The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 66: How Do We Make the Promise a Reality?

Dec 10, 2014Ariel SmilowitzMonika Johnson

Full implementation of the UDHR isn't a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.

Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?

Full implementation of the UDHR isn't a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.

Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?

These questions are indelibly inked into the fabric of our economy, society, and political system. Following World War II and the creation of the United Nations, the UDHR represented “the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.” Championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the widely accepted manifesto built upon the work of her husband, who famously declared that worldwide democracy should be founded upon four essential freedoms.

This primordial soup of rights-based ideology and dialogue resulted in the birth of the United Nations, and subsequently a handful of substantial treaties, frameworks, and guiding principles for our quest to define and maintain human rights globally.  

However, after decades of debate, we have yet to answer the ultimate question: who is responsible for ensuring this productive discourse is transformed into tangible action? Earlier this year, political scientist Stephen Hopgood proclaimed that we have reached “the end of human rights.” Hopgood argued that despite successful recognition of all human beings’ moral equivalence (no minor feat), little has been done to meld regional differences in interpretation and practice. In other words, our attempts to answer the critical question of implementation -- whether through international declarations like the UDHR, conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the creation of the UN Human Rights Council -- have fallen short.

As we reflect on the anniversary of the UDHR, perhaps it is time for us to reconsider and expand our approach toward human rights. Leaders of the classical human rights movement envisioned a world in which governments agreed on and multilaterally implemented a set of principles. Since that time, we have witnessed immense globalization, putting civil and political rights at odds with economic and social ones while introducing a set of new players, including multinational enterprise.

Consequently, these conventions, declarations, and institutions are not fully equipped to enforce human rights at every level of society. It is necessary for us to be inclusive of all influencers, including the private sector, non-state actors, and other organizations and groups, in order to truly realize a society in which every person can fulfill his or her full potential -- the dream of FDR’s progressivism and Eleanor’s Declaration of Human Rights.

Beyond Institutions: Global Enterprise and Human Rights

If governments and international institutions are unable to police human rights at every level, non-state actors must accept responsibility for integrating dignity into their practices. While vast ground remains to be covered, many companies are taking the lead on assessing their spheres of influence and ensuring their profits do not come at the expense of the choices and livelihoods of others.

One such company is Carlson, a corporation in the hotel and travel industries that works to stop human trafficking crimes. According to the International Labor Organization, 14.2 million people are victims of forced labor exploitation in economic activities worldwide. Despite 90 percent of countries enacting legislation criminalizing human trafficking under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, it persists as tragic but preventable collateral damage of everyday economic and social activity.

Upon realizing that traffickers regularly use the hospitality industry to transport victims, Carlson used the valuable information provided by UNODC to be part of a solution. Now, they train their employees to recognize and report trafficking and have partnered with the State Department to educate travelers on the sexual exploitation of children.

For Ford Motor Company, being a more responsible business wasn’t as simple. Forced labor was buried deep in its supply chain, far from Detroit in Brazil’s charcoal mines, which provide an ingredient in steel production. When slave labor was exposed there in 2006, Ford was purchasing pig iron made from refined charcoal and using it in Cleveland to manufacture cars sold nationwide. The company took action to halt the use of pig iron and ensure its supply chain procured materials responsibly. Today, it collaborates with the State Department, the ILO, and the Brazilian National Pact to eradicate forced labor and improve transparency in manufacturing.

Like Ford’s model, supply chain innovation offers an opportunity for rising leaders to use the economic influence of private business to impact human rights. Both of these companies leveraged their own success to help solve a global problem. They confronted their spheres of influence and were willing to work with partners to develop solutions.

Similarly, Unilever, the maker of products including Dove soap and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, partnered with Oxfam in 2013 on a supply chain analysis of its operations in Vietnam. The partners sought to better understand the implications of the UN Framework for Business and Human Rights and Global Compact Principles on global companies, and to improve conditions for thousands of workers along their manufacturing chain. Oxfam discovered that while Unilever was committed to high labor standards, policies ran only skin deep; Vietnamese managers were not equipped to implement them and lacked internal reporting mechanisms for violations.

Oxfam dissected Unilever’s business practices and concluded that while Unilever still had a long way to go, its positive corporate culture and long-term relationships with suppliers make it well positioned to confront the root causes of labor problems and authentically attempt to solve them.

