CAUSES OF MASSIVE UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE FRAUD

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The massive unemployment insurance (UI) fraud that occurred during the pandemic was caused by a failure to invest in public infrastructure (broadly defined). Three types of public infrastructure were not adequate to accurately perform and police the distribution of enhanced unemployment benefits that were put in place due to the high job losses of the pandemic.

  1. States’ unemployment computer systems that pay out UI benefits are, in general, antiquated.
  2. Law enforcement capacity to detect and punish UI fraud is inadequate.
  3. Government regulation and oversight of Internet platforms, as well as detection and punishment of Internet-based criminals, has lagged far behind their explosive growth and sophistication.

The convergence of these three failures to invest in public infrastructure allowed as much as $400 billion in fraudulent UI claims to be paid – a staggering loss for taxpayers. This is perhaps the largest wave of fraud in U.S. history. Fraudulent claims for UI benefits occurred through:

  • The use of stolen identities,
  • The use of false identities, and
  • The filing of multiple claims for the same identity, usually in multiple states.

Warnings of weaknesses in states’ UI systems, which often use aging or obsolete technology, have been on-going since a 1998 federal Labor Department’s Inspector General’s report about the proliferation of UI fraud. In 2002, a subsequent report highlighted the use of stolen or fake identities to apply for UI benefits and the repetitious use of an identity across multiple states. A 2015 report, detailed systemic weaknesses that made states’ systems vulnerable to fraud. Both the Obama and Trump administrations proposed efforts to boost information sharing among states and with the federal government to reduce fraud, but Congress failed to enact their proposals. [1] Despite over 20 years of warnings, needed investments in this public infrastructure haven’t been made.

State funding for UI administration has fallen in recent years, in part because unemployment was low. At the start of 2020, as the pandemic hit, states’ funding for UI administration was at a 30-year low and states had cut funding to detect fraud. Federal regulations require states to cross-check UI benefit applicants against other state and federal databases to determine eligibility and to detect fraud. However, many of the states’ systems do not have the technological capability to do those cross-checks efficiently and electronically. Furthermore, the surge of UI claims during the pandemic overwhelmed the capacity of state systems from both a technological and a human resources perspective. As a result, 20 states did not perform all of the required cross-checks and 44 states did not perform all the recommended ones.

Budget cuts have also occurred at the federal level. Between 2012 and 2020, the number of criminal investigators at the Labor Department declined by 28%.

It is projected that from March 2020 to September 2021 (when enhanced federal UI benefits expire) roughly $1 trillion in UI benefits will have been paid out – which is done through state UI systems using state and federal funds. A very conservative estimate is that $100 billion of this will represent fraudulent payments and some experts think the number could be as high as $400 billion.

Multiple Internet platforms host forums and ads explicitly offering tips and techniques, often for a price, for obtaining UI benefits fraudulently. For example, the messaging app Telegram, hosted dozens of chat forums, some of which had thousands of participants, that provided state-specific instructions on how to file fake UI claims and how to avoid fraud detection efforts. These guides provided lengthy step-by-step instructions, with screenshots, on how to enter information. One Telegram user, with the handle “VerifiedFraud,” provided regular updates to his 1,300 chat room participants on how to file state-specific claims and avoid fraud detection as states enhanced their anti-fraud efforts.

In addition, these Internet sites also regularly offer stolen identities for sale. Ads would offer an identity for sale for $70 along with $200 for detailed instructions on how to use the information to defraud a specific state’s UI system. (Incidentally, the chats also reflected serious concerns about fraud by the sites, e.g., that the instructions purchased might not work.)

This UI fraud represents part of an explosion of Internet-based crime that has occurred over the past 25 years. Much of this criminal activity is based on the use of stolen or fraudulent identities, which are often used to file claims for public benefits. From 2010 to 2019, over 2,000 large-scale data breaches of business and government sites have occurred that have accessed 6.9 billion records with personal identities. In 2020, nearly 400,000 complaints of identity theft were reported, up from 13,000 in 2019. Law enforcement needs to be beefed up, both in capacity and sophistication, to reduce identity theft and Internet-based crime.

The scale of the UI fraud is truly mind-boggling. During the pandemic, the number of UI claims far exceeded the number of jobs lost. From March to December of 2020, the number of UI benefit claims was over 110 million while 38 million workers were out of a job or underemployed at the peak of the pandemic. (A small piece of this discrepancy is explained by the fact that if a person lost more than one job during this period, they could legitimately claim UI more than once.) In five states, the number of UI claims was larger than the entire civilian workforce. Maryland reported detecting 508,000 fraudulent UI claims in the six weeks from the beginning of May through mid-June of 2021. In Vermont, 90% of claims in some months were determined to be fraudulent. In Rhode Island, 43% of claims in March were suspected cases of fraud. California confirmed that 10% of its UI payments were fraudulent and it is investigating another 17%. In Washington State, auditors have identified 250,000 potentially fraudulent claims costing $1.1 billion.

The most fraud-prone piece of UI benefits was the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which funded 39 weeks of benefits for workers typically outside of UI systems such as self-employed individuals, “temporary” contractors, and gig workers. Congress did not require the normal verification of prior income and employment for the PUA program, so it was ripe for fraud. Pennsylvania estimated that 84% of its PUA claims were fraudulent and California found that 95% of its confirmed cases of fraud were PUA claims.

The Biden Administration is taking steps to reduce fraud in UI claims. The Labor Department’s Inspector General’s office is getting increased access to states’ UI payment date so they can more quickly and efficiently look for fraud. The $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill passed in March contains $2 billion to help states modernize their UI systems. There have been some prosecutions of individuals who are repeat offenders, often not just of UI fraud but also of tax and other fraud. Furthermore, a company called ID.me, which verifies claimants by having them submit pictures to match to those in identifying documents, has been hired by 27 states since mid-2020 and the Biden Administration is providing $1 billion to expand its services to other states. The experience with ID.me has highlighted the degree of fraud. In New York, new claims under the PUA program fell by 89% after ID.me was implemented in late March. Data from five states indicated that 50% of UI claimants did not respond when asked by ID.me to submit a picture to confirm their identity.

So, investments in this public infrastructure are being made – better late than never – to improve fraud detection and reduction in state UI systems and to enhance law enforcement. However, the regulation and oversight of Internet-based entities seems to be largely unaddressed. Although some platforms and sites have been shamed into taking some steps and shutting down some users by unfavorable publicity, this is not a long-term or efficient solution. The federal government needs to enhance its regulation and oversight of Internet-based entities whose explosive growth and sophistication resulted in massive fraud in the UI system during the pandemic.

[1]      Podkul, C., 7/26/21, “How unemployment insurance fraud exploded during the pandemic,” ProPublica (https://www.propublica.org/article/how-unemployment-insurance-fraud-exploded-during-the-pandemic) This blog post is primarily a summary of this article.

CRACKING DOWN ON CORPORATE CORRUPTION AND SHELL COMPANIES

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

There’s a piece of very good news in the battle against corporate corruption and the use of shell companies to engage in criminal and unsavory activity. You may recall the defense spending bill, called the National Defense Authorization Act, that Congress passed last December and then, on New Year’s Day, overrode President Trump’s veto of it. (Trump vetoed it because it renames military bases currently named for Confederate generals and because it doesn’t repeal the liability protection for social media platforms when third parties post offensive or libelous material.) Given that it was one of a very few pieces of legislation actual passed by Congress, a number of unrelated items (called riders) were attached to it as the only way to get them passed.

One of the riders attached to the recent defense spending bill was the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), which will significantly inhibit the use of shell companies for money laundering and other illegal or unsavory activities. A shell company is a legal entity established without any actual business operation or significant assets that is typically used to obscure ownership and hide financial transactions from law enforcement and/or the public. The CTA is the most significant financial industry reform addressing money laundering since the Patriot Act, which was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. [1]

The CTA will require a company to disclose the names of its owners, i.e., anyone with a 25% or greater ownership share or who exercises substantial control over the company. This information will be in a confidential registry maintained by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) at the U.S. Treasury Department. FinCEN captures and analyzes financial transactions in order to combat money laundering, terrorism financing, drug trafficking, and other illegal activity. Its data is available only to law enforcement and to financial institutions (that use it to scrutinize the entities involved in financial transactions). The CTA also increases penalties for money laundering, streamlines cooperation among banks and foreign law enforcement, and significantly expands the rewards for whistleblowers, allowing them to receive up to 30% of money seized by law enforcement. [2]

The CTA responded to a decade of disclosures of the abusive uses of shell companies led by the reporting of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The ICIJ has repeatedly documented how criminals and the rich have used shell companies to hide their wealth and move their money. It investigated and reported on the use of shell companies based on the leaked Panama Papers in 2016, the 2017 Paradise Papers leak, and its Secrecy for Sale project, which began in 2012 and continues to today. ICIJ reporting has disclosed that Delaware, Wyoming, and Nevada are favorite locations to set up shell companies, in addition to offshore tax havens. [3] Its analysis in 2020 of leaked FinCEN reports of suspicious financial transactions identified shell companies transferring money through U.S. banks for criminals in Russia, China, Iran, and Syria.

ICIJ’s reporting has made it clear that the U.S. has been the country of choice for criminals and wealthy individuals to set up anonymous shell companies that, in addition to tax evasion, have facilitated bribery and other illegal payoff schemes, as well as money laundering for terrorism, political corruption, and a variety of criminal enterprises including drug, arms, and human trafficking.

The U.S. political system is a swamp of money and increasingly the true sources of political contributions and campaign spending are hidden, a trend exacerbated by the use of shell companies. While it is illegal for foreign individuals or entities to contribute to U.S. campaigns, a shell company makes the true source of campaign spending anonymous. Therefore, it is highly likely that illegal foreign money has been going into U.S. political campaigns via shell companies.

The Trump campaign created a shell company, American Made Media Consultants, that spent more than $759 million of Trump’s campaign funds (over 50% of the campaign’s spending). This obscured the flow of money including who was paid when and how much. Nonetheless, it is clear that at least eight individuals who were paid by the Trump campaign were also paid in connection with the January 6, 2021, rally that led to the storming of the Capitol. [4] Previously, Trump had personally used shell companies, including to pay off Stormy Daniels, the pornography actress who says Trump had an affair with her. [5]

The Corporate Transparency Act is an important step forward in increasing the transparency of financial transactions. It will, among other things, reduce corporate and political corruption, inhibit criminal and terrorism finances, and reduce tax evasion. This is a good step but there’s lots more to do, such as strengthening prosecution of white-collar crime. More on that in a future post.

