IT’S A GRAY AREA (10)
“THERE IS AN EASY SOLUTION FOR SOME OF OUR TRAFFIC PROBLEMS”
What if there were a change we could make that would all at the same time reduce our dependence upon foreign oil, help clean up our air, increase gas mileage for all of our vehicles, reduce traffic congestion as well as the time it would take us to get from here to there, and be relatively easy and cheap to bring into effect? Would you be interested? Because such a program exists: synchronize our traffic signals!
What does that mean? We could coordinate our traffic signals so that if cars go at a posted fixed speed the traffic lights will turn green for them as they approach each intersection on designated main thoroughfare streets.
One of the biggest frustrations in driving is continually being forced to stop at traffic signals while driving on our city streets. Just as your traffic light finally turns green and you again get underway, the light at the next corner about 75 yards ahead of you turns yellow and then red. And so you stop. Again. This of course delays your progress and significantly decreases your gas mileage. Furthermore, it is the starting and stopping of motor vehicles that causes a large part of our air pollution. But the technology to synchronize our traffic signals has existed for years.
How do I know? In 1957 our family took a vacation to New York City. On several main streets our taxi drivers were able to adjust their speed to the 30 miles per hour speed limit, and all of the signals turned green just as we were about to enter the intersections. When asked why they were so lucky, the taxi drivers told us that if they drove at the posted speed the signals were set so that we would not have to stop.
So I spoke to some people in the office of the traffic engineers for both the Cities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa to ask them why we do not have a similar program. They all responded that we actually do. The traffic lights are already synchronized on many of their city’s main streets.
But they said we have problems that cause the programs not to work well. One of the problems is pedestrians. When pedestrians push the button for the signals to allow them to “walk,” the synchronization system for through traffic takes about seven minutes to recover. Of course, by that time another pedestrian will likely have pushed another button, so the program mostly is undone. Other problems are caused by city buses stopping to pick up and discharge passengers, which hinders the normal flow of traffic, vehicles entering and exiting from driveways along the streets, and the non-uniformity of distances between intersections. But I think New York had pedestrians, city buses, irregular distance between cross streets and cars entering from driveways back in 1957, and their program seemed to work just fine.
So what is the remedy? How can we get this system to work? All of these officials said it will take money to upgrade their systems. But the money exists. It comes from Measure M, and is controlled by the Orange County Transit Authority. How the money is used is simply a question of priorities. There is also an additional $435 million of Measure M money that has been earmarked for signal synchronization. But that money will not be available until 2011, and already the program is mired in controversy as to what agency will “oversee” or control that large amount of money.
But funding aside, the biggest roadblock to the effectiveness of the synchronization plans is CalTrans, because that agency controls all of the streets and traffic signals that approach and lead away from freeways. And CalTrans does not generally coordinate the signals it controls with the ones controlled by the cities. An example of this problem is found on Newport Boulevard by Triangle Square at the end of the 55 Freeway. As a result, the cities’ plans are foiled.
In my view this is silly, unnecessary and wasteful. The CalTrans engineer told me that the problem is that the system is over capacity. But in my view there is no reason in today’s world when we purport to be concerned about our dependence upon foreign oil, the undue pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and the amount of hours that are literally wasted in traffic for this problem not to be addressed and overcome.
So in this, like in all of the other issues raised in this column, it is your and my responsibility to make the system work! So please join me in contacting CalTrans, the OCTA and your elected representatives and demanding that they work on and resolve this problem long before 2011. And remember the next time you are jammed in traffic at another red light on a main street that part of the reason this problem is continuing is because you have not taken the time to make that phone call.
By the way, when you call the people at CalTrans, the OCTA and your elected representatives, why don’t you also ask them why they cannot install a program that cancels the signal to change the traffic light for a car that has already turned right after stopping for a red traffic light? And maybe you can even ask them why they cannot put some form of indication on freeway onramp signs as to whether the entrance to the freeway is on the right hand or the left hand side of the road?
James P. Gray is a judge of the Superior Court in Santa Ana, and the composer of the high school musical “Americans All.”
IT’S A GRAY AREA (9)
“LET’S RESTORE REALITY TO
PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGNS”
Is it just me, or do you also feel that our presidential elections are an enormously expensive, all-consuming and never-ending practice? If so, why not restore some sensibility in our democracy, or what is left of it after the congressional gerrymandering of the electoral districts, and try two things quite differently? The first would be to change the scheduling of the presidential primary elections, and the second would be to change the funding of the elections themselves.
As to scheduling, what if our country were to be divided geographically or otherwise into four sections for our presidential primary elections? All of the states in the first section would have their presidential primaries on the same day, let’s say in March. Then four weeks later the second group of states would have their primaries, four weeks after that the third, and a final four weeks later the fourth. Then the scheduling of each presidential election in the following years would be rotated, so that last election’s fourth section would be first in the next election, and the former first would be second, etc.
