Paul Krugman: America Has Begun Its Slide Into Fascism

NEWS & POLITICS
The New York Times columnist sounds off on Trump’s Arpaio pardon.

Photo Credit: YouTube/Bloomberg

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio proudly referred to his tent city prison as a “concentration camp.”  For decades, the former sheriff freely carried out his abuse and racial profiling, ignoring any requests to stop, Arpaio was finally convicted for contempt of court earlier this summer, but the conviction lasted barely three weeks before Donald Trump pardoned him, paving the way for what Paul Krugman calls “fascism, American style.”

“There’s a word for political regimes that round up members of minority groups and send them to concentration camps, while rejecting the rule of law,” he writes in his Monday column. “What Arpaio brought to Maricopa, and what the president of the United States has just endorsed.”

It’s not hard to understand why Trump would be eager to pardon Arpaio. The president fawns over dictators like Duterte and Putin, and accuses immigrants of being rapists. Of course he’d love the idea of a strongman flourishing in an American county. In addition, Krugman points out, “the pardon is a signal to those who might be tempted to make deals with the special investigator as the Russia probe closes in on the White House: Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.”

His base also revels in spectacular feats of racism, and with his approval rating plummeting, Trump needs them more than ever.

What’s less immediately clear is how we got here in the first place. Why was Arpaio allowed to openly engage in abuse and racial profiling? Why did we allow a failed businessman-turned-reality television star to become president? For Krugman, the blame lies with their collaborators. What made Trump’s rise possible, he explains, is “the acquiescence of people, both voters and politicians, who aren’t white supremacists, who sort-of kind-of believe in the rule of law, but are willing to go along with racists and lawbreakers if it seems to serve their interests.”

Most of is have read the reports about poorly educated white voters and the fawning profiles of Trump supporters and their “economic anxiety.” What we hear less about are the “millions of votes from well-educated Republicans who — despite the media’s orgy of false equivalence or worse (emails!) — had no excuse for not realizing what kind of man he was. For whatever reason, be it political tribalism or the desire for lower taxes, they voted for him anyway.”

Their representatives in Congress have done little more than issue verbal slaps on the wrist. The likes of Paul Ryan express “dismay” and “concern” every time Trump issues a new immigration ban, praises the KKK or acts on one draconian policy or another. Krugman isn’t optimistic that Arpaio’s pardon will lead to action to back up the flimsy concern. If anything, he writes, “We may well be in the early stages of a constitutional crisis. Does anyone consider it unthinkable that Trump will fire Robert Mueller, and try to shut down investigations into his personal and political links to Russia? Does anyone have confidence that Republicans in Congress will do anything more than express mild disagreement with his actions if he does?”

Probably not. Krugman leaves us with this chilling thought: “There’s also a word for people who, out of cowardice or self-interest, go along with such abuses: collaborators. How many such collaborators will there be? I’m afraid we’ll soon find out.”

Read the entire column.

 

Kochs Bankroll Movement to Rewrite the Constitution

NEWS & POLITICs
Austerity advocates claim that they need only to convince five of seven targeted states to get on board.

Photo Credit: GongTo / Shutterstock

A constitutional convention, something thought impossible not long ago, is looking increasingly likely. Under Article V of the U.S. Constitution, if 34 state legislatures “issue a call” for a constitutional convention, Congress must convene one. By some counts, the right-wing only needs six more states. Once called, delegates can propose and vote on changes and new amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which, if approved, are currently required to be ratified by 38 states.

There are two major legislative pushes for a convention at the state level. One would attempt to engineer a convention for a balanced budget amendment only, and the other tries to secure an open convention for the purpose of limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government. But once a convention is underway, all bets are off. The convention can write its own rules, resulting in a wide-open or “runaway” convention that can make major changes to the constitution and even change the number of states required to ratify those changes.

If America gets saddled with a runaway convention, the Koch coterie of funders will be to blame. Most of the groups pushing the convention idea are being underwritten by one or more institutions tied to billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.

