Where did our souls go?

Saturday morning I covered the Wiregrass Festival in Reidsville for work and true to form, I got lost leaving to head home. I went east, instead of west, and ended up out on Highway 147 outside Reidsville city limits.

If you’re not familiar with Reidsville, it is home to two of Georgia’s prisons: Georgia State Prison – a maximum security facility and former home to the electric chair for Georgia – and Rogers State Prison – a medium security prison with just under 1,500 male inmates. Both are visible from the highway, but there is nothing to see.

The large white stone sign on Wikipedia is nothing like the real life image. Surrounded by high, sharp fences, the outdoor areas were a dusty brown. The brick was faded and even the sidewalks on the outside were dilapidated. Guard towers in every corner shadowed the buildings and the grounds. The parking spots for the Warden and just about every powerful position below him were vacant, and even though it was a humid 85 degrees outside, the premises just looked cold. It’s nothing like you see in the movies.

It was upsetting and brought tears to my eyes. If it’s this ugly and dingy on the outside, what is it like on the inside? I was upset for the *one* person I personally know to be in there wrongfully. I was upset for everyone who has been in there after a wrongful conviction – or even serving time for a crime without a victim. I was even upset for the ones that are guilty – “the monsters.”

Before we go any further, this isn’t an anti-prison post. I am not a bleeding-heart liberal. I am not anti-punishment. I believe in a justice system – maybe not ours – but I believe we should have one. I think there should be a system of restitution, but as it currently operates, I don’t believe our system is one of reformation. There are dangerous people in the world and laws are in place to handle them. Prison shouldn’t be a cake walk. It shouldn’t be luxurious with high-thread count sheets and delicious foods and personal trainers. It should, however, be used sparingly.

But I want to know when we decided we wanted to forget these people and why we stopped praying for these people? When did we start saying “Hooray!” when someone’s life is changed because they chose not to make good decisions or are incapable of doing so? We all want beautiful communities filled with wonderful people and souls as good as ours. Does prison accomplish that? For some, the punishment probably isn’t nearly harsh enough, for others, it changes the course of their lives forever. Should we revel in that?

Not far from the beautiful sprawling farmland and the quaint downtowns of Small Town America are people we are ignoring as part of our society. We place them out on a county road to pretend it isn’t happening. No one has to see it. No one has to hear it. No one has to think about it.  And we do it in the name of justice. On a Saturday, the small parking lot sits half empty because even the family members of some of these inmates have forgotten them.

Yes, the Bible tells us “an eye for an eye, but it also tells us much about our enemies – and many consider the prison population to be our enemies, across the board terrible. In Acts 7: 60 – And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” and Philippians 2:3-4 – Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

It didn’t used to be like this. We’ve always believed in punishment, yes, but we didn’t find it heartwarming or rewarding to watch someone be locked away. What’s changed? Surprisingly, it’s society – not the victims. If you turn on the television, forgiveness and compassion are overflowing. The families of the victims of the Charleston Church shooting were publicly offering forgiveness within days of the massacre and that doesn’t seem to be uncommon. It’s us – the regular people – that are the problem.

The criminal justice system will not see any reform until perception changes on the outside – and that starts with you and me. It’s interesting: the description of Georgia State Prison says renovations and expansions have taken place because of the “growing crime rate,” but the only thing that’s grown is the number of things we’ve made punishable by prison time. We’ve allowed that.

There will always be terrible people in this world and many of them belong in prison for their crimes. No one can deny that. But just because they belong there doesn’t mean we should banish them from our hearts and minds forever. That’s what leads to social injustice…for everyone.

Military Pension Tax Exemptions a Terrible Idea

Freshman legislator Jesse Petrea (R-Savannah) announced earlier this week that he plans to introduce a bill that will exempt military exemptions from Georgia income tax. According to Walter Jones, Petrea “said he would pay for his plan by boosting the tax on cigarettes 28 cents per pack, leaving the 65-cent total below the national average of $1.60. That shouldn’t put Georgia retailers at a disadvantage, but it would help discourage some youngsters from taking up smoking and developing an unhealthy habit.”

