CRF Blog

The Slow Death of the Death Penalty

by Bill Hayes

In The Slow Death of the Death Penalty, the Marshall Project reports that the public still supports capital punishment, but its costs are making many think twice about it.

[C]ounty officials around the country have sometimes had to raise taxes and cut spending to pay for death penalty trials. District attorneys have taken note. Many remain reluctant to acknowledge how fiscal concerns affect their decisions — they don’t want to appear to be cheapening the lives of murder victims. But a few are surprisingly candid. Their statements suggest that money is more than ever part of the explanation for the steep decline in death-penalty cases over the past decade. That is particularly the case in Texas, where there are few political obstacles to carrying out executions.

In the six states that have abolished capital punishment over the past decade, Republican and Democratic officials have also emphasized the cost of the death penalty as a major rationale. Even in states that retain the punishment, cost has played a central role in the conversion narratives of conservative lawmakers, public officials, and others who question the death penalty as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The rising cost of capital trials disproportionately affects counties with small populations. While the number of death sentences in the United States has been dropping steadily since a peak in the mid-1990s, an overwhelming number of the cases still being filed come from urban counties. There, the tax bases are larger, and the impact of an expensive trial may be more easily absorbed. (Harris County, where Houston is located, has been responsible for more executions than Georgia and Alabama combined.) Texas counties with fewer than 300,000 residents sought the death penalty on average 15 times per year from 1992 to 1996. Between 2002 and 2005, the average was four.

Prosecutors don’t cite statistics when discussing the costs of the death penalty; they tell stories. [more]

How Cheaper Oil Is Shaping the World

by Bill Hayes

The New York Times’ Room for Debate lets various knowledgeable contributors discuss news events and other timely issues. One recent debate covered: How Cheaper Oil Is Shaping the World.

The price of crude oil has plunged to a five-year low — falling almost in half since June alone. So far the drop has been a boon for consumers, but oil-producing countries are feeling the pressure. In Russia, a previously emboldened Vladimir Putin is facing the prospect of economic collapse. Venezuela might have to reduce oil subsidies and aid to Cuba, which is opening relations with the United States as its vital ally teeters.

Will lower prices further destabilize the world? As the U.S. increases production, will oil-producing states suffer? And lastly, what will it mean for our efforts to fight climate change? [more]

How Special Prosecutors Can Help Bring Police to Justice

by Bill Hayes

In How Special Prosecutors Can Help Bring Police to Justice, Bloomberg Businessweek looks at whether special prosecutors are needed when police officers are accused of crimes.

In France and Spain, police shootings, in-custody deaths, and official corruption are handled by an investigating magistrate. The position combines the powers of a judge and the police, with the power to initiate investigations independent of regular local prosecutors. In New York, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has asked Governor Andrew Cuomo for authority to take over cases involving police who kill civilians. But there’s historical precedent for an even stronger approach. In 1973, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican, created a special prosecutor to deal solely with cases involving police corruption in New York City. The move, which drew opposition from the city’s five district attorneys, followed the exposure of graft and corruption in the New York Police Department. Headed by gubernatorial appointees, the office pursued a range of cases, including investigations into judicial corruption and the indictment of 13 Brooklyn officers on charges of staging burglaries and extorting drugs and money from narcotics dealers. Six were convicted, and six were fired; one committed suicide. [more]

Save the Humanities in Our Public Schools

by Bill Hayes

Helen Vendler for the New Republic argues that we must Save the Humanities in Our Public Schools.

Most countries want students to know about their own national achievements. Only America is silent, in its public elementary and high schools, about its own cultural glories. Most American students graduate from high school knowing the names of only a few American authors and, of those authors, hardly any works; they rarely can cite by name even one American painter or architect; they know of no American philosopher, no American composer. The vacuum in the schools abandons our children to contemporary pop culture. We have deprived students of their own national heritage: we are not giving them much of anything to be proud about.

When America, with an understandable Whitmanian self-assertion, dropped classical languages and European humanistic works from secondary school instruction, it lost the languages, poems, novels, and philosophical works on which our own earlier American authors drew, without replacing them with strong works in English produced in the United States themselves. The vacuum was complete. And the cultural vacuum has recently produced the idea that students should read, for the most part, factual and informational prose rather than works of art. [more]

Backgrounder on Ebola Virus

by Bill Hayes

Backgrounders from the Council on Foreign Relations are primers on pressing world issues. They usually include histories, summaries, images, graphs, video, and links to additional resources.

