In Human Rights News: The Farm Bill, Fracking, Michael Dunn Trial, and More

In Human Rights News: February 1 – 7, 2014

In this week’s human rights news we find issues related to the right to food and food justice, environmental justice, the right to water, gun violence, the justice system, the death penalty, poverty, reproductive rights, and the right to privacy.

NEW FARM BILL. Congress passed a farm bill on Tuesday and President Obama signed it into law on Friday. The first farm bill passed since 2008, it will further cut food stamp benefits by $8.7 billion over the next decade and continue to give substantial sums of money to agribusiness. According to MSNBC, 850,000 households across the nation will lose an average of $90 per month in food stamp benefits. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was one of nine Senate Democrats who voted against the bill. “This bill will result in less food on the table for children, seniors and veterans who deserve better from this Congress while corporations continue to receive guaranteed federal handouts,” she said in a statement last week. Although the bill will repeal $4.5 billion in annual direct cash payments to farming corporations, it will expand subsidies for crop insurance. The result: virtually the same amount of taxpayer money will get handed out to mostly wealthy farmers, according to David Dayen of the New Republic. A provision from Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) that would have reduced payouts for farmers with yearly incomes over $750,000 was stripped from the final bill. The Environmental Working Group has estimated that 10,000 crop insurance policy holders collect over $100,000 a year in subsidies while the bottom 80 percent of farmers (smaller operations) receive about $5,000 annually. Read more about how the farm bill affects food stamps here at MSNBC and how it affects agribusiness here at the New Republic.

FRACKING AND THE RIGHT TO WATER. The Guardian reported this week on new research suggesting that America’s oil and gas rush is depleting water supplies in the driest, most drought-prone parts of the country. The report by Ceres Investor Network revealed that three quarters of the almost 40,000 oil and gas wells drilled since 2011 are located in places where water is scarce. Fifty-five percent of those wells are located in areas suffering drought, which is problematic because it can take millions of gallons of fresh water to frack a single well. “Hydraulic fracturing is increasing pressures for water in some of the country’s most water-stressed and drought-ridden regions,” said Mindy Lubber, Director of Ceres’ Investor Network on Climate Risk. She warned that the oil and gas industry could be on a “collision course” with other water users unless stricter restrictions on water use are instituted. Although farming and cities are still the biggest water users, the report warned the additional demand for fracking in the Eagle Ford, at the center of the Texas oil and gas rush, is heavily impacting small rural communities’ access to water. Some small communities in Texas have already run out of water. In California, where a drought emergency was announced last month, 96 percent of new oil and gas wells in the state were drilled in areas where competition for water was already intense. The pattern is similar for other parts of the country engaged in the oil and gas rush. Access to clean drinking water and sanitation is recognized as a fundamental human right under international law. Read more here at the Guardian and click here for the Ceres report.

MICHAEL DUNN TRIAL BEGINS. On Thursday, opening statements were made in the court case of Michael Dunn, a 46-year-old white gun collector who is charged with murdering Jordan Davis, an unarmed 17-year-old African American. In November 2012, Dunn pulled up next to an SUV of black teenagers at a Jacksonville, Florida gas station. Dunn reportedly told his girlfriend, “I hate that thug music,” and asked the teens to turn their music down. After a heated argument, Dunn said that he saw Davis bend down in the car. Claiming fear that the teen was reaching for a weapon, Dunn used his handgun to fire four shots into the SUV. Even when the teens tried to escape, Dunn chased the vehicle and fired four to five more times. Davis was fatally shot in the backseat. No weapons were found in the SUV or the surrounding area. Think Progress writes that the case became even more racially charged when letters from Dunn were released by the State Attorney’s office revealing blatant prejudice toward African-Americans. Dunn is expected to use Florida’s Stand Your Ground defense, which authorizes violence by individuals who perceive a “reasonable” imminent threat to their life. In his opening statement, prosecutor John Guy argued that Dunn was never threatened by Davis; he was angry because he felt disrespected. The trial is expected to last about two weeks. Read more here at Think Progress, here at CBS News, and here at Democracy Now.

