October 13, 2011
October 13, 2011
Begging Your Pardon, President Obama! White House turns back on clemency, including reduced sentences
October 13, 2011
For the past three years, a 75-year-old former banker from Miami named Peter Stanham has been marooned in an overcrowded, often violent federal immigration jail in Big Spring, Texas. He sleeps on a bottom bunk in a room with 16 other detainees.
In 2006, Stanham was convicted in connection with a bank-fraud case in Florida and was sentenced to nine years in prison. Because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen, though he had lived here for 30 years, authorities sent him to the immigration system, rather than the minimum-security prison typically associated with white-collar criminals.
For five years, his family has been asking presidents Bush and Obama and the Justice Department for his release, so he can be deported to his native Uruguay to live out the rest of his days.
Even the judge who sentenced Stanham is on his side, and the prosecutor doesn’t oppose it. Despite favorable letters from them and more than 400 people, including four former presidents of Uruguay, the Obama administration has neither ruled for nor against his petition—even as Stanham gets older and more frail.
“We don’t say he’s been wrongfully accused, but he’s really being punished more than anyone wanted him to be punished,” says Stanham’s 43-year-old son, Nicholas, a Miami-based real estate lawyer. “He’s still going to be deported, and that’s still a punishment. He probably won’t be able to come back here, a country he loves. Where he has six children and 14 grandchildren. That’s the idea: Commute it, so he can be deported.”
Drayton Curry is in even more danger of running out of time. At 92, he is the nation’s oldest federal prisoner. In 1991, he was convicted in North Carolina of involvement in a drug-trafficking conspiracy. It was a nonviolent crime, but he was sentenced to life in prison under the nation’s “three-strikes” laws, even though he had never been accused of committing any violent acts. (He had been convicted twice previously in connection with drug conspiracies, although the second of those convictions, in New York, was essentially for agreeing to pay someone’s phone bill.)
Despite his age, his poor health, his good works in prison, and the fact that he has already served nearly 20 years, Curry cannot even get Barack Obama’s pardon office, run by Bush holdover Ronald Rodgers, to rule on his petition.
The Stanham and Curry cases are only two of thousands of clemency applications pending before the U.S. Department of Justice, and they illustrate a troubling aspect of Obama’s presidency: his resistance to using his power to grant pardons and reduce prison sentences. One could argue that, in this instance, Barack Obama has been less merciful than George W. Bush, who as Texas governor presided over more executions than any other governor in U.S. history.
Many people who are languishing in prison and pleading for pardons or commutations of sentences might not be the ideal sympathetic “victims” of the justice system who can garner public support. But the justice system does allow for pardons and commutations, and presidents have historically granted requests for clemency from thousands of people—not just people like financier Marc Rich, who had fled to Switzerland to escape prosecution. After high-powered lobbying and campaign contributions, Rich was pardoned by Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency; that and several other pardons and clemencies became highly controversial.
The Obama administration has been more than skittish. Obama took nearly two years to issue his first pardon and has granted a total of only 17—nearly all for old, relatively minor convictions—and either rejected or ignored every single clemency petition that has been filed. Last May, with one stroke, he denied some 2,000 clemency petitions without explanation. Is it really possible there wasn’t one valid clemency petition out of 2,000? Could it be because the backlog was so big, it was becoming an embarrassment?
Some former Justice Department officials charge that a serious review of these petitions doesn’t even really take place anymore—a criticism supported by a recent Justice Department Inspector General’s probe.
Ten of Obama’s 17 pardons involved crimes that took place prior to 1990, including a 1960 conviction of a moonshiner, a 1963 conviction for “mutilation of coins,” a 1972 case involving a guy who stole plywood and nails from a construction site on a military base, and a 1985 conviction for the possession of alligator hides. Another, from 1991, involved stealing cable-TV signals. And yet another: conspiracy for trading away a firearm without paying the transfer tax.
Although there must be much more compelling cases, most of Obama’s pardons (the power is written into the U.S. Constitution) don’t seem to be great examples of a leader finally dispensing justice to the wronged or rehabilitated.