[1]      Talking Points, 1/11/20, “New law cracks down on shell companies to combat corruption,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[2]      Cox Richardson, H., 12/27/20, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/december-27-2020)

[3]      Mustufa, A., 12/11/20, “Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (https://www.icij.org/investigations/paradise-papers/advocates-celebrate-major-us-anti-money-laundering-victory/)

[4]      Massoglia, A., 1/22/21, “Shell companies and ‘dark money’ may hide details of Trump ties to DC protests,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2021/01/trump-tied-to-dc-protests-dark-money-and-shell-companies/)

[5]      Cox Richardson, H., 12/27/20, see above

POLICIES FOR UNIFYING AMERICA

Unifying America requires economic security and equal opportunity for all. If one’s choices in life (i.e., one’s liberty and freedom) are constrained by an unfair criminal justice system or unaffordable necessities of life such as food, shelter, health care, and education, the result will be anger, frustration, and divisiveness. The fear and stress of economic insecurity, especially the loss of economic security one thought one had, make people susceptible to demagoguery and manipulation.

Among the public, there is strong bipartisan support for policies that support the well-being of all Americans and of our democracy. Most Americans actually agree on the problems we face and the solutions for them, so long as politicians do not make them partisan issues. This can be seen in the strong support President Biden is getting for his executive actions and his push for a strong pandemic relief bill, which will support the general welfare, i.e., the well-being of all Americans. (See my previous post for more detail on these.) Beyond these immediate steps, there are other policies that are needed to unify Americans by moving toward the aspirations of our democracy for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

Unity requires fair and even-handed accountability based on the rule of law. Ignoring violations of the law and “moving on” without accountability is unfair and divisive because it means some people are not held to the same standard of accountability as others are. Unity is not achieved by turning a blind eye to sedition, insurrection, and domestic terrorism (see my earlier post on this topic) or to other criminal behavior. If accountability does not make clear what is unacceptable behavior in our society, lawlessness and anarchy will be the result. Pardons of criminal behavior by allies are antithetical to the rule of law and accountability.

Accountability for white collar crimes is an essential part of achieving unity. When employers’ violations of labor laws (e.g., on pay, union organizing, and safe working conditions), when insider trading and financial manipulation on Wall Street, when corporate pollution and unsafe products, when conflicts of interest and self-dealing by government officials, and so forth are not punished, our criminal justice system is unfair and will be viewed, accurately, as biased. Lax enforcement of the law for certain types of crimes or criminals creates disunity, not unity.

Unity in our democracy means allowing and encouraging every citizen to vote and giving each vote equal impact. The suppression of voting, particularly when targeted at certain groups, is antithetical to our democracy’s promise of equality for all. Voting should be easy and convenient in terms of the places and times for voting. Early voting and mail-in voting (including drop boxes for mail-in ballots) should be broadly and easily available. Efforts to restrict voting do not promote unity. Onerous identification requirements for voters are voter suppression; there is absolutely no evidence of any voter fraud, except very occasional, isolated, local incidents that ID requirements typically would not address. Gerrymandering of districts for state and federal offices reduces the impact of some voters’ votes and has no place in our democracy; it fosters divisiveness, not unity. The standard of one person, one vote, means that each vote should have as equal an impact as possible.

Unity requires acknowledgement and healing of the effects of the deep and long-standing racism in our country. Racism and white supremacy are key components of our current disunity and of the heightened focus on the Confederate flag and Confederate statues and symbols.

The failure to hold the leaders of the Confederacy accountable after the Civil War and the “moving on” that let them resume control of state and local governments in the South was devastating to African-Americans.  It resulted in Jim Crow laws and a racist criminal “justice” system that subjugated the supposedly emancipated African-Americans after the Civil War. This failure to demand accountability led directly to the racism in our society today. Racism has been used politically by the Republican Party since Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 and it exploded with Donald Trump and his presidency and takeover of the Republican Party. Our society’s racism has been aided and abetted by many Democrats and non-partisans, as well, over many years.

In the late 1700s, equal opportunity and “all men are created equal” applied only to white men with property. Over the past 230 years, the United States has slowly and fitfully moved toward its aspirational vision of equal opportunity for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender and gender identity, religion, and other characteristics. But we still have a long way to go. Our democracy’s vision has been and is undermined by intolerant white men and other white people who fail to realize or accept that it requires extending rights and equality to everyone – liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for ALL. [1]

America needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of what South Africa did to end apartheid and what Canada has done to address its treatment of its native populations. We must acknowledge the harm done and implement restorative justice for both Blacks and Native Americans. We need to act aggressively now to stop current discrimination, while pursuing a serious, in-depth examination of what has transpired and how to achieve justice.

On these issues and many others, unifying America requires that Congress, state legislators, and our political parties work together on policies that are in the public interest and support the well-being of all Americans. Obstructionism must end. It is anti-democratic and divisive. Ideas and policy proposals need to be considered based on whether they are fair and good for the general welfare, not whether they are Democratic or Republican. Decisions need to be made based on whether they move our society toward the aspirational vision of our democracy, not based on some politicizing label someone may try to attach to them or to a proposed solution.

Polling of the public can provide important guidance on what people want, but true leadership by our elected officials is also needed. There’s strong evidence from polling and elsewhere that people want:

  • Health care for all and reduced drug prices;
  • Serious actions to address climate change;
  • Steps to reduce gun violence;
  • Wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes and other steps to reduce economic inequality;
  • An end to special interest influence on policy making through campaign spending, lobbying, and the revolving door;
  • Actions to increase economic security, including increasing the minimum wage and addressing housing and food insecurity;
  • Improvements to our education systems: affordable higher education; affordable, universal, high quality early education and child care; and equity and quality in K-12 education; and
  • Strong enforcement of antitrust laws to reduce the monopolistic marketplace power of large corporations as well as the undemocratic concentration of economic and political power they hold.

President Biden is taking actions that are unifying America. He is making all Americans feel like the government is doing something good for them, for the good of our country, and not just for special interests and wealthy individuals and corporations. Biden has stated repeatedly that he will work for the good of all Americans whether they voted for him or not, and that he will reach out for sincere bipartisanship. This rhetoric and these actions are essential if we want unity.

People calling for unity are being hypocritical if they aren’t committed to honestly working toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. Without such a commitment, both in action and in rhetoric, there can be no unity. Our aspirational principles and ideals are what make our democratic republic exceptional. To work toward unity and achieving our democracy’s goals, we and our elected leaders must undertake an honest search for the common good, common ground, and how to best to promote the general welfare via government of, by, and for all the people.

[1]      Baptiste, N., Jan.-Feb. 2021,  “Trump lost. But racism will probably win again,” Mother Jones  (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/12/trump-lost-but-racism-will-probably-win-again/)

POLICIES FOR UNITY, i.e., FOR LIBERTY, JUSTICE, AND EQUAL OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL

What unites all truly patriotic Americans are the promises of our democracy: liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. These aspirational principles and ideals are what make our democratic republic exceptional. (See my previous post for more detail.) To work toward unity and achieving our democracy’s goals, we and our elected leaders must undertake an honest search for the common good, common ground, and how to best promote the general welfare via government of, by, and for all the people.

Unity requires economic security and equal opportunity for all, so one’s choices in life (i.e., one’s liberty and freedom) are not constrained by economic deprivation or unaffordable necessities of life such as food, shelter, health care, and education. Unity means equal opportunity for all, particularly for every child. This is what valuing families or “family values” should mean to all of us.

We can’t have unity when a million people a week are requesting unemployment benefits and millions are struggling to put food on the table and avoid eviction, while 660 billionaires have added $1.1 trillion (an average of $1.7 billion each) to their wealth since March.

Unity requires adherence to facts and a commitment to seeking and promoting truth. Without this, there is no common ground on which to formulate policies and make decisions. Unity requires acknowledging the results of the 2020 election and stating that they were legitimate and fair. The media must stop promoting false equivalencies – of truth with untruth and alternative “facts” (which aren’t facts, of course) – and either ignore or prominently label false narratives and statements as such. A return to the Fairness Doctrine governing broadcast media (TV and radio), which was repealed in 1987, should be considered to require those using the public airwaves (which requires a public license) to present information on issues of public importance and to do so honestly, equitably, and in a balanced manner. Similar regulation of social and cable media should also be explored.

Unity requires a fair and unbiased application of the rule of law. Everyone must be held accountable to the same set of legal standards or a society cannot function; it would be riven with divisiveness and fighting among factions. Violent protesters of all stripes need to face equal justice and those who aided and abetted violent protests must be held accountable under the law as well. There needs to be acknowledgement of racial bias and harm. Then, there needs to be restorative justice if unity is to be achieved.

Unity requires our elected officials to work together in good faith to promote the general welfare. Certainly, there will be differences of opinion, but they must be resolved through good faith negotiations and compromise. Obstructionism is antithetical to unity.

Hypocrisy is also antithetical to unity. Different standards or principles cannot be applied in the same or similar situations. There are too many examples of this in our politics and society today to do justice to them all, but examples include:

  • Condemning violence against police that occurs in demonstrations for racial justice but not when it occurs in an insurrection targeted at stopping the democratic transition of power.
  • Blocking the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice nine months before the end of a Democratic president’s term but confirming a Republican President’s nominee on short notice just three months before the end of his term.
  • Opposing deficit spending when proposed by Democrats to help working Americans but not when proposed by Republicans to cut taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.

Here are some specific, largely short-term, actions and policies our elected leaders must embrace if they truly wish to strive for unity:

  • President Biden’s appointees must be approved in a timely fashion, with appropriate oversight of course. This applies to Cabinet members, other executive branch positions, and to judges.
  • Financial assistance must be provided to working Americans. Over 1 million workers are still applying for unemployment each week. The economy has not rebounded to the point where emergency assistance is no longer needed; millions of families are facing hunger and homelessness. Additional direct financial assistance is needed, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, among many others, has stated. Furthermore, unemployment benefits need to be extended and enhanced and the minimum wage needs to be raised – for those who have jobs and those re-entering the workforce.
  • For workers doing face-to-face work, their safety must be assured. Strong, enforceable and enforced safety standards are a necessity.
  • Financial assistance must be provided to small businesses. Thousands of small businesses have gone out of business and thousands more are on the verge of doing so. Financial supports for large corporations through Federal Reserve and Treasury programs that operate largely out of the public eye have been very generous (trillions of dollars) and very successful. This is evidenced by the fact that the stock markets are at all-time highs, believe it or not, despite the struggles of small businesses and working Americans.
  • Funding is needed for COVID vaccinations. Money is needed for distribution of the vaccines and to help financially strapped states and communities implement vaccination programs. The quicker and more effective the rollout of vaccinations, the greater the number of lives that will be saved and of illnesses that will be prevented. The Federal Reserve and others have also noted the importance of vaccinations to the recovery of the economy.
  • Financial assistance is needed for state and local governments, as they have seen their revenue fall dramatically and their costs increase with the pandemic. Without this assistance, state and local governments have been laying off tens of thousands of workers which hurts the workers, the economy and its recovery, and the delivery of badly needed government services.
  • Criminal justice system reform must be undertaken aggressively. Racism needs to be eliminated from all components of the system. Police need strong national standards and oversight on the use of force and racism. The school (and even preschool) to prison pipeline needs to be ended and more appropriate interventions and discipline instituted. Mental health services need to be made available to children, youth, and adults instead of throwing these problems to the criminal justice system. Prosecution and sentencing need to fair and the use of restorative justice needs to be expanded. Rehabilitation and successful re-entry to society need to be the focus of imprisonment, probation, and parole.

