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12/23/07
LET’S AGAIN PUT OUT THE WELCOME MAT FOR TOURISTS
Filed under: General
Posted by: Jim Gray @ 11:36 am

                 LET’S AGAIN PUT OUT THE WELCOME MAT FOR TOURISTS (23)

            Like you, I love and am proud of our country, and I would like to show it off to more people from around the world.  In my view, doing this would strongly promote better relations between our country and the rest of the world, and would also give us some sizeable economic benefits.

            Nowhere in the world is found more interesting or beautiful places than in our land.  Cities like Boston, New York, Seattle, San Francisco and many in Southern California take a back seat to no other places in interest and beauty, and I would match the view in Yosemite Valley against any other in the world for overwhelming majesty and grandeur.

            But according to our own Department of Commerce statistics, we are the only major country in the world today that is experiencing a decrease in tourism.  That is true for two reasons.  The first is our response to the threat of terrorism, and the second is our lack of organization and coordination in promoting tourism to our country. 

            Unfortunately, our preoccupation with the perceived threat of terrorism has kept our tourist alert stages consistently at orange – which is the second-highest level.  And since the color-coded program was initiated after 9/11, it has never been dropped below stage yellow, which is an “elevated” rate.  It is understandable that no bureaucrat wants to be the one who lets the next terrorists into our country, but there are much better ways of dealing with that problem.

            As a result of these reasons, it now takes an average of 45 to 60 days almost anywhere in the world just for a potential tourist to process a visa application to travel to our country.  Therefore, today many business and leisure travelers are simply unwilling to put up with what they view as the inconvenience and even indignity of high rejection rates, long lines, high fees and prolonged waits for the issuance of a visa.

            And this is not just an Arab or Muslim issue.  For example, the number of tourists from Japan fell from 5 million in 2000 to only 3.6 million in 2006.  We even saw 10 percent fewer tourists coming here from Great Britain during the same period of time, and in many ways they are our closest allies.  Furthermore, all of this is occurring in spite of the weakness of our dollar in comparison to the Japanese yen and the British pound.

            Furthermore, when those tourists who do come here actually reach our shores, they are met with ridiculously long lines, delays, hassles and even humiliations while going through the Customs process at our airports.  The worst of our airports in my experience is Miami, where there are days in which almost everyone misses their connecting flights because of the delays.  This, of course, means further long lines to obtain new tickets, being forced to go through the screening process all over again, and additional significant delays in waiting for the next flight, if there is one.  From a traveler’s standpoint, who needs it?

            So it is hard for a Libertarian to say this, but what we really need is a new federal agency to promote tourism in the United States, and to streamline the admission process to our country.  We are the only advanced country in the world that dies not have such an agency. 

In fact, Jamaica is more organized and spends more money internationally promoting tourism to their country than we do to ours.  This is silly, particularly where one considers that our 17 percent decrease in tourism since 9/11 has cost us $94 billion in lost tourist spending, about 200,000 jobs and $16 billion in lost tax revenues.

            What should this new agency do in addition to promoting the wonderful tourist destinations in our country to people around the world?  One thing would be to develop a new identification system at our ports of entry for frequent travelers.  Another would be to encourage our airline industry to establish a low-cost stand-by fare for students and seniors – or for everybody for that matter.  And it could also promote a system in which people in cities, as well as in more rural areas, could rent out their spare bedrooms to tourists for a few nights. 

The term Bed and Breakfast has evolved into one that generally describes upper-end lodging with canopies over the beds and virtual gourmet breakfasts.  But when I was younger I stayed in Germany and Austria in spare bedrooms with families that simply had posted signs saying “Zimmer Frei,” or room available, on the streets outside their homes.  Then for a modest amount of money I had a clean and comfortable room, a good basic breakfast, and all the family I could enjoy.  Bringing in an organized system like that would bring many diplomatic and economic blessings upon our great country.

            Many people around the world have seen pictures of our country in movies, books, magazines, and on the Internet, and have developed an innate desire to see it for themselves.  For example, Chinese tourism is exploding, and the Chinese government is close to completely lifting a ban on travel to the U.S.  At this point it would make a great deal of sense for us to ease our entry restrictions for Chinese tourists as well. 

