There Will Be Another Michael Brown: Millennial Perspectives on Ferguson

Nov 26, 2014

In the wake of the announcement that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not stand trial for the shooting death of Michael Brown, members of our Networks shared their views on what's unfolding in Missouri and what it means for us as a nation.

Marissa Charlemagne, Campus Network member and junior at Goucher College:

In the wake of the announcement that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not stand trial for the shooting death of Michael Brown, members of our Networks shared their views on what's unfolding in Missouri and what it means for us as a nation.

Marissa Charlemagne, Campus Network member and junior at Goucher College:

I was in a Roosevelt meeting when I heard the news of the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson. As I looked around the room at all the faces, at all the colors of those faces -- black, white, and brown -- there was not a sense of surprise, nor shock, nor sorrow. The room was silent and full of blank expressions. Then one white girl said, “the system does work; it just works for those who it's made for.”

On social media, I saw that people were talking about the riots, about the looting, about the police, and about Michael Brown’s family, but hardly anyone was talking about Michael Brown. We hear the words "institutionalized racism" and "systematic oppression" so much that they lose meaning. Based on our history, there will be another Michael Brown, and there will be another Darren Wilson, but will there be another movement for change? I pray not just for black people but all people; I pray that this world gets it together to see real justice and real peace for all the Michael Browns, and for all the people who are tired of living the struggle. Because I too sing America.

Riley Jones IV, Campus Network member and sophomore at Columbia University:

For many people of this generation, the Ferguson situation highlighted for the first time the supposedly dormant tensions of race and class. For others who come from communities where murder is not an uncommon occurence, myself included, it is simply one further injustice in a system of inherited economic and political oppression. In either case, this should serve not as an excuse to despair, but rather as an impetus to abide by the call that President Theodore Roosevelt -- cousin of our organization's namesake -- lived by: "Get Action." As students and alumni of the world’s best universities, we must do our part to ensure that every citizen has the right and access to opportunity that we have been fortunate enough to receive. Only through displaying our humanity in the gravest of situations, at the climax of our anger and the inexorable depths of our sadness, can we truly overcome the societal infirmities that led to the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri.

Alan Smith, Roosevelt Institute Associate Director of Networked Initiatives:

In a statement Monday night, President Obama said, "There are ways for you to channel your concerns constructively, and there are ways for you to channel your concerns destructively."

With all due respect, Mr. President, there aren't any ways for the people of Ferguson to channel their concerns constructively. After months of peaceful protesting, after being tear gassed and intimidated, after the media has made them out to be hooligans and thugs, after countless pleas for justice (or at least redress), after trying to do everything in their power to stand against a system that is blatant in not valuing them, this community was just told, in no uncertain terms, that all that constructive action and those attempts at dialogue fell on deaf ears.

Please, don't ask them to wait more. Don't ask them to "be constructive." That ball is not in their court. They are mourning, they are scared, and they are hurt. And we've made it very clear to these protesters that nothing they do or say makes even one iota of difference in how this discussion unfolds.

Katie Kirchner, Campus Network member and senior at American University:

In the wake of the Ferguson decision, we have clearly seen how our country's systems serve as tools of oppression. We have also seen how afraid the country is of voices rising from that oppression and using channels outside the system to cry for justice. Newspeople condemn those resisting rather than the police officer who used deadly force on an unarmed child. But the power of those resisting has been beautiful, powerful, and inspiring. I will fight as hard as I can, for as long as it takes, in solidarity with those who refuse to allow this oppression to continue. I will fight for my students, middle school kids from Southeast DC, who have already been victimized by racism and racial profiling. I will fight for my adopted niece and nephew who, I pray, will never have to justify their presence with their family or in their neighborhood. And I will fight because I believe that every single human life has an equal value. No justice, no peace.

Share This

Bigger Health Care Providers Mean Bigger Profits, But Not Always Better Care

Nov 24, 2014Emily Cerciello

Hospitals are buying private physician practices left and right, and state attorneys general should consider whether such mega-providers violate anti-trust laws.

Hospitals are buying private physician practices left and right, and state attorneys general should consider whether such mega-providers violate anti-trust laws.

In 2002, only 22 percent of private physician practices were owned by hospitals. Today, this number has climbed to more than 50 percent, and 75 percent of newly hired physicians are entering the workforce as hospital employees. As the physician population ages, the behaviors of young physicians will have long-term impact on the organization and norms of care delivery.

Amid declining reimbursements and a shift toward value-based payment models in which physicians are reimbursed for quality rather than quantity of services, health care providers are facing pressure to reduce costs and improve outcomes. An increasing number of physicians are selling their practices to hospitals, and hospitals are aggressively buying to remain competitive.

Two chief catalysts that are driving hospitals to purchase physician practices include the recent economic downturn and passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).

In this economic environment, hospital survival is a matter of cost cutting and care organization. The ACA requires compliance with new quality regulations, including curbed readmission rates and a reduction in hospital-acquired infections, and facilities are compelled to spend money in efforts to meet those requirements. Hospitals are acquiring physician practices to increase scale for better negotiating positions with insurers, further penetration of local markets, the ability to integrate IT systems, and the improvement of purchasing power with suppliers.

Physicians are selling their practices to hospitals for greater access to capital and fewer administrative responsibilities amid reform, an improved work-life balance, and recruiting incentives by hospitals.

But when hospitals purchase physician practices instead of contracting with physicians, the results can be costly. A recent Health Affairs study gives authority to the issue: hospital ownership of physician practices increases hospitals’ pricing power, and prices rise for privately insured patients. A one-standard-deviation increase in market share can increase prices by 3 percent, and a one-standard deviation increase in hospital Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (a statistical measure of market concentration), can increase prices by 6 percent.

