Category Archives: Domestic Peacemaking

Blog: Criminal Justice Reform and Gun Violence

Criminal Justice Reform and Gun Violence

By Joan Neal
August 31, 2015

The country may be reaching a tipping point for criminal justice reform. Both on Capitol Hill and on Pennsylvania Avenue, a steady drumbeat for some kind of reform is likely to reach a crescendo as early as September when Congress returns from their August recess.

The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Representative Robert Goodlatte (R-VA), took up the issue just before they adjourned in order to address such bills as the Youth Promise Act co-sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott [D-VA] and Walter Jones [R-NC], the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Act co-sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott and James Sensenbrenner [R-WI] and the Smarter Sentencing Act co-sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott and Raul Labrador [R-ID]. All of these bills have Senate cosponsors as well. Before leaving in August, Chairman Goodlatte announced his plan to introduce bipartisan legislation to the floor of the House, and Speaker John Boehner expressed his commitment to bring such legislation to the full chamber for a vote.

Similar efforts are in the works in the Senate. Sens. Dick Durbin [D-IL] and Mike Lee[R-UT] introduced theSmarter Sentencing Act, which proposes the reduction of some mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses; the Second Chance Reauthorization Act cosponsored by Sens. Robert Portman [R-OH], Marco Rubio[R-FL], Kelly Ayotte[R-NH] and Patrick Leahy[D-VT]; the Record Expungment Designed to Enhance Employment (REDEEM) Act cosponsored by Sens. Cory Booker [D-NJ] and Rand Paul [R-KY],and the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers (Corrections)Actcosponsored by Sens. John Cornyn [R-TX] and Sheldon Whitehouse [D-RI] to reduce the size of the federal inmate population. There are other bills that have been introduced as well. Sen. Chuck Grassley [R-IA], Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, generally a critic of sentencing reform, has been working with a bipartisan group of senators since early August and is said to be poised to bring a bill that reduces the number of federal prisoners and the cost of running federal prisons, to the full Senate chamber for a vote in September.

President Obama has called for a major overhaul of the federal criminal justice system, commuted the sentences of 47 inmates serving long prison terms for non-violent drug offenses and is said to be prepared to make other changes by executive order.

As unlikely as it may be that this dysfunctional Congress can do anything productive, it seems that the stars might just be aligned to actually pass significant criminal justice reform legislation by the end of this year.

Gun Violence Prevention

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for gun violence prevention legislation. While Sen. John Cornyn [R-TX] introduced an NRA-endorsed bill to reward states that submit more information to the federal background check system about residents with known mental problems, it is much narrower than the measure expanding background check requirements for private and gun show purchases, which the Republicans and the NRA defeated in 2013. Sadly, nothing more is happening on this issue now nor is it likely to happen during this term.

Guest Blog: Remembering the Churchwomen, 35 Years Later

Remembering the Churchwomen, 35 Years Later

By Lora Wedge
June 24, 2015

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the martyrdom of Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan. Dedicated to accompanying the Salvadoran people during the civil war in El Salvador, these courageous churchwomen lost their lives, yet they continue to inspire people committed to peace and justice around the world. From my time as NETWORK Field Coordinator, I know that many of you have been as touched by their commitment and faith as I have and I’d like to invite you to participate in a special delegation that will honor their spirit alive in the women of El Salvador today.

This special 35th anniversary delegation sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and SHARE El Salvador Foundation will take place November 28 to December 5, 2015.

A few of the delegation highlights will be:

  • A pilgrimage to the martyrdom site of the four women to hear first-hand testimonials by people who knew them.
  • A declaration of the site as a national historical monument.
  • A chance to meet with Salvadoran women working for truth, justice, sovereignty, and sustainability in El Salvador today, both in elected positions and community organizations.

If you can’t join the delegation, please help spread the word! Or, organize an event in your community to commemorate the four churchwomen and tell their stories to younger generations or those who don’t yet know their stories.

To learn more about the delegation and Ita, Maura, Dorothy and Jean, please click here.

Ita, Maura, Dorothy, Jean, and all the martyrs—we remember you, we celebrate your lives, you are PRESENTE, PRESENTE, PRESENTE, PRESENTE

Blog: Policing Reform—Good News at Last!

Blog: Policing Reform—Good News at Last!

Joan Neal
May 19, 2015

In an effort to stem the increasing militarization of police, the Obama administration announced yesterday that the federal government will no longer transfer certain military-grade gear and weaponry to local police departments and will severely restrict access to other equipment without stringent assurances of its proper use. We applaud the president for taking these positive steps forward in addressing the deteriorating relationship between police officers and the communities they have sworn to protect and serve, especially communities of color.

When Americans turned on their television sets on August 9, 2014 many were shocked to see members of the Ferguson, Missouri police department in full military gear. They resembled an invading army. It might well have been a scene from Iraq or Afghanistan. This was perhaps the first time that many of us became aware of a growing trend in U.S. law enforcement – the increasing militarization of local police forces. It was unbelievable that police would use military force against fellow Americans. What happened to Officer Friendly – the persona that police departments across the country have promoted for so many years? How did weapons of war become standard issue on the streets of U.S. cities?

