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Great news! A very public about-face in potentially remedying our arcane and absurd mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

From NYT: Obama Commutes Sentences for 8 in Crack Cocaine Cases

It was the first time retroactive relief was provided to a group of inmates who would most likely have received significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules and charging policies. Most will be released in 120 days. The commutations opened a major new front in the administration’s efforts to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and to help correct what it has portrayed as inequality in the justice system.

In a statement, Mr. Obama said that each of the eight men and women had been sentenced under what is now recognized as an “unfair system,” including a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that was significantly reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

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fresnoYou should read this terrifying article, “Freefall Into Madness: The Fresno County Jail’s Barbaric Treatment of the Mentally Ill”  by Fresno State journalism students Sam LoProto, Damian Marquez, Angel Moreno, Jacob Rayburn, Brianna Vaccari, Liana Whitehead, and Prof. Mark Arax.

Or don’t. Did I mention it’s terrifying?

Travis Fendley, a 23-year-old schizophrenic with a history of violence, was well known inside the Fresno County Jail. Since 2010, he was incarcerated there four times. His family said they pleaded on several occasions with county nurses and jailers that he needed the same anti-psychotic medication prescribed by outside doctors or he was going to hurt himself or someone else. Denied those medications each time behind bars, his family says, he twice tried to kill himself, once by attempting to drown himself with cups of water and then by slitting his throat.

Which brings me to the second excellent (though equally terrifying) article I read today: Nicholas Schmidle’s New Yorker piece, “In the Crosshairs,” about the plight of returning veterans suffering from P.T.S.D. — specifically, the tragic consequences that resulted from the Dallas V.A. hospital’s shameful, criminal neglect of one vet in particular, Eddie Ray Routh, who went on to assassinate former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in Texas earlier this year.

"Are you going to kill this woman?"

“Are you going to kill this woman?” BRILLIANT.

So I hate to keep harping on the Jodi Arias story. Even I had reached a media saturation point by the time the verdict was finally read on May 8 after more than four months of trial. And I was beginning to feel like I needed to take a shower every time Jodi’s name was mentioned. That, and I had the very bad luck to stumble upon, in a HuffPost slideshow, an actual unedited crime scene photo of Travis’ body in the shower — the kind the mainstream media is forbidden to show by those pesky legal people down in Standards. (Arianna, God bless her little heart, has zero standards or scruples.)

But recent events have brought me back to overthinking this whole thing. I mean, the trial and its ensuing media coverage is essentially an exercise in American Cultural Studies at this point, as rabid Jodi followers like me, having stuck it out this long, have invested way too much for it to be considered merely morbid gawking. (Or so we tell ourselves.)

But I feel I must write today. The fact that the jury is apparently having a hard time conferring the death penalty by mere reflex — as everyone who’s ever come into contact with the HLN coverage of this trial, however tangentially, would presumably do, keeping in adherence with the rhetorical “JUSTICE FOR TRAVIS”-ethos — is sending all the daytime television talking heads into a tailspin this afternoon.

It’s kind of like when we had to wait a whole TWO AND A HALF DAYS before the verdict came in after the guilt phase of the deliberations began. The fact of her first-degree guilt had already been a central tenet of media coverage, so why was it even a question about what the verdict should be? Dumb jurors! Stop thinking and start being outraged and indignant!

To which I say: take it easy, people, this is a big fucking decision to have weighing on this jury’s shoulders, so let’s let these people actually do what they were sworn in to do and carefully consider all the evidence.

Also, what really astonished me today, listening to the jury instructions (which the Hon. Sherry Stephens, God bless HER little heart, originally misread), is that there’s no hard and fast criteria for deciding on death. Like, the circumstances can be “heinous,” but what does that really mean? Are there legal definitions of that stuff? Because otherwise, it seems pretty subjective.

So it comes down to an emotional decision. One in which you have to take complete moral accountability for your decision, since you weren’t merely following protocol or legal precedent. Yes, that WOULD be heavy.