So, not only will this bill help veterans and help attract retiring veterans to Georgia, it’s going to help the children as well. Great.

As a purist, I am against any more income tax exemptions or sales tax exemptions. And I am againsteye roll every single one we have on the books. Exemptions don’t provide for limited government – they actually make for more government. “Exemption” essentially means special treatment, and while I firmly believe our veterans should always be our first priority, this is an instance where the “solution” either needs to be applied broadly or not at all.

The tax code in Georgia is already overflowing with exemptions. Pipe organ sales. Mercedes-Benz. Film industry tax credits. They all serve a purpose at some point, but never sunset and then the tax code just complicates more and more and more.

The worst part about this is that no one in their right mind will have the ability to vote NO unless they want to see a primary opponent sending mail pieces claiming they ‘voted against veterans.’ The horror of principles of limited government.

The logic is circular and only perpetuates a problem we continue to face every cycle.

  1. Man introduces feel-good tax exemptions for a class of people
  2. Exemption reduces revenue
  3. Budget doesn’t get reduced
  4. Shortfall
  5. Need more revenue
  6. Create new tax
  7. Complicate tax code

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

I am not advocating for the Georgia General Assembly to continue to raise taxes, and I am certainly not pushing for our veterans to be punished. But sin taxes cannot be our fallback, unless the plan is to have alcohol selling for $120 a liter and pack of cigarettes to be priced at a mere $25/pack.

All this will do is create more problems somewhere else on down the line. But on a positive note, it will give anyone who voted for the $900 million tax increase for transportation a little boost with constituents.

Which Georgia Republican Will Take Up Transgender Policies?

The firestorm stemming from the early release of transgendered inmate Ashley Diamond is dwindling but the flame fanning when it comes to the bigger picture of transgenders in Georgia is still wildly ablaze.

While serving a sentence for robbery, Ashely Diamond, who was born a male but is now living life as a female filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice after the Georgia Department of Corrections stopped administering hormone therapy. Georgia and federal law both prohibit incarceration facilities from stopping medication that was part of an inmates lifestyle prior to entering prison, however, furthering a transition through surgery or additional hormone drugs is not permitted. Once the DoJ ruled the Georgia DoC must administer the hormones, Diamond filed another lawsuit alleging repeated rape and assault charges. Shortly after, Diamond was released after serving only 3 of the 12 year prison sentence. The Georgia DoC says early release is common, but others speculate that Diamond was released because no one knew what to do with her and the lawsuits and negative publicity seemed unending.

The majority of the issues around Diamond’s case arose because Diamond was living life as a female…in an all-male prison.

This may have been the first case of its kind in Georgia, but it certainly won’t be the last. The decision to either enact a law, or push for the Georgia Department of Corrections to establish a policy, is on the shoulders of Republicans in the Georgia General Assembly. While the issue certainly isn’t sexy, or politically expedient, it is necessary.

It becomes complicated when you consider that neither the state of Georgia nor the federal government have enacted any type of policies that address things like this. It’s even messier when you consider there’s no manual that describes where a person needs to be in the transition process to be recognized by the state as another gender. What needs to happen? Do birth certificates get re-issued? Amended? What goes on with Social Security cards? While these are federal issues in some cases, what has to occur in order for a person to be legally recognized as another gender so that they are assigned to the appropriate prison facility? Where do basic human rights start and stop with transgendered adults?

What obligation does the state have in protecting these people?

As I have previously mentioned, we are far beyond societal resistance. Faith and morals can convict you in your own home, but our state needs to catch up…and quick. Otherwise, we quickly open the door for lawsuits when inmates are raped and assaulted in prison because of our own decision to place them at risk. It can and will happen. What’s worse is that is spans far beyond prisons.