Unwittingly, the federal government has contributed to this situation. The federal 1033 program, which authorized the transfer of excess military equipment to local police departments, was initiated in the wake of 9-11 to help build the capacity of local police jurisdictions to combat drug wars and keep community residents safe in the event of a terrorist attack. But, somehow it went wrong along the way.

The president’s executive order is one of a number of initiatives the administration is undertaking to address this situation. In addition, over the next three years, the White House will purchase about 50,000 body cameras to be worn by officers and will assist local jurisdictions to implement technology designed to increase transparency as well as build trust with their communities. These and other community policing recommendations from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing will form the administration’s strategy to help reform police departments and restore the public trust in communities across the country. This is indeed good news.

Now, Congress needs to follow the president’s lead and end the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement altogether. With both the executive and legislative branches of government focused on this issue and with increased attention to community policing initiatives that work, perhaps communities and the police who serve them can once again be in ”right relationship.” Who knows? Maybe Officer Friendly will make an encore appearance.

Blog: What I Learned from Marching

What I Learned from Marching

By Colleen Ross
April 07, 2015

If your March was anything like mine, it was filled with stories, pictures, and news coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights. It seemed everyone who is anyone traveled to Selma on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday and took their photo walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I read all the articles paying tribute to the leaders of the civil rights movement in the New York Times. I watched Congressman John Lewis introduce President Obama and embrace him in front of a cheering crowd via webcam from my apartment in Washington, DC. I thought I had adequately honored the memory of the pivotal civil rights campaign.

I was unsure, therefore, exactly what I was doing when I boarded my own flight to Alabama on March 20 to participate in a commemoration of the march, organized by the National Park Service. While I was excited to visit the legendary sites and walk the path of my heroes, I worried that our time and resources were being misspent. As a young person mindful of the various and intersecting social justice struggles of our time, I was concerned that the other marchers and I would only look into the past and congratulate ourselves and our country on how far we‘ve come without acknowledging the injustice that persists today. Additionally, since the commemoration was sponsored by a government agency I expected a sanitized, feel-good version of history that ended with “And they all lived happily ever after.”

Checking into the campsite was my first indication of how the next five days would go. I knew that we were camping in tents, but when I arrived I learned that we would be sleeping on the site of a real “tent city.” This was land where black families had lived in tents, sometimes for years, after being evicted by white landlords in retaliation for their participation in the Selma voter registration campaign. The message was well received: this experience would not just be about the march, but also about the aftermath, including the problems that persist today. And while we spent our days learning about the Selma voter registration campaign and walking the route of the 1965 march, we spent our nights discussing ways to challenge the military-industrial complex, economic inequality, and racial injustice in our communities today.

Over the course of the many miles we walked, I talked to: high school students from Ferguson, Missouri; the editor of a new magazine about progressive politics in the South; a community organizer from Pennsylvania working with high-school students to advocate for statewide nondiscrimination legislation; and a woman who ran for a seat in the Tennessee state legislature and now is working on Medicaid expansion, among many others. Many people I talked to were educators, and they spoke to me about the purpose they find in their work— shaping our youth to create a more just future. There were grandparents and children under the age of ten. Lifelong activists walked alongside nonpolitical women and men. Everyone had a unique vision of hope for our country. We also met and heard from many of the “foot soldiers” of the original march, who have continued to stand up against racism in our country and challenge us to take action today.

What I learned from marching cannot be summed up in a short conclusion sentence. What I learned from marching was a new way of relating to the world and with one another. I learned an attitude that sees injustice, talks about it, and ultimately takes action; a reaction that asks questions, listens, and learns before acting; a mindset that understands that we are all connected, our struggles for liberation are intertwined; and our ability to build community and collaborate with one another is the only thing that will lead to progress.

I traveled to Alabama to understand and to honor the participation of women and men of faith in the Civil Rights movement, particularly the women religious who were key participants of the march from Selma to Montgomery. What I learned traveling 54 miles was that the march truly does continue today. The principles that led religious sisters to travel to Selma in 1965 are still relevant, and thousands—including the members of the NETWORK community—still hear and respond to the call to love one another and work for justice.

The Scandal of Sentencing Juveniles to Life in Prison without Parole

The Scandal of Sentencing Juveniles to Life in Prison without Parole

Carolyn Burstein
February 05, 2015

NETWORK, along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other faith organizations, is an official supporter of the “Statement of Principles” of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth” (CFSY). These principles reflect our strong moral belief in human dignity and rights – as well as the need to respond to those without power. Because we believe in restorative justice, we readily join with CFSY in stating that youth under the age of 18 have the potential to become rehabilitated and should ultimately be reintegrated into society when they are deemed to pose no threat to the common good.