President Biden’s Executive Orders are beginning to address many of these issues. They are promoting unity (despite claims otherwise by some Republicans) because they are implementing policies that most Americans support, but which haven’t made it through Congress due to partisanship. For example, 83% of Americans support a ban on workplace discrimination based on sexual identification, 77% want the government to promote racial equity, 75% support the government requiring masks on federal property, and 68% support the continued suspension of federal student loan repayments. A majority of Americans support rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords. [1]

People calling for unity are hypocrites unless they are committed to honestly working toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all or, in other words, for promotion of the general welfare. Without such a commitment, there can be no unity.

My next post will highlight more specific and longer-term policies that will promote unity and our shared vision of liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

[1]      Richardson, H.C., 1/29/21, Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/january-29-2021)

UNIFYING AMERICA

We do need to unify America, both among the public and our policy makers, particularly our partisan Members of Congress. However, there are some people whose minds are like concrete, thoroughly mixed and permanently set – often based on false information – who cannot be convinced to share in a unified vision of America. We will need to ignore them at times and at other times to counter their destructive messages and acts.

What we have that truly unites us all are the promises of our democracy: its principles and ideals of liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. As the preamble to Constitution states, the United States of America was formed to create “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

These principles and ideals are what make our democratic republic exceptional – not what was actually established in 1789, not what it looks like today, and not what it has been at any time in between. The aspiration to achieve this vision is what is exceptional and we have struggled to live up to it to this day.

There is great diversity in America – which can and should be one of our strengths – and significant differences of opinion on how to achieve the promises of our democracy. We need to approach these differences rationally and collegially, with an eye on the overarching vision.

To unify America, we need a unity of purpose, driven by our vision for our democracy, and to be delivered by government of, by, and for all the people. Unifying America requires an honest search for the common good, common ground, and how to best to “promote the general welfare”. Loyal opposition is fine but not destructive opposition, not obstructionism, nor radical revolutionaries trying to tear down our democratic institutions and processes.

In today’s economy and society, we need to reconceptualize the commitments to liberty, freedom, and the promotion of the general welfare. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in his State of the Union Address in 1944 argued that the “political rights” guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness”. FDR proposed an “economic bill of rights” to guarantee equal opportunity and freedom from want that included the:

  • Right to a job and a fair income that could support a family,
  • Right to a decent home,
  • Right to health care and health,
  • Right to social security in old age, sickness, unemployment, and injury,
  • Right to a good education, and
  • Freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies.

To unify America, we need to work toward liberty and freedom for all built on economic security and equal opportunity so one’s choices (i.e., one’s liberty and freedom) in life are not constrained by poverty, economic deprivation, or unaffordable necessities of life such as food, shelter, health care, and education.

To ensure liberty and freedom for all in our new democratic republic, the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was adopted in 1791. These rights remain critically important. However, we need to review the implementation of some of them in light of current technology and current politics.

On freedom of speech, we need to figure out how to regulate free speech on social media; to figure out what is the social media equivalent of yelling “FIRE” in the middle of a crowded theater. Recent events have made it clear that unbridled free speech on social media has contributed to violence and terrorism (i.e., speech that puts people in fear or psychological distress). In addition, social media have contributed to the dissemination of harmful misinformation. How to appropriately control speech on social media – allowing robust speech and conversations while limiting harm – is something we need to figure out.

Freedom of speech in our democracy, where all people are promised equality, means giving equal volume to every voice in America. Giving a bullhorn to those with money and a muzzle to those without money is antithetical to our vision for American democracy. Current legal interpretations equate spending money with free speech, including spending by corporations (not just spending by human beings). This needs to be reconsidered if we want to unify America.

Freedom of religion was meant to allow each individual to practice his or her own religion without the government dictating what an individual could believe or practice. Today, legal interpretations have gone beyond this and, for example, given employers the right to deny contraceptives and other health care to women because of the employer’s religious beliefs. Legal interpretations have also given health care provider institutions and individuals, who are licensed by the government, the right to deny both services and information to patients based on the provider’s religious beliefs. If we want to unify America, freedom of religion should not impede an individual’s right to make decisions with full information and with all choices available to her or him. Individual’s choices should not be dictated or constrained by others’ religious beliefs.

Justice for all means that everyone’s treatment in our society and justice system should be equal and fair, and that the rule of law should be applied fairly and equally to everyone. Anyone and everyone who violates the law must be held accountable. If some people are allowed to violate the law with impunity and others are prosecuted and punished, there won’t be unity. A dramatic, historical example is that after the Civil War we failed to hold the leaders of the Confederacy accountable. We allowed them to return to power in state and local governments. The result was Jim Crow laws and the re-subjugation of African Americans. This underscores the importance of holding white supremacists and racists accountable for their domestic terrorism and other violations of the law today, 150 years later.

Justice for all also means that if some people have received unfairly harsh treatment from our laws and criminal justice system, there cannot by unity until those wrongs are acknowledged and corrected, including providing just compensation.

Unifying America means providing equal opportunity to everyone, particularly to every child. This is what valuing families or “family values” should mean to all of us. One test for a just society is what ethicist John Rawls called the veil of ignorance. He defined a fair society as one where, if confronted with a veil of ignorance about our position and role in society, we would be willing to accept anyone’s position and role in the society. As an early childhood advocate, I’ve presented this as thinking that you are the baby that the stork is about to deliver and if you are comfortable being delivered to any parent in the society, then it’s a fair society. But if there are some parents (or for the previous description, some positions and roles in society) that you would not want to be delivered to or put in, then the society is unfair and unjust, as it does not provide equal opportunity for everyone.

If people truly want to unify America, they must be committed to honestly working toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all or, in other words, for promotion of the general welfare. Without this, there can be no unity.

In my next post, I will discuss these topics more specifically in terms of public policies and actions that are needed to unify America.

BIDEN-HARRIS ADMINISTRATION CAN DO A LOT WITH EXECUTIVE ACTIONS Part 2

There are literally hundreds of important executive actions that the Biden-Harris Administration could take on day one (or shortly thereafter) that are well within its existing authority. The American Prospect magazine and the Biden-Sanders unity taskforce (which was created at the end of the Democratic primaries last summer) have identified 277 executive actions that it could take. All of them are policies that have broad support within the Democratic Party. Many of them simply more fully implement or better enforce current laws. They would take important steps toward addressing important problems. [1] [2]

In summary, the Biden-Harris Administration could, without having to wait for Congress to act:

  • Revamp many aspects of our immigration system (specific examples were in my previous post),
  • Address climate change along with energy and environmental issues (see my previous post),
  • Improve our education system and reduce the burden of student debt (see my previous post),
  • Make our tax system and economy fairer (see specific examples below),
  • Make important reforms in the criminal justice system (see below),
  • Expand access to health care and lower drug prices (see below), and
  • Strengthen the safety net by expanding unemployment benefits as well as housing and food assistance (see below).

Specific executive actions could include:

  • Change economic and tax policies
    • Require federal contractors to pay a $15 minimum wage and not to oppose unionization of their workers, not to move jobs overseas, and not to have violated labor laws
    • Enforce antitrust laws and broaden antitrust criteria to include factors other than hypothetical consumer cost savings
    • Strengthen the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and regulation of the financial industry, especially payday lenders and the vulture capitalists of private equity
    • Ensure strong and binding labor, environmental, and human rights standards in every trade agreement
    • Direct the National Labor Relations Board to make unionization easier and to penalize companies that don’t bargain in good faith with their workers
    • Enforce existing tax laws to reduce tax avoidance and close tax loopholes, including ones created under the 2017 tax cut and especially those for multi-national corporations
    • Re-prioritize and expand IRS tax law enforcement with a focus on high-income individuals and large corporations instead of on low-income individuals [3]
    • Roll back policies that gutted fair lending and fair housing protections
    • Restore the requirement for net neutrality by Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
    • Catalyze the creation of public banking by initiating banking and financial services through the U.S. Postal Service
    • Ban arbitration clauses in consumer and employment contracts that prohibit aggrieved parties from suing in court
    • Direct government procurement of goods and services to prioritize purchasing from small businesses and those owned by people of color, women, and veterans
    • Expand job training programs particularly for green and environmental jobs, as well as for formerly incarcerated persons
  • Reform the criminal justice system
    • Rescind the policy directing prosecutors to pursue the harshest criminal penalties possible
    • Stop executions of federal prison inmates
    • Withhold funds from states that use cash bail
    • Reduce criminal penalties for drug possession and increase availability and use of treatment instead of incarceration for drug crimes
    • Investigate racial discrimination by police departments, prosecutors, and others in the criminal justice system
    • Enforce the requirement that police departments capture and report data on use of force
    • Establish national standards on police use of force and create a national police review commission to provide oversight and make recommendations to local departments
    • Empower the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to aggressively fight racial discrimination within the federal government and in all federal policies
    • Nominate judges with backgrounds as public defenders, legal aid attorneys, and civil rights lawyers
    • Prosecute white collar crimes from illegal polluting to money laundering
    • Prosecute employers who violate wage and labor laws
    • Launch a federal restorative justice program
  • Improve health and health care
    • Re-join the World Health Organization
    • Allow new enrollments in health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) outside of the normal enrollment period due to COVID-19
    • Direct Medicare to reduce excessive prices and price increases for drugs
    • Issue and enforce strong workplace safety standards related to infectious diseases
    • Commit to study gun violence as a public health issue
    • Enforce the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act
  • Address other issues
    • Reestablish the White House’s pandemic response unit
    • End the work requirement for receiving food stamps
    • Change the definition of poverty and the eligibility for government assistance programs based on it
    • Make housing subsidy vouchers an entitlement to all those who qualify
    • Direct the Federal Communication Commission to use its Lifeline program to offer subsidies for high-speed internet access to low-income households
    • Strengthen enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Once President Biden and Vice President Harris have been inaugurated, I urge you to contact them and encourage them to act boldly using executive orders to improve racial and social justice as well as the economic well-being of every working American. Taking these bold policy actions will go a long way toward restoring the public’s faith in government and their belief that government can and is working for their benefit and not just for the benefit of big businesses and the wealthy. This is essential to rebuilding our economy, strengthening our society, and unifying our country by showing that the Biden-Harris Administration and the federal government are actively working to advance the principles and ideals of our democracy, namely liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