A recent Backgrounder was on Ebola Virus.

Ebola is a severe and often fatal illness that attacks the immune system and causes extreme fluid loss in its victims. The disease disrupts the blood clotting system, which can lead to internal and external bleeding. Early symptoms include fever, muscle pain, headache, and sore throat, and are followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, and bleeding. Most fatalities are caused by severe dehydration or low blood pressure related to fluid loss.

Ebola was first discovered in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire), where it killed 280 people. The virus is named after the Ebola River, in the Congolese region where it was first identified. The largest outbreak prior to 2014 was in Uganda in 2000: 425 were infected and 224 died. Though Ebola fatality rates vary from 25 percent to 90 percent, the WHO has placed the mortality rate in the 2014 West Africa outbreak at 70 percent. [more]


by Bill Hayes

In Kafkaesque for the New York Times Book Review, Joy Williams reviews Kafka: The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach.

We all know how he ate his food: he “Fletcherized” it, chewing each bite a hundred times before swallowing. He was almost six feet tall, meticulously groomed and preternaturally self-absorbed. He was an executive at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, where his associates were lawyers, businessmen and engineers. He was well respected there and considered invaluable, though he was given endless leaves and extended vacations. He felt he was a citizen of another world, a white desert. It could certainly be argued that what he called his “animal stories” — “A Report to an Academy,” “The Burrow,” “Investigations of a Dog” — weren’t about humans at all. There is a beach named after him in the Baltic seaside resort of Müritz. He insisted he wanted to be a soldier, later a waiter in Palestine. He admitted he had “something against needlework.” He liked to read his work aloud to friends and found it terribly funny, sometimes doubling up with laughter. He did not like to read to rooms of strangers, but he did read “In the Penal Colony” at a German Expressionist event in Munich. Rilke was present. A newspaper review opined that the story was “too long, and not captivating enough.” When “The Metamorphosis” was to be published as a book in 1915, Kafka was afraid the cover illustrator would want to draw the insect. “Not that, please not that!” he wrote to the publisher. “The insect itself cannot be depicted. It cannot even be shown from a distance.” [more]

Per Capita Ad Spending

Infographic: United States Leads in Per-Capita Ad Spend | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

Best books chosen by Ron Rash

by Bill Hayes

In The Week’s Book List, writer Ron Rash lists his 6 favorite works of Southern fiction:

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner…. Faulkner has long been my favorite American novelist, and though The Sound and the Fury and Light in August are close runners-up, Absalom is the novel I love most. It rewards multiple readings as much as any novel I know. [more]

The 10 most challenging public-health threats of 2014

by Bill Hayes

The CDC lists The 10 most challenging public-health threats of 2014.

9. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, killing more than 480,000 Americans each year. In 2014, CDC continued its national tobacco education campaign — Tips from Former Smokers — with hard-hitting new ads featuring secondary health conditions people may not realize are related to smoking. “These new ads are powerful. They highlight illnesses and suffering caused by smoking that people don’t commonly associate with cigarette use,” Dr. Frieden said. “Smokers have told us these ads help them quit by showing what it’s like to live every day with disability and disfigurement from smoking.”

10. A silent epidemic of fatal overdose kills 44 people every day in the US. In 2014 CDC joined with partners to improve prescription monitoring, reducing unnecessary prescriptions. “Prescription drug overdose is epidemic in the United States,” Dr. Frieden said. “All too often, and in far too many communities, the treatment is becoming the problem. States where prescribing rates are highest need to take a particularly hard look at ways to reduce the inappropriate prescription of these drugs that are dangerous when misused or abused.” [more]

‘The Short and Tragic Life’ explores class, race

by Bill Hayes

In ‘The Short and Tragic Life’ explores class, race for the Los Angeles Times, Hector Tobar reviews The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs.

Despite the baggage of a childhood in an especially grim corner of Newark and of a father in prison, Peace triumphed at Yale. He did so in a field whose very name sounds daunting: molecular biophysics and biochemistry. At the same time, he was a real-life version of the protagonist of “Breaking Bad.” He was an educated and cultured man who kept himself and his family afloat by dealing illicit drugs.

“He simply went to class, did his work, got A’s,” Hobbs writes of Peace’s time at Yale. “That he did so while smoking (and dealing) copious amounts of marijuana only made him more of a marvel …. [more]

In Nice Idea, now make it work

by David De La Torre

In Nice Idea, now make it work, The Economist reports that the International Criminal Court is losing support in Africa.