The prison stories seem to be unendingHospitals. Schools. School bathrooms. It will cost Georgians millions, and even if the state wins, that costs money, too.

It is no longer about whether or not you agree. This isn’t a private business baking a cake. This is a state-funded operation that is going to cause problems continuously if something isn’t done. Permanent isolation? Separation dorms for transgendered people? Try something. Start somewhere. Otherwise, lawsuit settlements are paid by taxpayers. We can’t keep turning a blind eye simply because we don’t know what to do. Georgia needs to work toward a policy. Now.

Gov. Deal Bakes Cake, Offers Bites to Eat, Too

Yesterday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Confederate Memorial Day has quietly been removed from state calendars along with Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Both memorial days will now be referred to using a neutral term of ‘state holiday.’

While I’m not certain I support the elimination of memorial days that are, whether we like it or not, integral parts of our state history, I’m more disappointed by the fact that the elimination of the holiday has zero consequences for the employees.

From the AJC:

Gov. Nathan Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the state still intends to celebrate the days even if it doesn’t “spell it out by name.”

“There will be a state holiday on that day,” he said. “Those so inclined can observe Confederate Memorial Day and remember those who died in that conflict.”

Democrat legislators, liberal groups around the state (and nation), and even some employees have long been lobbying for their Confederate-based state-recognized paid days off to be eliminated – at least the language of the holidays.

This decision is solely in the hands of the Governor until the Georgia legislature passes something concrete and permanent, and based on Deal’s most recent announcement, it seems those holidays will cease to exist as the history books now read. As for the state employees…they will still have their paid day off.

Here’s how this works: If you aren’t going to recognize the day for what it really means, it isn’t necessary to give state employees a day off. We close banks and government agencies for MLK Jr. Day, New Year’s Day, and Christmas, and we formally recognize the Holocaust Memorial Day and President’s Day. George Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday are all on various calendars. They’re on the calendar because they represent an era or person in history.

History shouldn’t just be erased because of knee-jerk reactions from public dissent. More thought should have been put into this issue. A loud minority is clamoring about the existence of Confederate holidays, memorials, statues, and figureheads and managed to become loud enough for the Governor to hear on this one. Action was taken, and will likely continue to be taken. But it should be done slowly and it should be evaluated for what it is.

Now, something deemed “terrible” was removed from a written calendar, disguised as something else, and used as a reward for employees.

You don’t get to have your cake and eat it, too. Either recognize the memorial days for what they are and give the employees their paid time off, or don’t. Please don’t play puppeteer. .


Photos below courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

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“I’m Sorry I Raised Your Taxes”

We’ve all heard about it by now. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston plans to introduce the “Pastor’s Protection Act” during the next legislative session.

Let’s call a spade a spade. This is actually the Legislator’s Protection Act. Don’t be fooled, people. This is an apology, an olive branch, a caucus career saver, the “I’m sorry I ran over your dog” bouquet of flowers. The ice pack the punk offers you after slugging you in the jaw.

The same man who spent two sessions making sure the religious liberty bills never hit the House floor for a vote now wants to swoop in Cavalia style with a unicorn horn to the tune of Flash! by Queen and introduce this bill to appease a very specific group of the Republican electorate. To save the souls of the Republicans who went out on a limb to appease him and the Governor this spring.

Forget about Representative Sam Teasley and Senator Josh McKoon. Forget about the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the various groups of united religious denominations, and any Georgian of faith

You can close your jaw. I’m telling the truth. I know I’m telling the truth because folks on both sides of the issue will admit this is the least necessary aspect of the religious liberty controversy. It would only apply to clergy. Not churches. Not businesses. It wouldn’t do much. This is an easy way out for a feel good bill.

While this certainly isn’t a religious liberty bill, the issues have the same roots. This initiative comes on the heels of the Supreme Court decision that has the far religious right up in arms. The same religious right that was mortified by the legislative priority list for the General Assembly last session, what with the taxes, the expanded government, the strippers. The same religious right that turns out election after election. Religious liberty is a hot button issue that will be at every candidate forum come spring 2016.

