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Feds Vote to Retroactively Reduce Sentences on Drug Crimes

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By Zenitha Prince
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper

More than 46,000 drug offenders—many of them Black and Hispanic—could be eligible for reduced sentences following a decision by the United States Sentencing Commission earlier this month.

Members of the Commission on July 18 voted unanimously to apply a reduction in sentencing guidelines for most federal drug crimes—a move decided upon in April—retroactively, meaning many offenders currently in prison could be eligible for reduced sentences beginning November 2015.

“This amendment received unanimous support from commissioners because it is a measured approach,” Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission, said in a statement. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”

Congress has until Nov. 1, 2014, to nix the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. If they are allowed to stand, prisoners can begin petitioning the courts for sentence decreases but would not be eligible for release until Nov. 1, 2015. The year-long lag will give judges time to review cases to ensure that sentence reductions do not pose a risk to public safety among other considerations, the Commission said.

“The delay will help to protect public safety by enabling appropriate consideration of individual petitions by judges, ensuring effective supervision of offenders upon release, and allowing for effective reentry plans,” Saris said.

The Commission’s recommendation has been praised by the Obama administration, which has expressed its enthusiasm for implementing the plan.

“We have been in ongoing discussions with the Commission during its deliberations on this issue, and conveyed the department’s support for this balanced approach,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, chief of the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the prison system.

“In the interest of fairness, it makes sense to apply changes to the sentencing guidelines retroactively, and the idea of a one-year implementation delay will adequately address public safety concerns by ensuring that judges have adequate time to consider whether an eligible individual is an appropriate candidate for a reduced sentence,” Holder added. “This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system.”

According to federal data, the population of U.S. federal prisons exceeds capacity by around 32 percent. Half of that population are drug offenders, who also represent 66 percent of the increase in the federal prison population. Overcrowded prisons cost taxpayers millions. Just the retroactive application of the Commission’s amendment could save an estimated $2.3 billion.

And there are other tolls.

“While these figures are staggering, the human cost has been even greater,” U.S. House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.)  said in a joint statement.

“For decades, the federal ‘War on Drugs’ has been the primary engine of mass incarceration….This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies have consistently shown—for decades—that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than Whites,” the congressmen added. “…The Commission’s historic vote today also seeks to right this disproportionate racial impact.”

Community in Outrage Over Handling of Eric Garner Police Killing

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By A.B. Nickerson
Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News

When a white police officer kills an unarmed Black man, as it happened last week on Staten Island, you can expect a furious outrage from one part of the community and an attempt to justify the death from the other side.

It’s a no-win situation, especially for Eric Garner, who was manhandled and then taken down in a chokehold last Thursday outside a store in Tompkinsville. According to police, they were called to the scene by shop owners complaining that Garner, 43, a father of six children, was selling loose cigarettes, thereby hindering their sales and profit.

When the undercover officers arrived to apprehend Garner, he tried to explain to them that he had done nothing wrong. You can hear and see him on a video pleading with the officers, who may have at first hesitated handcuffing him until they had backup.

In the meantime, one of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, eased behind Garner and locked his neck in a chokehold. The two tumbled to the pavement as other officers rushed to hold him down, one of them smashing his head into the cement.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Garner cries out, but to no avail.

Garner, more than 6 feet tall and weighing more than 300 pounds, and an asthmatic, was finally subdued, his breathing labored.

He was apparently still alive when the EMT workers arrived, but other than feel to see if he still had a pulse, they did nothing to assist him. Garner could have possibly been saved if he had been placed in an upright position, claimed Dr. Cyril Wecht, a noted pathologist. “You want to position him in a way to facilitate breathing,” Wecht told the press.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, at a press conference last Friday, said that Garner was taken from the scene in an ambulance and died upon arrival at the Staten Island Hospital, a victim of cardiac arrest.

Garner is the latest victim of an apparent chokehold and, according to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, there have been more than a thousand such reports since 2009, but only nine have been substantiated, and only one resulted in punitive measures being ordered.

