Monday, November 30, 2009

School of Americas: Fort Brenning, GA

"If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril." -GW Bush, 2001

Interestingly, while the United States was taking this stance to fight against the "axis of evil" in the middle east under the justification of being opposed to all who harbor terrorists, it was training terrorists of its own-- inside the United States, at taxpayer expense.

The School of Americas
is a military training school founded in 1946 in Panama by the US and relocated to Fort Benning, GA in 1984. It specializes in training military skills, typically used for subversive actions against governments. Those who attend the school can be trained in counterinsurgency, military intelligence, interrogation techniques, torture, sniper fire, infantry and commando tactics, psychological warfare, jungle operations, and so on. Since its inception it has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers.

Many of these soldiers end up committing severe human rights offenses-- military coups against constitutional governments, assassinations, murder, beatings, kidnappings, displacement of the poor, imprisonment of children, and civil liberties abuses. Some of Latin America's most notorious dictators and corrupt government officials, like Peru's Juan Alvarado, Panama's Omar Torrijos, and Ecuador's Guillermo Rodriguez, were also trained by the SOA. Often with US support, many of those trained have caused the overthrowing of democratic governments, which are replaced by corrupt dictatorships and oligarchies that oppress and neglect the impoverished masses.

Fort Brenning doesn't even screen the records of the soldiers who go there and as a result, people who are known to have committed war crimes can be stationed there after-the-fact. If that's not training terrorists, harboring terrorists, and committing acts of terror against people and governments, I don't know what is.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cocaine vs. Crack | 1:100

In 1986, congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in response to mounting fears, suspicions, and assumptions about crack cocaine (as opposed to powder). The death of a basketball player, who was thought to have OD'd on crack (he actually OD'd on powder cocaine), led to a lot of media attention, and congress passed the law in response.

At the time, there were beliefs that crack was worse than powder cocaine, causing increased crime rates, being more addictive, being more likely to cause psychosis/death, etc. Now, it is known that powder cocaine and crack cocaine are exactly the same pharmacologically: one gram of powder is equally potent as one gram of powder.

However, the law passed differentiated between cocaine and crack in an extreme and irrational manner, such that the penalty for possessing one gram of crack has the equivalent criminal sentencing of 100 grams of powder cocaine. As a result, the mandatory minimum prison sentence for 5 grams of crack (the weight of 5 sugar packets) is five years, while more than one pound of cocaine will result in that same sentence.

It turns out, the only real difference between crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the people who use it. Crack cocaine tends to be preferred by African-American drug users, while powder cocaine tends to be preferred by whites. The results of the law have been surprising:

"In 1986, before mandatory minimums for crack offenses became effective, the average federal drug offense sentence for blacks was 11% higher than for whites. Four years later following the implementation of harsher drug sentencing laws, the average federal drug offense sentence was 49% higher for blacks." -source

Additionally, "Most drug offenders are white. Five times as many whites use drugs as blacks. Yet blacks comprise the great majority of drug offenders sent to prison."-source

...And I don't really know quite what to make of this: "more than 80% of the defendants sentenced for federal crack cocaine offenses are African American, despite the fact that more than 66% of crack users are white or Hispanic."-source

And even when law officials realized the disparity between blacks and whites with incarceration soon after the law's passage, no action was taken. Today, it is still a law, although, finally, presidents (both Bush and Obama) and congresspeople have started speaking about the law, and preliminary new laws are present in both houses of Congress. (There is still a ways to go, however.)

Is it negligence that caused this to take so long? What are other laws passed under such irrational circumstances? Why is it possible for trends, craze, & suspicion to cause such devastating laws, yet scientific refutation and regret take forever to undo these damages? Why are African Americans overrepresented in the prison system for crack use more than other crack-using minorities?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Retribution vs. Remediation

A while back in class we discussed prison sentences and trying to determine what age a person is legally an adult. In another class I'm in we were also discussing remediation vs. the current way we punish people. I was sort of curious about prisons in general, so I started reading some statistics/history about them.

One of the first things that stuck out to me was that the way prisons been have used to punish people has changed over time. In the 1970s it was considered a means of rehabilitation or a 'last resort,' reserved for only violent criminals. Today one of the common mindsets is that prison should instead incapacitate criminals of their ability to commit crime by keeping them off the streets and deter crime with stricter sentences.

To do this we have cracked down on property and drug offenders with longer/stricter punishments, increased minimum lengths of stay for convicts, and increased penalties for violation of parole/supervision (a violation of parole/supervision warranting a return to prison), among other things. The result of this is that people go to prison for longer periods of time, and then once they are put on parole there is an increased chance they will return for another year with a technical parole violation instead of an actual criminal offense. Between 1977 and 2000, the amount of people going to prisons for parole violations increased sevenfold, to make up ~35% of total people going to prison. Overall, these increases in sentence time have come despite there being no evidence that increased sentence times themselves deter crime.

