- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Texarkana Gazette, Jan. 28, 2014

Congress should fix sentencing law in wake of high court ruling

Drug dealers prosecuted under current federal law are not only punished for their line of work, but for the consequences in some cases.

The law tacks on a mandatory 20-year sentence enhancement when “death or serious bodily injury results from the use” of a drug that can be traced backed to the dealer.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right?

Not really.

Back in 2011, an Iowa man named Marcus Burrage was convicted of selling heroin to a Nevada man, Joshua Banka.

Banka took the heroin home to Nevada and used the drug as part of a binge that also included marijuana, prescription drugs and OxyContin, whereupon he promptly died of an overdose.

The prosecutor in Burrage’s trial argued the drugs Burrage sold contributed to Banka’s death, and the jury agreed that sentencing Burrage to 20 years for selling dope and another 20 years for Banka’s death.

Burrage’s attorneys appealed, saying while the heroin may have contributed to Banka’s untimely end, that is not the same as concluding his death resulted specifically from the heroin.

The appeal wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court in November. That body rendered its decision on Monday.

It was unanimous - contributing to a death is not the same as causing that death.

The court ruled there was insufficient evidence the heroin was the major factor in Banka’s overdose.

“Is it sufficient that use of a drug made the victim’s death 50 percent more likely?” Scalia wrote in the court’s ruling, “Fifteen percent? Five? Who knows. Uncertainty of that kind cannot be squared with the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard applicable in criminal trials.”

Burrage will still serve his time for drug dealing, but the extra 20 years was thrown out and that part of the case returned to the lower court.

That means prosecutors can still try to prove the heroin was the cause of death, but face an uphill battle considering the mix of drugs in Banka’s system.

The ruling means prosecutors have to tread carefully in cases where several drugs from different sources are involved. While the court ruling was correct if the law is to be strictly read, we doubt this was what Congress had in mind when passing the legislation.

That means lawmakers should get to work and plug this new loophole.


Harrison Daily Times, Jan. 27, 2014

Landmark Surgeon General’s report on smoking turns 50

Does anyone remember Luther Terry?

We don’t either, although we probably should since his historic Surgeon General’s report issued in 1964 concluded that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer in men.

At that time, cigarette smoking was as popular as sipping soft drinks. People smoked in classrooms, dining rooms, courtrooms, hospital rooms, funeral homes, just about anywhere. Public events often were played out under a thick haze of smoke.

In fact, smoking was so commonplace that many grooms were pictured with a cigarette dangling from their fingers in wedding pictures.

Surgeon General Luther Terry’s report on smoking may have created just a ripple when it was released, but that report has grown into a wave over the past 50 years that is credited with preventing up to 8 million U.S. deaths.

Fifty years after the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking, cigarettes are still available but many facets of American life have changed. We’re exposed to much lower levels of cigarette smoke, and minors are barred from buying cigarettes.

North Arkansas Regional Medical Center and North Arkansas College have smoke-free campuses; smoking is banned in restaurants and public areas; state law forbids adults from smoking in vehicles with small children.

Yes, many of us are more health conscious, as we learn what can cause cancer and other diseases.

On a national scale, tobacco companies lost costly class action lawsuits. On a personal level, smokers have to be willing to invest hundreds of dollars a year in cigarettes, and stand outside in freezing and smoldering weather to indulge in their habit.

Today, we thank Luther Terry for starting the crusade against smoking. Americans can still indulge in tobacco if they want, but most of us aren’t exposed to the smoke and can dine in comfort.


Southwest Times Record, Jan. 23, 2014

Rainy day money useful; permanent solution needed

It looks like some legislators are moving toward accepting Gov. Mike Beebe’s proposal to set aside almost half a million dollars in rainy-day funds to cover most of the cost of GED exams.

That’s a good thing, but it’s only a temporary fix.

The state used to pick up the whole cost for test takers, but that was when the test cost just $20. A complete overhaul of the test offered by the National GED Testing Service last year led to a price hike; the service now charges $120 per test, $30 for each section.

Clearly, with that change, fewer students were going to be able to take the test.

Last week, the Legislative Counsel endorsed Gov. Beebe’s plan to set $450,000 aside to defray most of the cost for test takers. Under the proposal, those taking the test would pay just $16, with the state picking up the rest, according to an Arkansas News Bureau report in Saturday’s edition.

Also according to that report, the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee endorsed the plan last week.

Not everyone supports the plan. In Arkansas as in other states, some legislators object to asking the same taxpayers who fund public schools to fund tests for students who opt not to finish high school.

Janice Hanlon, state administrator of the GED through the Department of Career Education, estimated about 7,000 people took the test in 2012, including about 1,200 17-year-olds and 991 18-year-olds.

Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, said taxpayers would be paying $104 per test for everyone who takes it. “That includes for those students who may have chosen to drop out of high school, who could receive the diploma in the traditional route,” she said.

In reply, Rep. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, noted that, although she wished everyone would complete high school, it actually costs the state less per student to pay for the test than to pay for the education.

Of course, Rep. Elliott isn’t advocating students take the GED instead of completing high school to save the state some money; she is simply saying that picking up the tab for the tests makes sense on a lot of levels. As she put it, “that’s really kind of an upside of a downside thing.”

We know that lacking a high school diploma or a GED stops people in their tracks when it comes to improving their lives. Increasingly, the jobs in our society require a minimum level of education that was not required 50 years ago. Without a diploma or GED, most people today will find themselves in dead-end, minimum-wage jobs. Even if they are smart, even if they excel at the jobs they have, they likely will be blocked from promotions or better career paths.

Getting a GED translates directly into better jobs and more money. It opens the door to college or technical schools. It creates a sense of achievement, enhances self-worth and inspires hope. GED-holders can expect to make an extra $8,000 per year over their lifetimes, according to Jim Smith, deputy director of Adult Education at the Department of Career Education. That makes it beneficial on both the micro- and macro-economic level.

Of course, rainy-day money is one-time money, and there needs to be a permanent solution to this issue. In the short term, however, this money will make a difference to people in our community, and that means it will make a difference to us.

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