Making Unique Observations in a Very Cluttered World

Thursday, 4 April 2013

As economy flails, debtors' prisons thrive -

As economy flails, debtors' prisons thrive - 

Thousands of Americans are sent to jail not for committing a crime, but because they can't afford to pay for traffic tickets, medical bills and court fees. 

If that sounds like a debtors' prison, a legal relic which was abolished in this country in the 1830s, that's because it is. And courts and judges in states across the land are violating the Constitution by incarcerating people for being unable to pay such debts.

Ask Jack Dawley, 55, an unemployed man in Ohio who between 2007 and 2012 spent a total of 16 days in jail in a Huron County lock-up for failing to pay roughly $1,500 in legal fines he'd incurred in the 1990s. The fines stemmed from Dawley's convictions for driving under the influence and other offenses. After his release from a Wisconsin correctional facility, Dawley, who admits he had struggled with drugs and alcohol, got clean. But if he put his substance problems behind him, Dawley's couldn't outrun his debts. 

Struggling to find a job and dealing with the effects of a back injury, he fell behind on repayments to the municipal court in Norwalk, Ohio. He was arrested six years ago and sent to jail for not paying his original court fines. Although Dawley was put on a monthly payment plan, during his latest stint behind bars in 2012 the court ordered him to pay off his entire remaining debt.

" I called my brother, and they told him I have to pay off the whole fine in order for me to get out," he said. "That was $900. So I sat my whole 10 days [in jail.]"

Such stories are by no means unusual. Rather, they reflect a justice system that in effect criminalizes poverty. "It's a growing problem nationally, particularly because of the economic crisis," said Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.

Roughly a third of U.S. states today jail people for not paying off their debts, from court-related fines and fees to credit card and car loans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Such practices contravene a 1983 United States Supreme Court ruling that they violate the Constitutions's Equal Protection Clause.

Some states apply "poverty penalties," such as late fees, payment plan fees and interest, when people are unable to pay all their debts at once. Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee, for instance, while Florida allows private debt collectors to add a 40 percent surcharge on the original debt. Some Florida counties also use so-called collection courts, where debtors can be jailed but have no right to a public defender. In North Carolina, people are charged for using a public defender, so poor defendants who can't afford such costs may be forced to forgo legal counsel. 

The high rates of unemployment and government fiscal shortfalls that followed the housing crash have increased the use of debtors' prisons, as states look for ways to replenish their coffers. Said Chettiar, "It's like drawing blood from a stone. States are trying to increase their revenue on the backs of the poor."

In Dawley's home state of Ohio, the local chapter of the ACLU announced today that it had found conclusive evidence of such polices in 7 of 11 counties in the state that it examined over the course of a year-long investigation. Although debtors' prisons are unconstitutional and prohibited by Ohio law, poor defendants are routinely jailed for failing to pay court fines, the group said in a report.

Municipal and so-called mayors' courts -- Ohio is one of two states in the U.S. where mayors can administer the law, even if they aren't licensed attorneys -- also commonly do not give defendants like Dawley a hearing or inform them of their rights to counsel, as required by law.  

"They didn't give you the opportunity to say you couldn't pay," Dawley said of his time in court. "They just gave out 10 day sentences.... There was nothing about your finances. Either you plead guilty, not guilty or no contest. They give you a jail date and put you on a payment plan, and if you don't make the payment plan you're going to jail."

In so doing, courts fail to make a crucial distinction between defendants who have the means to pay their debts but refuse to do so, and those who are too poor to repay. That failure derives in large part from the lack of a consistent legal standard for determining willful nonpayment of such debts. As a result, while a judge in one state may take into account that a person on food stamps is financially unable to pay court costs, a judge across the state line might sentence that same individual to 10 days in the clink. 

"If you don't have resources for an attorney or can't afford other fees associated with court, you get a different brand of justice," said Mike Brickner, director of communications and public policy at the ACLU of Ohio, noting that such practices are "rampant" in the state. "And with the economic downturn over the last 10 years, we've seen an increase and resurgence in debtors' prisons."

In another case the group uncovered in Ohio, a mother of three was imprisoned for 10 days for failing to pay $540 in fines and costs related to a conviction for driving with a suspended license. And as in other cases where the indigent are jailed, taxpayers ended up footing part of the bill. The total cost of arresting and incarcerating her amounted to nearly $1,000. 


Target offends shoppers after it uses 'Manatee' to describe Plus-size Dress -

Target offends shoppers after it uses 'Manatee' to describe Plus-size Dress - 

View image on Twitter
Talk about a fashion faux pas. 
Target caused quite an uproar this week when they named the color of a gray plus-size dress for sale on their website “Manatee Gray.”
The same dress in regular sizes was labeled “Dark Heather Gray,” leaving online shoppers wondering just what the retailer was trying to imply with their word choice.
The color switch-a-roo was noticed by online shopper Susan Clemens, who promptly captured images of the color titles and tweeted it at Target.

