Thursday, 27 July 2017

One of the reddest states in the US is leading the charge toward criminal-justice reform thanks to an unlikely political alliance

nueces county district attorney mark gonzalez

Mark Gonzalez had never prosecuted a single case before he was elected district attorney of Nueces County, Texas, last November.

The 37-year-old self-described "Mexican biker defense lawyer" spent his first decade in law poking holes through bad cases and defending low-level offenders from what he viewed as unnecessary prosecutions and unduly harsh penalties. So when the 2016 election season approached, Gonzalez thought the Nueces County district attorney's office was ripe for an overhaul.

To say Gonzalez isn't the archetype for the chief criminal prosecutor for the southern Texas county is an understatement. He's covered in tattoos — the words "Not Guilty" stretch from shoulder to shoulder in jagged type, and his left forearm is inked with a portrait of Moses because, as his clients say, "he sets people free." He spends his free time riding one of his three Harley-Davidson motorcycles along the barren Texas highways with the Calaveras Motorcycle Club, a group some of his critics called a "biker gang." And at 19, he was arrested for a misdemeanor, driving while intoxicated. He keeps his mugshot framed in his office.

But there he was on January 5, in a tiny courthouse in his hometown of Agua Dulce, sworn in while wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey in a private ceremony in front of his family.

Gonzalez's inexperience and tattoos didn't matter to Texans — they liked what he had to say.

Gonzalez beat a tough-on-crime 29-year Democratic incumbent and an experienced Republican prosecutor by calling for reform. He said he planned to eliminate a notorious court backlog by choosing cases more thoughtfully and making better and fairer deals with defendants. He spoke of offering treatment, education, and job training to low-level offenders rather than jail time, and refocusing police officers on serious crimes.

In short, he wanted to get "smart on crime." And he's far from alone in Texas, where the political conditions have allowed for a Republican-controlled legislature to push through a series of criminal-justice reforms.

Over the past decade, Texas, a state once infamous for its ruthless, lock-'em-up justice system — it had the country's fastest-growing prison population throughout the 1990s — has staked out a hard-earned, bipartisan consensus: The state's bursting prison population has been expensive, counterproductive in reducing crime, unsatisfying for victims, and devastating for the families and communities of the incarcerated.

"It was perfect timing," Gonzalez told Business Insider of his surprise election win. "People realized what we were doing wasn't working, so what do we have to lose by trying something different?"

'This is not a Republican or Democratic issue'

texas prisonDoug Smith, a policy analyst at the left-leaning nonprofit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, has dedicated his career to crafting reforms to help the incarcerated.

The Austin native has a personal stake in the battle. He would likely still be in prison if it weren't for recent reforms implemented in Texas.

Smith, a former social worker and University of Texas at Austin professor, was imprisoned in 2009 on a 15-year sentence for a string of robberies that he says were the result of a crack-cocaine addiction and mental illness.

Three of those robberies had been committed while Smith was on probation, and although he hadn't used a deadly weapon, he was sentenced harshly.

"I was about the worst risk you could think of, someone with a substance abuse disorder who has a relapse history and a revocation history," Smith told Business Insider. "Not a great candidate for parole."

But people like Smith — an educated, rehabilitated ex-offender with meaningful employment, dedication to treatment, and bright prospects — were exactly the reason legislators like Democratic state senator John Whitmire and Republican representative Jerry Madden introduced a bill in 2005 that launched Texas' landmark attempt to overhaul its criminal-justice system.

In the mid-2000s, the Texas prison population was skyrocketing. Texas prisons filled to 97% capacity by 2005, with estimates suggesting the state would need room for 17,000 more inmates within a decade. By 2010, the population reached an all-time high of more than 170,000 state and federal inmates.

Madden and Whitmire argued that the situation was neither effective nor cost-efficient, and that expanding prisons wasn't the answer. Their bill called for allocating millions to treatment programs and specialized supervision for probation, while also calling for a reduction in prison terms for certain probationers.

"This is not a Republican or Democratic issue," Madden would later say of the legislation. "It's about what's smart for Texas."

The bill, an adjusted version of which became law in 2007, kick-started a series of legislative efforts over the next decade that have dropped the prison population by about 10,000 inmates in five years and helped put people like Smith back on their feet.

