California’s Passage of Fair Sentencing Act Sets Stage for Rest of Country

Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, state Senate Bill 9. This law creates a process to periodically review the progress of individuals sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as youth, with the possibility of resentencing.  It declares to Californians that their children — even those who have committed serious crimes — are better than their worst acts and, therefore, deserve a second chance at life. This is a value I know many Americans share, and it should be a common characteristic of our state laws.

We demonstrated our belief in the inherent redeemability of children when we established a juvenile justice system: a system we made the error of bypassing when a now-disproven theory from the 1980s about juvenile “superpredators” caused us to start throwing away our children. But, as California and the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year in Miller v. Alabama have shown, the tide is turning.

Enactment of the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act is a landmark victory for California and for our nation —the only country in the world that condemns children to die in prison. It is a modest but important reform that had the support of a diverse array of stakeholders, including victims’ families, prosecutors, child welfare groups and medical professionals. Leaders from across the political spectrum, including former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, and former Speaker and current Minority Leader of the House Nancy Pelosi, called on Gov. Brown to enact this legislation. It brings a message of hope to those who were told as young people they were only worthy of certain death in prison.

Extreme sentences, such as life without parole, disproportionately affect low-income youth and youth of color. These sentences contribute to an already-existing sense of hopelessness among many of our children, particularly those who grow up in communities where they are offered few opportunities for quality education and fulfillment of their potential. This deficit of hope, although not an excuse, can contribute to tragic choices. Moreover, sentencing youth to die in prison disregards what every parent knows, and what science has proven: young people, including those convicted of serious crimes, have a unique capacity to change if given the opportunity.

I was inspired to do this work when I witnessed the despair of young people who feel everyone has abandoned them when I volunteered in the juvenile halls in Los Angeles County. I led prayer groups for children facing criminal charges in adult court and in many cases, decades-long sentences in adult prisons. Over time, several of the young people I worked with shared their stories with me. These stories often included incarcerated siblings, parents suffering from drug addiction, homelessness and teachers who had given up on them. I will never forget when a 15-year-old boy looked me in the eyes and told me he had no hope for his life.

The United States of America exists as a beacon of hope to the world, and a leader in upholding individual human rights. But as long as we condemn children to die in prison, we grossly undermine that role. A broad-based movement comprised of people from various backgrounds and perspectives has united to ensure that we live up to our principles by legislating according to our shared value that children should never be sentenced to die in prison. This coalescence is in line with our American history of coming together around shared values, regardless of our differences.

As a nation, we have the moral obligation to ensure that youth are held accountable for harm they have caused in an age-appropriate way that gives them hope of a second chance to demonstrate their value and ability to become productive members of our society.

 




Food is Fundamental, Only Don’t Ask Newt Gingrich

On January 21 Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Primary. But he did it, in part, by using racist rhetoric, characterizing President Obama as “the best food stamp president in American history.” Since then, he has continued to drive this distortion hoping it will somehow resonate with voters. It’s not likely to work, because most Americans understand that food is fundamental. Presidents do not put people onto the food stamp rolls. People, predominately people with children to feed, become eligible for food stamps.

The food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, is a critical safety net for families living in poverty. SNAP eligibility rules require that participants be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

Recent studies show that 49 percent of all SNAP participants are children (age 18 or younger), with almost two-thirds of SNAP children living in single-parent households. In total, 76 percent of SNAP benefits go towards households with children, 16 percent go to households with disabled persons, and 9 percent go to households with senior citizens.

Newt Gingrich’s attempt to paint Obama as the president who oversaw the largest increase of SNAP participation is inaccurate. It was President Bush, not President Obama who has that distinction.  This stands to reason, as it was during President Bush’s administration that our country’s economy plummeted.  Newt Gingrich’ race-baiting tactic is repugnant, of course, and he is just flat-out wrong.  As Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL) so eloquently voiced on the floor of The U.S. House recently, “Hunger is color-blind. Of recipients whose race we know, 22 percent of SNAP recipients are African-American. And 34 percent are white. Hunger knows no race, or religion, or age or political party.”

