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Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker’

Circe Hamilton (Photo Angel Franco, the New York Times)

Non-custodial fathers know too well how inflexible the justice system is regarding their  rights and their duties. Seeing your children more? Having more input into the life or your children? Yes, if it suits the custodial parent, i.e. Mom. Loosen child support payments so that you can make a living? No way man. For support magistrates, child support payments’ rules – the percentage of your income you pay in child support- are like the second amendment for the N.R.A. Ain’t no exception, no extenuating circumstances. A good father is a father who pays.

But justice is no different than education or health care in the US. There is the bare minimum that commoners get and there is what rich folks have access to. That’s actually quite amazing how the justice system can become imaginative and creative with the law when you fuel lawyers with cash.

Take Circe Hamilton and Kelly Gunn’ story from Ian Parker in the May 22 issue of the New Yorker. In 2016, before Labor Day, Hamilton was about to move back to the UK with her adopted son, Abush. But her project did not happen as expected. She was contacted by the lawyer of her ex-partner, Kelly Gunn, who had asked a New York court to recognize her as one of Ambush’ parents, grant her joint legal and physical custody. In the interim, Gunn was seeking a restraining order and Hamilton could forget about going back to England.

In their wildest dreams, New York State divorcing fathers would think of getting joint custody, let alone preventing their ex to travel so that they could see their kids. But Gunn had deep pockets, and that certainly helped to unleash the creativity of Chemtob, her lawyer, who saw the case of Hamilton versus Gunn as “Kramer vs Kramer 2016.” Yet Gunn’s claims to be recognized as a parent are not far from frivolous. She lost interest in adoption after Hamilton and her separated. However Hamilton and Gunn remain friends and keep in touch and  when the boy appears, Gunn starts growing feelings for him and as Hamilton puts it, “she wants ownership.” She also has the means to assert her influence in her ex-partner life. She provided an apartment and a car, which Hamilton perhaps made the mistake of accepting.

In any case, Gunn’s petition was denied at the beginning of this year. The judge argued that “the preconception plan (of adoption) could create a path to parenthood but that plan had not continued unabated.” Gunn is appealing this decision because she says this is a case of discrimination against gays. I think she would not be receptive to the fact that there has been an ongoing discrimination in family courts against fathers whose parenting plans were “abated against their will.”

Hamilton and Abush still cannot travel to England.

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Alfred Woodfox (Photo Mark Hartman, The New Yorker)

Albert Woodfox (Photo Mark Hartman, The New Yorker)

Imagine the typical science-fiction starting point: A man comes back to earth after forty years (he was frozen or whatever) and assesses the state in which he finds the world now.

The man is Albert Woodfox, and the science-fiction genre could hardly come up with a story like his. The man spent 43 years in solitary confinement, most of it in Angola (Louisiana) an infamous Louisiana penitentiary and the largest maximum-security prison in the country. Woodfox fell through  all of the cracks of the American justice system: racial prejudice, sloppiness and high tolerance for violence. He served most of his time in Angola with  Herman Wallace, another Black Panther, who died right after getting out of prison in 2013.

Woodfox, along with Herman Wallace, Chester Jackson and Gilbert Montague were convicted for the murder of Brent Miller, a guard at Angola, on April 17 1972. There was no incriminating evidence, but a white jury delivered an expeditious conviction. God knows how one stands sane for more than forty years in a minuscule cell. Rachel Aviv, in her January 16 story in the New Yorker, “Surviving Solitary Confinement,” mentions a psychologist that was afraid of “how well Woodford had been adapting to painfulness.” From Aviv’s story, Woodfox’ survival stems from an extraordinary combination of strength of character, stringent discipline, rigorous control of his emotions and his desires, and sense of belonging to the Panthers and its ethos. Whatever the way he managed, what comes out Woodfox’s story is that he is a man, and a dignified one.

Freed at sixty-nine years old, Woodfox is now developing the relation he never had with his daughter, Brenda. He also happens to cast a stern look at the development of racial relations all the years he was locked up: “It’s the same old America…We have to protect Black Lives Matter like we did not protect the Black Panther Party.”

I am afraid that the seventy-year old child President of the United States, who claimed “that torture absolutely works” will give a  thought to rescinding the practice of solitary confinement, let alone reforming the US justice system.

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Justice is really not America’s stuff. Perhaps because politicians don’t care.  As decrepit, insufficiently founded and poorly functioning as the justice system is, there is little interest in reforming it. Fixing the justice system is never a priority amongst the topics of a presidential campaign. At least,not the campaigns I have attended since 1992.

Last night, out of curiosity, I googled the sentence “justice reforms in the campaign of Donald Trump” and in the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Not surprisingly, there is nothing of interest on Trump’s side. The poor fellow does not even understand the issue. For him, “justice” is about crime and punishment. Check it out.  The entries you get are “lethal injection is too comfortable”, “tough on crime”, “taking care of the bad dudes.” In other words, non- sense that have produced the poor outcomes the country is dealing with like massive incarceration rate,  and incarceration of the wrong guys, like Kalief Browder. Kalief Browder was innocent, refused to take a plea, spent three years in Rikers Island waiting for a trial, most of the time in solitary confinement and ended up committed suicide. That’s for the criminal justice system. With the family court system, divorced fathers have to go through marathon trial that last more than six years. And they loose access to their kids in the process.

