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While You Were Sleeping: February 2010 

Tight budgets are forcing states to rethink prison policies. In 2008, 1.6 million prisoners were in state and federal prisons, following steadily rising prison populations since the 1970s (each prisoner costs on average $30,000 a year). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 739,000 people were imprisoned last year, only 3,500 more than were released. The result was the lowest annual growth of prison population this decade—0.8 percent. (The average annual growth rate of prison populations during the 1990s was 6.5 percent.) For drug-related crimes, nationwide studies show significant savings through drug rehabilitation over imprisonment. California has ordered the release of 40,000 inmates due to overcrowding, even as crime rates continue to drop.
Source: Los Angeles Times

In the UK, supermarkets have been accused of encouraging binge drinking by selling beer cheaper than water. Campaigners claim retailers are irresponsible, ignoring warnings from senior health figures that cheap prices lead to more drinking. Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson has suggested a minimum price for alcohol—approximately $8.60 for an average six-pack of beer. He claims raising the price would save 3,400 lives a year and cut hospital admissions by 100,000. Plans to force laws requiring warning labels on alcohol are planned after several brand-name labels ignored a voluntary code agreement with the government. Supermarkets deny they are promoting excessive drinking, saying their customers expect a wide range of good value.
Source: Sunday Times (UK)

Food stamp use is at an all-time record high with about six million Americans with no other form of income. Both states and federal government audits verify that the recession has caused millions to live at the barest of minimums. Food stamps have taken on a greater role in the safety net since they minimize abuse over cash aid, gaining more government support. Food stamp numbers had been rising previous to the recession due to tougher welfare laws and are said to continue. Over the past two years, food stamp programs have doubled in size in New York and grown nearly 90 percent in Minnesota and Utah. The range of people seeking assistance spans the demographic spectrum. Growth rates have been steepest among whites during the recession.
Source: New York Times

Abstinence-only sex education programs aimed at teenagers received more than $150 million per year in federal funding during the Bush administration. Clinic-based studies have shown the abstinence approach unsuccessful in preventing teen pregnancy. President Obama proposed $110 million for a new “teenage pregnancy prevention” initiative which would only fund sex education techniques that have “proven effective through rigorous evaluation,” effectively eliminating abstinence programs. It would include $25 million for new, innovative programs that could include those encouraging abstinence, but with no earmark for it. Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association estimates that more than 130 programs will lose funding by September if the initiative goes through. Another proposal by Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) would provide $50 million to states for abstinence programs, but it is still unclear what will happen once the bills are reconciled.
Source: Washington Post

There are 84,000 chemicals commercially used in the US (from flame retardants to household cleaners); 20 percent of which are secret, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Companies claim that secrecy is “essential for ensuring the long-term competitiveness of US industry.” In mandatory notices to the government, more than half of the 65 chemicals reported in March 2009 as posing “substantial risk” were secret chemicals. According to the EPA, 151 secret chemicals are made in quantities of more than 1 million tons a year and 10 are used specifically in children’s products. Despite the chemical’s health and environmental risks, the handful of EPA employees who know their identities are legally barred from sharing that information under the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act. The Obama administration wants to reduce secrecy by allowing federal officials to share confidential information with state regulators and health officials who could better determine their effects. Congress is set to rewrite chemical regulations this year.
Source: Washington Post

Two decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a tugboat working to prevent another incident hit the same reef off the coast of Alaska. The tug was part of the Ship Escort Response Vessel System, created after the Exxon disaster in 1989. The boat contained an estimated 33,500 gallons of diesel fuel, which will evaporate, unlike the heavier crude oil of the Exxon Valdez crash. The spill reached 3 miles long and 30 yards wide. Investigations on the cause of the grounding are pending, but the crew tested negative for alcohol use. There were three significant spills recently in the Prudehoe Bay oil fields before this incident. One contaminated several thousand feet of land, another spilled 46,000 gallons of oil, water, and natural gas, and another which left 7,100 gallons of water with oily residue.
Source: New York Times

The infamous Nazi sign declaring “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free”) was recovered in three pieces late December after being stolen from the gate of the former Auschwitz death camp in southeastern Poland. Five Polish men have been arrested in connection with the crime. Police do not know if there is Nazi memorabilia market involvement, but the men have no known neo-Nazi affiliation or far-right links. The sign, found 250 miles from the camp, will be welded back together and returned to the gates of the former camp after new surveillance cameras are put in place.
Source: Yahoo! News

In October, a Ugandan politician introduced anti-homosexual legislation after three American evangelicals gave a series of talks on how to “cure” homosexuals last March. Gay Ugandans, already victims to violent hate crimes including so-called correctional rape in the case of women, are batting the bill, which imposes the death sentence for homosexual behavior. Donor countries, including the US, are demanding the proposed law be dropped or they will pull millions in foreign aid. Ugandan officials are only backing down slightly, saying they will reduce the penalty to life in prison for some homosexuals. The three American evangelicals, Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, and Don Schmierer, are now trying to distance themselves from the bill, although Lively has acknowledged meeting with Ugandan lawmakers to discuss it.
Source: New York Times

The Federal Reserve Bank returned about $45 billion to the US Treasury for 2009, reflecting the highest earnings in its 96-year history. The earnings, made by investments in the firms bailed out by the Troubled Asset Relief Program, will dwarf those of Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and J.P. Morgan Chase combined. Although there remains a risk of significant future losses, the numbers show the Fed has been successful so far in protecting taxpayers as it intervenes in the economy.
Source: Washington Post

Australian researchers found that each hour a day spent watching TV was linked with an 18-percent greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and an 11-percent greater risk of all causes of death according to Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association. The results were not linked solely to the overweight and obese, but among healthy, active people as well, showing that “irrespective of a person’s exercise level, sitting for four or more hours a day was linked to a significant increase in risk of death,” said Dr. David Dunstan, lead author of the study. Even sporadic exercisers who sit for long periods need to increase their daily activity.
Source: Los Angeles Times

click to enlarge Photo by STR New/Reuters.
  • Photo by STR New/Reuters.

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