Sunday, July 14, 2013

No, Stand Your Ground is working exactly as planned

(Image source)

The basic premise behind this entire blog is that our government usually gets the policy outcomes it desires--but that the stated policy goals rarely line up with the actual policy goals.

Such is the case with Stand Your Ground laws.  Katie Halper at Salon has piece examining the racial biases in the enforcement of these laws in Florida and generally:
The Tampa Bay Times found that defendants claiming “stand your ground” are more successful if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty. Only 59 percent of those who killed a white person got off. The Urban Institute determined that in “stand your ground” states, when white shooters kill black victims, 34 percent of the resulting homicides are deemed justifiable. When black shooters kill white victims only 3 percent of the deaths are ruled justifiable.
The entire piece really is worth reading in full.  Halper explores in detail two particularly atrocious examples of racial bias in Florida.

The Tampa Bay Times article referenced by Halper cites several ridiculous defenses that succeeded due to the Stand Your Ground Law:
During an argument at a 2009 party in Fort Myers, Omar Bonilla fired his gun into the ground and beat Demarro Battle, then went inside and gave the gun to a friend. If Battle feared for his life, he had time to flee. Instead, he got a gun from his car and returned to shoot Bonilla three times, including once in the back. Battle was not charged in the slaying...
Anthony Gonzalez Jr. was part of a 2010 drug deal that went sour when someone threatened Gonzalez with a gun. Gonzalez chased the man down and killed him during a high-speed gunbattle through Miami streets.

Before the "stand your ground'' law, Miami-Dade prosecutors would have had a strong murder case because Gonzalez could have retreated instead of chasing the other vehicle. But Gonzalez's lawyer argued he had a right to be in his car, was licensed to carry a gun and thought his life was in danger...
A Seventh-day Adventist was acting erratically, doing cartwheels through an apartment complex parking lot, pounding on cars and apartment windows and setting off alarms. A tenant who felt threatened by the man's behavior shot and killed him. He was not charged.

A Citrus County man in a longstanding dispute with a neighbor shot and killed the man one night in 2009. He was not charged even though a witness and the location of two bullet wounds showed the victim was turning to leave when he was shot. 
In 2006, a Miami man avoided prosecution after spraying a car filled with gang members with 14 bullets. In 2008, a 15-year-old Tallahassee boy was killed in a shoot-out between rival gangs; two of the gang members successfully took refuge behind Stand Your Ground.
In writing about these and other cases, the Tampa Bay Times makes two absurd claims.  First, it states that the law is being used "in ways no one imagined."  This is ludicrous; ironically, the very same newspaper published a story about several lawmakers who actually predicted all the ways the law is currently being used while debating the original bill 2005; here is another, even more clear example of an opposing legislator predicting the exact way the law would be used.  Yes, very many people did imagine the law would be used in this way; more on that below.

More importantly, however, is the contention that the law is being used in ways never intended:  "People often go free under 'stand your ground' in cases that seem to make a mockery of what lawmakers intended."  No, this is exactly what the lawmakers intended.  In the case of Stand Your Ground, Stand Your Ground laws were not written by politicians, but by the National Rifle Association.  The lawmakers in this case were not Florida legislators, but rather special interest lobbyists.

Let's remember that the NRA does not represent gun owners, but is actually a lobbying group for gun manufacturers dressed up as a group representing the rights of gun owners.  Even a cursory examination of NRA positions shows that the NRA focuses on policies that maximize the proliferation of guns--and hence, expand business for gun manufacturers.  Often, those positions indeed align with protecting individual gun ownership rights, but protecting these rights was never the intention.  The intention was to create as favorable a market as possible for gun manufacturers, whatever the consequences.

An incredible Alternet piece makes this case very clearly, outlining several policies that the vast majority of NRA members oppose, yet are official NRA policies anyway because they help gun manufacturers.  By a ratio of over 2 to 1, NRA members oppose the gun show loophole, which allows anyone to purchase a firearm without a background check.  Obviously, by supporting the perpetuation of this rule, the NRA assures that guns will fall into the hands of individuals with criminal backgrounds or who are mentally unstable, thus assuring that innocent people are victims of gun violence.  This loophole, by the way, also allows straw purchases to occur, again assuring that dangerous people have easy access to guns, and creating a bloodbath of gun violence victims.  An amazing 91% of gun owners support requirements for federal agencies to share information on background checks; these measures would have prevented the perpetrators of the mass shootings at Virginia Tech and the one that crippled Representative Gabby Giffords from obtaining the firearms they used to commit those crimes.  The NRA vociferously opposes such measures, again, not representing the interests gun owners or its members, but rather the interests of gun manufacturers--interests that involve selling as many guns and as much ammunition as possible, even if doing so means creating an extraordinary number of victims along the way.  The NRA even supports allowing individuals on the US terror watch list to purchase guns; that is opposed by 82% of NRA members.  Most people would want alleged terrorists to be prevented from purchasing firearms, but the manufacturers of firearms, whose profits derive exclusively from ammunition and firearms purchases, are not most people.  Indeed, 90+ percent of gun owners support certain gun control measures opposed by the NRA.  If the NRA represented gun owners, it would support these measures.  But since gun control is bad for gun manufacturers--even if it's good for gun owners--the NRA opposes them.  There isn't space here, but this Mother Jones article details other guns-before-public-safety laws pushed by the NRA in Florida, including the atrocious "shall issue" law.

