aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Friday, December 21, 2007
Genarlow Wilson (epilogue)
The Daily Record publishing a must read piece naming B.J. Berenstein “Newsmaker of the Year” is an opportune moment to take a look at some of what’s happened since the October 26 Georgia Supreme Court ruling that freed Genarlow Wilson.
Genarlow is set to begin classes at Morehouse College next month. And three of his co-defendants were released from prison this week by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles:
The Board voted to release Adrian Willis, Ryan Barnwell and Cornell Robinson… Their release comes more than a month after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled Wilson’s sentence was cruel and unusual punishment. The news also comes as lawmakers prepare to revisit a tough sex offender law during the legislative session starting next month. [For more on that, see here.]
B.J. Bernstein, Wilson’s lawyer, hopes lawmakers take the case into consideration.
BERNSTEIN: Listen, it’s one thing when you’re dealing with sexual offenders but restrictions that don’t help children don’t need to be there.
With those releases only one of the original “Douglasville Six” remains behind bars.
The case of Joshua Widner, a Hampton, GA high school dropout who had sex with a 14-year-old girl when he was 18, who also received 10 years for non-forcible oral sex but lost before the GA Supreme Court a year before Genarlow got there, was considered to be an “insurmountable” challenge for Wilson and Berenstein. But the court set Wilson free.
A month later the Henry County District Attorney agreed to an unusual deal that let Widner out of prison after serving less than five years. My take: What choice did he have?
Given that the high court seemed to go out of its way to show how Widner could not benefit from Wilson’s case, the DA was under no legal pressure:
Widner still will need to register as a sex offender, McGarity explained to him. That was a primary complaint by Wilson’s supporters about his sentence.
Asked about the sex offender registry, Widner’s lawyers said they didn’t think they should look a gift horse in the mouth.
And what of Wilson prosecutor David McDade?
The Daily Record tried to talk to him for the Beresntein story but found he “has been in a death penalty trial for weeks.”
Apparently, McDade won:
“I’m mighty proud of Douglas County jurors,” McDade said. “It’s the 15th time in a row they’ve returned a death verdict when we’ve sought one. We’ve got the death penalty every time we sought it.”
The defense attorney wonders about that braggadocio:
Part of the record in the case, developed before the trial, shows “that David McDade is completely out of step with the rest of this state and has sought the death penalty five times more often than the average prosecutor in Georgia,” Moore said.
“I personally believe we have seen signs that the Georgia Supreme Court may be growing weary of Mr. McDade’s over zealousness,” Moore said.
That last via Maggie, who’s weary of McDade and his ilk too.
Reuters: Top health issues of 2008
I think their headline is wrong. Or all of the top health issues they foresee in the year ahead are food issues. Here are 2 of the 8:
4. What’s Natural?
Rules for the labeling of organically grown meat are pretty strict in the United States, but when it comes to naturally raised, it’s something of a free-for-all.
As things stand, meat or poultry with a “natural” label must be minimally processed and mean what the marketer says it does. But nobody is really checking, and there is some debate over what constitutes “minimally processed”. Should injecting chicken with sodium solution or binding agents take away its natural status, for example? What about treating red meat with carbon monoxide in order to make it look fresher? The FDA will attempt to settle these and other questions in 2008 as it reviews the use of the “natural” label for fresh meat. The public comment period on the review ends Jan. 28. [...]
8. Fixing the FDA/USDA
It pointed to hand-written safety inspection reports, food plant inspections occurring as infrequently as once a decade and a full-time pet-food safety staff of two as signs of a widespread, serious problem at the federal agency in charge of regulating 80 percent of the food sold in the United States, as well as cosmetics, drugs, vaccines and medical devices—the products the agency oversees account for about a quarter of every consumer dollar spent by Americans, the FDA says. The agency has seen its responsibilities increase as its budget decreased, and the globalization of food has changed the playing field and added new concerns to its long list. To hear that the FDA is in trouble likely comes as little surprise: between contaminated pet food, meat recalls, warnings on the popular diabetes drug Avandia and accusations of politically motivated appointments, the agency has had a bad year in the court of public opinion. What remains to be seen for the year to come is whether the FDA will get the money it says it needs to fix itself—and if that will be enough to do the job.