[1]      Moran, M., 7/28/20, “The 277 policies for which Biden need not ask permission,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/day-one-agenda/277-policies-biden-need-not-ask-permission/)

[2]      Dayen, D., Fall 2019, “The day one agenda” and related articles, The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/day-one-agenda)

[3]      Wamhoff, S. & Gardner, M., 12/16/20, “The day one agenda for corporate taxes,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/day-one-agenda/day-one-agenda-for-corporate-taxes/)

EFFECTS OF RACISM Part 2

The murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes (while three other officers facilitated the killing) has put the racism of U.S. society in the forefront. The attention to racism is going beyond this specific episode and is including the underlying, long-term racism of the U.S. economy, our society, and the policies, funding, and practices of federal, state, and local governments. (See my previous post here for more background.)

The effects of racism – of racial prejudice and discrimination – on black people today are broad and pervasive. They are the aggregation of current policies, practices, and characteristics of the U.S. economy and society, as well as the cumulative effects of 400 years of racism. I can’t do justice to all the effects in a couple of posts (Even long ones. My apologies.), but I will start by highlighting some of them. Some, particularly the better-known ones, I will just mention and for some I will present more detail. They are presented in no particular order, in part because they are all intertwined and the relative importance or severity of them is difficult, if not impossible, to determine. (See my previous post for effects in Education and Health and health care.)

Some of the detrimental effects of racism on black people that are evident today include:

Economic inequality

  • The median income for black households is only 60% of that of white households ($37,000 vs. $60,000).
  • Median wealth (assets minus liabilities) for black households is only 8% of that of white households ($11,000 vs. $134,000).
  • Most Blacks were excluded from many of the benefits of the New Deal legislation of the 1930s, including the minimum wage, union membership, and participation in Social Security. Much of this was corrected in the 1960s and 1970s, but the loss of 30 to 40 years of these economic benefits is a big contributor to today’s economic inequality. (See more detail in this previous post.)
  • One-third of low-income black households (incomes under $30,000) do not have a bank account (versus one-ninth of low-income white households). This means they must rely on check cashing services and payday lenders for financial transactions, which involve high fees and often usurious interest rates. This made it difficult (or expensive) for them to get their coronavirus relief checks, for example. [1]

Housing (See my previous post for an overview of government policies and practices that led to housing segregation and low levels of black home ownership.)

  • The effects of federal government and bank redlining are still discernible in the segregation patterns of our cities. Black people disproportionately live in areas with high concentrations of low-income households, poor air quality, and low social capital. These neighborhood characteristics are strongly linked to a whole range of negative life outcomes, including lower educational attainment, more unemployment and lower-wage jobs, shorter life spans, higher stress, and worse health and health care. On the other hand, the (white) suburbs created wealth for their residents and provided strong social capital and healthy, low-stress environments. [2] For example, in the post-World War II period, homes in the suburbs, which typically excluded Blacks, were purchased by whites for around $15,000. Those homes are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, a substantial increase in wealth that was denied to Blacks.
  • The home ownership rate for black households is over 30 percentage points lower than for white households. This home ownership gap has increased from just over 20% to over 30% during the last 40 years. It had been relatively stable at just over 20% for the previous 30 years. Given that equity in a home is the primary source of wealth for middle-class and working families in the U.S., the lower rate of home ownership among black households is a significant contributor to racial economic inequality, as well as other unequal outcomes. Equity in one’s home is frequently used to pay for college for children or to cover a short-term financial setback such as the loss of a job or a medical emergency. It is also a key source of retirement savings and inheritance for children. The lack of the economic security that home equity provides also is presumably linked to the higher levels of stress that black people experience.
  • Today, in 2020, interest rates on mortgage loans for black home buyers tend to be higher than for whites because the Federal Housing Finance Agency requires that mortgage interest rates be adjusted based on the borrower’s credit score, down payment, and mortgage type. These adjustments may double the interest rate on a mortgage loan and disproportionately harm black borrowers, either by pricing them out of the market or making the cost of home ownership significantly higher. These mortgage rate adjustments are a dysfunctional and discriminatory holdover from the early 2000s and could and should be changed. [3]

Criminal justice (The pervasive racism of the U.S. criminal justice system – from policing to prosecution and sentencing – that has led to mass incarceration of black males is well known, so I won’t go into it here. I have written about it previously here and here.)

  • Lynching is not a federal crime. Although bills to make it a crime have been introduced in Congress multiple times, no bill has ever been passed and become law.
  • Black people are 23% of those shot and killed by police but are only 13% of the population. Recently released statistics show that in 2019, 69% of the people subject to stop-and-frisk by police in Boston were Black, although Blacks are only 25% of the population. [4]
  • The police (and others) tend to presume that black people, particularly black men and boys, are dangerous and criminals. Being stopped for driving while black is a frequent experience for Blacks, especially if driving a nice car or in a white neighborhood. Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick experienced this while he was Governor, riding in an official car. [5] This racial profiling also occurs when shopping while black, walking down the street in a white neighborhood while black, and on and on. In May 2020, a tall, (6’ 8”) black man, a home owner in Newton, MA, an upper-middle class, largely white, Boston suburb, was walking to the supermarket with his wife when four police cruisers descended them. One of the five officers drew his gun. When asked for identification, the black man knew better than to reach into his pocket – a motion police officers in other situations claimed they found threatening and a reason to shoot. He told the officers that his wallet was in his back pocket and let them retrieve it. [6]

Voting

  • Republicans have been leading efforts for decades to make it harder or impossible for black people to vote – stealing an essential democratic right they were supposedly given after the Civil War. Multiple states have enacted laws that make it harder to register to vote and harder to vote through onerous voter ID requirements. States have also imposed what are effectively poll taxes, reduced the number of polling places in black neighborhoods, and reduced the hours for voting (including early voting that many blacks took advantage of, in part because it can be difficult for them to get to the polls on a work day). All these disproportionately harm black voters. In addition, states have purged lists of registered voters in ways that, again, disproportionately remove black voters. States have banned convicted criminals from voting, sometimes for life, which again disproportionately affects black voters. Finally, the boundaries of voting districts, especially for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures, have been manipulated (i.e., gerrymandered) to reduce the impact of black voters.

The documentation of the detrimental effects of racism is not new. For example, the 1968 Kerner Commission Report on the “race riots” of the 1960s, stated that “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most of white Americans. … White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” It noted that not only had the racism of white society created this situation, but that the (white) public and policy makers were apathetic to the issue of black poverty. The Report recommended large-scale government programs to undo segregation and build wealth for black communities. Obviously, the Report was largely ignored. [7]

As one Boston Globe columnist recently wrote of the racism in the U.S., “I’ve spent years calling the system broken, but it wasn’t. This system was designed to dehumanize and exploit Black folk and other people of color.” [8] As former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who is black noted, “For America, where freedom was the point from the start, only equality, opportunity and fair play make freedom possible.” [9] He probably should have clarified this by saying freedom for ALL or for black people.

It is long past time to address the racism that has persisted in the U.S. for the 140 years since the Civil War and indeed for the last 400 years since black slaves were first brought to America. We need to reform our police and criminal justice system, our housing policies and practices, and all the factors that lead to economic, environmental, and social injustice.

We need to have a serious discussion about reparations – remedies for the enduring harm that past and current policies and practices have caused to Blacks in the U.S. More on this in a future post.

I encourage each and every one of us to think long and hard about how we can contribute to the effort to end racism in our society and to erase its enduring scars. I’d appreciate your comments and questions on this post, including about:

  • Other policies and practices that need to be remedied,
  • Steps we should take to change policies and practices, and
  • How we should tackle the question of reparations for the enduring, cumulative harm that racism has done to Blacks in the U.S.

Thank you for your comments with reactions, suggestions, and questions. This is a discussion we need to have – and to turn into action.

[1]      Guzman, L., & Ryberg, R., 6/11/20, “The majority of low-income Hispanic and Black households have little-to-no bank access, complicating access to COVID relief funds,” National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families (https://www.hispanicresearchcenter.org/research-resources/the-majority-of-low-income-hispanic-and-black-households-have-little-to-no-bank-access-complicating-access-to-covid-relief-funds/)

[2]      Baradaran, M., 6/17/20, “No justice. No peace. Underlying the nationwide protests for black lives is the racial wealth gap,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/civil-rights/no-justice-no-peace-fix-the-racial-wealth-gap/)

[3]      Levitin, A.J., 6/17/20, “How to start closing the racial wealth gap,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/how-to-start-closing-the-racial-wealth-gap/)

[4]      Osterheldt, J., 6/17/20, “An oppression that should have been so clear,” The Boston Globe

[5]      Patrick, D., 6/16/20, “America is awakening to what it means to be Black. Will we also awaken to what it means to be American?” (https://medium.com/@DevalPatrick/america-is-awakening-to-what-it-means-to-be-black-3eb938969f7f)

[6]      Krueger, H., 6/6/20, “A walk to the grocery store, interrupted,” The Boston Globe

[7]      Baradaran, M, 6/17/20, see above

[8]      Osterheldt, J., 6/17/20, see above

[9]      Patrick, D., 6/16/20, see above

MUELLER’S INVESTIGATION RESULTS TO-DATE: 35 INDICTMENTS, 3 GUILTY PLEAS, AND MORE

I’m interrupting my series on a progressive policy agenda for the US, because I think it’s important to document the results of the Mueller investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election, given that President Trump and his supporters are apparently ramping up their efforts to discredit the investigation. (Much of this post is a summary of an article in the Huffington Post.) [1]

In 15 months of a very complex investigation, Mueller has gotten 35 indictments, 3 guilty pleas, 1 incarceration, and 1 on-going trial. Here are some of the details:

