Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Congress Stood Up for Fairer Sentencing. The Supreme Court Should Too.

Today we filed a friend-of-the-court brief in two Supreme Court cases that deal with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA), which reduced the disparity between federal mandatory minimum sentences for crack versus powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. As we’ve written before, this was a significant step in the direction of fairness.

In Hill v. United States and Dorsey v. United States, the Court will decide whether people whose offenses predate the enactment of the FSA but who were sentenced afterwards should get the benefit of the new, fairer 18:1 ratio (the fairest ratio would be 1:1), or instead be sentenced under the old 100:1 ratio, which had no basis in science and resulted in racially biased sentencing. In our brief, we join Hill and Dorsey — as well as the Obama administration — in urging the Court to hold that Congress intended the FSA to apply in all sentencing proceedings that occur after its enactment.

The FSA was passed to correct the problems with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created a sentencing scheme that unequally punished comparable offenses involving crack and powder cocaine — two forms of the same drug. Relying on perceived differences in the harmfulness and dangerousness of crack versus powder cocaine amid media hysteria surrounding crack cocaine, the 1986 law created a 100:1 disparity between the amounts of crack versus powder cocaine necessary to trigger particular sentences. Thus, for example, someone convicted of an offense involving just five grams of crack cocaine was subject to the same five-year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence as someone convicted of an offense involving 500 grams of powder cocaine. But empirical evidence has demonstrated that there is no scientific basis to support the supposed differences between crack and powder cocaine which Congress had relied upon in devising the 100:1 ratio.

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Is Prison Worse for Women?

In case you missed it, the Jan. 30 issue of The New Yorker contained a powerful essay by Adam Gopnik on the staggering number of people (disproportionally of color) we have imprisoned—often, with sentences absurdly out of whack with the severity of their crimes—in this country. Here’s a brief taste:

Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

Gopnik goes on to trace the intellectual history of our contemporary zeal for lengthy, impersonal, probably ineffective confinements, concluding that what’s needed is not a revolutionary throwing-over of the prison system, but instead a concerted, multifaceted effort to starve the beast though small measures: for example, the legalization and regulation of marijuana.

While this is all very compelling, one thing is missing from Gopnik’s harrowing portrait of “Lockuptown”—he doesn’t really acknowledge that city’s female residents.

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Illinois’ Injustice System

Budget cuts are hard on ex-cons trying to make good.

From where he stands today, Kerry Owens is optimistic. He was released from an Illinois prison in November, after serving a year for retail theft. Owens, 41, has been in and out of the criminal justice system before, but his most recent sentence, for his first felony conviction, has changed his life forever.

He resolved to live differently by volunteering, kicking the addiction that led him to steal $300 worth of merchandise, and enrolling at a local community college. But as a convicted felon, it is now harder than ever to get a job, find an apartment and receive social services.

Owens previously worked as a custodian, and while in prison he earned a certificate for commercial custodian services. But persistent high unemployment and his felony record have left him looking for work. “There’s nothing out there,” he says. “They’re certifying us for jobs that don’t exist.”

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GOP Seeks Big Changes In Federal Prison Sentences

Every year, federal judges sentence more than 80,000 criminals. Those punishments are supposed to be fair — and predictable. But seven years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court threw a wrench into the system by ruling that the guidelines that judges use to figure out a prison sentence are only suggestions.

Republicans in Congress say that has led to a lot of bad results. They're calling for an overhaul of the sentencing system, with tough new mandatory prison terms to bring some order back into the process. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, brought up the subject at a recent hearing.

"A criminal committing a federal crime should receive similar punishment regardless of whether the crime was committed in Richmond, Va., or Richmond, Calif., and that's why I am deeply concerned about what's happening to federal sentencing," Sensenbrenner said.

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Understanding the dynamics of a 'crime of honour'

The murders of four women at the hands of their closest relatives may serve as a wakeup call for wider Canadian society to the social ills that those closer to traditionalist communities have long grappled with.

The convictions of Mohammad Shafia, his wife, Tooba Yahya, and his eldest son, Hamed, on Sunday followed a long trial in which evidence showed that teachers, police and social services saw repeated warning signs that the teenaged daughters of the family were at risk of life-threatening violence.

The three were found guilty of first-degree murder in the deaths of sisters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, whose bodies were found in a submerged car at a Rideau Canal lock east of Kingston in 2009.‬ The fourth found dead in the vehicle was Mr. Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 53, who had entered Canada illegally, posing as his cousin.

“These women were aware of the threat on their lives and they reached out but nobody listened,” said Shahrzad Mojab, a University of Toronto professor. She appeared as an expert witness at the Shafia trial and spoke to The Globe and Mail after the verdict.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

300 Arrested at Occupy Oakland -- Corporate Media Dutifully Report City Officials' Version of Events

Police once again ratcheted up the tension by using force against an entire crowd of protesters.

Photo Credit: Oakland Local

Downtown Oakland turned ugly once again on Saturday, as Occupy activists attempting to squat in a long-abandoned city building were met by lines of heavily-armored riot police. Police officials said that 300 arrests followed – a number that may represent as much as 30 percent of everyone who participated in the day's actions, according to police estimates of the crowd's size.

Occupy Oakland organizers said some protesters were hospitalized, but the exact number of injuries is unknown as if this writing. According to organizers, four journalists were swept up by police, including AlterNet contributor Susie Cagle and Mother Jones correspondent Gavin Aronsen. Cagle was reportedly cited and released; organizers say Aronsen was jailed overnight.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

North Carolina GOP Lawmaker Calls For Bringing Back Public Hangings, Starting With Abortion Providers

The last legal public hanging in America took place in 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky. The “event” attracted 20,000 people and turned into such a sickening spectacle that many credit it with ending the practice in the U.S.

