Monday, April 27, 2015

Economics of Criminal Justice Reform & States Setting a Policy Agenda


Crime doesn’t pay, as the saying goes, but the taxpayers certainly do, as everyone knows.
With a fiscal breaking point in sight and scant return on the investment, the government, and voters, are finally admitting that our expensive and disparate criminal justice system is saddled with ineffective laws and practices that are draining state and local government budgets with unequal results.
The a la carte menu of policies that need need mending includes ending needless laws, reducing prison populations, overhauling sentencing guidelines, restructuring prosecutor and public defender workloads, reining in law enforcement and ending conflict of interest practices in grand jury proceedings.
The remedies are equally assorted. Waves of legislation, voter initiatives and executive actions are rolling across America with the goal of giving law enforcement, the courts and prisons a pragmatic makeover to relieve some of the pressure. It will take many years to repair the system, but a sweeping effort to do so is already underway.
And like a giant digital billboard in Times Square, it is hard to ignore that this movement to retool the patchwork criminal justice system in America is emerging as a rare bipartisan zeitgeist.
These issues bring together the political and ideological spectrum, partnering up players like progressive business magnate George Soros and libertarian energy mogul Charles Koch; “red state” Texas and “blue state” Massachusetts; liberal Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and conservative Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).
Even with some national heavy-hitters in the mix, there is a  grassroots component at work. Criminal justice reform is just the latest major issue driven by policy efforts in an overwhelming number of states and local communities, as a politically divided and stagnant federal government mostly watches from the sidelines.
This “think locally, act locally” activism has recently led to new state laws on minimum wage, the environment, guns, marijuana legalization, education, gay marriage and abortion issues, among many others. We may not agree with some of those results, but we can at least admit that while Washington has become the epicenter of government inaction, the states and communities have become the power center this decade for policy change and new solutions.
No doubt congressional gridlock since 2011 has helped create what arguably has become the most sustained period of substantial state-led policy decisions since Reconstruction. As expected, states rights advocates are euphoric about that.
The problems with the system are not new. Reformers have long asked the moral question: Should a free society allow anachronistic laws and unjustified prison sentences in non-violent crimes to target minorities, or unnecessarily ruin the lives of young people of any color who, for example, are caught with a small stash of marijuana?
As relevant as those soul-searching inquiries may be, taxpayer economics revolving around the criminal justice system is the real catalyst for action during these fiscal belt-tightening times. The burden placed on Americans to finance a system that spends too much time and money to pursue, prosecute and jail non-violent offenders is a driving force behind a movement spreading swiftly in the states.
These economic factors and limited resources are contributing to many Americans to be more open-minded about reconsidering what is real crime and what is fair punishment. Once voters shift, politicians have little choice but to re-adjust their agendas, as well. The mainstream, middle class appeal of new revenue streams being created by marijuana legalization in the states is a signal that this trend is becoming the new normal.
Naturally everyone should be for law and order, but instead of wasting time on offenses that do not threaten people or property, Americans want police and the courts to focus on violent offenses and keeping their communities safe. With the help of the Justice Center at The Council of State Governments, dozens of states, some conservative and some liberal, are doing just that.
Texas, for instance, saved $443 million by decreasing the number of non-violent substance abusers it incarcerates, opting to divert them to treatment and education programs instead of prison.
“So instead of sending (drug offenders) to jail where they did not get better, (Texas) completely turned the whole system upside down,” Massachusetts state Senate President Stan Rosenberg, a reform advocate, told a gathering of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce recently.
Taxpayers pay an average of $31,286 annually for each inmate in the U.S. – about the average price of tuition for a single student at private colleges and universities. Multiply that by the 2.2 million people now incarcerated in U.S. corrections facilities, and that adds up to a whopping $69 billion yearly in taxpayer dollars.
Equally daunting is that the U.S. currently locks up 600,000 more prisoners than China, and 1.5 million more inmates than Russia. Those comparisons are stark when you consider which of those three nations likes to call itself a “a free country.”
The good news looking forward is that the alliances among political opponents as well as public opinion demonstrate the momentum in this arena is so powerful that even the gridlocked Congress is likely to wise up and follow the states’ lead on criminal justice reform. Republican Rand Paul is already making it an issue in his campaign for president, and more White House contenders will surely join the ranks before the Iowa caucuses are held next January.
But if lasting change is to come, some experts contend the effort to remedy all the complex problems within the legal system will have to expand beyond voter-driven ballot initiatives, legislative recourse, judicial fiat on the part of district attorneys and judges or executive action by mayors, governors or the president.
The entire legal system, the media, educators and other influencers also must rethink the shortcomings “and consider what equal and fair justice means, and how best to carry out the law,” legal scholar and attorney Jonathan Rapping detailed for me in an interview.
“This is an adaptive challenge," said Rapping, who heads Gideon’s Promise, an Atlanta-based criminal defense advocacy center.
While laws, edicts or orders can lead to a successful quick fix, a wholesale cultural change likely will follow a much longer timeline. Rapping drew a vivid parallel between repairing the criminal justice system and the evolution of the civil rights movement.
"For Martin Luther King, the end wasn't the signing of a law," Rapping said.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Progressives Join Fight for Democracy that's Shifted from DC to the States