In addition, NETWORK signed on to a January letter to Pope Francis and to the Papal Nuncio requesting that the pope visit Graterford Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania (about an hour northwest of Philadelphia) when he comes to the U.S. in September. Around 500 inmates in this prison were sentenced as juveniles to life without parole (known as JLWOP) – more than anywhere else.

On February 2, CFSY received a response from Archbishop Caput of Philadelphia that he would speak to the Holy Father about the possibility of a visit to the prison. We are optimistic that Pope Francis, who cares devotedly for the young and those at the margins, will respond positively.

The United States is the only country that sentences juveniles to incarceration for life without possibility of parole. Many other countries allow juveniles to be tried as adults, but sentences in these countries are always subject to review.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that, even for homicide, mandatory sentences of life without parole could not be imposed on juveniles. As is the case for many decisions, this ruling built on previous cases in 2005 and 2010. At the time, Steven Shapiro, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) national legal director, said: “Today’s decision helps to restore some rationality to the treatment of juveniles in our criminal justice system. [Now] judges will at least consider the fact that a 14 year old is standing before them when deciding whether to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, even in murder cases. The Court correctly held that laws forbidding such informed discretion before sentencing children to die in prison are unconstitutional. They also defy common sense.”

Post-Miller v. Alabama, the defendant’s age must be considered along with a list of potential mitigating factors, but the justices said nothing about applying the case retroactively. By late 2014, five states, including Pennsylvania, have held that it should not. According to an article in the Huffington Post, originally written in August 2014 and updated in October, state prosecutors have continued to wage a bitter fight against human rights groups and victims groups who advocate for the Miller v. Alabama decision to be backdated. One reason for their persistence is that they are reluctant to lose a bargaining chip they find extremely useful in many cases. The Supreme Court tends to stay out of such state-level battles.

The Sentencing Project,” (SP) an advocacy group for sentencing reform that opposes JLWOP, has been releasing reports periodically since Miller v. Alabama based on surveys of more than 1500 people imprisoned as juveniles to life without parole. Their analyses found that as “tough-on-crime” policies became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, legislators in various states created laws that ignored developmental differences between children and adults and instead focused on the nature of the crime. Even though mitigating factors such as exposure to community violence or having family members in prison contribute significantly to rates of juveniles committing “adult” crimes, these factors were deemed irrelevant. One of the major injustices in the criminal justice systems of the states is their failure to give credence to the human maturation process.

Many other significant findings of “The Sentencing Project” are worth noting:

  • More than 2500 inmates (an estimate) who are still incarcerated received their sentences as juveniles for life without parole (without freedom of information requests to every jurisdiction in the U.S., the exact number is unknown)
  • Of the 2500, 97% are male and 60% are black
  • The proportion of blacks serving life for killing a white person is much higher than the proportion of whites sentenced to life for killing blacks
  • The vast majority of these inmates come from violent homes, and nearly half had experienced physical abuse
  • Forty percent of all JLWOP prisoners had been in special education classes, and less than half had been in school when they committed their crimes
  • More than 25% had a parent in prison, and 60% had close relatives in prison.

The differential value of prison inmates by race is, unfortunately, a notorious fact. As the Huffington Post indicated, “…the mantle of inherent innocence never covered all children equally.” The same article at a later point said that black children were rarely given the benefit of the doubt in the juvenile justice system and were regularly treated inhumanely and as “super-predators” even though they were first themselves victims of terrible violence. And the Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice Fairness and Equity maintains that a disproportionate number of African American, Native American and Hispanic youth face higher chances of incarceration than white youth. Josh Rovner, who authored the SP report in mid-2014, said that black youth are “much more likely to be detained, and much more likely to be sent to adult facilities.” Why would we expect that it would be any different than the adult system?

What is most troubling in the latest SP report is the fact that only 13 out of 28 states complied with the 2012 Supreme Court ruling to abolish mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles. A majority of states have done nothing to pursue statutory reform, while others use loopholes in their legislation to continue sentencing minors to life in prison without parole. Overall, a total of 44 states are guilty of these types of offenses. Mint Press News even says, in an article in mid-2014, that a University of Texas study found that juveniles waiting to be tried as adults are often held in county jails, where they are denied access to services and programs they are legally required to receive.

In December 2014, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case, Toca v. Louisiana that should decide whether Miller v. Alabama should be back-dated. A decision is expected in June 2015. If the ruling is implemented in all the states, both the disparity among the states and the current inequity against youth, especially those who are African American, Native American or Hispanic will have finally been put to rest. Last November, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a sharp criticism of our treatment of juveniles and declared that sentences imposed on juveniles “must allow for a possibility of review and a prospect of release, notwithstanding the gravity of the crime and the circumstances around it.”

We at NETWORK agree with the UN and with the principles of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. The practice of sentencing children under age 18 to life imprisonment without parole is a violation of human rights and dignity, our basic moral values, and a conscience rooted in justice – and it flies in the face of all Catholic Social Teaching.