FOR-PROFIT PROBATION COMPANIES. Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a press release this week on their new report, “Profiting from Probation: America’s ‘Offender-Funded’ Probation Industry.” Each year, U.S. courts sentence several hundred thousand misdemeanor offenders to probation that is managed by private companies that collect their fees directly from the probationers. The poorest people often end up paying the most fees over time, and when they cannot pay, companies can and do secure their arrests. According to the report, these companies are rarely subject to meaningful oversight or regulation, and in some cases, they operate more like abusive debt collectors than probation officers. HRW researchers found numerous egregious cases in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama that illustrate the problem. In Augusta, Georgia, a man who confessed to shoplifting a $2 can of beer was fined $200 and eventually jailed for failing to pay over $1,000 in fines to his probation company. He was destitute at the time, selling his blood plasma twice a week to pay the fines. The report found it is often the case that a person is sentenced to probation, not because the court thinks he or she requires supervision, but so the court can task their probation companies with monitoring that person’s efforts to pay down fines and court costs. These offenders, many of whom are guilty only of minor traffic violations, would not be on probation at all had they been able to pay the costs up front. As senior researcher Chris Albin-Lackey put it, “some of America’s poorest counties are golden business opportunities for the industry precisely because so many residents struggle to pay off their fines.” Read more at Human Rights Watch and click here for the full report.

EXECUTIONS. The state of Missouri executed Herbert Smulls last Wednesday while his appeal was still pending. Smulls was talking to his lawyer on the phone when prison guards reportedly accosted him and took him to the execution chamber. He was injected with a toxic cocktail of drugs and pronounced dead nine minutes later. Ten minutes after he died, the Supreme Court informed the lawyers that they denied Smulls’ final stay request, meaning that Missouri executed a man before it was fully authorized to do so. “Just imagine what we’d be talking about today if the justices had granted Smulls’ stay request,” said Andrew Cohen, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. Read more at Think Progress. This Wednesday, Texas executed Suzanne Basso with a lethal injection of pentobarbital. The execution was carried out roughly an hour after the Supreme Court denied a last-day appeal from Basso’s lawyer, who argued she was not mentally competent. “This is a very sad situation because evidence proving my client’s innocence was never presented to the jury,” said her attorney, Winston Cochran. “Her attorney at the time did not present any evidence to that effect, such as her mental health issues and a history of child abuse.” The application of the death penalty is a human rights violation and should be abolished. Read more at Al Jazeera.

PTSD IN CIVILIAN TRAUMA VICTIMS. ProPublica posted an article this week titled, “The PTSD Crisis That’s Being Ignored: Americans Wounded in Their Own Neighborhoods.” An expanding body of research shows that Americans who experience traumatic injuries (e.g., gunshots, stab wounds) develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at frequencies comparable to war veterans. Like veterans with PTSD, civilians can experience flashbacks, nightmares, paranoia, and social withdrawal. Research shows that roughly eight percent of Americans develop PTSD at some point in their lives. The problem seems to be concentrated in communities with high violent crime rates, such as poor, mostly African-American pockets of Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, and Philadelphia. One study in Atlanta by the Grady Trauma Project interviewed over 8,000 inner-city residents. About two thirds of those interviewed said they had been violently attacked and half knew someone who had been murdered. At least one third of the interview participants suffered symptoms consistent with PTSD at some point, although lead investigator Kerry Ressler called that a “conservative estimate.” The article proposes that hospital trauma centers, which are constantly treating victims of neighborhood violence, could help address the issue. ProPublica surveyed one top-level trauma center in each of the 22 cities with the highest homicide rates in the country, and just one, the Spirit of Charity Trauma Hospital Center in New Orleans, has a practice of screening all seriously injured patients for PTSD. Experts say that hospitals should provide all trauma patients, at minimum, with basic education about PTSD, their rational being, if victims understand what is happening in their minds and bodies, they will be more prepared to handle it in a healthy way. Read more at ProPublica.

