Clarke’s British reform failures a lesson as Holder pushes for historic turn on U.S. crime


As U.S. attorney general Eric Holder makes a serious push for prison and justice reform in the United States, he would do well to look at a similar push across the Atlantic — Kenneth Clarke’s attempt to reverse decades of tough criminal law policies in the United Kingdom provides a cautionary tale.USflagUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Holder announced yesterday in a speech to the American Bar Association that the U.S. justice department will seek to avoid mandatory sentences for non-violent, low-level drug-related offenses, and justice reform advocates largely cheered a welcome pivot from the ‘tough-on-crime’ approach to justice that’s marked U.S. policy for the past four decades throughout much of the ‘War on Drugs’ — drug-related offenses have largely fueled the explosion in the U.S. prison population.  Holder will instruct prosecutors in federal cases not to list the amount of drugs in indictments for such non-violent drug offenses, thereby evading the mandatory sentences judges would otherwise be forced to administer under federal sentencing guidelines.  That’s only a small number of prisoners because 86% of the U.S. prison population is incarcerated by state government and not by the federal government.

Holder called for ‘sweeping, systemic changes’ to the American justice system yesterday and attacked mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders, which he said caused ‘too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason.’

That approach has left the United States with a prison population of nearly 2.5 million people (though the absolute number has declined slightly after peaking in 2008) and the world’s highest incarceration rate of 716 prisoners per 100,000 .  That’s more than Russia (484), Brazil (274) the People’s Republic of China (170) or England and Wales (148) and as Holder noted yesterday, the United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners.

Particularly damning to the United States is that 39.4% of all U.S. inmates are black and 20.6% are Latino, despite the fact that black Americans comprise just 13% of the U.S. population and Latinos comprise just 16%.  Holder yesterday cited a report showing that black convicts receive prison sentences that are around 20% longer than white convicts who commit the same crime.  Holder denounced mandatory minimums as ‘draconian,’ and made an eloquent case that U.S. enforcement priorities have had ‘a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color,’ that have been counterproductive in many cases.  Holder also made that case that in an era of budget cuts, America’s incarceration rate is a financial burden of up to $80 billion a year, and that reducing the U.S. prisoner population could shore up the country’s finances as well.

But Holder — and prison reform advocates that have emerged on both the American left and right — face a heavy task in reversing nearly a half-century of crime legislation that has largely ratcheted up, not down.

Just ask Kenneth Clarke, who until last September was the justice minister in UK prime minister David Cameron’s coalition government, who as one of the longest-serving and most effective Tories in government for the past four decades, faced a tough road in enacting prison reform in England and Wales.

Though its prison population and incarceration rate pales in comparison to that of the United States, the British justice system imprisons more offenders than many other countries in the European Union, such as France (101 prisoners per 100,000) or Germany (80).

Cameron faced a delicate task in finding a role for Clarke in his government back in mid-2010.  Clarke, a self-proclaimed ‘big beast’ of Tory politics got his start under ‘one nation Tory’ prime minister Edward Heath and found his stride under Heath’s successor, Margaret Thatcher.  He became John Major’s chancellor of the exchequer, guiding No. 11 from the dark days of the 1992 ‘Black Wednesday’ sterling crisis to a more robust financial position.  When Labour swept to power in May 1997 under Tony Blair, Clarke immediately became the most popular Conservative in the country, even though the significantly more right-wing and increasingly euroskpetic party thrice denied the pro-Europe Clarke its leadership.  While Clarke may have passed his glory days in government, his appointment as justice minister reflected that Clarke could still be useful in government.

Clarke’s biggest target as justice minister?  Reducing the number of offenders in English prisons and attacking what Clarke memorably called the ‘Victorian bang-’em-up prison culture’ in a landmark June 2010 speech: Continue reading Clarke’s British reform failures a lesson as Holder pushes for historic turn on U.S. crime

Democracy, participation, and discontent: a crisis of governance for Peru?


Guest post by Jacob Bathanti

July 28 marked Peru’s day of national independence, the centerpiece of a series of celebrations collectively known as Fiestas Patrias.  U.S. readers might imagine this extended holiday as a combination July 4, Thanksgiving, and Decoration Day (in its most tragic and most triumphant senses).Peru Flag Icon

It’s also the occasion for the sitting president to deliver a major policy address, more or less equivalent to the State of the Union.  In this year’s speech, Peru’s president, Ollanta Humala, laid out an agenda which hit some nice notes, with the president focusing his attention on major themes of anti-corruption and social inclusion, with the latter to come both through social programs and through market-oriented growth.

There were few real details, and accordingly some commentators castigated the president for failing to concretely attend to major issues, such as citizen security, which are on many Peruvians’ minds.  Still, Humala is on message: in none of his vagueness did he depart from the key pieces of his overarching double-barreled agenda: pursuing economic growth while ensuring that no one is left behind. Not a bit of what he said in his address was unexpected.