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Climate Change Creating Mutant Poison Ivy -

Climate Change Creating Mutant Poison Ivy - 

Back in college, I developed an oozing poison ivy rash all over my neck and arms and had to go on steroids -- just because I inadvertently grazed the clothes of a friend who had gone tromping through the woods earlier that day. What's worse, it happened right before the Dalai Lama visited my school. While my classmates were leaning forward in their folding chairs to capture his every syllable, I was shifting in my seat, clutching a bottle of calamine lotion, and desperately trying to look calm while the Lama talked about peace of mind -- something I only know from reading the transcript. It's hard to listen while your skin is on fire.

So yeah, I'm pretty allergic to poison ivy. But a lot of people are -- 80 percent of the population reacts to the vine with welts and maddeningly itchy rashes. So the fact that poison ivy plants are getting bigger and more poisonous due to climate change isn't exactly welcome news. But that's precisely what's happening; scientific research indicates that with higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the poison ivy plant grows larger, and its "oil" (a.k.a. the awful poisonous stuff) becomes more potent.

Fortunately, someone's already thinking about how we could do a better job getting rid of the plant. (Rabbits and deer might miss it -- they're immune to the ivy's poison, so it makes a nice leafy lunch for them -- but consequences to the overall ecosystem would be minor, experts say.) Last week a group of horticulturists, scientists, and nurses convened in Philadelphia for the first conference devoted exclusively to the nettlesome vine. Ivy eradication specialist Umar Mycka, who also works at the Philadelphia zoo, organized the small, four-day gathering. One of his goals was to swap itching remedies and removal strategies with other poison ivy experts.

"If you want to deal with a problem, you have to know what size problem you're dealing with," Mycka says. "These plants are so powerful to start with, it doesn't take much of a touch from carbon to make it much worse."

That's exactly what scientists found when they planted poison ivy in an experimental forest at Duke University, piping in carbon dioxide to artificially raise the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to the levels it's expected to be by about 2050. The result, published in 2006: like other plants subjected to a high-CO2 environment, the poison ivy plants grew 150 percent bigger, with 153 percent higher concentrations of their oil, called urushiol.

Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who co-authored the study, estimates that poison ivy plants are already growing 50 to 60 percent larger than they did 100 years ago. He told me that warmer temperatures are probably also pushing poison ivy-growing zones northward (again, as with many other plants), and urbanization is creating conditions amenable to the wily plant, which thrives in semi-developed areas with more sunlight.

"Think of heat islands or cities as climate change in miniature," Ziska says. "There are higher C02 concentrations, higher temperatures. There's a fragmentation of ecosystems. All of those factors allow poison ivy to enter an environment that it may not have been in before."

At the Philadelphia conference, attendees had a chance to see poison ivy's monstrous proportions firsthand. Mycka led them to a public park near the center of the city, where a large vine had been growing up a tree. Its weight after removal: 506 pounds. And climate change is going to make it worse? I can already feel my skin burning.

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Iran gains upper hand in Ice Cream Cold War with United States - 5 ton batch of Ice Cream to secure Guinness Record -

Iran gains upper hand in Ice Cream Cold War with United States - 5 ton batch of Ice Cream to secure Guinness Record - 

Here’s hoping you can eat it before it melts.

On Monday, Iranian ice cream company Choopan unveiled a five-ton batch of chocolate ice cream to try to secure the Guinness World Record for the largest tub of ice cream ever made. The dessert was stored in a container measuring five feet by seven feet long.

In addition to trying the set a new world record, the company also wants to boost ice cream consumption in the country, according to Choopan board member Mohammed Baheri.

One spectator told Iranian media outlet Press TV said she’d come to the event as a matter of civic duty. “First, I came to this event because it gives me national pride for our achievement,” she said. “and of course I love ice cream.”

The current title holder, Baskin-Robbins, claimed the title in 2005 with a tub containing about four tons of vanilla ice cream. The American chain hasn’t ruled out trying to unseat Choopan from its apparent victory.

(MORE: Can the Best Ice Cream in America Be the Biggest?)

“While we understand another company is vying to break this record, we remain focused on serving our guests around the world our delicious variety of ice cream flavors, custom ice cream cakes and frozen treats, and wouldn’t rule out trying to break another record in the future.”

Guinness World recordkeepers have yet to announce whether Choopan has officially beat Baskin Robbins for the title. The decision is expected to be made later after officials have vetted the event.