US Senate passes sweeping criminal justice reform bill!

Prisoners in an overcrowded California correctional facilityPrisoners in an overcrowded California correctional facility

The US Senate has passed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill seeking to address concerns that the US locks up too many of its citizens.

The First Step Act, which has been championed by US President Donald Trump, passed by a vote of 87-12.

The bipartisan measure found unlikely support from hardline conservatives and progressive liberals alike.

The US leads the world in number of jailed citizens. Around 2.2m Americans were in jail in 2016, figures show.

The bill, which is expected to be debated in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, would only affect federal prisoners accounting for about 10% of the total US prison population.

Moments after the vote passed, President Trump tweeted: “America is the greatest Country in the world and my job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes.”

What does the law actually do?

The bill would overhaul the US justice system by giving more discretion to judges during sentencing, and by strengthening prisoner rehabilitation efforts.

Among the sentencing guidelines being revised is one reducing the “three strikes” penalty for drug felons from life in prison to 25 years.

The “three strikes” policy – introduced during the Clinton presidency – mandated strict penalties for those convicted of three serious crimes.

How police line-ups jail the innocent

The First Step Act also limits the disparity in sentencing guidelines between powder and crack cocaine, which could affect up to 2,600 prisoners, according to the Marshall Project.

It allows for more criminals to serve their sentences in halfway houses or under home confinement, and requires offenders to be jailed within 500 miles (800km) of their families.

The exterior of a prison in IllinoisThe exterior of a prison in Illinois

It bans shackling pregnant prisoners and mandates that tampons and sanitary napkins be available to women.

It reduces the mandatory minimum sentences for serious drug crimes, and authorises $375m (£297m) in federal spending for job training and educational programmes for prisoners.

New Jersey Democratic Cory Booker hailed the legislation as “one small step [that] will affect thousands and thousands of lives”.

How did it get this far?

All 49 Democrats in the Senate voted in favour of the bill, with several mentioning that prisons are disproportionally filled with minority groups.

Twelve conservative law-and-order Republican senators voted against the bill.

Many of the supporters of the First Step Act had also rallied behind the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which was supported by former President Barack Obama.

That bill looked set for passage before Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell blocked it, and refused to put it to a vote in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Earlier this year, White House adviser Jared Kushner began working with Republicans to draft a bill that Mr Trump could sign into law.

With Mr Trump’s endorsement, the Republican group was able to shore up enough support to bring the bill to a vote.

“This is the biggest thing,” said Republican Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley after the vote was held.

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So Congress actually did something?

Analysis box by Anthony Zurcher

The first two years of the Donald Trump presidency have been defined in part by high-profile partisan battles in Congress – over healthcare, immigration, tax reform and presidential nominees. Beneath the surface, however, there’s been a somewhat surprising undercurrent of bipartisan co-operation.

Democrats and Republicans have come together to pass legislation to address the opioid addiction crisis, modernise the Federal Aviation Administration, provide additional resources for veterans and fund vast swaths of the federal government using traditional appropriations processes.

In the last few weeks alone, Congress enacted – and the president signed – a law to provide research and treatment for sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorderthat predominantly affects African-Americans. It unanimously passed a $60m bill to prevent maternal mortality.

This criminal justice reform bill could represent the highest-profile accomplishment yet.

With Democrats in control of the House of Representatives next year, Congress and the president will have no choice but to seek bipartisan solutions if they want to enact any significant legislation. That may be a challenge, given that even as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders heralded the reform bill as a “historic win”, she couldn’t resist taking a shot across the political aisle.

“Imagine how much more we can accomplish in the years ahead if – like on criminal justice – Democrats spend more time working with GOP to build America up and less time tearing the President down,” she tweeted.

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US life expectancy DROPS as drug and suicide deaths rise in the land of liberty!

On average, the US population can expect to live around 78 years – nearly a decade less than the world’s highest life expectancy rate.

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Life expectancy in the US has dropped once again, thanks in part to rising suicide and drug overdose rates, according to new government reports.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found nearly 70,000 more Americans died in 2017 than 2016, with rising rates of death among 25- to 44-year-olds.

Thursday’s reports revealed synthetic opioid-related overdose death rates rose by 45% on average, nationwide.

The suicide rate is also the highest it has been in decades.

Americans can expect to live just over 78 years and six months on average – a 0.1 year drop from 2016, according to the report released on Thursday.

“Tragically, this troubling trend is largely driven by deaths from drug overdose and suicide,” said CDC director Robert Redfield in a statement.

“Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the nation’s overall health and these sobering statistics are a wake-up call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable.”