  • The on-going trial is of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. Although the charges he’s currently being tried on aren’t directly linked to the campaign, they involve work he did for Ukrainians with close ties to Putin and Russia. He also had close ties directly to Russians and attended the Trump Tower meeting with Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and a Kremlin-linked lawyer who supposedly had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
  • Rick Gates, who worked on the Trump campaign and on the Trump inauguration, pled guilty to lying to Mueller and FBI investigators, as well as to financial malfeasance. He was also Manafort’s business partner.
  • Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, pled guilty to lying about his meeting with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.
  • George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, was the first person to plead guilty in the Mueller probe. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his knowledge that Russians had thousands of apparently stolen emails that would embarrass Hillary Clinton. He had mentioned this to an Australian diplomat. When hacked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed information about Papadopoulos on to their American counterparts. Alarmed American officials had the FBI open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016, months before the presidential election. In accordance with FBI protocol, this investigation was kept secret. Papadopoulos was apparently one of the contacts the Russians used to try to establish secret communications with the Trump campaign.
  • Alex van der Zwaan is the one person who’s gone to jail as a result of the Mueller investigation. He’s the son-in-law of a Russian oligarch and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his work with two members of President Trump’s campaign team, Manafort and Gates. He served 30 days in a federal prison and has been deported to the Netherlands.
  • Thirteen Russians have been indicted for a multi-million dollar conspiracy to influence the 2016 election through social media. They pretended to be Americans and bought political ads and organized political events. Facebook acknowledges that these efforts reached at least 146 million people, almost half of the US population, through Facebook and Instagram.
  • Twelve Russian military officers, who work for Russia’s main intelligence agency, have been indicted for hacking into the email servers of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. They stole and then released thousands of emails. The content of these emails, along with reporting on their theft and release, dominated the news for weeks and clearly had an impact on the election.

The Mueller investigation is clearly a serious probe of significant and successful efforts to affect the 2016 election. Over its 15 months, the Mueller investigation has cost $7.7 million (as-of 3/31/18), a tiny fraction of the Justice Department budget of $28 billion. By way of comparison, the Starr probe of President Clinton lasted four and a half years (over 3 times as long) and cost $39 million, or around $58 million in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation (over 7 times as much). There were at least three other independent or special counsel investigations during the Clinton administration that cost more than Mueller’s probe has. [2]

This investigation is NOT partisan. Mueller and Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s investigation and is second in command at the Justice Department, are both Republicans. Mueller is a highly decorated Marine officer who has spent most of his career in the Justice Department. President Reagan appointed him the US Attorney for Massachusetts, and he later served as an assistant US Attorney in D.C.  and as US Attorney for Northern California. President George W. Bush appointed him second in command at the Justice Department and later as FBI Director. Congress unanimously extended his term as FBI Director in 2011. Rosenstein worked for the Starr investigation of President Clinton. President George W. Bush appointed him as US Attorney for Maryland and later nominated him to be a federal appeals court judge. President Trump appointed him as second in command at the Justice Department.

Before the election, in the early fall of 2016, the seriousness of foreign efforts to influence the election were becoming clear to US intelligence and criminal justice officials. President Obama convened a bipartisan meeting with members of Congress. His goal was to develop a bipartisan public statement on the Russian efforts to influence the election. He felt it was essential to have it be bipartisan so that it didn’t appear to be a partisan issue during the election. But the Republicans refused to go along, and no public statement was made.

Trump and his supporters have engaged in persistent, on-going efforts to discredit Mueller, Rosenstein, and the investigation. Their goal, according to Trump’s lawyer Giuliani, is to get the public to question the legitimacy of the investigation. The only reason I can think of that they would want to do that is because they are worried about the results of the investigation. From Trump’s personal perspective, which does seem to be all he really cares about, the most likely negative outcome of the investigation is evidence that would support impeachment.

The most likely impeachment charge against Trump is obstruction of justice, assuming no smoking gun of direct Russian collusion on his part is uncovered. So far the most likely obstruction of justice charges would be 1) his request that then-FBI director Comey stop the investigation of Michael Flynn’s meeting with the Russian ambassador, 2) his firing of FBI Director Comey, apparently in an effort to stop the investigation into Russian interference in the election, 3) his attempts to get Attorney General Sessions to rescind his recusal and take charge of the investigation (even though he met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign), and 4) his incessant efforts to discredit and undermine the investigation. As you think about whether this obstruction of justice might be grounds for impeachment, remember that President Clinton was impeached by the US House of Representatives (but the Senate failed to convict him) for obstruction of justice for lying to law enforcement about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. If lying about an affair is grounds for impeachment, President Trump is right to be worried.

(Note: The investigation of Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, is not part of Mueller’s investigation, although it is reportedly the result of a referral from the Mueller team. The investigation of Cohen is being undertaken by the US Attorney in New York.)

[1]      Reilly, R.J., 7/27/18, “The Mueller investigation, explained. Here’s your guide to the Trump-Russia probe,” HuffPost (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mueller-investigation-trump-russia-probe_us_5b4cdda5e4b0e7c958fe3141)

[2]      Kutner, M., 12/5/17, “Mueller’s Trump investigation cost slammed by Republican: ‘They must be having one hell of a Christmas party’,” Newsweek

PROBLEMS WITH PRIVATIZED PRISONS

The problems with privatized prisons have come to public attention largely due to the investigative journalism of The Nation and Mother Jones. Their reporting underscores the importance and challenges of investigative journalism. It has become relatively routine for targets of investigative journalism to sue (or at least threaten to sue) the journalists and their publishers. Both corporate and government entities have built an ever stronger set of legal protections including employee non-disclosure agreements and other employer protection laws and legal precedents. The mainstream, corporate media have largely abandoned investigative journalism at least in part due to the threat of litigation and because news and reporting budgets have been slashed to increase profits.

When Mother Jones published its report based on a guard’s experiences at a private prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, see overview and link below), it received a threatening letter from a law firm on behalf of CCA. It was the law firm that had represented a billionaire and large political campaign donor who had spent 3 years suing Mother Jones over its reporting of his anti-LGBT activities. Although the billionaire lost his case, the legal costs Mother Jones incurred in defending itself were a very serious financial burden. Furthermore, he pledged $1 million to support others who might want to sue Mother Jones over its reporting. [1] Needless to say, this type of aggressive behavior by the subjects of investigative reporting puts a chill on this valuable kind of journalism.

The Nation’s investigative reporting was based on reviewing a large number of documents from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in the US Department of Justice. The documents were obtained only after a lengthy and costly process using the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to these public records.

The records showed that the Bureau of Prisons’ monitors had documented, between January 2007 and June 2015, the deaths of 34 inmates who were provided substandard medical care in the BOP’s private prisons. Fourteen of these deaths occurred in prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America, while fifteen were in prisons operated by the GEO Group. These two corporations are the largest operators of for-profit prisons. [2]

Despite this and other documentation of serious problems at the for-profit prisons, top BOP officials repeatedly failed to enforce the remediation of dangerous deficiencies and routinely extended contracts for the prisons. This was due, at least in part, to a cozy relationship between BOP leadership and the private-prison operators because of the revolving door of personnel between the BOP and the private providers. In 2011, for example, Harley Lappin, who had served as the Director of the BOP for eight years, left to join CCA as executive vice president. There he earned more than $1.6 million in one year; roughly 10 times his salary at BOP. Two previous BOP Directors, J. Michael Quinlan and Norman Carlson, had gone to work for CCA and the GEO Group, respectively. Five BOP employees recalled the former BOP Directors participating in meetings between the BOP and the contractor for whom they worked. The BOP employees felt this influenced decisions that were made and made taking disciplinary action against the contractors difficult.

Mother Jones magazine’s investigative reporting was done by Shane Bauer, a reporter who spent 4 months as a guard at one of CCA’s private prisons in Louisiana. [3] He found that cost cutting was a focus of both the state and CCA. Employee costs made up 59% of CCA’s operating expenses and therefore were a key target for cost-cutting. Starting guards at Bauer’s CCA facility made only $9 per hour while those at public prisons in the state made $12.50. To further save money and increase profits, the CCA facility was typically under-staffed. The facility’s guard towers were unmanned on a regular basis and staffing inside the facility was typically 10% – 20% below standard. Lockdowns, where prisoners can’t leave their wing of the prison, were supposed to be punishments for major disturbances, but they also occurred over holidays and other times when there simply weren’t enough guards to run the prison. Security checks on prisoners were logged as being done even when they weren’t because of understaffing. However, when the state’s Department of Correction was coming for an inspection, guards were required to work overtime so the facility was fully staffed.

As a result of under-staffing and perhaps under-training (another cost-cutting strategy), the use of force or chemical agents, typically pepper spray, occurred more often at the CCA prison than at comparable facilities: twice as often for force and 7 times as often for chemical agents. With 1,500 inmates, 546 sexual offenses were reported at Bauer’s prison in 2014, 69% higher than at a comparable government-run facility. Between 2010 and 2015, CCA was sued more than 1,000 times nationwide, with approximately 3% of the cases involving a death, 6% sexual harassment or assault, 10% physical violence, 15% injuries, 15% medical care issues, and 16% prison conditions and treatment.

Louisiana’s efforts to cut costs and use contractors to run cheap prisons was reflected in the $34 per inmate per day that it paid CCA, while funding for state-run prisons was about $52. In addition, the inflation-adjusted cost per prisoner at the CCA facility Bauer worked at had dropped by 20% between the late 1990s and 2014.

CCA has an incentive to keep prisoners in its prisons in order to maximize revenue. An inmate can be charged with an infraction of the rules and lose credit for good behavior. This can mean that an inmate stays in prison an extra 30 days and that CCA gets paid an additional $1,000.

In Louisiana, the state also had an incentive to keep the prison full because CCA’s contract with the state required that CCA get paid for a minimum of 96% of full occupancy. Occupancy guarantees are common in private prison contracts and are one aspect of privatization that leads to perverse incentives for the state. The state’s incentive to keep the prison full may mean that prisoners who could be released are kept in prison or that the criminal justice system is pressured to arrest and sentence enough people to ensure that the prison is full.

CCA has been very active politically through lobbying and campaign contributions. Since 1998, CCA has spent $23 million on lobbying the federal government. Since 1990, it and its employees have contributed more than $6 million to candidates and other political activity. It has lobbied for high levels of incarceration. It co-chaired the criminal justice task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate and conservative think tank that drafts and promotes state-level legislation. Among the pieces of legislation it has promoted are mandatory sentencing laws, punitive immigration reform, and truth-in-sentencing laws, all of which helped fuel the growing prison population of the 1990s.