But one North Carolina Republican believes that as a country we’ve grown soft since banning public hangings and is calling for them to reinstated as a deterrent to crime. If Rep. Larry Pittman had his way, “abortionists, rapists, and kidnappers” would be first in line for the gallows:

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U.S. politicians getting scarier and scarier. Tom

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gun owner ID cards soar in Chicago

Chicago has seen a 16 percent spike in the number of people holding state firearm owner’s identification cards in the past two years, state officials said Wednesday.

About 122,000 people possessed FOID cards at the beginning of this year compared to 105,000 at the beginning of 2010, said Monique Bond, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Police.

Illinois residents must possess a FOID card to buy guns in the state.

Illinois State Police officials check an applicant’s identification and background before issuing a card.

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I wonder why? Tom

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Ex-detective accuses police of ignoring Pickton

The Vancouver police could have stopped serial killer Robert Pickton more than two years before he was finally caught if the force had taken the case more seriously and devoted the resources such a massive investigation would require, a public inquiry has heard.

Former detective Kim Rossmo, who was a geographic profiler with the force, said Mr. Pickton wasn’t caught sooner because senior police management resisted the theory that the women were being murdered by a serial killer.

“I think there was a good chance it could have been solved by the end of 1999 if the appropriate resources were deployed and the Vancouver police department was properly engaged in this and had accepted the serial killer theory,” Mr. Rossmo told the inquiry on Wednesday, stressing it was a rough estimate.

“I don’t want to give overemphasis to my estimate of the end of ‘99, but it certainly should have been solved much sooner. ... I believe my evidence from the other day was I think this case could have been solved one to two years earlier than it was.”

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After Occupy Journalist Arrests, US Plummets in Global Press Freedom Rankings

Reporters Without Borders has released its annual World Press Freedom Index and the United States fell 27 points to No. 47 on the list. Why? "more than 25 [reporters] were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police" during Occupy movement protests.

"The worldwide wave of protests in 2011 also swept through the New World. It dragged the United States (47th) and Chile (80th) down the index, costing them 27 and 47 places respectively. The crackdown on protest movements and the accompanying excesses took their toll on journalists. In the space of two months in the United States, more than 25 were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police who were quick to issue indictments for inappropriate behavior, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation."

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OPP report on G8-G20 policing outlines problems

ORILLIA, Ont. — A report on security at the G8 and G20 summits in 2010 says there was some confusion when Ontario Provincial Police were unexpectedly redeployed to help police in Toronto.

The provincial police report says the force's primary role was perimeter security at the G8 in the Huntsville, Ont., area.

When violence and vandalism erupted in Toronto on June 26, 2010, provincial police were called in to bolster the G20 interdiction zone in Toronto.

The report says there was confusion because it was not clear if the provincial police officers were supporting Toronto police or the RCMP.

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Here is a link to this report. Here is a link to an ealier report by Chief Blair. Tom

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Female inmates can fear release as much as sentence

For many of us, the prospect of jail time is a frightening thing. But for some incarcerated women, it’s getting released that’s the scary part.

Georgina Poirier knows all about that. The 40-year-old Cambridge woman was let out of the Grand Valley Institution For Women in 2007 after a three-year sentence for dealing drugs.

She went from an institution where all her needs where taken care of, to a world where suddenly she needed money, a job and a place to live.

Poirier, who was the keynote speaker at a packed forum on housing for female inmates Wednesday, felt on her own.

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Canadians finally getting it: crime is on the decline

Canadians are finally getting the message that crime rates are falling.

New poll results show the public is abandoning a stubborn belief that crime is on the rise, bringing public opinion into alignment with a 20-year trend of declining crime rates.

The long-standing disconnect between public fears and reality has confounded criminologists and fuelled federal get-tough policies.

However, the Environics Focus Canada poll – obtained by The Globe and Mail and scheduled for release Thursday – shakes conventional wisdom even more by finding growing support for the use of crime prevention rather than punishment.

“This doesn’t mean that people want to lay off criminals,” said Keith Neuman, executive director of the Environics Institute. “But what people would like to see is more crime prevention. They feel that this is the right thing to do.”

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Tony Doob, quoted in this story, is a prof at the Centre. Tom

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hateful Film

There is absolutely no excuse for the New York Police Department’s decision to show a hate-filled film about Muslims to more than 1,400 city police officers.

Relations between police and the diverse Muslim community are already tense after The Associated Press uncovered aggressive surveillance of Muslims, including American citizens. The propaganda of this film will only damage those relations further and make law enforcement more difficult.

The film shows some of the grisliest jihadist terrorists attacks in recent years and argues that the real agenda for Islamists in America is to infiltrate and dominate the country. The department said at first that it was shown to only a handful of officers, but that proved to be false when the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University obtained police records through the courts after a nine-month struggle. Police documents show some confusion over where the film, “The Third Jihad,” came from — possibly a contractor — and how it kept running for three months to a year in a conference area.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Taking DNA From All Criminals Should Be Standard Procedure

WE have a tool that can prevent hundreds of murders, rapes and robberies each year at minimal cost to taxpayers. But we’re not using it in a majority of cases because a state law restricts its use.

