Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Of jails and the Patriot Act

The L.A. Times ran a piece about airline passengers being charged with terrorism for decidedly non-terrorist actions. The cover story was about Tamera Jo Freeman who was charged and sent to jail for spanking her children. She was not charged with child abuse but rather for swearing at the flight attendant and throwing tomato juice on the floor. The flight attendants filed a complaint and Ms. Freeman’s actions were found to be in violation of the US Patriot Act. Read the article here.

The Patriot Act has always troubled me. I think it is too broad in scope and can be interpreted to cover such things as the above incident. Supporters seem too eager to sacrifice individual rights for the sake of “security”. I am perhaps in a minority that believes there were enough mechanisms in place on Sep 10th, 2001 to have prevented 9-11 had various agencies acted swiftly on the information. The Patriot Act was a knee-jerk reaction to the emotions prevailing the national conscience on those days immediately following 9-11. What is most disconcerting though is that since that time, there hasn’t been a serious re-evaluation of the Patriot Act. The Bush Administration has not evaluated the effectiveness of the Patriot Act. Do we even need the Patriot Act at all? The CIA and FBI have always had some of the most sophisticated networks and databases to detect terrorist groups. The Patriot Act has given nothing new, merely allowed more prosecution of those suspect of terrorist activity. I submit prosecution of a terrorist isn’t nearly as important as preventing them from executing their mission. I remain unconvinced that any benefits of the Patriot Act outweigh the potential abuses and loss of individual rights.

Locally the economy has adversely impacted a number of many county and city agencies resulting in, amongst other things, the closing of Queensgate Jail. The decision to close the jail resulted in the typical denials and counter-accusations but no one seems willing to ask a far more interesting question, why do we need Queensgate in the first place? The county sheriff believes without more jails Cincinnati will be filled with criminals run amok.

County jails house any number of county or city malefactors who have run afoul of local jurisprudence. These offenses range from the serious to the sublime. One would be hard-pressed to argue that murderers, rapists and other violent criminals should not be locked-up to protect others. Yet these same institutions also house inmates who committed nothing more violent that failing to pay their parking fines.

The Queensgate and Patriot Act both illustrate a unwillingness by legislators to reassess legislation once it is passed, especially in tough economic times. Legislators get elected by pledging to get tougher on crime (think mandatory sentencing) yet these laws tend to get past without regard to the budgetary impact on the public agencies charged with carrying out these new, tougher laws.

The Patriot Act adds additional stress to the increasingly unattractive air travel experience. Traveling by airliners was once glamorous with many perks in coach as well as first class. Soaring fuel costs and increased security concerns have all but obliterated the glamour. Traveling now in coach is a tedious and grueling experience. Fewer flights means a delay can cause a missed flight or even being stranded overnight. Passengers and flight crews alike are stressed, add the cramped spaces of most aircraft and the environment is ripe for emotions to boil over. The Patriot Act does not consider its negative impact on air travel, only with preserving security. A Muslim family was recently singled out on a domestic flight for wondering out loud where the safest area was on the airplane. Racial profiling in most police investigations is grounds for lawsuits and involvement by the NAACP. The Patriot Act has thus far been exempt from such measures, even when a family seems to have been targeted specifically because they were Muslim. The airline later apologize but not until after the family had already been humiliated and the rest of the passengers inconvenienced.

The Department of Homeland Security and the US Attorney General need to get handle on this. There have been so many advances in the detection of terrorist activity one wonders if the whole Patriot Act can’t be eliminated than at least major portions could be revised. Our economy is in bad enough shape, we don’t need the airline industry to join the bailout line.

Similarly, local elected officials, prosecutors and law enforcement officers need to come together and realize there just isn’t the money to incarcerated every single dope smoker out on the street. The priority needs to be keeping the most violent offenders off of the street and looking at other ways of punishing non-violent offenders. The times are different now, there isn’t enough tax revenue coming in. More citizens are losing their jobs meaning even less taxes and more demand for public assistance. The times call for real leadership, get rid of the mindset that existed when there was an abundance of tax revenue. Rewrite legislation that is reflective of the economic times and answers the needs of the community.

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