Blog: How Fear Led to Militarization of Community Policing

How Fear Led to Militarization of Community Policing

Carolyn Burstein
January 16, 2015

So many people hype the fear of crime and terrorism as an easy, quick way to rally support for more police with more weapons, tougher laws, and more prisons that they fail to realize that hyping fear means that truth suffers. Some police and sheriff departments, news media and politicians (and others) have been ignoring reports by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (Daily Kos 8/15/14) that clearly indicate the number of U.S. law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty is the lowest since the 1960s, despite the population of the country doubling.

It is a frenzy of fear that leads police associations and other groups to complain about being outgunned or to talk about a “war on cops” when felony killings of police have been flat since the late ‘90s and have been on a downward trajectory since the ‘70s. It’s true that guns on the street have gotten bigger, but it’s also true that being a police officer today is the safest it’s been since 1964. The most dangerous year in recent decades was 1973, when there were 134 felony killings of police officers in the line of duty. By 2012 that number had dropped to 47. Indeed, violent crime overall is down in the U.S. – it has fallen by nearly half since 1991.

Gun-related homicides and victimization rates in gun crimes, according to data from both the Pew Research Center and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, confirm that both these rates have decreased by about 75% in the last two decades. In fact, the violent crime rate is about to hit a century low. Despite these facts, the public’s perception of the crime problem is that it is still at an all-time high, thanks to the hyping of crime-fear.

According to Daily Kos, there are 137 SWAT raids a day in the U.S. using heavy assault weapons, and nearly 80% of them are deployed for the purpose of executing a search warrant, primarily for drugs. This is at a time when public opinion is clamoring for more treatment centers for drug addicts and less use of punishment for drug offenses. Why is this happening?

As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing” (June 2014) notes, “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.” Data collection, analysis and reporting have been largely nonexistent in the context of SWAT deployments, which utilize most of the military equipment. Let’s examine this issue of police militarization carefully.

In his book The Rise of the Warrior Cop, journalist Radley Balko notes that since the 1960s, “law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier.” This process was strengthened with the so-called “war on drugs” in the 1980s and 1990s, as federal, state and local governments took a hard line on drug trafficking and other crime. During these years, the federal government supplied local and state police forces with some military-grade weaponry, but far worse was to come.

Unfortunately, there are multiple sources of fear operating in our society – fear of crime and fear of terror. Fear-mongering among those who have hyped the terrorist threat since 9/11 has also played a major role in militarizing our communities.

In late October 2014, an article appearing in Mother Jones described one of the largest conferences in the country focusing on the latest weaponry, training and police gear. This major arms expo, known as “Urban Shield” has been held annually since 2007 in various U.S. cities and draws police from around the world. Urban Shield is funded primarily by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but it also has more than 100 corporate sponsors. Outfitting America’s warrior cops is big business and one fueled in part by DHS grants. The money from DHS grants is earmarked for counterterrorism, but DHS specifies that once acquired, the equipment can be used for any other law enforcement purpose, from shutting down protests to serving warrants and executing home searches.

Police departments also have the option of using funds from assets seized in criminal activities so long as they will be used for some aspect of drug enforcement. Forfeiture funds are a huge pot of money – billions of dollars – and they can be (and have been) used to buy firearms.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured into counterterrorism and homeland security programs since 2001, often with sparse oversight and management. It is the overflow of these funds that has allowed many local police departments to acquire their arsenals of military weapons and equipment, including armored personnel carriers called mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, drones, flashbang grenades, M-16’s and many more, along with other more innocuous supplies, like blankets.

The vehicles and military-grade weapons have primarily been supplied through the Pentagon’s 1033 program (a provision in defense budgets that authorizes the Pentagon to transfer surplus military gear to police forces), but many have also been acquired, as we have seen, through DHS grants. Weapons acquired through DHS grants have been particularly lavish for police departments near our southern border, which can use their weapons against “illegal immigrants.”

As the New York Times notes, “The ubiquity of SWAT teams has changed not only the way officers look, but also the way departments view themselves. Recruiting videos feature clips of officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons.” That is how we get images like the ones in Ferguson this past August, where police officers were brandishing heavy weapons and acting as an occupying force rather than the protective law enforcement entities that law-abiding citizens respect.

An ACLU article on December 2, 2014 noted that the Pentagon, through its “1033 program,” has sent over $5.2 billion worth of military equipment or about 460,000 pieces of “controlled” military equipment like assault rifles, armored personnel carriers and aircraft — now considered standard police equipment — to police departments around the country cost-free, since the program was created in 1997 (in the fine print of the National Defense Authorization Act). Not only do most of the police departments lack proper training in the use of the equipment, but as long as the warrior mindset pervades, no amount of training would be sufficient to change attitudes and police culture.