In central North Carolina, Duke University Health System has been aggressively converting nearby clinics into Duke-affiliated outpatient centers. State Attorney General Roy Cooper is examining whether antitrust laws or new legislation can be used to reduce growing hospital prices.

In January, a federal judge blocked a major purchase of Idaho’s largest physician practice by the state’s largest hospital system. In light of that case, the FTC has suggested it will show greater scrutiny of healthcare provider consolidations.

In theory, true integration of physician practices into hospital systems can provide substantial gains for both parties. By reducing barriers to patient information and care coordination, facilities can improve quality and generate cost-savings in the long-term. Truly integrated practices employ a well-managed infrastructure, aligned incentives, coordinated IT tools, and a culture of partnership and collaboration. But there is a great possibility that hospitals are primarily motivated by the prospect of greater bargaining power with insurers, and are not truly integrating.

State Attorneys General should renew a focus on anti-trust legislation to protect the strained wallets of healthcare consumers in states where transactions are occurring. In a time of seismic shifts in care delivery and payment mechanisms, we need to keep the patient at the center of health activity and ensure that transactions do not further burden consumers in an already expensive system.

Emily Cerciello is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Health Care, and a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

 

Share This

Dirty Deals: How Wall Street's Predatory Deals Hurt Taxpayers and What We Can Do About It

Nov 18, 2014

Download the report by Saqib Bhatti.

Download the report by Saqib Bhatti.

The financialization of the United States economy has distorted our social, economic, and political priorities. Cities and states across the country are forced to cut essential community services because they are trapped in predatory municipal finance deals that cost them millions of dollars every year. Wall Street and other big corporations engaged in a systematic effort to suppress taxes, making it difficult for cities and states to advance progressive revenue solutions to properly fund public services. Banks take advantage of this crisis that they helped create by targeting state and local governments with predatory municipal finance deals, just like they targeted cash-strapped homeowners with predatory mortgages during the housing boom. Predatory financing deals prey upon the weaknesses of borrowers, are characterized by high costs and high risks, are typically overly complex, and are often designed to fail.

Predatory municipal finance has a real human cost. Every dollar that cities and states send to Wall Street does not go towards essential community services. Across the country, cuts to public services and other austerity measures have a disparate impact on the working class communities of color that were also targeted for predatory mortgages and payday loans, further exacerbating their suffering.

The primary goal of government is to provide residents with the services they need, not to provide bankers with the profits they seek. We need to renegotiate our communities’ relationship with Wall Street. We can do this by implementing common sense reforms to safeguard our public dollars, make our public finance system more efficient, and ensure that our money is used to provide fully-funded services to our communities. Taxpayers do trillions of dollars of business with Wall Street every year. It is time we start making our money work for us.

Key Recommendations
  • Transparency: Officials should disclose all payments for financial services and conduct an independent investigation of all financial deals to identify predatory features.
  • Accountability: Cities and states should take all steps to recover taxpayer dollars when bank deal unfairly with them, including taking legal action, renegotiating bad deals, and refusing future business.
  • Reducing Fees: Officials should identify financial fees that bear no reasonable relationship to the costs of providing the service and use their leverage as customers to negotiate better deals.
  • Collective Bargaining with Wall Street: Cities and states should agree to a common set of guidelines for an efficient municipal finance system and refuse business with any bank that does not abide by them, creating a new industry standard.
  • Creating Public Options for Financial Services: Cities and states should determine which services they could do themselves more cheaply if they hired the right staff, and make a plan to insource those functions.
  • Establishing Public Banks: Cities and states should establish public banks that are owned by taxpayers, can deliver a range of services, including municipal finance, and provide capital for local investment.

Read: "Dirty Deals: How Wall Street’s Predatory Deals Hurt Taxpayers and What We Can Do About It," by Saqib Bhatti.

Share This

We Need Pretrial Detention Reform in Massachusetts

Oct 29, 2014Jessica Morris

Alternatives to bail won't just reduce overcrowding in jails: they will create a more just justice system.

Alternatives to bail won't just reduce overcrowding in jails: they will create a more just justice system.

There is a bill pending in the Massachusetts House Committee on Ways and Means to build a bail jail in Middlesex County. Led by Representative Kay Khan (D-Newton), H.1434 proposes for a new facility for women charged of a crime and awaiting trial. This jail is not for convicted prisoners, but for women who are charged with violent and nonviolent crimes and cannot afford bail.

Three states away in New Jersey, residents are preparing to vote on Ballot Question Number 1, a bail reform legislation, in this November’s election. Signed by Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ), this policy states that dangerous suspects can be held in jail without bail, while non-dangerous suspects can be released through alternatives to bail. Both of these states attempt to tackle the overcrowding issue in jails, but New Jersey’s legislation will alleviate this issue through a long-term and humanizing solution. New Jersey has shown that bail reform is a bipartisan issue that can only be solved through intentional policy.

Massachusetts can learn from New Jersey’s responsible approach. There has been a growth of pre-trial detention in the state. From 2005 to 2014, pre-trial detainees in Massachusetts Department of Correction custody increased by 23 percent. This growth of pre-trial detention significantly impacts women. 34 percent of total female inmates in Massachusetts's jurisdiction this year are awaiting trial, but only 3 percent of total male inmates. Most women awaiting trial in Massachusetts are not able to make bail (80 percent cannot make bail of $2,000 or less and a third cannot make $500 or less). Many need services – not to be in jails. Two-thirds of the women in Massachusetts state prison have a diagnosed mental illness and half of them use psychotropic drugs. Prisons, such as the bail jail proposed in Middlesex County, can exacerbate mental illness when the women truly only need proper substance abuse and mental health treatments.

