Sustained Outrage

It’s time for another installment of stories that made us sit up and take notice this week:

In the wake of four apparent suicides over the weekend, including an apparent murder-suicide, officials at Fort Hood in Texas promised to take steps to identify individuals who may be at risk, the Austin American-Statesman reported. There have been 14 confirmed suicides (and six suspected suicides) at the base in 2010, compared with 11 in 2009 and 14 in 2008. Army suicide rates have doubled since 2005, and more and more soldiers are stationed at the base as a result of troop withdrawals from Iraq.

An alleged global scheme to steal millions of dollars from U.S. bank accounts using computer viruses has resulted in more than 60 people being charged, including 19 people who were arrested in London on Tuesday, according to this account from the Wall Street Journal. So-called “money mules” were supposed to open bank accounts in the U.S., where they would receive wire transfers made possible by a virus that steals a person’s usernames and passwords from his or her computer. The scheme also targeted small and midsized businesses and municipalities, according to the article.

A private intelligence contractor hired by the Pennsylvania State Police produced information that was “often inaccurate and almost always useless,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported as the director of the state police’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation testified before a Legislative committee. Moreover, the questionable intel distributed by the Institute on Terrorism Research and Response, which included reports “on the activities of citizen groups that posed no obvious threat to public safety, including student protesters and opponents of natural-gas drilling,” were widely disseminated. “I likened it to reading the National Enquirer: Every so often they have something right, but most of the time it’s unsubstantiated gossip,” the director said.

PARKERSBURG,  W.Va. — On the heels of the West Virginia University study earlier this month that found children and teens exposed to C8 are more likely to have high cholesterol, the C8 Science Panel today is releasing its latest findings: A report that compares C8 exposure data to the age at which boys and girls experience puberty.

The three-member panel is studying the potential impacts of C8 (also known as PFOA) and the related chemical PFOS on residents who live near DuPont’s Washington Works Plant in Wood county, south of Parkersburg.

In general, the panel found that PFOS exposure reduced the odds of boys having reached puberty. Boys with higher exposure to PFOS appeared to have reached puberty later than those with lower exposure.

Among girls, exposure to both PFOA and PFOS appears to be related to reduced odds of having reached puberty. Girls with the highest exposures to both chemicals reached puberty later than those with lower exposures.

Today’s press conference at the Blennerhassett Hotel is the first time that Parkersburg-area residents are hearing about this from the Science Panel.

But, panel leader Tony Fletcher of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine gave fellow scientists a sneak preview of it during a conference in mid-September.  Fletcher was also scheduled to present a paper on the subject at another scientific conference — this one in Korea in late August — but I’m told the necessary analysis was not completed in time for that event.

We’ve reported before about a University of Cincinnati study by Susan Pinney and others that found a relationship between PFOA and breast growth in girls and young women, an indication that PFOA “acts as an endocrine disruptor.” In essence, this study found an earlier onset of puberty — measured in the study by breast maturation — in girls exposed to PFOA.

A more recent study, released two weeks ago and published in the journal Environment International, reported no impact from PFOS exposure on puberty age in young girls, as measured by the onset of the menstrual cycle. This study examined in utero exposures to girl offspring and measured those against the onset of menstrual cycles, or “menarche”  in those girls.

But study authors from Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control cautioned that “there is a biological plausibility for such an association” —

Exposures during pregnancy are extremely relevant to pubertal development, since this represents the period of organ and brain development, including the brain, endocrine system and reproductive tract.

They also warned:

… Due to a relatively small sample size, the study may have been underpowered to detect an association between gestational PFC exposure and age at menarche.

We’ll have more on this in tomorrow’s Gazette.

UPDATED: Here’s a link to the Science Panel’s new report.


