Mississippi Judge Bars Public Defenders from Representing Clients

Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) is asking the Department of Justice to investigate recent events in Hinds County, Mississippi, where a judge is refusing to allow public defenders to represent their clients in his court.

Judge Jeffrey Weill seems to believe public defenders should be more deferential to him and less passionate in the representation of their clients.  Apparently disapproving of the zealous advocacy of one public defender, Judge Weill removed her from all of her cases and, according to Public Defender Michelle Harris, to identify any specific behavior that violated the lawyer’s professional obligations to her clients, or the court.  In doing so he has disrespected the right to counsel for the poor. When the Hinds County public defender office refused to abandon those they are charged with serving, and collectively resisted Judge’s Weill’s attempts to further interfere with their representation of clients, he held an attorney and the head of the office in contempt.

This case is yet another example of local authorities disregarding the rights of our most vulnerable citizens.  It should leave every person who is concerned about justice troubled.  Wielding power to interfere with fundamental rights of the least powerful is exactly what our Founding Fathers feared the most.  Few things could be less consistent with what our Constitution demands of those given the privilege to preside as judge.  Many of us are a paycheck away from needing the services of the public defender should we be wrongly accused of a crime.  The citizens of Hinds County are fortunate to have a public defender willing to fight for their constitutional rights.  They should demand their judges do the same.

Our Founding Fathers valued liberty above all else, and in the 6th Amendment guaranteed every individual a lawyer to ensure a fair fight, whenever liberty was at stake. In a nation committed to equal justice, the public defender is essential to ensuring that one’s ability to protect his or her fundamental rights does not depend on income.

For every person accused of a crime who can pay for a lawyer, four more are too destitute to do so.

Sadly, public defenders are often not given the respect and support they need to protect the most vulnerable among us.  Since our poorest citizens are prosecuted and punished more than those with means, true justice remains elusive.  For every person accused of a crime who can pay for a lawyer, four more are too destitute to do so.  Public defenders are left to fight back against a system that has accepted an embarrassingly low standard of “justice” for the poor.

No one should respect the critical role of defense counsel more than a judge.  Judges should be committed to protecting the most marginalized and supporting those who advocate for them.  But some judges, like Judge Weill, apparently think the courtroom belongs to them, rather than the public.  They think they can dictate how a lawyer defends her client and somehow still be impartial.  That kind of behavior is a great threat our democracy.

This case is particularly shameful, but it is hardly unique. Across the country we see judges who abuse their power at the expense of the powerless, and only when public defenders are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve can this situation be corrected.




Targeted Investment Could Reduce Poverty in NYC By 69 Percent

From 2009-2013, one in five New Yorkers lived below the poverty line. This amounts to 1.7 million poor people living in New York City households. Research by the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) shows that the City’s poverty rate declined slightly between 2005 and 2008 but then increased between 2008 and 2012. The CEO analysis also shows that poverty would have been even higher without government policies such as refundable income tax credits and housing subsidies.

The question we are now faced with in New York City (and around the country) is this—how do we enhance or create new government policies to further reduce poverty? A groundbreaking new study finds that in fact we could reduce poverty in New York City by as much as 69 percent.

Commissioned by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, and UJA-Federation of New York, the study examines the potential impact that select antipoverty policies—alone and in combination—could have in reducing poverty in the City. This partnership is born out of our shared values and traditions of caring for people in need; the unparalleled reach of our combined networks in helping all New Yorkers; and a fundamental belief in the God-given dignity and potential of every human being.

We examine policy reforms related to transitional jobs, minimum wage increases, earnings supplements, tax credits for seniors and persons with disabilities, increased SNAP benefits, guaranteed child care subsidies, and increased housing vouchers.  An analysis by the Urban Institute tested the policies for their individual impact, as well as the effects of three different policy combinations with varying levels of participation.


The individual policies reduced poverty by 1 percent to 26 percent, but when the policies were combined they had a far greater effect: Combination 1 in the chart above reduced poverty by 44 percent, to 12.1 percent; combination 2 reduced poverty by 54 percent, to 9.8 percent; and combination 3 reduced poverty by 69 percent, to 6.7 percent.


The evidence is clear. Public policy must be at the center of efforts to fight poverty, and as a nation, we need to adopt policies that invest in low-income workers and their families while also removing barriers to economic stability. Ending poverty will require a significant commitment of city, state, and federal resources.  But there is also ample evidence that these investments not only improve the lives of individuals and strengthen their communities, they also ultimately reduce government spending.