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Kalief Browder (Photo ABC News)

With Clinton, we are in the realm of glittering marketing. One entry in Hillary for America site is “Racial Justice.” There, in a page with the  heading “America’s long struggle with race is far from finished,” you get a list of what President Clinton will do if elected. All of these goals are intrinsically worth pursuing. I see however two problems tough with this program that bear with credibility:  President Bill Clinton has implemented policies, like the 1996  welfare reforms- that have screwed the poor – blacks among others- left and right. That Hillary Clinton, who has not taken issue with the policies of her husband, may now stand as a champion of “racial justice” is a breathtaking legerdemain. Second, there does not seem to be much money involved in Hillary’s program, besides that for “doubling the funding for the US Department of Justice Collaborative Reform program” whose aims is to improve and train police practices. It is obviously necessary, but well short of the task.

What I ‘d like to see in a candidate’s program to reform justice is significant resources to fix the structural flaws of the system. Let me give you an example.  Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who represented hundreds of people on death row pro bono. He has taken care of those who have been unfairly treated by the justice system for lack of means, lack of education, racial prejudice etc. He moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson also created an organization called Equal Justice Initiative, which now operates nationally and employs 17 full-time attorneys. The financial future is temporarily secured thanks to …grants from private foundations.

When the work of organizations such as Equal Justice Initiative will not rest on charitable donations but on taxpayers money, there will be some hope the justice system will be seriously reformed… and racial justice taken care of as a result.

 

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There is apparently in this country a building consensus on reforming the criminal justice system.

Photograph Gilles Clarke, Getty Images

Photograph Gilles Clarke, Getty Images

Perhaps it started with the Milwaukee Experiment, which Jeffrey Toobin related in a May 11 article in the New Yorker.  John Chisholm, the District Attorney in Milwaukee County, singlehandedly decided to correct the imbalance of the American justice system which sends a disproportionate amount of young Afro-American people for minor drug offenses in prisons.  Chisholm started to ask that prosecutors’ success be measured by their performance in reducing prison’s population, and not the opposite.

In New York State, the “Raise the Age” movement has focused on changing the law that sends juvenile offenders in jail at 16. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann, Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, has been advocating for five years to raise the criminal age in New York to 18.  Lippman was heard by Governor Cuomo, who is now trying to gather support for his bill to raise the criminal age.

Interestingly enough, as the readers of this blog well know, a 16 year old is a criminal in New York State but not exactly an adult before 21, since non-custodial parents have to pay child support until their offspring reaches this age. Consistency would require raising the criminal age to 21, or freeing non-custodial parents from child support obligations when their children are 18.

This brings me to my next point. A very interesting article in the April 20 New York Times describes how divorced fathers -mostly in North Carolina and Georgia- go in and out of jail for child support debt, are denied jobs for that reason, and are drawn to poverty for life. The title tells it all: “Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Jobs. Repeat.”

It is definitely a good thing to empty jails of young people, provided one does not keep filling them with their fathers, thanks to unfair child support laws. I can’t wait to hear Governor Cuomo’s thoughts or Hillary Clinton’s on that one.

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I was listening yesterday to Senator Marco Rubio on “Face the Nation” pondering if the 21 th century would be another American century. Let’s take a shot at the answer. Whether it is or not, it will not look good for the poor. As everybody knows, we all live in a classless society. That’s tough luck for those who do not make it to the middle class, because that’s all there is. It has to be because they don’t belong there, and they just have themselves to blame to it. It has not always been the dominant way of thinking; in the 1960’s, President Johnson launched a war on poverty, the underpinnings of which was that being poor was just not a question of failing to seize opportunities that were out there. Those days, one is under the impression that a new war has been waged: the war against the poor.

Let’s be fair though. There are still good folks who want to help the poor; the banks, at least. The poor have a lot of bad habits and misgivings, we all know that: they have children out of wedlock, they don’t read the fine print of a mortgage (banks did not mind much until 2008), and on top of everything, they dare to gamble, which baffles economists. With the opportunities they have, how can they? Poor chaps can’t figure out that the way out of poverty is to save. According to Patricia Cohen from the New York Times, banks have found the way to get the poor to save, willy-nilly: banks- credit unions to be exact- have created prize-linked savings accounts. You save and can earn the jackpot, from time to time.

That’s more or less all poor- lovers there is. In the last decades, the tolerance for the poor has been running thin, thanks to do-gooders from the left and the right who blabber about personal responsibility to scrub social programs from public expenditures. Take the issue of universal Pre-K in New York, which is critical for the poor, as it helps level the playing field between their kids and the rest of the kids in terms of access to education. That universal pre-K be founded without tax increases, but by the growth of the New York State casino economy, as Governor Cuomo wants it to be, means that the gambling suckers – the poor- will pay for the education of their kids. God forbid, the middle class – and forget the rich- won’t have to chip in.

Moving South, one reaches a new frontier in the detestation of the poor. The great State of Alabama for instance has implemented experiments  aiming at being ‘more efficient’ at collecting what the poor owe, like tickets for driving without insurance. The problem, as Sarah Stillman in the June 23 New Yorker article tells, is that these collection agencies are private for-profit firms, whose charge the hell they want in supervision fees without oversight from the courts. The outcome is folks ending up in jail with more debt, which defeats both justice and the goal of trimming public expenses.

There is something I have been chewing since I started coping with US family justice. 1. Justice is perhaps the most important of the functions of a state. 2. You need to respect the folks you are providing justice to, or forget about it.

 

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Let's Get Honest! Blog: Absolutely Uncommon Analysis of Family & Conciliation Courts' Operations, Practices, & History

'A Different Kind of Attention Develops Sound Judgment' | 'Suppose I'm Right Here?...' (posted 3/23 & 3/5/2014). Over 680 posts, Public-Interest Investigative Blogging On These Matters Since 2009.