************

On another note, while I think Jodi might not make a great as good of a prison social worker/hair donator/translator/literacy doyenne/recycling entrepreneur as she claims she would, she’s got a FABULOUS personality for reality television. The narcissism, the insistence on proper hair and makeup… the sex, the lies… the abject desperation, the unwitting campiness… it’s all there!

After reading “The Saddest Reality Stars of All: Prisoners” by the Daily Beast’s great Mansfield Frazier, who does a lot of crime-and-punishment coverage and commentary, you might see why a star turn on Bravo’s forthcoming The Real Housewives of Death Row might be the most fitting punishment of all for Jodi.

Also: ratings bonanza!

*Unless you’re pregnant and waiting for a bus in Honolulu… in which case it could take FOREVER.

verdictThe New York Times continued its uncharacteristic coverage of the Jodi Arias trial today with an interesting piece by Fernanda Santos on the emotional difficulty jurors face in deciding whether to sentence someone to the death penalty.

Santos quotes a former Florida juror named Alison Ward on the admittedly “bizarre” phenomenon of imposing a death sentence on someone who is being punished for… putting someone to death (i.e., murder).

“Reality is nothing like you see on TV,” Ms. Ward said, describing the experience of serving on the jury, which agreed on a death penalty sentence, as a lonely, painful quest to decide whether to impose what she called “a measure of justice that is bizarre” — a death as a sentence for a killing.

Yes, it is bizarre, but just look at the bloodthirsty crowds who gathered at the Maricopa County Courthouse to hear the verdict (see NYT photo above) — many of whom would doubtless insist that the gruesome first-degree murder of Travis Alexander merits capital punishment for the now-convicted Arias. Perhaps they gleaned this lynch-mob mentality from watching HLN, where indignant anchors like Nancy Grace served as jury, judge, and executioner long before the verdict was read on May 8.

Yesterday, the trial hit another snag during its first day of the aggravation phase; court was abruptly cancelled until Wednesday of next week and no explanation was given. Meanwhile, Arias was placed on suicide watch and is currently undergoing some sort of psychiatric evaluation.

I have put off posting about the Jodi Arias case until a verdict came in. And yesterday, finally, more than four months after this absolute circus of a trial began, a jury of twelve (infinitely patient) people handed Ms. Arias a first-degree murder conviction for killing her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in June 2008. (Why on earth this case took so long to go to trial is something I have never heard explained in the media — was it because Arias changed her story so many times?)

Okay. I have lots of thoughts about this trial and what it says about how the public perceives (take your pick) women/sex/violence/the criminal justice system/the death penalty. But for now, I’ll focus on immediate media coverage of the verdict.

Let’s begin with HLN, since the cable news-lite network has made the Arias trial its raison d’etre, carrying out near 24-hour coverage of the spectacle since it began in January, even going so far as to create a three-dimensional model of the crime scene and assembling a mock jury every night to weigh in on the day’s evidence.

Not surprisingly, I was greeted by this on the HLN homepage today, front and center, or what used to be deemed in ancient newspaper days as “above the fold:”

verdict

Because the Arias case has all along been a tabloid trial–that is, covered breathlessly by what we might think of as the trashy/sensationalistic/if-it-bleeds-it-leads news media–it’s no surprise that the classy Daily News also delivered the verdict above the fold in its second slot. (I can only imagine it would have been first had the bombshell Cleveland kidnapping rescue not happened his week.) The News also had a scoop: that Arias, ever the narcissistic wannabe-media-darling, is now declaring in trademark dramatic fashion that she would rather be put to death than spend the rest of her life in prison. (My question: who gave her the lipgloss for her first post-verdict interview? And don’t they, like, carry a convicted first-degree murderer directly off to jail at that point? As in, do not pass go, do not sit down for a soft-focus television interview?)

halfway verdict

Next let’s head over to the New York Times, which has studiously ignored the trial up until now. The Grey Lady conceded some coverage today, but only alluded to it in the most generic of terms, and waaaaay far down the page at that, in its “U.S.” section. (I had to add a red circle around it ’cause it’s pretty tiny.)

small verdict

Moving on! The liberal intellectuals over at NPR, to my surprise, did carry an Arias headline, albeit without a photo, right on their homepage, but not without a fight from its highbrow readers, some of whom were just plain disgusted that public media would stoop so low. Here’s an excerpt from the article’s comment section:

who cares verdict

More thoughts on the trial later.

knox

Amanda Knox’s memoir, “Waiting to Be Heard,” is set to be released next week, and I will not read it, at least partly because I am not altogether convinced she is totally blameless in the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in Italy the fall of 2007. I won’t bother to rehash the facts of the case because I’m pretty sure you already know them.