Memo
To: Concerned Parties
Re: Progressives Taking the Fight to the States

Democrats were pounded in the trenches in the 2014 elections. The Washington-centric party establishment built a failed election strategy around preserving the Senate majority in Congress, leaving state organizations underfunded and ill-prepared to recruit good candidates, coordinate campaigns and raise money to fill their war chests.

The Republicans did just the opposite, and the result was clear. With all the short-term satisfaction of a junky concerned only with a quick fix, the electoral map-driven Democratic Party ceded the majority of local legislative races in most states to the opposition. The Democrat's strategy did very little to counter conservatives skillful organizing and recruiting on the local level.

Republicans picked up more than 300 state legislative seats and added a handful of governor's offices to the tally, giving the GOP now total control of 23 state legislatures. Once led by iconoclastic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, the party forgot the Massachusetts politician's timeless observation: "All politics is local." You have to look back to the 1920s, when Democrats were mainly a Southern party, to find a worse showing for the Jeffersonians.

Why be so sure it was party apparatus that failed to field a more competitive slate from the ground up? Because many of the issues that progressives have advocated for years did just fine last week with voters. Those issue campaigns had organizational infrastructure, energy and a winning game plan. Given the inconsistent coverage and headlines, the drubbing Democratic candidates took last week overshadowed most of the wins for cornerstone progressive issues, including raising the minimum wage, protecting a woman's right to choose, community gun safety and protecting food and water from fracking.

Most heartening for the left, many of those victories came in hardcore red states.

While party officials in Washington privately search for answers, new leadership and a fresh direction, progressive organizers are moving forward. Activist leaders on the left see victories in states like Alaska, Nebraska and Texas as proof voters support issues that contribute to personal freedom -- from public safety to being able to making livable earnings.

Author and scholar George Lakoff contends "Most progressive issues are freedom issues," and they tend to cut across ideological lines. This philosophy bodes well for winning the hearts and minds of those ever-important swing voters. Progressives have hitched their efforts to issues that have a better chance of moving middle of the road voters.

As one initiative campaign organizer, Adam Briggle, told The Los Angeles Times after winning a ban on fracking in a Texas Oil Patch town, "People recognize this is a mainstream issue."

This year there was a lot more appeal for issues than the elected officials who allegedly trumpet them. That will remain the model for getting things done. Why? Because voters like having a say, and unlike candidates, issues are defined. Issues don't waver under pressure, or find ways to avoid doing the right thing for the sake of political expedience. Issues must do exactly what they say they will do when they are approved by the voters.

"It's no fluke that voters in the state of Washington chose to keep guns out of the hands of criminals," Gun Truth Project Director Naomi Seligman said after voters in the Pacific Northwest state opted for universal background checks on all gun sales. "As mass shootings continuing to punctuate the news, voters will stand up for the right to protect their communities from gun-wielding predators."