DNA evidence solves crimes. Since 1996, when New York State’s DNA databank opened with strong support from my predecessor, Robert M. Morgenthau, the bank’s DNA samples have been linked to more than 3,500 sexual assaults, 860 murders, 1,100 robberies and 3,400 burglaries. Thousands of criminal convictions have resulted. Today, however, we are hamstrung by a law that does not authorize the collection of DNA following convictions of certain misdemeanors. This has meant that we can’t use DNA technology in more than half of our cases. By expanding the collection of DNA to include those convicted of all crimes in New York State’s penal law, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has called for, we will be better able to identify the guilty, exonerate the innocent, bring justice to crime victims and prevent additional crimes from occurring.

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This is a New York Times op-ed. Not sure. What do you think? Tom

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More guns in Canada now, but fewer owners: RCMP

Canadians own more than half a million more firearms than they did in 2006, according to the 2010 annual report from the RCMP’s Canadian Firearms Program.

But while federal firearms data shows that the number of registered gun owners in Canada is dropping, the arsenal of each is getting bigger and bigger.

But many gun owners — and a Tory MP — say the government’s estimates are off the mark, and that there may be twice as many firearms, and firearms owners, in Canada as the RCMP says. They say many Canadian gun owners are “going underground,” due to fears they will face increased police scrutiny and the seizure of their weapons.

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Conservative crime bill would cost Ontario more than $1-billion

Ontario says the omnibus federal crime bill will cost the province's taxpayers more than $1-billion in increased police and correctional service costs.

Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur says there are about 8,500 inmates in Ontario correctional facilities, which are at 95 per cent capacity.

Ms. Meilleur warns the Conservatives' crime bill could add another 1,500 inmates to the system by 2016, pushing populations to 150 per cent of capacity at some jails.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Supreme Court: Warrants needed in GPS tracking

The Supreme Court on Monday unanimously restricted the police’s ability to use a GPS device to track criminal suspects in a first test of how privacy rights will be protected in the digital age.

The court rejected the government’s view that long-term surveillance of a suspect by GPS tracking is no different than traditional, low-tech forms of monitoring. But its decision was nuanced and incremental, leaving open the larger questions of how government may use the information generated by modern technology for surveillance purposes.

Still, the decision reversing the conviction of suspected D.C. drug kingpin Antoine Jones was a “landmark ruling in applying the Fourth Amendment’s protections to advances in surveillance technology,” said Washington lawyer Andrew Pincus, who filed a brief on Jones’s behalf.

The court without dissent agreed that prosecutors violated Jones’s rights when they attached a GPS device to his Jeep and monitored his movements for 28 days. In one of the Washington region’s most celebrated drug trials, the nightclub owner was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

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Colorado Republicans Push Bill To Allow Guns In Elementary Schools

Abandoning any pretense that they’re focused on job creation, Colorado Republicans have clarified their priorities for the new legislative session: guns rights. Specifically, they are doing their best to ensure that citizens have the unfettered ability to carry guns anywhere — including into elementary, middle, and high schools:

Colorado Republicans are reloading previous attempts to expand gun rights, bringing back legislation that would allow concealed weapons in schools and let businesses use deadly force against intruders.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

G20 officers should be charged in Nobody arrest, police watchdog says

Five Toronto police officers should be charged with using unnecessary force against protester Adam Nobody during the G20 summit 19 months ago, an independent police review says.

The 174-page report by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) is based on interviews with a dozen police witnesses, the five officers involved, five civilian witnesses and Nobody himself.

The allegation that Constables Michael Adams, Babak Andalib-Goortani, Geoffrey Fardell, David Donaldson and Oliver Simpson used unnecessary force “is substantiated and is of a serious nature,” the report says.

Nobody suffered a broken right cheekbone and broken nose in the takedown on June 26, 2010.

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Harm-reduction programs threatened

HEALTH / Activists say federal omnibus bill will put drug users, prisoners at greater risk

Local advocates for successful harm-reduction programs are arguing that the federal omnibus crime bill places drug users at a higher risk of contracting diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.
They say that Bill C-10, reintroduced last September by the Conservative Party, has more consequences than simply being “tough on crime.”
It’s a “regressive piece of legislation,” says Sandra Chu, senior policy analyst at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, noting that infection rates are 10 times higher for HIV and 30 times higher for hepatitis C in prisons.
“The tough-on-crime bill is going to be tough on people who use drugs,” says Rob Boyd, director of the Oasis program at Sandy Hill Community Health Centre. “We need to use a health approach to the issue of addictions, rather than a criminal approach.

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Our Dangerous Devotion to Eyewitness Testimony

The eyes of Troy Anthony Davis as he entered a courtroom on January 16, 1991. (AP Photo/Savannah Morning News)

"We see what we want to see,” my grandmother used to say. This insight visited me recently after I ran across the mall chasing a woman I thought was my cousin. It wasn’t, as it turned out, but I didn’t realize that until after I had puffed up behind her, bopped her amiably on the shoulder and cried out, “Boo!”

How was it possible, I thought in retrospective embarrassment, to so wrongly misidentify someone I know so well? Empirically my experience was all too common. I’d been thinking about my cousin a few moments before and saw the woman through the lens of those thoughts. We often project our life’s associations onto the faces of strangers. Constantly—if mostly unconsciously—we familiarize them with learned stereotypes. If we are wise, we learn to take caution with our assumptions. We recognize this innate fallibility, and most of the time it doesn’t matter very much.