A study by the Pretrial Justice Institute shows that judges are inclined to assign harsher punishments to pretrial detainees than to those who are able to make bail. Thus, a person’s credibility is determined by money, no matter the verdict. Those who can afford to pay their bail do not undergo the ramifications of being in jail. They are able to continue supporting their families or continue their education. If they cannot afford bail, however, they have to go through the obstacles of pausing their lives and are more likely to commit recidivism; pretrial detainees are six times more likely to return to jail because of the challenges they face once released.

States such as Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, Virginia, and possibly soon New Jersey have reformed their pretrial systems. Massachusetts needs to join them. Facilities across the state of Massachusetts are overcrowded by up to 155 percent, and this could be alleviated by using electronic monitoring as an alternative to incarceration. New Jersey’s proposed legislation does this by having bail depend on risk and not whether someone can afford to pay to get out of jail. A judge will only present bail as a last resort if electronic monitoring might not assure the defendant's appearance at their trial or if he or she is believed to pose a threat to public safety.

Massachusetts has the political will to take the same path as New Jersey and reform its system. Through legislation similar to New Jersey’s bail reform, pretrial detainees charged with nonviolent crimes should be enrolled in an electronic monitoring program instead of entering a facility. There is a high financial cost for the state and social cost for defendants of having people await trials in jails. An electronic monitoring program is cheaper on both fronts. Defendants would have the ability to return to their lives fully and freely until they are tried. The idea of innocent until proven guilty is currently obsolete in Massachusetts because of the bail system, but it can be restored through reform that ensures liberty prior to trials.

Jessica Morris is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Equal Justice. She studies politics and gender studies at Mount Holyoke College.

Share This

Daily Digest - October 1: State Law Puts Profits Ahead of Primary Education

Oct 1, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Arkansas Internet Law Gouges Schoolkids (Bloomberg View)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Arkansas Internet Law Gouges Schoolkids (Bloomberg View)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford says support for the current law, which prohibits Arkansas from connecting K-12 schools to its high-speed fiber network, puts telecoms' profits ahead of kids.

Long-Term Jobless Perfectly Employable, New Report Finds (WSJ)

Pedro da Costa looks at a new study from the Economic Policy Institute, which says that while any unemployment creates serious setbacks, long-term unemployment doesn't create special skill loss.

The Hole in Holder’s Legacy (NYT)

Eric Holder had some real successes as Attorney General, but his efforts to prosecute the crimes of the financial crisis were "notoriously laggard," writes Joe Nocera.

The A.I.G. Trial Is a Comedy (New Yorker)

John Cassidy asks why this case, in which former American International Group CEO Hank Greenberg claims the company's bailout violated the Constitution, was even allowed to get to trial.

Prison Bankers Cash in on Captive Customers (Center for Public Integrity)

Daniel Wagner reports on how financial services companies profit off the families of prison inmates, who use these high-fee services so their relatives can buy basics like warm winter clothing.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame (Pacific Standard)

A new study examining what circumstances impact people's trust in institutions and one another finds that trust in other people drops as inequality rises, writes Nathan Collins.

Share This

Daily Digest - September 30: Incarceration Keeps Growing, No Matter the Cost

Sep 30, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

The Score: Why Prisons Thrive Even When Budgets Shrink (The Nation)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

The Score: Why Prisons Thrive Even When Budgets Shrink (The Nation)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert look at the growth of incarceration even in times when presidents preach against "big government," which the prison system certainly is.

Europe’s Austerity Zombies (Project Syndicate)

Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz says that European countries' continued push for austerity, which isn't fixing their economies, is tragic in light of the people who suffer without work.

Revisiting the Lehman Brothers Bailout That Never Was (NYT)

James B. Stewart and Peter Eavis report on previously unknown analysis from the New York Federal Reserve suggesting that the Fed could bail out Lehman Brothers. The analysis never reached top officials.

It’s the Inequality, Stupid (In These Times)

Emphasizing inequality is the best chance that Democrats have of engaging working-class voters who swing elections, writes David Moberg.

New York Mayor de Blasio Plans Expansion of Living Wage (Reuters)

De Blasio plans to sign an executive order that will expand the law to cover an additional 18,000 jobs and increase the living wage to $13.13 for workers without benefits, writes Alex Dobuzinskis.

California Pension Fund Gives the Boot to Hedge Funds (AJAM)

Dean Baker praises California's public pension fund for ending investments in hedge funds, which charge high fees. He says that funds should make the contracts that lay out these fees public.

Killing the "Nuclear Option" Will Not Save the Senate. It Will Ruin Obama's Final Two Years. (TNR)

When Senate Republicans say that they want to revoke the Democrats' "nuclear option," which eliminated filibusters on presidential appointments, they're planning a blockade, writes Brian Beutler.

Share This

Daily Digest - September 22: Minimum Wage Boost Would Trickle Up for All

Sep 22, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Pay Pressure (Financial Times)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Pay Pressure (Financial Times)

In a survey of economists about how to jump-start wage growth, Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz calls for fiscal stimulus, a minimum wage increase, and tax incentives for labor-intensive investment.

Holder Launches Historic Study on Police Bias (Melissa Harris-Perry)

As Saturday's guest host, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren speaks with the Director of the Center for Policing Equity about the significance of the Attorney General's new plan to reduce bias.

