Saturday, October 1, 2016

Could You Help Identify This Suspect?

Here's a repost of a blog about a Virginia inmate I just heard from again this week. His sad story bears repeating again and again until justice finally prevails. 

The above is a scanned copy of an actual police department poster used in Alexandria, Virginia, in February of 2010, and which led to the incarceration of Ashley Jefferson Grissette, currently serving an 18-year sentence in St. Bride's Correctional Center in Chesapeake (see an earlier blog about him). While no copy may be as good as an original, I can assure you that what you see here is practically as clear as the original copy I scanned.

There are two serious problems with this case. First, the images caught on surveillance camera are obviously not clear enough to identify the suspect with any certainty. When shown the images, Grissette's probation officer admitted it could be him, and a resulting affidavit states that his PO made a positive identification, but Grissette steadfastly insists he is innocent and has tried in vain to appeal his case.

The second problem is that Grissette's court appointed attorney urged him to accept a plea deal rather than have the case go to trial and have him risk an getting an even longer sentence. Under pressure to accept the plea, he never imagined it would cost him well over a decade and a half of his life.

Grissette admits to having committed a variety of crimes as a youth and young adult, for which he served a significant amount of time in prison, but had since held down a good job and was dramatically turning his life around at the time he was reapprehended.

And then this.

He has no family support, so he especially appreciates mail:

Ashley Jefferson Grissette 1143033
St. Brides Correctional Center
701 Sanderson Road
P.O. Box 16482
Chesapeake, VA 23328

Read his story, "I Have Been Dealt an Extreme Hand of Injustice." 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Racist Fliers Rock Our Daughter's Quiet Town

Fliers include a link to a white supremacist website (blocked out in this photo)
We're living in disturbing times.

One recent sign of this was residents in the Rochester (NY) area town of Pittsford finding white-supremacist literature on their driveways and in their mailboxes urging people of European descent to "Make Rochester Great Again". The fliers direct people to a white supremacist website that states its purpose is to "network like-minded whites for the furtherance of the European white races."

Area response was one of determination not to let this outrage go unanswered. Town leaders issued the following statement Tuesday:

"The Board of Trustees of the Village of Pittsford denounces in the strongest possible terms the recent sinister, racist activities in our community. There is no room for such division and hatred and we have zero tolerance for such despicable behavior in our village or town. This Board stands together as one with all residents and visitors to our Village regardless of race, creed, color, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation."

Concerned residents have planned a sign making party for this Saturday afternoon in preparation for a solidarity walk set for 3 pm this Sunday, October 3.

Meanwhile, people are being urged to write positive chalk messages on their driveways in opposition to this kind of racist-based hate.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Shame Isn't Always A Bad Thing

My parents were pretty effective in correcting their nine children by using frequent verbal reprimands, even the occasional “Shem dich!” (Pennsylvania German equivalent of  “Shame on you”). They mostly had the kind of relationship with us that made us want to stay on their good side and to enjoy their blessing and approval.

Today any use of shame to correct behavior tends to be seen as a Very Bad Thing, since shame, as opposed to guilt, is about being a failed or flawed person rather than about a basically good person engaging in unacceptable or inappropriate behavior. Shame is seen as diminishing people's self esteem, something to be avoided at all costs, especially in the case of children.

As a general rule, I support that. Let's separate the person from the problem, then address the problem and not disgrace the person. Let's not assume we always have to make others feel worse in order to help them behave better.

But are there times when feeling worse can motivate us to do better? Are there times when I need to recognize that I am not only violating a rule, but that I am being a jerk, insensitive to the needs and feelings of others?

Fortunately, the gospel offers abundant grace, forgiveness and transformative healing both for what we are and what we do. So we can pray both boldly and contritely as the ancient Hebrew leader Ezra did on behalf of himself and his people, "I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens" (Ezra 9:6).

Sometimes that's a matter of just facing the truth.

Then there is this insight from an Amazon review of professor Jennifer Jacquet's recent book "Is Shame Necessary? New Uses For An Old Tool":

"In cultures that champion the individual, guilt is advertised as the cornerstone of conscience. But while guilt holds individuals to personal standards, it is powerless in the face of corrupt institutions. In recent years, we as consumers have sought to assuage our guilt about flawed social and environmental practices and policies by, for example, buying organic foods or fair-trade products. Unless nearly everyone participates, however, the impact of individual consumer consciousness is ineffective.

