Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Release To The Captives

America is in danger of losing its status as the world’s biggest economy or leading manufacturer.  But in the production of jails and inmates, we’re still number one.  With five percent of the world’s people and twenty-five percent of its prisoners, no other nation even comes close to the U.S.A.

Whether you consider the total number incarcerated, or take a per capita approach, the statistics are appalling.   For every 100,000 U.S. citizens, 751 are behind bars.   In Russia, the only other country in the running, that number is 627.  Massachusetts is below the national average, with 153 prisoners per 100,000 population.  But in more civilized places like Norway the number is 64, or in Japan 63.  Nearly one of every one hundred adults in the United States is incarcerated.

If you’re a person of color, the chances of winding up in custody are far higher. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks are about seven times more likely to wind up in prison than whites.  Hispanics are roughly three times as likely as non-hispanic whites to do jail time. At each stage of the criminal justice process where discretion is involved, from the officer’s decision to arrest to a prosecutor’s choice whether to press charges, on through the trial and sentencing, and then again in the deliberations of parole boards, bias can enter in.
My wife, who is a criminal defense attorney, sees differential treatment all the time.  Stealing a bike might be considered a prank when committed by a university student, but considered a crime in another neighborhood.  Though the Bay State puts fewer people per capita into prison than southern states like Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, the prison population here is even more racially skewed than in the deep South.

What drives America’s obsession with imprisoning ever greater numbers of its citizens?  Partly the trend is driven by the for-profit prison industry.  Over the last decade, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, the two biggest for-profit prison businesses, saw their revenues double and spent over $22 million lobbying Congress.  For these companies, more penitentiaries and longer sentences mean bigger bottom lines.

 Added to that, politicians continue to win elections by promising to get tough on crime.  Here in Massachusetts that appears to be the case in the current legislative session, where both the House and Senate are considering bills (S. 2080 and H. 3818) to mandate life in prison without parole for anyone convicted of “three strikes.”  That’s tough all right, especially when those strikes include offenses that may or may not involve violence or actual harm to the victim (like simple assault, which may involve no contact but only the threat or fear that unwanted touching might occur.)  If bills like these become law, another 1,500 to 2,500 prisoners could be added to the state’s correctional system, at a projected cost of $75-125 million per year.

How much longer can we afford to see prison budgets grow, while state revenues and services decline?  When will politicians and the public come to their senses?  Aside from the money, the waste of life is heartbreaking, since the punishment for excessively harsh sentences falls not only on those convicted but also on their wives, children and other family members.

The Bible admonishes us to “proclaim release to the captives.”  (Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:18).   Perhaps the time has come for the United States to follow the example of almost every other civilized nation on earth and do just that.

Monday, January 23, 2012

State of the Union

Whatever President Obama says about the state of our union, trust in government is at record lows.  Disgust with Congress is deep and pervasive.  Partisan bickering has replaced leadership. 

But perhaps the state of our union is stronger than you think.  Consider: complaining about our elected officials is part of the landscape of democracy.  Citizens in many countries don’t have the luxury of badmouthing their government.  Look at North Korea, where the demise of the “Dear Leader” led to orchestrated paroxysms of public grief.  Contemplate Thailand, where it’s contrary to the Constitution to criticize the king or royal family.  In Saudi Arabia, dissent is tantamount to treason.  Here in the U.S.A., calling your political opponents creeps, crooks and scoundrels is not only legal but enshrined with all the protections of the First Amendment.

Like America, China is also holding an election in 2012, but the outcome is assured because there’s only one party.  Some admire this system, like Thomas Friedman, who wrote in the New York Times that “one-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”  The one thing it can’t impose, of course, is a sense of participation, ownership or legitimacy among the people it governs but who have little hand in its policies or decision-making.  The one-party system may or may not respond nimbly to a demand for more electric cars or fewer.  It excels at making widgets.  What it can’t countenance is a demand for more freedom, more channels for meaningful expression, or more human rights.

Though far from perfect, America remains a land where ordinary people’s opinions still matter.  As evidence, look at the continuing impact of Occupy Wall Street.  Protestors taking to the streets would be unimaginable in Beijing, whereas here the call for an economy that serves the 99% seized headlines.  According to one recent Pew poll, Americans now consider conflicts between rich and poor a bigger problem than tensions arising from race, immigration, or the generation gap.  President Obama, recognizing that shift, will almost certainly try to address it in his remarks to Congress.

Predictably, Republicans will call him an opportunist and charge him with class warfare.  Democratic supporters, just as predictably, will cheer him as a visionary.  And also predictably, perhaps sadly, very little will change.

Some decry this infighting which so often leads to legislative paralysis. And it’s true; the blood sport of winning elections often requires making the other candidate appear to be a knave, a fool or both.  None of this raises confidence that our elected officials will be able to reason together to find real solutions to urgent problems.  But if the alternative to a shouting match is a Dear Leader pep rally, I say let partisanship reign.  Someone once noted that democracy is a cheerful and disorderly form of government.  Except for the alternatives, nothing could be worse.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

First, They Came For The Contraceptives

As the country prepares to mark another anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the controversy over abortion shows no sign of abating.  Instead, it has intensified to include a general attack on contraception. 

It is estimated that ninety-nine percent of all American women between the ages of 15 and 44 have used some form of birth control.  Sixty-two percent of these women are currently using the pill, IUDs, vaginal rings or similar family planning methods.

But an increasingly extreme Right-To-Life movement has identified many of these methods as contrary to the will of God. 