There is plenty of talk these days about the importance of reducing poverty and improving economic mobility.  Our new study shows what a comprehensive plan might look like and how we can get the job done.



Is the American Dream Shifting?

For much of the past decade, The Pew Charitable Trusts has been studying the health and status of the American Dream, defined as the ability of families to move up the economic ladder over a lifetime and across generations. Economic mobility has long played a central role in our national discourse, and improving the ability of all Americans to move up the ladder has been one of the rare issues with the potential to unite the political parties.

As recently as 2009, nearly 4 in 10 Americans felt that it was common for someone to start poor, work hard, and become rich. But by 2014, only 23 percent of Americans said that hard work alone is enough to achieve success, and an overwhelming 92 percent said they value financial stability over economic mobility, an increase of 7 percentage points since 2011. These results indicate that American attitudes appear to be shifting: The American Dream is becoming less about mobility and more about keeping one’s head above water.

In late February, Pew released findings from a nationally representative survey that collected data from more than 7,000 American households on family balance sheets as well as families’ perceptions of their own financial security. This research combined quantitative and qualitative information to begin to explain the changing definition of the American Dream. The survey revealed that although Americans are starting to feel more optimistic about the economy and their own finances, most still worry about money.

Fifty-six percent rated their financial situations favorably, but the same proportion (57 percent) said they are unprepared for a financial emergency, and only half reported feeling financially secure. Many people’s descriptions of their financial lives suggest that they have reason to worry: More than half (55 percent) said that they either break even or spend more than they make and that their income or expenses fluctuate each month, making it difficult to plan and save. A full one-third reported having nothing in savings, which causes a great deal of anxiety.

The American Dream is becoming less about mobility and more about keeping one’s head above water.

In addition, many Americans experience economic shocks that strain family finances and often derail savings plans and aspirations. These unexpected expenses, combined with frequently unpredictable income, even eat away at the budgets and savings of families at the upper end of the income ladder: One in 10 of those with income of $100,000 or more has no savings, and 1 in 5 reports income volatility.

As policymakers look for ways to bolster families’ economic security in the post-recession economy, they must consider Americans’ changing perceptions as well as their financial realities. For example, specific components of savings plans, such as opt-out versus opt-in choices for 401(k)s, can dramatically increase retirement savings.

But decision-makers must also take into account that policies can present conflicting messages about—and even hinder—asset accumulation. For example, although many low-income families understand the importance of saving, a host of states include asset limits in the eligibility requirements for cash and food assistance programs, which can deter potential participants from enrolling or keep enrollees from building savings. These unintended consequences can, in turn, further compromise families’ financial security and feed the growing sense among many Americans that economic mobility is no longer readily available in the United States.

As they prepare platforms for the 2016 election, many policymakers have begun to outline proposals intended to increase Americans’ opportunities to move up the ladder. But before going too far down the mobility path, they should consider families’ priorities, attitudes, and financial realities. People can’t be economically mobile if they aren’t first financially secure.


First Person

Retaking the Moral High Ground in the Fight Against Poverty

If a nation has the ways and means to solve a social problem that is devastating millions of its citizens’ lives, but it fails to act, doesn’t that mean resolving the problem depends more on moral values than on coming up with new economic policies?

The social problem I am talking about is poverty. Poverty has always been an issue that’s been framed—one way or another—by morality. For those who view the poor with moral indignation, the solution is to enact policies designed to punish; and for those who apply empathy, the goal is to create programs that are geared to empower and uplift the poor.

What I perceive, based on personal experience—I’ve worked with many public and private groups on the issues of homelessness and poverty and I’ve experienced homelessness myself—is that one’s moral perspective on the poverty issue usually defines how one goes about finding and implementing solutions to it.

The dividing line seems to be whether you think poverty is caused by people lacking the basic resources they need in order to have stable families, good educational opportunities, and jobs; or, you think that people do not have these basic resources because they lack the personal attributes and social skills needed to earn them, as was implied by columnist David Brooks in a New York Times editorial last year.

I think it’s unfair to expect that people who don’t have access to basic needs—like adequate food, housing, and health care—should live normal and productive lives. To then punish them on top of that—by denying work and income supports, for example—is not only immoral, it’s irrational as well.

Early on in the battle to end poverty in America, the moral high ground was held by those with an empathic approach to alleviating poverty, in words and actions.