The potential to grow the base of voters who support progressive issues is immense, and because of that, the 2014 elections will become a catalyst for a new effort to leverage the success of progressive state ballot initiatives into the most comprehensive national plan to expand and energize base voters with the goal of enacting a national agenda on the state and local level.

“Progressives are looking around to figure out where to go to push back, and there has not been a vehicle to do that at the state level — it’s the biggest missing piece in the progressive infrastructure,” Nick Rathod, a career Democratic operative who is raising money and interest in taking the fight back to the neighborhoods, tells Politico.

Rathod, who served as President Barack Obama’s liaison to state officials and directed state campaigns for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun safety group, intends to use his progressive group SIX to support campaigns and legislation in the states, providing organizational, media and issue expertise -- along with opposition research, a necessary tool for winning an election at any level.

This election was a wake up call for the left. If progressive forces fail to re-build the ranks on the local level it will create a long-term debacle with widespread ramifications -- from gerrymandering congressional districts so they favor conservative candidates, to preventing progressive policy from taking root at the local level, and allowing the right wing to out-organize, out-recruit and out-vote the left in even some of the true blue states across the country.

And does anyone expect the freshly installed divided federal government to get anything significant done the final two years of the Obama administration? Washington will be home to political grandstanding, and not much more.

"If you think the Republicans in Congress are headed on a new path, consider that a 50 percent majority of Republicans think 'the new Congress should begin an impeachment investigation of Obama,'” the authors of the Democracy Corps survey taken on election day write in their poll analysis.

Doesn't it make the most sense to fight where the fight is happening? As has been the practice since the 2010 midterm elections, most significant social and economic policy in this country will continue to be enacted in the states. The fight, for the foreseeable future, is in America, not Washington. The 2015 off-year elections will provide an opportunity to test the progressive ranks' resources and its will to win ahead of the 2016 showdown.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Alaska, Oregon, D.C. Will Move to End Pot Prohibition

The buzz today? The impending victory for the liberal and libertarian alliance riding down Highway 420.

Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia voters will vote to legalize marijuana, moving toward creating a new state tax revenue stream and saving time and resources so the police, courts and corrections systems can focus on violent criminals.

When all the votes are counted, it will mark the second wave, following Colorado and Washington, to reverse outdated, expensive and dangerous marijuana laws. The mood of the nation has mellowed and there is much more at stake than simply ending too-often arbitrary small-time pot busts be banned by law in those states.

The Chamber of Commerce is about to consider embracing a new player in the agribusiness. Many conscientious growers will apply their entrepreneurial vision, legally, in a democratic marketplace. Cash-strapped governments will slap a sin tax on a substance and hamper the dark side of violent cartels that hawk their wares duty-free and persist as a pox on pot's kind kin.

The seeds have been planted. Colorado has collected about $45 million in pot tax revenue through the first eight months of this year, the state Department of Revenue reports. Other states and residents in the nation's capital are waking up to the potential windfall the government can make by taking illegal marijuana profits largely out of the hands of organized crime.

After nearly a century as part of the economic underground, the American cannabis souk is already a budding, competitive marketplace. Washington state and nearby Vancouver, B.C. weed merchants fear that once marijuana is legal in Oregon, growers and sellers there will be able to undercut prices, creating a demand for their clients to head south to catch a cheaper buzz. That, according to pro-legalization activist and entrepreneurs, is not the worst problem to face for a fledgling industry fleeing an ill-informed and unenforceable prohibition.

The expected green light that will come today in D.C for legalizing pot will be one of the most significant political victories for the blooming mainstream marijuana trade. Its advocates hope it will be a wake-up call for the federal government. With legalization staring them right in the face everyday, Congress and the Justice Department may finally choose to rectify anachronistic 20th century laws with the will of the people in the 21st century.