And the truth is that Republicans who voted in favor of the $900 million tax increase for transportation faced heat at home. (Unless they quit or took an appointment.) Constituents are angry, the grassroots and Tea Party folks are still nailing them to the wall and when polls came out illustrating that voters overwhelmingly didn’t care for the tax, it was clear that the Republican caucus needed a plan.

The truth is that there are plenty of people who would appear more qualified and genuine carrying a bill like this. But it isn’t about that. It’s about an agenda. An agenda that will protect a a particular group of the caucus.

It isn’t supposed to be about who gets the credit. It’s supposed to be about quality legislation and doing the right thing. And if that means Ralston carries this bill, so be it.

But this, this is why people hate politics. It’s manipulative, calculated, and disingenuous. It’s everything they say it is and more. And worse. And then the voters have to make a decision. What is our priority when we head to the ballot box? Civil liberties? Or lower taxes? Because only some Republican districts get representatives with both.

The gun collection no one is talking about

In my contributions to the non-metro Atlanta news site, AllOnGeorgia, I have the unique opportunity to write about Second Amendment issues on a daily basis. Some days this is a good thing and other days, extremely disappointing to read what is happening around the country, mostly because of one disturbing trend that is publicized, but going almost completely unnoticed by Second Amendment supporters.

Gun buy back programs. These events, where local governments and/or police departments purchase firearms from citizens is surging right now and no one is batting an eye. Legal and illegal handguns and rifles are being collected with hardly any mention of where the taxpayer money is coming from, where the weapons are going, or what organization is pushing the initiative to remove so many weapons from the streets.

Let’s take a look at a few of the more recent buy back events:

Interestingly enough, Mississippi doesn’t allow buy backs because of a law that stipulates taking money in exchange for firearms violates the firearm dealer/auctioneer provision. Does that mean that all the other states just bypass similar laws because it’s the police/government doing it?

As you can see, this isn’t concentrated in one particular area of one state or region of the country. It’s not limited to blue states. It’s happening everywhere. Of course, this is all voluntary. But why? If, for the first time in decades, more people support gun rights over control, why is this happening?

Study after study shows one of three (or all three) things:

  1. Buy backs don’t reduce crime.
  2. They don’t reduce the number of guns in a community by even a marginal number.
  3. The people likely to commit crimes aren’t hopping in line for a gift card or a comic book in exchange for their firearm.

Aside from wanting to know what kind of fool would turn in an expensive handgun, rifle or higher caliber weapon for a mere $50 or $100, why would anyone want to turn in your weapon even if they were being compensated for the value of the gun?  Why not just sell it outright? Why turn it into the police or the very government that stands to threaten Second Amendment rights at any given time? Why…when it isn’t known where the weapons end up.

We all balk at initiatives in Congress for things like proposed legislation that would offer tax credits if you get rid of your firearms. Tell me why that sentiment isn’t shared in this instance.

For-Profit Prisons: A Breeding Ground for Corruption, Scandal, and Tax Dollar Waste

Yesterday, after months of protests by students, Columbia University in New York became the first university to divest in for-profit prison corporations after acknowledging ownership of over 230,000 shares of Corrections Corp. of America – though they still have shares in a British prison company. The university has capped their annual investment in the shares as a protest to the social repercussions of mass incarceration.

If you watch Orange is the New Black on Netflix, you’re no stranger to the for-profit prison system problems as it basically unraveled from the top down during the most recent season. While the show is obviously fictitious, there is no shortage of underlying truth in the messaging. For-profit prisons are a breeding ground for corruption, human rights violations, and excessive violence within cell walls.