The top 10 leading causes of death – including heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and suicide – were the same as in 2016, accounting for the majority of deaths.

Only cancer death rates decreased by 2.1%, while the rates for most other causes increased.

US women continue to outlive men, and the death rate did decrease among 45- to 54-year-olds.

Between 2016 and 2017, mortality rates also decreased for black women, and there was no significant change in rates for black men and Hispanic Americans.

Life expectancy in the US began dropping in 2015.

Monaco and Japan currently have the longest life expectancies in the world at 89 and 85 years. The UK’s life expectancy is around 80 years.

The deadly truth of new drugs cocktail

Drug death rate up 16% per year

As the US grapples with an opioid crisis, overdoses claim more and more lives, the CDC report found. The age-adjusted death rate has gone up 16% per year since 2014.

Drug overdose deaths accounted for 70,237 deaths last year – nearly 10% higher than in 2016 – with a significantly higher rate of death among men, compared to women.

The death rate from overdoses caused by synthetic opioids like fentanyl increased by 45% in one year.

West Virginia saw the highest overdose death rate in 2017 at 58 per 100,000 people; Ohio, Pennsylvania and the US capital also topped the list.

Emma and Toni’s father took his own life, now they want to help more men speak out.

Steady increase in suicide

The CDC found suicide became the second leading cause of death for 10- to 34-year-olds in 2016, with rates increasing 33% between 1999 and 2017, according to the report.

Urban-area suicide rates were 16% higher in 2017 than 1999, and rural-area suicides increased by 53% over the same time period.

Dr Jerry Reed of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention told the BBC that suicide is not always just a mental health challenge.

“Economic conditions or livelihood opportunities in decline could lead people to positions where they’re at risk. We need to intervene in both mental and public health cases,” Dr Reed says.

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Where to get help

From Canada or US: If you’re in an emergency, please call 911

You can contact the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Test Line by texting HOME to 741741

Young people in need of help can call Kids Help Phone on 1-800-668-6868

If you are in the UK, you can call the Samaritans on 116123

For support and more information on emotional distress, click here.

U.S. Border Patrol Fires Tear Gas at Families Seeking Asylum!

H1 border patrol tear gas

In Tijuana, Mexico, U.S. border patrol officers fired tear gas Sunday into a crowd of desperate Central American asylum seekers as they tried to push their way through the heavily militarized border with the United States. Among those attacked were mothers and small children, who were left gagging and screaming as tear gas spread. Mexican federal police officers in riot gear moved in and arrested dozens of the migrants; Mexico’s government says they’ll be deported to Central America. The group had broken away from a peaceful protest of thousands of migrants demanding entry to the U.S. where they hoped to win asylum. The migrants are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and are fleeing widespread violence, poverty and mass unemployment. This is 37-year-old Honduran asylum seeker Saúl Hernández.

Saúl Hernández: “My message to the United States president is not to scare people, because he’s showing Mexico that he has the military power. He’s also frightening Mexico. Please remove your troops.”

In response, the Trump administration temporarily closed the San Ysidro border crossing, one of the busiest ports of entry in the world, with more than 90,000 people crossing each day. Meanwhile, the administration of Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador denied it had made any deal with the Trump administration to force asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their U.S. asylum claims are processed. The denial contradicts tweets by President Trump and a report in the Washington Post on Saturday.

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Texas ICE Jail to Release 29 Families After Federal Ruling on Asylum.

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Nielsen’s trip came as the Trump administration said it would begin withdrawing thousands of soldiers it mobilized to the border ahead of the midterm elections, and after a federal judge halted the Trump administration’s plans to bar migrants from seeking asylum unless they arrive at a legal U.S. port of entry. Following that ruling, 29 migrant families will be released from the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley. Many of them come from a region of Central America known as the Northern Triangle, encompassing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The area is marked by widespread poverty and extreme gang violence. In a statement, Amnesty International welcomed the releases as a positive step but blasted the Trump administration over its policy toward migrants, writing, “It is unconscionable to criminalize mothers, fathers, and children who have lost everything. The administration must immediately abandon plans to build more detention centers and tent cities.”

Maine basketball team and Hollywood Casino spend Thanksgiving at homeless shelter

The University of Maine men’s basketball team and the staff of the Hollywood Casino prepared and served Thanksgiving dinner to members of the community at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter.

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BANGOR (NEWS CENTER Maine) — The holidays are a time to spend with family, but also a time to give back to those less fortunate than you.

This is the fourth year the staff of the Hollywood Casino has prepared Thanksgiving dinner at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, and the third year one of the two University of Maine basketball teams has served the meals.