Smith was released years early, in 2014, thanks to reforms that allowed for certain prisoners to be released, so long as they were placed under intensive supervision.

"While I was incarcerated, the idea that parole was a given, or that you would be given an opportunity for rehabilitation was unheard of. And I was in prison when this began to shift," Smith said. "I was a beneficiary of that."

Forging bipartisan consensus

marc levin right on crime texas public policy foundationUntil 2005, criminal-justice reform had been nearly impossible to pass in Texas, as was the case in many conservative states.

Reformers were derided as "soft on crime" while even popular bills ran into vetoes from Republicans like Gov. Rick Perry, budget crises, and tough-on-crime district attorneys, many of whom view securing harsh sentences as a metric of success.

But with Texas's prisons bursting at the seams, legislators were faced with a choice: reduce incarceration with reforms or funnel billions into new prisons.

At the same time, a new movement emerged among conservatives, led by Marc Levin, the director of the Right on Crime campaign created by the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation. Levin, an Austin-based attorney and public-policy expert, and other conservatives like him understood ideas such as addressing substance abuse with treatment rather than incarceration, and promoting parole, probation, and reentry programs, as inherent to conservative ideology, not antithetical to it.

Meanwhile, fiscal conservatives in the state had grown appalled by the taxpayer burden of funding and maintaining new prisons, while libertarians were cynical of the broad government power required to funnel vast numbers of Texans through prisons each year.

Social conservatives like Prison Fellowship, an evangelical Christian organization founded by Chuck Colson, a former Watergate-era felon, approached reform after witnessing through their prison-ministry programs how rarely inmates were given opportunities for redemption.

"You really had a point where the only thing that was standing against reform from the conservative perspective ... would just be the muscle memory of being 'tough on crime' for decades," Derek Cohen, the deputy director of Right on Crime, told Business Insider.

What propelled reform forward, however, was that those groups were able to join with liberals long clamoring for change in the Republican-controlled state. The movement formed the Texas Smart On Crime Coalition to push their agenda in the statehouse and, while the coalition is bipartisan, that doesn't mean they agree on everything.

The movement can be thought of as a sort of Venn diagram. Liberals, conservatives, and religious groups each have their own reform plans, and they work together on issues where there is broad agreement, while still vehemently opposing one another where values diverge.

"This shows that just because it's bipartisan doesn't mean that it's compromise," Cohen said. "We're retaining our perfect circles and just in the few places that they overlap, that’s where we're working together."

Common issues like bail reform, rehabilitation and treatment programs, and prosecuting youths through juvenile rather than adult courts are all fair game for collaboration. But issues like "mens rea reform," or requiring more proof of a defendant's culpable mental state, are more polarized. Similarly, en masse sentence reductions for drug crimes and "ban the box" initiatives — some of which impose civil or criminal penalties on employers that ask about applicants' criminal histories — remain partisan battlefields.

criminal justice reform texas

Cohen said the key to unlocking reforms in Texas has been that most Americans, whether conservative or liberal, just want a system that works.

"They want a system that shows that that behavior is morally blameworthy ... but also that which rehabilitates," Cohen said. "There isn't this monolithic, punitive impulse in Texas or in conservatives or liberals or anywhere in the country."

Smith, the policy analyst for the left-leaning TCJC, recalled being incarcerated in Texas' Huntsville Unit as the Texas reform movement turned bipartisan. When groups like Right on Crime began talking about how over-incarceration represses human potential and fails the communities it's supposed to protect, Smith said he knew progress was coming.

"I'm reading about these things from the inside, and I can't tell you how moved I was that this was the message that I was hearing from the conservative community," Smith said.

Reform in the age of Trump

donald trump jeff sessionsTexas' smart-on-crime crusade has come to be viewed as a model for conservative states like Louisiana, Georgia, and Kentucky, which all recently passed major reform packages.

Those efforts come even as President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have embraced a tough-on-crime agenda that has alarmed progressives and conservatives alike.

In May, Sessions directed US attorneys to seek the harshest charges and sentences against defendants and, last week, he rolled back Obama-era reforms to the policing practice known as civil-asset forfeiture — a way for the federal government to seize the assets of citizens suspected of criminal activity, even if they are not formally charged with a crime.

In many ways, the Trump administration is alone on criminal justice. Multiple Democrats and Republicans decried the civil forfeiture changes as unconstitutional and the sentencing directive as regressive.