On falling high-school-graduation rates
American high-school-graduation rates peaked around 1970 before entering a long period of stagnation and decline, according to a working paper released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The decline in high-school graduation has been especially severe among male students, and it accounts for roughly half of the emerging gender gap in college attendance, according to the paper, which was written by James J. Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and Paul A. LaFontaine, a researcher at the American Bar Foundation’s Center for Social Program Evaluation.
Apparently there’s been a debate about how to count high-school graduates. One side says graduation rates, especially for minorities, are far worse than the Ed Dept.’s figures. The other says that minorities’ graduation rates have slowly been converging with those of whites.
This new paper splits the difference but the results aren’t good:
In their paper, Mr. Heckman and Mr. LaFontaine gather information from a wide variety of data sources, including surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, official enrollment figures from state departments of education, and longitudinal research such as the NCES’s High School and Beyond study.
Those data sources vary in their treatment of recent immigrants, prisoners, members of the military, and other groups. Mr. Heckman and Mr. LaFontaine massaged the studies’ findings to bring those variables into alignment. Once that is done, they write, the studies all tell essentially the same story: Graduation rates peaked around 40 years ago, and there has been no significant convergence between the rates for whites and the rates for minorities.
The authors note that there is tentative evidence that graduation rates have increased since the 2002 enactment of the No Child Left Behind law, which uses high-school graduation rates as a benchmark for states’ performance. But it is too soon, they write, to say whether such increases reflect true improvements, or whether states have simply learned to manipulate the figures. And in any case, they say, there is no reason to believe that graduation rates have returned to the peak levels of the late 1960s.
The paper is available here.
B.J. Bernstein: Daily Report’s Newsmaker of the Year
What the Daily Report calls B.J. Bernstein’s Impossible Victory was winning freedom for Genarlow Wilson, the young Georgia man found not guilty of raping a 17-year-old girl but convicted of molesting a 15-year-old girl when he was just 17.
For that crime, later called by the state Supreme Court’s majority “consensual” oral sex, he was sent to prison to serve a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. For that victory, the Record has named Berenstein “Newsmaker of the Year.”
The 7,000 word piece backing up the accolade published today by the Record is the most thorough telling of the Wilson saga I’ve seen since the October 26 Georgia Supreme Court ruling that the 10 year sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment:
Perhaps the key to Bernstein’s success was in never wavering in her conviction that her client’s situation was unjust-and that she could set things right. “People read into it what they want-that you’re either crazy, or that you’re wanting publicity at that point, and that it’s pride.” But, she asks, “At what point are you crazy when you believe the law can change?”
Berenstein has often been called a savvy manipulator of the press.* Her game plan was to change the law and so, she says, that’s what she set out to be:
She knew that she would need to raise awareness about her client’s troubles in order to change the relevant statutes. And so she began a public opinion campaign.
“Definitely, it was a conscious decision to reach out to the media to get the statute changed.” That seemed both logical and appropriate, she explains. “You can argue whether a court is influenced by the media or not,” she says. “But the Legislature? Public opinion matters greatly, period.”
The legislature thwarted that first plan.
Prosecutor David McDade was legislative chair of the Georgia District Attorneys’ Association and a regular presence at the state Capitol. He passed around a video of the crime that convinced Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson that Wilson was guilty of rape despite what the jurors ("screaming and crying when they learned their decision meant a 10-year mandatory jail term") ruled.
They also accused Berenstein of putting on a show with the pro bono case in order to promote herself:
Perhaps the best rebuttal of the suggestion that Bernstein was mainly seeking fame for herself is the relatively modest, anonymous setting in which she practices law now.
A visitor to Bernstein’s second-floor offices at Colony Square in Midtown is greeted by a friendly receptionist-who’s answering the phones for Bernstein, as well as other nearby professional offices. There’s no marquee in the waiting area announcing you’ve entered the offices of The Bernstein Firm, where Bernstein and her colleague Sherry Boston have offices similar to those housing first-year associates at corporate firms.
Bernstein says she had to leave her more distinctive offices near City Hall East in August because she had been working on Wilson’s case pro bono for so long. With her focus on Wilson, she says, she wasn’t bringing in enough paying business to keep busy the three other lawyers in her firm, who have since departed.
