An Interview with Aaron Spring

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Aaron Spring, the Fordham student asked to leave a university coffee shop for wearing a “Make America Great Again Hat” answers whether businesses should be allowed to discriminate against people they disagree with politically and whether he would consider returning to the coffee shop.

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Does the TSA Go too Far?

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Has the federal government not yet overstepped its boundaries when it uses radiation to strip-search its citizens each time they fly and frisks them as they go to football games?

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Language Tricks and the Term “Social Justice”

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One particularly effective strategy of using language for these purposes is to equate a policy with what is moral. Protesters in North Carolina, who opposed the policies of former Governor Pat McCrory referred to their demonstrations in the state capital as “Moral Mondays.” Proponents of abortion have labeled their position “Reproductive Rights.”

Claiming that one’s position is the moral course of action can only be earned through persuasively addressing the best arguments of the other side.

For many, “justice,” “social” or otherwise, consists of a respect for ownership.

Although the term “social justice” has been used with increasing frequency in the past decade, the term has had a curious evolution from its original use in Catholic theology. Its adoption by left-leaning politicians is not particularly new, and President Franklin Roosevelt used the term as long ago as 1932. The term made a second appearance in President Harry Truman’s 1949 inaugural address before being popularized further by John Rawls in his influential 1971 book A Theory of Justice.

Today, it is used with such frequency that it has become an almost hallmark of Democratic Party campaigning, and college students sometimes use the term to explain their guiding political philosophy. “Social justice,” in its contemporary usage, means something to the effect of redistributing wealth so as to create a society where everyone has a comparable degree of property and opportunity. One group defines the modern term as a “doctrine of egalitarianism.” However, historically, “social justice,” has not carried connotations of government policies advocating the expansive reshuffling of wealth. Read more

The Dangers of Yale Renaming Its History

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People of Irish heritage might insist that the Seychelles rename its capital, Victoria, because its namesake queen reigned over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland during the Irish famine, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1million people and was caused, in large part, by British grain import practices.

History, by definition, is not just a reflection of what we happen to believe at the present. Rather, it tells the story of how our views and values have evolved, often for the better.

This past weekend, the Yale Corporation renamed one of its residential colleges for computer scientist Grace Hopper, dropping the name of John C. Calhoun, whose political philosophy included a defense of slavery. The decision came after months of campus protest over honoring Calhoun whose beliefs many find abhorrent. Tampering with the historic record, however has its dangerous side.

Similar demands for renaming buildings honoring historical figures have been made at other institutions including Princeton University, where students took issue with the use of President Woodrow Wilson’s name because he did not share modern sentiments on race and supported certain segregationist practices.

History is no doubt filled with unpleasant happenings. To demand, however, that events we find distasteful be removed from our consciousness is not only counterproductive but invites the normalization of whitewashing and selectively engaging with history. Read more

Does Mandatory Sentencing Cause More Harm Than Good?

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In a notable instance of bipartisanship, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) co-sponsored a bill last session seeking to address concerns about the harmful effects of mandatory minimum sentencing. If it had passed, the Justice Safety Valve Act would have allowed judges to deviate from mandatory minimums in instances where they deemed a lesser sentence to be warranted.

This policy was intended to alleviate reasonable concerns that the discretion afforded to judges resulted in varied sentences for defendants who had committed similar crimes. Although uniformity in punishment and equal treatment under law ought to be objectives of a functioning legal system, mandatory minimums routinely result in unnecessarily lengthy prison sentences, while also failing conclusively to deter crime.

Mandatory minimums, which are imposed by legislatures, prescribe specific sentences for certain offenses, particularly those involving drugs. This policy was intended to alleviate reasonable concerns that the discretion afforded to judges resulted in varied sentences for defendants who had committed similar crimes. Although uniformity in punishment and equal treatment under law ought to be objectives of a functioning legal system, mandatory minimums routinely result in unnecessarily lengthy prison sentences, while also failing conclusively to deter crime.

A government ought not deprive a citizen of his liberty except for when he poses a concrete risk to the security of others. Many of those sentenced under mandatory minimums are non-violent offenders, who would have received lighter sentences or even probation but were required to be incarcerated. Those familiar with this issue are likely aware of the now infamous case involving Weldon Angelos, a man with no prior convictions sentenced to fifty-five years in prison for selling marijuana while carrying a firearm. The U.S. District Court judge who was bound by the mandatory minimum when sentencing Angelos called the punishment “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.”

In 2010, 14.5 % of all federal sentences were the result of mandatory minimums. This statistic demands a reexamination of the practice of incarcerating innumerable Americans without consideration for the unique aspects of their particular transgression. Although mandatory minimums sought to eliminate the discretion that resulted in sentencing imbalances, such discretion still exists; however, it is has been transferred from judges to prosecutors. Prosecutors, who may have political incentive to accumulate convictions, have the nearly unrestricted liberty to determine whether or not to charge a defendant and also to choose the severity of the charges to levy.

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Mandatory sentencing has not been demonstrated to cause reductions in crime. In their paper “Imprisonment and crime,” Steven Durhlauf and Daniel Nagin cite a number of studies that call into question the link between severity of punishment and deterrence. For example, a report on mandatory sentencing in California found “little evidence of crime-prevention effects.” Among the assumptions behind the enactment of these laws was the belief that before committing a crime, an individual would act rationally and consider the severe sentence that may accompany the particular offense. However, it has been consistently argued that the certainty of punishment is a more effective deterrent than its severity. Also, critics contend that sentencing low-level drug distributors to long prison terms does not reduce crime because their role will be quickly filled by others.

Mandatory minimums imposed for drug offenses are also condemned for their tendency to create a “cliff” where a slight increase in the quantity possessed of a substance may result in a much lengthier sentence. For example, in North Carolina, trafficking 10 pounds of marijuana results in a 25 month mandatory sentence; however, committing the same offense with 9.9 pounds carries a relatively short sentence.

Acknowledging the high recidivism rate in the United States along with the relative frequency of violence in prisons, there is cause to avoid incarcerating offenders who are not a risk to public safety. Between 2011 and 2012, 4.0% of prison inmates were the victims of unwanted sexual contact. Trials as taxing as physical and sexual assault combined with often not receiving educational or vocational training while incarcerated makes rejoining communities and families quite difficult. More than three quarters of released inmates are arrested again within five years.

A 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that 63% of Americans now support replacing mandatory prison sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders with alternatives such as treatment for addiction. In 2001, only 47% of Americans had supported such a shift. Although to alter policy on the basis of shifting public opinion alone is hardly advisable, given concerns about granting unnecessary heed to the view of a current majority, it is likely that this change in opinion demonstrates that the public has become aware of the compelling reasons to discontinue the practice.

Although the Executive Branch has taken action to mitigate the pernicious consequences of mandatory sentencing, it is preferable that Congress and state legislatures put forward bills to reinstate judicial discretion. It is time to end the practice of confining Americans to prison for potentially disproportionately long sentences without considering the unique aspects of their cases.

This article appeared originally in the January 20, 2015 edition of The News & Observer.