The vast majority of conservatives and liberals agree that incarceration in the US has spun out of control. The country has, by far, the largest incarcerated population in the world at 2.3 million people.

Cohen, of Right on Crime, says he is "very optimistic" that federal reform could still happen soon. Last year, Congress came close to passing bipartisan reforms to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Many reformers criticize the laws, which require prison terms of certain lengths for certain crimes, as cruel and counterproductive.

The effort stalled as Trump turned to tough-on-crime rhetoric in the election, scaring many Republicans into thinking they'd be painted as soft. It's not hard to see a rare bipartisan effort gaining momentum, particularly given the criminal-justice system's ties to the opioid crisis, which has seen an unprecedented spike in heroin and prescription painkiller abuse in recent years.

Lawmakers and the public alike have begun to recognize that the country cannot punish its way out of drug epidemics, Cohen said, adding that there has been "a very marked shift" toward seeing illicit drug use as an offense fueled by addiction, rather than a moral failing.

texas inmates prison program

Whether or not federal reform is successful, many advocates think the more important arena for reforms lies in the states. Only about 200,000 of the more than 2 million people incarcerated in the US are locked up in federal prisons.

Kate Trammell, the senior state campaign manager for Prison Fellowship, said that the Christian group is focusing its efforts on the state side, even as it pushes Washington for reform.

"States have been and will continue to be the laboratory of democracy, and Texas has really embraced that," Trammell told Business Insider, adding that Texas has become the success story that reformers show to those wary of change.

Louisiana, for instance, recently brought together conservative groups, liberal social-justice activists, business leaders, and religious organizations to win support for sentencing and parole reforms that sailed through the state's Republican-controlled legislature and were signed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in June. Louisiana anticipates a 10% jail-population reduction over the next decade as a result.

Reform has filtered to the local level too. Newly elected reformers like Gonzalez, the Nueces County district attorney, are beginning to make the day-to-day decisions of what charges to press, what cases to pursue, and who gets a second chance. The stakes are high — even a modest crime spike could torpedo the public's appetite for leniency to offenders — but Gonzalez is confident he knows the way forward.

"If you make a mistake and they're misdemeanor offenses, we hope you learn your lesson," Gonzalez said. "My standpoint is — the bad guys? We slam them … You need to make sure you don't mess up. Not in my county."

SEE ALSO: This 1980s-era letter from Jeff Sessions is a peek into his scorched-earth crime-fighting policies

DON'T MISS: More from Undividing America

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Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Justice Department appears to be gearing up for a legal fight with the LGBTQ community

Jeff Sessions

The Department of Justice has argued that a pivotal civil-rights law does not protect a worker's sexual orientation against discrimination, according to a new legal brief published on Wednesday.

Pitted against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that oversees discrimination complaints in the workplace, the DOJ argued in its amicus brief that the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit should reaffirm a previous ruling that the protection of "Title VII does not reach discrimination based on sexual orientation."

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against its employees on the basis of their race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, is considered to be one of the most significant equal opportunity laws enacted in the US.

The particular case involved Donald Zarda, a skydiving instructor who alleged in a 2010 lawsuit that his former employer, Altitude Express, had violated Title VII by firing him for being gay.

The Justice Department and EEOC were invited to argue their claims after the court agreed to listen to outside parties.

"Following one jump, a customer complained that Zarda had disclosed his homosexuality and other personal details during the jump," a legal brief from the EEOC read. "Zarda was fired soon thereafter."

The US District Court for the Eastern District of New York first rejected Zarda's claim by ruling that Title VII does not offer protection on the basis of his sexual orientation. 

Zarda died in a base-jumping accident in 2014.

"The sole question here is whether, as a matter of law, Title VII reaches sexual orientation discrimination," the Justice Department's brief said. "It does not, as has been settled for decades. Any efforts to amend Title VII’s scope should be directed to Congress rather than the courts."

"Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title VII against private employers ... the EEOC is not speaking for the United States and its position about the scope of Title VII is entitled to no deference beyond its power to persuade," the Justice Department's brief continued. 

The new filing comes the same day President Donald Trump said "the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military," sparking bipartisan backlash over the surprise announcement.

