Category Archives: Criminal Justice

Adventures In Privatization

For a considerable period of time in the late 1900s, privatization of government functions was all the rage. (Not that it was true privatization; as I’ve noted before, actual privatization  requires that government completely withdraw from whatever activity was involved, leaving its provision entirely to the private sector.)

What public entities call privatization is almost always contracting-out or outsourcing–providing a service through a third-party surrogate rather than through government employees.

Enthusiasm for the practice has abated considerably, as research has steadily deflated the claims made by proponents. Contracting out doesn’t usually save money, for one thing, and the ability of government to monitor those with whom it contracts has proved to be less than ideal, to put it mildly.

Also, in far too many situations, contracting has become the new patronage.

There are certainly public functions that lend themselves to outsourcing, but thanks to the American penchant to go “all in” on the latest management fad, contracting has often proved disastrous. From poor outcomes, to cost overruns, to outright corruption, analyses have been increasingly negative.  A recent research project adds one: government outsourcing decreases employee diversity.

A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia revealed that when governments contract work out to private companies, fewer  African-American, Hispanic, and female employees are hired.

Over the past twenty years, private contracting has become a popular way to improve efficiency in the public sector.

“Increasingly, services that were once performed by public employees, are provided under contract by private firms,” explained study author J. Edward Kellough, a UGA professor of public administration and policy in the School of International and Public Affairs. “The question,” he added, “is whether this growth in contracting has been detrimental to minority and female employment.”

That’s not nearly the worst of it.

The Trump Administration has been contracting with private prison companies to house refugees at our southern border. Private prisons are arguably the most striking misuse of government outsourcing, and their operation of border facilities has raised understandable outrage.

I’ll let Paul Krugman take it from here.

Is it cruelty, or is it corruption? That’s a question that comes up whenever we learn about some new, extraordinary abuse by the Trump administration — something that seems to happen just about every week. And the answer, usually, is “both.”

What about the detention centers at the border?

And the same goes for the atrocities the U.S. is committing against migrants from Central America. Oh, and save the fake outrage. Yes, they are atrocities, and yes, the detention centers meet the historical definition of concentration camps.

One reason for these atrocities is that the Trump administration sees cruelty both as a policy tool and as a political strategy: Vicious treatment of refugees might deter future asylum-seekers, and in any case it helps rev up the racist base. But there’s also money to be made, because a majority of detained migrants are being held in camps run by corporations with close ties to the Republican Party.

Krugman then sums up the whole sorry experiment with “privatization.”

Privatization of public services — having them delivered by contractors rather than government employees — took off during the 1980s. It has often been justified using the rhetoric of free markets, the supposed superiority of private enterprise to government bureaucracy.

This was always, however, a case of bait-and-switch. Free markets, in which private businesses compete for customers, can accomplish great things, and are indeed the best way to organize most of the economy. But the case for free markets isn’t a case for private business where there is no market: There’s no reason to presume that private firms will do a better job when there isn’t any competition, because the government itself is the sole customer. In fact, studies of privatization often find that it ends up costing more than having government employees do the work.

Nor is that an accident. Between campaign contributions and the revolving door, plus more outright bribery than we’d like to think, private contractors can engineer overpayment on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of public-sector unions.

Krugman makes an even more important point about accountability.

As he says, if you outsource garbage collection, it’s pretty easy to determine whether the garbage has been collected (although I’d note it’s not so easy to tell where it’s been dumped…). But if you hire a private company to do something the public can’t see–like prisons or migrant camps– it’s easy to hide poor performance and generous overpayments to political cronies.

And running a prison, which is literally walled off from public view, is almost a perfect example of the kind of government function that should not be privatized. After all, if a private prison operator bulks up its bottom line by underpaying personnel and failing to train them adequately, if it stints on food and medical care, who in the outside world will notice?

And of course, the administration and its cronies profit from these facilities. It’s hard to disagree with Krugman’s final observation:

Every betrayal of American principles also seems, somehow, to produce financial benefits for Trump and his friends.

 

This Is Chilling

As if the Trump Administration and its enablers in McConnell’s Court haven’t done enough to erode public confidence in America’s governing institutions, recent disclosures about the number of police officers involved in White Supremicist organizations should make the hair on the back of our collective necks stand up.

