Where’s Fidel?

Reading major newspapers and listening to NPR this morning, I don’t hear anyone asking what seem to me to be the obvious questions about Castro’s condition: Is Castro alive? Is he incapacitated? Did he compose or approve the statement read in his name? In a secretive dictatorship, you can’t believe everything the regime says. Raul Castro and his colleagues may be trying to create the impression of a gradual transition. On the other hand, it could well be the case that Fidel is himself trying to prepare Cubans for a transition that will happen eventually. I’m just surprised that no one seems to be asking whether Fidel directed this cession of power himself – except in the streets of Miami.

The Federal Government Is Remarkably Efficient (at Throwing People in Prison)

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports some disturbing statistics on conviction rates at the federal level:

About 95 percent of federal criminal defendants plead guilty. Of the remaining few who fight in court, nearly nine of 10 are convicted, according to national statistics.

[…]

“The odds are pretty stacked against defendants once an indictment is issued; that pretty much seals their fate,” said Mark Allenbaugh, a Huntington Beach, Calif., lawyer and nationally recognized expert on the federal court system. “Once the indictment is issued, conviction is almost guaranteed.”

Between 2000 and 2005, 99 percent of the 435,000 federal criminal defendants prosecuted nationwide were convicted.

I suppose it’s possible that just about everyone ever indicted at the federal level is guilty, but I doubt it. U.S. Attorneys’ offices tend to be better staffed and better funded than local prosecutors’ offices, and certainly have more resources than the average defendant. Couple this with the accompanying trends of the federalization of crime, the criminalization of everthing under the sun, and mandatory minimums, and you get a rather stark explanation for America’s exploding federal prison population.

The article also delves into the troubling role plea bargaining plays in all of this, including what amounts to the de facto punishment defendants often get for insisting on their right to a jury trial:

Former U.S. Attorney Frederick Thieman said defendants shouldn’t face tougher sentences just because they went to trial.

“There’s a ridiculous cost to exercising your constitutional right to go to trial,” Thieman said. “The stakes are too high.”

[U.S. Attorney Mary Beth] Buchanan said defendants always have the right to go to trial.

“If a defendant believes they did not commit the crime as charged, or if they believe the government cannot prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, then a defendant absolutely has the right to a jury trial,” Buchanan said.

Those who lose shouldn’t expect leniency after the fact, Buchanan said.

“They can’t have it both ways,” she said.

As //cbs4 [dot] com/video/?id=19693 [at] wfor [dot] dayport [dot] com" target="_blank">t//cbs4 [dot] com/video/?id=19693 [at] wfor [dot] dayport [dot] com" target="_blank">his heartbreaking report illustrates, it’s often quite a bit more complicated than that. The linked report is admittedly a state prosecution, not a federal one. But it rather aptly illustrates the absurdies arising from from ill-considered “tough on crime” legislation, drug laws, mandatory minimums, and overzealous prosecutors.

Boehner Cites, Promotes Americans’ Anxiety

National Journal’s Hotline has dutifully reprinted House Majority Leader John Boehner’s open letter of encouragement to fellow Republicans as they go into the summer recess. In it, Boehner cites Americans’ ongoing anxiety about a number of issues.

“International threats are also contributing to the anxiety American families feel,” he writes.  He continues:

[Terrorists are] bent on destablizing democracies throughout the world. And they are more determined than ever to penetrate our leaking borders and carry out their murderous ambitions against innocent citizens on American soil.

Naturally, Boehner derides Democrats for failing to do security like Republicans do security.

Last year, for example, 152 Democrats voted against the REAL ID Act, which implemented needed driver’s license reforms, making it more difficult for potential terrorists to obtain driver’s licenses or state ID cards, and ensuring that states improve their data security.

Nevermind that false ID was not part of the modus operandi of the 9/11 terrorists. Identification requirements are not very good for tracking or controlling criminals and essentially worthless for stopping suicidal terrorists, but they are very good for tracking and controlling law-abiding citizens.

In Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, Timothy Naftali frames this kind of letter:

The politics of fear have … prevented a serious national conversation about the true dimensions of the threat. The public has no idea of the tradeoffs between security and freedom. Their elected representatives speak of doing everything necessary to protect them, while each political party argues that it is more likely than the opposition to keep the nation secure.