 

SEE ALSO: Trump may have announced the transgender military ban to save a bill funding the border wall

Join the conversation about this story »

NOW WATCH: Here's the TV segment that prompted Trump's vicious Twitter attack on Mika Brzezinski


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27-Year-Old Melody M. Irizarry Killed in Tractor Crash on State Route 72, Two Toddlers Hospitalized

Melody M. Irizarry Dies and Vitany and Zacharias Injured in Crash with Tractor

Melody M. Irizarry

27-Year-Old Melody M. Irizarry Killed in Tractor Crash on State Route 72, Two Toddlers Hospitalized

Manheim, Pennsylvania (July 26, 2017) – A 27-year-old woman was killed, and two toddlers were hospitalized Monday morning after the car they were traveling in collided with a tractor trailer in Manheim, police said.

The crash happened at around 9:15 a.m. Monday, July 24 on State Route 72, just south of Manheim.

Initial investigations revealed that a tractor-trailer was traveling south on SR 72 and a silver four-door sedan was traveling north when the car crossed the line and crashed into the tractor. The car was partially under the rear tires of the trailer after the collision.

Melody M. Irizarry was pronounced dead at the scene. Two toddlers, Zacharias, an 18-month-old baby boy and Vitani, a 3-year-old girl were pulled from the back seat of the vehicle. Vitani was taken to Hershey Medical Center in critical condition and underwent surgery. Zacharias was taken to Lancaster General Hospital and was expected to be discharged after treatment of minor cuts and bruises.

The driver of the tractor, Carlos Rodriguez, 47, of Lancaster City was taken to Heart of Lancaster for the treatment of serious injuries.

The accident led to the closure of State Route 72 between Sun Hill and Bucknoll Roads for an unknown period.

A family experiences difficult times if they lose a loved one. Although nothing can heal the pain of the loss of a loved one, our wrongful death attorneys will help you pursue justice for the loss of your family member. In the case of a wrongful death, we fight hard to make sure justice is served. You can learn more at a free consultation with one of our representatives at Edelstein Martin & Nelson – Personal Injury Lawyers Philadelphia by calling – 888-208-1810.


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Veterans sound off on Trump's statement on barring transgender people from the military

military

Veterans from all around the US weighed in on President Donald Trump's announcement on Wednesday that transgender people will be banned from serving in the US military "in any capacity."

Trump cited the "tremendous medical costs and disruption" of transgender people to the military and reversed the Obama-era decision to support those who would live openly as transgender while in service of their country.

Immediately, veterans from all branches of the forces have sounded off against the decision on Twitter, calling it "upsetting" and "disappointing."

"As on OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] veteran of the United States Army, I am extraordinarily upset about Trump's ban on my Trans brothers, sisters, and siblings," wrote Phoebe Gavin, who served during the Iraq War, on Twitter.

Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois senator who lost both legs serving as a helicopter pilot, immediately released a statement saying that anyone "willing to risk your life for our country" should be able to serve.

"When my helicopter was shot down in  Iraq, I didn't care if the American troops risking their lives to help save me were gay, straight, transgender or anything else," Duckworth wrote.

Chris Till, another veteran of the Iraq War and NFL Royals Blue team blogger, also wrote that "when your (sic) in foxhole or truck, you're not worried about orientation. You just want somebody who will have your back..."

But some veterans also took to Twitter to express support with the ban, thanking Trump for the decision.

"Thank you. As a veteran, I fully support this decision," tweeted Stacey Washington, an air force veteran and a current tv talk show host from Missouri.

 "Thank you for putting a stop to the Transgender social experiment in the Military and for preserving our dignity," wrote air force veteran Randall Simonson, who once also served as mayor of a Minnesota town.

 But at least on Twitter, the majority of veterans to comment on Trump's decision to block transgender people from the military have been against it.

"As a U.S. Navy Veteran, I find it atrocious that President Trump would use our mlitary, and the dignity of a community, as a political tool," wrote Nikita Richards.

SEE ALSO: Trump tweets reveal plan to bar transgender people from serving in the military

Join the conversation about this story »

NOW WATCH: A former member of the KGB explains the most valuable technique for espionage


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Man Injured After Car Crashes into Truck Transporting Asphalt in Carpentersville

Man Airlifted after Carpentersville Crash on Route 25

Carpentersville Crash

Man Injured After Car Crashes into Truck Transporting Asphalt in Carpentersville

Carpentersville, PA (July 26, 2017) – A truck transporting asphalt collided with a car in Carpentersville. The driver of the car had to be airlifted to a hospital by a Flight for Life helicopter.