Today as you have seen, many states are continually moving their primary elections forward so that they can be more influential in the presidential nominating process. For example, Arizona is now trying to move its primary election forward by three weeks to February 5, so that it will join at least 19 other states, including California, with primaries or caucuses on that date. In response, Iowa is talking about moving its caucuses up to December so it can maintain its substantial influence in the election process. This would mean the formal presidential process would last for almost a year until the general election in November.
Of course, since the primaries and caucuses are earlier, the candidates are starting their campaigns ever earlier as well, which naturally requires them to raise even more money to be competitive. Unfortunately the way things are going, it will soon not be an exaggeration to say that some candidates will begin campaigning for the 2012 presidential election before the 2008 election has even been completed.
Even though each state individually would have to accept this new program, this change would stabilize and bring some sensibility back to the election process. It would not give any particular state a permanent undue amount of influence, but it would reduce the physical and financial war of attrition that is now a fixture in presidential primary elections.
The second suggestion is to change our election financing laws to allow all flesh and blood people to donate whatever amounts of money they wish to any candidate of their choice. No limits. No contributions from non-human beings such as corporations, labor unions, or political parties, etc. would be allowed. But it would be required that all contributions above a threshold level, such as the present $200, be disclosed on the Internet within 24 hours of receipt by the campaign.
Today if Bill Gates were to decide to run for office he could literally spend billions of his own dollars to finance his own campaign without any legal problems. As a matter of free speech and fundamental fairness, why should he not be allowed to spend the same amount of money for the election of various other candidates of his choice? Then, since the contributions would be fully and publicly disclosed, if the voters were concerned that any recipient candidate would be “in the pocket” of Bill Gates or whoever the contributor was, the voters could decide in their wisdom to elect that candidate’s opponent.
As a practical matter, in today’s system the two major political parties are able to get around all of the campaign finance restrictions one way or another. This is done by “bundling,” where campaign donors solicit checks from their friends, family and colleagues for a particular candidate. Another way is for the candidate’s political party to use its own money, called “soft” money, to pay for things like mail and telephone campaigns or other beneficial exposures for that chosen candidate. And, of course, there is always the infamous “section 527 funding.” This practice is named after the section of the federal tax code under which “independent” groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for the candidate of their choice, as long as they do not “coordinate” that spending at all with the campaign itself (wink, wink).
So let’s cut out the deception and the chicanery and allow the campaign donations to be contributed fully and openly. As a practical matter, election campaign finance cannot effectively be reformed. The fundraisers and donors will always be able to outsmart the regulators, and since the members of Congress have already mastered the art of election finance and use that mastery for their own personal re-election, they certainly cannot be realistically expected to pass more effective laws that will reduce their own chances for easy cash.
So eliminating contributions from non-human sources would not only reduce electoral corruption and gamesmanship, it would also along the way reduce the influence of big lobbying organizations like corporations and labor unions. These groups ideally should not be involved in political elections in the first place, because they are using the monies of their shareholders or members without their permission. Of course, if the shareholders or union members want to contribute to a particular candidate, under the new program they would be allowed to do so to their heart’s content – subject to full public disclosure. So they would have no complaint.
After the 2004 national election, columnist Arianna Huffington wrote (with tongue at least partially in cheek) that we really should do away with the elections themselves, and simply award the political offices to the candidates that raise the most money. Unfortunately, as a practical matter that is virtually what we are doing today under our present system. So let’s recognize reality and change the system, and thereby do away with the long, interminable presidential election process and the ineffective campaign funding laws for them. Then maybe we might actually start to get back a little bit of our democracy.
For information about Judge Jim Gray’s book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It — A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs (Temple University Press, 2001), please visit JudgeJimGray.com. Included in this information are strong endorsements by Dr. Milton Friedman, Former Secretary of State George Shultz, Walter Cronkite, New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, columnist Arianna Huffington and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke.
IT’S A GRAY AREA (8)
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“PEER COURT IS A HIGH SCHOOL SUCCESS STORY”
All right, I agree that numbers of things with our young people are not going well in our world today, and I have certainly seen enough of that when I was sitting in juvenile court. But people should also be aware that many good things are happening too, and one of them is Peer Court.
The purpose of Peer Court is twofold. First it is to provide a means for young people to avoid a criminal conviction if they show they have learned from their past misdeeds. The second is to provide young people with a chance to focus upon ethics, individual responsibility, the long-range importance of making intelligent decisions, and the fact that they are important role models for others, especially their younger siblings.
Peer Court is a diversion program that presents real juvenile court cases that are carefully screened by the probation department to high school “jurors.” The juvenile subjects must admit the truth of the charged offense and waive their rights to confidentiality of the proceedings. Then they personally appear with at least one parent at a high school outside of their own school district (so that no one present knows them).