Attempts to Limit Topic of the Convention Likely to Fail

On Feb. 24, Wyoming became the 29th state to pass a resolution requesting a convention specifically to add a single balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Many of these legislative resolutions also attempt to set the rules for the convention and limit who can attend it to a select list of largely GOP state leaders.

Austerity advocates claim that they need only to convince five of seven targeted states—Arizona, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, South Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin—to get on board, and they will have enough states to convene a convention. As the Center for Media and Democracy has reported, three linked measures were just introduced in Wisconsin and were placed on a fast track to approval.

Another faction representing a broader “Convention of States” initiative is advocating an open constitutional convention to limit “the power and jurisdiction of the federal government.” Because this open convention format would be called on a particular subject rather than a particular amendment, representatives would likely vote on any number of measures.

Legislatures in nine states—Arizona, Georgia, Alaska, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Louisiana—have signed on to the Convention of States resolution,. Texas appears likely to join in, as the state Senate approved a Convention of States bill in February. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is fiercely campaigning for a convention and has deemed it an “emergency issue.” In 2016, he published a 70-page plan that includes nine proposed amendments aimed at severely limiting federal authority, even allowing a two-thirds majority of the states to override a Supreme Court ruling or a federal law.

Groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Common Cause, and the Center for Media and Democracy have raised the alarm about these efforts. No convention has been called since 1787 in Philadelphia where George Washington presided.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains why any convention call, no matter how narrowly written, is likely to result in a “runaway” convention. A convention is empowered to write its own rules, including how delegates are chosen, how many delegates attend and whether a supermajority is required to approve amendments.

Nothing in the Constitution prevents a convention, once convened, from setting its own agenda, influenced by powerful special interests like the Koch groups. A convention could even choose an entirely new ratification process. “The 1787 convention ignored the ratification process under which it was established and created a new one, reducing the number of states needed to approve the new Constitution and removing Congress from the approval process,” writes CBPP.

Legal uncertainly surrounds the entire effort, which is sure to be litigated if successful. For instance, are states bound by resolutions passed many years ago? Will states withdraw their approval? Some states, like Delaware and New Mexico, have already moved to do so.

The Koch Connection to the Push for a Constitutional Convention

Libertarian billionaires Charles and Dav id Koch have long opposed federal power and federal spending. Koch Industries is one of the nation’s biggest polluters and has been sanctioned and fined over and over again by both federal and state authorities. In response, the Kochs have launched a host of “limited government” advocacy organizations and have created a massive $400 million campaign finance network, fueled by their fortunes and those of their wealthy, right-wing allies, that rivals the two major political parties.

The Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity says it favors a balanced budget convention. Such an austerity amendment would drastically cut the size of the federal government, threatening critical programs like Social Security and Medicare and eviscerating the government’s ability to respond to economic downturns, major disasters and the climate crisis.

AFP has opposed an open convention, calling it “problematic.” But whatever qualms the Kochs might have, they continue to be a bedrock funder of the entire convention “movement.”

Running the “Convention of States initiative” is an Austin, Texas-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Citizens for Self-Governance (CSG). CSG reported revenue of $5.7 million in 2015, more than double its haul from two years earlier, when it launched its Convention of States Project, according to Dallas News. It now boasts 115,000 “volunteers,” although that figure may represent the number of addresses on its email list.

The group is not required to disclose its donors, but research into other organizations’ tax records by the Center for Media and Democracy, Conservative Transparency and this author show a web of Koch-linked groups having provided nearly $5.4 million to CSG from the group’s founding in 2011 through 2015:

  • Donors Trust, a preferred secret money conduit for individuals and foundations in the Koch network of funders, has given CSG at least $790,000 since 2011.
  • The Greater Houston Community Foundation, which is funded by Donors Capital Fund (linked to Donors Trust) and the Kochs’ Knowledge and Progress Fund, has donated over $2 million since 2011.
  • The Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Donors Capital Fund, gave $2.5 million from 2012-2013.