Hunger in America is real.  Programs such as SNAP, WIC, free- and reduced- school lunches, and summer feeding programs exists because there is a need.  These are not fraud-ridden systems somehow sucking the life out of our budgets as some politicians would like you to believe.  According to a recent USDA analysis, SNAP reached a payment accuracy of 96.19 percent in 2012 (the highest ever achieved by the program).  Trafficking rates — the number of benefits exchanged for cash — are at 1 percent, according to 2008 statistics, the most recent available. There is always room for improvement, but the integrity of the SNAP program is solid.

As evidenced by no subsequent primary wins, America is not buying Newt Gingrich’s assault on children, families, disabled, or our senior citizens.

In a recent NPR interview, correspondent David Welna spoke to Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama, and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu from Louisiana. Per capita, Sessions’ Alabama is one of the top food stamp recipients in the nation; so is Louisiana.  Sen. Sessions said, “I think it’s a policy of the administration, just get money out of the door to try to stimulate the economy, and not look closely at who’s getting it and why they’re getting it.”  Sen. Mary Landrieu said, “It is blaming the victim, and it’s making a mockery of some of the most important, I think, social safety net programs in the country.”  Welna asked about government freeloaders?  Sen. Landrieu responded by suggesting Congress should “take away the special tax loopholes for the rich.”

Candidate Gingrich would never advocate for that. Take away tax loopholes for the wealthy? Blasphemous indeed. Hungry children, being hungry, families living from paycheck to paycheck, having a language barrier that limits your ability to navigate our system, being part of the working poor, struggling to find a job, or experiencing financial fear, all these are beyond the realm of reality for Newt Gingrich.

No, he can more easily identify with his patrons such as Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul who donated 5 million dollars to Gingrich through a super PAC. Then his wife Miriam, quickly followed with a 6 million dollar donation. This was just before the South Carolina primary and we know who won the South Carolina primary.




Students Hopeful New College Loan Program Will Take the Pressure Off

Beginning in January, students who borrow to pay for college will keep more of their paycheck when it comes time to pay the loans back. Last Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced a plan that would cap monthly payments on federal student loans to 10 percent of the borrower’s discretionary income.

The change comes after a petition on the White House website asking for student loan forgiveness received 32,000 signatures. Although the focus of the plan is not on debt relief, the new proposal would forgive student loan debt after 20 years of payments.

The program is a modification of an earlier proposal approved by Congress that would have taken effect in 2014 and capped monthly payments at 15 percent of a student’s income. That proposal would have forgiven debt after 25 years. Obama accelerated the effective date of the program through executive order.

With unemployment rates still high across the country, students welcome the news.

“I’m definitely worried about paying back my loans,” said Zach Logan, 19, a freshman at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Logan said he borrowed $500 to help pay for his first semester of college and plans to borrow similar amounts in the future.

“I like the plan,” Logan said. “It sounds like it takes the pressure and stress off students.”

Zach Logan

Senior English major Megan Roberts, also of KSU, has so far avoided taking out student loans thanks to the HOPE Scholarship program in Georgia, which pays tuition at state schools for Georgia students with at least a 3.0 GPA. But Roberts’ scholarship will run out before she graduates, she said. Now she is contemplating taking out loans for her last semester and for graduate school.

“It’s a major concern,” she said. Taking out loans is “a reality” for a lot of students but “it’s a little scary.”

According to Rich Williams, Higher Education Advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) and the Student PIRG’s Higher Education Project, two-thirds of students graduate with college loan debt.

“We are delighted the president is using his executive authority to provide relief to students,” he said. “It’s a small step in the right direction but a larger change is needed to come from Congress.”