Authorities often claim that the Pentagon’s “1033 program” assists local law enforcement agencies while incurring no costs for taxpayers, but that is not entirely true. All repairs, storage and maintenance of the growing stockpile of equipment have been and will continue to be paid for with tax dollars. Not only is the arms race ignited by militarizing the police wasteful and costly but, far worse, the program is dangerous to the communities involved, because of both the killing and maiming of their citizens. Numerous instances of both have been noted over the past two decades, whether in SWAT raids for drugs (where more than half have yielded no drugs, according to the ACLU) or in other instances of police raids. No complete record of police killings in the U.S. is available.

Only when law enforcement officers cease to treat American communities as war zones will they return to the original concept of policing as a “service of protection.” Only then will we have new respect for the police. No one doubts that the police have very dangerous jobs, especially in a country that has more guns than people. But this does not change the fact that law enforcement officers are called upon to protect and serve the people in this country.

It would seem that the paramilitary training necessitated by the use of military-grade equipment as well as an increasing emphasis on officer safety before all else has brought about a change in the culture of law enforcement. If police perceptions of their patrols are those of a battlefield, then citizens have additional reasons to fear for their lives when they encounter law enforcement officers. And many of us ordinary citizens are people of color and some of us are from poor and vulnerable families and need even greater protection.

In the past 15 years, the U.S. has engaged in a series of wars, military occupations, bombings, air strikes and destabilization of other countries, much of it due to a fear of terrorism. These military activities have inured a large part of the population — and of the police — to endless waves of violence. Almost half of our federal budget, one way or another, is devoted to the military. Until our federal budget begins to focus on the real needs of the people, this type of militarization we are decrying will continue.

Articles in The Guardian have pointed out that if we are concerned about helping the police prevent violence, there are better and more cost-effective ways of doing it. We already know that cities and states with higher levels of education, healthcare coverage and economic opportunity, and lower levels of poverty and income inequality have lower levels of violence/ that is where we should be investing taxpayer dollars.

President Obama, on December 1, 2014, gave his aides 120 days to develop an executive order containing recommendations that would halt a “battlefield mentality” among the police, such as requiring local review of police requests for Pentagon equipment and mandating after-action reports for incidents involving local police use of military equipment.

A few months ago, President Obama said that “one of the great things about the United States has been our ability to maintain a distinction between our military and domestic law enforcement.” In fact, our early Founders, including both Washington and Jefferson, worried that a peacetime military force would harm the republican character of our government. Wouldn’t both Washington and Jefferson be appalled if they were able to view many of our law enforcement officers today?

As the ACLU report on police militarization made clear, “Reform must be systemic; the problems of overly aggressive policing are cultural and cannot be solved by merely identifying a few “bad apples” or dismissing the problem as a few isolated incidents.” President Obama’s request of his aides to develop an executive order for his signature that fully addresses the issue of police militarization is an important step in the right direction, but more may be needed. Above all, we all (and that includes the police) need to spurn our fears of crime and terror and not exaggerate their levels. The truth is quite different than our fears, as the facts make clear.

An excessive reliance on overly aggressive approaches to policing will not end until we stop subsidizing police departments and militarizing them through federal funds. Instead, we should encourage law enforcement officers to protect all human rights and use updated, best practices (from around the world) for protecting and serving the people of this country.

Blog: Addendum to Previous Report on Overall Poverty Data from the Bureau of the Census

Addendum to Previous Report on Overall Poverty Data from the Bureau of the Census

By Carolyn Burstein
October 30, 2014

The Bureau of the Census released its data on poverty in the U.S. using the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) on October 16, 2014. This addendum is intended to supplement the blog written on overall poverty data using the official measure of poverty published in mid-September.

The supplemental poverty measure is an effort to take into account many of the government programs designed to assist low-income families and individuals that were not included in the official poverty measure, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps), school lunches, housing assistance and refundable tax credits.

In addition, the supplemental poverty measure deducts necessary expenses, such as taxes (especially important for many low-income workers are payroll taxes), child care and transportation costs, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and child support expenses.

Given these changes, the nation’s poverty rate using the SPM is 15.5% compared to the official poverty rate of 14.5%. However, both rates were below the rates for 2012, and that is encouraging. Using the SPM, 48.7 million people were below the poverty line in 2013 compared to 45.3 million using the official poverty rate.

The safety-net programs are especially beneficial for children of low-income families; their poverty rate using the SPM is 16.4% compared to a poverty rate of 20.4% using the official data.

However, adults older than 65 fared more poorly – a 14.6% poverty rate using the SPM compared to 9.5% using the official measure. The reason for a higher poverty rate for the elderly using the SPM is that medical out-of-pocket expenses are a significant element for this group, while the official poverty measure is based solely on cash income. It should be noted that, despite the improvement granted children by using the SPM, their poverty rates, nevertheless, are still higher than those of the elderly, as well as the poverty rates of 18-64 year-olds.

The supplemental poverty measure has been estimated since 2010 and is intended to provide an improved understanding of the economic wellbeing of U.S. families and individuals and the way that federal policies affect those living in poverty.