In fact, Obama is about to set a modern record for going the longest of any president without commuting a sentence, says P.S. Ruckman, Jr., editor of the Pardon Power blog and a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Illinois.
Meanwhile, several governors are actively using the power—and for high-profile cases. For example, Ohio governor John Kasich, a conservative Republican who formerly hosted a Fox News show, recently commuted the death sentence of a man who murdered a 72-year-old woman, citing the man’s “brutally abusive upbringing.” Prior to that, Kasich commuted the sentence of another death-row inmate…
As the 2012 presidential campaign heats up, wouldn’t it be nice to have some real political leadership, especially when it comes to the environment? Unfortunately, neither political party is providing it. Democrats simply want to throw money and regulations at environmental problems, and Republicans argue that jobs and the economy trump environmental protection.
But there is an alternative—the GREEN Tea Party (GTP). Its candidate? None other than Kermit the frog. Kermit understands, “it’s not easy being green,” to which he might add, “especially if you are a conservative.”
In addition to common sense ideas, the GTP and Kermit come with an official drink, green tea. Like the antioxidants in green tea, the GTP is filled with “anti’s” of its own—anti-deficits, anti-regulations, and anti-bureaucracies, which fight the cancer of an ever-growing government. But the GTP is not anti-everything. It contains “pros” as well—pro-growth, pro-environmental quality, and pro-property rights.
Is the GTP for You?
If you are thinking about supporting Kermit, you need to ask yourself an important question: Are you really an environmentalist, or are you just “greener than thou.” Membership in the GTP requires more than just displaying your green bona fides. It requires proven environmental results and pragmatic environmental policies—not just green rhetoric.
Simply driving hybrids that are a “deeper shade of green,” is not enough. Toyota Prius owners may be willing to pay a $7,000 premium for a car that gives them a “green halo,” but buying environmental status does not make one a real environmentalist. Ending your e-mails with the message, “Save a tree. Please don’t print this e-mail,” does not qualify you for membership in the GTP either. Kermit understands that paper comes from trees that grow on plantations.
Are you really an environmentalist, or are you just greener than thou?
Reducing the demand for paper will likely convert tree plantations into subdivisions. That means less trees, not more. Kermit ends his e-mails with, “Print this e-mail and save trees.”
The GTP is also not for you if you think that larger budgets for Washington regulators are key to environmental quality. Kermit applauded when traditional Tea Party congressmen cut $1.6 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency budget, a budget that the Obama administration increased from $7.5 billion in 2009 to $10 billion in 2010. Representative Mike Simpson (R – Idaho) captured the essence of “green tea” budget cuts when he said, “These cuts give us the opportunity to take a close look at how the agency is spending its dramatic increases in funding and look at whether new regulations are effective.”
Kermit pounds the data not the table when it comes to bloated budgets. Since 1980, EPA’s inflation-adjusted budget remained relatively flat while air quality continually improved. Most environmental improvements come from cost-saving technology in the private sector, not heavy-handed environmental regulations.
Finally, do not join the GTP if you are pessimistic about the future of humanity and the environment. We are not running out of resources because of human population growth. We are not running out of fossil fuels, and we will adapt to climate change because of human ingenuity. Kermit is a “rational optimist.” That is why he can be heard humming a few bars from the Beatle’s tune “You Have to Admit it’s Getting Better.”
Two Green Planks
With only two planks, the GTP’s platform would make it clear that prosperity and incentives, not bureaucracies, drive environmental improvements. The first plank is that wealthier is healthier. From the United States to the former Soviet Union, data show that economic growth is necessary for environmental improvement, not the enemy of it. The overwhelming evidence says that economic growth results from secure property rights and a strong rule of law. Given this, we have a recipe for improving the environment that starts with economic progress and a robust private sector. More federal spending and bureaucratic red tape work against these goals.
Environmental quality cannot be secured with taxpayer dollars and EPA regulations.