Oddly enough, however, we reverse that supposition in the one context where fallibility matters most: in criminal cases, eyewitness testimony is viewed as the ne plus ultra for the prosecution, despite a century’s worth of psychological and sociological studies revealing that, from Sacco and Vanzetti to Troy Davis, witnesses misperceive a startling percentage of the time. “Human beings are not very good at identifying people they saw only once for a relatively short period of time,” writes Cornell law professor Michael Dorf. “The studies reveal error rates of as high as fifty percent—a frightening statistic given that many convictions may be based largely or solely on such testimony. These studies show further that the ability to identify a stranger is diminished by stress (and what crime situation is not intensely stressful?), that cross-racial identifications are especially unreliable, and that contrary to what one might think, those witnesses who claim to be ‘certain’ of their identifications are no better at it than everyone else, just more confident.”

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Tasers a ‘new urban terrorism’ against ‘downtrodden’: Canadian study

The use of Tasers by Canada’s police forces represents a “teething new urban terrorism” that targets society’s “downtrodden,” says a study published this month that looked at more than two dozen deaths involving the stun guns.

Those most likely to get “tased” include the poor, mentally ill and chronic drug users, according to the study, led by Temitope Oriola, who received a Governor General’s Gold Medal for academic excellence upon the completion of his doctoral studies at the University of Alberta last year.

“It is beneath the integrity of the RCMP — a well-respected organization by international standards — and other police establishments in Canada to continue to use the Taser without conclusive independent scientific evidence succinctly demonstrating its effects or consequences on the human body,” the study, published in the journal Social Identities, concludes.

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Surveillance City: New Body Scanners Head to NYC

New plans for monitoring people in New York City has civil liberties advocates up in arms.

The International Business Times reports:

In a speech to the New York City Police Foundation Tuesday morning, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced the NYPD was working with the Department of Defense to develop a scanner that is capable of detecting concealed firearms.

The device picks up on the heat energy produced by people or objects, measured in terahertz, to pinpoint objects that are blocking that view of energy, like a gun. "If something is obstructing the flow of that radiation, for example, a weapon, the device will highlight that object," Kelly explained. "This technology has shown a great deal of promise as a way of detecting weapons without a physical.

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BREAKING: Anonymous Takes Down DOJ, MPAA, RIAA, and Universal Music over Megaupload Shutdown

Hell hath no fury like an activist scorned.

The internet collective known only as Anonymous are out for blood in the wake of the government’s shutdown of Megaupload.com earlier today.

The group has waged an all-out war on those responsible, attacking the websites of the White House, the Department of Justice, Universal Music Group, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

The hackers managed to successfully shut down the websites of the DOJ, Universal Music, RIAA, ad MPAA.

“It was in retaliation for Megaupload, as was the concurrent attack on Justice.org,” Anonymous operative Barrett Brown said on Thursday, according to Russia Today.

Megaupload.com, a huge file-sharing site with a reported 50 million daily users, was taken offline by federal agents earlier today. Four people linked to Megaupload were arrested in New Zealand and at least 20 search warrants were served around the world.

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There is little doubt that SOPA is about censorship. Tom

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Majority of Canadians support legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, new poll suggests

Canadians have green on their minds, but not in the environmental sense, according to a new poll.

Released on Tuesday, the poll suggests 66% of Canadians are in favour of the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana, with just 20% supporting leaving the laws as they are now.

The poll, conducted by Toronto-based Forum Research Inc., showed that residents of British Columbia were the most likely to support marijuana laws reform, with 73% of respondents indicating laws should be changed. Quebec had the lowest support for reforms, though the majority of respondents, 61%, supported changing marijuana legislation.

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Federal oversight of state prison healthcare to end

A report on how to wrap up six years of receivership is due by April 30. Many of the program's goals have been accomplished, judge says.

Reporting from Sacramento -- Federal oversight of prison healthcare in California is nearing an end, a judge said Tuesday, six years after he ruled that abysmal medical conditions were contributing to an inmate death every week.

U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson said Tuesday that healthcare in state lockups has improved significantly since he seized control of the system, a move that has cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

"While some critical work remains outstanding — most notably on construction issues — it is clear that many of the goals of the receivership have been accomplished," Henderson wrote in a three-page order.

State officials were rebuffed when they sought to end the receivership in 2009. On Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown applauded the judge's decision.

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New Batch Of Ron Paul Newsletters Just As Racist As The First

A brand new batch of Ron Paul newsletters raises questions for the libertarian Republican — as well as a host of embarrassing fresh passages to go along with such classics as “the coming race war” and “the federal-homosexual cover up on AIDS” from earlier reports.

Ron Paul claims “probably ten sentences out of 10,000 pages” were objectionable in his long-published newsletter series, even as he denies having ever written the content in question (or even having seen most of it). But, as TPM has reported and a new collection of Ron Paul newsletters posted by The New Republic confirms, racism, homophobia, and fringe conspiracy theories seem more like the newsletters’ raison d’etre than a rare aberration. In fact, even short promotional letters for the publication name-checked many of the most toxic passages.

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The Web to “Go Dark” January 18th to Protest Censorship Bills


Less than 24 hours after I noted that we’ve won a brief respite from SOPA, the bill’s chief sponsor said it’s back on track for mark up in February.

But a number of the world’s most popular websites – including Wikipedia, Twitpic, Reddit, Imgur, Mozilla and WordPress – are “going dark” on Wednesday January 18th to protest the censorship bills (SOPA and PIPA).

In addition, Google and other web titans will place prominent messages on their front pages urging their readers to oppose the draconian bills.

