16 September 2014

Lousy Denver Post and Many Affiliated Papers Up For Sale

The Denver Post and a long list of affiliated newspapers are up for sale according to a Colorado Independent Report of September 12th.
Digital First Media is a dominant force in Colorado daily journalism, listing among its “products” The Post as well as Viva Colorado, The Boulder Daily Camera, Canon City Daily Record, Fort Morgan Times, Longmont Times Call, Loveland Reporter Herald, Estes Park Trail Gazette, Broomfield Enterprise, Lamar Ledger, Julesburg Advocate, Brush News Tribune and Burlington-Record. . . .

[Phillip] Anschutz, a Denver-based billionaire with growing media and other assets nationally and internationally, has bought The Colorado Springs Gazette, and sources have said he has been considering buying The Post.

The ailing Digital First Media manages papers in fourteen states altogether. It is particularly dominant in California, where it runs The Oakland Tribune, Los Angeles Daily News, San Jose Mercury News, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Long Beach Press-Telegram, Berkeley Voice, Contra Costa Times, Pasadena Star News, San Bernardino Sun, among many other newspapers.

Friday’s announcement comes as little surprise as the The Denver Post’s circulation, staff size and journalistic quality have dramatically waned. The paper’s newsroom is a skeleton of its former self, and many of its top staffers who have not been laid off in the past several years have jumped a ship they’ve felt is sinking. About 30 percent of The Post’s staff has been reduced since Digital First Media bought the paper, said Tony Mulligan, administrative officer for The Denver Newspaper Guild.
I've seriously thought about dropping the Denver Post, but with only one daily paper in town covering local news, have refrained from doing so, so far.

Federal Criminal Justice System Still Broken

[Edward] Young, now 43, was convicted of several burglaries as a young man but then resolved that he would turn his life around. Released from prison in 1996, he married, worked six days a week, and raised four children in Hixson, Tenn. 
Then a neighbor died, and his widow, Neva Mumpower, asked Young to help sell her husband’s belongings. He later found, mixed in among them, seven shotgun shells, and he put them aside so that his children wouldn’t find them. 
“He was trying to help me out,” Mumpower told me. “My husband was a pack rat, and I was trying to clear things out.” 
Then Young became a suspect in burglaries at storage facilities and vehicles in the area, and the police searched his home and found the forgotten shotgun shells as well as some stolen goods. 
The United States attorney in Chattanooga prosecuted Young under a federal law that bars ex-felons from possessing guns or ammunition. In this case, under the Armed Career Criminal Act, that meant a 15-year minimum sentence. 
The United States attorney, William Killian, went after Young — even though none of Young’s past crimes involved a gun, even though Young had no shotgun or other weapon to go with the seven shells, and even though, by all accounts, he had no idea that he was violating the law when he helped Mrs. Mumpower sell her husband’s belongings. 
In May, a federal judge, acknowledging that the case was Dickensian but saying that he had no leeway under the law, sentenced Young to serve a minimum of 15 years in federal prison. It didn’t matter that the local authorities eventually dismissed the burglary charges.
From here.

Another similar case more than ten years ago revealed the over breadth of the ACCA:
In 1998, Dan Yirkovsky was remodeling a home in Iowa and found a .22 caliber cartridge beneath some carpet. He put the tiny piece of ammunition aside and continued his work. Sometime later someone reported that Yirkovsky had stolen items and kept them at the home. Police searched the residence, found the bullet and arrested Yirkovsky.
Yirkovsky's previous crimes had been petty larceny and aggravated burglary, similar to Ed Young's. 
His appeals failed and he served a 15-year sentence. 
From here.

There is plenty of blame to go around in this case and cases like it.

Congress is at fault for passing the Armed Career Criminal Act that made it a federal crime for someone who was released from prison almost twenty years earlier on crimes that technically branded him an armed career criminal even though other federal statutes wouldn't even consider those convictions to be prior felonies because they are so old, with only one minor misdemeanor conviction since then that was more than five years old at the time, who didn't know he was violating the ACCA which he sincerely believed applied only to firearms and not ammunition, and had no intent to commit a crime, to a mandatory minimum fifteen year sentence.  It is also at fault for failing to take legislative action to reform this criminal statute which has long been known to be unjust.

The U.S. Supreme Court is at fault for gutting the 8th Amendment protection under the United States Constitution from cruel and unusual punishments with precedents that essentially make it impossible to invalidate a criminal sentence for a term of years that is disproportionate to the crime, particularly in the case of sentences for individuals with prior criminal convictions.