The crash happened before 11:30 am while both vehicles were headed south on Route 25, right before the intersection of Route 68, where the car rear-ended the truck, police said.

The man driving the car was air lifted to a hospital by a Flight for Life helicopter from the parking lot of the Dundee Township Park District Family Aquatic Center at midday Monday.

The man’s injuries were not life-threatening and the driver of the truck was not injured.
Six departments worked smoothly together to get the man out of the car and into the helicopter, police said. They were Carpentersville Police and Fire Department, East Dundee Police assisting with the call and East Dundee and West Dundee Fire Department.

The staff at Dundee Township Park District’s Dolphin Cove Family Aquatic Center instantly cleared the parking lot of the Center which was close to the area of the crash.

The accident still remains under investigation.

If you were in an accident caused by negligence, we highly recommend that you take the incident to court where a personal injury lawyer can fight for your rights and protect you. A professional lawyer can help you get the compensation due to you for damages, injuries and other losses. Our lawyers at Edelstein Martin & Nelson – Personal Injury Lawyers Philadelphia will help you get the financial compensation you deserve. Please give us a call today at (888) 208-1810


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Deadly Tractor-Trailer Car Crash Kills Mother of 2 Infants, Route 72, South of Manheim

Mother  Killed, 2 Infants Rescued in Deadly Manheim Car versus  Tractor-Trailer Crash 

Deadly Manheim Car versus Tractor-Trailer Crash

Deadly Tractor-Trailer Car Crash Kills Mother of 2 Infants, Route 72, South of Manheim

Manheim, Pennsylvania, (July 26, 2017) – A 27-year-old mother was killed in a car, tractor-trailer crash on Route 72, south of Manheim, Pennsylvania, Police said.

2 infants, 18 months and 3 years old, were rescued from the back seat of a silver, 4-door sedan which came to a standstill, under the rear tractor-trailer tires, a witness stated.

The car had crossed the center line and crashed into the tractor-trailer. The truck was heading south while the car was heading north when the collision occurred at 9:15 am, July 24, 2017, across the street from Morgan Automotive.

The 18-month tot was taken to Lancaster General Hospital for treatment and expected to be released later Monday afternoon, said Police.

The older tot, in critical condition, was taken to Hershey Medical Center and underwent surgery, according to Northern Lancaster County Police.

The name of the mother is being withheld until family members are notified. She had just moved to Manheim very recently.

Carlos Rodriguez, 47-year-old driver of the tractor-trailer from Lancaster was taken to the Heart of Lancaster with minor injuries.

The cause of the collision is still unknown and the investigation is ongoing, said police.

Route 72 between Bucknoll and Sun Hill roads were closed by police. Power lines were down, telephone poles were broken, and the PPL power was out for 15 customers, said the PPL Outage Center. The power is expected to be back up by 9 pm this evening.

Tractor-trailer driver, Carlos Rodriguez said that there was nothing he could do because she pulled right in front of his truck.

A sudden loss of a beloved family member can be devastating. It can be twice as traumatic when someone else was responsible for the accident. Your family will have many questions you can’t answer during this time about what to do next. Even though there is nothing that can bring back your loved one, a wrongful death attorney at Edelstein Martin & Nelson – Personal Injury Lawyers Philadelphia can help you get through this devastating time. They can help you seek justice if the accident was caused by negligence or thoughtlessness. You can learn more with a free consultation by calling (888) 208-1810.


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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Bicyclist Injured after Being Struck by Car in Philadelphia

Cyclist Injured in Philadelphia Bicycle Crash at  42nd and Parish Streets

Philadelphia Bicycle Crash

Bicyclist Injured after Being Struck by Car in PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia Bicycle Crash

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (July 25, 2017) – A bicyclist sustained injuries after being struck by a car in Philadelphia on Saturday night, according to police.

The accident occurred on July 22, at the corner of 42nd and Parish Streets.

Police mentioned that the driver struck the bicycle operator the slammed into a nearby home.

The bicyclist was taken to a local hospital and was treated for injuries described as non-life threatening.

Limited information regarding why the crash occurred was available at this time.

Authorities are still under investigation to determine cause and liabilities.

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