For example, Google has replaced its normal logo with this image (which links to an anti-SOPA page):

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Top Ten Civil Rights Songs

In honor of Monday's national holiday marking the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., I embarked on the impossible task of selecting a top ten list of songs about civil rights. The theme has resonated deeply with generations of artists of all stripes and inspired considerable musical tribute so this list is meant simply as a starting point for discussion (and listening!) Please use the comments field below to let me what I missed.

In random order:

1. Mavis Staples, We Shall Not Be Moved

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The FBI's War against Dr. King Revisited

Over the course of two decades, the FBI went to war against Dr. Martin Luther King, even though the civil rights leader never knew he was under attack.

As Dr. King’s political power, stature and influence grew, the FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, grew increasingly obsessed with King. In turn, they used various tactics in the ‘50s and ‘60s to try and discredit him, such as mounting a full-court press to portray him as a Communist provocateur, attempting to disrupt tributes after Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and repeatedly bugging his hotel rooms.

The FBI so viewed Dr. King as a threat that they even tried to covertly besmirch his reputation after his assassination, when Congress in 1969 first considered making his birthday a national holiday.

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Shocker: Is Our World Becoming Less Violent?

Many believe the 20th century represents the pinnacle of human violence, but psychologist Steven Pinker argues that the opposite is true.

Humanity's lust for violence has undergone a long, precipitous decline at every level of social interaction, from domestic abuse to violent crime to interstate wars. That's the sweeping and somewhat counterintuitive thesis of psychologist Steven Pinker's new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The pacification of humanity, says Pinker, is “a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years.”

Pinker writes that the “very idea invites skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger.” He sets out to overcome that barrier by surveying a broad swath of data, from examinations of ancient bones unearthed in peat bogs and on long-forgotten battlefields, to homicide statistics based on European coroners' inquests and local records dating back 800 years, to databases of modern interstate conflicts and civil wars.

Does Pinker's research validate his thesis? And if so, what forces might explain such a profound shift in human society?

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On MLK Day: How a Racist Criminal Justice System Rolled Back the Gains of the Civil Rights Era

For Martin Luther King, Jr. day, Democracy Now! hosts a discussion of mass incarceration among African-Americans and how it has created a new Jim Crow era.

On this eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, we host a wide-ranging discussion with TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson and author Michelle Alexander about the mass incarceration of African Americans that has rolled back many achievements of the civil rights movement. Today there are more African Americans under correctional control, whether in prison or jail, on probation or on parole, than there were enslaved in 1850. And more African-American men are disenfranchised now because of felon disenfranchisement laws than in 1870. Alexander, whose book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" is newly released in paperback, argues that "[n]othing less than a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America or inspiring a recommitment to [Martin Luther] King's dream... My view is that this has got to be a human rights movement. It’s got to be a movement for education, not incarceration; for jobs, not jails; a movement that acknowledges the basic humanity and dignity of all people, no matter who you are or what you have done."

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

10 Reasons the US is No Longer the Land of the Free

Every year, the State Department issues reports on individual rights in other countries, monitoring the passage of restrictive laws and regulations around the world. Iran, for example, has been criticized for denying fair public trials and limiting privacy, while Russia has been taken to task for undermining due process. Other countries have been condemned for the use of secret evidence and torture.

Even as we pass judgment on countries we consider unfree, Americans remain confident that any definition of a free nation must include their own — the land of free. Yet, the laws and practices of the land should shake that confidence. In the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, this country has comprehensively reduced civil liberties in the name of an expanded security state. The most recent example of this was the National Defense Authorization Act, signed Dec. 31, which allows for the indefinite detention of citizens. At what point does the reduction of individual rights in our country change how we define ourselves?

While each new national security power Washington has embraced was controversial when enacted, they are often discussed in isolation. But they don’t operate in isolation. They form a mosaic of powers under which our country could be considered, at least in part, authoritarian. Americans often proclaim our nation as a symbol of freedom to the world while dismissing nations such as Cuba and China as categorically unfree. Yet, objectively, we may be only half right. Those countries do lack basic individual rights such as due process, placing them outside any reasonable definition of “free,” but the United States now has much more in common with such regimes than anyone may like to admit.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Conversation with Sudhir Venkatesh

Sudhir Venkatesh, William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, talks with Vera director Michael Jacobson about his 18 months advising the FBI on working with local law enforcement agencies to deal with gang-related crime and his current research on informal justice systems in urban communities. This podcast is part of the 2011-2012 Neil A. Weiner Research Speaker Series.

Professor Venkatesh is author most recently of Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. He is completing an ethnographic study of policing.

David Garland: Peculiar Institution: America's Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition

Why California's Prisoners Are Starving Themselves

On 19 December 2011, three prisoners at Corcoran State Prison wrote a letter to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) threatening to go on hunger strike if improvements were not made to their living conditions. Evidently, they received no response from the CDCR: the hunger strike began on 28 December.

This latest hunger strike, the third in less than six months, is small potatoes compared to the previous two, which were state-wide and involved thousands of inmates. According to Terry Thornton, a CDCR spokeswoman, it may already be over. But the fact that Californian prisoners have once again resorted to starving themselves to protest the conditions of their confinement does suggest that something is rotten in the Golden State's penal system.

The first hunger strike began on 1 July 2011, and ended three weeks later when the CDCR agreed, in theory at least, to address the participants' five core demands, which amounted to better living conditions, adequate food and clothing, an end to group punishments and most importantly, an end to the gang validation policy that sentences inmates to endless terms in solitary confinement cells, known as SHUs.