The U.S. Supreme Court is also at fault for allowing a federal criminal sentencing hearing to consider flimsy evidence like criminal charges that are subsequently dismissed.

The trial court judge, and the three judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed the sentence, are at fault for failing to either construe the statute to avoid a reading that would impose a harsh statute, or for failing to have the guts to rule that a case that arguably could be invalidated under existing 8th Amendment jurisprudence, is invalid. All four judges acknowledged that this sentence was clearly unjust and affirmed the sentence anyway.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Poole, who worked the case, and his boss, the United States attorney for the judicial district, William Killian, is at fault was prosecuting a clearly unreasonable charge based not on the belief that the federal crime committed actually deserved to be punished, but instead because he wanted to federally punish the defendant for a completely unrelated state law crime which he believed that the defendant did commit, but for which he was not in fact punished in any way under state law, in defiance of federalism principles and due process considerations.

There seems to be pretty convincing evidence that Young committed another non-violent burglary, even though state officials dropped those charges.  But, the notion that it is appropriate to arbitrarily apply over broad federal criminal statutes in a way that the facts relevant to the federal crime do not support to address completely unrelated state law crimes is deeply flawed.

The Justice Department is at fault for continuing to press the case on appeal, despite knowing that the state law criminal charges had been dropped, and for trying to infect the appellate court record with factual claims outside the trial court record knowing fully well that this was inappropriate.

President Obama is at fault for not using his clemency powers to intervene to commute unjust sentences in cases such as this one, despite his clear constitutional power and obligation to do so. President Obama's timidity is matched, of course, by almost all other recent Presidents and Governors with clemency power.

The State of Tennessee's legislature is at fault for not removing collateral consequences of felony convictions after a reasonable time, mostly because this would allow more black men to vote, as most states outside the South do. If it had done so, Mr. Young would not have been guilty of any crime in this case under the ACCA.

Edward Young is inappropriately going to spend fifteen years in prison because every single one of these critical participants in the criminal justice process failed. Even if the law that sent Edward Young is later reformed, his odds of being released early from prison are negligible.

The U.S. Supreme Court could still grant certiorari and add some long overdue flexibility to their 8th Amendment and sentencing jurisprudence in this case. And, President Obama (or any subsequent President) could still commute the sentence of Mr. Young. But, both possibilities currently seem remote, and to nearly amount to miracles.

The only players in the saga who have done their jobs are the news reporters, bloggers, think tanks, and academics who have called out this case as unjust.  But, none of them have the power to change the result.

How can we survive as a functional state when we lack the institutional capacity to prevent such obvious cases of injustice?

15 September 2014

Against Permission Slips

The fact that institutions like public schools in the United States feel a need to go to extraordinary lengths to manage how ordinary, harmless, over the counter drugs are administered to minors in middle school and high school, with designated nurses following forms signed by doctors and parents, as if Tylenol were heroin, strikes me as a sign of the failure of the leaders of our institutions to command any kind of moral leadership.

The felt need for children on a school trip to have not just one, but dozens of forms signed, in another empty gesture in which form and bureaucracy triumph over substance.  How sick is our legal system that we must work around it with countless waivers in which we thoughtlessly surrender our legal rights, rather than develop standards are that workable and make them the norm?

Not all forms and paperwork of our institutions is so infantile and vacuous.  Schools have a practical need, for example, for contract information of parents and guardians.  But, so much of it is overkill driven by unreasonable fear that lets to many important outcomes hinge on who signed what for which occasion and precisely how a particular lawyer drafted a particular form.

Are we a nation of such frail and weak willed individuals that we make it a crime for even college students to drink alcohol, unlike almost all of the rest of the world, and then enforce those rules in a discriminatory and arbitrary fashion?

Are we a nation so sheltered that we can't trust professionally licensed teachers and our peer parent chaperons to take our children to a zoo or museum outside the school grounds without obtaining special signed permission in advance from a parent or guardian to do so for each trip?

Far too often, we turn to rigid protocols and zero tolerance policies, when a dialectic of trust and responsibility on the part of people in positions of leadership, would serve us better.  Is it possible to rebuild our culture on those kinds of foundations?  Or, is that too foreign to our bureaucratic and legalistic sensibilities?

Eight Schizophrenia Variants Subtyped

A new study has identified 42 clusters of genetic mutations that taken together predict one of eight sub-types of schizophrenia with distinct symptoms.  While individual genetic mutations (SNPs) are not very predictive of schizophrenia, genome wide associations with large sample sizes (4,200 people with schizophrenia and 3,800 controls) have demonstrated that clusters of multiple genetic mutations when found together are highly predictive schizophrenia genotypes.