Those four EMT workers have been placed on modified duty with a suspension of pay.

Two of the NYPD officers are now on desk assignment, with Pantaleo stripped of his badge and gun pending further investigation.

Early reports from the medical examiner indicate that Garner did not suffer any trauma to his trachea or windpipe. Even so, the forcible takedown of a man suffering from obesity, asthma and possibly heart disease could have been enough to induce a heart attack.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who delayed his trip to Italy by one day, told the press that “we shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” though the video that can be seen on YouTube shows clearly what happened. Meanwhile, for Bratton to cite Garner’s arrest record before offering his condolences seemed inappropriate.

“Even if police procedures don’t kick in,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton during a sermon last Sunday at Riverside Church, referring to the fact that chokeholds have been outlawed by NYPD since 1982, “when does your sense of humanity kick in? Have we gotten that cold?”

Fed. Ct. Upholds U. of Texas’ Race-Conscious Admissions Policy—Affirmative Action Victory

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By Zenitha Prince
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper

A federal appeals court recently upheld the University of Texas at Austin’s race-conscious admissions policy, which had been challenged as unconstitutional in a suit brought by White applicant Abigail Fisher.

“To deny UT Austin its limited use of race in its search for holistic diversity would hobble the richness of the educational experience,” Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote in the 2-1 opinion for the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Civil rights activists argued that the ruling undergirded the legal footing of affirmative action, as established by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which held that universities and colleges have a “compelling interest” in using race to foster diversity due to its benefits, including better preparing students to compete in an increasingly global market.

“This decision should stand as a declaration of the ongoing importance and legality of affirmative action efforts that holistically evaluate applicants for admission in higher education and for the principle of stare decisis [precedent],” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “The court aptly noted that ‘university education is more the shaping of lives than the filling of heads with facts.’ Universities are incubators for America’s future leadership and for civic engagement.”

The 2-1 decision came on July 15 after a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit court reviewed the case, which the Supreme Court remanded to the lower court for more exacting scrutiny last year. After the University of Texas’ former quota-based diversity plan was nixed by the courts in 1997, the school system adopted an admissions process guaranteeing entry to all students who graduate at the top 10 percent of their class.

In admitting those students who do not qualify under the 10 percent rule—and with an eye to diversity—the university used a holistic measuring tool that considered academic achievement and other factors such as, racial/ethnic background, extracurricular activities and the applicant’s responsibilities at home.

Under the new test set by the Supreme Court, the appeals court could not merely rubber-stamp UT’s plan, but had to assess whether the admissions program had been “narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity.” The court also had to verify that the use of race was “necessary” to achieve a diverse student body and that there were no viable race-neutral alternatives.

The university met those standards, the review found.

For example, UT had pursued several other options for achieving diversity, including offering scholarships to students from high schools—usually low-income—that were underrepresented in the university’s freshman classes and pursuing various outreach and recruitment initiatives, the court found.The court also cited statistics showing that in 2008, for example, the holistic review process admitted a higher percentage of White students than Black and Hispanic students, negating the argument that it was a means of merely boosting racial quota.

“UT Austin persuades that this reach into the applicant pool is not a further search for numbers but a search for students of unique talents and backgrounds who can enrich the diversity of the student body in distinct ways,” Higginbotham said in the majority opinion, shared by Judge Carolyn Dineen King. “We are persuaded that holistic review is a necessary complement to the Top Ten Percent Plan, enabling it to operate without reducing itself to a cover for a quota system; that in doing so, its limited use of race is narrowly tailored to this role—as small a part as possible for the Plan to succeed.”

A strong dissent was offered by Judge Emilio M. Garza, however, and Fisher vowed to appeal the decision, both steps that could mean that the case is not over and could go back before the Supreme Court.

In his dissent, Garza accused his colleagues of not applying the “strict scrutiny” to the university’s plan that the Supreme Court had directed.

