- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

July 26

Knoxville (Tennessee) News Sentinel on state’s prison reform efforts:

The Haslam administration is in the process of overhauling Tennessee’s prison system, though most in the state know little about it. The Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism was formed in August 2014 and has been flying under the radar as it seeks to address sentencing and recidivism in Tennessee’s justice system.

However, a consultant’s report obtained by the Tennessean offers a preliminary look at possible recommendations to Gov. Bill Haslam’s Public Safety Subcabinet that could emerge in the coming weeks.

Reforming Tennessee’s prison system is sorely needed. Since 1981, the report says, the state’s imprisonment rate has jumped 256 percent to 438 people incarcerated per 100,000 residents. Nearly half of those released from prison are back behind bars within three years.

With nearly 99 out 100 beds occupied in Tennessee’s prisons, reducing the number of inmates is imperative, and it is unclear from the report how much the recommendations would help. The Vera Institute for Justice, which prepared the report for the task force, says more research is needed.

The report explains that the number of new admissions and the length of incarceration are the two factors that determine prison population levels. Other states have made significant reductions in their prison populations by reducing recidivism. North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia have recidivism rates below 29 percent, 17 percentage points lower than Tennessee.

The preliminary recommendations include revamping the sentencing structure and ending discretionary parole release to make prison terms more predictable. More analysis is needed, so the state should create a council to research and develop revisions to the sentencing system, the report states.

The task force is considering recommendations that would reduce penalties for some nonviolent offenses. Currently, property crimes involving items valued at greater than $500 trigger felony charges, an amount that has not changed since 1989. The preliminary recommendation is to double that threshold, which would place it near the national average.

While raising the felony threshold for property crimes would slightly reduce the overall prison population, proposals to enhance penalties for repeat drug trafficking and aggravated burglary would increase the population in prisons, which already are at capacity, by about 6 percent.

Reducing recidivism through more effective programs for parolees would become vital. Establishing individualized case plans, using incentives and giving priority for prison bed to serious offenders are among the possible recommendations. Four in 10 prison admissions last year were for people who had violated parole or probation conditions, so the task force could recommend alternatives to prison when the violations do not rise to the level of a felony.

The report does not address mental illness, which is a leading contributor to incarceration. Prisons and jails have become de facto mental health hospitals, which drives up costs astronomically without truly helping psychologically troubled inmates. Alternatives for nonviolent offenders, such as the proposed safety center in Knox County, would free up beds for more serious criminals and save taxpayers money. Unless the mental health dimension is addressed, the other reforms will be hamstrung.

The covert workings of the task force are troubling. The public confidence inspired by transparency would more than outweigh any possible benefits of a completely closed process. Reform is needed, but so is sunshine.

The final recommendations, which will be made public in the coming weeks, must work together to create a viable opportunity to reduce the prison population without sacrificing the safety and security of all Tennesseans.




July 26

Chattanooga (Tennessee) Time Free Press on gun ownership and Social Security:

The Obama administration wants to prevent all Social Security recipients from owning guns.

That’s the rumor going around.

It’s not true, but there are elements of truth in it.

The administration would like to prevent Social Security recipients from owning guns if they don’t have the mental capacity to manage their own affairs.

On the surface, the idea sounds like a winner. Nobody wants Grandma Trudy, whose daughter pays her bills because she has a touch of dementia, to open fire out her back window when a dog rattles her garbage can. Or neighbor Dan, whose son lives with him and manages his affairs since he has short-term memory loss, to grab his rifle and use it if his son won’t give him the checkbook when he asks for it.

The effort would close a gun loophole and put the Social Security Administration in line with laws already on the book regulating who is reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). That system attempts to keep guns from being sold to dishonorably discharged service members, drug addicts, felons, illegal immigrants and others.

Current federal gun laws do not allow guns to be sold to people who are unable to manage their own affairs due to “marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease,” but the Social Security Administration has never participated in the background check system.

What’s being proposed is a policy similar to that of the Veterans Administration, which reports the names of gun owners in a category known as “adjudicated as a mental defective.” But its only criterion is whether the gun owner has an appointed financial trustee.

In several cases, according to Michael Connelly of the United States Justice Foundation, veterans have been told they could no longer have weapons after being determined incompetent without a hearing, and wanted to see what could be done.

“In every state in the United States,” he told World Net Daily, “no one can be declared incompetent to administer their own affairs without due process of law and that usually requires a judicial hearing with evidence being offered to prove to a judge that the person is indeed incompetent.

“This is a requirement of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that states that no person shall ‘be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.’”

The Social Security plan, which undoubtedly would snare some elders who have no capacity to use guns, nevertheless has rightly drawn criticism from advocates for veterans and people with disabilities and from gun rights advocates, among others.

“Someone can be incapable of managing their funds,” Dr. Marc Rosen, a Yale University psychiatrist who has done work with veterans with mental health problems and their money management, told the Los Angeles Times, “but not be dangerous, violent or unsafe. They are very different determinations.”

Other than memory loss, they also might not be handling their money due to past financial problems, past addictions or past gambling problems.

Gun confiscation of any kind is a serious threat, and the confiscation of guns from Social Security recipients judged unable to manage their own affairs is not likely to be the last attempt to ply guns from individual owners.

The administration’s January 2013 memorandum, made by President Obama after the Sandy Hook School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, directs government agency executives to submit to the Department of Justice a plan for “sharing all relevant federal records” with the NICS to help close loopholes in an effort to reduce gun ownership. Files of the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Transportation also were mentioned for checking, along with “such other agencies or offices as the Chair may designate.”

Connelly told WND that list also could be expanded to student loan recipients, food stamp recipients or Medicaid beneficiaries.

The administration’s Social Security proposal would affect 4.2 million recipients whose monthly benefits are being managed by “representative payees.” Of those, 1.5 million recipients have their finances handled by someone else for a variety of reasons, and 2.7 million people receive Social Security disability payments due to mental health issues.

Gun crimes involving elderly beneficiaries of government funds haven’t exactly been rampant, but if it were possible to snare those few individuals whose medical records and past actions make them a risk, the country might be appreciative. But, to date, no definitive government definition exists for people who don’t have the capacity to manage their affairs, and the ability to balance a checkbook alone surely can’t be the cause of such a designation.

Painting such gun owners with a broad brush is absolutely the wrong thing to do, and confiscating their weapons is not a step the country should take.




July 28

Paris (Tennessee) Post-Intelligencer on Cuban embargo’s days being numbered:

Someday, inevitably, the United States will end its embargo against Cuba. Normal diplomatic relations will resume.

Rather than continuing to be the Communist Menace on Our Doorstep, Cuba will be seen simply as another Latin American neighbor. Someday.

“Someday” isn’t coming any time soon. Current law says that for the embargo to be lifted, Cuba must install a democratic government and improve its human rights record, among other things.

And while there have been a lot of changes since the harshest days under Fidel Castro, Cuba still has steps to climb.

But there are rumblings. A Republican congressman has introduced a bill to end the embargo. That won’t go very far, because leaders of his party are solidly against it.

The mere fact that an attempt is being made to change the law is significant. It suggests that we haven’t forgotten about our close neighbor.

Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minnesota, decided after a trip to Cuba in June to pursue repeal of the embargo.

“I understand there’s a lot of pain on both sides of this issue that goes back many decades, something a kid from Minnesota is not going to necessarily be able to understand,” he said.

“But I believe this is in the best interests of the Cuban people. This isn’t about the Cuban government; it’s about the people on the street looking for more opportunity and to improve their quality of life.”

Change can occur when the interests of the people take precedence over the niceties of government.



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