Is a Mandate with No Money Still a Mandate?

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Over ten years ago, 61% of California voters voted yes to a proposition that made treatment possible instead of incarceration for non-violent drug offenders.  The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000, or Proposition 36, states that nonviolent, simple drug possession offenders have the opportunity to complete a drug treatment program instead of serving jail time.  With California courts widely using the mandate, what happens when there is no more money for the treatment plans?

According to Josh Richman’s article in the Oakland Tribune, this year California’s proposed budget does not include funding for the mandate in 2011/12.  Given that it is a mandate, counties cannot simply say they will discontinue the program. They must find a way to continue offering treatment programs; however, the scenario does not look good.  Courts are still ordering drug treatment, treatment programs have no funding, so waiting lists continue to grow and defendants will not get the help they need.  Sadly, I do not believe this is what California voters had in mind.  The voters approved a program that would rehabilitate these mild drug offenders and give them a second chance, not to have their names added to a list with other non-violent drug offenders who are also waiting for treatment they are entitled to under the law.  Without the right treatment, how can there be rehabilitation?  The lack of funding for Proposition 36 and those who will not be able to access the mandated drug treatment, are more victims of California’s budget crisis.

Money is gone, but Proposition 36’s drug-treatment mandate remains

Does Transparency Equal Better Results?

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Will transparency lead to better results in California dependency courts? California Assemblyman Mike Feuer believes so and has introduced Assembly Bill 73, which if passed, would open up proceedings in California dependency courts to the public. Dependency courts are responsible for deciding whether children should be permanently removed from their parents and handles cases such as child abuse, child neglect, and foster care placement. Their proceedings are currently closed to the public. Some children’s advocates and judges believe making these proceedings will make those involved, such as lawyers and social service workers, be more accountable. Proponents hope that this accountability would make these individuals better represent the children and families. On the other side, according to an LA Times article, those opposing the bill fear that opening the proceedings could traumatize the already vulnerable children and make them less likely to be forthcoming. Surprisingly, most judges are in agreement with the bill because one part of the law would allow judges to close proceedings that were very sensitive.

It is extremely important that the privacy rights of the child be protected, but it is equally important that the welfare of the child be protected and his/her best interest be upheld. If opening dependency courts would help alleviate even a few of the inadequacies in this system and better help the children, Assembly Bill 73 would be a great addition to the California legal system. You can read more about how the bill can help in the Whittier Daily News article, “Our View: Open Up Dependency Courts”.

Our View: Open Up Dependency Courts
California dependency courts need to be open, legislators told

Is Cyberbullying a Crime?

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Facebook, Myspace, and text messaging have changed the way today’s teens communicate with one another.  These forms of electronic communication have revolutionized social interaction, but they have also revolutionized the act of bullying.  Bullying is no longer limited to face-to-face physical and verbal harassment.  It has now taken on new life with harassment through electronic forms of communication, known as cyberbullying.

Like bullying, cyberbullying is anything but harmless.  Its devastating effects have been brought to the forefront with the cases of Phoebe Prince and Megan Meier in which both young women committed suicide after enduring cyberbullying. While school administrators and parents have handled traditional school bullying, cyberbullying has caught the eye of many state lawmakers.  Many states, including California, have enacted laws to address cyberbullying.  California already gives its schools the right to expel students who harass their peers through cyberbullying and now it is making it a crime.  As reported in the SFGate, California law SB 1411 “makes a punishable offense out of knowingly, without consent, impersonating another actual person through or on an Internet web site or by other electronic means for purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person”. Breaking this law carries a $1,000 fine or up to one year in jail. This law is an important step in curving what has become an epidemic among teenagers.

If you are a parent of a teenager, it is important to know the laws in your state and even more important that your child understand the consequences of actions they may deem harmless. Cyberbullying is against the law and is being treated with a zero tolerance policy.

Teens Indicted After Allegedly Taunting Girl Who Hanged Herself
New Law In California Criminalizes Online Impersonations

May I have your zip code please?

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“May I have your zip code please?” How many times have you been checking out at your favorite retail store and heard this request? If you are like me you hastily respond, wondering at the time why it is they need your zip code in order to complete the transaction. I leave the store never thinking about it again, until the next time I am asked. I mean it’s harmless, right?