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The black hole of Guantanamo

When killing becomes routine, I guess they feel the need to desecrate. There's nothing particularly new in this --- except the laws against it.

That's just awful. That it comes on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo makes it all the worse.

Dahlia Lithwick has an excellent piece up about that tragic decision and the legal fallout, which contains many insights, this one especially:

The paradox of Guantanamo has always been that it’s been invisible to so many Americans, and yet the only thing the rest of the world sees. The whole point of the prison camp there was to create a legal black hole. We’ve fished our wish: The world sees only blackness; we see only a hole.

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Canadians trust Mounties, but leadership an issue

More than 80 per cent of Canadians believe Canada's Mounties are honest and work with integrity and professionalism, according to an annual survey gauging satisfaction with the national police force.

However, the same survey showed Canadians have a dimmer view of the force when it comes to its leadership and its ability to communicate. And less than 60 per cent of First Nations respondents said the force was responsive to aboriginal issues.

The Harris/Decima survey involving 7,000 Canadians took place over June and July 2011, prior to the appointment of a new commissioner and before the emergence of a sexual harassment scandal involving the force. A margin of error was not provided.

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Monday, January 9, 2012

My Guantánamo Nightmare

ON Wednesday, America’s detention camp at Guantánamo Bay will have been open for 10 years. For seven of them, I was held there without explanation or charge. During that time my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as “undeliverable,” and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost.

Some American politicians say that people at Guantánamo are terrorists, but I have never been a terrorist. Had I been brought before a court when I was seized, my children’s lives would not have been torn apart, and my family would not have been thrown into poverty. It was only after the United States Supreme Court ordered the government to defend its actions before a federal judge that I was finally able to clear my name and be with them again.

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Use of Solitary Confinement Scrutinized by Prison Watchdogs

RICHMOND — At Red Onion State Prison, built on a mountaintop in a remote pocket of southwest Virginia, more than two-thirds of the inmates live in solitary confinement.

In a state where about 1 in 20 prisoners are held in solitary, Red Onion, a so-called supermax prison, isolates more inmates than any other facility, keeping more than 500 of its nearly 750 charges alone for 23 hours a day in cells the size of a doctor’s exam room.

Virginia, one of 44 states that use solitary confinement, has 1,800 people in isolation, a sizable share of the estimated 25,000 people in solitary in the nation’s state and federal prisons.

As more becomes known about the effects of isolation — on inmate health, public safety and prison budgets — some states have begun to reconsider the practice, among them Texas, which, like Virginia, is known as a law-and-order state.

Mississippi, New York and Texas have begun to scale back the use of solitary confinement under pressure from prison watchdogs.

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Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Every man in my family has been locked up. Most days I feel like it doesn’t matter what I do, how hard I try—that’s my fate, too.” —11th-grade African American student, Berkeley, Calif.

This young man isn’t being cynical or melodramatic; he’s articulating a terrifying reality for many of the children and youth sitting in our classrooms—a reality that is often invisible or misunderstood. Some have seen the growing numbers of security guards and police in our schools as unfortunate but necessary responses to the behavior of children from poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods. But what if something more ominous is happening? What if many of our students—particularly our African American, Latina/o, Native American, and Southeast Asian children—are being channeled toward prison and a lifetime of second-class status?

We believe that this is the case, and there is ample evidence to support that claim. What has come to be called the “school-to-prison pipeline” is turning too many schools into pathways to incarceration rather than opportunity. This trend has extraordinary implications for teachers and education activists. It affects everything from what we teach to how we build community in our classrooms, how we deal with conflicts with and among our students, how we build coalitions, and what demands we see as central to the fight for social justice education.

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Police learn how to deal with the mentally ill in crisis

Michael’s manic episodes started after an injury stopped him from doing what he loved most – playing hockey. Feeling like he had lost his identity, he took a job as a bouncer at a nightclub, and started abusing drugs and alcohol. His volatile lifestyle came to a head one night when a scuffle with police landed him in Mental Health Court.

Police say he assaulted an officer. Michael, who asked to be identified by his first name, says he was the one hurt in the encounter. But the result, court-ordered participation in recovery groups and therapy combined with medication, gave him a new lease on life. Ontario’s Mental Health Court is a court system designed for people with mental illness. “The opportunity that was awarded to me through Mental Health Court was great. I wish it didn’t have to be my head bouncing off cement that got me there,” Michael said. “I wish it was something a little softer.”

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dispatch from torture nation: execution by pepper spray

by digby

No this isn't a story from North Korea or Pinochet's Chile. I swear:

It has been two and half years since 62-year old Nick Christie was tortured and pepper-sprayed to death by police at the Lee County Jail. Although the medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, the law enforcement officers who kept him strapped naked to a chair and then pepper sprayed him until he died have not been charged in his death.

On January 20, 2010, the Injury Board’s National News Desk reported that Nick Christie’s wife, Joyce Christie, and her son, were planning to file a federal lawsuit because the police violated her husband’s constitutional rights. The article describes what allegedly happened when Christie was arrested for trespassing:

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Friday, January 6, 2012

FBI changes definition of rape to include men as victims

The FBI is changing its long-standing definition of rape for the first time to include sexual assaults on males following persistent calls from victims advocates who claim that the offense, as currently defined in the agency's annual crime report, has been undercounted for decades.

Under the current definition, established 85 years ago, many of the sex crimes alleged in the ongoing prosecution of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky would not be counted in the bureau's Uniform Crime Report, one of the most reliable measures of crime in the United States. Sandusky is accused in alleged assaults and sexual misconduct involving 10 male victims.