How it works: Corporations make money off of the incarceration of criminals. While one may immediately jump to the entrepreneurial side of the argument, that bubble bursts quickly when you consider that companies are earning profits based on the sheer number of people they are locking up. In order for states to pass off the contracts to a corporation, states must sign a contract guaranteeing 20 years of at least 90 percent occupancy in the facility. For example, In Arizona, there are three facilities that have contracts that require 100% occupancy. The state is on the hook to fill the prisons, otherwise, they pay the corporation for empty beds.

A few other enlightening points to consider:

  • Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia have the highest occupancy guarantee requirements, all between 95-100%
  • 65% of private prisons have occupancy quotas
  • It doesn’t say taxpayers money. Crime in Colorado has dropped by 1/3 over the last 10 years but private prisons have increased Colorado’s bill by $2 million
  • Quotas don’t ensure better quality. Many facilities are overcrowded, don’t have secure doors, and are short-staffed.
  • Private prisons are currently responsible for 6% of state prison populations and 16% at the federal level.
  • Private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 in 130 facilities.
  • Private corporations now bring in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue.

Think about that last one for a moment. Prison companies make $3.3 billion off of taxpayers every year to privatize facilities. And one more thing : these entities have funneled more than $10 million to political candidates and $25 million in lobbying efforts since 1989.

No, the government doesn’t do (m)any things right and generally speaking, outsourcing is a good thing. But not here. Not with this. Not when there is so much to lose. No, this isn’t an apologist’s blog for the prison system. Prison should be uncomfortable. But it shouldn’t make the public uncomfortable because from a societal standpoint we are doing something wrong. We cannot afford to cut corners and costs at the expense of public trust.

The ACLU revealed studies that indicate higher risk factors for for-profit prisons than their public counterparts and because of such, one giant corporation – Corrections Corporation of America – has lost 4 contracts in the last month. The company has admitted to falsifying 4,800 hours of staffing records, incorrect billing, and is currently under investigation by police in Idaho. This follows two closures in Texas. Texas, y’all. Let that sink in a moment. If this is what they’re admitting to doing, imagine what is still under the rug.

In 2008, the Idaho facility found that the prison run by CCA had FOUR TIMES as many prisoner-on-prisoner assaults as the other seven Idaho facilities COMBINED. Why? It wasn’t because of the population.

The operation is counter intuitive to what Republicans and Democrats are pushing from a policy perspective when it comes to criminal justice reform. Organizations like the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops, the United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church USA have all condemned the practice of for-profit prisons stating it misdirects rehabilitation to instead focus on the bottom line.

It’s one thing to be tough on crime. You can do so while not overcriminalizing and overpopulating prisons – moderation in everything. But, do we really find it acceptable that a group of people have so much to gain from another group of people remaining part of the system?

Conservatives of Georgia, Are You Listening?

Whether it’s while running for city council or for Congress, activists rallying at a conference, or just every day folks trying to swing a moderate their way, Republicans can’t stop talking about serving justice. We’re ‘tough on crime!’ and we tout how many awful people we ‘put away’ in a certain period of time. Constituencies expect it and it seems to be low-hanging fruit for many hard (R’s)…but what they don’t know is they are all wrong.

The justice system has long been on the decline and in an era where Americans are becoming less and less trustworthy of the process from arrest to probation, Republicans shouldn’t be showcasing what they believe to be effectiveness in the legal system.

Mandatory minimum sentencing practices came about in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in response to criticism that judges had too much power. Additionally, it was part of a crackdown on certain offenses to serve as a deterrent – one that has since be deemed virtually ineffective.

We made some mistakes. It’s okay to admit that. It’s even better to admit that there have been a series of unintended consequences from the enactment of these laws. There will likely be more with any reforms we make. This is trial and error, but we have to start somewhere. The important thing is that we acknowledge our failures and work to remedy them.