The Sad Saga of Congress Isn’t Finished Yet

The Sad Saga of Congress Isn’t Finished Yet

By Carolyn Burstein
August 26, 2014

Recent Vox reports have included charts proving that Congress is indeed getting worse. One, from a Brookings Institution report, showed the percent of important legislative issues in gridlock in each Congress since 1947 rising from less than 30% to 70%.

Another, from a Gallup Poll study, showed that Congress is terribly unpopular. Since 1974, its popularity with the public has averaged between 30 and 40%, peaking at 84% in 2002 (a period of remarkable patriotism following 9/11) and flagging ever since. It recently reached the low teens, the lowest on record.

A third chart used data collected since 1879 to show that Congress is more polarized than it’s been in over 100 years. Naturally, this polarization makes it nearly impossible for members of the two parties to collaborate on significant issues.

An additional chart, developed for Bloomberg, demonstrates that this Congress is the least productive in the postwar era, passing far fewer new laws than other Congresses.

And still another illustrates that despite the first four charts, congressional elections are more expensive than ever—based on data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.

While much of the data refers to the 112th Congress (since the 113th hasn’t ended yet), the criticisms still apply. As a matter of fact, if these charts contained data for the past two years, each chart might very well demonstrate a worsening situation.

Let’s look first at the productivity of the present Congress. According to a Pew Research Center report issued at the end of July 2014, Congress had enacted a total of 142 laws, but only 108 of those enactments were substantive pieces of legislation (does not include post office renamings, anniversary commemorations or other ceremonial laws), by far the lowest on record. At least the 112th Congress passed over 200 laws. And an August 1, 2014, NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll found that 75% of Americans agree that this present Congress has been unproductive. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Minority Whip, who has served in the last 16 Congresses said, “It’s the least productive Congress in which I have served.”

An August 4, 2014 article in the National Journal reminds us that optimism was running high at the initial sessions of the 113th as both parties anticipated a tax-code overhaul. “Fixing the tax code is one of my highest legislative priorities for this Congress,” Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told the members of the Credit Union National Association in a speech in early 2013. Boehner even reserved the famed spot of “H.R. 1” for this package, but his promise was never kept.

Optimism returned in late 2013 when Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) reached a compromise that would lead to carefully drawn spending limits for 2014-15. Instead, Congress has not returned to regular budgeting with 12 annual spending bills this year, and has abandoned what everyone thought would be a smoother process.

Admittedly, these efforts have been overtaken by both gridlock and polarization within parties and between parties, tying the hands of those in Congress who are serious about their legislative mandate. Reams have been written about these issues over the past two years, and both gridlock and polarization have enjoyed the status of causation ever since. A June 2014 Pew study found that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.” Polarization has had a deep effect on the ability of the two parties to compromise. In fact, the Pew study found that both liberals and conservatives felt that an “ideal” compromise would achieve more of what they wanted than the other side got.

Hostility and intransigence have replaced willingness to compromise, and has played havoc with our legislative system. The sad fact is that some of those who are most intransigent wear it as a badge of honor. That is what happened to much potential legislation this past year. One example (many could be given—for example, immigration reform) is the tax-code reform earlier hailed by Speaker Boehner. Retiring Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Dave Camp (R-MI), after a great deal of work on tax reform, got a very tepid reception from his own panel as well as from House leadership since several ideas contained compromises that would appeal to Democrats. Camp never produced an actual bill as he had anticipated. Nor, for that matter, did Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), despite many hearings and much work. House leadership was being influenced (or pushed) by radicals on the right, and any major tax reform will have to wait for another Congress.

Nor are all the problems of polarization restricted to the House. Since the passage of two major pieces of legislation, Comprehensive Immigration Reform over a year ago and the Farm Bill earlier this year, the Senate has also been mired in gridlock. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) nearly always prevents the GOP from offering amendments on bills, which angers Republicans, who have the power to block bills from passing. In addition, Reid changed the rules of the Senate to a simple majority instead of 60 votes for the president’s nominees for judgeships and for Cabinet positions, a change known as the “nuclear option,” which led to more bickering.

The foregoing assessment of the 113th Congress on the issues of productivity, gridlock, polarization and unpopularity matches quite well with the February 2014 appraisal of 40 academic experts brought together by The Center on Congress at Indiana University. They were drawn from universities nationwide and responded to online questions posed by the Director of Research for the Center on Congress for eight straight years.

Overall, they gave the current Congress a C- and delivered a rather pessimistic evaluation of its ability to function as a policymaking and legislative institution in our representative democracy.

Eighty percent of the experts gave Congress a D or F on its legislative record (its productivity). In open-ended questions the experts spoke of members of Congress engaged more in propaganda than in governance. They were also concerned about the clash of ideologies and hyperpartisan actions that prevented the kind of compromise necessary for the passage of legislation. A full 80% thought that polarization had increased over the past few years. They feared that Congress was perceived more as a venue for expressing competing ideological viewpoints than for focusing on data and evidence for influencing decisions. They doubted that members of Congress were keeping the role of special interests within proper bounds, especially because of the need to raise funds for reelection.