Yes, the tourists will be anxious to visit Disneyland.  But they will also want to spend their time and new wealth at places like Rodeo Drive, Fashion Island and South Coast Plaza.  They want to purchase clothing and jewelry here because they are concerned about the fake products in Asia.  And they also will be anxious to visit our smaller venues like the Newport Sports Museum or the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum. 

About 34 million Chinese traveled overseas in 2006, and that is projected to increase by 10 percent per year.  But less than two percent of those Chinese tourists came to our country.  This is particularly unsatisfactory since the word “America” in many Chinese dialects literally means “beautiful country.”  Unfortunately, we are missing out for just about every reason imaginable. 

            So it is time for us to organize our tourist programs and to change those numbers.  Yes there are risks that some people might overstay their visas or cause some other form of trouble.  But those risks can be controlled and reduced with appropriate attention to them without closing off the beauty of our country to good, enthusiastic and increasingly wealthy tourists.

            Today we have almost no organization or coordination in the area of international tourism, and we are paying the price.  In fact we are so disorganized that our Departments of State and of Homeland Security recently promulgated a tourism video that mistakenly encouraged tourists to visit the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls.  So who’s in charge here?  Maybe no one.  We can, and we must, do better than that.

            (BTW: To those of my faith, I wish you a Merry Christmas.  And for those of different beliefs, I wish you the true Spirit of Christmas.  All of the world’s great religions, even including the atheistic Humanism, have the same values, which include a desire for peace among men and women, and a better, more meaningful and giving life for oneself and one’s children.  In my view, those values are exemplified by the Spirit of Christmas.  So go ahead, wish people you meet a Merry Christmas and Spirit of Christmas.  It is okay, and if some people take offense, that is their problem.  Merry Christmas!)

James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical “Americans All,” and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or his blog site at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.

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12/10/07
SEEKING RESTORATIVE JUSTICE
Filed under: General
Posted by: Jim Gray @ 12:25 am

                              SEEKING RESTORATIVE JUSTICE (21)

            The main purpose of the Criminal Justice System is to reduce crime and all of the harm and misery that accompany it.  Although there simply must be negative consequences for criminal acts, as a practical matter this goal cannot be maximized by punishment alone.  We also must employ the concept of “Restorative Justice.”  That means we must also concentrate upon rehabilitation and treatment of the offenders, as well as community healing.

            There is no doubt that we need to have prisons in our society.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason some offenders see the rest of us as their natural prey, and these people present an unacceptable threat to public safety and wellbeing.  Accordingly, there can be good cause to lock up people like this for the protection of the community.  In that regard, I have taken a tour of San Quentin State Prison in the San Francisco area, and I have never seen so many men that had “ball bearings for eyes.”  The bottom line is that I was quite happy that they were where they were.

            As members of a civilized society, we have an obligation to treat our prisoners humanely and to keep them safe while they are in our custody – no matter if they are Al Capone or Jack the Ripper.  Why?  Because as Fyodor Dostoyevsky put it, “The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”  But as long as we meet the threshold of providing them with secure and humane treatment, society deserves to be protected from people who commit criminal violence, and these people deserve their fate.

            But to pursue this subject further, I think the comments of a man named Pat Nolan are instructive, and we should take note of them.  Nolan was a former arch-conservative member of the California Legislature who always voted for longer and longer prison sentences for more and more offenders – until he himself was subsequently convicted of an election fraud offense and sentenced to two years in prison.  He said upon his release that, based upon his direct observations, we have many too many people in prison who simply should not be there.  Then he went on to say that “We should reserve our prison space for people we are afraid of, and not people we’re mad at.”

            Unfortunately, for various reasons, people in our country have seized upon the idea that prisons are the answer to our criminal justice problems.  As a result, the United States of America now leads the world in the incarceration of its people – both in sheer numbers, as well as per capita.

            But not only is prison the most expensive approach for the taxpayers, we must also understand that about 95 percent of the prisoners eventually will be released.  So what kind of people will they be when that happens?  After their years in confinement they are normally released with a few items such some new clothes and a pair of shoes, $200 in cash, and a bus ticket.  Probably they will have no family or other positive support group on the outside to help them.  Probably they will have gotten a tattoo while in prison that identifies them with whatever racial group they belong to.  Probably they will still be vulnerable to the drug addictions that they had when they entered prison.  And probably they will have been rendered functionally unemployable by their felony conviction.  As such, the likelihood that they will become repeat offenders is painfully high.   