Paul Ryan May Have Found a Trick to Make His Tax Plan Add Up (TNR)

Danny Vinik explains how dynamic scoring will allow Rep. Ryan to claim that his tax reform plan is mathematically possible while remaining revenue-neutral.

Climate Change is War – and Wall Street is Winning (AJAM)

Nathan Schneider writes that corporate influence has been too strong in international discussions of how to fight climate change, and argues that our economic system must shift to save the planet.

Is Obama Going Easy On Banks That Break the Law? (In These Times)

David Sirota looks at the reduction of sanctions on Credit Suisse, and says that this action by the administion suggests that some financial institutions are being treated as above the law.

Why Poor Students Struggle (NYT)

For lower-income college students at elite universities, the academics aren't a problem, writes Vicki Madden, but the social differences between classes make life on campus difficult.

New on Next New Deal

Ken Burns’s New Documentary Reveals the Human Side of the Roosevelts – And Our Deep Connection To Their Legacy

Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong praises The Roosevelts for depicting these giants of progressive policy with a humanity that helps us understand why they pushed for change.

Share This

How Much are Local Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses Driven By the Feds? A Reply to Libertarians

Sep 12, 2014Mike Konczal

(Wonkish, as they say.)

I wrote a piece in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson noting that the police violence, rather than a federalized, militarized affair, should be understood as locally driven from the bottom-up. Others made similar points, including Jonathan Chait (“Why the Worst Governments in America Are Local Governments”) and Franklin Foer (“The Greatest Threat to Our Liberty Is Local Governments Run Amok”). Both are smart pieces.

The Foer piece came into a backlash on a technical point that I want to dig into, in part because I think it is illuminating and helps proves his point. Foer argued that “If there’s a signature policy of this age of unimpeded state and local government, it’s civil-asset forfeiture.” Civil-asset forfeiture is where prosecutors press charges against property for being illicit, a legal tool that is prone to abuse. (I’m going to assume you know the basics. This Sarah Stillman piece is fantastic if you don’t, or even if you do.)

Two libertarian critics jumped at that line. Jonathan Blanks of the Cato Institute wrote “the rise of civil asset forfeiture is a direct result of federal involvement in local policing. In what are known as ‘equitable sharing’ agreements, federal law enforcement split forfeiture proceeds with state and local law authorities.”

Equitable sharing is a system where local prosecutors can choose to send their cases to the federal level and, if successful, up to 80 percent of the forfeited funds go back to local law enforcement. So even in states where the law lets law enforcement keep less than 80 percent of funds to try and prevent corruption (by handing the money to, say, roads or schools), “federal equitable sharing rules mandate those proceeds go directly to the law enforcement agencies, circumventing state laws to prevent “‘policing for profit.’”

Lucy Steigerwald at Vice addresses all three posts, and make a similar point about Foer. “Foer mentions the importance of civil asset forfeiture while skirting around the fact that forfeiture laws incentivize making drug cases into federal ones, so as to get around states with higher burdens of proof for taking property...Include a DEA agent in your drug bust—making it a federal case—and suddenly you get up to 80 percent of the profits from the seized cash or goods. In short, it’s a hell of a lot easier for local police to steal your shit thanks to federal law.”

Equitable sharing, like all law in this realm, needs to be gutted yesterday, and I’m sure there’s major agreement on across-the-board reforms. But I think there’s three serious problems with viewing federal equitable sharing as the main driver of state and local forfeitures.

Legibility, Abuse, Innovation

The first is that we are talking about equitable sharing in part because it’s only part of the law that we are capable of measuring. There’s a reason that virtually every story about civil asset forfeiture highlights equitable sharing [1]. It’s because it’s one of the few places where there are good statistics on how civil asset forfeiture is carried out.

As the Institute for Justice found when they tried to create a summary of the extent of the use of civil asset forfeiture, only 29 states have a requirement to record the use of civil asset forfeiture at all. But most are under no obligation to share that information, much less make it accessible. It took two years of FOIA requests, and even then 8 of those 29 states didn’t bother responding, and two provided unusable data. There's problematic double-counting and other problems with the data that is available. As they concluded, “Thus, in most states, we know very little about the use of asset forfeiture” at the county and state level.

We do know about it at the federal level however. You can look up the annual reports of the federal Department of Justice’s Assets Forfeiture Fund (AFF) and the Treasury Forfeiture Fund (TFF) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. There you can see the expansion of the program over time.

You simply can’t do this in any way at the county or state levels. You can’t see statistics to see if equitable sharing is a majority of forfeiture cases - though, importantly, equitable sharing was the minority of funds in the few states the Institute for Justice were able to measure, and local forfeitures were growing rapidly - or the relationship between the two. It’s impossible to analyze the number of forfeiture cases (as opposed to amount seized), which is what you’d want to measure to see the increased aggressiveness in its use on small cases.

This goes to Foer’s point that federal abuses at least receive some daylight, compared to the black boxes of county prosecutor’s offices. This does, in turn, point the flashlight towards the Feds, and gives the overall procedure a Federal focus. But this is a function of how well locals have fought off accountability.

The second point is that the states already have laws that are more aggressive than the Fed’s. A simple graph will suffice (source). The Feds return 80 percent of forfeited assets to law enforcement. What do the states return?

Only 15 states have laws that that are below the Fed’s return threshold. Far, far more states already have a more expansive “policing for profit” regime set in at the state level than what is available at the Federal level. It makes sense that for those 15 states equitable sharing changes the incentives [2], of course, and the logic extends to the necessary criterion to make a seizure. But the states, driven no doubt by police, prosecutors and tough-on-crime lawmakers, have written very aggressive laws in this manner. They don't need the Feds to police for profit; if anything they'd get in the way.