Whether giving your zip code to a retail store is harmless or not, certainly depends on who you ask. On the one side, the consumer who, by giving their zip code to the retailer, gives that retailer the opportunity to locate his or her address and therefore put it into a marketing database. The retailer then has a way to continue contacting their customer and marketing their products or services. To some consumers this is a violation as they feel it should be their right to decide which stores they provide their information to and receive information from. On the other side, you have the retailer who argues that without this information they will be unable to effectively market their products or services. One customer, Jessica Pineda, decided to fight back against Williams-Sonoma and won.

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the California Supreme Court has ruled that retailers are violating a California consumer privacy law by asking for a customer’s zip code. The law is not a new law in California, as it was enacted in 1990, but has previously only been thought to apply to the customer’s physical address and phone number. The court ruled that the zip code is a part of the customer’s physical address and is off limits. Therefore, the next time I am checking out and the clerk asks for my zip code, I will feel no guilt when I politely decline to provide it.

SFGate: Stores can’t ask for ZIP codes at time of purchase

Disparity in Criminal Sentences

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For every crime committed in the United States there is a federal guideline for prison sentences and fines. However, five years ago the Supreme Court made a decision to allow judges to make their own sentencing decisions, but said that the judges should consult the federal guidelines. But what happens when some judges follow the guidelines and others don’t? According to a report by the Justice Department, the idea that sentences depend on the luck of getting a certain judge will “breed disrespect for federal courts.” This is detrimental to the federal court system as it makes it less reputable and lessens the deterrent effect of punishment. So what has brought this issue to the forefront and what can be done?

In the Justice Department’s report, it finds that sentences imposed for white- collar fraud cases and child exploitation crimes, such as pornography, vary significantly from judge to judge. This has caused the Justice Department to conclude that the United States Sentencing Commission should reexamine sentences for white-collar crimes and child pornography offenses. In fact, according to a New York Times article, many federal judges have told the sentencing commission that the child pornography guidelines are too severe. Currently, possession of a single piece of child pornography is supposed to result in a 5-7 year sentence. However, some judges, such as federal judge Jack B. Weinstein, are imposing much small sentences such as probation or one year in prison.

The issue of inconsistency in our courts needs to be addressed. Our American judicial system should be fair, which is why guidelines were imposed originally. Whether or not some judges are right or wrong in their thinking that smaller sentences are acceptable for white-collar crimes and child pornography, is up for debate. Perhaps though, by reexamining the guidelines and imposing new ones, federal judges may become more in sync with their sentencing.

Rethinking Criminal Sentences
Defiant Judge Takes On Child Pornography Law

V.A. Clarifies Rules on Medical Marijuana

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Veterans fought for our country and our rights and now some have won a small victory in the fight for medical marijuana. According to the New York Times article by Dan Frosch, “the Department of Veterans Affairs will formally allow patients treated at its hospitals and clinics to use medical marijuana in states where it is legal.” The policy, which is expected to take affect this week, does not allow V.A. doctors to prescribe medical marijuana. It does; however, make it okay for a patient who is legally using medical marijuana to still be able to be prescribed and use prescription pain medications. The V.A.’s current policy states that veterans can be denied pain medications if they are found to be using illegal drugs. The new written policy makes an exception for medical marijuana in the fourteen states where it is legal. These fourteen states are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The department plans to widely distribute the new guidelines so that patients and doctors are fully informed.

Veterans have often been at the forefront of the medical marijuana movement and are praising the department’s decision. However, they have a long way to go as the veterans in the remaining 36 states, where medical marijuana is not legal, could still lose their rights to prescription pain medication if they are found to be using medical marijuana. Groups such as For Medical Cannabis Access, which worked with the V.A. on the new policy, will still be needed in helping to advocate for veterans who use marijuana to “help soothe physical and psychological pain.”

Our veterans provided a great service to our country and it seems only right that we now offer them the right to be comfortable. The V.A.’s new policy is a big step in the right direction as the V.A. is the first federal department to make a distinction between medical marijuana and illegal drugs.

V.A. Eases Rules for Medical Marijuana
Veterans For Medical Cannabis Access

Ruling Questions Constitutionality of Ban on Same Sex Marriage

Blog PhotoWhy are same-sex couples, who are legally married in their state, not afforded the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples? A federal judge in Massachusetts recently addressed this issue in his rulings on two cases. In the first case he ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional as it infringes on a state’s right to regulate marriage. In the second case, he ruled that the current federal definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman violates the equal-protection provision of the Constitution.