The collateral economic effects of prison

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In 1992, the story goes, Democratic strategist James Carville, in an attempt to keep presidential candidate Bill Clinton on message, boiled down a major campaign issue to four words: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

I couldn’t help but think of that phrase as I read through a new report from the Pew Center on the States, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility, which was released today. The report, based on research by Harvard University professor Bruce Western and University of Washington professor Becky Pettit, documents the devastating impact of prison not just on the economic prospects of inmates, but also on those of their children. And it gives another reason why lawmakers and judges — all of us, really — should make every effort to keep as many people out of prison as possible: It’s the economy, well, you get it.

Some of the figures cited are pretty jaw-dropping. Let’s start with earning potential for convicts released from prison:

Former inmates experience relatively high levels of unemployment and below-average earnings in large part because of their comparatively poor work history and low levels of education. Incarceration further compounds these challenges. When age, education, school enrollment, region of residence and urban residence are statistically accounted for, past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11 percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly earnings by 40 percent.

Prison also makes it harder to move up the economic ladder, the study found.

Put simply, men imprisoned and released between 1986 and 2006 were significantly less upwardly mobile than those who did not spend time behind bars. Typically, one would expect maturity, hard work and experience to gradually produce promotions and bigger paychecks. However, in both relative and absolute terms, those who had been convicted of crimes and incarcerated in this time period had much less success in getting ahead.

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder published an op-ed in the Washington Post today, decrying the “confirmation crisis” that has seen the number of federal judicial vacancies double during President Obama’s time in office. “The federal judicial system that has been a rightful source of pride for the United States — the system on which we all depend for a prompt and fair hearing of our cases when we need to call on the law — is stressed to the breaking point,” Holder wrote. He noted that 259,000 civil cases and 75,000 criminal cases were filed in federal courts in 2009, enough to strain the court system even without almost one in eight judgeships sitting empty.

The problem is about to get worse. Because of projected retirements and other demographic changes, the number of annual new vacancies in the next decade will be 33 percent greater than in the past three decades. If the historic pace of Senate confirmations continues, one third of the federal judiciary will be vacant by 2020. If we stay on the pace that the Senate has set in the past two years — the slowest pace of confirmations in history — fully half the federal judiciary will be vacant by 2020.

As Justice Anthony Kennedy recently noted, the “rule of law is imperiled” if these important judicial vacancies remain unfilled. In 2005, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called on Congress to return to the way the Senate operated for over 200 years, and give nominees who have majority support in the Senate an up-or-down floor vote.

I agree. It’s time to address the crisis in our courts. It’s time to confirm these judges.

Holder’s reference to Justice Kennedy came from an article in the Los Angeles Times about the increasingly politicized confirmation process, and how the battles over nominees has “spread like a virus” from the appeals courts to the district courts, according to one observer. Here’s the entire passage pertaining to Justice Kennedy:

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, on hand for the 9th Circuit retreat, took note of the confirmation conflicts without assigning guilt to either political faction.

“It’s important for the public to understand that the excellence of the federal judiciary is at risk,” Kennedy said. “If judicial excellence is cast upon a sea of congressional indifference, the rule of law is imperiled.”

Holder’s piece also mentions Albert Diaz, the North Carolina judge up for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, who was nominated by Obama in November, passed (unanimously) out of committee in January, and, as I noted last week, now holds the dubious distinction of having the longest active wait for a confirmation vote.

In other confirmation news, over on Slate.com, Dahlia Lithwick and Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond and a friend of Sustained Outrage, took “one last crack at scaring your pants off with some strictly nonpartisan facts about the dangers of judicial vacancies” in their article “Vacant Stares: Why don’t Americans worry about how an understaffed federal bench is hazardous to their health?”

And the Alliance for Justice published a report yesterday that focused on judicial emergencies, noting that almost half (48) of the 103 current openings have been declared by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The 4th Circuit opening that Diaz has been nominated to is one of those emergencies, which means that West Virginia, as part of the 4th Circuit, is among the 30 states affected.

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Secret meetings, Sept. 24, 2010

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Today’s issue of the State Register contains only one meeting notice from the week that violated the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law.

The agency involved? The West Virginia Emergency Medical Services Technical Support Network.