Citizens for Self-Governance also has two Koch-connected board members. Eric O’Keefe is a director of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a group which has taken in considerable funding from Koch-linked groups like the Center to Protect Patient Rights, and was at the center of the long-running “John Doe” criminal investigation of Scott Walker’s campaign coordination with dark money groups.

O’Keefe was thenational field coordinator for the Libertarian Party when David Koch ran for Vice President in 1979 on the Libertarian Party ticket. The party’s platform called for the end of campaign finance law, the minimum wage, “oppressive Social Security,” Medicaid, Medicare and federal deficit spending.

The Koch agenda has not changed much since.

Another board member is Tim Dunn, an oilman from Midland, Texas who is vice chairman of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a right-wing think tank that’s raked in over $1 million from Koch family foundations, $160,000 from Koch Industries in 2012 alone and at least $1.8 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund.

Dunn runs another political group, Empower Texans, which supports Republican candidates and has taken in funds from Donors Trust and “Americans for Job Security,” a Koch-tied dark money group that was slapped with a severe fine by the FEC for its involvement in a dark money shell game intended to disguise the origin of its funds.

Both TPPF and Empower Texans back the constitutional convention idea.

What’s more, a 501(c)4 nonprofit connected to CSG, the Alliance for Self-Governance (which does business as Convention of States Action), received $270,000 in 2012 from Americans for Limited Government, which has received funding not only by Donors Capital Fund but by two Koch-funded political groups, the Center to Protect Patient Rights and Americans for Job Security.

Those two groups exchanged millions of dollars in 2010 and 2012, illegally hiding the source of funding for political expenditures, lying to the Internal Revenue Service and making unlawful contributions to pass-through groups, prompting investigations and historic fines by the both the State of California and the Federal Elections Commission. Eric O’Keefe’s Wisconsin Club for Growth also funneled $450,000 to Alliance for Self-Governance in 2012, at a time when WCFG was battling the Walker recall.

Any time any organization is named “self-governance” or “limited government” you can be sure that Wisconsin’s Eric O’Keefe is either a founder or on the board, and indeed O’Keefe is tied to all three organizations: CSG, the Alliance for Self-Governance and Americans for Limited Government.

If the Kochs and their friends don’t want an open constitutional convention, they’ve sure done a lot to aid the effort.

American Legislative Exchange Council

CSG also has ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate bill mill that unites conservative politicians with big-business lobbyists who develop cookie-cutter “model” legislation behind closed doors at ALEC meetings.

ALEC has long been funded by Koch Industries and a representative of Koch Industries sits on its executive board, while representatives from the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity groups fund and sit on various committees. ALEC has also received funding from Koch family foundations. CMD estimates this funding to be over $1 million, though the actual total could be much higher. In addition, ALEC gets funding from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund.

According to Common Cause, “no group has been more influential” in promoting an Article V convention than ALEC. In 2011, ALEC commissioned a handbook for state legislators on how to push for a constitutional convention. The group has produced at least three model balanced budget amendment bills and has endorsed several model bills calling for a convention to vote on constitutional amendments, such as requiring Congress to get approval by two-thirds of the states before imposing new taxes or increasing the federal debt or federal spending.

CSG has sponsored ALEC conferences and led sessions focused on a constitutional convention. In 2015, ALEC’s board of directors officially endorsed CSG’s open convention plan as a “model” bill. The group had previously endorsed a balanced-budget-only plan. ALEC’s Jeffersonian Project, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit formed in 2013, has been lobbying state legislators to propose such a convention, CMD reports.

More Koch Money Pushing Austerity Amendment

Another group, the Florida-based Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, is backing a balanced budget convention bill that 29 states have approved. In its effort, the group has lobbied for the bill and attended ALEC conferences and other similar events. On its website, the task force lists ALEC and the Heartland Institute as partner organizations.