Unilever, Ford, and Carlson did not sacrifice profits or shareholder obligations. Instead, they participated in a global conversation on human rights -- one aggregated by the UN Global Compact -- and underscored the importance of effective, cross-sector collaboration to reform their own practices.

A New Legacy for Our Generation

Each of these entities demonstrates the many spheres of influence at play in the pursuit of full human rights and dignity for all. What if every company took the same initiative to understand the social repercussions of its actions?

We need to rethink human rights by recognizing the power of our own choices upon others. Everyone is responsible for upholding human rights, whether as a part of your day job or as a member of a community. Seemingly benign actions -- how much you pay your employees or which charities you support -- are manifestations of your own unique interpretation of what dignity and rights mean.  

The UN, NGOs, and other global institutions have provided a priceless platform for dialogue on human rights. Without the consensus-building mechanisms they provide, there would be no Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no “naming and shaming” of human rights abusers, and no coordinated effort to stop the world’s cruelest atrocities.

And yet, as we continue our efforts to avert the "end of human rights," what will our own generation's legacy of implementation be? As this generation rises to power in public and private leadership roles, those at decision-making tables across the spectrum will have an opportunity to think critically about their own actions. The foundation and forums, from the UDHR to the UN Global Compact, certainly exist. Now, it’s up to us to ensure a future in which human rights are celebrated not only at the institutional level, but at a more personal, human level as well.

Ariel Smilowitz is a senior at Cornell University majoring in Government and the Northeast Regional Policy Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

Monika Johnson is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Alumni Advisory Committee.

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There Will Be Another Michael Brown: Millennial Perspectives on Ferguson [Updated]

Nov 26, 2014

(Last updated Dec. 5, 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:

(Last updated Dec. 5, 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:

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.

Casey McQuillan, Campus Network member and junior at Ahmherst College:

When I watched the announcement that the grand jury had decided not to indict the officer responsible for shooting and killing Michael Brown, I felt outraged. Yet, as a white American, my privilege was to be outraged by the court’s decision while others had to be terrified of it.

As is the case with any discussion of race and discrimination, part of me felt that since I am white, it is not my battle to fight. However, it is exactly this intuition and comfortable inaction that must be changed. Failing to fight for what I believe in is equivalent to taking action against what I believe in.

As the family of Michael Brown urged, let’s ensure that the dialogue on discrimination sparked by the events in Ferguson results in substantive change. Let’s work to translate our words into actions. Let’s make a difference.

Jessica Morris, Campus Network Senior Fellow for Equal Justice and senior at Mount Holyoke College:

The police shooting of Michael Brown and resulting suppression of protesters in Ferguson reflects a testament to racial inequality and a failure in responsible policy. A major response to the unjust death of Michael Brown is to mandate body cams for every police officer in the country. While this policy explicitly responds to the criminal injustice system, I don't think it's a perfect solution; there is too much potential for abuse of the technology. We need just as much accountability with our police officers as in our court system. As Roosevelters, we recognize that progressive change happens best when policy is effective and transformative. Now is our time to respond. 

Andrew Lindsay, Campus Network member and junior at Amherst College:

In Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony, he describes Michael Brown, an unarmed teen, as a “demon.” After he fired the first shot, Wilson says he noted a “grunting, like aggravated sound” coming from the teenager. Each shot after appeared to make Brown more powerful. The “gentle giant” that Brown’s friends knew was gone, according to Wilson. He explains, “You could tell he was looking through you. There was nothing he was seeing.” After firing 12 rounds, Wilson eventually shot Brown in the head, killing him.

In these descriptions we see less of a teenage boy and more of a vicious animal. Many extrajudicial killings of black people share similar dehumanizing testimony. Policymakers and community members need to shift this pervasive negative narrative. Micro-place community policing is one solution. Programs such as Project Longevity in Connecticut, Operation Ceasefire in Boston, and lesser-known initiatives in Chicago and Cincinnati have all reduced crime and increased police-community relations. Community members not only patrol with police but are considered equal partners. Working closely with residents provides information that can prevent dangerous encounters with police, simply by police intimately knowing community members and their families. There are no demons, just police officers isolated from communities.

Molly Williams, Campus Network member and senior at UNC Chapel Hill:

“Atticus”…said Jem bleakly. “How could they do it, how could they?”