“Simply put, the Constitution does not treat race-conscious admissions programs differently because their stated aim is to help, not to harm,” he wrote.

UT was allowed to get away with its nebulous goal of creating a “critical mass” of African-American and Hispanic students, a goal that was never defined and was, thus, unmeasurable, he argued. As a result, Fisher could not prove that UT’s program wasn’t narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state goal, a standard required for using race-conscious admission programs.

“Accordingly, it is impossible to determine whether the University’s use of racial classifications in its admissions process is narrowly tailored to its stated goal—essentially, its ends remain unknown,” Garza concluded.

Fisher’s lawyer, Edward Blum, told the Los Angeles Times his client would appeal the latest Fifth Circuit’s decision.

“We are disappointed,” Blum said. “But this court was proven wrong by the Supreme Court in 2013 and we believe they will be proven wrong again.”

Report: Stereotyped Mascots Harmfully Effecting Native American Youth

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By Roberto Alejandro
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper

A recent report prepared by The Center for American Progress found stereotypical team mascots have a harmful effect on American Indian and Alaska Native youth.

Noting that the American Psychological Association issued a call to retire all team and school mascots based on depictions of Native Americans back in 2005, the study emphasized the psychological effects of such caricatures, including testimony from Native American youth.

Among those quoted in the report, “Missing the Point: the Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth,” was Dr. Stephanie Fryburg, a psychology professor and expert on the effects of stereotypical mascot depictions on American Indian and Alaskan Native youth.

“American Indian mascots are harmful not only because they are often negative, but because they remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them,” said Fryburg. “This in turn restricts the number of ways American Indians can see themselves.”

According to the report, the effect on the self-esteem of those youth has serious consequences, including a suicide rate that is 2.5 times higher than the national average: 31 for every 100,000 American Indian youth, versus the 12.2 for every 100,000 youths nationally.

With the report, the Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan educational institute, has joined the fray over the use of Native mascots in sports, highlighted by the current controversy over the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

In June, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that the Redskins name was disparaging and invalidated the NFL franchise’s trademark over the name. Under U.S. Code, trademarks that disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute are prohibited.

The Story of Tinoris Williams: Did He Have to Die?

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By Jenise Griffin Morgan
Special to the NNPA from The Florida Courier

Tinoris Williams’ life ended violently on April 7 when he was shot in the head by a Palm Beach County deputy sheriff. The family of the 31-year-old said he had an extensive history of mental illness and needed treatment.

Earlier this month, the Williams family’s attorney announced their intent to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, stating that Deputy Ernest Cantu used excessive force when he shot and killed the “mentally ill’’ Williams at an apartment complex in West Palm Beach.

Cantu and other deputies had been investigating reports of a burglary in the area when Cantu entered an apartment and was allegedly attacked by Williams, who was unarmed.

The sheriff’s report states that a “violent struggle’’ ensued before Williams was shot.

Many charges dropped

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw called Williams a “dangerous, violent felon’’ after the shooting, but records show that of the more than 30 arrests dating back to 2000, Williams had never been convicted of a felony.

And according to a WPBF TV 25 News investigation, of 26 cases and 35 charges, 28 were dropped or Williams was found not guilty. He spent a total of 70 days in jail and in some cases received probation time. The only violent conviction was one count of battery from 2010.

Insanity defense

In 2012, he was found not guilty of reason of insanity and took mood-altering medication assigned by a psychiatrist.

An arrest report at the time shows that he had thrown a brick through his mother’s window and threatened to kill her and himself.  When deputies showed up, he said he was “a Martian” and was acting under the authority given to him by the United States Constitution.

Jailed, not treated
A report titled “The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails,’’ states that there are 10 times more mentally ill Americans in prisons and jails than in state psychiatric hospitals. There were an estimated 356,268 inmates with severe mental illnesses in U.S. prisons and jails. There were only 35,000 mentally ill individuals in state psychiatric hospitals.