“ALEC has been instrumental in providing us a forum within which to present our campaign, recruit sponsors, and approve model legislation that legislators can be confident in,” claims the site.

Another big backer of the balanced budget amendment approach is the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, which is also tied to the Koch brothers. A member of ALEC, it has received $5.6 million from the Donors Capital Fund since 2011 and tens of thousands of dollars each from the Charles Koch Foundation and the Claude R. Lambe Foundation. Heartland publishes posts praising or defending the Kochs and even put out an annual environmental report from Koch Industries.

“The Heartland Institute has put the full weight of its influence behind the BBA Task Force as well as other campaigns in order to encourage the states to use their power to amend the U.S. Constitution,” reads the site.

Compact for America, formed by a former counsel with the conservative Goldwater Institute and staffed by more Goldwater alumni, has its own balanced budget convention proposal, which only four states have signed on to. The institute, which promotes many of ALEC’s model bills, has taken in big donations from Donors Trust, Donors Capital Fund and the Charles Koch Foundation.

If America faces the madness of a runaway convention, voters of both parties will know whom to blame.

Mary Bottari contributed to this article.

Alex Kotch is an independent investigative journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter at @alexkotch.

Democrats silent as one million lose food stamp benefits in the US

By Patrick Martin
4 April 2016

Tens of thousands of impoverished, unemployed adults were cut off food stamps Friday, the first wave of a social catastrophe that could affect more than one million people this year.

Some 22 states began terminating benefits for “Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents,” or ABAWDs, in the jargon of the US Department of Agriculture, which administers the federally funded food stamp program, or Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as it is formally known.

These adults, aged 18 to 49 years and without children, are generally the poorest section of the working class, earning only 17 percent of the official poverty rat, an average o f barely $150-170 per month in income. But they are eligible for only 90 days of feood stamp benefits unless they have paid employment or job training for at least 80 hours in a month. The 90-day clock began running January 1, so adults who no longer qualify under this rule began being terminated in state after state April 1.

The 22 states include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington and West Virginia.

Another 22 states (see map) had already enforced work requirements to cut food stamp benefits for ABAWDs in 2015 or earlier. Those states account for 30 percent of the US population, while the states that are imposing work requirements this year account for another 35 percent.

The numbers in some of the larger states are staggering. Florida alone will cut off benefits to an estimated 300,000 childless adults; Tennessee 150,000 and North Carolina 110,000. New York state will cut off more than 50,000, including 3,000 people in Manhattan, home to the world’s biggest concentration of billionaires. Missouri cuts off 60,000; Alabama 40,000 and Massachusetts 23,000.

The work requirements for food stamp recipients were waived for most states during the deep recession that followed the 2008 financial crash. States had to have an official unemployment rate above 10 percent, or at least 20 percent above the national average, or demonstrate a weak labor market under other criteria set down by the Department of Labor.

The number of childless adults eligible for food stamps jumped from 1.7 million in 2007 to 4.9 million in 2013, then began to decline to 4.7 million in 2014, largely because states like Kansas and Ohio began to impose work requirements.

The harsh “work for food” requirements were first introduced for food stamps under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. This is the notorious “welfare reform” bill sponsored by then-US Rep. John Kasich, who is now Ohio’s governor and a Republican candidate for president, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, husband of the current frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

It is particularly noticeable that none of the presidential candidates of either capitalist party, including the self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders, has made an issue of the food stamp cutoff that is plunging hundreds of thousands overnight into hunger and destitution.

Senator Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are in the midst of a campaign in the April 19 New York primary, but neither has said a word on behalf of the more than 50,000 New Yorkers who began losing their food stamp benefits Friday.

On Tuesday, Bill Clinton will campaign for his wife in Erie County, which includes the city of Buffalo, devastated by the collapse of the steel industry. Some 2,800 Erie County residents were cut off food stamps April 1, but it is unlikely that the former president, who has raked in more than $100 million in income since he left the White House, will have anything to say about it.