As we’ve reminded folks before, the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting. Every week, we list the agencies that didn’t comply, thanks to the Secretary of State’s office, which kindly marks those agencies with an asterisk in the list of meetings published each Friday in the Register.

Here’s another installment of stories that earned our admiration this week:

The number of contractors killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the first half of 2010 is higher than the number of military fatalities, reported ProPublica.org, which compared U.S. Labor Department figures to information from the Pentagon. This marks the first time in U.S. history that corporate casualties in war zones — which are often under-reported — have outpaced military losses, the article notes. “A recent Congressional Research Service report found that the heavy use of contractors had exposed troops to supply shortfalls, wasted taxpayer money, and stirred anger among locals,” the article states.

An appeals court in Miami overturned a 33-year-old ban on gay adoption in Florida, finding it unconstitutional, the Miami Herald reported. The three-judge panel concluded that there is no “rational basis” for banning gay people from becoming adoptive parents. The article quotes the court’s opinion, which is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court: “Given a total ban on adoption by homosexual persons, one might expect that this reflected a legislative judgment that homosexual persons are, as a group, unfit to be parents. No one in this case has made, or even hinted at, any such argument. To the contrary, the parties agree ‘that gay people and heterosexuals make equally good parents.'”

A high-quality recording of the broadcast of Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, which ended with a walk-off home run by Bill Mazeroski, was found in Bing Crosby’s wine cellar, of all places, the New York Times reported. Crosby, a part-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, couldn’t bear to watch the games as they happened, and hired a company to make a recording of the NBC broadcast that he could watch later. During that era, television stations didn’t normally keep copies of games for their archives, so the newly discovered recording is a monumental find, not just for fans of the victorious Pirates and the losing New York Yankees, but for baseball fans everywhere.

The state Supreme Court this morning issued a significant decision that overturns a Jefferson County ruling that had threatened to significantly narrow the scope of West Virginia’s public records disclosure law.

Justice Menis Ketchum delivered the court’s opinion, which is posted here.

In one key point of law, the court found:

Under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), W.Va. Code, 29B-1-1, et seq., a “public record” includes any writing in the possession of a public body that relates to the conduct of the public’s business which is not specifically exempt from disclosure by W.Va. Code, 29B-1-4, even though the writing was not prepared by, on behalf of, or at the request of, the public body.

Recall from previous posts (see here, here and here) that Jefferson Circuit Judge David Sanders had ruled that The Shepherdstown Observer could not obtain copies of referendum petitions because the petitions were not created by the local government.

But justices concluded otherwise:

To adopt the position of the Clerk, the Legislature’s definition of “public record” would need to read: “’Public record’ means any writing . . ..” The Clerk’s suggested definition of a public record would severely limit the scope of the Act and the right of every person to “inspect or copy any public record of a public body in this state.” W.Va. Code, 29B-1-3(1) [1992]. It is obvious that the Legislature did not intend such a restrictive interpretation, and meant for the word “includes” to be given its common, ordinary and accepted meaning, which is that of a word of enlargement. Davis Memorial Hospital, 222 W.Va. at 684, 671 S.E.2d at 689 (“[t]he term ‘includ[es]’ in a statute is to be dealt with as a word of enlargement”).

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Bayer to pay $460,000 in deals with WVDEP

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Photo via AP by Tom Hindman, Charleston Daily Mail

We’ve just learned that Bayer CropScience has agreed to pay a total of nearly $460,000 in three separate settlements with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection over a variety of violations at the company’s Institute plant.

A copy of the company’s deal concerning waste management violations is posted here, and another file containing agreements concerning water and air pollution issues is posted here.

The waste violations concern previous problems that WVDEP cited concerning the company’s methyl isocyanate storage tank. We’ll have more on these WVDEP-Bayer deals in tomorrow’s Gazette …

West Virginia’s Supreme Court is scheduled tomorrow to hear an important case over the future of our state parks. Justices will consider an appeal of the June 2009 ruling by Logan Circuit Judge Roger Perry to allow natural gas drilling in Chief Logan State Park.

