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Paying for poverty

Vie, 24/04/2015 - 19:08

VERA CHEEKS failed to halt at a ‘Stop’ sign in Georgia last year. Too poor to pay the ticket’s $135 fine, she was put on probation until she earned enough to cover the charge. But this came at a cost: her case was handled by a private firm, called Red Hills Community Probation, which charged an extra $132 for the privilege. The firm also told Ms Cheeks that she had to pay $50 immediately in order to avoid being sent to jail. Her fiancé ultimately rescued her with money from pawning her engagement ring and his gardening equipment.

Red Hills is now the target of two separate class-action lawsuits—one federal, one state—filed this month on behalf of Ms Cheeks and others. Both suits allege that Red Hills, acting on behalf of the government, wrongfully detained and jailed people who were too poor to afford court and probation fees. By some estimates, extra fees and surcharges on traffic fines add an extra 40% to the original ticket price. The ‘interest’ paid by a probationer comes to about 14% a month, and over 160% a year. “We’ve seen a pattern of private probation officers essentially holding people for ransom over...Continue reading

In the bin

Mié, 22/04/2015 - 23:25

TO PLACATE shareholders and shoppers, American companies are promising to use more recycled materials in their products. It’s a nice idea, but surprisingly hard to achieve. Coca-Cola committed to using at least 25% recycled plastic in its containers by 2015, but revised this downwards owing to scarce supply and high costs. Walmart is struggling to find the material to meet its goal to use 3 billion pounds of recycled plastic in its packaging and products by 2020. “The problem is supply,” explains Rob Kaplan of Walmart.

Most recycled materials should be cheaper than virgin commodities, but America throws too much stuff away. Low landfill fees and a fragmented waste-management system have kept the country’s recycling rate at around 34% for two decades—far lower than most rich countries. This waste comes at a cost. Making cans from recycled aluminium, the most valuable container material, requires 95% less energy and creates 90% less greenhouse-gas emissions than virgin stock, yet more than 40 billion aluminium cans hit America's landfills every year. The country chucks away $11.4 billion worth of recyclable containers and packaging...Continue reading

Fallout reaches the ivory tower

Mié, 22/04/2015 - 17:49

ON HOT battlefields and in coolly targeted killings, America has regularly used armed drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere for a decade and a half. In discussing drone strikes, it is easy to fall into abstraction. Take a speech by Harold Koh to the Oxford Union in 2013, after he'd left his position as the State Department's top lawyer: “Because drone technology is highly precise, if properly controlled, it could be more lawful and more consistent with human rights and humanitarian law than the alternatives.”

High precision sounds nice—and drone strikes are indeed more precise than the bombing technologies they have displaced. But they can still miss their target. An attack near the village of Datta Khel in North Wazirstan in 2010, for example, accidentally killed 42 people. "Body parts were scattered for...Continue reading

Let my people vote

Mar, 21/04/2015 - 16:47

EVERYONE seems to think the Supreme Court will declare a constitutional right to same-sex marriage this June. And so it may. But all the predictions, registered before the justices have even heard oral arguments on April 28th in four challenges to state gay marriage bans, are a bit premature. The case for finding a right to gay nuptials in the 14th amendment, which we outlined last week, is indeed strong. But the defences of bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee merit close consideration and will no doubt earn such a reading from the expected swing vote, Justice Anthony...Continue reading

Good-bye to a hard-nosed Chicagoan

Lun, 20/04/2015 - 21:09

SUNDAY worshippers at the Cathedral of the Holy Name, the seat of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Chicago, entered the church below a white and purple funeral bunting. Under the church’s splendid wooden ceiling, near the massive granite altar, was a big photograph of Cardinal Francis George, a former Archbishop of Chicago. Many had come to pay their respects to a man who had been one of the most influential Catholics in the country. The cardinal died on April 17th, aged 78.

As the head of one of America’s biggest and most important archdioceses for 17 years, until 2014, Cardinal George was universally respected, even by those who disagreed with his conservative views. “He was an academic, a philosopher and an intellectual,” says Father Kenneth Simpson at St Clement, a vibrant parish in Lincoln Park, a posh part of Chicago.