Make no mistake--research has found zero crime deterrent in states with Stand Your Ground laws, just hundreds of extra homicides as intentional homicides are now recognized as "self-defense."  Allowing for those additional murders--that is the intent of the law.  As Adam Weinstein points out, Stand Your Ground imparts rights on gun carrying citizens that not even police officers are afforded.  The result, as seen above, is a legal limbo where even egregious gun crimes (including some types of homicide) cannot be prosecuted.  This is a prefect legal environment in which to sell guns: Why not buy a gun when there are no consequences for their misuse?  Why wouldn't more people purchase and use guns?  Once again, the NRA wrote the law, and without their work in the Florida Congress, it never would have passed.

Racial bias in applying Stand Your Ground
Racial bias was not written in to Stand Your Ground; that was the job of a clearly racist criminal justice system.  Nevertheless, the NRA also has a storied history of supporting gun control regulations when people it didn't like (black people) were exercising their right to bear arms:

That the law is being differentially applied to the detriment of minorities--beyond doubt, given the Urban Institute study cited above--though not the goal of the NRA, is nevertheless icing on the cake.

The ALEC playbook
It's worth noting that the NRA is not unique for writing laws to maximize corporate profit at the expense of ordinary citizens' best interest, then helping legislators pass them.  ALEC, funded nearly unanimously by American corporations, has been doing so, for hundreds of laws, in every state, for decades.  Obviously, no one can write about all instances of this happening; that would be like trying to make a list of everything (here is where Bill Moyers tried--highly recommend; here is the ALEC tag on Moyers' blog; I have not found a good summary of ALEC's history).  For these purposes, this amazing Truth Out article, summarizing two such cases, suffices.  First, Wisconsin's Truth In Sentencing law, which was written by private prison corporations to maximize the number of people in state prisons, despite the exorbitant cost and injustice:
The state estimated that the first 21 months after the law took effect would cost taxpayers an extra $41 million, as 990 inmates would have to be incarcerated for an additional 18,384 months. Wisconsin's prison population increased 14 percent in the seven years after the law took effect, with no correlative public safety benefit or additional decline in crime rates. The annual budget for the state prison system jumped from $700 million in 1999 to $1.2 billion in 2009, becoming the third-largest expenditure in the 2009-2011 state budget.

During this period of growing prison populations, then-Representative Scott Walker introduced several bills between 1997 and 1999 that would allow private prisons in Wisconsin, including one to privatize state prison operations (see the ALEC bill here), and another allowing private corrections companies to open prisons in Wisconsin to house inmates from other states (see the ALEC bill here). Walker noted in 1998 that CCA wanted to expand into Wisconsin. While those bills did not pass, some inmates were contracted-out to private prisons in other states, and CCA has registered lobbyists in the state ever since.

"Clearly ALEC had proposed model legislation," Walker told American Radio Works in 2002 (although there was no reference to ALEC when the legislature was considering the bill).
Got it?  Truth in Sentencing laws pervert sentencing so that punishment far exceeds the crime, prevents many people in prison from getting treatment for the reason they're in prison in the first place (mental health or substance abuse), actually increases the chances that someone leaving prison will commit another crime, and does not deter crime, either first or repeat offenses.  All the law does is increase the prison population, thus massively increasing taxpayer money spent on prisons.  Criminal justice research has repeatedly shown that there is zero public safety benefit to Truth in Sentencing.  Critics of Truth in Sentencing like to point to the unsustainable expansion of the prison budget as a problem inherent in the Truth In Sentencing law.  But the ballooning prison budget is not a problem with the law, it's the entire point of the law.  Maximizing the number of people in prison--despite the obvious consequences and extraordinary expense--was the goal of Truth in Sentencing, because the winners in this situation are the ones who wrote the bill in the first place.

It's a perfect strategy: after passing the budget-busting, prison roll maximizing Truth in Sentencing law written by private prison corporations, another law--also written by private prison corporations--is proposed to pay those same private prison corporations to house the very prisoners who would not be in prison were it not for Truth in Sentencing.  Truth in Sentencing is not criminal justice policy, it's a prison privatization and corporate welfare policy.

Arizona's notorious immigration law:
DBA Press / In These Times documented how Arizona Republican Rep. Russell Pearce collaborated with CCA and other members of the ALEC Public Safety and Elections Task Force in December 2009 to create the ALEC "model" immigration bill that became SB1070.

Before the ALEC meeting, for-profit prison operator CCA had identified immigrant detention as a profit center important for its future growth, stating it anticipated receiving "a significant portion of our revenues" from detaining immigrants. Even a hedge fund with a big stake in CCA was touting immigration detention as proof CCA would be profitable.