While it is likely that Judge Tauro’s rulings will be appealed, they have sparked more fires in the debate over gay marriage rights. Currently, five states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. However, under federal law, these same-sex married couples are denied all federal benefits such as Social Security survivor’s payments and the ability to file joint tax returns. Judge Tauror’s rulings demonstrate that he believes there is no basis for the reasoning behind not allowing these couples the same rights. The legal world, as well as the political world, is split on his rulings and the rational behind them. Some lawyers do not feel that he has a legitimate argument in saying that the marriage act exceeds Congress’s powers and that marriage should be a state issue. On the political front, advocacy organizations felt this ruling was a states’ rights victory in saying that it is “unconstitutional for the federal government to pass laws that supersede state authority”. In the second case, the judge’s argument is viewed as more legally sound as he argues that the federal definition of marriage violates the equal-protection provision of the constitution by discriminating against same-sex couples. Regardless of which stance you take on the judge’s rulings, they are an essential move in keeping the gay marriage debate a legal debate based on legal reasoning, rather than an emotional, moral debate.

Bill Text 104th Congress (1995-1996) H.R.3396.ENR
Judge Topples U.S. Rejection of Gay Unions

Mehserle Trial; Jury is in, but emotions still run high

Blog PhotoInvoluntary manslaughter, an unintentional killing that results from a recklessness or criminal negligence. This is the verdict a Los Angeles County jury decided on for former BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer Johannes Mehserle. Mehserle had been accused of second degree murder, a much more serious crime, in the January 1, 2009 shooting death of an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant III, on a BART platform in Oakland, CA. The shooting spurred violent riots in downtown Oakland and it was feared the same would happen once a verdict was reached. Disturbances did occur in downtown Oakland after the verdict as a few businesses were looted; however, most Oakland residents chose not to show their discouragement with the verdict through violence. But why are they so frustrated by the verdict of involuntary manslaughter?

The issue, like any issue, can be looked at from two sides. On the one hand, the case is unprecedented in the fact that it is the first time an on-duty Bay Area police officer has been prosecuted for murder. The fact that a white police officer was prosecuted and was not acquitted or cleared of the charges would seem to some as a victory. With the involuntary manslaughter verdict, Mehserle could be sentenced to 5-14 years. In the other corner, are those who feel the verdict is merely a slap on the hand for what the officer did. Videos of the shooting show Mehserle shooting Mr. Grant while Grant was laying face down and unarmed. Mehserle contends that he mistook his gun for his taser.

Racial tension between black Oakland residents and Oakland police is nothing new, but black residents were hoping the jury would set a precedence with this case. If nothing else, the case has placed national attention and scrutiny on the issue and more is likely to come as the U.S. Justice Department and F.B.I. are looking into “whether the evidence warrants federal prosecution”. Stay tuned as there is sure to be more to come on this case and the issue of police abusing minorities.

Mehserle convicted of involuntary manslaughter
U.S. to Probe Transit Killing

Deportation Not Imminent for Legal Immigrants with Minor Drug Offenses

Legal immigrants recently caught a break when the Supreme Court ruled that they should not face automatic deportation for being convicted of minor drug offenses. Before the ruling, legal immigrants faced automatic deportation for an aggravated felony. However, the question was if minor drug charges should be considered an aggravated felony. The justices answered this question by saying that “this was not what Congress had in mind when it mandated automatic deportation for any immigrant convicted of an aggravated felony.” Instead, for minor drug cases, legal immigrants should be able to argue their case with immigration judges. This would allow the judges to not only consider the drug conviction, but also take into account other factors such as family ties and length in the United States. While the U.S. certainly does not need more individuals in our country who break the law, legal immigrants should receive the right to plead their case and stay in the country. The new ruling is only for legal immigrants; whereas illegal immigrants will still face automatic deportation. By entering the U.S. legally, they are being given a legal chance to stay in the country where they chose to live.

Debate Continues Over California’s Sex Offender Laws

While Chelsea’s Law recently cleared its first legislative committee, new legislation is being proposed that would require registered sex offenders to carry marked driver’s licenses. If passed, California would be the third state to have this requirement, joining Delaware and Louisiana, which already require the marked licenses.

While the bill in California is only in its beginning stages, it is clear that it will be met with opposition in regards to civil liberties. Those in support of the measure say that the marked licenses could help the chances of a safe recovery for abducted children. The marked licenses for sex offenders certainly sounds like another good way to punish and track criminals; however, there is more that needs to be laid out before one should endorse it. First, will the bill require all sex offenders to have the marked license or just violent offenders? Second, how exactly could the marked license lead to quicker, safer recovery of victims? Laws that make our children safer are a bonus, but only if they actually work. The last thing California needs is another emotionally charged law that is vague and does little to actually help.