In fact, a very high percentage of criminals end up going back to jail after their sentences. This is perhaps a bit dated, but check out this chart:

The amount that criminals are imprisoned once again for a crime within 3 years after release is called recidivism. And studies have shown that increased isolation from society (as in distance of prison from home of criminal and from social networks in general), which is our current goal with punishing criminals, as well as decreasing conditions in prisons, increases recidivism. Which means we're making crime worse to some extent.

Overall, this has contributed significantly to the skyrocketing of prison populations, as prison sentences have increased for nonviolent offenders over time and, more importantly, less people are being released from prison over longer time periods.

This extreme overpopulation leads to degradation of facilities, increased in-prison violence, and, ultimately, increased costs to taxpayers, because this decline in our prison conditions causes even more crime. And in the US the average amount of money spent per year per prisoner is $23,876, not including the additional money it costs to construct additional housing for prisoners in overpopulated areas. In 2007 in California, the prison budget was equal to the budget going towards funding universities, and many other states have been having to put millions of dollars in to prisons instead of education.

Speaking of education, in 2008 around 1 in 3 prisoners were idle, while statistics from 2003 show 40% of criminals did not have a GED.

Anyway, I think it's become somewhat clear that sentencing people out of retribution with long sentences doesn't have much positive effect on stopping crime at its roots. Poverty and lack of education for example, are some of the strongest forces pulling at people to commit crime.

What if instead of giving people long sentences where nonviolent criminals are needlessly isolated from society (when they could be put in systems that are involved in the community) and are often unproductive, we invested more money in to individual psychoevaluation, education, and rehabilitation-- in a word, remediation.

And what if instead of assigning longer minimum lengths of stay, we released prisoners more on the basis of whether they individually are capable or not of returning to society to be productive. It may be expensive, but wouldn't it save us money in the long run? Instead of long, expensive, unproductive sentences, which often end in eventually returning to prison, we could have shorter, productive, and remedying prison stays? What if instead of punishing drug addicts, we gave them therapy?

California, which has a massive prison crisis, is moving towards getting rid of parole for nonviolent offenders, and I'm sure other states are, too. But I think every state needs to go a lot farther with it than that.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Wisdom of Crowds

A couple weeks ago, a speaker came in to school for a club I'm in (Out of the Box) to talk about the Wisdom of Crowds phenomenon, which is essentially a phenomenon observed where the average of conclusions reached by independently-thinking individuals in a crowd tends to be more accurate than any conclusion made by any individual, regardless of how expert they are. It is also observed among collaborating teams, such as those of artists, scientists, and tacticians.

There are 4 characteristics a crowd needs in order to be successful: diversity of opinion (such as differing, eccentric interpretations of the same data), independence (individual members not being influenced by others before forming their own opinion), decentralization of power, and aggregation (which essentially means an average of different ideas).

All of these are necessary in order to encourage specialization and diversity and prevent conformity, which is dangerous to the health of a crowd.

The speaker gave us a ton of different examples of good and bad crowds. I'll mention a couple.

Good Crowds:

1) Google Search. Any time an individual links to a site, it gets a 'vote' for popularity, and the more 'votes' a site has, the more its 'votes' count for other sites. That's how top search results are determined, and that's why you find the best with the first few links. It's decentralized, individual, diverse, etc.

2) The identification of what exactly the SARS virus was accomplished in less than a month because scientists worldwide shared information and worked independently-- an amazing scientific feat.

3) The section of this article about the SS Scorpion is amazing.

Bad Crowds:

1) Planning the Bay of Pigs Invasion-- 1200 troops sent to take over Cuba resulting in utter failure. Those opposing it were not listened to, and there was insufficient sharing of intelligence from different organizations, the group did consult other experts of differing opinion, etc.

2) Mob rule.

What does this say about innovation, creativity, and working in groups? How can you use this for your own advantage?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Wall

The Peace Wall, Apartheid Wall-- er, "Separation Barrier" separating Israeli territory from Palestinian territory in the West Bank is subject to a lot of controversy.

To those supporting it in Israel (and elsewhere), it is a wall securing Israel's rightful survival and identity in a dangerous climate, stopping potential terrorists from bringing weapons in to Israel. Since its construction, terrorist attacks on Israel have been reduced substantially, saving Israeli lives.(Image on left is of a bus bombing in Israel).

To some of those living in Palestine, it is a symbol of loss, inconvenience to freedom of mobility, and religious disconnect, as well as oppression and racial discrimination. (Imagine on the left is of Palestinians lining up for hours at a checkpoint to go to work at a location in close proximity- click image for details).

The US being a steadfast ally to Israel, we need to have Israeli security in mind in helping to bring about peace talks and resolution to the conflict. But how can we balance this with the humanitarian/civil rights problems this increasing of Israeli security (via Wall) creates? Who should we value more?