"We are going to win and the opposition will have to overturn an election to stop us," Adam Eidinger, the chairman of the DC Cannabis Campaign, emailed me in response to a couple of questions I threw at him this weekend. "The D.C. Council will transmit the initiative in January as planned as well. Any stopping this makes America no better than China or Russia when it comes to respecting democracy."

Eidinger's activist curriculum vitae is well known, but in truth he has for more than a decade hoped to make his living re-igniting the American hemp industry. As pot's innocent cousin, production of hemp's strong, natural fiber is another victim of a misappropriated and misinformed war on drugs. From clothing to oil to durable rope and rugs, hemp can offer new jobs, more taxable revenue and another cash crop for American farmers.

One other state, Florida, decides today whether to legalize medical marijuana, but there is a giant sinkhole in the path: the question is being posed as state constitutional amendment, not a straight referendum. It requires 60 percent of the voters in The Sunshine State to pull the lever for 'yes' in order to become law.

The Florida measure will surely fail to hit the necessary threshold for passage. Older voters remain skeptical. Clearly the pro-medical marijuana campaign failed to sway Florida's elderly voters on the merits of medical marijuana. Seniors are a powerful bloc of voters across the country still influenced by the prohibitionists' lingering propaganda.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Brazil's Dilma has the Momentum Going into the Homestretch

Immediately after the Oct. 5 elections in Brazil, I warned pro-market investors their candidate, AĆ©cio Neves, hadn't earned enough votes to oust incumbent President Dilma Rousseff, even though he jumped to a lead in the polls after that initial vote. Neves never buildup enough of a cushion of support to offset a late surge by the incumbent president.

Now, just days before the runoff, the forecast that Dilma wins prevails. The fact is in run-off elections, like special elections, momentum is the gold standard, and Neves hasn't shown he has enough steam to oust Dilma. Further strengthening my prognostication: investors now say publicly they will pump money into Brazil, no matter who wins.

Yet another poll released today shows Dilma surging. The forecast remains the same: bet Dilma on Sunday.

Dems Positioned to Make Gains in Races for Governor

The Washington-centric coverage of the upcoming elections remains focused on the U.S Senate races, with political oddsmakers (myself included) still unsure if the Republicans will pick up the net six seats the GOP needs to claim control of the upper chamber, though the hedge this cycle appears to be in forecasting the probability that the Republicans will take control of the Senate. 


However, just below the radar of the national mainstream media's daily drumbeat of senatorial speculation is the apparent net gain the Democrats will score in the governors' races this year. Albeit I forecast only one or two pick ups, the Democrats are very well positioned to cut into the 29-21 edge in governorships the GOP now enjoys nationwide.

Considering how much more policy has been accomplished legislatively in the states than in Washington during the Tea Party era, net pick ups in the governors' mansions are quite significant. While Washington is a laboratory for public policy these days, the states have become the assembly line where the legislative work more routinely gets done. 

The Democrats sure-thing pick up next month is in Pennsylvania, where GOP Gov. Tom Corbett has not shown signs of political life in the past year. He's toast.

The Republicans best chance for a pick up is in the open seat in Arkansas, currently held by Gov. Mike Beebe, who is term-limited and is required to step down.

But there are plenty of exciting, and too close to call races throughout the country, including in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, among a few others.

The Republicans have 22 governorships in play this year, while the Democrats have 14 gubernatorial seats to defend.

Here's what some of the expert prognosticators think on the races for governor:



The consensus points to a good election night for Democrats, but there is still time for Republicans to turn the overall trend around. Nonetheless, my forecast remains that the Dem will have a net gain of one two governor's seats.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Betting Scotland Won't Opt for Independence from the UK

Some votes have more impact than others, as we see from across the Atlantic this season. No matter what the outcome of the U.S. midterm elections, geopolitical ground worldwide is not likely to shift, but if Scotland were to gain its independence Thursday from the United Kingdom it would shake up world markets, disrupt European economic alliances and inspire other separatist regions on the continent to take similar action.