CCA and other for-profit prison corporations aggressively lobbied Congress in 2009 for a minimum number of undocumented immigrants to be in private detention centers. They succeeded; US taxpayers are required by law to pay for a daily minimum of 34,000 beds in private detention centers. [4] These corporations have also lobbied against bills in Congress that would require private prisons to be subject to public information laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act. Such bills have been introduced at least 8 times in Congress, but have failed to pass each time.

These are examples of the problems and issues with private prisons, and with privatization in general. The problems with the private prisons were severe and intractable enough that the BOP concluded that it had to terminate its use of them. The BOP’s experiences and decision to end privatization should be kept in mind as other privatization efforts are reviewed or proposed.

[1]       Jeffery, C., July/August 2016, “Why we sent a reporter to work as a private prison guard,” Mother Jones (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/06/cca-private-prisons-investigative-journalism-editors-note)

[2]       Wessler, S.F., 6/15/16, “Federal officials ignored years of internal warnings about deaths at private prisons,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/federal-officials-ignored-years-of-internal-warnings-about-deaths-at-private-prisons/)

[3]       Bauer, S., July / August 2016, “My four months as a private prison guard,” Mother Jones (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/06/cca-private-prisons-corrections-corporation-inmates-investigation-bauer)

[4]       Editorial, 8/27/16, “Dump private prisons – all of them,” The Boston Globe

PRISON PRIVATIZATION: A FAILED EXPERIMENT

The risks of privatizing government services have been highlighted by the recent bad experience with private prisons. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced that it will end its 20 years of using privately-run, for-profit prisons due to significant, clear cut problems.

A DOJ Inspector General’s report in August 2016 found that private prisons were less safe, less secure, and more costly than the BOP’s own government-run prisons. Among other problems, dozens of deaths linked to substandard medical care were documented. [1] Private prisons also had higher rates of assaults and 9 times more lockdowns (used to quell disturbances and punish prisoners) than government-run facilities.

Earlier reports on the BOP’s privatized prisons had found that any cost savings were negated by the costs of oversight and that the quality of services was lacking. These are common problems with privatization. Frequently, the cost of oversight is not factored into the cost-benefit analysis of privatization. Therefore, privatization may appear to save money when in actuality it doesn’t. Furthermore, the oversight that occurs is often unsuccessful in ensuring efficient and high quality performance by the private provider, as occurred with the BOP’s private prisons.

Despite these earlier findings, the use of private prisons grew and by fiscal year 2015 the BOP was paying private prison contractors $1.05 billion a year. [2] Today, the BOP houses about 22,000 of its prisoners in 13 private prisons out of a total of roughly 175,000 prisoners under its jurisdiction. Its announcement stated that it will phase out the use of these private prisons as their contracts expire over the next few years.

The US Department of Homeland Security, on the other hand, has said nothing about its future use of private detention facilities, which house about 25,000 immigrants. These detention centers have also been found to provide substandard medical care linked to deaths. They also have experienced high suicide rates. [3]

Turning over a public service to a private, for-profit corporation often creates perverse and counterproductive incentives. Privatization at the BOP, as in most cases, was focused on reducing public sector costs. The goals of minimizing cost and maximizing profit often conflict with the social mission of a public service. In the case of privatized prisons, the goals of humane treatment and rehabilitation are undermined.

In private prisons, the corporate providers cut costs (and increase profits) by increasing the number of inmates in a facility (resulting in overcrowding); decreasing the services provided to them (including rehabilitation, education, job training, and medical care); providing cheap (and sometimes unhealthy) food; using substandard facilities; and decreasing the number, pay, and training of staff (including guards, supervisors, and medical staff). In addition, to generate revenue, they charge fees to inmates and their families (that are often unaffordable), and also sell inmate labor typically without paying the inmates for it. [4] Another frequent problem with privatization is that private providers bill government for services that were not needed or in some cases were not actually provided in order to increase revenue and profits.

Because the for-profit prison corporations are private entities, they are not subject to public information laws. This lack of transparency is another frequent problem with privatization. Not surprisingly, the for-profit prison corporations tend to be quite secretive, which makes public scrutiny of them and their service delivery difficult.

The private prison business began in the 1980s. The war on drugs was underway; tough on crime and strict sentencing laws were in their political heyday. Between 1980 and 1990, state spending on prisons quadrupled and still many prison were over-crowded. [5]

At the federal level, detention of undocumented immigrants exploded in the 1990s. Until then, border crossing was treated as a civil offense, punishable by deportation. But then, as part of the tough on crime and anti-immigrant politics, Congress changed that. By 1996, crossing the border was a federal crime. Prosecutions for illegal entry rose from fewer than 4,000 in 1992, to 31,000 in 2004 under President George W. Bush, to a high of 91,000 in 2013 under President Obama.

Privatization of public services was a hot topic in the 1980s as it was purported to be more efficient, to reduce costs, improve quality, and reduce government expenditures. It also provided opportunities for private profit.

Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that privatization of prisons blossomed as a way to meet a growing need and, supposedly, reduce governments’ costs. To handle the flood of undocumented immigrants into its prisons, the BOP turned to private corporations to operate a new type of facility: low-security prisons designed to hold only non-citizens. As of June 2015, these facilities — which are distinct from immigration detention centers, where people are held pending deportation — housed nearly 23,000 people. Three private corporations now run 11 immigrant-only prisons for BOP: five are run by the GEO Group, four by the Corrections Corporation of America, and two by the Management & Training Corporation. [6]

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) began operation in 1983 and grew from 5 facilities in 1986 to 60 today. It houses 66,000 inmates and in 2015 reported revenue of $1.9 billion with net income of $221 million. Its main competitor is GEO Group, which has 70,000 inmates in its private facilities.

The problems with private prisons have come to public attention largely due to investigative journalism by The Nation and Mother Jones. My next post will provide an overview of their reporting. The failures of the BOP’s 20-year experience with private prisons hold many lessons for efforts to privatize other government services including roads, bridges, and public transportation; schools; water and sewer systems; and trash collection.

[1]       Wessler, S.F., 8/18/16, “The Justice Department will end all federal private prisons, following a ‘Nation’ investigation,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/justice-department-to-end-all-federal-private-prisons-following-nation-investigation/)

[2]     Wessler, S.F., 6/15/16, “Federal officials ignored years of internal warnings about deaths at private prisons,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/federal-officials-ignored-years-of-internal-warnings-about-deaths-at-private-prisons/)

[3]       Editorial, 8/27/16, “Dump private prisons – all of them,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Vanden Heuvel, K., 8/23/16, “On private federal prisons, a victory for independent journalism,” The Washington Post

[5]       Bauer, S., July / August 2016, “My four months as a private prison guard,” Mother Jones (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/06/cca-private-prisons-corrections-corporation-inmates-investigation-bauer)

[6]       Wessler, S.F., 1/28/16, “ ‘This man will almost certainly die’,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/privatized-immigrant-prison-deaths/)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FOR WHOM??

Efforts to reform our criminal justice system were hijacked in Congress at the last minute by an effort to weaken the ability to prosecute corporate and white collar crime.

Our criminal justice system is in need of reform. Incarceration in the U.S. has grown dramatically while the crime rate has fallen. There are over 2.2 million people incarcerated in federal, state, and local prisons today compared with 1 million in the late 1980s and half a million in the 1970s. Our incarceration rate of over 700 people per 100,000 of population is the highest in the world. With 4.4% of the world’s population, we have over 22% of the world’s prisoners. There is also great variation among the states with Louisiana having an incarceration rate (over 1,400 people per 100,000) over three times that of Minnesota and Maine (less than 400 people per 100,000). [1]

The cost of incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels has been growing along with the prison population and is currently roughly $80 billion a year. This rapidly growing cost is unsustainable for many states and is squeezing public spending in other areas.

However, since 1990, the overall crime rate in the U.S. has fallen by 45% (i.e., from roughly 5,900 per 100,000 residents to about 3,250). It is at its lowest rate since the late 1960s after peaking in 1980. [2]

Another key problem with our criminal justice system is its racial bias. In terms of incarceration, 60% of those in prison are racial or ethnic minorities. The incarceration rate for Black adult men (4.7% of their population) is almost seven times that of White men (0.7%) and over 2.5 times that of Hispanic men (1.8%). Over their lifetimes, 1 out of every 3 Black men will spend time in prison, while only 1 in 20 White men will and 1 in 6 Hispanic men.

These were the problems that were ostensibly the focus of a broad, bipartisan coalition that formed in early 2015, although priorities undoubtedly varied. Fiscal conservatives wanted to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and reduce government spending. Human rights and liberal groups wanted to reduce racial inequities, including in sentencing for non-violent drug crimes. Libertarian groups wanted to reduce the prison population in order to reduce the size of government and its control over people’s lives.

The initial targets for reform were elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses and giving judges more discretion in sentencing. The coalition worked closely with members of the U.S. Senate in drafting a bill and had the strong support of the President. [3]

After months of work by the bipartisan coalition and on the eve of a vote on the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Hatch demanded that provisions weakening the ability to prosecute white collar crime be added to the bill. This, apparently, was the hidden agenda of the business conservatives, led by the Koch brothers, who had participated in the coalition. The Senate refused to add these provisions and proceeded to pass the bill.

The bill then went to the House where Judiciary Committee Chairman Goodlatte threatened to kill the bill unless provisions weakening the prosecution of white collar crime were added. As a compromise to move the sentencing reform ahead, these provisions were added along with some other criminal justice reforms, such as easing re-entry into society after completion of a prison sentence. It is unclear when and if this compromise bill will move forward.

The Department of Justice and the White House are strongly opposed to the provisions weakening the prosecution of white collar crime. They maintain their opposition despite four meetings with a senior White House official by Koch Industries’ (the Koch brothers company) Senior Vice President during the time the compromise was being negotiated in the House. This is the kind of access and power the economic elites in our society have to our elected officials.

Basically, the white collar crime provisions would eliminate the longstanding legal principle that ignorance is no defense for breaking the law. They would require prosecutors to prove that defendants knew they were committing a crime, not just that a crime was committed. Moreover, they would institute a much higher standard of proof for what constitutes knowledge of guilt than has been used by judges for decades. [4]

Over-prosecution of white collar crime is not a problem unless you are a corporate executive who pushes the limits of the law. On the contrary, the American public strongly believes that white collar criminal prosecution is too lax. The fact that there were no significant prosecutions after the 2008 Wall Street debacle is exhibit one.