The third is that the innovative expansion of civil asset forfeiture is driven at the local level just as much as the federal level. This is the case if only because equitable sharing can only go into effect if there’s a federal crime being committed. So aggressive forfeiture of cars of drunk drivers or those who hire sex workers (even if it your wife’s car) is a local innovation, because there’s no federal law to advance them.

There’s a lot of overlap for reform across the political spectrum here, but seeing the states as merely the pawns of the federal government when it comes to forfeiture abuse is problematic. Ironically, we see this precisely because we can’t see what the states are doing, but the hints we do know point to awful abuses, driven by the profit motive from the bottom-up.

[1]  To take two prominent, excellent recent examples. Stillman at the New Yorker: “through a program called Equitable Sharing…At the Justice Department, proceeds from forfeiture soared from twenty-seven million dollars in 1985 to five hundred and fifty-six million in 1993.”

And Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow Jr., Steven Rich of the Washington Post: “There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion.”

If either wanted to get these numbers at the state and local levels it would be impossible.

[2] I understand why one want to put an empirical point on it, and the law needs to be changed no matter what, but the core empirical work relating payouts to equitable sharing isn’t as aggressive as you’d imagine. Most of the critical results aren’t significant at a 5% level, and even then you are talking about a 25% increase in just equitable sharing (as opposed to the overall amount forfeited by locals, which we can’t measure) relative to 100% change in state law payouts.

Which makes sense - no prosecutor is going to be fired for bringing in too much money into the school district, if only because money is fungible on the back end.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

(Wonkish, as they say.)

I wrote a piece in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson noting that the police violence, rather than a federalized, militarized affair, should be understood as locally driven from the bottom-up. Others made similar points, including Jonathan Chait (“Why the Worst Governments in America Are Local Governments”) and Franklin Foer (“The Greatest Threat to Our Liberty Is Local Governments Run Amok”). Both are smart pieces.

The Foer piece came into a backlash on a technical point that I want to dig into, in part because I think it is illuminating and helps proves his point. Foer argued that “If there’s a signature policy of this age of unimpeded state and local government, it’s civil-asset forfeiture.” Civil-asset forfeiture is where prosecutors press charges against property for being illicit, a legal tool that is prone to abuse. (I’m going to assume you know the basics. This Sarah Stillman piece is fantastic if you don’t, or even if you do.)

Two libertarian critics jumped at that line. Jonathan Blanks of the Cato Institute wrote “the rise of civil asset forfeiture is a direct result of federal involvement in local policing. In what are known as ‘equitable sharing’ agreements, federal law enforcement split forfeiture proceeds with state and local law authorities.”

Equitable sharing is a system where local prosecutors can choose to send their cases to the federal level and, if successful, up to 80 percent of the forfeited funds go back to local law enforcement. So even in states where the law lets law enforcement keep less than 80 percent of funds to try and prevent corruption (by handing the money to, say, roads or schools), “federal equitable sharing rules mandate those proceeds go directly to the law enforcement agencies, circumventing state laws to prevent “‘policing for profit.’”

Lucy Steigerwald at Vice addresses all three posts, and make a similar point about Foer. “Foer mentions the importance of civil asset forfeiture while skirting around the fact that forfeiture laws incentivize making drug cases into federal ones, so as to get around states with higher burdens of proof for taking property...Include a DEA agent in your drug bust—making it a federal case—and suddenly you get up to 80 percent of the profits from the seized cash or goods. In short, it’s a hell of a lot easier for local police to steal your shit thanks to federal law.”

Equitable sharing, like all law in this realm, needs to be gutted yesterday, and I’m sure there’s major agreement on across-the-board reforms. But I think there’s three serious problems with viewing federal equitable sharing as the main driver of state and local forfeitures.

Legibility, Abuse, Innovation

The first is that we are talking about equitable sharing in part because it’s only part of the law that we are capable of measuring. There’s a reason that virtually every story about civil asset forfeiture highlights equitable sharing [1]. It’s because it’s one of the few places where there are good statistics on how civil asset forfeiture is carried out.

As the Institute for Justice found when they tried to create a summary of the extent of the use of civil asset forfeiture, only 29 states have a requirement to record the use of civil asset forfeiture at all. But most are under no obligation to share that information, much less make it accessible. It took two years of FOIA requests, and even then 8 of those 29 states didn’t bother responding, and two provided unusable data. There's problematic double-counting and other problems with the data that is available. As they concluded, “Thus, in most states, we know very little about the use of asset forfeiture” at the county and state level.

We do know about it at the federal level however. You can look up the annual reports of the federal Department of Justice’s Assets Forfeiture Fund (AFF) and the Treasury Forfeiture Fund (TFF) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. There you can see the expansion of the program over time.

You simply can’t do this in any way at the county or state levels. You can’t see statistics to see if equitable sharing is a majority of forfeiture cases - though, importantly, equitable sharing was the minority of funds in the few states the Institute for Justice were able to measure, and local forfeitures were growing rapidly - or the relationship between the two. It’s impossible to analyze the number of forfeiture cases (as opposed to amount seized), which is what you’d want to measure to see the increased aggressiveness in its use on small cases.

This goes to Foer’s point that federal abuses at least receive some daylight, compared to the black boxes of county prosecutor’s offices. This does, in turn, point the flashlight towards the Feds, and gives the overall procedure a Federal focus. But this is a function of how well locals have fought off accountability.

The second point is that the states already have laws that are more aggressive than the Fed’s. A simple graph will suffice (source). The Feds return 80 percent of forfeited assets to law enforcement. What do the states return?