We’ve covered this issue before here, here, here and here, and also noted that this may be part of a larger push for more gas drilling on West Virginia’s public lands.

At tomorrow’s argument, the state Department of Environmental Protection will ask the justices to overturn Perry’s ruling, which itself overturned an earlier decision by DEP to deny drilling permits sought by Cabot Oil and Gas.  In December 2007, then-DEP Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer turned down Cabot’s applications, citing a section of state law that prohibits mineral extraction in state parks.

In a legal brief available online here, the DEP argues that Judge Perry was wrong to conclude that the agency had no authority to use that section of state law — which is actually included a section spelling out duties of the state Division of Natural Resources in overseeing parks — to deny Cabot’s drilling permits:

This matter boils down to fourteen words in a statute, section 20-5-2(b)(8) of the West Virginia Code, which instructs that the State “may not permit … the exploitation of minerals … for commercial purposes … in any state park.” There is nothing ambiguous or unclear about this statutory prohibition. The law does not provide that the State may only prevent the commercial exploitation of coal, oil, or natural gas within one of its parks if it happens to own the minerals itself, or that it must permit extraction if there have long been operating wells in the subject park or in others, or that the bar is without effect if the State has previously acquiesced in a deed or contract. To the contrary, the Legislature plainly decreed that, from the point at which it acted, no exploitation of minerals in any state park is to be allowed.

… The words are there in black and white, there is no gray.

In enforcing oil and gas laws, the DEP argues, agency officials are required by law to do so in a manner that “supplements and complements” the environmental policies and programs of other West Virginia agencies:

Thus, if DNR is prohibited by law from allowing the exploitation of natural resources underlying a State park because the Legislature has made a judgment that this sort of development cannot be squared with the need to protect the park’s unique surface aesthetic, that is precisely the sort of environmental policy that DEP is required to acknowledge and to which it must conform its own conduct.

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Crime, prison and public perception

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It’s election season, which means we’re likely to hear a fair amount of “tough on crime” talk from candidates trying to shore up their law-and-order credentials. But what do voters really think about crime and punishment?

A new study by the Pew Center on the States looked at that question, and came away with some interesting results. People want to keep their communities safe, and want criminals held accountable for illegal activities, the study noted. Makes sense. But it’s the third takeaway from the polling that really bears repeating:

Voters believe a strong public safety system is possible while reducing the size and cost of the prison system.

Here are some underlying attitudes that the study identified:

• Crime is a low concern; only 2 percent of voters rate crime or drugs/alcohol as the most important problem facing their state.

• Voters believe the primary purpose of prisons is to protect society (31 percent), followed by rehabilitate (25 percent) and punish offenders (20 percent).

• Voters want offenders held accountable for their actions, especially by ensuring they pay child support (79 percent cite as a high priority) and restitution to their victims (72 percent).

• Most voters feel safe in their communities, but 42 percent believe (mistakenly) that violent crime is up nationally.

• There are big perceptual differences in the way people approach violent and nonviolent offenders. From a series of focus groups we learned there is often considerable empathy expressed for nonviolent offenders and their life circumstances. Participants look for punishments that do not include prison, opting for community service or other punishments. Substance abuse treatment and job training are often considered appropriate.

The fact that two out of five Americans think that violent crime is on the rise made me go look at the FBI’s latest Unified Crime Report, particularly where violent crime is concerned. Here’s a graph of the national trend for the last five years:

And here’s a graph (admittedly for a longer time frame, 2000 to 2009) of the prison population in America, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

It is encouraging that the prison population in America is growing at a much slower rate. But it is still growing, which goes against the fact that violent crime is down. For that matter, property crimes are down too, according to the FBI.

It’s understandable that there might be a slight lag until the prison population begins to reflect the decreasing number of crimes committed. But really, why aren’t there fewer people in prison if there are fewer crimes being committed?

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