First, I ran into an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer reporting that the City of Philadelphia had pulled 72 officers off the street:

At the very beginning of June, a group called The Plain View Project—established in 2017 as a research group looking for racist, Islamophobic, and other hateful rhetoric posted and shared by law enforcement on social media—released some very harrowing results. The database they had compiled, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, included around 3,100 posts by some 330 active Philadelphia police officers. Of the 330, at least 16 were ranked officers. One of the issues with police officers’ private social media posts is that virtually all law enforcement agencies have some form of a social media policy that includes a restriction from posting things that could undermine public confidence in the law enforcement agent. The Plain View Project that collected this batch of law enforcement revelations, was led by Harvard Law graduate Emily Baker-White who told the Inquirer that she began this work because she had realized no one was aggregating police officer social media posts.

The results, published in Buzzfeed News, with the help of nonprofit newsroom Injustice Watch, was undeniable. While The Plain View Project was Philadelphia based, the disturbing posts from law enforcement were found from Dallas to Chicago to Florida, while the investigation was continuing,

The department took 72 officers off street duty during the investigation. At the time of the media report, none of the officers being investigated had yet been “disciplined,” but the Chief was quoted as predicting that such discipline would be forthcoming, and that “several” officers would likely be fired.

MeanwhileDispatches from the Culture Wars reports

Hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers from across the United States are members of Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups on Facebook, a Reveal investigation has found.

These cops have worked at every level of American law enforcement, from tiny, rural sheriff’s departments to the largest agencies in the country, such as the Los Angeles and New York police departments. They work in jails and schools and airports, on boats and trains and in patrol cars. And, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting discovered, they also read and contribute to groups such as “White Lives Matter” and “DEATH TO ISLAM UNDERCOVER.”

These organizations are deeply racist; they trade in anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant slogans, and a number are openly Islamophobic.  Worse still, the investigation found at least 150 officers involved with violent anti-government groups.

Thanks to the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, we’ve seen unsettling documentation of police behaviors consistent with the findings of this investigation. A lot of nice white middle-class Americans have been shocked by evidence that some police behavior changes rather dramatically in neighborhoods that are racially or ethnically different from their own.

We have a lot of housecleaning to do if we are going to mount an effort to live up to our ideals and the Constitution.

I just hope the rot hasn’t spread too far, and that it isn’t too late.

Guns

I don’t post often about America’s insane gun culture, because the lines have been drawn for a very long time, and the combatants’ feet are firmly in cement.

I could share innumerable facts: how many people die by gun each year, the margin by which the thousands domestic gun deaths exceed deaths in war, how guns facilitate suicide…on and on. It wouldn’t matter to the relative minority of gun owners who stockpile weapons and foam at the mouth at any suggestion that we withhold firearms from wife-beaters, crazy people or people on the terrorist watch-list.

Unfortunately, the foaming-mouth folks can rely upon the congressional GOP to ignore any and all facts, and block efforts to fund research into gun violence.

Research does exist, however, and rational people will find it persuasive. The Guardian recently reported on data from an experiment in the Bay Area.

For each new millionaire household the San Francisco Bay Area has produced, there are at least four new people living below the poverty level. San Francisco’s property crime rate has spiked to the highest in the nation. Many people – tech newcomers and longtime residents alike – complain of feeling unsafe.

At the same time, with little fanfare, the Bay Area has seen a dramatic drop in its homicide rate, driven by a considerable decrease in deadly shootings.
Across the region, the overall gun homicide rate has dropped 30% in the past decade, a Guardian investigation of homicide data across more than 100 cities has found.

The study analyzed homicide data across California’s Bay Area from 2007 to 2017. During that time, gun homicide rates fell across all racial groups, but the decrease was largest for black residents.

What was particularly striking about these findings was that the dramatic drop came at the same time as criminal justice reforms in California reduced the number of people in the state’s jails and prisons.

The reduction came as cities like Oakland and Richmond did what a number of scholars have recommended: they changed their approach to the problem, investing tens of millions of dollars in public health approaches to gun violence.

The study considered–and dismissed–the possibility that gentrification was the reason violence subsided.