Only 15 states have laws that that are below the Fed’s return threshold. Far, far more states already have a more expansive “policing for profit” regime set in at the state level than what is available at the Federal level. It makes sense that for those 15 states equitable sharing changes the incentives [2], of course, and the logic extends to the necessary criterion to make a seizure. But the states, driven no doubt by police, prosecutors and tough-on-crime lawmakers, have written very aggressive laws in this manner. They don't need the Feds to police for profit; if anything they'd get in the way.

The third is that the innovative expansion of civil asset forfeiture is driven at the local level just as much as the federal level. This is the case if only because equitable sharing can only go into effect if there’s a federal crime being committed. So aggressive forfeiture of cars of drunk drivers or those who hire sex workers (even if it your wife’s car) is a local innovation, because there’s no federal law to advance them.

There’s a lot of overlap for reform across the political spectrum here, but seeing the states as merely the pawns of the federal government when it comes to forfeiture abuse is problematic. Ironically, we see this precisely because we can’t see what the states are doing, but the hints we do know point to awful abuses, driven by the profit motive from the bottom-up.

[1]  To take two prominent, excellent recent examples. Stillman at the New Yorker: “through a program called Equitable Sharing…At the Justice Department, proceeds from forfeiture soared from twenty-seven million dollars in 1985 to five hundred and fifty-six million in 1993.”

And Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow Jr., Steven Rich of the Washington Post: “There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion.”

If either wanted to get these numbers at the state and local levels it would be impossible.

[2] I understand why one want to put an empirical point on it, and the law needs to be changed no matter what, but the core empirical work relating payouts to equitable sharing isn’t as aggressive as you’d imagine. Most of the critical results aren’t significant at a 5% level, and even then you are talking about a 25% increase in just equitable sharing (as opposed to the overall amount forfeited by locals, which we can’t measure) relative to 100% change in state law payouts.

Which makes sense - no prosecutor is going to be fired for bringing in too much money into the school district, if only because money is fungible on the back end.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Share This

The Ferguson Challenge to the Libertarians

Aug 22, 2014Mike Konczal

Many people are pointing to the police violence unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri as part of a “libertarian moment.” Dave Weigel of Slate writes “Liberals are up in arms about police militarization. Libertarians are saying: What took you so long?” Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner notes that the events in Ferguson bolster the claim that we are experiencing a libertarian moment because “libertarianism’s warnings today ring truer than ever.”

It will be a great thing if the horror of what is going on builds a broader coalition for putting the excess of the carceral state in check. But I also think that Ferguson presents a problem for libertarian theory about this situation in particular and the state in general. Their argument is a public choice-like story in which the federal government is the main villain. But this will only tell a partial story, and probably not even the most important one. And, as the deeper story of the town is told, the disturbing economics of the city look similar to what the right thinks is the ideal state. Let’s take these in turn.

Bottom-Up Militarization

People on the right are telling a story where the problems of the police are primarily driven by the federal government. As Rand Paul said: “Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem.” Big government here is strictly a federal phenomenon though, one where “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts.” Paul Ryan’s comment on Ferguson is telling: "But in all of these things, local control, local government, local authorities who have the jurisdiction, who have the expertise, who are actually there are the people who should be in the lead." (h/t Digby) The culprits in these criticisms are usually programs, accelerated after the start of the War on Terror, that give military surplus to local police.

But rather than just a top-down phenomenon of centralized, federal bureaucrats, the police violence we see is just as much a bottom-up, locally-driven affair. “Militarized” police equipment didn’t shoot Michael Brown, or kill Eric Garner in a chokehold. And aggressive police reactions to protests haven’t required extensive military equipment over the past 40 years.

As Tamara Nopper and Mariame Kaba note in the pages of Jacobin, the idea that there is suddenly a “militarized” police force here betrays that the militarization began in the 1960s in response to the urban crisis. And even though militarized dollars have flowed to all parts of the country, it is in black urban areas where the equipment has been deployed in an aggressive manner by local authorities. And militarization isn't just about equipment, but about the broader framework of mass incarceration and zero-tolerance, order-maintenance policing.

You can see the consequences of this through simple polls. As Dorian Warren notes, “Because for black Americans, what Sen. Paul disparages as ‘big government’ is actually the government we trust most…blacks are the least likely [racial and economic group] to trust their local governments.” Though these military equipment programs, which give away all kinds of odd things, are a serious problem and should be curtailed, they should be placed within the context of a criminal justice system that is punitive towards minorities and is among the most expansive in the world.

This has political consequences. Democrats have been weak on criminal justice issues. But for several years Blue Dog Democrats, lead by Jim Webb, have pushed for reform. But Webb's big bill to bring together non-binding suggestions for reform, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, wasn’t blocked by centrist Democrats. It was blocked by libertarians and conservatives. Most Republicans, including Tom Coburn and Rand Paul, voted against it on the basis of “states’ rights.” Commentators on the right found the arguments dubious and scandalous, but this will become more and more of an issue if the problem is just one of the federal government.

The Right-Wing Dream City

If you are a libertarian, you probably have two core principles when it comes to how the government carries out its duties. The first is that people should pay taxes in direct proportion to how much they benefit from government services. The government is like another business, and to the extent it can provide public-like goods the market will not, people should pay only as much as they benefit from them. Taxes should essentially be the individual's price of “purchasing” a government service.

You also probably want as much of what the government does to be privatized as possible. Government services provided by private firms use the profit motive to seek out efficiencies and innovation to provide the best service possible. But even if it doesn’t, the right’s public choice theory tells us that private agents will do a better job tending to services because of the essential impulse of the public state to corruption.