An immigrant contesting their deportation can wait up to a year for a hearing, even though many of those detained have not committed a crime and have no criminal record. Immigrant detention can cost taxpayers $122 a day. Because for-profit corporations operate about half of all immigrant detention facilities, these taxpayer dollars flow into the pockets of CCA and other for-profit prison providers.

The for-profit bail bond industry's trade association, the American Bail Coalition (ABC), is an ALEC member and was also on the Task Force that passed the ALEC anti-immigrant laws. An immigrant facing removal in some cases may be released on bond, and will often pay a commercial bail bondsman for their release. Immigration bonds are usually between $5,000 and $10,000, and can be much higher, so a for-profit bail bondsman who accepts 10 percent of that bail as a nonrefundable fee can rake in significant profits for doing very little.
Same play: pass a bill to maximize incarceration--this time, of immigrants, the vast majority of whom are guilty only of the crime of working hard for a better life--and shovel taxpayer dollars towards private corporations doing something the taxpayers don't need in the first place.  The corporations were not concerned with illegal immigration, but rather with their bottom line.  Throw more human beings whose only crime is working hard for a better life in cages in order to make a profit; that is ALEC.

Good intentions do not write good legislation
Finally, it's worth pointing out that one of the legislators who proposed the Florida Stand Your Ground bill, Durell Peaden, genuinely believes the bill is not being used in the way he imagined it would be.  For example, he was appalled at the Trayvon Martin case (though read this).  Accordingly, in their piece examining instance of the law, the Tampa Bay Times portrays him as a helpless bystander in this process:
Durell Peaden, the former Republican senator from Crestview who sponsored the bill, said the law was never intended for people who put themselves in harm's way before they started firing. But the criminal justice system has been blind to that intent.
Giving Peaden the benefit of the doubt--that he didn't realize the ALEC bill was written by gun manufacturers, or he didn't think gun manufacturers would be so barbarian as to prefer this outcome--still brings up an important point.  Good intentions do not write good legislation.  Wake up and do your job; if you write poorly worded legislation without clear definitions, things like this are going to happen.  It's unavoidable.  If you don't do your job as a legislator and craft quality legislation--and instead copy and past a bill written by an industry lobby--the law will be used in ways you did not intend.  Once again, the law gives ordinary citizens are given greater rights to use a firearm than police officers.

Attempting to legislate via good intentions is shockingly common, and has extraordinary consequences.  "As the author of the Patriot Act, I am extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation of the Act," whines Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner.  Sorry, Sensenbrenner, the problem isn't that the interpretation is overly broad, the problem is that you crafted extremely poor legislation.  Another Wisconsin politician, Senator Russ Feingold, basically predicted that the Patriot Act would be abused in exactly the way it is currently being abused.  In an October 2001 speech, shortly after 9/11 and shortly after casting the only vote against the Patriot Act in the Senate, Feingold stated (emphasis added):
One provision that troubles me a great deal is a provision that permits the government under FISA to compel the production of records from any business regarding any person if that information is sought in connection with an investigation of terrorism or espionage.

Now we’re not talking here about travel records pertaining to a terrorist suspect, which we all can see can be highly relevant to an investigation of a terrorist plot. FISA already gives the FBI the power to get airline, train, hotel, car rental and other records of a suspect.

But under the Senate bill, the government can compel the disclosure of anyone – perhaps someone who worked with, or lived next door to, or went to school with, or sat on an airplane with, or has been seen in the company of, or whose phone number was called by the target of the investigation.

And under this new provisions all business records can be compelled, including those containing sensitive personal information like medical records from hospitals or doctors, or educational records, or records of what books someone has taken out of the library. This is an enormous expansion of authority, under a law that provides only minimal judicial supervision.

Under this provision, the government can apparently go on a fishing expedition and collect information on virtually anyone. All it has to allege in order to get an order for these records from the court is that the information is sought for an investigation of international terrorism or clandestine intelligence gathering. That’s it.
Sorry, Representative Sensenbrenner.  You may have had good intentions, but good intentions do not make up for your incompetence in writing legislation.  Senator Feingold was able to foresee the consequences of this poorly written law before it even became a law.  That is the role of a legislator--to try to guarantee that laws are properly written so as to minimize the potential for abuse.  Competence as a legislator and good intentions are needed, not one or the other.

Glenn Greenwald recently highlighted another example of legislating by good intentions.  Senator Dick Durbin whined in 2013 about the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force:
None of us, not one who voted for it, could have envisioned we were voting for the longest war in American history or that we were about to give future presidents the authority to fight terrorism as far flung as Yemen and Somalia. I don't think any of us envisioned that possibility."
But Senator Durbin and others only didn't see this possibility because of their incompetence as legislators.  The only vote in Congress against the AUMF was from Barbara Lee, who wrote in 2001 of this solitary nay vote:
Some believe this resolution was only symbolic, designed to show national resolve. But I could not ignore that it provided explicit authority, under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, to go to war. It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events - anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation's long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit.

In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration. I could not support such a grant of war-making authority to the president; I believe it would put more innocent lives at risk.
That's right--AUMF passed as a "show [of] national resolve."  Good intentions + incompetence = bad legislation.

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