Three cities that are undergoing intense gentrification saw the biggest drops in gun homicides. But outlying suburbs – the towns where many residents forced out by gentrification have moved – did not see a corresponding increase in violence…

The Bay Area still sees nearly 300 gun homicides each year. But these changes are profound. The majority of America’s gun homicide victims are black, killed in everyday shootings in segregated, economically struggling neighborhoods in cities such as Oakland and Richmond. It’s this everyday toll of violence, not mass shooting casualties, that drives America’s gun homicide rate 25 times higher than those of other wealthy countries.

The article noted that cities that once ranked among the nation’s deadliest have seen enormous decreases, and emphasized that these decreases spanned a decade– they weren’t single-year drops. The declines persisted over the years.

California has the strongest gun laws in the country, and it has enacted more than 30 new gun control laws since 2009 alone. The Guardian credited those constraints, together with the change in approach to violence prevention, for the reduction in gun homicides.

There’s early evidence that local violence prevention strategies – including a refocused, more community-driven “Ceasefire” policing strategy, and intensive support programs that do not involve law enforcement at all – were a “key change” contributing to these huge decreases.

As the article concedes, there are still plenty of problems in the Bay Area. (Police shootings haven’t declined, for example.) But there is a lesson here.

Of course, lessons are lost on people determined not to learn them.

Private Prisons And Perverse Incentives

Every once in a while, my city gives me something to brag about. Most recently, that’s the current administration’s approach to Criminal Justice.

A recent article from Fortune Magazine, of all places, sets it out.

When the city heads to Wall Street Thursday to borrow $610 million to build a jail and criminal justice complex on the site of an old coking factory, it’s betting it can better house criminals and rehabilitate them on its own. That means CoreCivic, which has run a Marion County jail for two decades, will lose the contract when the new one opens.

The decision to sever ties with CoreCivic is part of a shift in policy-making that seeks to address a cycle of recidivism that keeps sending repeat offenders back to jail. It joins other governments nationwide, including California, that are reconsidering a reliance on the private companies that stepped in as the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing laws caused inmate populations to soar, leaving more than half of the states paying businesses to incarcerate their residents.

There is a mountain of data detailing what’s wrong with private prisons. (When my graduate students choose to write their research papers on the subject of for-profit prisons, their conclusions range from highly critical to horrified, and for good reason.) Zach Adamson, Vice-President of the Indianapolis City-County Council is quoted in the article with what may be the best summary of the problem with prisons for profit:

“The idea that there would be profit to be made through the imprisonment of our neighbors is something that’s abhorrent to a number of people—many of our constituents cannot process that,” said Zach Adamson, vice president of the council that oversees the consolidated government of Indianapolis and Marion County. “Criminal justice is not getting better as long as our primary concern is looking to cut corners and save costs.” (emphasis supplied)

In 2016, the city convened a task force to consider ways Indianapolis could cut crime and address jail overcrowding. The task force recommended addressing “underlying causes,” in an effort to reduce both crime and the $440 million dollars Indianapolis spends on criminal justice each year–far and away the city’s biggest expense.

The issues facing Indianapolis are hardly unique: some 40% of people detained in the country’s jails are mentally ill and up to 85 percent suffer from substance abuse (with respect to those who are mentally ill, psychiatrists tell us that substance abuse is an effort at “self-medicating.”)

The complex will consolidate the courthouse, its jails, and rehabilitation operations in one modern site. The city-county council voted in April 2018 not to privatize the new lockup, dealing a blow to CoreCivic, which has managed a facility there since 1997.

“The goal of the jail system shouldn’t be to fill the beds,” said Andy Mallon, corporation counsel for the government. “We’re trying to reduce crime and reduce the number of people who are involved in crime.”

Mallon’s observation is at the heart of what’s wrong with privatizing these elements of the criminal justice system. Private prison companies are in business to fill beds, and to do so as cheaply as possible, not to rehabilitate offenders. Their lobbyists work to criminalize additional behaviors and increase prison terms for offenses already on the books–measures that feed their bottom lines.

Their goal isn’t public safety, it’s profit, and the big private prison companies donate generously to politicians in order to protect those profits.