“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it…seems that only children weep.” – To Kill a Mockingbird

It was difficult to enjoy Thanksgiving this year. It was difficult to enjoy a holiday made possible by white people claiming indigenous bodies and land that did not belong to them. How far we’ve come. White people continue to murder and incarcerate people of color, now in the name of the law. Police officers, primarily white men, who agreed to protect and defend instead continually murder people of color and face no punishment. Racism masked by language like self-defense and “the only option.” 

Yet while it was difficult to enjoy Thanksgiving this year, it was still possible. It was not possible for Michael Brown, for Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Tyisha Miller, Aiyana Jones, Ezell Ford, Pearlie Golden, Orlando Barlow, Jordan Davis, Erica Collins, and countless other people of color murdered at the hands of white men, primarily police officers. I cannot speak for them, but I imagine it was impossible for their families as well, seated around tables with an empty chair.

“It was difficult to enjoy Thanksgiving this year” – a clever rephrasing of white guilt and another product of a racist system.

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Leadership Wanted: Pushing for More College Attainment? Start in Public Housing.

Nov 6, 2014Kevin Stump

Public housing creates an opportunity to bring together resources to increase college attainment and success for some of New York City's neediest students.

“We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love. And so today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York,” Mayor de Blasio stated during his Inauguration Speech on January 1, 2014.

Public housing creates an opportunity to bring together resources to increase college attainment and success for some of New York City's neediest students.

“We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love. And so today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York,” Mayor de Blasio stated during his Inauguration Speech on January 1, 2014.

As I discussed in “The College Access Crisis Needs You, Mayor de Blasio,” part of the “new progressive direction” Mayor de Blasio envisions must include a radical transformation of how we prioritize and invest in college access pipeline opportunities to combat economic and social inequalities.

The City should bring together all of the housing-related agencies to develop a strategy that will initiate an aggressive plan to further integrate and leverage community partners and key stakeholders to close the college readiness gap among students living in NYC public housing. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), whose mission is to “increase opportunities for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers by providing safe, affordable housing and facilitating access to social and community services,” is an ideal place to start.

There are well over 600,000 New Yorkers served by conventional public housing with an average family income of under $25,000 and nearly 250,000 families on a waiting list. As alarming as this reality is, it very clearly identifies hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who would greatly benefit from a strategic shockwave of investments – both political and financial – to radically open up the opportunities pipeline, focusing on increasing college attainment.

Public housing developments are almost always located in communities that are low-income and high poverty, with a disproportionate concentration of minorities. They were intentionally built in these communities as a response of America’s Great Migration from 1915 to the 1970s, in which blacks migrated from the segregated south to the northern cities. Consequently, these cities never fully integrated and still remain economically and geographically segregated today. About 75 percent of public students who live in NYCHA housing are eligible for a free school lunch (an indicator to identify poverty) and more than 75 percent of these students are Black or Hispanic.

It’s no secret. A kid living in public housing performs worse than a kid who doesn’t. By a lot. Only 38 percent of NYCHA students passed their reading exams and just 41 percent passed their math exams. Among non-NYCHA students, nearly 50 percent of students passed their reading exams while nearly 52 percent of students passed their math exams. What’s more is that only about 55 percent of NYCHA students graduate from high school versus 61 percent of their non-NYCHA peers. This might help to explain why only 3 percent of CUNY freshman come from public housing and why those freshmen require more remedial course work than their non-public housing counterparts.

It is important to note that there is some work being done already. NYCHA offers a few scholarships for public housing students to pursue higher learning. NYCHA also partners with groups like the Educational Alliance. Unfortunately, these efforts are not only underfunded but often focus only on admissions related topics rather than actually preparing for and succeeding at college.

In addition to leveraging NYCHA and other housing-related agencies to reach New Yorkers in public housing, New York City has about forty other agencies serving more than eight million residents and employing about 300,000 public employees.

The city needs to use the public housing infrastructure to develop comprehensive college access centers that utilize and leverage existing projects, organizations, and networks such as the College Access Consortium of New York, GraduateNYC!, Bloomberg Philanthropies new initiative, the Partnership for Afterschool Education, and many others. This includes more than just test prep and admissions advising. A comprehensive college access center would provide full academic, financial, and social support preparing students and their family communities from 9th grade, supporting them while they earn their college degree, and coaching them through the beginning of their career. Integrated into NYCHA space, these centers would build a partnership made up of only the most proven and effective models that currently exist allowing us to see where innovation may be required for this much needed policy experiment to increase college attainment and fight inequality.