But Bernstein isn’t complaining, easily talking about her relationships with her young clients. She says she bonds with her young clients more than others. “I joke Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ I don’t have any kids, but I have lots of kids,” says Bernstein.
The article is a must read. It shows Berenstein to be everything a good lawyer should be. Congratulations B.J.!
* One press victory, a New York Times editorial, Free Genarlow Wilson Now, was published one year ago today.
A national failure to treat and rehabilitate troubled youth
Mark Sorkin looks at 19-year-old high school dropout Robert Hawkins who had a history of depression, family troubles, drug use and criminal activity and spent time in the Nebraska’s foster care, juvenile justice and behavioral health systems before shooting thirteen people in the Omaha Westroads Mall on December 5.
What he sees in Hawkins’s life and violent death is a broad failure of the state’s juvenile justice and mental health systems. And, he says, Nebraska’s failures mirror those of many states:
Since 1974, the year a landmark study on the state’s juvenile justice system was published, the population of children under 17 in Nevada has decreased by 30,000, yet the number of juveniles arrested each year has remained constant and the number of youth in treatment centers has spiked. In 2004 more than 10,000 children were housed in state institutions, a higher per capita rate than any other state in the country. Most wards of the state are status, or nonviolent, offenders, yet they are punished as criminals rather than receiving the necessary treatment for their addictions and behavioral disorders. The state’s juvenile justice system houses a disproportionately high number of minority youth (in 2006 nearly 40 percent of all juvenile arrests in Nebraska were minorities, even though they account for about 10 percent of the youth population), and from 2003 to 2006 the number of juveniles serving in adult prisons increased by nearly 20 percent.
This information is lifted from “Spare Some Change: An Account of the Nebraska Juvenile Justice and Children’s Behavioral Health Systems,” a report released [Tuesday] by the advocacy group Voices for Children in Nebraska. According to executive director Kathy Bigsby Moore’s introductory remarks, the report “presents a synthesis of the many Nebraska studies, reports and plans that have been put forth for more than thirty years, and provides exemplary models and practices that can be implemented if Nebraska policy makers will simply ‘Spare Some Change’ within the state legislative and budget setting process.” [...]
A report of this scope was, of course, well under way before Hawkins unleashed his deadly rampage in Omaha. But the timing of its release, as Moore acknowledged at a press conference [Tuesday], may bring heightened attention to its findings. “I think the recent set of events reinforces everything that this report is saying,” she said.
On that point, consider Hawkins’s interaction with the Nevada juvenile justice system in August 2006. That month Hawkins, who had recently turned 18, failed another in a series of drug tests and was sent back to jail on a disorderly conduct charge. On August 21 he met with his caseworker, who, according to the Omaha World-Herald, “recommended getting outpatient counseling and ending the court’s jurisdiction rather than the residential treatment discussed at the previous hearing.”
“I think that the department has offered many services to this young man, and he has received a lot of help along the way,” the caseworker said. “I’m not quite sure that we’re benefiting him anymore with requiring certain services for him. I think he needs to find some fulfillment from within.”
It is clear to me that the problem of youth violence is a problem of adult failings - failings as parents, failings as voters and failings as policy makers. It may be easier to criminalize kids’ behaviors, blame schools, and vote for tougher criminal penalties than it is to act in the interest of our kids, but we will all pay the price in the end.
There is a group working here in Georgia, JUST Georgia, to rewrite the state’s Juvenile Justice Code. If you live in Georgia, get to know them. If you live elsewhere, find out who’s doing something in your state. The Nebraska report is a resource:
At forty-eight pages, the report is impressively thorough. It includes, among other things, a discussion on the history and intricacies of juvenile justice and behavioral health services, particularly in Nebraska but also at the national level; a brief analysis of current scientific research on adolescent brain development; and an overview of some of the nation’s most successful strategies for handling youthful offenders, such as the famous “Missouri model,” the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change program. Any of these programs, the report suggests, would bring significant improvement to the status quo in Nebraska. (The report also includes a two-page bullet-point summary of recommendations for policy-makers.)
Our kids are our future and our hope. They need us. NOW!