The second plank is that incentives matter. The GTP would use the carrot—property rights and markets—rather than the regulatory stick to improve environmental quality. Kermit agrees with the great conservationist, Aldo Leopold, who said, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” Sustainability only comes from profitability and accountability…
Online Education’s Net Worth: E-Learning is starting to take off at NYC universities, but are all the bugs worked out?
October 13, 2011
Taking classes by computer has become common at many community colleges, and today, most universities offer some online courses. Elite schools like NYU and Columbia have remained reluctant to award online bachelor’s degrees, but that has started to change during hard times: Online courses can be more cheaply produced than traditional classroom offerings.
But knotty problems remain for online education. Dropout rates are higher than in traditional courses, and educators have struggled to ensure that long-distance students don’t cheat on exams. Students have raised other concerns, from fair tuition costs to the perceived inferior quality of online coursework.
At Pace University, students can choose from nearly 600 online offerings; more than half of Pace students have taken an online course, compared to about a quarter of college students nationwide. Undergraduates can currently satisfy all their liberal arts requirements—60 credits, or half their degree hours—with online courses. A decade ago, Pace started an online degree program expressly for telecommunications workers, but this fall, the school will offer its first online bachelors’ programs for the general public, in business and computer science.
“We were starting to get inquiries from former Pace students who wanted to finish their degrees, and we decided to help them,” explains Christine Shakespeare, special advisor for strategic initiatives. To be accepted into either degree program, students must have already completed 56 credit hours at an accredited institution and maintained a GPA of at least 2.5.
The online degrees cost much less per credit hour than Pace’s traditional degree programs: $535 per credit as opposed to $937 per credit for a part-time student. (Full-time undergraduates pay a flat $16,328 for 12 to 18 credits.) “The price is competitive with what the online institutions are offering,” Shakespeare says. “We have the resources and the history of a traditional nonprofit institution, so we’d like to attract the students who have been turning to the online schools with some dubious results.”
Worse than face-to-face?
Pace’s measured approach to awarding online degrees is typical, as universities are attracted by the promises of lower costs and larger audiences but struggle with the paucity of research into whether students learn as well in an online setting.
A 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Education collected 99 studies and concluded that online instruction is slightly more effective. Yet in an upcoming study in the Journal of Labor Economics, researchers criticize the government’s conclusion, claiming it isn’t supported by “apples-to-apples comparisons” and charging that the rush to online education may come at a cost.
The new study looked at two groups of students: those who sat through live lectures in an introductory economics course and those who watched the lectures online. Hispanics, males, and low achievers scored worse online even though the lectures were delivered before large classes.
“We need to have a lot more studies, because the train is leaving the station, and we don’t have a solid knowledge of the consequences,” says one of the paper’s authors, David Figlio, an education economist at Northwestern University. “Online courses are cheaper to operate, so they may still pass a cost-benefit analysis. But it’s just not a free lunch.”
Educators appear afraid to raise any questions when their institutions offer classes on the Internet, says Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. In a recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jenkins called online learning “the third rail in American higher-education politics: Step on it and you’re toast.”
The biggest problem with online courses, says Jenkins, is their high dropout rates compared to those of face-to-face classes. He points to studies finding completion rates in online courses of only 50 percent as opposed to 70 to 75 percent for comparable classes where the students must physically show up.
“When I was a department chair and a dean, I saw the numbers on a quarterly basis, and there were problems,” says Jenkins. “I brought it up at the time, and nobody wanted to talk about it. Looking at the current numbers nationally, it doesn’t appear that things are getting much better.”
Jenkins’s doubts are backed up by two recent studies from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. One report, following 51,000 community-college students in Washington State from 2004 to 2009, found an 8 percentage-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses. A previous report on Virginia community colleges showed completion-rate gaps of 13 percentage points.
“You must do everything you can to offer the classes students need within a budget,” Jenkins says. “But at some point, you’ve got to look at these numbers and ask why the overall success rates are so low. What can we do to help students succeed…?”