A ballot measure in Mississippi last fall that defined a fertilized ovum as a legal person would not only have outlawed abortion, but also prohibited use of intrauterine devices that work by blocking an egg’s implantation into the lining of the womb.  While hormonal regulators like the pill and “morning after pill” work mainly by interfering with ovulation, there is a remote possibility that they too could stop the reproductive process after the fact of fertilization.  Dr. Beverly McMillan, a practicing physician and president of Pro-Life Mississippi, refused to issue prescriptions for oral contraceptives for this reason, saying "I painfully agree that birth control pills do in fact cause abortions."

The fact that 55% of voters rejected the initiative in Mississippi doesn’t mean there aren’t a substantial minority ready to impose their views on others.  Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum made that clear on the campaign trail this October. “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before,” he declared, are “the dangers of contraception in this country. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”  Santorum believes states have the right to prohibit birth control, even between married couples.

Santorum has also pledged to defund all federal programs to assist with family planning.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  For behind the longstanding right-wing attack on Planned Parenthood as an “abortion provider,” isn’t there another agenda?  The agency actually provides far more contraceptive services than abortions.  Serving nearly five million women with health care and education, Planned Parenthood prevents an estimated 584,000 unintended pregnancies annually, which helps just that many women avoid the painful moral choice of whether to end a potential life.  But for people like Rick Santorum and his followers, reducing the number of abortions isn’t really the goal.  (At least not if reducing the numbers of abortions involves contraception, face-based sex education, or anything more effective than crossing your legs.)  

That’s an attitude shared by fellow Presidential contender Rick Perry, who as Governor of Texas cut funding for the state’s family planning clinics by two-thirds.  Much of that money will now go to “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” which provide neither contraceptives, well woman visits, nor Pap smears.  When The Texas Tribune asked state Rep. Wayne Christian (R-Nacogdoches), part of Perry’s Republican base, if this was a war on birth control, he replied, "Well of course this is a war on birth control and abortions and everything.”

That war on everything is far reaching, and apparently includes everything but abstinence, “rhythm,” and interruptus. The people who first came asking to end abortion are now coming into the privacy of your bedroom, into your medicine cabinet, and into your doctor’s office. When they come for you, who will be left to stop them?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

It Takes A Union To Build A Dream

Americans will again listen to replays of “I Have A Dream” this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  But few people know the corporate sponsors behind the gathering where Dr. King spoke back in 1963 … because there weren’t any.

Rather, the microphones for that day were paid for by the United Auto Workers, whose chief Walter Reuther was on the podium with Martin.  The “March on Washington for Jobs and Justice,” as it was officially called, was a labor rally.

The march itself was organized by A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the largest black union in the country.  According to one biographer, King “all but idolized Mr. Randolph.”  Back in the Roosevelt administration, when Martin was still a boy, the Brotherhood won important victories, like the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, ending discrimination in federal contracts.  Operating through its Civil Disobedience Committee, the union worked with Truman to end segregation in the armed forces.

So for his mentors, King didn’t need  Tolstoy or Gandhi.  His sources of inspiration lay closer to hand.  Indeed, virtually all the tactics of the Civil Rights movements were pioneered by organized labor.  The picket sign and protest march, the sit in, boycott and mass meeting, even the anthem “We Shall Overcome” had union roots.

But Americans have forgotten that, just as they’ve forgotten why King was in Memphis the day he died, there to support a strike by the city’s sanitation workers.  Most of the workforce was black and had recently formed a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to demand better wages.  But the city refused to recognize the union and police broke up marches with tear gas and billy clubs. 

When the workers invited King to come to Memphis, he could hardly refuse. After all, Dr. King himself was an honorary member of New York’s District 65 of the Distributive Workers of America.  Groups like the Packing House Workers contributed generously to his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  And when he was thrown behind in bars in Alabama, where he wrote his famous letter from a Birmingham jail, it was the UAW that paid his bail. 

King spent his life struggling not only for legal equality but for economic justice.  Indeed, the two were inseparable in his mind.  “What use is it being able to sit at a lunch counter,” he rhetorically asked, “if you can’t afford a hamburger?”

As a theology student at Boston University, King absorbed the “Christian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr, who in books like Moral Man, Immoral Society, argued that personal ethics were impotent to change the world unless coupled with the power of large-scale organization.  Unions gave ordinary wage earners the clout they otherwise lacked to make their voices heard.  And were he alive today, King would undoubtedly still be applying the lessons learned.

He would be reminding us that the federal minimum wage has fallen 20% in the forty years since his death, while the poverty rate has risen since then. 

He would be challenging politicians who want to limit workers’ right to strike, and who try to balance budgets on the backs of employees, rather than raise taxes one penny on the wealthy.

He would be reminding us that the unemployment rate for blacks at the end of 2011 was 15.5%, over double the 7.6% rate the government reported for whites.  The rift between rich and poor in the United States still runs along the color line.

Finally, he would be questioning our national priorities: $664 billion for the Pentagon and foreign wars in 2011, which is more than one hundred times as much as Washington spends on job training, green jobs and all other employment programs combined.

The best tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday is not more oratory, nor a colossal statue on the National Mall.  The best tribute would be a re-dedication to his unfinished agenda: fundamental fairness, with affordable access to healthcare, education and a stable retirement for every citizen in the land.  Workers enjoying an equitable share of the wealth they produce: that’s the Dream.  Anything less diminishes Martin’s message and memory.