Federal prosecutions of white collar crime are down to 2% of federal criminal cases from 7% in 1980. The proposed provisions would not only reduce prosecutions further, it would give white collar criminal defendants a vehicle for engaging in extensive litigation (e.g., about who knew what when) and likely allow many of them to escape liability for serious crimes. Plausible deniability would clearly become a get out of jail free card, if it isn’t already.

Senator Warren released a report in early 2016 that documents 20 examples of cases where white collar crime prosecution was inexcusably weak. They range from ignition switch problems in GM cars to foreign currency market manipulation by a group of the largest financial corporations. She notes that the differential prosecution of street crime versus white collar crime “has a corrosive effect on the fabric of democracy.” (page 1) In some of her examples it appears that large corporations and their executives have decided that lax enforcement and weak punishment make the penalties for breaking the law an acceptable cost of doing business. Senator Warren promises to provide annual updates on responses to white collar crimes. [5]

The gaping chasm between get tough on crime incarceration for street crime and the lax punishment of white collar crime is an important factor in the cynicism and anger of the American public. The undermining of a bipartisan, thoughtful effort to reform over-incarceration and its racial bias by economic elites trying to weaken prosecution of white collar criminality is symbolic of their power to bend public policy to their benefit. This underscores how difficult the task of reclaiming our democracy will be and the vigilance it will require.

[1]       Wikipedia, retrieved 7/21/16, “United States incarceration rate” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_incarceration_rate)

[2]       Wikipedia, retrieved 7/21/16, “Crime in the United States” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_in_the_United_States)

[3]       Steinzor, R., 5/11/16, “Dangerous bedfellows: The stalemate on criminal justice reform,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/dangerous-bedfellows)

[4]       Steinzor, R., 5/11/16, see above

[5]       Staff of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Jan. 2016, “Rigged justice: How weak enforcement lets corporate offenders off easy” (http://www.warren.senate.gov/files/documents/Rigged_Justice_2016.pdf)

HOW JUDICIAL ELECTIONS AFFECT CRIMINAL SENTENCING

My previous post outlined the challenges to the impartiality and integrity of state judges due to the growing spending on judicial elections. It highlighted civil cases where campaign money has the potential to influence (or appear to influence) judges’ decisions and to create conflicts of interest.

In criminal cases, there is statistical evidence that the pressures of election campaigns and negative ads affect judicial decision-making. When facing imminent re-election, judges are more likely to impose longer sentences, affirm death sentences, and change jury sentences of life in prison to death sentences.

As spending has grown in judicial elections, the use of television advertising has increased dramatically. A study of 15 years of television ads in state supreme court elections found that increasingly the ads focused on the candidate’s handling of criminal cases. In 2013-14, a record 56% of ads either attacked candidates for being “soft on crime” or touted them as being “tough on crime.” These types of ads tend to focus voters’ attention on criminal cases, often in a misleading, overly simplified, and emotional way. [1] The need for judges to be viewed as “tough on crime” to win an election has contributed to the problems of over-incarceration and disproportionately harsh sentencing of Blacks and Hispanics.

The study also compared judicial decisions of elected and non-elected (i.e., appointed) judges. And it looked at judges’ decisions in terms of their proximity to an election. It found that:

  • Appointed judges reversed death sentences roughly twice as often (26% of the time) as judges who ran in an election. Judges with contested elections reversed death sentences only 11% of the time and judges with uncontested elections reversed them 15% of the time.
  • In Alabama, judges were more likely to override jury sentences of life in prison and instead impose a death sentence in election years.
  • In Pennsylvania and Washington, judges sentenced those convicted of serious felonies to longer sentences when they were closer to an election.
  • The greater the use of TV ads in an election, the less likely judges were to rule in favor of a criminal defendant.

In summary, judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial criminal justice that is free from the influence of elections and campaign ads. The rapid increase in spending on judicial campaigns, including the unlimited spending by outside groups and individuals, has exacerbated the challenges to judicial fairness and integrity.

[1]       Berry, K., 12/2/15, “How judicial elections impact criminal cases,” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/how-judicial-elections-impact-criminal-cases)

HIGH INCARCERATION RATE IN US IS COUNTERPRODUCTIVE

ABSTRACT: The get tough on crime policies of the last 30 – 40 years have been counterproductive. They have swelled our prison population from less than 200,000 in the mid-1970s to 2,500,000 today. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world and 5 times the world average.

This is costing us a fortune – we spend over $80 billion per year on prisons. There is no evidence that incarcerating more people leads to reduced crime. This mass incarceration is also costing us a fortune in lost human and social capital. Perhaps worst of all, our criminal justice system is blatantly racist. Some people compare today’s criminal justice system to the Jim Crow laws of the late 1800s and early 1900s that made blacks second class citizens.

To address the problems of over incarceration we need to: 1) End mandatory minimum sentences, 2) Stop discriminatory police and prosecutorial practices, 3) Stop building prisons and start closing some, and 4) Ban the box that requires job applicants to disclose if they have a criminal record.

The mass incarceration the US has engaged in over the last 30 years is wrong, ineffective, inefficient, and racist. Instead of closing doors on people, we need to open opportunities through jobs and education, as well as mental health services and drug treatment when needed.

FULL POST: The get tough on crime policies of the last 30 – 40 years have been counterproductive. These policies, such as mandatory sentences and 3-strikes-you’re-out laws, have swelled our prison population from less than 200,000 in the mid-1970s to 2,500,000 today – 12 times as many inmates. One out of every 100 adults in the US is in prison. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world and 5 times the world average. The US has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners.

This is costing us a fortune – we spend over $80 billion per year on prisons. This has increased substantially in the last 30 years and has continued to increase despite falling crime rates for the last 20 years. State governments are spending more on prisons than on higher education. The federal government spends 6 times as much on prisons as on education. [1]

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that incarcerating more people leads to reduced crime. Crime rates, especially violent crime rates, are not linked to incarceration rates. Crime rates in states with higher incarceration rates, sometimes twice as high, do not have lower crime rates. This is because the increased incarceration is largely for non-violent, victimless crimes such as illegal drug possession.

This mass incarceration is also costing us a fortune in lost human and social capital. Many young men, particularly young black men, are sent to prison when what they really need is education and job skills, or mental health services and drug treatment. And after they have served their time, their criminal record often prevents them from getting a job or a student loan, and from voting. This loss of potentially productive human capital is bad for our economy. Furthermore, the social exclusion and high rates of incarceration in some communities, including of fathers with children, result in a huge loss of social capital that exacerbates and perpetuates disadvantage in these neighborhoods.

Perhaps worst of all, our criminal justice system is blatantly racist. People of color are more likely to be stopped by police, and are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sent to jail than whites. For example, although all races and ethnic groups use illegal drugs at basically the same rate, far more people of color are arrested, convicted, and sent to prison for drug offenses than are whites. Some people, notably Michelle Alexander, compare today’s criminal justice system to the Jim Crow laws of the late 1800s and early 1900s that made blacks second class citizens. (She has a powerful TED talk on this topic entitled The future of race in America at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQ6H-Mz6hgw. She has also written a book entitled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.)

To address the problems of over incarceration we need to:

  • End mandatory minimum sentences as inflexible, ineffective, and unfair. There are much more effective and efficient alternatives to incarceration for non-violent crimes.
  • Stop discriminatory police and prosecutorial practices.
  • Stop building prisons and start closing some, so we can put the money spent on them to more productive uses, such as education, job training, drug treatment, and mental health services.
  • Ban the box that requires job applicants to check a box to disclose if they have a criminal record. Many employers have already done this. Given the breadth of mass incarceration for minor offenses, it is not a meaningful screen for many jobs.

The mass incarceration the US has engaged in over the last 30 years is wrong, ineffective, inefficient, and racist. It harms our economy and our communities, wasting lots of money and human potential. It locks people out of society even after they have served their time. Instead of closing doors on people, we need to open opportunities through jobs and education, as well as mental health services and drug treatment when needed.

Ending mass incarceration is the tenth of Ten Ideas to Save the Economy: The Big Picture presented by Robert Reich and MoveOn.org. (You can watch the 3 minute video at: https://www.facebook.com/RBReich/videos/1034546579891271/.)

[1]       Mitchell, M., & Leachman, M. (2014). “Changing priorities: State criminal justice reforms and investments in education,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (http://www.cbpp.org//sites/default/files/atoms/files/10-28-14sfp.pdf)

REASONS FOR LACK OF PROSECUTIONS AFTER 2008 COLLAPSE

ABSTRACT: In Judge Rakoff’s article entitled “The Financial Crisis: Why have no high-level executives been prosecuted?” [1] he discusses the reasons given by officials of the Department of Justice (DOJ) for the failure to criminally prosecute either individuals or corporations.

Finding the publicly presented explanations for the failure to prosecute unconvincing, Rakoff then proposes some other reasons. First, he suggests that law enforcement agencies had other priorities and limited resources. Another possible explanation is the government’s own involvement in setting the stage for the 2008 financial crisis. The de-regulation of banks and the financial industry was a contributing factor. The federal government also had for years encouraged the growth of home ownership and the availability of mortgages, including to low income home buyers. It had also supported less stringent documentation and underwriting standards for obtaining a mortgage.

Finally, Rakoff notes a 30-year trend toward prosecuting corporations rather than prosecuting individuals. He states that the traditional approach was based on the fact that organizations do not commit crimes, only their human agents do. Rakoff believes that prosecuting individuals has a much stronger deterrence value than prosecuting corporations. He also believes that prosecuting just the corporation and not any individual is both legally and morally wrong.

FULL POST: In Judge Rakoff’s * article entitled “The Financial Crisis: Why have no high-level executives been prosecuted?” [2] (See previous post of 2/9/14 for more details:  https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2014/02/09/too-little-punishment-for-misbehavior-in-the-financial-sector/), he discusses the reasons given by officials of the Department of Justice (DOJ) for the failure to criminally prosecute either individuals or corporations that were involved in causing the 2008 crisis. First, they argue that proving fraudulent intent is difficult. However, Rakoff points out that with clear evidence of mortgage fraud (e.g., numerous reports of suspected mortgage fraud from within the financial institutions themselves), executives couldn’t escape prosecution by claiming they didn’t know what was going on. Furthermore, convictions, despite claims ignorance, are well established in criminal law based on the doctrine that “willful blindness” or “conscious disregard” does not exonerate a defendant.

Second, Department of Justice (DOJ) officials sometimes argue that fraud couldn’t be proved because the buyers of the mortgage-backed securities were sophisticated investors who knew enough not to rely on any misrepresentations and deception by the sellers. Rakoff states that this “totally misstates the law.” The law says that if society or the market is harmed by the lies of a seller, criminal fraud has occurred.