One’s moral perspective on the poverty issue usually defines how one goes about finding and implementing solutions to it.

President Roosevelt proclaimed: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” He followed up those words with the New Deal, giving rise to Social Security and the modern liberal/progressive movement in America.

In his Inaugural Address in 1961, President Kennedy said: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” He then announced a “New Frontier”: policies that extended jobless benefits, aid to children, increased Social Security and the minimum wage, and financed public affordable housing.

After Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ championed the Great Society and the War on Poverty: “… Neither you nor I are willing to accept the tyranny of poverty, nor the dictatorship of ignorance, nor the despotism of ill health, nor the oppression of bias and prejudice and bigotry. We want change. We want progress.” And he backed those words up with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, The Food Stamp Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965.

In 1967, Martin Luther King wrote that “poverty has no justification in our age.” He compared it to “the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned” to produce their own food. “The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.” He launched the Poor Peoples Campaign in 1968 to try to “gain economic justice for low-income people in the United States.” He was assassinated that year.

Bobby Kennedy took up the mantle as advocate for the poor and during his presidential campaign declared: “I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” He, too, was assassinated—just two months after King.

Even President Nixon continued to build on many of these progressive policy reforms. In 1969 he called for “an end to hunger,” expanded the food stamp program, and then created the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program in 1972.

I was born in the 1950s and lived through each of these periods of inspiration, hope and optimism; each were followed—inevitably, it came to seem—by death and anguish. The sudden, tragic loss of our most gifted and promising political and moral leaders left many in my generation traumatized and deeply scarred.

In the wake of the political carnage of the 1960s, and the national emotional hangover that only worsened with Vietnam and Watergate, Ronald Reagan came onto the national scene in the 1970s with openly racist disdain for the poor. His stump speeches included references to “welfare queens” taking “government handouts” while driving a “Cadillac”; and “strapping young bucks” using food stamps to buy “T-bone steaks.”

Does anyone think for a moment that if Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X were still alive then that they would have let him get away with that racist vitriol unchallenged? But Reagan did, and he backed up his words with actions.

He took particular aim at programs and services that were effectively reducing poverty and preventing homelessness prior to his election. In his own version of a perfect storm for the poor, Reagan gutted the budget of Housing and Urban Development  (HUD); discarded the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, and as a result, scores of people suffering from mental illness became displaced, homeless, or incarcerated instead of receiving treatment in community mental health centers; and he changed the political narrative about poverty and homelessness—from one that acknowledged it as a national problem, to one that framed it as a matter of personal choice.

As President Reagan said in a 1984 interview with Good Morning America regarding the unprecedented surge in homelessness: “People who are sleeping on the grates…the homeless…are homeless, you might say, by choice.”

It’s a legacy we are still unable to escape more than a quarter century since he left office. How many of us liberal and progressive leaders are willing to take on Ronald Reagan’s view of America that has seeped so deeply into our national psyche?

I’ll start the dance. I’m a writer and David Brooks is a writer. So I’ll call him out. Your editorial in the NY Times that singled out single mothers as being one of the chief causes of poverty in America? The last thing a single mother needs is a lecture from you on the “cultural roots of the problem” of poverty that are “really the inescapable core of the thing.” What she really needs is a job that pays a wage that is sufficient to house and feed herself and her children; affordable quality childcare so she can work; and access to health care is probably a pretty damn good idea too.

If our current busting-at-the-seams economy can’t provide a living wage because it’s so grotesquely skewed to enhance the wealth of the already wealthy, then it’s our responsibility—as proudly empathic liberals and progressives—to force our politicians to enact programs that will protect, serve, and empower ALL of our citizens equally and together.




Why Congress Should Pass the REDEEM Act

At a time of historic polarization in Washington, one issue has garnered strong bipartisan support: criminal justice reform. Exhibit A is the list of strange bedfellows who have recently joined forces through the “transpartisan” Coalition for Public Safety. This new effort has brought together leading progressive organizations such as the Center for American Progress and the ACLU, alongside influential conservative groups such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, Freedomworks, and the Koch Brothers.  With George Soros’ Open Society Foundation also serving as a longtime force pushing for criminal justice reform, this reflects rare left-right synergy.

Much of the bipartisan focus in Washington has centered on the need for sentencing reform, through proposals like tackling overly harsh mandatory minimums. Sentencing reform is urgently needed, and bipartisan efforts such as Senator Lee’s (R-UT) and Senator Durbin’s (D-IL) Smarter Sentencing Act provide cause for optimism.