This all sounds innocuous enough, but the political context is more fraught than all that.  Dealmaking among administration insiders and poorly handled attempts to rationalize the state bureaucracy have recently drawn very visible protests from young people, state employees, and the urban professional classes. And so it was that the most interesting part of Humala’s speech, as Rosario Yori has noted, came at the very end of the discourse.  That’s when Humala implicitly conceded that not everyone is happy with his administration, or his plans for transforming Peru; when he acknowledged, however obliquely, that the road toward “La gran transformacion” will not be without twists and turns; when he conceded that he is aware that his program runs the risk of being derailed by its supposed beneficiaries:

…in seeming recognition of the crowds gathered in protest outside of Congress, Humala ended his speech with a message to Peruvians. “I urge you to maintain your vigilance and capacity for indignation to prevent corruption, injustice and discrimination. My promise is to work with you and listen to your demands.”

It is a move not uncharacteristic of a president who has rhetorically embraced themes of popular participation without delivering concrete measures to drive forward a participatory agenda.  Even as Peru has seen an upsurge in in largely peaceful public demonstration, the Humala administration has asked demonstrators to ‘go home’; and even as municipalities have taken steps to push forward institutions of participatory democracy at the local level, the national administration stands accused of ignoring a pro-participation agenda at best, and of actively moving to neuter participatory institutions at worst.

This is problematic not merely from the standpoint of democracy theory. Peru’s conventional institutional framework is troubled, with weak and fragmented political parties, an unpopular Congress, and one of the least-trusted judiciaries in Latin America. I n this situation, Peru’s framework of participatory institutions – various arrangements that invite citizens to actively engage with political processes in a realm beyond simply voting and returning home to await the next electoral cycle – offers the best hope for a revitalization of the political scene.  But the Peruvian government has shown itself unprepared to take participatory institutions seriously.  This is a shame, because an injection of participatory democracy offers a chance to avert a crisis of governance, by fostering active citizenship to channel popular participation, and burgeoning discontent, in productive directions.

Below, I briefly lay out an institutional landscape in which local officials struggle with the implications of participatory democracy, and a landscape of contention in which protest movements are proliferating.  I then offer some suggestions for deepening Peru’s participatory institutions, expanding the substantive exercise of citizenship in ways that move beyond protest. Continue reading Democracy, participation, and discontent: a crisis of governance for Peru?

Is Michael Bloomberg the Silvio Berlusconi of U.S. politics?


If you’re not familiar with U.S. politics, you may not have realized the huge decision that came down on Monday from the federal Southern District of New York declaring that the ‘stop-and-frisk’ approach of the New York Police Department is unconstitutional.newyorkUSflag

But the judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, found that the Police Department resorted to a “policy of indirect racial profiling” as it increased the number of stops in minority communities. That has led to officers’ routinely stopping “blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white.”

The judge called for a federal monitor to oversee broad reforms, including the use of body-worn cameras for some patrol officers, though she was “not ordering an end to the practice of stop-and-frisk.”  In her 195-page decision, Judge Scheindlin concluded that the stops, which soared in number over the last decade as crime continued to decline, demonstrated a widespread disregard for the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, as well as the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

It’s a landmark decision, as far as trial court decisions go, that acknowledges the inherent racism of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, which took off in 2002 under the Bloomberg administration.  Essentially, the practice allows the police to stop hundreds of thousands pedestrians annually, the majority of which are African-Americans and Latinos, and to frisk them for weapons (or, of course, drugs) without probable cause — or, under a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case from 1968, Terry v. Ohio, ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the person to be frisked is armed and dangerous.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was decidedly not pleased, and he lashed out in a press conference that was more befitting a toddler than the mayor of the largest city in the United States:

To one journalist — but really to all of them and any critic of stop-and-frisk, however moderate — Bloomberg exclaimed, “You couldn’t be more wrong!”

Bloomberg, who will leave office in January 2014 after 12 years as mayor of New York City, argued fiercely for the benefits of stop-and-frisk, downplayed the concerns over civil liberties, refused to make any changes in the NYPD operating procedures anytime in the near future and even implicitly accused the ruling of leading to future citywide deaths at the hands of criminals who would otherwise slip through the NYPD crucible.  Bloomberg also pointed to a 30% reduction in violent crime since he took office, though the fact of the matter is that New York’s crime dropped even more precipitously in the 1990s under Giuliani, who had his own civil liberties controversies, including the NYPD’s high-profile sodomizing and assault of Abner Louima and the fatal shootings of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond.

But Bloomberg’s performance on Monday afternoon, however, was less reminiscent of Giuliani than another longtime player in world politics — former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.  And not just because they are apparently summer neighbors on ‘millionaire’s row’ in Bermuda. Continue reading Is Michael Bloomberg the Silvio Berlusconi of U.S. politics?