The Scottish independence vote is this year's political marquee event, and it hasn't disappointed observers from around the globe. It's quite a spirited dispute.

But anyone wondering what the the United Kingdom will look like after the votes are tallied shouldn't be surprised to see Scotland decide against independence. More than three weeks ago, on the eve of the surge in support for independence among Scottish voters, I forecast that "no" would prevail in balloting, and the UK would remain intact.

After taking a deep data dive and conducting interviews with international election experts in late August, looking at the polling numbers, historic voting trends in relevant special elections and the two sides' ability to motivate voters, there just wasn't enough time for the yes camp to solidify gains and turn voters' emotions into actual votes (though arguably, there isn't nearly as much available voting data available in the UK as there is in the US, where elections are more of an industry, so there are limits to the modeling by American standards).

Literally on the eve of the historic vote, and despite the late surge in support for independence, the new data and sound expert source-driven intelligence leads to the same conclusion: UK unity wins the day tomorrow in Scotland.

Despite the upward movement by the separatist side in recent polls, the margin is not wide enough to trump the unionists' deeper, more dependable voter base of pensioners, public workers and hardcore Labour Party supporters. In a whirlwind surge of backers, some of the new found backers tend to be "soft supporters," who aren't the emotionally charged protest voters who have been on board with the independence movement since the start of the campaign. Their enthusiasm doesn't ensure they will actually vote.

To his credit, First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond rallied the separatist cause with a dominating performance in his Aug. 25 debate with unionist Member of Parliament Alistair Darling, a Labour Party heavyweight. Nearly three-quarters of the viewers on the nationally televised debate on the BBC said Salmond's argument for independence crushed Darling's case for UK unity. In the two weeks that followed, the separatist movement grew in volume and finally broke though to overtake the unionists in a couple of polls. None of those polls showed leads outside the margin of error for the independence side, leaving it a statistical tie.

Then it hit the wall.

With a high level of success, unionists, with the help of top British lawmakers, launched a campaign in the closing 10 days of the referendum that shows all the signs of having halted the momentum of the "yes" forces. The "no" campaign managed to scare many voters into fearing the country would sink into financial anarchy by breaking away from the UK, leaving the new nation without a currency, fewer banks and businesses, thousands of public employes without a job, national security in disarray and individual health care coverage in jeopardy. The unity forces turned independence into the monster waiting to spring out from the closet. Like it or not, it worked because fear motivates people.

Vote watchers, political scientists and history buffs have seen this trend play out on big stage fairly recently. In Quebec in 1995, about three weeks before the vote for independence from Canada, charismatic activist leader Lucien Bouchard was named chief negotiator for the mostly French-speaking separatists. It was a move that rallied the cause and grew the ranks of separatists. By the closing days of the campaign, every poll had Quebec breaking away from Canada.

There was plenty of momentum (some would say more than exists for the independence vote in Scotland right now), and there were some very wise observers who believed that Quebec would be on its own. Then it came time to vote and Quebec chose to stay in Canada, 2,362,648 votes (50.58%) to 2,308,360 (49.42%).

Look for Scotland to channel Quebec when it casts its ballots, but the separatists can walk away with a feeling of accomplishment, given all the new home-rule autonomy England threw at her little cousin to keep her in the family.

(pre-vote analysis and reporting by Kenneth R. Bazinet)

Monday, September 1, 2014

We're baaaaaack. Stay tuned. Ken will announcing some exciting new adventures soon.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Retiring A Blog Born Out Of The Arab Spring

When this blog was launched it actually filled a void for a while. Few Washington-based bloggers were paying attention to the freedom uprisings on the Arab Street.

That has changed.

In the past few months the story moved to the front pages and the top of the newscasts. The phrase Arab Spring is standard today in the American lexicon.

The fall of Gadhafi, free elections in Tunisia and exciting new opportunities present a grand point in the experiment to step aside as an enlightened observer and pursue new challenges and responsibilities. The blog may be retiring, but the fierce pursuit of freedom and democracy surely will not.

Thank you all for your support.