With states utilizing an increasing number of private prison contracts to purportedly ease budget shortfalls, the prison privatization debate has fallen squarely on Florida’s shoulders this week. Despite last year’s failed privatization efforts, the Florida legislature is once again considering awarding contracts to for-profit corporations that would put 29 facilities and up to 16,000 inmates in the hands of private corporations.
As the Florida Senate debates the proposed legislation, faith, labor and human rights groups have succeeded in delaying the fast-tracked legislation. From the Florida Independent:
Since the bills were introduced, corrections officers, labor groups and public policy experts have expressed opposition to the state’s plans. They warned legislators that prison privatization would threaten public safety and put corrections employees out of work. Many who testified warned that private prison companies use inferior training and policies for their employees, and cut corners to save money.
Despite claims by private prison supporters that privatization plans save money, the benefits often fail to materialize for the state. Chris Kirkham at The Huffington Post explains:
Proponents have advanced the move as a cost-saving measure, a business-minded response to the state’s budget shortfall. But a series of studies and the experiences of several other states that have experimented with privatizing prison systems raise significant doubts about the cost savings that are supposed to accrue: Private prisons have tended to take control of the lowest-cost inmates, those lacking health problems and posing less risk of violence, while leaving states to contend with the harder cases.
While private prison corporations continue to benefit from America’s high incarceration rates and state budget shortfalls, people of faith are taking steps to ensure their congregation’s investments do not fund this growing, immoral industry.
Bill Mefford, Director of Civil and Human Rights for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church describes his denomination’s motivation for divesting their money out of private prisons this year:
While United Methodists have been caring for those imprisoned and fighting to lessen the number of people incarcerated, our church has been profiting from corporations making billions of dollars from the incarceration of people of color. It was a sickening realization. Profiting from stock in CCA and GEO Group is a betrayal of all that we stand for and believe in as United Methodists and followers of Jesus.
As Florida activists and the United Methodist Church has demonstrated, faith-based organizations combining forces with labor and human rights advocates is a key way for state groups to effectively insert a vital moral voice into this ongoing, contentious debate.
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Last September, despite recanted eyewitness testimony and last-minute clemency appeals to the Georgia state Pardons and Paroles Board, Troy Davis was executed, sparking international outcry. It has been four months since that egregious sentence was carried out, but Davis’ killing created a new wave of anti-death penalty activism and is leading more and more people of faith to demand an end to state-sanctioned executions.
In a sign that state legislatures are finally taking notice, the Pennsylvania Senate recently “passed a resolution calling for a review of the fairness, equality and expenses of having a death penalty that is rarely used.” Although executions are rare in Pennsylvania, 208 inmates remain on death row.
In the typically conservative state of Montana, faith leaders are actively engaged in efforts to save Canadian-born Ronald Smith from death by lethal injection. Smith, convicted of the 1982 murders of two Blackfoot Indian men, is the only Canadian on death row in the U.S.. Eighty religious leaders gathered at a press conference last week to call both for clemency for Smith and the abolishment of Montana’s death penalty – a measure that has already passed the State House of Representatives.
From Episcopal Café:
I have seen no research that indicates that (the death penalty) acts as a deterrent to violent crime,” Rev. Franklin Brookhart, Bishop of Montana for the Anglican-affiliated Episcopal Church, argued in a letter to state legislators. “I cannot see how it makes us a better nation, that is, a more compassionate and fair society. And it clearly does not set a good example for individual conduct or moral maturity.
Just this week, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of death row inmate Cory Maples, who is awaiting execution in Alabama. Reflecting one of the most shocking examples of inadequate representation, Maples missed the opportunity to file an appeal due to mishandled mail and lawyers who failed to inform the court that they would no longer be managing his case.
In a rare display of empathy by the high court (Justice Alito called it “a veritable perfect storm of misfortune”), the Justices ruled 7-2 that Cory Maples deserved another hearing. Unfortunately, Justices Scalia and Thomas refused to join the broad majority.
Scalia, who has been called out by Catholic theologians for his misrepresentation of Catholic theology on this issue, said in his dissent that while the majority of justices may have ruled out of an “understandable sense of frustration,” the ruling would set a precedent to other death row inmates to challenge their sentence because of ineffective counsel. Instead of acknowledging the errors of the legal system, Scalia was more than ready put a man to death based on the errors of his inept legal counsel.
Andrew Cohen at the Atlantic explains Scalia’s dissent:
Justice Scalia wants certainty and finality on appeal — even if it means injustice to a capital defendant. Even Justice Alito’s litany of errors — eight of them! — wasn’t enough to convince Justice Scalia that Maples deserved more from his attorneys, the justice system, the High Court and the Constitution… This week we see how far lawyers must go in abandoning their capital clients before Justice Scalia will take notice and do something about it.
Despite Scalia’ (and Thomas’s) disappointing dissent, people of faith across the United States continue the march forward to bring an end to the death penalty and these blatant miscarriages of justice.
H/T Death Penalty Information Center
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Hamil R. Harris at the Washington Post talks with African-American clergy who are embracing the 99% movement as an important ally in the fight for economic justice.
Some critics say the focus of the Occupy movement, which by design does not have leaders, is unclear. But [Occpuy the Dream co-founder Rev. Jamal Harrison] Bryant, who observed the movement from a distance before deciding he wanted to be part of it, was adamant that Occupy the Dream has a defined agenda.
“Number one, we are asking for more Pell grants so that our young people might be able to compete and go to colleges and universities,” he said. “Number two, we are asking for an immediate freezing on foreclosures.” The group is also seeking billions of dollars “from Wall Street for economic development and for job training.”
Beginning in February, Bryant plans to launch a campaign to urge people to bank only at minority-owned financial institutions.
Bryant, 40, a former national youth director for the NAACP, said his involvement in Occupy the Dream feels like he’s “coming home” to his civil rights roots.
“I think the Occupy Wall Street movement has held the legacy of Dr. King and has brought the church back into accountability,” Bryant said. “Dr. King would be here today. He wouldn’t be at a breakfast; he wouldn’t be at a mall. He would be here with us.”
Read the whole thing here.
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On Monday the United States celebrated the accomplishments and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., but the fight to fully realize King’s dream and vision for a more just and fair society continues.
The legislative attacks on undocumented families in places like Arizona and Alabama demonstrate the urgent need for people of faith to take action. Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, appeared on The Colbert Report Monday night to discuss what’s happening in Alabama. Take a look:
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The tragedy of Troy Davis’ execution, despite questions about his innocence, briefly captivated the public’s attention, but other important death penalty news has gone largely unnoticed this year. For instance, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber implemented a death penalty moratorium, and Illinois abolished it completely.
These and other data points are included in the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report released this week. 2011 was the first year since the death penalty was re-instituted in 1976 that the number of death sentences was below 100. According to the report, 78 death sentences were handed down this year, representing a 75% drop from the 315 reported in 1996. The number of executions also continued to fall, with the 43 prisoners put to death in 2011 – a 56% decrease from the 98 executed in 1999. Meanwhile, support for the death penalty reached its lowest level in decades.
Troy Davis’ death is a stark reminder of what is at stake in the debate. This unfortunate moral blemish on American society won’t completely disappear until the death penalty is abolished nationwide, but these trends offer hope and provide the motivation to keep working towards this goal in 2012 and beyond.
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