Similar to Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine,” which argues that leaders use crisis to push through policies, Mayor de Blasio should use the crisis of great economic disparity to fundamentally reimagine how New York City is tackling economic inequality through college access pipeline opportunities by using all of government and its tools, starting with public housing.

Kevin Stump is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Leadership Director.

Photo via Flickr.

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Election 2014: Women's Rights in the Balance

Oct 30, 2014Andrea Flynn

As the election approaches, a number of close-call races could have disparate impact on women. This piece is the overview in our Election 2014: Women's Rights in the Balance series. The state-by-state analyses, to be published over the course of Thursday, October 30 and Friday, October 31, can be found here.

As the election approaches, a number of close-call races could have disparate impact on women. This piece is the overview in our Election 2014: Women's Rights in the Balance series. The state-by-state analyses, to be published over the course of Thursday, October 30 and Friday, October 31, can be found here.

Pundits have long anticipated that women voters would be the deciding factor in many of the midterm races across the United States. This seems only fitting, given that the outcome of many of this year’s races will shape policies and programs that have a disproportionate impact on women's health, economic security, and overall wellbeing. From birth control to fair pay to food stamps, there is a lot at stake, both at the national and state level.

With the elections less than a week away, control of the Senate is a tossup (and, according to a number of polls, that’s being generous to the Democrats). What if the Republicans gain a majority? For starters, it would certainly make it more difficult to advance proactive legislation on health access, reproductive and sexual health and rights, gun violence, safety net funding, and financial regulations, among other issues.

Even with the current Democratic majority, getting legislation passed has been a herculean effort. Remember a year ago when the federal government shut down for two weeks because of the GOP’s disdain for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and specifically its requirement that insurance companies pay for birth control? If lawmakers can’t do the job of keeping open the very government that employs them, it’s hardly surprising they can’t find a legislative fix to the Hobby Lobby ruling. The “Not My Bosses Business Act” – introduced by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Mark Udall (D-CO) in the wake of this summer’s Supreme Court decision – would have restored the ACA requirement that employer-based health plans cover all FDA-approved methods of contraception. But Republicans filibustered the vote, Democrats fell four votes shy of breaking the filibuster, and the bill met a swift end. Nothing about the fate of this bill – or many others like it – was surprising given the complete intransigence that has come to characterize Washington.

A more conservative Senate will mean even more attempts to reduce non-defense discretionary spending while concerns about ISIS, Russia, and other national security issues drive up the Pentagon budget. It will mean greater efforts to shrink the social safety net, to keep financial regulations at bay, to restrict reproductive health access, and to dismantle the ACA, President Obama’s crowning political achievement. As Politico pointed out recently, it’s nearly impossible for Republicans to completely repeal the ACA. But they would certainly try to overturn the law’s most vulnerable components or use appropriations and reconciliation battles to eviscerate it. And Republicans would use their strengthened political muscle to push for other measures that have been sidelined under Democratic control. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell has promised to push for a 20-week abortion ban if Republicans gain control of the Senate, and there would surely be more where that came from.

Of course, President Obama would veto any legislation that undermines his own policy priorities, but it remains to be seen how much political capital he would need to spend – and what he would be asked to give up – in order to stay the course. Funding for Planned Parenthood in exchange for the employer mandate? Federal protections for contraceptive access in order to pay for essential safety programs like food stamps? Reducing funding for Medicaid expansion in order to authorize a funding extension for the Children’s Health Insurance Program?

Meanwhile, because of the gridlock in federal politics, states have become an increasingly important battleground for both parties to test and advance their priorities, particularly those that relate to critical – and often controversial – social issues. Each party has seen wins thanks to the shifting focus to the states. Look no further than the historic gains in LGBT rights on the one hand, and the significant restrictions in abortion access on the other, that have swept the country in recent years. This election will determine the path states will take in a number of other important areas: Medicaid expansion, abortion and family planning access, safety net programs, fair and equal pay, and paid sick and family leave.

To more deeply explore what the midterm elections will mean for women and families, the Roosevelt Institute is releasing a series of articles that examine where the candidates in a number of “close-call” states stand on the issues. Many of these articles were researched by and co-written with students from these states involved with Roosevelt’s Campus Network, the nation’s largest student policy think tank. Our hope is that these pieces will help voters and advocates assess the pressing health and socioeconomic challenges women face in states across the country, and to illustrate where each candidate stands on policies that will have a disproportionate impact on women and their families. 