Hillary Clinton gloried in the “welfare reform” legislation in her 2003 memoirLiving History (for which she was paid $8 million). She wrote that Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the program the bill abolished, “had helped to create generations of welfare-dependent Americans … I strongly argued that we had to change the system, although my endorsement of welfare reform came at some personal cost.” The “cost,” of course, was to her political credibility as a supposed advocate of the poor.

Clinton claimed that the legislation her husband signed “was a critical first step to reforming our nation’s welfare system. I agreed that he should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage—though he and the legislation were roundly criticized by some liberals, advocacy groups for immigrants and most people who worked with the welfare system.”

Sanders has criticized Hillary Clinton repeatedly for giving speeches to Wall Street audiences in return for six-figure fees, as well as raking in campaign contributions from the financial and fossil fuel industries. But he has not sought to make a connection between Clinton’s close ties to the super-rich and the record of the first Clinton administration, particularly its attack on the poorest sections of the working class.

Nor has Sanders, in general, made an issue of the cuts in vital social programs, particularly those implemented with the collaboration of the Obama administration, like the $8.7 billion cut in food stamp benefits pushed through in 2014 as part of a bipartisan deal with congressional Republicans, or this year’s drastic cutback in food stamp eligibility for childless adults.

Food stamp recipients, and particularly childless adults on food stamps, have become targets of abuse for big business politicians of both parties. Several of the states now implementing work requirements have gone well beyond the regulations set down by the federal Department of Agriculture or the provisions of the welfare reform law.

State governments are permitted to seek exemptions from benefit cutoffs for regions of the state with particularly high concentrations of unemployment, even if the state as a whole no longer qualifies. In New York state, for example, the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx have such exemptions, although Manhattan does not.

But many states, like Florida, have refused to seek such exemptions. The Missouri legislature even passed a bill last year prohibiting the state government from seeking a waiver, with legislators claiming it was easy for the unemployed to find at least 20 hours work per week.

In Mississippi, with one of the highest unemployment rates and highest poverty rates in the country, Republican Governor Phil Bryant chose not to extend the waiver of the work requirement. “We want people to go to work in Mississippi,” he said in a statement. “We want these individuals to get a good job and live the American dream, not just be dependent on the federal government.”

 

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/04/04/food-a04.html

State funding for higher education in US slashed by 20 percent since 2008

By Evan Blake
14 May 2015

State spending on higher education across the United States has fallen precipitously in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, according to a study published Wednesday by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

On average, states are spending $1,805, or 20 percent, less per student than before the recession. Five states—Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—slashed their higher education funding by more than 35 percent since 2008, with Arizona cutting its spending by an astronomical 47 percent.

Decades-long cutbacks in state and federal funding for higher education have been used to justify massive increases in tuition, combined with budget cuts to educational and other services at public colleges and universities.

The CBPP report highlights the cumulative impact of this process, noting, “In 1988, public colleges and universities received 3.2 times as much in revenue from state and local governments as they did from students. They now receive about 1.1 times as much from states and localities as from students.”

Simultaneously, wages have stagnated or declined for the vast majority of workers, so that, “Since 1973, average inflation-adjusted public college tuition has more than tripled—increasing by nearly 270 percent—but median household income has barely changed, up merely 5 percent.”

The report added, “Tuition jumped nearly 28 percent between the 2007-08 and 2013-14 school years, while real median income fell roughly 8 percent over the same time period.”

As a result of budget cuts, tuition at universities in Arizona has skyrocketed by an average of 83.6 percent since 2008. In five other states—California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, and Louisiana—the cost of tuition has increased by more than 60 percent, while every state has seen a marked increase in average tuition since 2008.

The CBPP report notes, “Annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has risen by $2,068, or 29 percent, since the 2007-08 school year,” while at the same time colleges have “cut faculty positions, eliminated course offerings, closed campuses, shut computer labs, and reduced library services, among other cuts.”