The subtyping of symptoms, it turns out, was critical to finding the genetic clusters at all.  Even if a genotype is a match to one of the eight schizophrenia syndromes, it will show no significant correlation with the other seven and the signal that does exist may be diluted to the point where it cannot be seen.  In the same way, it is much easier to look for "tall statute genes" and "short stature genes" separately, than to look for "extreme stature" genes in a single statistical analysis.

Schizophrenia, in general, is about 80% heritable, but some genetic clusters predict that someone has a 95%-100% chance of having the associated particular subtype of schizophrenia, while other clusters predict that there is as little as a 70% chance of having schizophrenia and generally clarifies what type of schizophrenia that person who develop if they develop it at all.
In some patients with hallucinations or delusions, for example, the researchers matched distinct genetic features to patients' symptoms, demonstrating that specific genetic variations interacted to create a 95 percent certainty of schizophrenia. In another group, they found that disorganized speech and behavior were specifically associated with a set of DNA variations that carried a 100 percent risk of schizophrenia. . . it was only when the research team was able to organize the genetic variations and the patients' symptoms into groups that they could see that particular clusters of DNA variations acted together to cause specific types of symptoms.

Then they divided patients according to the type and severity of their symptoms, such as different types of hallucinations or delusions, and other symptoms, such as lack of initiative, problems organizing thoughts or a lack of connection between emotions and thoughts. The results indicated that those symptom profiles describe eight qualitatively distinct disorders based on underlying genetic conditions.

The investigators also replicated their findings in two additional DNA databases of people with schizophrenia, an indicator that identifying the gene variations that are working together is a valid avenue to explore for improving diagnosis and treatment. . . .

Eight classes of schizophrenia were identified by independently characterizing each phenotypic feature included in a genotypic-phenotypic relationship; classifying each item based on the symptoms as purely positive, purely negative, primarily positive, or primarily negative symptoms; and clustering these relationships based on their recoded phenotypic domain using non-negative matrix factorization. SNP sets harboring only positive symptoms are indicated in red, whereas those displaying negative symptoms are in green. Intermediate combinations including severe and/or moderate processes combined with positive and/or negative and/or disorganized symptoms were also color-coded.
Of course, while this allows for powerful diagnostic tools that could, for example, definitively confirm a claim of insanity by a criminal defendant who was not privileged enough to receive a clear diagnosis from professional mental health professionals before being arrested, this understanding does little directly to help someone who is diagnosed with a particular schizophrenia subtype cope with that condition.  But, someday, knowing a person's schizphrenia genotype might help someone know, for example, which type of anti-psychotic drugs, if any, are likely to be helpful for them.

Foster Care System Still Broken

Kids in foster care in Colorado are about half as likely to graduate from high school as homeless kids and kids in poverty. 

Kids in foster care routinely get bounced from home to home, mistreatment and abuse of children in foster care (often at the hands of fellow foster children) is so common place that it is a cliché.  Ongoing support for foster children once they turn age eighteen in negligible. 

Social services also has a poor record of removing children from horribly abusive and neglectful environments despite clear warning flags.  Older children who are being abused or neglected, and people who might help them, are discouraged from taking action to invoke social services involvement, in part, because the conditions faced by foster children if they are removed from their parents are so bad.

A state audit has determined that child welfare departments in Colorado are greatly understaffed, and there are also not enough foster families.

When the outcomes for homeless kids, kids in poverty, and probably even kids in the juvenile justice system often looks better than those for foster kids, it is hard to argue that the state has met its obligations to children who have already been victims of criminally bad parenting.  These kids deserve better breaks than kids who have been fortunate enough to have at least mediocre parents, not state inflicted mistreatment that follows the abuse and neglect that they have already suffered.

The fact of that matter is that foster children are very frequently poor and are very frequently impaired as a result of the abuse and neglect that they have suffered.  They aren't going to graduate from high school as often as middle class kids from families that have nurtured them their entire lives.  But, it is abundantly clear that the absolutely abysmal academic performance of foster children compared to other populations facing seriously hardships has a lot to do with aspects of the foster care system that are broken and that our lawmakers (in Colorado and in most other states) are too cheap to fund in a way that can give these kids what they deserve.

When parental rights are terminated, children lose stability and their main source of economic support.  Since this condition is due in significant part to state intervention, it is appropriate for the state to spend what it takes to provide for these children properly.  If we can afford to spend $30,000-$50,000 to adequately care for adults who have committed felonies, we can afford to spend much more than we do on children who are innocent victims than we do.