Read the state-by-state analyses in this series, to be published over the course of Thursday, October 30 and Friday, October 31, here.

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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Taxes Are Never Just a Class Issue

Sep 4, 2014Joelle Gamble

Tax reforms can't solve all economic inequality, because they won't change the reality of race in the U.S. economy.

Tax reforms can't solve all economic inequality, because they won't change the reality of race in the U.S. economy.

The threat of corporate inversions to the American tax base sprung an interesting political dialogue around tax reform in the United States. We’ve seen debates on how to stop the spread of inversions and arguments that they aren’t a problem at all. Some call for the abolition of the corporate tax rate as a whole and others completely reject such suggestions. I find these discussions of tax reform and its effects on the economy informative yet simultaneously slightly disappointing.

What bothers me about how tax reform debates shake out is how absent they can become of socio-political realities, particularly the reality of race.

One line of progressive argumentation follows simply: If everyone pays their fair share of taxes, we can support public spending and job growth, and we’ll all do better. The argument firmly stands, but there is an important caveat.

It’s easy to harken back to the 1950s when tax rates were high, social services were relatively steady and economic security stretched across economic strata. But who was really secure then? Even the high points of job security for the American economy still left African Americans (and other racially marginalized groups) behind. This a structural phenomenon, instituted by socially racist institutions and a deep history of systemically harming the Black community.

We can’t take race out of conversations around economic inequality. The reality of race is that even fixes to the broader federal revenue landscape don’t always address the structural barriers of racism. A rising tide can’t lift all boats, if some boats are bolted to the seafloor.

Black unemployment consistently exceeds that of whites, both post-Recession and since such data has been available. Gaps between white unemployment and black unemployment shrank in 2009. This was not due to falling black unemployment but instead due to skyrocketing white unemployment.

This racial gap in economic success extends beyond the employment rate. In fact, it is deeply entrenched in the way wealth is distributed in the U.S. The gap between median Black wealth and median white wealth stands at about $236,000 dollars. Flagrant discrimination, in part, contributes to this gap. But it is perpetuated by generations of asset accumulation policies that are targeted at those who already own assets.

Corporate tax reform alone isn’t sufficient to fix the effects of decades of second-class status conferred on African Americans. The government does not just need sufficient funding to create equality within the economy. Distribution of these dollars is equally important. It needs to reflect the nuances of structural inequalities built into multiple aspects of our tax code.

Take federal housing spending policies as a prime example. Ending ineffective tax incentives, such as the mortgage interest reduction, can start to tilt the scales toward those who are not already wealthy. Seventy-seven percent of the benefits of the mortgage interest reduction accrued to homeowners with gross incomes of above $100,000. We need to rethink housing subsidies so that the benefits of federal programs do not heavily favor those who already own homes.

We need corporate tax reform to ensure that all participants in our economy are paying their fair share. But we also need a federal benefits structure that ensures that the concept of a "fair share" considers our history of discrimination when determining which Americans need those benefits most.

Joelle Gamble is the National Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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Daily Digest - August 22: Sunshine the Cure for Tax Avoidance?

Aug 22, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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

Shareholders, Public Deserve Tax Transparency (WaPo)

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

Shareholders, Public Deserve Tax Transparency (WaPo)

Catherine Rampell argues that requiring publicly traded companies to make their tax returns public would cause companies, over time, to invest fewer resources in tax avoidance.

Homeowner Help Remains Elusive in $16.5bn Bank of America Fine (The Guardian)

David Dayen says homeowners shouldn't count on relief from bank settlements: banks will choose to "pay" as much of the penalty as permitted without helping homeowners.

Injustice in Ferguson, Long Before Michael Brown (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Peter Coy looks at how the frequently racist origins of the St. Louis area's municipal fragmentation created the inequalities that people in Ferguson are protesting today.

How a Part-Time Pay Penalty Hits Working Mothers (NYT)

Claire Cain Miller looks at a new analysis from Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, which shows that across the board, working fewer hours leads to a lower wage in the same job.

Obama Alums Accused of Selling Out (MSNBC)

Many Democrats are particularly concerned by influential Obama campaign staff working in roles that are not supportive of unions, writes Alex Seitz-Ward.