Now, I know Knox already scored a $4 million advance on the book, but the thought of her profiting further from “her side of the story,” which could potentially be total bullshit, makes me sick to my stomach.

I bring this up because the New York Times’ usually astute Michiko Kakutani has a review of the book this week, though I hesitate to call it a real review because it doesn’t say anything substantial about the book’s merits. Of course, it’s not Kakutani’s job to decide Knox’s guilt or innocence. But I do think this so-called memoir is trashy tabloid shit pretty much unworthy of Times coverage, to say nothing of the fact that it’s framed in even faintly glowing praise:

She spent a lot of time in prison writing journals, poems, stories, letters, even lists of what she would do with her life (i.e., things she would do if she got out immediately, or things she would do if she were 46 when she were released). All that practice and all that introspection have given her an ability to convey her emotions with considerable visceral power — the shock of feeling the supremely ordinary morph into the utterly surreal, the vulnerability of being on trial in a foreign country in a language she had not completely mastered, the isolation of being in prison and at the center of a swirling media storm… In the end her book is not only an effort to make a case for her innocence but it’s also a kind of bildungsroman.

But let’s entertain the notion that Knox did have anything to do with Kercher’s murder. (Which would practically be blasphemy to the press here in the U.S.!) Does Kakutani’s critique hold up if the book is in fact a work of fiction? I think it would have been worthwhile — or at the very least, amusing — for the reviewer to wonder aloud about that possibility.

NB: Another thoughtful writer, the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead, has now also weighed in on Knox’s memoir — but, like Kakutani, she seems less interested in Knox’s version of “truth” than in the college student’s attitudes towards casual sex. Okay…?

Listen to the story here.

Click to listen to the story.

Another day, another noteworthy NPR piece, this time from national correspondent Ina Jaffe, about one mother’s fight against California’s ludicrous “Three Strikes Law” after she unwittingly helped put her son in prison for life.

Shane Reams, now 44, was sentenced to 25 years to life in 1996 after he was found guilty of being involved in the sale of a $20 rock of cocaine. (See, I told you it was ludicrous.) This was his third and final “strike” because he had two prior convictions for burglary– not because the police nabbed him, but because his mother, Sue, had urged him to turn himself in when she found out he was a thief.

But Sue had no idea what she was getting her son into. She says she was concerned with getting Shane help, not putting him in prison.

She told him: “Maybe you’ll get a drug program. You need a drug program.”

Yes, he probably did. And he got it– that is, if you count seventeen years in state prison “treatment.” Shane admits that it was only when he saw a glimmer of hope for his release that he concentrated on getting clean.

(You don’t say! The prospect of a life sentence doesn’t necessarily motivate people to get clean on their own?)

In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown wisely approved a new sentencing guideline that gives convicted criminals the chance to participate in alternative rehabilitative services in lieu of prison time. And in the 2012 elections, voters passed Proposition 36, which, according to the NYT, “authorizes the courts to re-sentence thousands of people who were sent away for low-level third offenses and who present no danger to the public.”

From that NYT piece (which, I should add, is actually an op-ed by Brent Staples):

Three strikes created a cruel, Kafkaesque criminal justice system that lost all sense of proportion, doling out life sentences disproportionately to black defendants. Under the statute, the third offense that could result in a life sentence could be any number of low-level felony convictions, like stealing a jack from the back of a tow truck, shoplifting a pair of work gloves from a department store, pilfering small change from a parked car or passing a bad check. In addition to being unfairly punitive, the law drove up prison costs.

Yes, yes, and yes.

RELATED: “California was required to ‘come up a plan’ two years ago and it clearly has failed to do so, “ (article/quote from The Atlantic)