“The Supreme Court had found that the 14th Amendment prohibited the jailing of individuals without a consideration of their ability to pay debt. … It set out very clearly that the courts could not send people to jail for nonpayment of fines and fees unless the courts had first found that that nonpayment was willful.”
– Myesha Braden, Criminal Justice Project director with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, on how Trump’s Department of Justice has rolled back 25 guidance letters, some of which restored civil rights protections that were being violated in Ferguson, Missouri and other municipalities.
Trump Justice Department Revokes 25 Guidance Documents Affecting Civil Rights Enforcement
Interview with Myesha Braden, Criminal Justice Project director with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
Toward the end of the Obama administration, the Justice Department issued 25 guidance documents to prosecutors, judges and others involved in the criminal justice system to improve the administration of laws, including civil rights laws. Based on interpretations of the Constitution and legal precedent, the guidelines were put into practice in places like Ferguson, Missouri; New Orleans; Louisiana and the states of Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama in order to redress injustices such as criminalizing people who owe civil fines.
On Dec. 22, President Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions, withdrew these guidance documents, charging they were creating new laws and evading regulatory process. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law condemned Sessions’ action, with the group’s president and executive director, Kristin Clarke, writing, “We condemn Attorney General Sessions’s latest attempt to turn back the clock on civil rights progress and urge courts and administrators across the country to take affirmative steps to halt the resurgence of unconstitutional debtors’ prisons in their communities.”
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Myesha Braden, director of the Criminal Justice Project with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, which was founded at the request of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to provide lawyers to those advocating for civil rights and the indigent. Here, Braden, who left the Justice Department after 15 years, explains why she believes that Sessions’ Justice Department abdication of its responsibility creates a danger for all Americans.
MYESHA BRADEN: I can speak specifically to the guidance that was revoked that related to criminal justice fines and fees. There were 25, some of them relate to civil rights, some of them don’t. The fines and fees guidance sits squarely at the heart of our civil rights work, and involves the 14th Amendment and the rights that people are entitled to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.
This guidance resulted following the Department of Justice’s very detailed investigation into what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri. In the Ferguson investigation, the justice department found that that municipality was using fines and fees not as a method of increasing or promoting public safety, but as a method of collecting revenue. People were being fined for things like jaywalking and expired tags and different, really relatively minor misdemeanor offenses, and they were receiving substantial fines and fees that compounded as the payments were late.
As a result of that, people were simply walking around Ferguson with warrants all over the place, and those warrants had a negative effect on those people’s experience of citizenship. It had a negative effect on their employment opportunities, sometimes housing opportunities. And based on that report, and what was found on that report, the Department of Justice issued guidance so that courts would understand under a case called Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court had found that the 14th Amendment prohibited the jailing of individuals without a consideration of their ability to pay debt. That’s it. That’s all the guidance did. It set out very clearly that the courts could not send people to jail for nonpayment of fines and fees unless the courts had first found that that nonpayment was willful.
As a result of the Department of Justice’s guidance letter, courts and municipalities in many places started to make changes. Some of their own accord, some as a result of litigation that was brought, and some as a result of legislators understanding that there was a problem with fines and fees and trying to make changes within their states and city council people trying to make changes within their cities.
Department of Justice is responsible for establishing justice and promoting practices that ensure justice, fairness and equality for all Americans. So this guidance document and the similar guidance documents that were revoked where simply the justice department implementing its full mission. To watch Attorney General Sessions roll back those things suggest that the justice department is operating at less than its full capacity. That the justice department is not interested is not interested in promoting justice, particularly as it relates to civil rights issues. And that can be seen in addition to the pulling back of these guidance documents to Attorney General Sessions’ statements concerning consent degrees – how he disfavored them and intended to perhaps not use them at all. In addition to reversing positions on the use or the providing of military equipment to law enforcement, to suggesting that the justice department was not interested in looking at police misconduct and excessive use of force because of concerns about low morale for police officers and just avoiding all of the proof, all of the evidence, all of the data suggesting that those incidents of violence actually undermine the ability of law enforcement to do their job because it causes them to lose the trust of the communities that they are assigned to protect.
Now without this guidance from the Department of Justice, and without the support of the Department of Justice for making these changes, it will be much harder to get jurisdictions to make changes of their own accord. And perhaps only litigation will be able to force that change. The power of a DOJ statement on the legality of a practice really cannot be understated.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Myesha Braden, is there anything that can done to reverse this?
MYESHA BRADENT: No, because it was a guidance document. The attorney general has the perogative to issue or not issue, to pull back or not. I wish they were being much more thoughtful, rather than simply what appears to be rolling back everything that Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama did simply because they did it.
Learn more about the criminal Justice Project with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law at LawyersCommittee.org.
Report: America’s Top 25 Billionaires Have as Much Wealth as 56 Percent of U.S. Population
Interview with Josh Hoxie, Opportunity and Taxation Program director with The Institute for Policy Studies, conducted by Scott Harris
America has for many decades witnessed a steady rise in wealth inequality, as incomes of the rich skyrocket – and that of middle class and poor families have stagnated. While the United States is one of the richest countries in the world, it is also one of the most unequal. According to a report published by the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranks 23 out of 30 developed nations in a measure known as the “inclusive development index,” which factors in data on income, health, poverty, and sustainability.