Low-Paid Jobs Now Pay Even Worse Than Before The Recovery Began (ThinkProgress)

Bryce Covert writes that the worst of the declining wages lie in particular sectors like food service, home and care workers, and retail, which employ many low-wage workers.

New on Next New Deal

Campus Network Looks Ahead for Policy Engagement

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network National Director Joelle Gamble considers the Network's nine years of successes, and lays out some of the goals for the year ahead.

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Daily Digest - August 21: Time to Consider the Mortgage Deduction?

Aug 21, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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

How a Widely Beloved Tax Deduction Really Just Benefits the Well-Off and Exacerbates Inequality (TAP)

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

How a Widely Beloved Tax Deduction Really Just Benefits the Well-Off and Exacerbates Inequality (TAP)

The mortgage interest deduction primarily benefits those who make at least $100,000 a year, and dwarfs funding for housing programs for the poor, writes Alex Ulam.

  • Roosevelt Take: In his latest white paper on tax reform, Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz suggests changes to the mortgage interest deduction that would make it more equitable.

What Would Real Economic Justice Look Like in Ferguson? (The Nation)

Michelle Chen reports on organized labor's involvement in Ferguson, MO, where a millennial labor group called Future Fighters is asking protesters want they want their community to look like.

Fed Dissenters Increasingly Vocal About Inflation Fears (NYT)

The newly released minutes from the Federal Reserve's July meeting show that some Fed officials feel the central bank has done all it can to improve the economy, writes Binyamin Appelbaum.

CEOs are Dumb When it Comes to This (MarketWatch)

Simon Constable reports on a new study that shows that stock option compensation isn't really considered in dollars: CEOs tend to get the same number of options regardless of the stock's value.

Why Bank of America Probably Won’t End Up Actually Paying US$17B in Mortgage Securities Settlement (Financial Post)

Consumer relief as negotiated in this settlement and others rarely cost the banks much at all, says Jeff Horwitz. But with few other sources of consumer relief, advocates welcome this one.

The Latest Attack on Labor, From The Group That Brought Us ‘Harris v. Quinn’ (In These Times)

Moshe Marvit explains the National Right to Work Committee's latest tactic, which aims to end exclusive representation in public sector unions and weaken collective bargaining.

New on Next New Deal

Mean and Lean Local Government

In his video speculation for the Next American Economy project, Stefaan Verlhurst, Co-Founder of GovLab, projects how municipal governments might shift tactics to take advantage of broader resources.

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Daily Digest - August 20: Inequality Among Roots of Ferguson Unrest

Aug 20, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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

Ferguson's Race Injustices Have Their Roots in Economic Inequality (The Guardian)

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

Ferguson's Race Injustices Have Their Roots in Economic Inequality (The Guardian)

Suzanne McGee ties the situation in Ferguson, MO to the severe economic inequality facing the Black community in the U.S., which she says limits Black access to political power as well.

Meet the Ordinary People Who Are Mobilizing Around Monetary Policy (WaPo)

Activist groups concerned with democratizing the discussion of monetary policy are sending low-wage workers to speak a Federal Reserve conference in Wyoming. Ylan Q. Mui reports.

The Tax Dodge That Has Plagued the U.S. for More Than a Decade (The Atlantic)

Joe Pinsker looks at the history of companies looking to reincorporate abroad to dodge U.S. corporate income taxes, and explains how the process has changed (and yet not) in the past decade.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz proposes a full slate of corporate income tax reforms in his latest white paper.

Lagging Demand, Not Unemployability, Is Why Long-term Unemployment Remains So High (EPI)

In a new report, Josh Bivens and Heidi Shierholz argue that long-term unemployment is still a component of cyclical weakness in the economy from the recession, rather than a structural shut-out.

How to Save the Net: Don’t Give In to Big ISPs (Wired)

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings calls on the Federal Communications Commission to expand its focus to regulate the relationships between companies like his and the Internet service providers.

OSHA fines company $1M for violating truckers' hours-of-service rule (The Hill)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's fine is about protecting workers and the public, reports Tim Devaney. Trucker rest rules are in the limelight after high-profile crashes.

San Diego Defies Mayor, Raises Minimum Wage (CNN Money)

Katie Lobosco reports that the city council overturned the mayor's veto, approving a gradual minimum wage hike that ties the wage to inflation, as well as paid sick leave.

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