The Daily Dog: American Injustice

WARNING: This post contains graphic photos which some readers may find objectionable.

Two weeks ago, Otto Warmbier, an American university student arrested and detained in North Korea, died almost immediately upon his return to the United States. North Korea imprisoned the 22-year-old for almost 18 months following a trial based on allegations that he had removed state propaganda from his hotel.

Warmbier, suffering from an undisclosed medical condition, was evacuated from North Korea by air ambulance. He arrived in the United States in a coma and died four days later on June 19. Early medical reports suggested that he had suffered an extensive loss of brain tissue, but there were no immediate signs of head trauma. Following Warmbier’s death, a bandwagon of U.S. politicians raised vehement objections in an outpouring of criticism and outrage over the student’s alleged crime, detention, and treatment in North Korea.

It was good press at the time, but politicians quickly lose sight of important issues that carry less than glamorous media coverage.

This Independence Day weekend, another 20-something American lays dying in a hospital bed on life support and shackled hand and foot to the bed’s steel rails. Armed police guard her around the clock. Authorities have threatened her mother with arrest if she tries to see her daughter or speak to medical staff — and North Korea is still a terrible place.

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Kristin Carare in 2014. Photo: Lucy Moss

No politicians are holding the House floor to rant about what is happening to 26-year-old Kristin Carare. There are no tweets condemning the young-woman’s jailors or the inhumane way her mother, Lucy Moss, 48, is being denied visits with her critically ill child. Could it be because Carare is not a prisoner in North Korea, but is lying in hospital in Broward County, Florida? That makes the lack of display and her treatment even more disgusting.

All too often, America’s leaders bang the war drums to announce and condemn human and civil rights abuses all over the globe. Yet, when it comes to the declining treatment of the accused in the United States, the bravado evaporates like Donald Trump’s orange spray tan. With more men, women, and children in prison than any other country on earth, it is time to turn the focus inward.

Kristin Carare’s situation is not atypical, but it has what many prisoners’ stories lack…a likable protagonist. All prejudice aside, Carare’s mother also went to visit her daughter armed with an unusual and powerful weapon — a court order. A Florida circuit court judge issued the order directing the Broward Sheriff’s Office to allow Moss to visit her daughter. The police ignored the judge’s order citing their internal standard operating and security procedures.

Imagine if Carare was in a hospital bed in North Korea. The press, public, and politicians would be vapid with rage. So why is it different because she is in America? Are we hiding the fact that our criminal justice system is that flawed — or that American law enforcement is simply cold hearted, power hungry, and beyond control?

Carare earned the shackles and armed guards because of the severity of her alleged crime: she is a heroin addict. She had been incarcerated in Broward Country since March before falling ill and being moved to hospital where she remains in critical condition. Her mother described her daughter’s medical state as day-to-day and begged to be close to her child in the event she dies suddenly.

Even though Moss obtained a court order authorizing visits, BSO deputies refused to comply with the court’s directive with impunity. Additionally, when Moss tried again to arrange to see her daughter or gather information about her medical condition, officers told her that if she did either they would arrest her for criminal trespass.

Wait; there is a Broward, North Korea, right? The more this story develops, the more it seems like a totalitarian police state and not the America where judicial orders and human rights are respected. Even more troubling than the local authorities’ behavior is that of Broward County Public Defenders’ Office “top assistant” Gordon Weekes.

An officer of the court, Weekes sided instead with BSO, saying he understood the need for security and that BSO “doesn’t want an order” that interferes with that. Let us ensure we understand this complex legal argument: when police do not want an order, they do not have to comply with it. We pity any defendant that has Weekes working on their criminal case and can imagine him saying to a court, “The police don’t want me to seek an order to interfere with illegally obtained evidence, and since they don’t want it, they won’t comply anyway. My client is guilty, your honor.”

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Kristin Carare today – after three months in a Broward County Jail. Photo: Lucy Moss

How is no one outraged to the point of protest outside Broward North Medical Center? Are judges in Florida so afraid of armed deputies that they cannot enforce a legally issued order? Is the appeals process not the typical route of challenging an order of a court instead of ignoring it? Are we witnessing the complete breakdown of the Florida judiciary?

Kristin Carare deserves more, as does every other prisoner and detainee in the United States — all 2-plus million of them. They are not all likable, innocent, or cared for by family like, Carare is, but they have one thing in common. They are all prisoners in the United States, where we decry any injustice that occurs in a foreign jurisdiction, and because of that, they deserve the heightened version of attention, correction, and action that rains down on so-called mock trials in North Korea.

Our criminal justice model is antiquated and draconian. Attorneys are overworked. Harsh sentences accomplish little in terms of rehabilitation. Too many addicts are condemned to cells instead of offered treatment. Medical care is deficient. Prisoners in America have extremely limited rights and poor access to constructive resources. Prosecution based less on fact than emotion leads to irreversible errors. Innocent lives are lost in the stroke of a gavel.

Otto Warmbier went to North Korea, a hostile nation, of his own volition and placed himself at risk. It was a tragedy that he returned home in a coma and died. Kristin Carare is an addict in need of treatment with a complex medical condition and her mother is on the verge of losing a child. The greater tragedy will be if Carare dies on America soil — with a cold metal shackle around her wrist instead of her mother’s loving hand.

Uncorrected

If making America great means returning to a time of over-privileged white establishment and mass incarceration, then President Trump’s agenda moved a step closer this week with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ policy shift on federal criminal prosecutions. The mid-week announcement rolls back Obama-era administration guidelines on charging and sentencing.