"Is Shame Necessary? presents us with a trenchant case for public shaming as a nonviolent form of resistance that can challenge corporations and even governments to change policies and behaviors that are detrimental to the environment. Jennifer Jacquet argues that public shaming, when it has been retrofitted for the age of social media and aimed in the proper direction, can help compensate for the limitations of guilt in a globalized world. Jacquet leaves us with a new understanding of how public shame, when applied in the right way and at the right time, has the capacity to keep us from failing other species in life’s fabric and, ultimately, from failing ourselves."

I haven't yet read the book, but she makes a good point. Maybe some serious shame is long overdue for realities about which we fail to feel sufficient guilt to motivate us to change:


• We have condoned the incarceration of more people than any country in the world, 2.3 million (China is a distant second with 1.6 million) with more men of color behind bars and on probation and parole than were slaves prior to the Civil War.

• We have been complicit in the spending of more of our tax dollars for military purposes than is spent by the next ten most armed nations in the world combined.

• We feel entitled to a life of comfort and convenience that is contributing to massive deforestation, depletion of our resources and the pollution and destruction of our environment for generations to come.

• We waste 40% of the food we produce and market in spite of millions who live on the brink of starvation every day.

Abortions have always occurred, but this shows the legal ones
• We profess to be pro-life while defending abortion on demand, capital punishment, massive bombing and drone strikes, and withholding help from the poor at home and abroad.

• We support a healthcare system that promotes corporate profit over meeting the needs of the underserved ill and aging among us.

What would you add to this shameful list?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Seven-Year-Old's Prayer For Justice

A friend recently gave me this quote, but couldn't remember where he had gotten it. Let me know if you know more about this young man.

"God, please help the poor get rich and the rich get poor, so they know what it feels like. And then, God, let everyone switch back to medium and let everyone have the same amount of food and money."                          
- Ben Zimmerly Jantzi, age 7

Children have an innate sense of fairness. Everyone should be treated alike, and enjoy their fair share of everything.

Somewhere along the way we adults seem to shed this simple concept, and begin to take for granted that "life isn't fair" and that we simply need to get used to it having huge disparities between the well off and the many "Lazarus" figures in the world. (see today's Luke 16:19-31 lectionary text)

But seven-year-old Ben is closer to seeing things the way God does. God has no favorites, and loves and cares for everyone alike.

We should too.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

How a Handful of Florida Mennonites Decided the 2000 Election and Changed World History

Home to 3000-5000 Mennonites & Amish
The outcome of the 2000 presidential race was extremely close, and eventually came down to a mere 537 vote difference in the closely contested state of Florida.       
This raises the question of what might have happened if Mennonites in that state would have just stayed at home on election day. Assuming most of them voted for the party that prevailed (as the majority of Mennonites elsewhere did) that alone may have decided the outcome.

If that is so, what difference could that have made in the future course of history? 

Consider these four hypothetical questions:

1. Would there have been an invasion of Iraq?
This move by the newly elected commander in chief led to what became the longest war in US history, next to the Afghan conflict, and resulted in the loss of over 4000 American lives, plus some 40,000 US service men and women being psychologically and/or physically maimed for life. In addition there have been an untold number of Iraqi and other casualties as a result of the instability and chaos created by the US invasion. 

Some would argue that deposing a dictator like Saddam Hussein was worth all of that and more. But imposing regime change by military means has never been supported by historic peace churches. And regrettably, large numbers of Christians in that region who were formerly able to practice their faith in relative peace have since had to flee for their safety, resulting in the Christian witness being diminished in that part of the world.

2. Would the US national debt have spiraled out of control as it did after 2000? As a result of sizable tax cuts that turned a national budget surplus into a growing deficit, along wth the enormous cost of waging two largely unfunded wars (see increase above), our grandchildren face an exorbitant burden of debt that will have a major impact on them and and on future generations.