Consistently, the House was rated lower in its performance than the Senate. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much because the Senate’s grade was poor, a D, while the House received an F. These grades primarily referred to “keeping excessive partisanship in check.”

At the same time, congressional elections are becoming more expensive. The Center for Responsive Politics maintains that, based on the fact that over $144 million has been spent on the 2014 mid-term elections as of August 1, 2014, it seems plausible that this election is on track to spend at least $1 billion, roughly the same amount as in 2012, although 2014 is not a presidential election year. Enough said.

One wonders how the House reached its nadir on August 8, 2014, the day it recessed for the summer break by writing legislation that dimmed all prospects for an even-handed bill that would deal with the humanitarian crisis of Central American children at our southern border. Let’s recall that 2014 began optimistically with Speaker Boehner setting out to marginalize his vocal right-wing critics and tame the fissures that were growing in the GOP. Yet, by August these conservative radicals have been emboldened by bringing into a leadership position one of their own, Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA), as a result of Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) astounding defeat in the Virginia primary, and by authoring the Republican response to President Obama’s request for funds to handle the terrible situation of the children.

On a chaotic day (August 8, 2014) some of the most conservative members of the Republican caucus drafted legislation that would prevent hearings before a judge for unaccompanied minors and would immediately phase out the president’s executive order allowing children brought to this country as minors to remain here (usually referred to as the “Dream Act”). The bill would also prevent the expansion of the E.O. to other types of immigrants. There is no way this bill would pass the Senate, even if it passed the House.

Jonathan Weisman, a congressional reporter for the New York Times in an NPR interview indicated that Eric Cantor’s defeat would lead to the House leadership moving more to the right and forestall the possibility of passing any significant legislation right through to the 2016 presidential election. If his prediction is correct, then maybe it’s not a total loss that the House will only be in session for 12 days in September before they recess before the midterms. Maybe all that the House will have time for is to deal with agency appropriations bills, which have not yet been passed. Word is out that there will be another stopgap spending measure to prevent the government from running out of funding after September 30.

While there are numerous decisions that should be forthcoming in September from both houses of Congress, such as those required on miscellaneous tariffs, the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, re-chartering of the Export-Import Bank, the Internet Tax Freedom Act, the expiration of dozens of tax breaks, and a constitutional amendment on campaign finance reform (from Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico), there is so much unfinished business facing the 113th Congress that it would be impossible to manage it all diligently. And this does not include the impasses that exist between different bills passed earlier in the House and Senate, such as those passed in late July 2014 on the Highway Trust Fund, that have to be resolved in a conference.

Those who are hoping for further congressional action during the 113th on such significant items as the minimum wage, long-term unemployment compensation, immigration reform, student debt and the like, will, more than likely, have to wait for a later Congress because they are forgetting who is driving the House’s agenda and how partisan both houses of Congress have become.

Blog: Paul Ryan’s Criminal Justice Proposals Are Good, Small, Bipartisan Steps to Advance Restorative Justice

Blog: Paul Ryan’s Criminal Justice Proposals Are Good, Small, Bipartisan Steps to Advance Restorative Justice

Carolyn Burstein
Aug 01, 2014

Tucked back in chapter 4 of his Expanding Opportunity in America are Congressman Ryan’s proposals for reforming the criminal justice system, an area that has received little commentary in the press compared to his “Opportunity Grants.” This is a shame because he seems willing to buck several within his party who still cling to the policies of “Let’s get tough on crime,” and the zero tolerance modus operandi used since the late 1980s. Not only does Ryan contradict his earlier votes on some of these issues–ThinkProgress reminds us that in 2007 he voted against a bill that would have eased convicted offenders’ re-entry from prison into society, and in 2000 voted against providing alternatives to sentencing—but he also places his criminal justice reforms in the context of poverty.

Yes! Ryan acknowledges a clear link between incarceration and a lack of economic mobility, even stressing that a criminal record is a formidable hurdle to employment. He also quotes a Pew Research study showing the disproportionate impact of incarceration on African-American males. Like a “true progressive,” Ryan is even willing to suggest that incarceration tangibly affects a child’s future when her/his parent is imprisoned, including a reduction in the family income and setbacks in school readiness as well as being more likely to act out in school. Amazing!

Ryan endorses bipartisan reform already introduced in both the House and Senate over the past year–the “Smarter Sentencing Act” sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) and in the House by Congressmen Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) and also the “Public Safety Enhancement Act” in the House and the “Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act” in the Senate. These are primarily bills that would give judges more flexibility within mandatory-minimum guidelines when sentencing non-violent drug offenders, and establish policies to ease re-entry from prison by expanding rehabilitative programs in prison, which would, most likely, ultimately reduce recidivism rates. Such programs include educational courses, faith-based services, prison jobs and drug-abuse treatment.

