using their peremptories. And not only that, but they can continue to use their peremptory strikes in a racist fashion with impunity. And the mass incarceration of black men and women marches on.



Why “Slippery Slope” Is A Meaningful Concept Not Just An Annoying Legalism

Over the last few years there has been a drumbeat of paternalistic rhetoric in American politics, particularly in the realm of women’s health and reproductive justice. In South Dakota, which last year passed an abortion ban that made exception only if the woman’s life was in danger, those who supported the ban touted it as necessary to protect women from the emotional and medical perils that supposedly would befall them if they had an abortion. The line was such bunk that anti-abortion wingnuts (er, activists) “>had to recruit fake doctors to make an ad in support of it. (The South Dakota law was subsequently rejected by popular ballot.) The siegelin South Dakota (pdf). But for perhaps the first time, it gained adherents. And it seemed to work.

Then, of course, there was the Supreme Court’s truly horrendous decision in Gonzales v. Carhart, which exalted the paternalistic, daddy state knows best language about abortion rights and echoed the rhetoric used to support the South Dakota ban. As Linda Greenhouse noted in the NY Times, the language of the decision was groundbreaking:

But never until Wednesday had the court held that an abortion procedure could be prohibited because the procedure itself, not the pregnancy, threatened a woman’s health — mental health, in this case, and moral health as well. In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy suggested that a pregnant woman who chooses abortion falls away from true womanhood.

And then there’s news today, via Broadsheet, that a pharmacy in Montana refused to dispense the birth control pill to a local woman because they were trying to “protect” her health. Nevermind that the woman was 49, unable to conceive, and using the pill for medical purposes (I really don’t think that should matter, but it’s worth mentioning). According to Broadsheet:

When the woman called the pharmacy to inquire why the pills were being discontinued, the owners claimed that the pills are dangerous for women.

This from the same pharmacy that ran a Mother’s Day ad that included this language:

On this Mother’s Day 2007, we wish to express our gratitude to all mothers for their unselfishness in our behalf. As health-care professionals, we call upon the American people to once again reaffirm the right to life for future generations of the unborn and join with us in our efforts to restore respect, dignity and value to each human life — born or unborn.

Apparently, this pharmacy, under new ownership, has decided across the board to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions. Daddy state (or daddy pharmacist) apparently knows what’s best for his women clients. And now he’s got a Supreme Court decision to back him up. And, in keeping with the paternalistic, anti-woman slant underlying the decision of both the Court and the pharmacist, such decisions are ok. Because, dammit, if a woman is going to open her legs for sex, she better be willing to open them for labor.



NYC Lowers Bar to Hold People Behind Bars
May 28, 2007, 11:08 pm
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, law, news, NYC

The NYC prison reform community has been up in arms for the last month or so over proposed changes to the city’s minimum standards for its jails. In April, the New York Board of Correction, supposedly the watchdog over prison conditions in the city and the manager of all of the city’s jail facilities, suggested changes to the requirements it sets for city jails. In addition to allowing the city to eavesdrop on telephone conversations between incarcerated men and women and their friends and families and to censor their mail, the new standards would allow for:

# More crowding: Open dormitory housing units would hold up to 20% more prisoners.
# More round-the-clock cell lock-in: Virtual solitary confinement-cell lock-in all day except for an hour for exercise and a shower-would be applied to prisoners who are removed from general population for their own protection or for administrative reasons. Prolonged cell confinement of this sort has been linked to prisoner suicides.
# Less assistance for Spanish-speaking prisoners: The amendments would repeal the requirement that the jails have sufficient Spanish-speaking staff to assist Hispanic prisoners, and would provide only that the Department of Correction must implement Aprocedures@ to ensure that they can understand communications from staff. There is no requirement or even hint as to what those procedures might be.
# Denial of personal clothing: The amendments would allow jail officials to require pre-trial detainees, in addition to sentenced prisoners, to wear uniforms, despite their having been convicted of nothing, and would deprive their families of the ability to provide them with clothing to protect them from the extremes of temperature often found in the jails. They would have to wear uniforms at all court appearances except actual trials, stigmatizing them before the court.

There are so many problems with these standards that it’s hard to know where to begin. New York Civil Liberties Union Director Donna Lieberman is on the right track:

“For the Board of Corrections to proceed down this path would do a fundamental disservice to prisoners and their families and would make all New Yorkers both less safe and less free,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director.

Why would these standards do a disservice? First, they would continue the degradation and humiliation of incarcerated women and men and perpetuate some of the problems that lead to recidivism. Second, it will violate the privacy rights of both incarcerated people and their families. Third, as Legal Aid noted in a recent press release, the new proposed standards allow the Board of Correction to deflect the proposed improvements to carcereal policy, including ending disability discrimination, providing G.E.D. education for incarcerees, and renewing a court order protecting incarcerated men and women from abusive searches.