3. Would the US have been able to ratify the Kyota Protocol, with significant implications for the future well being of the planet? The actual merits of the treaty and the evidence that supports its provisions can always be debated, but the fact of it not passing is very likely the result of the Florida vote count.

4. Would the makeup of the Supreme Court have been altered? A different makeup of the Court may have, for 
example, affected the outcome of  the Citizens United case, which gave corporations the status of "people" who can make unlimited campaign contributions, and which has added to some of the loss of accountability (and civility?) in current and future political campaigns. Of course, the merits of this and other decisions of the Court can always be debated, but the questions remain.

We may never know the answers to any of the above, but the concern over whether our voting as Mennonites may sometimes have major unintended consequences deserves careful consideration. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

An Urgent Letter To Governor McAuliffe

The following sample letter was written by one of several DOC inmates with whom I correspond. Please feel free to use any part of it as you communicate your own concerns to the Governor:

Governor Terry McAuliffe
Honorable Terry McAuliffe, Governor
Patrick Henry Bldg. - Third Floor
1111 East Broad Street
Richmond, Virginia 23219
Fax: (804) 371-6351

Dear Governor McAuliffe:

News of the recent budget shortfall precipitated our thinking toward a method to save taxpayers' dollars allotted to Virginia's prison system, without jeopardizing public safety. It is apparent that we, the taxpayers, are financing the incarceration of many individuals "who are no longer a danger" to our communities, due largely to their ages. The Virginia Department of Corrections currently houses model inmates that are nearly ninety years old. As I am sure you are aware, statistics are available to backup this claim. These facts are very disturbing to us as human beings.

Currently, there are nearly 2,800 parole eligible 'Old-Law' inmates who have been incarcerated a minimum of 21 years and up to at least 47 years that we're aware of. Many are first-time offenders who have earned and deserve a second chance through parole. If 80% of these inmates were paroled, "a cost-savings of $61.5 million dollars," (2,240 inmates x $27,462 (Footnote 1) ) per year would be realized.

Additionally, there are nearly 600 Geriatric-release eligible inmates with a statistical recidivism rate of less than 1% (Footnote 2) (over 60 years of age). Nationally, the average cost of housing inmates over 50 is $68,000 (Footnote 2) (more for those over age 60). If 80% of geriatric inmates were released under supervision, "a cost-savings of $33 million dollars annually" would accrue, (400 inmates x $68,000). The geriatric population is the fastest growing age group in the system with the lowest recidivism rate and the highest cost to taxpayers.

Ninety-five percent of the 'Old-Law' inmates are over 40 years of age; averaged with geriatric eligible inmates, all of whom are over 60, nets an average age of parole eligible inmates of 50 years of age. Utilizing a mean recidivism rate of 1.5% (2% over 50 and 1% over 60), prisoners who might reoffend amount statistically to "only 41 inmates who might reoffend, out of 2,720 who could safely be released!"

Governor McAuliffe, as you are aware, the rate of parole in the Commonwealth comes under your purview as Chief Executive. Please consider instructing your Parole Board to implement a policy of increasing the parole rate substantially for the following reasons:

> Savings of nearly $100 million dollars annually, with minimal risk to public safety.
> Relieve prison over-crowding and/or closing up to 3 major institutions.
> Allow many elderly and first-time offenders a chance at redemption.
> Use savings to augment education in the Commonwealth (our teachers are paid $7,200 below national average).
> Transform corrections in Virginia to a more forward thinking posture.
> Every offender should be educated, treated and released at the earliest possible time when they are no longer a threat to society.
> Provide services to help returning citizens reenter safely back into communities without the stigma of being an ex-offender looming over them for the rest of their lives.
> At what age or for how many continuous years would incarcerating individuals satisfactory and does not constitute Cruel and Unusual Inhumane Treatment of inmates. We would say no more than twenty years years of reprogramming and training preparing individuals for society. Also anyone who meets the current Virginia Geriatric Law and does not pose a threat to citizens should be granted parole.

We as taxpayers can no longer afford the antiquated, costly, inhumane and excessively punitive system of Corrections which the Commonwealth employs. As recent polls show, the majority of the public is for increased parole. Our current budget shortfall provides you a "Golden Opportunity" to implement the aforementioned bold actions and avoid tax increases.

