By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Criminal Justice and the Death Penalty (ideas suggested by Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking):
We need to take a fresh approach to crime and punishment. It’s been politically popular for some time in this country to punish criminals — to lock them up and make them suffer and to kill the worst of them. We are tied with Russia as the biggest incarcerator in the world, and we’re the only Western democracy that still executes its prisoners. It’s time now to refocus our efforts, to look at the root causes of crime instead of just punishing criminals. The best crime prevention is to fund drug education, drug rehabilitation, good public education and vocational training, to fund decent housing and child care and Head Start, to ensure that workers make a living wage. We must also abolish the death penalty. Democrats have always prided themselves on being an inclusive party, a party that reaches out across the economic spectrum and across racial and cultural divides. The death penalty embodies racism and classism. There is nothing more selective than the application of the death penalty. There are about 17,000 homicides in the U.S. each year. We select less than 2 percent of the people who committed those homicides for death. Who is chosen to die for their crimes? Eight out of 10 people on death row killed white people, while slightly over 50 percent of all homicide victims are people of color. And the people selected for death are disproportionately people of color, and poor. We have alternatives to the death penalty, ways of sentencing so that violent criminals are permanently removed from the street. The state should not be involved in replicating the very violence we say we are punishing. The state should not be involved in torture.
American drug policy has failed utterly. After a decadeslong “war on drugs,” most illegal drugs are cheaper and more available than ever before. A new drug policy must focus on reducing the harm associated with drugs rather than on the enormously expensive and ineffective goal of interdiction and prosecution. To that end, we should redirect government spending on drug control to public health (including expanded rehabilitation and harm-reduction programs) and effective, science-based education. We should make marijuana legally available for medical purposes and end most criminal penalties for marijuana. We should repeal mandatory minimum-sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and end incarceration for simple drug possession. We should end discrimination against people with past drug-abuse problems or offenses and end racially discriminatory drug policies and enforcement measures.
Education (ideas suggested by Vivian Gussin Paley, teacher, MacArthur Award recipient and author):
We need to commit, as a first priority, to small classes for all children, not just affluent children who can afford private school. Nothing is more important, particularly for elementary school children. Second, we need to create equal preschool opportunities for all children. At the same time, we need to provide rigorous training and access to training for all preschool teachers, and we need to pay them the same salaries as public school teachers working with older children.
No agency or institution in our society has a greater role in preparing citizens for the freedoms and responsibilities of a democratic society. That is a crucial mission. It is certainly not the only mission of our schools, and of course, grounding in the traditional building blocks of learning, such as computation, are important. But we can’t take as success the narrow elements of schooling demonstrated by standardized tests, which have no correlation with any human virtue we’d want to mention — not to civility, not to happiness, not to work habits and responsibility. Our current thrust toward narrowing our definition of success in school to success on tests is dangerous. We need to ensure that our schools are also places in which kids get involved in looking at solutions to really significant problems that connect with the outside world, to the workplace, to civility — and ultimately, to democracy.
It is time to commit to a sweeping environmental vision. Above all, let’s pledge to protect our diminishing wild lands. We have logged our old-growth forests, plowed our native prairies and drained our wetlands. Now let’s reverse that by funding the protection of 100 million acres of imperiled natural treasures. We must also discontinue logging national forests. We must rescue rivers, pulling down dams across the country that have destroyed fish and wildlife habitats and altered ecologies. While the 1970 Clean Air Act was an environmental milestone, we have learned much since then. We need to further tighten emission controls on such substances as mercury, dioxins and PCBs, and we must work to regulate these emissions around the globe, as pollutants don’t respect borders. Finally, we must halt urban sprawl by making cities more workable and livable through public transportation, expanded green space, funding for urban development and stronger land-use planning.