But the problems with our broken criminal justice system don’t end when an individual is released from jail or prison. Every year, more than 600,000 Americans are released into their communities after serving their time. Moreover, millions more end up with criminal records without doing any time–through arrests that don’t lead to conviction or through probation-only sentences.

All in all, between 70 million and 100 million Americans—or as many as one in three of us—now have some type of criminal record. And due to the rise of technology and the internet—as well as federal and state policy decisions—having even a minor criminal record can stand in the way of employment, housing, education and training, building good credit, and even meager public assistance. For example, nearly 9 in 10 employers use background checks in hiring, and 4 in 5 landlords conduct background checks on potential tenants. Even a minor criminal record can mean every door is closed to you as you seek to get back on your feet.

Even a minor criminal record can mean every door is closed to you as you seek to get back on your feet.

The result? Punishment has been transformed from a temporary to a lifelong experience for many justice-involved individuals. In addition, mass incarceration and the barriers associated with a criminal record have come to serve as major drivers of poverty in the US. This has broad implications—not just for the tens of millions of affected individuals, but also for their families, their communities, and our national economy. For example, the cost of shutting people with criminal records out of the labor market runs as high as $65 billion per year in GDP terms. Thus, as the criminal justice reform train continues to move forward full speed ahead, it’s imperative that efforts include reforms to give people a second chance.

Senator Rand Paul’s and Senator Cory Booker’s REDEEM Act, introduced yesterday, is a good first step. Take a look at this summary if you want to see everything it does. Here are three key provisions, which, if enacted, would go a long way toward putting second chances within reach for Americans with criminal records.

1. Creates a mechanism for cleaning up a federal criminal record. As my colleague Sharon Dietrich and I explained in a recent Center for American Progress report, cleaning up a criminal record is one of the most powerful tools for overcoming the barriers associated with a criminal record. While state laws vary a great deal, the vast majority of states have “expungement” or “sealing” mechanisms to allow people to put their criminal records behind them. In fact, as the Vera Institute documented in a recent report, 23 states broadened these laws between 2009-2014 through efforts such as expanding the categories of offenses that can be expunged or shortening wait times.

Yet despite the exponential increase in federal criminal prosecutions that resulted from the War on Drugs, there is no such mechanism to expunge federal records, even those resulting from arrests that did not lead to a conviction. Federal law thus lags far behind the states. By creating a judicial mechanism for sealing federal nonviolent records, the REDEEM Act thus fills an important void. (We have called for including all federal arrests that did not result in conviction, given that the presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle of our criminal justice system—but the REDEEM Act is a good first step.)

 2. Improves the accuracy of FBI background checks. Understandably, employers and other users of background checks believe the information presented there is reliable. However, that information is often incorrect or not up to date. FBI background checks in particular are notoriously inaccurate – some 600,000 jobseekers received an inaccurate FBI check in 2012. One of the most common problems with FBI background checks is that they fail to provide the outcome of a criminal case. Given that many cases don’t result in convictions or are resolved on lesser charges, having a criminal record that has not been updated to reflect the outcome of criminal charges can be highly prejudicial.

In recognition of this widespread problem, the REDEEM Act would require the FBI to review each record for accuracy and completeness before it can be provided to a requesting party. It would also prohibit the FBI from distributing criminal record information pertaining to arrests that are more than two years old if they don’t contain a final outcome of the case.

3. Reforms the harsh and outdated lifetime ban on public assistance for people with felony drug convictions. In many states, even meager public assistance is out of reach for people with certain types of criminal records. The 1996 welfare law included a lifetime ban on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) for people convicted of a felony drug offense. The law gives states the option to modify or waive the bans, and many have. Yet most states continue to enforce the ban in whole or in part for TANF, SNAP, or both. This outdated and harsh policy deprives struggling families of nutrition assistance and pushes them even deeper into poverty at precisely the moment when they are seeking to regain their footing. According to The Sentencing Project, in the 12 states with the most punitive policies, an estimated 180,000 women were subject to the TANF ban in 2013. The REDEEM Act would lift this ban for people who were convicted for drug use or possession. (The ban would remain in effect for people convicted of drug distribution crimes.)

As bipartisan members of Congress take up criminal justice reform, we must not lose sight of the need to include reforms to give people a second chance. Passing the REDEEM Act would be a great start.