This perspective turns the Boehner letter into a caricature. Naftali adds, “The American public should be informed that the terrorists cannot win any war against the United States … .”

On What Planet?

Peter Beinart writes in the New Republic:

The struggle that initially roiled the Clinton administration–between deficit hawks and deficit spenders–is basically over; today, even the most liberal Democrats are fiscal conservatives.

Stephen Slivinski’s new book does demonstrate that today’s Republicans are bigger spenders than LBJ. But as the National Taxpayers Union notes in its latest rating of congressional voting, the average Democrat still votes for far more spending than the average Republican. Democrats offer no plan to avert the impending insolvency of the Social Security system. They have denounced the Republicans’ trillion-dollar expansion of Medicare on the grounds that it isn’t generous enough.

Even the relatively conservative Democrats at the Democratic Leadership Council recently released a plan to spend hundreds of billions more taxpayer dollars on everything from college tuition to housing to socialized health care for children to McGovern-style “demogrants” for every baby, with no plausible offsetting spending cuts.

Ready to Pay More for Longer Lines at the DMV?

The Decatur (Alabama) Daily News reports that a server shut-down froze driver licensing operations on Friday.

Lines that tend to be long on the best days meandered double-file through hallways at the Morgan County Courthouse after a computer server in Montgomery shut down at about 12:45 p.m. The faulty server, which came back online at 3, is owned and maintained by Oregon-based Digimarc Co., a state contractor, according to [the Alabama Department of Public Safety].

Digimarc is one of several companies that are in the business of licensing and regulating driving. Another cited in the story is AAMVA, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which operates a variety of driver surveillance programs under the AAMVAnet brand.

AAMVAnet is the conduit most states use to access various databases involved in driver license applications and renewals. Alabama uses the service for commercial driver license information, problem-driver point systems and Social Security number verification.

AAMVA is particularly interesting because it styles itself as a neutral interlocutor on motor vehicle administration, police traffic services and highway safety. But according to its non-profit disclosure form, its $30 million in 2003 revenue was comprised of $11 million in government grants and more than $14 million from “contracts/user fees” - most of it likely from operation of the Commercial Driver License Information System.

Anyone who understands the role of self-interest in guiding organizations - even ‘non-profits’ like AAMVA - must recognize that this is an advocate for increased driver regulation and surveillance, most recently through the REAL ID Act’s national identification card. If REAL ID is implemented, AAMVA stands to increase its revenue ten times over.

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Martha Earnhardt told the Decatur Daily News, “As more and more states go through AAMVAnet, it hasn’t been able to handle the volume.” But AAMVA intends to move you into the national ID program - long lines or not - using your state and federal tax dollars.

More on AAMVA and the REAL ID Act can be found in my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misuderstood.

Political Entrepreneurship

From the Washington Post:

[Kevin] Schieffer is trying to persuade the Federal Railroad Administration to give him a $2.5 billion loan for the project [to build a 1000-mile rail line from Wyoming to Minnesota], among the largest in history.

If it succeeds, it could be a boon to farmers – and Schieffer.

The project would cut transportation costs for coal, corn and ethanol, and would make Schieffer what Fortune magazine calls “America’s first self-made railroad baron since the days of Teddy Roosevelt.”…

“He’s talking about using eminent domain out here and just wiping out 110 or 120 farms and ranches out here,” [rancher Paul] Jensen said.

Schieffer received help from an old friend, someone he admired as a South Dakota basketball legend years ago: Sen. John Thune (R), who defeated Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D) in 2004.

Despite opposition from the White House, Thune helped persuade Congress last year to increase the amount of the program from $3.5 billion to $35 billion. Thune, who received campaign contributions from Schieffer and who earned $220,000 as DM&E’s chief lobbyist in the 18 months before joining the Senate, is promoting the project to lure jobs. The law would allow Schieffer to put down no collateral and to make no payments for up to six years. [Sen. Mark] Dayton and other critics fear that taxpayers would be on the hook if the project were to fail.

He’s no James J. Hill.

Two Former Police Chiefs on Overkill

Joseph McNamara — a 35-year law enforcement official, including 18 years as a police chief in Kansas City and San Jose — has kindly praised my recent report on police militarization.

Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper also had some kind things to say about the paper.

The terrific group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) has also put out an extended press release and endorsement.