Sessions’ directive to federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious provable charge and longest and most severe associated sentences is a return to an ineffective and expensive war on crime and drugs. Obama-era policies on incarceration and criminal justice reform enjoyed bipartisan support and success during the past eight years, but Sessions — like his boss — seems acutely unaware of educated strategy decisions. While he grandstanded for the press, former prosecutors and policy-makers across the country were left scratching their heads over his personal war against America.

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A typical window in a 1-bedroom American suburban home.

As the country’s prison population has burgeoned since the 1970s, criminal justice reform has become an increasingly hot topic for both state and federal administrations. According to The Sentencing Project — a leading reform non-profit — more than 2 million Americans live behind bars in America. Countless more are subject to some form of government supervision like parole or probation.

The application of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, draconian sentencing guidelines, and the erroneous presumption that harsh punishment deters crime have all come under fire in recent years. Reports sponsored by reform-oriented non-profits like the Brennan Center for Justice and Sessions’ own department have repeatedly debunked the ideas driving tough-on-crime incarceration. Despite the contradictions and lack of empirical data showing any correlation between crime rates and incarceration, Sessions ordered a return to the failed policies of mass imprisonment and long-term sentencing that government leaders and activists have been struggling to correct.

Even before a trial and conviction, an unfortunate corollary of Sessions’ policy is that it will lead to more pressure on the accused. The “throw the book at ‘em” theory of prosecution often scares defendants into plea bargains and false convictions. The American criminal justice system has become reliant on the plea bargain as opposed to the jury trial. According to the Supreme Court of the United States, over 90% of all convictions are a result of some type of plea. Excessive charging and threats of severe punishment, like those advocated by Sessions, adversely influence a defendant’s ability to exercise his constitutional rights in a trial.

This week’s policy shift combined with Sessions’ reticent attitude toward consent agreements concerning police reform demonstrate a possible and unfortunate return to abusive and racially and economically motivated government policing. It is another step backward by the current administration — a step in the direction of antebellum conventions that America has long since outgrown.

The United States is a drop in the bucket in terms of global population, representing just five percent of the world’s people. However, our country holds a disproportionate amount of the planet’s prisoners at 25%. One-quarter of all men, women, and children living behind bars on Earth do so in America. It is not a statistic that contributes to greatness.

President Lincoln had a vision to make America great by eliminating slavery and racism. Franklin Roosevelt strove to lift families and the country from poverty and depression. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sought to elevate America through advances and equal rights. Most recently, President Obama championed criminal justice, police, and prison reform. In each instance, America became greater through progressive social evolution and respect for human rights — setting the bar high enough for the rest of the world to admire.

It is inevitable and a basic principle of physics that time moves in only one direction: forward. America will move forward through the next four years of the Trump presidency regardless of how many times the administration tries to force it backwards. Whether it is the attempted reversal of progressive and effective criminal justice policies or setbacks in the ideals that have made America great without Trump, time will win. The only question is how many Americans will suffer in the Trump Time Machine as it bumbles along uncorrected?

Straight A’s Outta Compton

Today on Good Morning America, ABC honored a group of 2017 high school graduates. A senior from Compton, Calif., E.J. Vaughn, was among those recognized and praised by the morning show anchors. Like many disadvantaged students, Vaughn faced down the obstacles of violence, poverty, and a single-parent household en route to his extraordinary acceptance at Harvard.

Vaughn also overcame another hurdle during his childhood. It is one that is a mounting obstacle for American children across the country, and one that carries a shameful stigma — with enough disgrace that Vaughn and his mother lied about it like many other families.

When asked about his father’s absence during his childhood, Vaughn laughed. He admitted that he had frequently told friends that his dad was away on business…in Hawaii…for thirteen years.

Children across the country suffer from a wide variety of problems that can cast a shadow on their academic and social activities. Their self-esteem may suffer when a parent loses a job; if they do not live in the right neighborhood; or cannot afford the latest fads. They may not be able to focus because of medical or psychological conditions — both diagnosed and not.

In many instances of disadvantage, a plethora of government and private programs are available to aid student success. School boards and assistance agencies fund and develop rules and policies to ensure access and completion of a “free and public education” in accordance with government regulations.

Less than 4% of school-age children suffer peanut allergies, but schools from coast to coast assure everyone’s safety by policing meals. Autism rates are on the rise and public schools are prepared for the disability that affects 1-in-45 children. Both are considered “common” enough obstacles that students face almost every day to warrant various levels of aid.

Having an incarcerated parent is not that abnormal anymore.

However, there is a more prevalent disadvantage — Vaughn’s own — that affects 4% of children or almost 3 million across the country. Yet the handicap that drags down 1-in-28 students is still overlooked in terms of assistance and support. As demonstrated by Vaughn’s need to lie about where his father was, it carries such a strong stigma that children frequently have nowhere to turn.

Prison WireThe mass incarceration of America is creating an entirely new disability for students, families, teachers, and administrators to solve. In the absence of a prisoner-parent, students like Vaughn are often forced to face questions alone — to lie, cover up, hide their shame, and deal with the self-esteem issues.

There are no mainstream programs, support groups, or IEP plans that address a student’s needs when a parent is behind bars. Instead, everyone looks the other way. In an age when as many Americans have a criminal record as do have a college degree, it is time to do more. It is time to erase the stigma that accompanies having an incarcerated parent because it is not that abnormal anymore.

The 2.7 million students like E.J. Vaughn should not have to concoct lies about parents on distant business trips because mom or dad is in prison. Policies and programs must be devised and implemented to maintain the connection between child-student and prisoner-parent. This is just one of the many problems with America’s justice and penal systems, but one that needs immediate attention.

Congratulations to E.J. Vaughn on his admission to Harvard. Admitting the truth about his father’s incarceration is a step in the right direction for the many students like him who share a dream of college and of having a parent home from behind the wall.