Ryan’s criminal justice reform proposals are tripartite. He suggests: 1) a reduction in rigid and excessive mandatory sentences for drug offenders; 2) the development of a risk-and-needs-assessment tool for expanding enrollment in rehabilitative programs; and 3) partnering with and supporting innovative reforms to the criminal justice system by state and local governments and non-profit organizations. While most of what he is proposing is included in the legislation referred to above, the third part of his proposal is unique.

Ryan rightly acknowledges that more than half of federal prisoners are drug offenders, many of whom are both non-violent and low-risk, and today’s excessive mandatory minimums play havoc with their lives, overcrowd prisons and do nothing to reduce their recidivism rates. As Ryan told the Daily Beast, “I think we had a trend in America for a long time on mandatory minimums where we took away discretion from judges. I think there’s an appreciation that this approach has some collateral damage…we need to give judges more discretion in these areas.” Unfortunately for Ryan, the Attorney General (AG), Eric Holder, has already begun to loosen the burdens facing many federal prisoners, thus stealing his thunder in the sentencing arena. For the past year, Holder has recommended to prosecutors, judges, state AGs and in testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission that strict, mandatory minimum sentences should be reserved for high-level or violent drug traffickers. Much of the reasoning behind his recommendations is also similar to Ryan’s–social problems associated with incarceration, ethics, economics—which certainly makes Ryan’s thinking derivative. Nevertheless, one is not necessarily looking for pure originality in Ryan’s proposals, but in real fairness.

In April 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to change the formula used to determine sentences for federal drug offenders, thereby shortening prison stays for about 70% of federal drug trafficking offenders. And in mid-July 2014 the commission voted unanimously to apply full retroactivity for 46,000 people in federal prison for drug-related offenses–one fourth of federal prisoners. Both actions were strongly supported by several organizations and individuals, among them Families against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which said in its testimony before the Commission, ”Our modern criminal justice system has, since the mid-1980s, been addicted to using lengthy prison sentences to solve the vexing social, public safety and public health problems caused by drugs. These unduly long sentences have created more problems than they could ever hope to solve. We are delighted that the Commission is taking this modest and well-supported step to begin a long-overdue reversal of course.” Ryan mentions nothing about the progress made by the sentencing commission, an egregious omission.

Despite these actions and the support of senators that are liberal stalwarts and Tea Party favorites, S. 1410, the “Smarter Sentencing Act”—the drug sentencing overhaul at the heart of Paul Ryan’s sentencing reform proposals—has still not passed. Several senators remain wary that these reforms inject too much leniency in the criminal justice system and would create public safety concerns. Even cost analyses by the Bureau of Prisons do not convince these senators, since the analyses do not include the costs to victims.

But opposition to sentencing reform is not restricted to conservative Republicans. In mid-July 2014 a bill on identity theft, reported out of the House Judiciary Committee, was strongly supported by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, even though it included two mandatory minimum penalties. Despite the efforts by Representatives Conyers (D-MI) and Scott (D-VA) to remove the mandatory minimums from the bill, their attempts were unsuccessful. It seems that mandatory minimums are alive and well.

Ryan’s proposed criminal justice system reforms in the area of recidivism reduction borrows heavily from H.R. 2656, the “Public Safety Enhancement Act” introduced a year ago and, like the “Smarter Sentencing Act,” not yet passed. Its three main components are:

  1. A risk and need assessment tool would be developed that would classify prisoner’s recidivism risk as low, moderate or high, and assign each to a rehabilitative program based on the risk level (Ryan decries the current low enrollment in rehabilitative programs, now between 10 and 15%).
  2. Existing rehabilitative programs would be expanded to ensure they are accessible to all prisoners over the length of their incarceration.
  3. Time credits that would help prisoners qualify for prerelease custody would be offered as incentives for participating in the programs. For example, a low-risk offender would earn 30 days of time credits for every month of successful program participation; a moderate-risk offender would earn 25 days; and a high-risk prisoner would earn 8 days. Family phone and visitation privileges would also be incentives for successful program participation.

Finally, Ryan’s third criminal justice reform proposal requires the federal government to partner with and learn from reforms at the state and local level. He asks that innovative or promising interventions be studied, evaluated and used—scaled down, if necessary. He mentions a few promising examples from the states of Texas, Georgia, Hawaii, the city of Milwaukee and a faith-based organization in Indianapolis. This component of Ryan’s criminal justice proposals is similar to advocating for the evaluation and borrowing common in any “best practice” program and therefore non-controversial.

Paul Ryan’s shift from focusing on harsh punishment to rehabilitative programs is a welcome change. Isn’t it about time that we have an overwhelming call to address U.S. mass incarceration? Let us not forget that the U.S. currently has over 2 million people imprisoned, more than any other nation, and that the federal system alone has had an increase of 830% in the number of prisoners since 1980.

We at NETWORK join with the “Justice Fellowship” which praised Ryan’s criminal justice proposal as one way (a small step) to advance the key principles of restorative justice. We believe that these proposals should garner bipartisan support.

Pilgrimage to the U.S. Capitol in Support of the Unemployed

Pilgrimage to the U.S. Capitol in Support of the Unemployed

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