The CBPP report corresponds with the findings of another recent study on higher education by Mark Kantrowitz, a writer for the college advice website Edvisors. Kantrowitz found that the average college graduate in 2015 has accumulated over $35,000 of student-loan debt, almost thee times the amount of debt for a college graduate in 1995.

As states and the federal government have demanded ever-deepening austerity, college students are forced to rely on student loans. Roughly 71 percent of all 2015 graduates will have to repay some type of student loan, compared to 64 percent 10 years ago and less than 50 percent in the mid-1990s.

Parents of college students are often forced to take out additional loans, with roughly 17 percent of 2015 graduates’ parents also saddled by their children’s student loan debt. The average parent who takes out a student loan for a 2015 graduate has incurred $30,867 of debt, up 4 percent from $29,684 in 2014.

Newly-issued student loan debt is expected to reach a record $68 billion this year for undergraduates and their parents, more than 10 times the total in 1994 and an enormous addition to the ballooning $1.2 trillion total student loan debt in the U.S.

The only states that have increased funding for higher education since 2008 are Alaska, Wyoming and North Dakota, which respectively rank 50th, 49th and 45th in total college enrollment. With a combined enrollment of roughly 118,000 students, these states account for a mere 0.6 percent of the total college student population in the U.S.

The defunding of higher education is a component part of the broader drive to dismantle public education in the U.S., as the American ruling class moves to claw back the gains won by previous generations of workers.

The Obama administration has played a central role in this assault, enforcing a 12 percent cut to Title 1 funding geared toward low-income schools, while providing $248 million in charter school funding and $378 million for standardized testing to further justify the firing of teachers and closure of public schools. A 2014 CBPP report found that 54 percent of K-12 public schools in the U.S. saw rising class sizes for the 2011-12 school year.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/05/14/coll-m14.html

Overcrowded Holding Center for Migrant Children

Brownsville, TX

Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a US Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas. (Reuters/Eric Gay/Pool)

Under mounting pressure from lawmakers and immigrant rights groups, Border Patrol officials on Wednesday finally let reporters visit two processing facilities where hundreds of unaccompanied migrant youth are being detained.

Some 900 children are being housed at a former warehouse in Nogales, Arizona, which was recently outfitted to handle an unprecedented surge of mostly Central American child migrants across the US-Mexico border. Another facility in Brownsville, Texas, is holding around 500 children, double its intended capacity. The Los Angeles Times described conditions there as “overcrowded and unsanitary.” CBP is required by law to turn over any migrant children to the Department of Health and Human Services within seventy-two hours of detaining them. Officials at the Nogales and Brownsville facilities told reporters they are struggling to meet this requirement.

Earlier this month, the White House requested $2 billion to handle the surge of migrant youths, which President Obama has declared an “urgent humanitarian situation.” US Customs and Border Protection reports that around 47,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border since October 1, 2013, nearly double the amount of last year. A majority of the migrant children arrived from Central American countries, seeking refuge from rampant violence or hoping to reconnect with family members already in the states.

CBP officials took reporters on highly controlled tours of the Brownsville and Nogales facilities, in which visitors were prohibited from bringing cellphones and sound recorders, or speaking with any of the children. Only two photographers, one for each facility, were allowed to bring a camera. Here are some of their photos:


Some 900 unaccompanied children are being held at a converted warehouse in Nogales. Border Patrol officials set up the Arizona facility after a similiar processing center in Texas ran out of space. (Reuters/Ross D. Franklin/Pool)
Nogales
Female detainees sleep in a holding cell. According to The New York Times, children held at the Nogales facility are allowed just forty-five minutes of outdoor time a day. (Reuters/Ross D. Franklin/Pool)

Child detainees are escorted to make phone calls. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

Child detainees wait to use a portable restroom, as a World Cup match plays on a suspended television. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

http://www.thenation.com/blog/180331/what-overcrowded-holding-center-migrant-children-looks?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=email_nation&utm_campaign=Email%20Nation%20%28NEW%29%20-%20Headline%20Nation%20Feed%2020140619&newsletter=email_nation

How Bureaucrats Stand in the Way of Releasing Elderly and Ill Prisoners

Prisons are struggling to cope with the growing number of elderly and ill inmates incarcerated in the U.S. (Photo by Tim Gruber)

Former inmate Veronica Barnes had three years left to serve in federal prison when she found out in January 2011 that her husband John was dying of pancreatic cancer. Doctors said it was inoperable. They gave him less than a year to live.