African leaders, anguished by the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the unpunished evils of apartheid, were originally among those keenest on the ICC. Of the 139 countries that have signed its founding Rome statute, 34 are African. But Africa’s support began to waver in 2006, when the court looked into atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region and, three years later, issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, charging him with genocide, among other crimes.

The case against Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, has resulted in support wobbling still more. [more]

Cross Currents

by Bill Hayes

In Cross Currents, National Geographic looks at the debate over how to sustain the rich fish environment around South Africa.

In South Africa abalone is a synonym for failure: of law enforcement, of fisheries management, and of the social contract that underpins sustainable use of the sea. Abalone is a collapsed fishery, and those who poach it are widely reviled as vultures enriching themselves from the last pickings of a dying resource.

But abalone is part of a wider marine tragedy. Stocks of a third of South Africa’s commercially and recreationally caught inshore fish (called linefish, as they are caught primarily with lines) have crashed. In 2000 the government declared a state of emergency and slashed the number of commercial fishing licenses. Yet many stocks remain at perilously low levels — dead fish swimming. Commercial fishing of 40 traditionally important linefish species is prohibited. Even the national fish, a one-foot-long mussel cruncher known as the galjoen, is banned.

In fish-loving, fishing-mad South Africa, the anguish of declining catches and vanishing species is acute. But if there’s a crisis of fish, there’s also a crisis of fishing. Half of South Africa’s subsistence fishing communities are described as food insecure, because the foundation of their livelihood is in jeopardy. Yet in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected president of newly democratic South Africa, his African National Congress party saw fish as a social equalizer and an uplifter of the impoverished. The rainbow nation would offer its marine resources as an egalitarian pot of gold for all.

Initially the prospects for social transformation looked good. Thousands of “historically disadvantaged individuals” — black and coloured (the accepted word in South Africa for people of predominantly European-African descent) — obtained fishing rights. By 2004 more than 60 percent of the commercial fishing quota was in the hands of this group, compared with less than one percent ten years earlier.

But as the linefish emergency showed, the government had invited more guests to the buffet than there was food to feed them. [more]

Why Kids Sext

by Bill Hayes

In Why Kids Sext for the Atlantic, Hannah Rosin looks at what kids think about sexting and what parents and authorities should do about it.

As soon as teenagers got cameraphones, they began using them to send nude selfies to one another, without thinking or caring that a naked picture of a minor, unleashed into the world, can set off explosions. And while adults send naked pictures too, of course, the speed with which teens have incorporated the practice into their mating rituals has taken society by surprise. I’d heard about the Louisa County sexting scandal in the news. It seemed like a good case study — the place is traditional but not isolated; it has annual beauty queens and football pageantry on a Friday Night Lights scale, and also many residents who work in Richmond, the state capital. I spent several weeks in and around the county this spring and summer talking to kids, parents, police officers, and lawmakers, trying to understand how officials sort through such a mess of a case. Maybe more important, I wanted to understand how teens themselves think about sexting — why they send naked pictures and what they hope to get in return; how much or how little sexting has to do with actual sex. My hope was to help figure out how parents and communities should respond. Because so often in sexting cases that go public, we adults inadvertently step into the role of Freddy Krueger, making teenage nightmares come true: We focus on all the wrong things; we overreact. Sometimes we create an even bigger disaster.

When I asked the kids from Louisa County High School, which has about 1,450 students, how many people they knew who had sexted, a lot of them answered “everyone.” (Throughout this article, I will use sexting to mean the transmission of provocative selfies you wouldn’t want your mother to see — not words, but pictures.) A few of the 30 or so kids I talked with said 80 percent or 60 percent, and no one said fewer than half. Kids, however, are known to exaggerate. Surveys on sexting have found pretty consistently that among kids in their upper teens, about a third have sexted, making the practice neither “universal” nor “vanishingly rare,” as Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University, writes, but common enough in a teenager’s life to be familiar. A recent study of seven public high schools in East Texas, for example, found that 28 percent of sophomores and juniors had sent a naked picture of themselves by text or e-mail, and 31 percent had asked someone to send one.

The general public was first forced to contemplate teen sexting in 2009, when a scandal in rural Pennsylvania’s Tunkhannock Area High School, similar to the school in Louisa County, made national news. By that point, the great majority of teens had cellphones — 71 percent, almost the same percentage as adults. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and had just conducted the first public survey on sexting among teens and young adults, showing that, much to parents’ chagrin, the practice was fairly common. In the Pennsylvania case, the local district attorney threatened to bring child-pornography charges against girls who showed up in the pictures, which was widely considered overkill. It “makes as much sense as charging a kid who brings a squirt gun to school with possession of an unlicensed firearm,” wrote a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Lawmakers around the country began searching for a better alternative.