The unpopular new Republican tax reform legislation, recently signed into law by President Trump, will, according to many economists, exacerbate inequality further with reductions in tax rates for wealthy individuals and corporations, at the same time cuts are made to critical social programs millions of Americans rely on.
A recently published report titled, “Billionaire Bonanza 2017: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us,” “exposes the extreme wealth concentrated within the fortunes of the 400 wealthiest Americans and compares this wealth to the much more meager assets of several different segments of U.S. society.” Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Josh Hoxie, director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Project on Opportunity and Taxation, who summarizes some of the important findings in this report that he co-authored with Chuck Collins. [Rush transcript.]
JOSH HOXIE: This reports looks at the Forbes 400 which Forbes magazine has been producing for a little over 30 years. Their list of the 400 richest people is the best guess we have at how much wealth is really concentrated at the tippity top of the economic spectrum. And I say best guess because there’s so much money hiding in offshore tax shelters, as recently has come to light that this as much as we’ll know. So, these numbers are almost certainly worse than we have depicted here.
And to compare those numbers to a survey the Federal Reserve puts out every three years, called the Survey of Consumer Finance, which is a statistically representative picture of Americans’ wealth and income and things of that nature. The report compares these two groups and our findings are pretty bleak. And they’ve sort of been getting worse year after year, as this is the second time we’ve sort of done this. We did this last in 2015. So the full Forbes 400 list own as much as the bottom 64 percent of the U.S. population. Which, to put that in context, 400 people in the United States have as much wealth as the entire GDP of Great Britain, which is an insane amount of money.
Part of the disparity in the United States is that while there’s so much wealth concentrating at the top, many, many people at the bottom are struggling. So we looked into what we’re calling “Underwater Nation” which is the population of people who either at zero net worth, or negative net worth, meaning they owe more money than they own in assets. And about one in five Americans fits into that category. Those numbers are deeply skewed by racial numbers. The proportion of black and Latino families who are underwater is about double the proportion that white families are underwater as result of decades of discrimination.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Josh, in this report, you talk about hereditary aristocracy of wealth and power that is now firmly in place in the United States. Tell us a little bit about the unfair economic policies that have played a role in rising income inequality that many conservative political activists ascribe to some kind of supernatural phenomenon or random set of outcomes. But there is a policy link to things that are decided in Washington, right?
JOSH HOXIE: Absolutely. And a lot of folks in this country who have done very economically want to believe that they did it on their own. We have a recurring myth in this country of “pulling yourself by bootstraps.” And for a population of people that’s true – born into poverty and became rich. However, the United States has increasingly decreasing – more and more folks are struggling to get out of poverty.
And the best way indicator of how well you are going to do financially is how well your parents did financially. So, on the one hand, sure, people do work hard and get ahead. On the other hand, plenty of people work just as hard and don’t get ahead because of the lottery of their birth. So when we talk about inherited advantage, we’re talking about that birth lottery, which is to say, you know, one example – How hard did Tiffany Trump work to become the wealthy heiress that she is. Or Paris Hilton, for that matter. And that’s not to begrudge them their status. It’s just to say that you know, as far as the tax code is concerned, I just can’t understand why we’d want to charge people taxes who punch a paycheck every week and not charge taxes to people who, all they had to do is wait for their money because they won it in a genetic lottery?
I mean, even lottery funds are taxed. So why wouldn’t we tax the genetic lottery? It’s sort of absurd if you think about it those terms.
BETWEEN THE LINES: In line with other economists around the world you observed that the levels of inequality that we see that are only skyrocketing are unsustainable – both economically and politically. I wondered if you’d explain.
JOSH HOXIE: I think folks should really get a sense that this is not normal. I mean, what we’re seeing right now of the concentration of wealth at the top has only really happened in the lead up to other not great things. I mean, the first Gilded Age led up to the Great Depression. We don’t really want to see that again. The break up of wealth is going to happen one way or another. I hope it doesn’t happen by war and depression and things of that nature. There’s a much less violent and more pleasant way to do it, to break up wealth and it’s pretty straightforward – taxing the rich and investing in economic opportunity for everyone in the country.
But to your point, yes. We can’t continue like this. There’s only so much folks will accept. And as more wealth hides in offshore tax shelters, any semblance of truth to the idea that wealth is going to trickle down from the top just goes away. I mean, it’s just not true. So, instead, they find ways to buy a 10-foot longer yacht. I mean, really, what’s the difference between a 190-foot yacht and a 197-foot yacht, but that’s honestly the level of where our money is going in terms of how the very, very wealthy are spending their assets when they’re not just watching it move up higher and higher on a computer screen.
For more information, visit the Institute for Policy Studies’ Project on Opportunity and Taxation at IPS-DC.org and view the report titled, “Billionaire Bonanza 2017: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us,” at The Institute for Policy Studies at IPS-DC.org.