            So if offenders are going to be confined but eventually released, shouldn’t we help to provide them with the tools that will address the reasons why they were imprisoned in the first place?  And shouldn’t we help to provide them some social support once they are released?  I think it is clear that we should, if for no other reason than to protect our own safety, as well as our own pocketbooks!

`           Prison programs that teach and focus upon simple reading, writing and mathematical skills are a great place to start.  It is commonly known that a large majority of inmates in prison are functionally illiterate, and a basic education is the thing that will most probably keep them from re-offending.  For example, about two-thirds of California’s 173,000 prison inmates read below a ninth-grade level, and more than half of those fall below the seventh-grade level.  Even worse, a full 21 percent of California’s inmates read below the third grade level.  What chance do they have, particularly when there is only space for about 6 percent of the inmates in academic classes and only 5 percent in vocational classes in prison?

            In addition to basic education, things like anger management and other counseling, parenting skills, alcohol and other drug treatment, job skills training, and even learning meditation techniques will help to reduce the rate of re-offending substantially.  For example, a drug treatment program in Donovan State Prison in San Diego County that addresses these problems and has an aftercare support component has reduced the level of re-offending from 80 percent down to 18 percent!  Think of all of the crimes that will not be committed, the victims who will not be victimized, the police, prosecutors, judges and juries that will not be involved in investigations and trials, and the people who will not be incarcerated as a direct result of the Donovan program!  And all of the taxpayer money that will not be spent! 

            But in California, even though about 56 percent of the inmates have a “high need” for treatment for their drug addictions, only about 9 percent receive any treatment at all.  The same is true with regard to alcohol treatment, where about 42 percent of the inmates need treatment, but only 7.5 percent actually receive anything at all.

            From my observations, and taking the advice of Pat Nolan to heart, I recommend that we begin to make much more of a distinction between violent as opposed to non-violent offenders.  People convicted of violent offenses should still be sent to prison as an appropriate sanction for their acts, but we should impose much shorter sentences of incarceration for non-violent offenders convicted of property crimes.   Those non-violent offenders, however, should be sentenced to be on a meaningful and strictly-applied program of formal probation.

            What would such a probation program involve?  It would assist the offenders in addressing their fundamental problems of substance abuse, lack of job skills, anger and rage, etc.  But it would also require them to obtain and hold full-time employment.  And, all importantly, it would also require them to pay about 15 percent of their gross wages back to the victims of their offenses as reimbursement for their crimes. 

            Such a program would benefit everyone.  In the first place, paying about $150 or some reasonable amount to the victim each month would be a continual reminder to the offenders that there is a price for their misdeeds, and it would also allow them to support their families and keep their families together.  Secondly, it would be therapeutic for the victims to receive the restitution.  Thirdly, the restitution would also help to reduce the victims’ insurance rates, since the reimbursed funds would go to the insurance companies, thus reducing their costs.  Finally, it would be beneficial to society not only to see that the victims’ losses were being addressed, but also, since incarceration is the most expensive option, it would reduce the overall cost of the system to the taxpayers. 

            Of course, if those on formal probation fail to take the programs and their obligations seriously, they could always be sent back to jail for ever-increasing periods of time, until they decide to perform.  That return to jail would serve as a “booster shot” to remind these offenders that the judicial system is serious about their obligations to make restitution and improve themselves.  Or, if all else fails, they could at least serve as “bad examples” for other offenders by being forced to waste more of their lives in custody due to their own irresponsibility.

            Restorative Justice is a different way of thinking about crime and our response to it.  I believe we are living in the Renaissance period of this insightful movement, and that the more people understand it and its benefits, the more people will support it as well.  So I just thought you would want to know.

                                                               James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net, or his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.  This column has been condensed from his upcoming book Wearing the Robe – The Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press).  