So what do we see in Ferguson? It’s becoming clear that there’s a deep connection between an out-of-control criminal justice system and debt peonage. As Vox reports, “court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone.”

These fines that come from small infractions will grow rapidly when people can’t afford to pay them immediately, much less hire lawyers to handle the complicated procedures. So you have a large population with warrants and debts living in a city that functions as a modern debtors’ prison. This leads to people functioning as second-class citizens in their own communities. And as Jelani Cobb notes in the New Yorker, this debtor status keeps many citizens of Ferguson off the streets, not protesting or acting as political agents.

How did we get here? As Sarah Stillman noted in a blockbuster New Yorker story, this is referred to as an “offender-funded” justice system, one that aims to “to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers.” How? “Often, this means charging petty offenders—such as those with traffic debts—for a government service that was once provided for free.”

As Stillman notes, this process has grown alongside state-level efforts to privatize probation and other incarceration alternatives by replacing them with for-profit companies. (Missouri is one of many states that does this.) There are significant worries that this privatized probation industry has severe corruption and abuse problems. Crucially, their incentive is less rehabilitation or judging actual threats to the public, and more to keep people in a permanent debt peonage. The state, in turn, gets funded without having to raise any general taxes.

Having people who “use” the criminal justice system pay for it strikes me as pretty close to the libertarian vision of how taxes should function. And having state power executed by private, profit-seeking entities is the logical outcome of how they think services should function. I’m sure that a libertarian would say that they are against this kind of outcome, though it’s not clear to me how taxation and services along these lines couldn’t do anything other than lead to punitive outcomes. (Perhaps people versed in public choice theory should apply it to what happens when you put public choice theories into practice.)

This is yet another way in which the growth of market society is wedded to the growth of a carceral state. But thinking through this issue can lead you to interesting places. If you think that this offender-funded system is unfair because the poor don’t have the ability to pay for it, you are basically 90% of the way to an argument for progressive taxation. And if you think private parties using coercive power invites abuse, abuses that should be checked by basic mechanisms of democratic accountability, you are also pretty close to an argument for the modern, professionalized, administrative state. Welcome to the team.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Many people are pointing to the police violence unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri as part of a “libertarian moment.” Dave Weigel of Slate writes “Liberals are up in arms about police militarization. Libertarians are saying: What took you so long?” Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner notes that the events in Ferguson bolster the claim that we are experiencing a libertarian moment because “libertarianism’s warnings today ring truer than ever.”

It will be a great thing if the horror of what is going on builds a broader coalition for putting the excess of the carceral state in check. But I also think that Ferguson presents a problem for libertarian theory about this situation in particular and the state in general. Their argument is a public choice-like story in which the federal government is the main villain. But this will only tell a partial story, and probably not even the most important one. And, as the deeper story of the town is told, the disturbing economics of the city look similar to what the right thinks is the ideal state. Let’s take these in turn.

Bottom-Up Militarization

People on the right are telling a story where the problems of the police are primarily driven by the federal government. As Rand Paul said: “Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem.” Big government here is strictly a federal phenomenon though, one where “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts.” Paul Ryan’s comment on Ferguson is telling: "But in all of these things, local control, local government, local authorities who have the jurisdiction, who have the expertise, who are actually there are the people who should be in the lead." (h/t Digby) The culprits in these criticisms are usually programs, accelerated after the start of the War on Terror, that give military surplus to local police.

But rather than just a top-down phenomenon of centralized, federal bureaucrats, the police violence we see is just as much a bottom-up, locally-driven affair. “Militarized” police equipment didn’t shoot Michael Brown, or kill Eric Garner in a chokehold. And aggressive police reactions to protests haven’t required extensive military equipment over the past 40 years.

As Tamara Nopper and Mariame Kaba note in the pages of Jacobin, the idea that there is suddenly a “militarized” police force here betrays that the militarization began in the 1960s in response to the urban crisis. And even though militarized dollars have flowed to all parts of the country, it is in black urban areas where the equipment has been deployed in an aggressive manner by local authorities. And militarization isn't just about equipment, but about the broader framework of mass incarceration and zero-tolerance, order-maintenance policing.

You can see the consequences of this through simple polls. As Dorian Warren notes, “Because for black Americans, what Sen. Paul disparages as ‘big government’ is actually the government we trust most…blacks are the least likely [racial and economic group] to trust their local governments.” Though these military equipment programs, which give away all kinds of odd things, are a serious problem and should be curtailed, they should be placed within the context of a criminal justice system that is punitive towards minorities and is among the most expansive in the world.

This has political consequences. Democrats have been weak on criminal justice issues. But for several years Blue Dog Democrats, lead by Jim Webb, have pushed for reform. But Webb's big bill to bring together non-binding suggestions for reform, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, wasn’t blocked by centrist Democrats. It was blocked by libertarians and conservatives. Most Republicans, including Tom Coburn and Rand Paul, voted against it on the basis of “states’ rights.” Commentators on the right found the arguments dubious and scandalous, but this will become more and more of an issue if the problem is just one of the federal government.

The Right-Wing Dream City

If you are a libertarian, you probably have two core principles when it comes to how the government carries out its duties. The first is that people should pay taxes in direct proportion to how much they benefit from government services. The government is like another business, and to the extent it can provide public-like goods the market will not, people should pay only as much as they benefit from them. Taxes should essentially be the individual's price of “purchasing” a government service.

You also probably want as much of what the government does to be privatized as possible. Government services provided by private firms use the profit motive to seek out efficiencies and innovation to provide the best service possible. But even if it doesn’t, the right’s public choice theory tells us that private agents will do a better job tending to services because of the essential impulse of the public state to corruption.