Williams said the different types of loans available confuse many students. The new program will help students to track loans and allows borrowers to consolidate loans for lower monthly payments and discounted interest rates. The program is “a little public education and a little debt relief,” he said.

“The president is creating a special opportunity for students,” he said.

Not everyone is happy with the plan, however, including Republican presidential hopefuls.

“I believe it is abuse of power from the executive to impose via an executive order a wholesale change in the student loan,” Michelle Bachmann, a Minnesota Congresswoman and Republican presidential candidate, said at The Future of American Education: A Presidential Primary Candidate Forum sponsored by the College Board and News Corp.

Newt Gingrich, also running for the GOP presidential nomination, called the program a “Ponzi scheme.”

According to Gingrich, speaking at the same education forum, the president will bankrupt “the entire country by promising to every young person you will not have to pay your student loan as a student. However you will later have to pay off the national debt as a taxpayer.”

Photos by Ryan Schill / JJIE.org




April 29, 2011

Read up:

Newt Gingrich Among Conservatives Backing NAACP Prison Reform Report:
http://bit.ly/NAACPreports

Want to Ask the Nation a Couple of Questions?:
http://bit.ly/juvypoll

Georgia Foster Kids’ Psych Drug Use Under Review:
http://bit.ly/fostermeds

Host: Ryan Schill
Multimedia: Clay Duda




Newt Gingrich Among Conservatives Backing NAACP Prison Reform Report

Gingrich

Former Georgia congressman turned Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is among a group of big name conservatives supporting a new NAACP study pushing for a major criminal justice system overhaul.

The former U.S. House speaker has joined other fellow conservatives in promoting the civil rights organization’s latest report, highlighting racial disparities in incarceration rates and the imbalance between prison funding and education spending around the country. Dubbed “Misplaced Priorities,” it asserts there is an inverse relationship between exploding prison budgets and massive cutbacks in public higher education funding.

“Over the past 20 years, nationwide spending on higher education increased by 21 percent, while corrections funding increased by 127 percent,” said Robert Rooks, director of NAACP Criminal Justice Programs. “Even during the recession, education budgets dropped while a majority of states have continued to increase the amount they spent on prisons. During that same time we’ve seen higher education costs in states being shifted to working families.”

Rooks said it is time for a major paradigm shift in regards to the nation’s criminal justice practices. “The same political and social force that we used to increase the prison population is the same that we need now to better our educational system,” he said. Gingrich and fellow conservative colleagues, including former President George Bush’s Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist and Mike Jiminez of the executive committee of Corrections USA, a national organization that represents corrections officers, have rallied behind the report. The NAACP contends that costly incarceration rates have not significantly improved public safety and to some degree have compromised it. Among proponents the overarching sentiment is that it is time to explore more cost-effective alternatives, particularly for non-violent offenders.

“If our prison policies are failing half of the time, and we know that there are more humane alternatives — especially alternatives that do not involve spending billions more on more prisons — it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners,” Gingrich wrote in a statement read during a Washington D.C. news conference led by NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous earlier this month. “Conservatives, such as myself, should not consider criminal justice reform off-limits and I am pleased that our movement has begun to tackle these issues head-on.”

Pat Nolan, vice president of the Landsdowne, Virginia-based conservative non-profit, Prison Fellowship, agreed with his colleague. They are both part of the burgeoning Right On Crime movement that also includes former U.S. Attorney Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Ed Meese. Nolan, a former Republican leader of the California Assembly, had previously spent years in a federal prison for racketeering.

“The fact of the matter is that we’re going to spend $68 billion on corrections costs in this country this year; that’s 300 percent more than we did 25 years ago and the public isn’t any safer,’’ said Prison Fellowship Spokeswoman Kimberly N. Alleyne. “We’re focused on it from the spending standpoint. It’s the second fastest growing expense; second only to Medicare. It’s time to stop talking about being tougher on crime and instead get smarter on crime.” continue >>

Along with failing to keep society safer overall, Alleyne said mass incarceration also tends to result in more dangerous prisons. Many non-violent offenders tend to leave prison more violent than when they entered, she said. “One of the consequences of overspending on prisons is overcrowding which often leads to rape,” she said. “It is estimated that 216,000 adults and juveniles are forcibly raped in American prisons and jails every year. That comes out to about 600 adults and juveniles getting raped in prisons and jails every day.” 

