Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sequestration's Latest Victim: The Constitution

Image: Beneficiaries of the bottom tier of the American welfare system (source)

Updates--see below

I previously wrote about a Wonkblog round-up of media accounts of programs getting axed by the sequester, and how the sequester persists only because these cuts are focused on the bottom tier of the American welfare state.  Contrast the harm the sequester inflicts on the poor with the fact that any sequester cuts that inconvenience the rich were quickly rolled back: few things could more effectively express who our government works for.

Jared Bernstein has been running a "Sequester Watch" on his always excellent blog, and I'm embarrassed to say I haven't been keeping up.  In installment #14, he rounds up accounts of specific programs being cut: various Head Start programs, inner city schools, mental health services for Native Americans, low income housing, Meals on Wheels, federal public defenders, and others.  This is poverty sustainment; not giving poor children the educational opportunities they need to succeed is an endorsement of their poverty.

Here's another link describing the effect on federal public defenders:
Federal defenders already were facing a 5 percent budget reduction when $85 billion in spending cuts began coursing through federal agencies in March, lopping another 5 percent from the budget this fiscal year. Some courts have limited the hours they hear criminal matters. Defenders across the country are taking up to 15 days without pay, forcing postponements in many criminal proceedings...

The court system’s alternative is to hire private, court-appointed attorneys to represent indigent clients, since by law they must get a lawyer. They are paid from the same pool of money as public defenders. But they cost more, and according to some studies, are less experienced and less effective.

Nachnanoff told lawmakers that public defenders are expecting another hit to their budget of more than 20 percent in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, which would almost surely result in layoffs.

In a letter to the Judiciary Committee, a group of 40 former judges and prosecutors urged Congress to fully fund the defender program.

“These ill-conceived measures undermine not only the Federal Defender system, but the entire federal judiciary, without achieving any real cost savings,” they wrote of the sequestration cuts.
All American citizens have a Constitutional right to a trial and legal representation.  There can be little doubt this right was being trampled before sequestration; there can be zero doubt now that this is now occurring.

But a closer look reveals the cynicism of the sequester: because public defenders are being furloughed, the federal government is actually paying more money for worse representation for poor criminals.  Can there be any question that this is a feature, and not a bug?  Does the American ruling class really find this a convincing argument:

Poor people accused of federal crimes are more likely to go to prison because of the sequester, and we need to help them get adequate legal representation.

or would they rather that poor people suffer from incompetent representation?  That legislators are willing to pay money to ensure worse representation shows that worsening public representation is a pleasant surprise of sequestration, and not an unfortunate casualty.  Constitutional rights are to be protected, but only for the rich.  Remember, we imprison people at a higher rate than the world's autocratic dictatorships:

Looking for Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, Zimbabwe, or China?  Check positions 90, 275, 39, 129, and 125.  We are in a league of our own; when our only potential company is North Korea, something is seriously wrong.  And, we look like barbarians compared to the developed world:

Incarceration in America is also massively, undeniably racist:
And although experts have found little statistical difference among racial groups regarding actual drug use, African-Americans--who make up about 12% of the total U.S. population--accounted for 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.
We have 5%  of the world's population, yet 25% of the world's prisoners.

Given the fact that incarceration does not actually reduce crime:

the conclusion that we incarcerate for the sake of incarceration and perpetuation of racial inequality rather than for public safety is inescapable.  Given our long history of extraordinary injustice in our criminal justice system, it is abundantly clear that sending more poor people to prison is a feature of the sequester, not a bug.  We haven't cared about a proper criminal justice system before; why would we start caring now?  The sequester is furthering a long-standing American policy goal; why should it be reversed?  (See update below; 8/15/13 and 11/22/2014)

Unwanted Americans
America has never cared about Native Americans; sequestration will of course persist when it affects an unwanted group rather than one that society and our political system actually values:
Even in normal times, the Indian Health Service operates with about half the money it needs. Tribal Council members told me that some of their health funds last only until May. If you get sick after May, too bad. Now these health care programs, already rationing care, are subject to the sequester. The Indian Health Service estimates that as a result it will have 804,000 fewer patient visits this year. 
And, mental health:
“Since the beginning of the year, there have been 100 suicide attempts in 110 days on Pine Ridge,” Abramson said, referring to an Indian reservation in South Dakota. “Because of sequestration, they will not be able to hire two mental health care providers. As one tribal health official told NIHB, ‘We can’t take any more cuts. We just can’t.’”  

And South Dakota's Pine Ridge tribe isn’t unique. American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rates of suicide compared to any other ethnic group...

“As young as nine-years-old, we’ve heard of kids committing suicide. All the way up to the elders, you know, grandmas and grandpas,"...
The top tier of the American welfare system has survived intact; the generous government subsidization of employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement benefits has not been affected; the rich can still buy their way out of the education system that is forced to close schools, layoff staff, and cut student services; they can also buy out of the public defense system if, by some fluke, they are involved in some legal kerfuffle.  Sequestration persists because only the bottom tier of the American welfare system is affected; as we saw in the previous post, any cuts that even inconvenienced the rich were quickly reversed, while life-and-death matters of powerless individuals are casually disregarded in the name of responsibility and shared sacrifice.

Update, 8/15/2013
A piece by Cora Currier in ProPublica explained the hypocrisy of the Obama Administration (through Eric Holder) denouncing the atrocious criminal justice system of the United States, yet conveniently ignoring the ability of the President of the United States to shorten or cancel the sentence of any federal prisoner.  Obama has only done so once, far below the historical average.  The contrasts she draws earn this post the additional label of "liberal Democrat myth":
While clemency does not generally reach wide swaths of prisoners, Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter used it to affect policy on a larger scale, creating programs to forgive thousands of Vietnam War draft evaders.
In the 1960s, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy also took a stand against what he described as “grossly unjust” outcomes of sentencing practices – and used commutations to do so. He directed federal prison wardens to seek out and bring him prisoners deserving of early release. Kennedy acknowledged that presidential commutations were “at best only stop-gaps” in a sentencing regime that needed reform. President John F. Kennedy commuted 100 sentences in total, and President Lyndon B. Johnson 226.
Update, 11/22/2014
Dara Lind plots changes in crime rates versus changes in incarceration rates for all fifty US states, 2008-2013. There is clearly no relationship. If increasing incarceration doesn't result in decreases in crime, then our political system is simply incarcerating people for the sake of incarcerating them, without intention of making anyone safer:

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