First, and most conservatively, there are fiscal and economic repercussions to these mandatory minimum sentences:

  • Cost – We’re arbitrarily maxing out on the cost of incarceration at the expense of taxpayers. On average, it costs between $35,000-50,000 annually to house an inmate. If someone is sentenced to a mandatory 10 years, the state is on the hook for a minimum of $350,000 in direct economic costs. If the crime lacked severity, costs could top out at a mere $70,000-$100,000, but that type of cost-savings analysis relative to the crime committed is not permitted.
  • It’s forcing overcrowding – The Federal Justice Judicial Center reported that 70% of the prison growth related to sentencing since 1985 is attributed to increases in drug sentence length.
  • Job availability – Would you be more willing to hire someone who has served 15 years or less than five years in prison? The longer someone is incarcerated, the less likely it is they will attain a sustainable long-term job that will keep them a member of the workforce. The cyclical nature of this is social program dependency, another thing conservatives are against.
  • We aren’t actually fixing anything – Mandatory minimums don’t reduce crime. There are various studies out there that show the correlation between the length of time in prison and recidivism rates. They’re rather high. Why? Because we aren’t rehabilitating, we aren’t correcting behavior…Recidivism will cost us. The conservative argument is to transition these folks into a role of productivity in society,

Despite knowing these economic impacts, our state legislatures are still proposing legislation that would impose mandatory minimum sentences on various crimes – new and old. Since 1991, crimes punishable by MMS’s have doubled.

Another issue of concern: This sentencing structure completely eliminates judicial discretion. If you truly think about it, judicial power has actually been usurped by the legislature and portions of the judicial branch are operating under the direction of the legislature. It also places the power in the hands of the prosecutors because they are the ones filing charges. Remember, prosecutors keep statistics on how many people they lock up each year. This isn’t just wrong for our judicial system. It’s wrong for a Republican form of government. Judges should have the ability to weigh the facts and circumstances of every case individually because no case is the same. The justice system was never intended to operate in the one-size-fits-all mentality. Sentencing power needs to be restored to our judges from the legislative branch.

Georgia’s made minuscule progress. Aside from various rankings giving us a D- (or worse) in civil forfeiture practices and the highest number of citizens on probation, Georgia finally removed the convicted felon box on in-state job applications, made the parole process a smidgen more transparent, and slowly informing elected officials who don’t even know what civil asset forfeiture is.

The conservative stance on justice reform is not helping us economically and it isn’t helping us win elections, It’s time to reevaluate. Everyone has a story. It’s time conservatives allow those stories to be heard in inside the courtroom and on the road to rehabilitation. Georgia, are you listening? It’s time to repeal mandatory minimum sentences.


This blog is part of a series following the FreedomWorks Justice Reform Briefing organized by Jason Pye in Washington, D.C. in May 2015. FreedomWorks partnered with the Center for American Progress to bring together bloggers and activists from all corners of the political spectrum to address reforms needed for the justice system, including mandatory minimum sentencing, the death penalty, and civil forfeiture.

To read Part 1 – An Introduction, click here.

 

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Too Much Skin in the Game

Friday afternoon whilst scrolling through the interwebs, I stumbled upon a disturbing photo heather hironimusand headline: “Mother Signs Consent for Son’s Circumcision.” The photos below showed a distressed woman praying and weeping.

The controversial case out of Florida has been dragging on for years, but my own ignorance has kept me from discovering it before this weekend. Because this story has been going on for some time and is quite lengthy, I’ll offer you a brief run down.

Heather Hironimus and Dennis Nebus were an unwed couple who discovered they were pregnant in 2010. While pregnant, the debate began, but in 2012 Heather signed a parenting plan to allow the circumcision. After additional research, she changed her mind and spent much time trying to block the procedure arguing there was no “medical need.” In 2013, Dennis filed a civil suit against Heather, which Heather countered with a federal suit (just recently dropped). He argued the procedure was necessary and not having it was causing their little boy Chase some health issues that could be remedied by the procedure. Heather fled with Chase in February of this year to again avoid the procedure, which brought about criminal charges including interference with custody which is a felony. As of today, Chase has told psychologists and other adults he is fearful of the procedure.