“I really don’t like the word sexting,” says Michael Harmony, the commander of the southern-Virginia branch of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which covers Louisa County. The term he makes his investigators use is self-production, which is law-enforcement-speak for when minors produce pictures of themselves that qualify as child porn. But changing the term doesn’t clarify much. Whether you call it self-production or sexting, it comes in too many forms to pin down. Harmony has dealt with a 13-year-old who posted her naked picture on and had grown men show up at her house. He’s investigated a 17-year-old boy who blackmailed a girl into sending him naked pictures, and another boy who threatened to send out the naked pictures a girl had given him if she didn’t have sex with him. Lately, though, Harmony’s office has been flooded with cases like the one in Louisa County, generating bins filled with cellphones that his investigators have to go through one by one.

Since 2009, state legislatures have tried to help guide law enforcement by passing laws specifically addressing sexting. At least 20 states have passed such laws, most of which establish a series of relatively light penalties. In Florida, for example, a minor who is guilty of transmitting or distributing a nude photograph or video must pay a fine, complete community service, or attend a class on sexting. A second offense is a misdemeanor and a third is a felony. Where they’ve been passed, the new laws have helpfully taken ordinary teen sexting out of the realm of child pornography and provided prosecutors with a gentler alternative. But they have also created deeper cultural confusion, by codifying into law the idea that any kind of sexting between minors is a crime. For the most part, the laws do not concern themselves with whether a sext was voluntarily shared between two people who had been dating for a year or was sent under pressure: a sext is a sext. So as it stands now, in most states it is perfectly legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex. But if they take pictures, it’s a matter for the police.

Five years after the sexting scandal in Pennsylvania, cases still arise that betray shockingly little clarity about who should count as the perpetrator and who the victim. [more]

The Chinese Government Is Getting Rich Selling Cigarettes

by Bill Hayes

In a feature story, Bloomberg Businessweek reports that The Chinese Government Is Getting Rich Selling Cigarettes.

The China National Tobacco Corp., which serves China’s 300 million smokers, is by far the largest cigarette maker in the world. In 2013 it manufactured about 2.5 trillion cigarettes. Its next largest competitor, Philip Morris International (PM), produced 880 billion.

In terms of market share, China National is bigger than its next five competitors combined; its growing sales have accounted for a net increase in global production, even as volume at its competitors has fallen. While Marlboro remains the most popular cigarette in the world, China National boasts 7 of the top 10 brands, including Red Pagoda Mountain and Double Happiness. In all, the company made 43 out of every 100 cigarettes in the world last year, according to Euromonitor International. Despite its size, China National is little known outside of China: Almost all its cigarettes are sold in the country, where it has no real competition.

A conglomerate on the order of the old Gulf + Western, China National runs more than 160 cigarette brands, manufactured in about 100 factories across the country, and uses its earnings to invest in banks, luxury hotels, a hydroelectric plant, a golf course, and even drugmakers. Most of its money goes to its owner, the Chinese government; the tobacco industry accounts for about 7 percent of the state’s revenue each year, and China National controls as much as 98 percent of the market. All told, the industry in China employs more than 500,000 Chinese. They are among roughly 20 million people who get some income from tobacco, including members of 1.3 million farming households and workers at 5 million retailers, according to government figures. The extent to which the government is interlocked with the fortunes of China National might best be described by the company’s presence in schools. Slogans over the entrances to sponsored elementary schools read, “Genius comes from hard work. Tobacco helps you become talented.” [more]

Obama Is Unpopular, And That’s Unlikely To Change

by Bill Hayes

In Obama Is Unpopular, And That’s Unlikely To Change, the data site FiveThirtyEight concludes little will change in the president’s popularity in the next two years, just as it didn’t change much for the last seven presidents serving two terms.

The public appears to have made up its mind about President Obama. His job-approval rating in early 2014 averaged 41.5 percent in Gallup surveys. In late 2014 — despite an improving economy — it averaged the same 41.5 percent. Over the past year, his rating has never gone higher than 44 percent and never lower than 41 percent.

And history suggests Obama’s popularity will continue to flounder even if the economy continues to improve. [more]