Rape is currently defined as the "carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will."

The new provision will define rape as any kind of penetration of another person, regardless of gender, without the victim's consent. It also includes a broad range of rapes involving both males and females in which attackers use objects to penetrate their victims.

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The Courts

The conservative takeover will be complete.

For anyone considering the 2012 election’s importance to the future of the American judiciary, one fact stands out: next November, Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be seventy-nine years old. If a Republican wins the presidential election, he or she may have an opportunity to seat Ginsburg’s successor, replacing the Supreme Court’s most reliably liberal jurist with a conservative. That would mean that the Court—currently balanced almost elegantly between four liberals, four conservatives, and the moderate conservative Anthony Kennedy—would finally tilt decisively to the right, thereby fulfilling Edwin Meese’s dream, laid out in his famous 1985 speech before the American Bar Association, of reshaping the Court around one coherent “jurisprudence of original intention.” Meese, who was then Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, wanted nine conservative constitutional originalists on the Court. He may soon get his wish. A 2008 study by Richard Posner, a federal appeals court judge, and William Landes, a law professor at the University of Chicago, examined the voting records of seventy years of Supreme Court justices in order to rank the forty-three justices who have served on the Court since 1937. They concluded that four of the five most conservative justices to serve on the Supreme Court since 1937 sit on the Supreme Court today. Justice Clarence Thomas ranked first.

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Why You Can Be Branded a Terrorist for Fighting Animal Abuse

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act has had a chilling effect on activists scared to participate in what should be constitutionally protected activity.

Five longtime activists are challenging a federal law that defines a wide spectrum of peaceful – and in some cases, otherwise lawful – animal rights activism as acts of terrorism. They say that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) violates their First Amendment right to free speech and has had a chilling effect on activists who are refraining from participating in what should be constitutionally protected activity out of fear of being labeled a terrorist.

They have good reason to worry. In 2009, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested and indicted four California protesters for terrorism, each of whom faced 10 years in prison. Their crimes? They “marched, chanted, and chalked” sidewalk slogans outside the homes of animal researchers and distributed fliers about their campaign.

In 2010, federal judge Ronald M. Whyte dismissed the indictments, agreeing with the defense that the charges were too vague because the “behavior in question spans a wide spectrum from criminal conduct to constitutionally protected political protest.” Nevertheless, AETA continues to pose a threat to those participating in animal rights advocacy.

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jails don’t keep people out of jail

Collectively, we have nearly 10 decades of experience in the area of corrections and conditional release. There are many issues we have disagreed over, but we are united in our concerns with the direction of the Harper government’s “tough on crime” agenda.

In a country that prides itself on fairness, compassion and the pursuit of equality, why do we accept the idea that community safety will be enhanced through increased incarceration?

At both the federal and provincial levels, Canadian jails are overcrowded. It is becoming common to see double- and triple-bunking of inmates in cells designed for one. This overcrowding limits access to already scarce rehabilitative programming and increases the incidence of institutional violence. The fastest-growing portions of the inmate population continue to be those most marginalized within our society: the mentally ill, women and aboriginals. Decades of reports have detailed our correctional systems’ failure to reasonably address the needs of these offenders and limit their numbers.

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This is an opinion piece from the Globe and Mail. Tom

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Despite weak economy, crime in Los Angeles County still declines

There were thousands fewer crimes reported in 2011 than 2010 in areas the LAPD and Sheriff's Department patrol. The trend puzzles some but reinforces a common police view that other factors are at play.

Even since the economy began stalling several years ago, there have been dire warnings that crime would rise.

But in Southern California, crime continues its long decline despite the weak economy. Indeed, 2011 brought new worries about a "double dip recession," yet streets in many parts of the region were the safest they've been in decades.

The trend continues to puzzle some criminologists but has reinforced the view of many in law enforcement that factors other than the economy determine the rise or fall of crime.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said crime rates are determined largely by how well police do their job and the "informal social standards" set by communities — that is, what kind of behavior people are willing to tolerate from others.

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Canaries in the Data Mines

Civil libertarians raise alarm over America’s national surveillance network

We’re going to have a little chat,” the plain-clothed officer said to Susan Barney as he fastened handcuffs around her wrists and led her from the cell at the Boston police station, where she was being held with three other political activists. It was January 2009, and they had been arrested after refusing to move from the lobby of the building that houses the Israeli consulate while taking part in a “die-in” to protest Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

This is odd, Barney thought. She had been arrested for civil disobedience several times and never before had the police wanted to chat.

Barney was led to a small room where the officer joined three other medvbzcvzkdvn around a table. They introduced themselves–she remembers someone from the Boston Police Department (BPD) and another from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)–and then began questioning her about her political activities and associations. Barney, schooled in civil disobedience and keenly aware of her rights, turned her back to the table and refused to answer, but not before one of her interrogators said, “I’m sure you recognize us. We come to all your protests.” She didn’t recognize them at the time, but now reports that two of them have shown up regularly at subsequent protests, including Occupy Boston.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

USA – Doubts surface as Chicago police sharply increase Taser use: Electroshock weapons fired more frequently by city, suburban cops (2012-01-01)

[[SUMMARY / COMMENTS : Chicago police were deploying tasers at a rate of more than twice a day in 2011; taser use has jumped fivefold in the city since 2008. The author of an official National Justice Dept. report says: “"It's a wonderful tool, when used properly. But they've just got to be used judiciously, and in many departments, they aren't." One problem is reporting difference between Chicago precincts, but the trend toward more frequent use was clear. Amnesty International says there have been 490 taser-related deaths in the USA.]]