Privatization and Segregation of U.S. Public Education Endangers Democracy
Interview with Noliwe Rooks, author and director of American studies at Cornell University, conducted by Scott Harris
Randi Weingarten, who leads the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers union declared in August that President Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, “is the most ideological anti-public education person to ever be nominated or confirmed to that position.” DeVos, who never attended public school or worked in one, has devoted her life to allowing parents to choose the schools their children attend, either charter or private schools using public funds – and decreasing the federal government’s role in education.
DeVos bankrolled a ballot measure in Michigan to create a private school voucher system that was defeated by a two-to-one margin. She then spent millions of dollars of her own money to elect legislators who then made deep cuts to public school budgets and promoted unaccountable for-profit charter schools in the state. Now almost half of Michigan’s charter schools rank near the bottom of U.S. schools, and Michigan dropped from 28th to 41st in reading, and from 27th to 42nd in math compared with other states.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Noliwe Rooks, director of American studies at Cornell University, who talks about her new book “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation and the End of Public Education.” She is an associate professor in Africana Studies and Feminist, Gender, Sexuality Studies.
Here, Rooks condemns school privatization efforts and contends that publicly-funded schools are essential to quality, equal education for all – and an indispensable element to build a democratic society. For more information, visit Rooks’ website at NoliweRooks.com and africana.cornell.edu/noliwe-rooks
NOLIWE ROOKS: Taxpayer-supported public education starts for the entire country. It had been in certain parts of the East Coast, in Massachusetts in particular, from the 1600s. But it’s really post-Reconstruction that the rest of the country gets with the idea of you know, we should use taxpayer dollars to educate all of our citizens regardless of wealth. Before 1890 to 1920, that period, education was really something only for the very wealthy. It was mostly private, you know, people were sent to Europe. They were sent to private boarding school. In the U.S., the idea of educating the masses of Americans really is a kind of quintessentially American intervention – that no matter who you are, no matter your social status, there’s something about education that would be valuable for you. And this is a way that we can start to educate all Americans around what citizenship means. That we can define a particular kind of civic imagination and a goal of democracy of what kinds of citizens we want to participate in this experiment in democracy where you know, voters, where everyone, where citizens of the country are engaging in setting the policy and setting the direction. That was the ideal.
BETWEEN THE LINES: When we see the drive toward privatizing our education system in this country through charter schools, the movement toward school vouchers, the whole notion of school choice which underlines those in a system called “virtual education” – tell us about how that affects the quality of education. These companies obviously are in it to make a buck. They’re making profit here, by getting into privatizing the education system. But what’s the effect on the students?
NOLIWE ROOKS: So, one of the terms that I came up with to talk about this moment, where we really do have an unprecedented move towards dismantling what we consider traditional public education. What that’s being replaced by – with high concentrations of poor people and high concentrations of people of color – are charter schools, which are publicly financed, but privately run. So they’re not beholden to the same kinds of oversight and regulation as traditional public schools. But they depend on taxpayer dollars. Or, there’s an offshoot of the homeschooling movement for virtual charter schools.
These are schools where children as young as 5 years old can get the entirety of their education through computers. They rarely have any contact with other students, rarely having contact with teachers, and it costs school districts almost the same amount as brick-and-mortar school. Or you’ll have something like these alternatively certified teachers – like Teach for America – and other entities like that which charge often struggling school districts between $2,000 to $5,000 per teacher that they supply as a kind of finder’s fee.
The thing about all of this is it’s supposed to address the underachievement of children of color: low test scores, low graduation rates, the persistent problems that we see in some kinds of communities. But the solutions that we’ve come up with are undoubtedly – like we’re clear, making certain business very, very wealthy. Teach for America, which I mentioned, supplies teachers to these kinds of districts. The last I looked in 2016, it’s been about a year, but they were almost $400 million. Wealthy children, upper-middle class children do not go to school where their teachers are overwhelmingly trained with five weeks of training in the summer and put in classes. There’d be a complete uprising if you went into an upper middle-class neighborhood or a wealthy neighborhood or a private school and touted the fact that “the majority of our teachers” had only five weeks of training. So the question that I started to ask is, but why are the forms of education, the ways, the methods
This week’s summary of under-reported news
Compiled by Bob Nixon
By mid-January, President Trump may have an opportunity to impose new sanctions on Iran that would derail the historic nuclear agreement, signed by Iran, the US, European states, Russia and China. Even as key members of Trump’s national security team try to preserve the nuclear deal, Trump may opt to kill it. (” How Trump could kill the Iran nuclear deal in January,” Politico, Dec. 28, 2017; “Following up tough talk, Trump administration adds sanctions on Iran,” Jackson Observer, Dec. 28, 2017)
United Nations child protection workers have been deployed to the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic looking for Haitian children who may be abandoned, trafficked or separated from their families. (“They’re abandoned and separated. This is the perilous plight of Haiti’s children,” Miami Herald, Dec. 26, 2017)
Investors in private prisons were big winners in the new Republican tax cut legislation that slashed tax rates for the wealthy and big corporations. As the same time, key middle-class benefits such as deductions for state and local taxes were scaled back. (“Private prison investors set for giant windfall from Trump tax bill,” The Guardian, Dec. 28, 2017)