The human rights of incarcerated men and women are not just an issue for those of us concerned with prison reform. It’s a women’s issue too. As Bridget Crawford at Feminist Law Professors notes (quoting a report of the Correctional Association’s Women in Prison Project):

*As of January 2007, 2,859 women were incarcerated in New York’s prisons – 4.5% of the state’s total prison population of 63,215. An additional 26,600 were parole (about 3,100) and probation (roughly 23,500).
* From 1973 to 2007, the number of women in New York’s prisons increased by 645%.
* Almost 69% of the state’s female inmates are women of color: about 47% are African American, roughly 22% are Latina, and 30% are Caucasian.
* New York’s general public is 30% women of color and almost 69% Caucasian.
* 84% of women sent to New York State prison in 2006 were convicted of non-violent offenses.
* As of January 2007, 33% of New York’s female inmates were incarcerated for a drug offense. Almost 80% of women drug offenders were women of color.

The fact that we are expending energy fighting against proposed bad changes instead of in support of proposed positive steps is both frustrating and alarming. I keep wondering when we will realize that the U.S. is not the beacon of righteousness in the area of human rights that we claim to be. Certainly there have been wake up calls in recent years (hello Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo) and yet the U.S. still holds itself out to the world as a model. A little melodramatic? Maybe. But these days I’m not so sure rationality gets us anywhere.

If you want to do something, head over to petition online and sign the petition against the proposed changes.



Scratch the Surface of the UVVA

The UVVA. Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Laci & Conner’s Law. Sounds nice enough, right? We want to be able to punish people who commit violence against pregnant women, because we are concerned both about the heightened risks of violence against pregnant women and about doing as much as we can to ensure a healthy birth outcome.

If only it were that simple…UVVA’s, as many of you probably know, were imagined and implemented with a much more political and much more suspect purpose — to establish fetal personhood and support anti repro justice crusaders.

Want more evidence? Well, around the country, prosecutors have attempted to rely on UVVA’s to prosecute pregnant women for not ensuring a perfect birth outcome.

Last week, RH Reality Check’s Amie Newman took on the issue, in the context of Kansas’s new UVVA, which was signed into law by the state’s “pro-choice” governor, Kathleen Sebelius. And what’s funny about Kansas, and what makes the UVVA’s political purposes so blindingly clear, is that the state already had a law protecting pregnant women. Newman has more:

In fact, in Kansas, this law repeals statutes already on the books that criminalize injury inflicted upon a pregnant woman. Twelve years ago, Kansas enacted “Motherhood Protection” laws (K.S.A. 21-3440 and K.S.A. 21-3441) that, according to the reproductive justice advocacy organization ProKanDo, “recognize the particularly heinous nature of crimes against pregnant women by providing separate criminal charges for those who interrupt a pregnancy in the commission of a crime.” These laws were put into place over a decade ago as the result of anti-choice advocates who, at the time, desperately wanted a UVVA in Kansas. What they got instead were laws that heightened the consequences of intentionally harming pregnant women, recognizing the atrocious nature of this type of crime, without defining fetuses as full people.

Fast forward to 2007 when anti-choice advocates in Kansas were finally able to pass the full UVVA that mirrored their ideology while serving their political purposes. Kansas’ law, according to Julie Burkhardt, executive director of ProKanDo, “contains extreme language when talking about life beginning at fertilization or conception — similar to about fifteen other states’ UVV laws.” So what reason can there be for repealing legislation already in place that ensures that perpetrators of violence against pregnant women will be prosecuted uniquely for their crimes? And why did the law pass now — with a pro-choice Governor and five failed attempts in previous years? There may be many reasons; though none have anything to do with justice, protection or concern for the victims of violent crimes.

Some evidence that the UVVA is neither meant to really address violence against women nor effective at preventing such violence: as Newman notes, in none of the 30 states that have state UVVA laws has violence against pregnant women declined. Not only do the laws not help women, but they put women’s reproductive lives in to jeopardy:

Perhaps what is most disturbing about the steady stream of laws like these around the country is their insidiousness. Julie [Burkhardt, director of ProKanDo, a pro-choice political action committee in Kansas] says, “With this type of bill, anti-choice advocates are hitting the spectrum of women’s reproduction.” While many reproductive justice advocates have wondered for years how anti-choice activists could scream so loudly for the punishment of abortion providers while somehow absolving women who access the abortions, it is no longer a puzzle.

“There is a real disconnect — when people think of reproductive health we think about abortion because that’s the hot button issue. It drives voters. But it’s also good for everybody to look at laws like Kansas’ law – it doesn’t just hurt women who need abortions but hurts women who want to continue their pregnancies and be mothers,” Julie says. Women who get abortions are women who chose to become or are already mothers at different points in their lives. Laws like these punish women across the entire reproductive continuum.

So what next? When supposedly pro-choice governors are signing UVVAs into effect, can we really have hope that we can stop their passage? Well, I don’t know. And I’m not particularly optomistic, particularly since these laws appear to protect both women and fetuses, at least on their face. What will it take to get the message across about the perils of the UVVA? How many women will have to end up in jail and how many others will have to end up injured or worse?