“Regarding his criminal record and the fact that he’s been Baker Acted so many times, this is not uncommon with someone who is mentally ill,” Miami attorney Jasmine Rand said earlier this month during a press conference. Rand is representing Williams’ family.

“The majority of the charges were dropped because the court found he was mentally ill…The proper place for someone who is mentally ill is seeking treatment. That’s what the parents wanted – treatment for their son.”

Vicky Williams said at a press conference that her son was a good student through high school. When he returned home from college, things changed.

“He just went off to college and something happened to him in college. When he came back, he wasn’t the same,” she remarked.

Another shooting

Williams’ death came just days after Palm Beach County Deputy Evan Rosenthal shot Matthew Pollow, 28, to death on April 2. A report stated that Pollow was shot outside of his mother’s apartment in West Boca after he lunged at a deputy with a screwdriver in his hand.

In the report, Pollow’s family members said he had mental issues and had previous run-ins with the law. Family members have called Pollow, who graduated from Florida Atlantic University, “a nonviolent person.”

Records show he checked himself into a mental health center in 2008 and told officers that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Community meetings

Around the time of these tragedies, mental health experts in Palm Beach County had been strategizing with law enforcement and community groups on “breaking the connection between mental illness and the legal system.’’

Led by Mental Health America of Palm Beach County and its community partners, 400 students, teachers, parents, professionals, providers, first responders, faith advisors, leaders and advocates came together from January to April to share their stories and seek solutions. Seven sessions were held throughout the county.

The sessions followed President Obama’s call in 2013 for a national dialogue on mental health. In response, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) launched a Community Conversations program.


The goals of the campaign, titled #OK2Talk, were to initiate dialogue, to identify the needs of youth struggling with mental illness in Palm Beach, to develop solutions to support such youth and prevent interaction with the criminal justice system, and to spread awareness and reduce the stigma of mental illness.

Pam Gionfriddo, CEO of Mental Health America of Palm Beach County, said there’s a need for more treatment programs and more training for people working in the criminal justice system.

“What happens in my view is if we don’t catch the illnesses earlier, they are allowed to get worse…until they become a crisis,” she told the Florida Courier. “We’re putting most of our dollars into crisis services.’’

Gionfriddo said services need to start on the front end, noting that the average age when people begin to experience mental health issues is 14 years old.

Available solutions
Recommendations that came out of the community talks included:

Encouraging more training and guidelines for all first responders that include early mental illness recognition and de-escalation strategies;

Developing a separate program to evaluate individuals who might be considered for an arrest but could benefit from a mental health evaluation prior to transport to jail or a hospital emergency room;

Creating a mental health system that improves coordination, cooperation, and communication among systems, including hospitals, schools, behavioral health care, law enforcement, and families;

Decriminalizing mental illness by creating diversion options other than law enforcement.

More than 900 of Palm Beach County’s 2,400 law enforcement and corrections deputies have taken Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), which teaches officers how to handle people with mental illness or a substance use. The 40-hour training, which began in Memphis, Tenn. in the 1980s, is called an effective police response program designed for first responders who handle crisis calls involving people with mental illness, including those with co-occurring substance use disorders.

According to a report released after the #OK2Talk community conversations, many participants said CIT is not enough, stating they “had been arrested, treated roughly, not provided with appropriate care or medications while in jail, and then released with no transition plan.’’

No help

Tinoris Williams’ mother has stated that she tried to get proper care for her son and had tried on occasions to have a judge order mental health treatment but Tinoris wouldn’t show up for the court date.

“I don’t care what he did in the past,” she stated the day after he died. “I don’t care if he was found guilty on any of them charges. If he had a felony, it still doesn’t justify what was done yesterday.’’

Jenise Griffin Morgan, senior editor of the Florida Courier, is a 2013-2014 fellow for the Rosalyn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. She is writing a series of stories on mental health for the Florida Courier.

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