The session begins with a probation officer reading a statement of facts about the case. Then the subject and parent(s) are sworn and given an opportunity to make a statement about themselves, their backgrounds, the offense, or anything they feel would be important for the jury to know about the situation. An actual judge presides over each of the sessions, and also asks questions both to the subject and the parents. But the program is designed for most of the questioning to be done by the high school jurors.
After the jurors feel they have received sufficient information, they retire along with a volunteer adult attorney advisor to deliberate and formulate a recommended sentence to give to the judge. The attorney advisor tries to keep the jury focused, but does not participate in the deliberations.
When the jury returns, the judge reviews the recommendations and tries to incorporate as many of them as possible into the sentence of the subject. If the juvenile subject completes the sentence within four months, the underlying offense is dismissed. The only sanction for a failure to complete the sentence is to refer the underlying offense back to the district attorney for prosecution.
Peer Court sentences can include virtually anything except incarceration or the payment of a fine. They frequently include community service, such as picking up trash in a park, graffiti removal or working with the sick, injured or elderly at local medical institutions; individual or family counseling; restitution to the victims of the offense; completion of alcohol or other drug abuse programs; writing letters of apology to the victims of the offense or their own parents, or essays about what they have learned from this experience; being ordered to attend school regularly and attend all classes; and participating as a juror in a future peer court session.
Without a doubt it would be less costly and time consuming to have the probation department implement a diversion program without Peer Court. But even though Peer Court has a history of success with the individual juvenile subjects and their parents, the real impact of the program is to pursue those “teachable moments” not only with the subjects themselves, but also with the jurors and other high school students in attendance.
For example, when jurors ask a parent one of the “sample” questions like “Why don’t you know who your child’s friends are?” both the parents as well as all of the young people in the audience start to focus upon the fact that young people actually expect a parent to parent. Jurors also ask the subjects things like if they want their younger siblings to smoke marijuana. When they say “no,” those in attendance start to focus on the fact that if the older sibling smokes marijuana, no matter what is said, the younger sibling will probably follow the lead of the older. As a result, the students realize that they are mentors for their younger brothers and sisters, and the examples they set are important. These are valuable lessons that are often not learned elsewhere.
Petty theft is also a big problem with young people. Frequently those subjects are asked if they have ever had something stolen from them. If so, the judge or jurors ask how they felt when the theft was first discovered. And then follow up by saying something like, “Tell the truth, didn’t you want to throttle the person who took that item from you? Do you think your victim felt any differently? Is that what you want to inflict upon other people?”
The subjects are also asked things like if they actually are a thief. Yes it is true that they stole something on that particular occasion, but did their parents raise them to be a thief? After a few more questions, the judge or jurors center the discussion onto the fact that it really is easy to steal, and most often it can be done without anyone discovering who did it. But people like us do not do that. Why? Not because of possible punishment, but because “I am better than that! Even though no one else will know, I will, and that is not who I am.”
Peer Court also focuses upon other matters of behavior by young people as well, such as courtesy and respect. For example, we are still old fashioned enough to believe that a man does not sit down before first helping his mother to be seated. If one of our male subjects sits down first, we take the time to make both mother and son stand up again and then be seated the respectful way. Similarly our judges will make comments like they are sorry the subject does not take these proceedings more seriously – because if they did, they would tuck in their shirt, or wear more appropriate attire, etc. before coming to our peer court hearings.
We also frequently ask the subjects what their lives will be like ten years from now. Mostly they will respond with the laudable goals of wanting to go to a good college and to have a good job. Then we congratulate them on their goals, but also ask what they are doing now to accomplish those goals. And we follow up with questions like “Do you think that the registrar at any college or a good employer will want to admit or hire a thief? Did you think about that before shoplifting at the department store?” We also ask the subjects what they feel about the eventual success of the people they “hang out with,” pointing out to the subjects the honest statement that: “You show me your friends, I will show you your future.”
But we always try to end our sessions on a positive note. In appropriate cases, we tell the subjects that we believe this never will happen again, and that there is simply no reason why they cannot enjoy happy, successful and satisfying lives. Along those lines we often ask the jurors for a show of hands as to how many of them agree with us that the chances are good for this subject. Mostly the by this time the young people in the audience agree with us, and say so.
We are proud of our peer court program, and have found that the concept of young people delivering justice to their peers works. This program assists young people to confront and address the impact of their behavior upon their victims, their families, their future wives or husbands and future children, as well as themselves. And along the way large numbers our young people are learning critical citizenship, responsibility and skills. In summary, peer courts are doing some good things, and I thought you would like to hear about it.
James P. Gray is a trial judge in Orange County, California, the composer of the high school musical “Americans All,” and can be reached at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net for further information about the peer court program.