Thank you for your efforts, time and consideration in the aforementioned matter. A response would be appreciated.


cc: Mr. Brian Moran
      Department of Public Safety and Homeland Security
      P.O. Box 1475
      Richmond, Virginia 23218
     Office: 804-786-5351
     Fax Line: 804-225-3882

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Are We Losing Ground In The War On Porn?

Unlimited X-rated access 24/7
We may have never been very effective in combatting this evil to begin with, but there can be little doubt that an ever darker and more pervasive porn industry is gaining ground. Along with new internet porn sites springing up constantly, high tech means to access them are multiplying as well. Our children and teens can find ways to view almost anything they want on their cell phones, ipads, and other devices. Even some eleven and twelve-year-old boys are becoming addicted, making one wonder how they will ever experience healthy wedded-for-life relationships.

Over time we have become ever more jaded by indecency in general. We have failed to celebrate and hallow our own God-given gift of sexuality and have helplessly watched it being exploited and cheapened on every side. Over the past years network television, for example, has seen an increase of over four times the number of scenes involving nudity and promiscuous sex, according to a report by the Parents Television Council

As a nation and even in our churches we are strangely divided over how to deal with this issue. Oddly, it is folks on the political left I hear saying, “Let the market rule. Let individuals decide and let’s keep government out of this.” Meanwhile, those on the right who are urging more government intervention to drive porn out of our communities, to force libraries to protect children by filtering Internet sites and by requiring retailers to keep sexually explicit magazines out of the reach of children.

What can we do?

We could begin by recognizing that this is not just a question about restricting some kinds of speech (outright obscenity is already not protected by law) but whether we can reasonably regulate some forms of commerce. Since pornography has become a multi-billion dollar industry, should it be exempt from some minimal safety, health and marketing standards? Most of this new “speech” is, after all, anything but “free.” People are hired to submit to demeaning and even hurtful acts simply for money, not because they enjoy what they’re doing. The resulting “product” is marketed aggressively and reaps phenomenal profits, not so much for its “actors,” but for its producers and promoters, mostly money-grubbing white males. 

Likewise, we could start by recognizing pornography as not like just any other kind of adult entertainment, but as a product that results in varying degrees of addiction for millions who use it. By way of comparison, it was years before we recognized nicotine addiction as a health problem. Or before we understood the nature of addiction itself as a serious disruption of the reward mechanism in our brains. It was only after we realized some of the social and health care costs of tobacco addiction (for smokers and non-smokers alike) that we began to set strict age limits on who can purchase nicotine products. We also began to regulate how and where these products could be marketed, and even put warning labels on tobacco products. 

The National Council on Sex Addiction and Compulsivity estimates that some two million Americans have become addicted to cybersex alone, costing the economy millions in lost productivity and jeopardizing the ability of users to maintain healthy real-life relationships that benefit us all. Researchers like feminist Dr. Diane E. H. Russell of Mills College (Oakland, CA) point out that the industry not only degrades women but is subjecting more and more of them to outright violence, both in the production of much of today’s pornographic material and in the rape fantasies it creates in men who regularly get pleasure from seeing images of women being used--and even criminally abused--on screen. There are few signs of “safe sex” anywhere in this picture.

So at the very least we need to exercise our good First Amendment rights to urge our becoming a porn-discouraging, rather than a porn-encouraging, society. After many years, we finally did that with tobacco, through a combination of education and some reasonable forms of government regulation.

Without resorting to Prohibition or to heavy handed Taliban tactics, we the people decided we would be better off having more smoke free environments in which we all can work, eat and shop. We began investing millions in promoting the benefits of not using tobacco, and in offering help for overcoming nicotine and other addictions. And we did most of this not just for moral or religious reasons but because common sense led us to believe it was in everyone’s best interest. 

Consider the benefits of uniting our efforts--women and men, religious and non-religious, liberals, conservatives and everyone between--to actively discourage and de-popularize supporting this demeaning industry. I know some will object that we’ll never be able to define exactly what pornography is, but as someone once said, just because there is something called dusk shouldn’t keep us from being able to distinguish light from darkness.

And there is enough real darkness out there that should cause us all concern.