Labled for reuse, courtesy of DHS

Criminal Sentencing and Unalienable Rights

Nathan Thompson

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These, proclaims the Declaration of Independence, are the unalienable rights with which we have been endowed by our Creator. These are the rights woven into the constitutional fabric of the United States.

And yet, for all the profound language of our founding documents, it remains the case that not every American enjoys these rights equally. In few places is this problem clearer than the realm of criminal drug sentencing and mass incarceration.

Recently, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered that federal prosecutors pursue the harshest possible sentences for criminal defendants when charges are readily provable. This includes mandatory minimum prison sentences even for minor, non-violent drug offenses.

Of course, one might ask why aggressively prosecuting illicit drug use is problematic. If we want to minimize the use of substances that cause bodily harm and disruptions to communities, does it not make sense to establish consequences steep enough to deter such use?

This kind of logic may appear reasonable at first glance, but the truth of the matter is that such an approach has institutionalized a system that incarcerates and punishes citizens—particularly African-Americans—at rates not seen anywhere else in the world.

The United States, home to just under 5% of the world’s population, houses roughly 22% of the world’s prisoners. The prison population has increased 700% since 1980 despite the fact that 90% of those new inmates are non-violent offenders. This means that several million Americans are currently imprisoned in facilities that are filled past capacity, the vast majority for offenses that did not physically harm another person.

But one of the single most worrying facets of this issue centers on criminal prosecution and race. For example, African-Americans and Caucasians report being equally likely to use marijuana, but the former are 3.7 times as likely as the latter to be arrested for its possession or use and more likely to face criminal conviction. Roughly 1 in 3 black males can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes. And while the majority of drug users and dealers in the United States are white, three quarters of those imprisoned for drug offenses are African-American or Latino.

Such racial disparities in rates of arrest and conviction are staggering and should be deeply troubling to us. But rather than focusing on the numbers, perhaps there is a more personal question we should be asking ourselves: What do we will for our fellow Americans?

When we speak of our founding documents, do we really believe what they say? Do we wish for every last one of our fellow citizens, regardless of creed or skin color, to enjoy the freedom to pursue a life of happiness? To be able to learn from his or her mistakes without a 25-year minimum prison sentence? Or are we comfortable living in a world where such freedom is denied to others—especially minorities and minors—for a lifetime because of a few poor choices? I would suggest that, if we are comfortable in such a world, some serious resorting of priorities is needed.

Republican senator Rand Paul was right on the money when he wrote that we should be treating the nation’s drug epidemic for what it is: a public health crisis, not an excuse to send people to prison and turn a mistake into a tragedy.

Such an attitude of willing the good for each of our fellow Americans is one we would all do well to adopt. After all, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if unalienable, are not partisan. Defending every citizen’s access to them shouldn’t be, either.

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100 Days and Pen-and-Phone Governance

Nathan Thompson

Jake Tapper summarized the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency well: “Long on executive orders, short on major legislative accomplishments.

Of course, President Barack Obama was also famously (or infamously, depending upon your point of view) willing to use the “pen and phone” of executive orders to achieve his policy aims. But while many of President Trump’s executive orders have merely erased the ones issued by President Obama, our current commander-in-chief has similarly not shied away from privileging the pen and phone over Congressional legislation. Continue reading “100 Days and Pen-and-Phone Governance”

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The Impotence of Numbers

Recent events in the spheres of US policy on Syria, healthcare, and free trade have exposed what seems a fundamental human truth: no one really cares about the numbers.

For all our talk of data-driven policy (and the treasure troves of information available to us), it is not apparent that our decision making is based on what rigorous analysis might suggest the best solutions are. The long and short of it is that, when it comes to making policy decisions, we are far more human than we are rational. Continue reading “The Impotence of Numbers”

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Mirror, Mirror

If you’re anything like me, you care far too much about what other people think of you—your intellect. Your humor. Your physique. Your brilliant and underappreciated blog.

Insecurity often leads us to craft images of ourselves that we think will be accepted and admired by our peers. This can involve wearing the right clothes, laughing at the right jokes, and making the right comments with friends. Better yet, this obsession with image manifests itself in our attempts to appear humble without bragging about it, hardworking without overexerting ourselves, or polished without being disingenuous.

Such a way of living gives rise to a whole host of problem, but one of particular concern is the vanity it engenders. Continue reading “Mirror, Mirror”

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MAKE GOD GREAT AGAIN

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”

-President Donald Trump

I can’t be certain, but I’m reasonably confident that two words Jesus of Nazareth never uttered in succession are “America” and “first.”

Contrast this with President Trump’s inaugural address, which placed a heavy emphasis on the privileging of American identity, and you’re left with a jarring dissonance.

This dissonance should be instructive for those engaged in the task of discerning how to live as both faithful Christians and engaged American citizens. To be clear, it’s a task that is exceedingly difficult. But rarely in recent memory has the distinction between Christian and American identity been so starkly laid out. Continue reading “MAKE GOD GREAT AGAIN”

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Two Eyes, One Mouth

Consider for a moment that a leading news story last week entailed whether or not the president-elect of the United States of America paid prostitutes to urinate on his bed while on a trip to Russia. To borrow a phrase from George Will: ransack the English language for the words to do this justice.

It was difficult to escape media coverage regarding the “Russia dossier.” However, we were mercifully granted relief in the form of the confirmation hearing of a man who, unlike much of the political world these days, routinely demonstrates himself to be both serious and worthy of being taken seriously. I am referring, naturally, to General James Mattis, Trump’s Defense Secretary nominee. Continue reading “Two Eyes, One Mouth”

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Nuance, RIP

Along with polar bears in the Arctic, I share the misfortune of watching the ground shrink beneath my feet. The difference, of course, is that mine is the dwindling territory of a political animal—specifically, one who doesn’t believe in simple answers.

Politics has been, and always will be, a messy business. We see this in the acrimony between the Obama Administration and a Republican Congress, the loud debates over healthcare policy, or, to put it charitably, the eyesore that was the 2016 presidential election. Some of this head butting is to be expected. But to most of us, I imagine it seems like things are getting worse. Continue reading “Nuance, RIP”

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A Confession and Exhortation

“TRUMP TRIUMPHS.”

What a cruise missile of a headline to wake up to on a fittingly cold, gray, and rainy day in London. Like many, I was more than surprised by his victory. I was floored, astonished, speechless. Surely, the most disliked presidential candidate in modern American history couldn’t have pulled it off. And yet, there Trump was on Thursday, meeting with President Obama at the White House to discuss the transition of power.

Though I knew I’d be surprised, even embarrassed for my country, if Trump prevailed, I must admit I did not anticipate three emotions in particular: sadness, fear, and shame. Continue reading “A Confession and Exhortation”

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Federalist No. 1: In Defense of Listening

“For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”

-Alexander Hamilton

Can you hear it? That, my friends, is the sound of a whole country calling each other names.

Race-baiter. Racist. Bigot. Xenophobe. Un-American. Homophobe. Coddled. Irredeemable. Terrorist. Sexist. Liar. Socialist (maybe a complement now?). Idiot. Cop-killer. Cop-hater. A basket of deplorables. And, of course, Crooked, Lyin’, and Little.

Good grief, Charlie Brown. Continue reading “Federalist No. 1: In Defense of Listening”

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