Barnes worried who would look after her children, who were four and five years old at the time. A social worker suggested she apply for compassionate release, a program that lets federal inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who face “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” get out of prison early.

Barnes, 32, seemed to fit most of the criteria. She was in prison on a nonviolent drug charge, and there was no one to care for her children when her husband died.

Barnes had been living with her family in Yarnell, Ariz. and working at the local market when she was arrested in 2008. She plead guilty to intent to distribute methamphetamine, and was sentenced to six years in prison. At the federal prison camp in Phoenix, Arizona, she saw her children every week, completed a parenting class, took college courses, and graduated from a drug rehab program.

The assistant U.S. attorney who tried Barnes’ case said she believed it was “a sympathetic case,” and that Barnes was unlikely to reoffend. The warden at the prison camp in Phoenix supported freeing Barnes.

“Based on the ages of the children and the death of their father, the children are dealing with a doubly traumatic situation since their mother is not able to render support or care,” the warden wrote. “I am in favor of recommending Ms. Barnes for compassionate release so she may reunite with her young children during this difficult time.”

A year and three months after submitting her first application — and nearly eight months after her husband died — Barnes received a letter from the Bureau of Prisons’ central office. Her request had been denied.

The Barnes family (Photo courtesy of Veronica Barnes)

The Barnes family (Photo courtesy of Veronica Barnes)

“All that time I spent waiting for their response, my children were living with strangers,” Barnes said.

Officials at the federal Bureau of Prisons central office decided it was in the best interest of Barnes’ two children to stay with a local couple in Yarnell who Barnes’ pastor had found to care for the kids.

“Review of Ms. Barnes’ past history raises concern as to whether she will be able to sustain the stresses of sole parenting and employment while remaining crime-free,” wrote Kathleen Kenney, general counsel and assistant director of the Bureau of Prisons.

The government has long been criticized for rarely granting compassionate release. This August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department would try to change that by expanding criteria for who can apply.

Under the new guidelines, compassionate release can be granted not just to prisoners who have terminal illnesses, but also to those with debilitating conditions.  Prisoners who need to serve as caregivers for family members may now also seek reductions in sentencing. And for the first time, elderly federal inmates who aren’t necessarily dying or incapacitated can apply to be let out early.

Holder touted the compassionate release initiative as one way to cut down on the “astonishing” federal prison population, which has grown by nearly 800 percent since 1980.

But even if the changes enable more inmates to apply for compassionate release, prison officials still have almost total discretion over who is approved.

A federal prison’s warden, as well as the Bureau of Prisons’ regional director and central office must sign off on an inmate’s application before it is passed on to a judge. Any of those officials can reject applications for a number of reasons, from a perceived risk of recidivism to concern for what’s best for a prisoner’s child, as in Barnes’ case. There is no process for inmates to appeal those decisions in court.

Many advocates say they expect eligible inmates will remain behind bars despite the changes. “I don’t believe it’s going to change at all,” said lawyer Marc Seitles, whose client was denied release despite terminal cancer. “It’s still the same people making decisions.”

In September, Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels said he predicted expanding eligibility would result in the “release of some non-violent offenders, although we estimate the impact will be modest.” (The agency declined to make Samuels available for comment to ProPublica.)

As of October 29, The Bureau of Prisons had approved and passed along 50 compassionate release requests to judges this year. That’s up from 39 in 2012 and 29 in 2011.

It’s impossible to know if the overall rate of approval has increased, as the federal Bureau of Prisons hasn’t released the number of inmates who have applied.