Cardinal George served as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2007 to 2010. Under his leadership the bishops adopted a “zero tolerance” policy to sexual abuse within the church, barring priests from the ministry who had been credibly accused of misdeeds. This...Continue reading

Leap of faith

Sáb, 18/04/2015 - 00:42

IN AMERICAN politics, candidates often write books as a way to sell themselves to voters. Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, is no exception. His latest, “Gods, Guns, Grits and Gravy”, was released in January, just as Mr Huckabee suspended his show on Fox News to prepare his bid for the Republican nomination for presidency. This evening he appeared on Fox News to declare that he will formally announce on May 6th his intention to run. But Mr Huckabee’s chances of winning are so remote that a cynic might presume his real intention is to sell more books.

Mr Huckabee’s pitch is for the religious vote. A southern Baptist minister, he is fiercely—indeed occasionally absurdly—socially conservative. He once compared the idea that Christians should accept gay marriage to being “like asking someone who's Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli”. Last year he argued that legal abortion is worse than the Holocaust. In his book, he complains that Jay Z, a rapper, has moved from being a “husband to pimp by exploiting his wife [Beyoncé, a pop star] as a sex object”.

In the past, that made him...Continue reading

Nasty, brutish and long

Vie, 17/04/2015 - 21:23

PRESIDENTIAL campaigns are more costly and choreographed than ever before. They are grueling for both candidates and voters

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You'll be black and blue

Mié, 15/04/2015 - 23:04

RIKERS Island, New York City’s largest jail, is a tough place. Its notoriously grim conditions have inspired investigative reports, hand-wringing and rap songs. “This ain't a place that's crowded but there's room for you/Whether you're white or you're black, you'll be black and blue,” sang Kool G Rap, a hip-hop artist, in 1990. Rikers's reputation was never good, but lately it is getting worse.

The jail is facing countless charges of abuse and neglect. Its population has fallen by nearly half to 11,400 over the past two decades, thanks largely to the city’s fall in crime, but incidents of violence are on the rise. Corrections officers beat a mentally-ill inmate unconscious in September. Another inmate, a mentally-ill military veteran, died in an overheated cell in February 2014. In 2013 staff reportedly used force against adolescents 565 times, resulting in 1,057 injuries. Preet Bharara, a federal attorney, claims there is a “culture of violence” against young inmates at the jail. In December the Justice Department filed suit against the city over the mistreatment of juvenile prisoners on Rikers Island. Another suit is...Continue reading

What are Rubio's chances?

Mié, 15/04/2015 - 01:03

AS A general rule, if you read one election forecaster for American politics, you’ve read them all. Contrary to the desires of most journalists, who need drama to lure readers, most races aren’t close. And since quantitative models tend to rely on similar inputs—a generous helping of polls spiced with a dollop of “fundamental” factors such as the economy and fundraising—if one system misfires, others will probably err in the same way. On the eve of the 2012 presidential vote, the three best-known predictors got at least 49 of the 50 states right; two years later newcomers to this newly crowded field duly joined the chorus in forecasting a Republican takeover of the Senate. It’s hard to stick your neck out while staying true to the data.

So it is striking that two of the...Continue reading

Join the club

Mar, 14/04/2015 - 14:29

GROUCHO MARX thumbed his prodigious nose at any club that would have him as a member. The plaintiffs in four cases to be argued at the Supreme Court on April 28th take another view. Lawyers for April DeBoer, Jayne Rowse, Gregory Bourke, Timothy Love and a number of other gay and lesbian Americans will ask the justices to strike down their states’ bans on same-sex marriage. They will argue that the federal constitution protects their wish to marry, no matter what their state's laws or constitutions may say.

The eight merits briefs in these four cases, which will be known collectively as Obergefell v Hodges, weigh in at nearly 550 pages. Add in the dozens of amicus briefs from people and organisations who feel they have a stake in the outcome, and the justices (and journalists) have quite a lot of reading to...Continue reading

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