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12/02/07
“IT’S TIME TO NORMALIZE OUR RELATIONS WITH CUBA”
Filed under: General
Posted by: Jim Gray @ 11:43 am

                        “IT’S TIME TO NORMALIZE OUR RELATIONS WITH CUBA” (20)

            Back on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro successfully overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and installed his own government.  People tend to forget that one of the main reasons Castro was successful was that Batista was generally despised by his own people.  As a result, most of the cities held by Batista’s forces were abandoned to Castro without a fight.

            Unfortunately, like with the revolutions in Russia and France and many other countries, the new governments after the revolutions are often worse than the old ones.  In many ways that was true in Cuba.

            Of course our country’s government was opposed to Castro’s government from the start, and has been consistently opposed to it ever since.  But our decades-long embargo has not punished Castro or his government – he himself is financially doing just fine, thank you very much.  In fact that policy, which is aimed at deposing Castro, has been so “successful” that he is now the longest-reigning head of state in the world!  But unfortunately our embargo does continue to punish the Cuban people.  Accordingly, it is long since time to change our policy and normalize our relationships with Cuba.

            Today the United States is virtually the only country in the world that persists in the economic embargo of Cuba.  Big tour ships from Brazil, Canada and many countries in Europe regularly make stops in Havana, and Cuban cigars and other products are widely available in commercial markets in virtually all other countries but ours.  And, ironically enough, our dollars are the de facto currency in Cuba for most non-governmental transactions.

            We dissolved our trade and travel embargos on China in 1979 and Vietnam in 1995.  Why?  Because as a practical matter we decided that bringing these nations into the mainstream of the global economy would at least moderate their regimes and maybe even nudge them toward democracy.  In doing so we realized that the best ambassadors for our institutions and our way of life are the free flow of goods, services, people and ideas between our country and theirs. 

As a direct of that enlightened policy, China is far more free today both economically and socially than it was when we re-established relations, and it has even become a host of the Olympic Games.  And although Vietnam still has a long way to go in human rights issues, its government has loosened its grip on power in many economic areas.  In other words, our policies have helped the people of China and Vietnam to improve their economic conditions and also increase their freedoms.  Can anyone truly believe that an embargo would have produced positive results like these?

And speaking of freedom, should not the freedom of the people in our country to travel to and trade with Cuba also be considered?  In addition to the human issues, does not the fact that our merchants lose billions of dollars because they are prohibited from trading with countries like Cuba count for something?

So why do we not adopt the same approach with Cuba that we successfully used with China and Vietnam?  Why instead do we continue to play the part of the bully and continue to punish the people of that small island country? 

Regretfully, the answer to both of these questions is naked presidential politics.  Florida is a critically important state in presidential elections, and hard-line Cuban-Americans who hate Castro are still a powerful political force in Florida.  In many ways they have cause for this hate, since Castro literally stole much of their property and instituted quite a repressive regime on them and their relatives.  But that was a long time ago. 

The reality today is that, since most Cubans have little access to any information other than that fed to them by their national media, Castro is still seen as a hero for being the underdog that refuses to yield to a powerful and arrogant foreign government.  As for the dismal failure of their economy, most Cubans to this day blame their woes on our government because of the embargo.  As a result, even when Castro is gone, the chance of any regime taking power in Cuba that is supported by our government is small.

On the other hand, look at what happened when China, for its own reasons, liberalized travel restrictions and allowed millions of Chinese people who live in Taiwan to go back to visit their families and friends on the mainland.  During their many discussions, the Taiwanese rightfully pointed out to anyone that would listen that they all had the same background and culture, so why were the Taiwanese 25 times richer in their free and open system than the mainlanders were in their controlled one?  These interactions have had an enormous influence upon the liberalization of the life in China.  In other words, showing off the “subversive power of freedom” demonstrably has worked!  And it will work in Cuba as well!

So let us contact our representatives in the federal government and strongly encourage them to abandon our unilateral embargo on Cuba and lift all travel and trade restrictions between our countries.  In fact, we should make it an issue in the upcoming elections.  Not only will this different approach hold out the promise of more successful change in Cuba, but it will also increase our standing in the eyes of the rest of the world.  And along the way it will also take away from Fidel Castro a convenient scapegoat for his own mismanagement. 

Besides, it is also the right thing to do. 

James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, and the composer of the high school musical “Americans All.”  He can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or at his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.

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