The Bureau says it recently started to track inmate requests, after an Inspector General report earlier this year excoriated the department for failing to do so. The report also found most inmates didn’t even know the program existed.

The expansion of compassionate release was motivated in part by the rising number of sick and elderly inmates incarcerated in the U.S. As of 2011, there were over 26,000 inmates over 65 in state and federal custody.

And as the elderly population in prison grows, so do their medical bills. Housing an inmate in a prison medical center costs taxpayers nearly $60,000 a year — more than twice the cost of housing an inmate in general population.

Many lawyers and prisoner advocates have said the “jailers are acting as judges” by rejecting most compassionate release cases without ever passing them onto the courts for a final decision.

“The Bureau of Prisons should be letting judges have the opportunity to decide every time extraordinary and compelling reasons come to their attention, and [they are] not doing that,” said federal public defender Steve Sady, who has written extensively on the issue and represented clients requesting early release. “We believe that, under the statute, the sentence is for the judge to decide.”

Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross said in an emailed statement that “Congress gave the [Bureau of Prisons] authority” to decide which inmates should be granted release.

“Review includes deliberation on the most important factor, ensuring that an inmate’s release would not pose a danger to the safety of any other person or the community,” he said. “This must be considered before any request is submitted to a court.” (Read their full statement.)

Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says prison officials are ill-equipped to make those kinds of decisions. Prison officials’ “job is to keep people locked up. Identifying people who should no longer be incarcerated is just not what they do,” she said.

This is especially true in cases like Barnes’, Price said, in which prison officials decide complicated legal questions such as whether an inmate is fit to parent. “You would never trust your child’s guardianship issues to a bureaucrat in the Bureau of Prisons,” she said. “They have no competence or expertise in this.”

Ross said the Bureau of Prisons has implemented new training programs to better prepare wardens and other prison officials to make these decisions.

Some inmates have tried to take their cases directly to court, but most judges say their hands are tied without the prison bureau’s approval.

Federal inmate and lawyer Lynne Stewart tried to seek compassionate release from a federal judge after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Stewart is serving a 10-year sentence in a Texas federal prison for serving as a messenger for her client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted of terrorism charges in connection with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Prison officials denied Stewart’s request in June, saying she hadn’t proven she had less than 18 months to live. So Stewart took her case to court, hoping a federal judge would overrule the prisons’ decision.

“There is no doubt that Lynne is dying,” said Stewart’s husband, Ralph Poynter. “She can’t breath, the cancer has taken over both lungs.” Stewart “sounds like she’s running” when they talk on the phone, Poynter said.

The judge wrote that he had no choice but to deny her request. “The court would give prompt and sympathetic consideration to any motion for compassionate release,” the judge wrote, “but it is for the [Bureau of Prisons] to make that motion in the first place.”

Stewart’s lawyer Jill Shellow was “disappointed” the judge refused to weigh in on Stewart’s case. “She’s not at risk of recidivism,“ Shellow said. “I remain convinced that it is inappropriate for the Bureau of Prisons to be making the decisions.”

Prisoner advocates at Human Rights Watch and other organizations have proposed allowing inmates to go before a judge to appeal rejections.

“Unless there’s an institutional change or a criteria that they have to follow, this will never change,” Seitles said.

While Barnes was not granted early release, the Bureau of Prisons did give her a one-day furlough. She had to choose between visiting her husband on his deathbed or attending his funeral.

Barnes decided to see her husband while he was still alive. “It’s very hard to wake up in the morning and know that that’s the last time you’re going to see him,” she said. “My kids were all excited that mommy’s home. I had to explain that I was just there for a couple hours.”

Barnes completed her sentence in June, and has since been a single parent to her two children. She’s returned to her job at the market, and is taking classes at a nearby community college. But remaining behind bars as her husband died has had a lasting impact.

“The relationship with my children will never be repaired,” she said. “I wasn’t there when their father was dying.”