“The Hollywood Casino, really great neighbors to have.” Boyd Kronholm, executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, said. “They not only support us on Thanksgiving but they have hired and given employment to some of our overnight guests.”

The shelter serves three meals on Thanksgiving and expects to serve about 100 hungry members of the community.

“43 of those people will probably be people who stay here but everyday at noon we open up our doors for a soup kitchen for anyone who’s hungry in the community. So those are people who may have been through our shelter at one point but are housed, but may not know where their next meal is coming from.” Kronholm said.

Junior guard on the Maine Black Bears, Isaiah White, says he’s not new to giving back to the community he lives in.

“When I’m back home, back in high school our church used to do things like this around the holidays too.” He said.

While this isn’t the community White grew up in, he says he enjoys giving back to a place that welcomed him with open arms.

“Maine, you know, the city of Bangor, Orono, the school, has fully embraced the basketball team.” He said.

US Chief Justice Roberts rebukes Trump’s ‘Obama judge’ complaint

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts pushes back against Trump, saying there are no ‘Obama judges or Trump judges’.

President Donald Trump greets Chief Justice John Roberts on Capitol Hill [Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo]

President Donald Trump greets Chief Justice John Roberts on Capitol Hill

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts pushed back on Wednesday against Donald Trump‘s description of a judge who ruled against the president’s new asylum policy as an “Obama judge”.

It’s the first time that the Republican-appointed leader of the federal judiciary has offered even a hint of criticism of Trump, who has previously blasted federal judges who ruled against him.

Responding to a query made by the Associated Press, Roberts said, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”

Roberts added that on the day before Thanksgiving that an “independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for”.

The White House had no immediate comment on Roberts’s remarks.

A halt to new asylum rules

The ruling Trump criticised that prompted Roberts’s rebuke came from US District Judge Jon Tigar in San Francisco on Monday.

Tigar temporarily blocked the Trump administration from denying asylum to individuals who cross the US’s border between official ports of entry.

In his ruling, Tigar issued a temporary nationwide restraining order prohibiting the enforcement of the policy. The order will last until until at least December 19 when the judge scheduled a hearing to consider a more long-lasting injunction.

“Whatever the scope of the president’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden,” Tigar wrote.

After Tigar’s ruling, Trump critcised the judge, calling him an “Obama judge” and the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals itself a “disgrace”.

“Every case that gets filed in the 9th Circuit, we get beaten. And then we end up having to go to the Supreme Court, like the travel ban, and we won,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday.

But the initial travel ban ruling in 2017 was issued by US District Judge James Robart, an appointee of President George W Bush. Roberts also was appointed by Bush.

It was unclear what Trump meant when he said things would change. The 9th Circuit is by far the largest of the federal appellate courts, covering Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Some Republicans in 9th Circuit states have proposed splitting the circuit in two, but legislation has not advanced.

OPINION

Kavanaugh and white boys’ club politics in the US

Hamid Dabashi
by Hamid Dabashi

The court has long had a majority of judges appointed by Democratic presidents, with the current breakdown at 16-7. But Trump has the opportunity to narrow that edge significantly because there are six vacancies, and he already has nominated candidates for five of them.

List of critcisms

The president’s latest remarks come as the Supreme Court is enmeshed in controversy over his appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Several justices have spoken out about judicial independence and the danger of having the court viewed as a political institution that is divided between five conservative Republicans and four liberal Democrats. Roberts is widely seen as the justice closest to the middle and likely to determine the outcome of high-profile cases that split the court.

Trump’s remarks are part of a long list of criticisms from the president directed a judges and courts.

Trump last year referred to a jurist who ruled against him on his travel ban as a “so-called judge”. Trump as a presidential candidate in 2016 said a judge in a case involving Trump University was biased against him because of the jurist’s Mexican-American heritage.

The US Constitution established the federal judiciary as a co-equal branch of government with the executive and legislative branches as part of a system of checks and balances on power.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

Bangor homicide suspect expected in court

29-year-old Donald Galleck was arrested on Friday, November 16, in connection to the beating death of 40-year-old Jason Moody.

Bangor police officers found Moody beaten unconscious on Sunday, November 11. Moody was taken to Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center. He died of his injuries on Tuesday.

Police classified the beating as a homicide and issued a warrant for Galleck’s arrest.

Galleck was found at an apartment on Fifth Street in Bangor on Friday afternoon. He and the apartment tenant, Mary Mulner, were both taken into custody.

Galleck is being held without bail. He was wanted for a prior offense of domestic violence assault and violating the conditions of his release.

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