Chicago Tribune, by Dan Hinkel

The traffic stop began peacefully three hours into New Year’s Day 2010, with the woman driving the SUV telling the officer that she hadn’t been drinking and her husband merrily exclaiming he was the source of the alcohol smell.

But the situation soured when Steven Kotlinski, 55, stepped out to watch his wife’s sobriety test, provoking the Mundelein officers to order him into the SUV. He reluctantly obeyed, but one officer said Kotlinski had obstructed his efforts. He ordered him back out, then tried to pull him out.

Next came the electric crackle of a Taser, a sound heard far more often in Chicago and many suburbs than it was just a few years ago.

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Research Summary
Following recent studies in Florida (Bales and Mears, 2008) and Canada (Derkzen, Gobeil, and Gileno, 2009), this study examines the effects of prison visitation on recidivism among 16,420 offenders released from Minnesota prisons between 2003 and 2007. Using multiple measures of visitation (any visit, total number of visits, visits per month, timing of visits, and number of individual visitors) and recidivism (new offense conviction and technical violation revocation), the study found that visitation significantly decreased the risk of recidivism, a result that was robust across all of the Cox regression models that were estimated. The results also showed that visits from siblings, in-laws, fathers, and clergy were the most beneficial in reducing the risk of recidivism, whereas visits from ex-spouses significantly increased the risk. The findings suggest that revising prison visitation policies to make them more “visitor friendly” could yield public safety benefits by helping offenders establish a continuum of social support from prison to the community. It is anticipated, however, that revising existing policies would not likely increase visitation to a significant extent among unvisited inmates, who comprised nearly 40 percent of the sample. Accordingly, it is suggested that correctional systems consider allocating greater resources to increase visitation among inmates with little or no social support.

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The NDAA's Historic Assault on American Liberty

By signing into law the NDAA, the president has awarded the military extraordinary powers to detain US citizens without trial

President Barack Obama rang in the New Year by signing the NDAA law with its provision allowing him to indefinitely detain citizens. It was a symbolic moment, to say the least. With Americans distracted with drinking and celebrating, Obama signed one of the greatest rollbacks of civil liberties in the history of our country … and citizens partied in unwitting bliss into the New Year.

Ironically, in addition to breaking his promise not to sign the law, Obama broke his promise on signing statements and attached a statement that he really does not want to detain citizens indefinitely (see the text of the statement here).

Obama insisted that he signed the bill simply to keep funding for the troops. It was a continuation of the dishonest treatment of the issue by the White House since the law first came to light. As discussed earlier, the White House told citizens that the president would not sign the NDAA because of the provision. That spin ended after sponsor Senator Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan) went to the floor and disclosed that it was the White House and insisted that there be no exception for citizens in the indefinite detention provision.

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Monday, January 2, 2012

Montana High Court Says 'Citizens United' Does Not Apply In Big Sky State

State Supreme Court Issues Remarkable Ruling Against Corporate Speech

Montana’s Supreme Court has issued a stunning rebuke to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 that infamously decreed corporations had constitutional rights to directly spend money on ‘independent expenditures’ in campaigns.

The Montana Court vigorously upheld the state’s right to regulate how corporations can raise and spend money after a secretive Colorado corporation, Western Tradition Partnership, and a Montana sportsman’s group and local businessman sued to overturn a 1912 state law banning direct corporate spending on electoral campaigns.

“Organizations like WTP that act as a conduit for anonymously spending by others represent a threat to the political marketplace,” wrote Mike McGrath, Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court, for the majority. “Clearly the impact of unlimited corporate donations creates a dominating impact on the political process and inevitably minimizes the impact of individual citizens.”

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NYPD Rings In New Year With Arrests, Press Harassment

Occupy Wall Street returned to Zuccotti Park this weekend for a planned New Year's Eve celebration in which protesters, according to the Facebook event page, would "reclaim" the park, "and the area around it."

Hundreds turned out for the protest, documented by vigilant tweeter Newyorkist:

"There is a small tent in Liberty. Toy sized. Police tried to remove. Ppl locked arms around it," "Police turning ppl away from park. Is it closed, I asked. No, one said. Can ppl come in? No, same said. Who's enforcing it? No one answered," "Just spoke w/ Captain Duffy of NYPD. Tells me NYPD closed park because 'going to be impending arrests. We don't want anymore ppl inside,'" "Officer told man who asked, as soon as tent is put away, Zuccotti Park will reopen," "Now 25 ppl circling park, chanting "we are unstoppable another world is possible," and "Via mic check: deal discussed btw mom, kids w/ tent and NYPD. Hand tent over & police will open park. Kids to personally hand tent over."

Gothamist has a nice recap of the night's events here. At one point, protesters tore down the metal barricades that have been set up around the park since the early days of the now-destroyed Liberty camp.

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Homicides plunge in Toronto to lowest level in 25 years

Toronto has closed the book on 2011 with the lowest homicide total in a quarter century.

The city recorded 45 homicides, the lowest number since 1986 when there were 37 murders. In 2010 there were 61 homicides.

This is also the fourth straight year of declines since 2007 when the city recorded its deadliest year (matched in 1991) with 86 homicides.

The big drop in Toronto numbers no doubt bolsters Chief Bill Blair’s image, which took a hit in 2010 following the mass arrests during the meeting of G20 leaders and the controversy that followed.

Blair says there’s still more work to do.

“I think we can make this city safer,” the chief told the Star.

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