Juvenile justice system reform is also a major part of the growing discussion on the issue, as it costs more to incarcerate children than adults.

“The national average is $88,000 per youth offender,” Rooks said, referring to the costs for providing housing, medical treatment, education and security for child offenders. “We aren’t suggesting that less money be spent per child, the broader issue is looking at how we are currently spending that $88,000 on a child with a wide range of issues.”

Rooks cited Harrisburg, Pa., as a worse case scenario. “This year $1.5 billion was diverted from education funding there while two new prisons are being built,” he said. Rooks said the juvenile justice system has steadily grown harsher.

“Over the past 20 to 30 years we have seen increased criminalization of our youth,” he said. “We live in a society that criminalizes its people more and more. Children are getting arrested and being brought to court for the same offenses that used to land you in the principal’s office when I was a kid.”

Georgia has joined in the prison reform debate. Gov. Nathan Deal announced earlier this year his plans to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee by next January. Georgia has the fourth highest incarceration rate of adults in the nation, costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year.

Among some the NAACP report’s key findings are:

An NAACP billboard in California.

• In most major cities, a significant portion of the prison population hails from a small number of low-income communities.“Millions of dollars are being spent every year to incarcerate a high number of people from just a few neighborhoods,” Rooks said.

• The majority of people incarcerated – in some communities as much as 60 percent – are abuse victims or are suffering from mental health conditions. “Prisons have become a place for warehousing people who have been physically and sexually abused or those with substance abuse problems or mental health issues,” Rooks said.

• More than half of the women in state prisons had been physically or sexually abused prior to their incarceration. “What we’re saying is that there is another way we can address these issues other than mass incarceration,” said Rooks.

• Most incarcerated people are behind bars for non-violent offenses. “We’re doing this to non-violent offenders and putting them in the position where they’ve got to defend themselves [from violent offenders in prison],” Rooks said. “Our over investment into prisons as a nation has created a political incentive for politicians to feel the need to show they are being ‘tough on crime’ by instituting get-tough policies that ultimately don’t make us any safer.”

Both Rooks and Alleyne agreed that there is room for everyone on all sides of the political spectrum to get behind the prison reform issue. “This is not about party lines; this is something that we all can agree on,” Alleyne said. “We all can agree that we care about public safety and spending. This is an across the aisle issue.”

The report is part of NAACP’s “Smart and Safe Campaign,” a nationwide effort to influence state budgets and a push to shift prison spending to education. The NAACP is also launching a multi-city billboard campaign that will feature criminal justice statistics, such as the fact that the U.S. accounts for five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners.




Prison costs burden Georgia as other states test alternatives

Georgia taxpayers spend $1 billion dollars a year locking up criminals in prison.  An eye-opening analysis by the Atlanta Journal Constitution shows one in 70 Georgians is behind bars and each offender costs $49 a day.  It is not because the state has more crime, but because sentencing laws are tougher here, keeping criminals behind bars longer.  In the first of a two-part series, the AJC raises questions about Georgia’s tough-on-crime stand, and whether it’s worth the cost at a time when the state is cutting teachers, transportation and critical programs.  Even some conservative policymakers like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) are studying alternatives to prison.  In a surprising interview, Gingrich argues treatment programs for non-violent offenders work, and can be safer and less expensive.

In part two, the AJC reports about 2-thirds of inmates locked up are non-violent. For them, alternatives such as drug courts and work-release might work and save money.  Other states across the south, such as Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas are working on research-based alternatives.