The issue has become such a controversial one in Florida, activists on Heather’s side have applied pressure and no doctor will perform the procedure. The judge has granted Dennis permission to take Chase out of Florida to have this procedure done.

Now, regardless of where you stand on the uncomfortable issue of circumcision, there is at least one thing most logical folks can agree on:

Signing a ‘consent’ form in handcuffs, while praying and hysterically crying under the guise that you will be released from jail is not entering into an agreement “freely and willingly.”

A spokesman for a Catholic organization in Ithaca, NY said of the duress: “A consent form signed under mental anguish and with the threat of staying in jail is not consent. That is coercion…”

heather hironimus2Several things went awry in this case:

  1. Chase is now 4 1/2 years old. There is a reason parents who choose to circumcise their children do so days after birth. It’s less traumatic and heals easier. Doing so at nearly 5 years old opens an entirely different can of worms.  In essence, Heather has already “won.”
  2.  This has been an ongoing battle between mother and father for over five years, and a legal one for multiple years as well. Why a judge has allowed this to drag out – and not done within the parameters of emergency hearings with final decisions – is beyond me. Every waking day Chase is aging and will remember more and more of this legal travesty. Because of his age, the procedure will require general anesthesia.

So now what happens. What do we do, legally, when two parents cannot agree on an issue such as this? And now at a point of no return – after everything that has already occurred – should the actions taken be different from had this been decided 4 years ago?

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Presidential Primary: A Single-Issue Race?

Ben Franklin said, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Over the last 14 years, we’ve seen how much liberty Americans are willing to give up for the purposes of safety. Between the TSA and the NSA, very little goes unseen or untouched.

Recently, many of our Republican presidential candidates and expected-to-be presidential candidates have taken the media bait (to our advantage) to answer questions on the increasingly controversial issues like the PATRIOT Act renewal and the NSA program.

With the PATRIOT Act renewal at the forefront and on the heels of the Rand filibuster, here’s what we’ve seen so far:

  • Scott Walker said if he were in the Senate, he would not have supported Rand Paul’s protest against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act and the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs.
  • Jeb Bush said, with regard to Rand’s filibuster, “I think he’s wrong in saying that this is unconstitutional or saying that people’s freedoms have been violated by the Patriot Act.”
  • Marco Rubio has publicly pushed for the extension of the program while telling folks the government isn’t listening unless you’re a terrorist (how do they know if you are or not?) and there “is not a single documented case of abuse of this program.”
  • Mike Huckabee recently slammed Obama, saying, “Obama’s warrantless, NSA spying program is more than just illegal, it’s an unconstitutional, criminal assault on our freedoms as Americans.  As president, I will repeal this program and protect the privacy and civil liberties of all Americans.”
  • Ted Cruz, while supportive of the PATRIOT Act, opposes the NSA. He thinks we should “walk and chew gum at the same time.”
  • Chris Christie semi-supports the program but says, “you can’t enjoy your civil liberties if you’re in a coffin.” Umm…what?
  • Ben Carson thinks there’s a way to accomplish the ends of the NSA without the NSA.

So can Constitutional conservatives be distinguished by just one question?

I say maybe. If, after years of criticism and zero deterred terrorists attacks because of the NSA program, a Republican is still willing to circumvent the Constitution under the guise of “security,” that tells me a lot about their respect for the Constitution in other capacities. For me, I understand the importance of political compromise, but the U.S. Constitution is one place that I’m not looking for someone to offer ‘exceptions.’ Ever.

I’m certainly not saying that privacy and the NSA are the only threats to our country. While I personally believe civil liberties continue to be second only to the national debt and the stability of our economy, I recognize that not everyone prioritizes privacy the same way I do. My point, however, is not only is it one of the top issues we are facing, but rather a gauge of future behavior.

For what it’s worth, Hillary Clinton, who seems to support the program, believes it should be more transparent. I think that speaks volumes about where we should be on the program. The good news for Republicans is there is more than one contender who opposes the NSA.