Third, Attorney General Holder himself said in testimony to Congress that in considering a criminal prosecution the impact on the US and world economies had to be taken into consideration. This is called the “too big to jail” excuse. Holder has said that his comment was misconstrued. Rakoff notes that this rationale is irrelevant in terms of prosecuting individuals because no one believes that a large financial corporation would collapse if one or more of its high level executives was prosecuted.

Finding the publicly presented explanations for the failure to prosecute unconvincing, Rakoff then proposes some other reasons. First, he suggests that law enforcement agencies had other priorities and limited resources. He notes that in 2001 the FBI had over 1,000 agents assigned to investigating financial fraud. In 2007, there were only 120 agents working on financial fraud and they had more than 50,000 reports of possible mortgage fraud to review. The shift of agents to anti-terrorism after 9/11 and budget limitations are the two causes he cites for this reduced capacity to respond to financial fraud.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been focused on Ponzi schemes and misuse of customers’ funds. It too is experiencing significant budget limitations. The DOJ has been focused on insider trading cases. When the 2008 financial collapse occurred, it spread the investigation of financial fraud among numerous US Attorney’s Offices in various states, many of which had little or no previous experience with sophisticated financial fraud.

Another possible explanation of the failure to prosecute, according to Rakoff, is the government’s own involvement in setting the stage for the 2008 financial crisis. The de-regulation of banks and the financial industry, including the repeal of Glass-Steagall, was a contributing factor. Both the SEC and the Treasury Department had had their power and oversight weakened by de-regulation. The federal government also had for years encouraged the growth of home ownership and the availability of mortgages, including to low income (and therefore higher risk) home buyers. It had also supported less stringent documentation and underwriting standards for obtaining a mortgage. Hence, the federal government helped create the conditions that led to mortgage fraud and a corporate executive could, with some justification, claim in his defense that he believed he was only trying to further the government’s goals.

In addition, after the 2008 collapse, the government made little effort to hold the financial corporations accountable when it bailed them out.

Finally, Rakoff notes a 30-year trend toward prosecuting corporations rather than prosecuting individuals. He states that the traditional approach was based on the fact that organizations do not commit crimes, only their human agents do. In addition, prosecuting an organization inevitably punishes totally innocent employees and shareholders. However, in recent years “deferred prosecution agreements” and even “non-prosecution agreements” with corporations have become the standard fare. Under these, a corporation and its employees avoid prosecution by agreeing to take internal, preventive measures to protect against future wrongdoing, often while paying a fine.

Rakoff believes that prosecuting individuals has a much stronger deterrence value than the internal preventive measures of “deferred prosecution agreements” that are often little more than window dressing. He also believes that prosecuting just the corporation and not any individual is both legally and morally wrong. Under the law, a corporation should only be prosecuted if one can prove a managerial agent of the corporation committed the alleged crime. If so, why not prosecute that manager? Morally, punishing a corporation and many innocent employees and shareholders for crimes committed by an unprosecuted individual(s) seems unjust.

*    Jed Rakoff is a United States District Judge on senior status for the Southern District of New York. A full-time judge from 1996 to 2010, he moved to senior status in 2010. Senior status is a form of semi-retirement for judges over 65 where they continue to work part-time. Judge Rakoff is a leading authority on securities laws and the law of white collar crime, and has authored many articles on those topics. He is a former prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York. [3]


[1]       Rakoff, J.S., 1/9/14, “The Financial Crisis: Why have no high-level executives been prosecuted?” The New York Review of Books

[2]       Rakoff, J.S., 1/9/14, see above

[3]       Wikipedia, retrieved 2/5/14, “Jed S. Rakoff,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jed_S._Rakoff

TOO LITTLE PUNISHMENT FOR MISBEHAVIOR IN THE FINANCIAL SECTOR

ABSTRACT: One person who has both spoken out and acted when he felt the punishment for misbehavior in the financial sector was too lenient or lacking is federal District Court Judge Jed Rakoff.* In 2011, he refused to approve a proposed settlement with Citigroup related to the 2008 financial crisis because he thought that it was too lenient. Currently, he is withholding approval of settlement of an insider trading case. The proposed settlement would allow two men to settle the case for $4.8 million without admitting guilt.

SAC Capital, a huge, $15 billion hedge fund, has been charged in what probably is the biggest insider trading scandal ever. Five employees of SAC have already pleaded guilty to insider trading and the company itself has agreed to a record $616 million settlement. However, it is unlikely that anyone will go to jail and the head of SAC, despite any fines and restitution he may be required to pay, is likely to remain a billionaire.

Judge Rakoff recently wrote an article entitled “The Financial Crisis: Why have no high-level executives been prosecuted?” [1] Multiple authorities, including enforcement agencies, have describe what occurred in the run up to the 2008 financial crisis as fraud. Rakoff states that if the financial crisis was the result of intentional fraud, then “the failure to [criminally] prosecute those responsible must be judged one of the most egregious failures of the criminal justice system in many years.”

Rakoff notes that in previous financial crises individual perpetrators were successfully prosecuted. In the 1980s savings and loan crisis, which has strong parallels to the 2008 crisis but at a much smaller scale, over 800 individuals were successfully, criminally prosecuted.

Rakoff concludes by writing, “if it was [fraudulent misconduct] – as various governmental authorities have asserted it was – then the failure of the government to bring to justice those responsible … bespeaks weaknesses in our prosecutorial system that need to be addressed.”

FULL POST: One person who has both spoken out and acted when he felt the punishment for misbehavior in the financial sector was too lenient or lacking is federal District Court Judge Jed Rakoff.* For example, in 2011, he refused to approve a proposed settlement by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with Citigroup related to the 2008 financial crisis because he thought that it was too lenient.

Currently, he is withholding approval of settlement of an insider trading case where two men, acting on an illegal insider’s tip, bought $90,000 worth of securities a day before the announcement of the buyout of H.J. Heinz (the ketchup maker). The next day, when the buyout was announced, the securities became worth $1.8 million. The SEC’s proposed settlement would allow the two men to settle the case for $4.8 million without either admitting or denying guilt. Such settlement language had been standard practice for insider trading cases until a public debate erupted, prompted in large part by Judge Rakoff. In June 2013, the new chair of the SEC, Mary Jo White, announced a new SEC policy that would require some defendants to admit guilt. [2]

There have been a number of insider trading cases in the news lately. These are cases where an individual buying or selling securities benefited from illegally obtained, confidential information that gave him or her an unfair opportunity to profit from securities transactions. For example, SAC Capital, a huge, $15 billion hedge fund, responsible for about 1% of all US securities exchanges’ average daily trading, has been charged in what probably is the biggest insider trading scandal ever. Five employees of SAC have already pleaded guilty to insider trading and the company itself has agreed to a record $616 million settlement for more than 10 years of trading based on illegal tips from corporate insiders. More legal action is still to come, but it is unlikely that anyone will go to jail and the head of SAC, Steven A. Cohen, despite any fines and restitution he may be required to pay, is likely to remain a billionaire. [3][4]

However, Judge Rakoff’s primary focus has not been on insider trading but on the financial industry’s misbehavior that led to the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession. He recently wrote an article entitled “The Financial Crisis: Why have no high-level executives been prosecuted?” [5] In it, he explores why there have been no criminal prosecutions when multiple authorities, including enforcement agencies, have describe what occurred in the run up to the 2008 financial crisis as fraud (i.e., intentional deception for financial or personal gain). Rakoff states that if the financial crisis was the result of intentional fraud (and he makes clear that he has no personal knowledge of whether that was the case or not), “the failure to [criminally] prosecute those responsible must be judged one of the most egregious failures of the criminal justice system in many years.”

Rakoff notes that in previous financial crises – the junk bond scandal of the 1970s, the savings and loan (S&L) crisis of the 1980s, and the accounting frauds of the 1990s (e.g., Enron and WorldCom) – individual perpetrators were successfully prosecuted. Specifically, in the S&L crisis, which has strong parallels to the 2008 crisis but at a much smaller scale, over 800 individuals were successfully, criminally prosecuted.

There is strong evidence of criminal fraud in the events leading to the 2008 crisis. The federal government’s Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission uses the word “fraud” 157 times in its report describing what led to the crisis. Furthermore, indications that fraud was occurring emerged well before the 2008 collapse. There were 20 times as many reports of suspected mortgage fraud in 2005 as in 1996, and the number kept growing. In 2008, the number of fraud reports was double that of 2005. As early as 2004, the FBI was publicly warning of the “pervasive problem” of mortgage fraud. In the years before the 2008 crisis, sub-prime mortgages, in other words mortgages with more risk of default than normal mortgages, increasingly provided the underpinnings for mortgage-backed securities that continued to be sold with AAA ratings. This rating is supposed to identify securities of very low risk. It seems impossible that this could have occurred without fraud taking place.

Rakoff discusses reasons given by officials of the Department of Justice (DOJ) for the failure to criminally prosecute either individuals or corporations and finds them unconvincing. He then proposes some reasons that he finds more believable. I’ll summarize all of this in my next post.

Rakoff concludes by writing, “if it was [fraudulent misconduct] – as various governmental authorities have asserted it was – then the failure of the government to bring to justice those responsible for such colossal fraud bespeaks weaknesses in our prosecutorial system that need to be addressed.”

*    Jed Rakoff is a United States District Judge on senior status for the Southern District of New York. A full-time judge from 1996 to 2010, he moved to senior status in 2010. Senior status is a form of semi-retirement for judges over 65 where they continue to work part-time. Judge Rakoff is a leading authority on securities laws and the law of white collar crime, and has authored many articles on those topics. He is a former prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York. [6]


 

[1]       Rakoff, J.S., 1/9/14, “The Financial Crisis: Why have no high-level executives been prosecuted?” The New York Review of Books (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/jan/09/financial-crisis-why-no-executive-prosecutions/?pagination=false)

[2]       Raymond, N., 1/30/14, “U.S. judge takes on SEC again, questions Heinz insider trading pact,” Reuters

[3]       Editorial, 7/27/13, “Pursuit of SAC Capital sends needed message to Wall St.,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Lattman, P., 7/31/13, “Ex-analyst charged in insider-trading crackdown,” The Boston Globe (from The New York Times)

[5]       Rakoff, J.S., 1/9/14, see above

[6]       Wikipedia, retrieved 2/5/14, “Jed S. Rakoff,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jed_S._Rakoff