So what do we see in Ferguson? It’s becoming clear that there’s a deep connection between an out-of-control criminal justice system and debt peonage. As Vox reports, “court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone.”

These fines that come from small infractions will grow rapidly when people can’t afford to pay them immediately, much less hire lawyers to handle the complicated procedures. So you have a large population with warrants and debts living in a city that functions as a modern debtors’ prison. This leads to people functioning as second-class citizens in their own communities. And as Jelani Cobb notes in the New Yorker, this debtor status keeps many citizens of Ferguson off the streets, not protesting or acting as political agents.

How did we get here? As Sarah Stillman noted in a blockbuster New Yorker story, this is referred to as an “offender-funded” justice system, one that aims to “to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers.” How? “Often, this means charging petty offenders—such as those with traffic debts—for a government service that was once provided for free.”

As Stillman notes, this process has grown alongside state-level efforts to privatize probation and other incarceration alternatives by replacing them with for-profit companies. (Missouri is one of many states that does this.) There are significant worries that this privatized probation industry has severe corruption and abuse problems. Crucially, their incentive is less rehabilitation or judging actual threats to the public, and more to keep people in a permanent debt peonage. The state, in turn, gets funded without having to raise any general taxes.

Having people who “use” the criminal justice system pay for it strikes me as pretty close to the libertarian vision of how taxes should function. And having state power executed by private, profit-seeking entities is the logical outcome of how they think services should function. I’m sure that a libertarian would say that they are against this kind of outcome, though it’s not clear to me how taxation and services along these lines couldn’t do anything other than lead to punitive outcomes. (Perhaps people versed in public choice theory should apply it to what happens when you put public choice theories into practice.)

This is yet another way in which the growth of market society is wedded to the growth of a carceral state. But thinking through this issue can lead you to interesting places. If you think that this offender-funded system is unfair because the poor don’t have the ability to pay for it, you are basically 90% of the way to an argument for progressive taxation. And if you think private parties using coercive power invites abuse, abuses that should be checked by basic mechanisms of democratic accountability, you are also pretty close to an argument for the modern, professionalized, administrative state. Welcome to the team.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Share This

Curbing Campus Sexual Assault is Not About the Money

Aug 19, 2014Hannah Zhang

The cost of sexual assault on college campuses far outweighs that of implementing bipartisan, comprehensive reform.  

The cost of sexual assault on college campuses far outweighs that of implementing bipartisan, comprehensive reform.  

On August 13, I stood with Senator Gillibrand, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and survivors, among others, at the Senator’s New York press conference on the Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA). Currently co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of Senators, eight Democratic and seven Republican, this bill represents a tough but common sense reform. It requires universities to designate Confidential Advisors as a resource for survivors, provide a minimum standard of training to personnel processing sexual assault cases, and conduct an annual survey of all students on sexual violence. For schools that do not comply with these requirements, this bill increases the initial financial penalty to up to one percent of their operating budgets and $150,000 (previously $35,000) for each subsequent violation.

As a student attending a university that struggles to combat sexual assault, I hope that this bill will hold my school accountable in the future. As an advocate for progressive change, I was proud to stand with the Senator on this bill that focuses reforms on survivors. 

While increasing financial penalties is a common sense solution, the seemingly common sense objection is that CASA provides no funding for colleges to implement surveys and hire personnel. This much is true, but is financial cost really an issue compared to the cost that sexual assault imposes upon young women?

In introducing CASA, Senator Gillibrand repeats a powerful tagline—“The price of a college education should not include a 1-in-5 chance of being sexually assaulted,” a statistic from the White House Report on campus sexual assault.

This cost far outweighs a fine that constitutes one percent of a university’s massive total budget or funds set aside to hire staff. For instance, Stanford University’s operating budget of $4.8 billion is more than the national GDPs of Cape Verde and Bhutan combined. While public universities arguably have fewer resources than these private institutions, Chancellor Nancy Zimpher gave the bill her full support on behalf of the SUNY system.

One critic argues that the fines and expenses of compliance would take money away from academic programs. Lawmakers, another critic writes, have stated that the costs would “compromise the education of a college’s entire student body.” These statements neglect the sad truth that campus sexual assault has already compromised the education of countless students. Stopping sexual assault helps campuses to focus on academics, rather than hindering them from doing so.

Talking about money misses the point. The goal of CASA isn’t to fine universities. It’s to incentivize compliance. By investing in the resources now, universities create a safer educational environment for current and prospective students.

Curbing sexual assault should be a priority for our universities for yet another reason. Sexual assault on campuses exists as part of a larger, global problem – violence against women, which remains a significant barrier to full gender equality.

Charlotte Bunch, founder of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and speaker at the upcoming Women and Girls Rising Conference, said it best in 1997, “Violence against women and girls is the most pervasive violation of human rights in the world today.” Bunch pioneered the inclusion of gender violence in the larger fight for human rights. Her words remain true in today’s world, where almost a third of all women have experienced physical or sexual violence (or both) perpetrated by an intimate partner.

The U.S. has taken action on this issue in the past, most recently reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. We tend not to associate the U.S. with developing countries where wife beating is condoned and women are raped as casualties of war. Yet the evidence that 20 percent of women who step foot on U.S. college campuses face sexual violence proves that our work is far from over. To stand as a global leader in gender equality, the U.S. must start by fixing problems at home.

Hannah Zhang is the Campus Network's External Engagement Coordinator for the Northeast, and a member of the Columbia University chapter. 

Share This

Pages