ABORTION RATE LOWEST IN 40 YEARS. The number of abortions conducted in the United States has fallen to the lowest level in the last four decades, according to a new study by the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health organization that supports legal access to abortion. Al Jazeera reported this week on the study, which suggests the drop is more a result of increased contraception use than increased restrictions on abortion access. Rachel Jones, the lead author of the report, said that they did not find a correlation between the decline in abortions and either the diminished number of abortion providers or the new state abortion restrictions. Instead, it appeared that more women and couples were using highly effective long-acting reversible forms of contraception. Jones also said the recession led many women and couples to delay or avoid having children. However, an earlier report by the Guttmacher Institute suggests that unwanted pregnancies are becoming increasingly concentrated among low-income women. According to that report, the incidence of unintended pregnancy for women living under the poverty line is over five times as high as the rate for women in the highest income category. In addition to restricting abortion access in recent years, many states have dramatically slashed funding to publicly-funded services such as Planned Parenthood that are vital for helping low-income women avoid pregnancy. Read more about the abortion decline here at Al Jazeera and click here for the new report. Read more about unwanted pregnancy among low-income women here at Think Progress.

RIGHT TO PRIVACY. Talking Points Memo posted an article this week about state lawmakers throughout the country who are proposing bills to limit the powers of law enforcement to track and monitor people. The article’s author, Nigel Duara, writes that these efforts in at least 14 states are a straightforward message to the federal government: “If you don’t take action to strengthen privacy, we will.” Proponents argue that the proposed measures will overhaul the definition of digital privacy and help enhance oversight of certain surveillance tools used by law enforcement agencies. Critics of mass surveillance say that these tools mirror federal surveillance technology. The proposals include a Colorado bill that would restrict the retention of pictures from license plate readers, an Oregon measure that would allow cellphone location data to be obtained in “urgent circumstances” only, and a Delaware bill that strengthens privacy protections for text messages. State law makers argue these measures are necessary because technology has advanced to the point that police can digitally track a person’s every move. On the other side of the argument, Josh Marquis, a District Attorney in Oregon, says that the legislators’ concerns are misplaced. According to Marquis, state law enforcement agencies are not aggregating the kind of metadata the NSA collects. Instead, local police departments are using the technology to monitor drug cartels and lure sex predators into online conversations, he says. Read more at Talking Points Memo.

RECORD NUMBER OF EXONERATIONS. Al Jazeera reported this week that an exceptionally high number of exonerations granted in 2013 reflects a trend of law enforcement officials being more willing to consider and act on non-traditional claims of innocence (for example, claims involving light sentences or claims in cases where defendants had accepted a plea bargain). The total of 87 people walking free after being wrongly convicted surpassed the 83 exonerations granted in 2009, the previous high year, according to the report by the National Registry of Exonerations, an organization launched in 2012 in a collaborative effort between the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. These cases include judgments based on guilty pleas by defendants who chose the plea bargain option to avoid the risk of extremely harsh sentencing after trial. “The pressure to plead guilty is huge,” Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, told the Guardian. The most noticeable trend was an increase in exonerations for non-violent crimes, although violent crimes such as murder and sexual assault make up the majority of exonerations each year. According to the Al Jazeera article, the trend could be related to sweeping justice system reforms announced by Attorney General Eric Holder in August 2013. Holder said the system was “in too many ways, broken,” and focused particularly on non-violent drug offenders in the grips of the five-decade-old “war on drugs.” Read more at Al Jazeera and click here for the National Registry of Exonerations report.

in human rights news, farm bill, suzanne basso, herbert smulls, PTSD, probation, fracking, abortion, surveillance, exoneration, Jordan Davis, Michael Dunn