During the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice and several state governments  responded to the research, recognized the existence of the perverse incentives, and began  terminating contracts with companies like GEO and CoreCivic. Then, of course, we got Trump, and headlines like these:”Trump’s First Year Has Been the Private Prison Industry’s Best.”  and “Trump’s Immigrant-Detention Plans Benefit Private Prison Operators.”

In Indianapolis, I am happy to say, the city has chosen to bring best practices to bear on its criminal justice problems, to evaluate those it incarcerates in order to determine appropriate interventions– and to stop paying for-profit companies to warehouse offenders.

 

 

Now He’s Pardoning War Criminals

Every morning, Americans wake up to news of additional Trump efforts to roll back rational regulations, to insult long-time allies, or attack and undermine the rule of law.

And then there’s misuse of the Presidential pardon power.

I’m not talking about his documented efforts to suborn perjury by dangling the promise of a pardon to people like Michael Cohen. I’m not even referring to the shameful pardon of racist lawbreaker Sheriff Joe Arpaio. I’m talking about his recent pardon of a soldier convicted of a war crime, and his publicized intent to pardon others who have committed such crimes.

Senior U.S. officials have reported that Trump has been examining high-profile war crimes cases from Iraq and Afghanistan, and that he has had aides preparing paperwork so that he can issue pardons.

Not only would such pardons encourage horrific behaviors, they would put American soldiers at risk.

The possibility that Trump could issue pardons has brought a flood of opposition from current and former high-ranking officers, who say it would encourage misconduct by showing that violations of laws prohibiting attacks on civilians and prisoners of war will be treated with leniency.

“Absent evidence of innocence or injustice, the wholesale pardon of U.S. service members accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the law of armed conflict seriously,” retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a tweet Tuesday. He added: “Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us.”

Time Magazine ran a column by retired Admiral James Stavridis in which he reminded readers that service members convicted of these crimes had received more than adequate due process:

The circumstances, motivations, outcomes and punishments all differ. But [the cases] share one crucial element: the military members went through, or still face, the military judicial system, which includes a strong presumption of innocence by fellow military members; a very high bar for conviction; a set of judges, prosecutors and defense teams composed of military personnel, most with real combat experience themselves; and a fully engaged appellate system that likewise was composed of military judges. While there may be a very atypical case wherein a Presidential pardon could right an obvious wrong, such a situation is extremely rare — the punishments meted out take fully into account the circumstances.

These individuals have been convicted by their peers of violating both the laws of war and the code of military conduct.

It appears that President Trump is considering pardoning those men, as well as other military members credibly charged with a variety of crimes, including murdering an enemy captive or killing unarmed civilians. (The President is also reportedly considering pardoning a security contractor twice convicted by a federal court.) All of these actions are gross violations of the laws of war and the U.S. code of military conduct. They are extreme ethical and moral failures.

The Admiral also warned of the consequences of issuing such pardons: it would undermine American military standards, be a gift to enemy propagandists, and further undercut our relations with allies (who have strong systems in place to prevent these kinds of actions).

Worst of all, such an action would encourage our enemies to engage in barbaric behavior.

This kind of pardon disrespects every single one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who follow the strict standards of the Code of Conduct. They do not abuse captives who have surrendered, use torture to interrogate, cause needless casualties to civilians through collateral damage or desecrate corpses.

In the New York Times, columnist Jamelle Bouie described the conduct for which these men had been convicted.

Last year, a federal jury in Washington convicted Nicholas Slatten, a former security contractor, of first-degree murder for his role in killing one of 14 Iraqi civilians who died in 2007 in a shooting that also injured more than a dozen others. Matthew Golsteyn, an Army Green Beret, was charged late last year with the murder of an unarmed Afghan man during a 2010 deployment. Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who served in Iraq, was reported to authorities by his own men, who witnessed him “stabbing a defenseless teenage captive to death,” “picking off a school-age girl and an old man from a sniper’s roost” and “indiscriminately spraying neighborhoods with rockets and machine-gun fire.”

Why would any President–even Trump–want to pardon such behavior?

For Trump, this toughness — this willingness to act cruelly and brutally — is a virtue. That’s especially true when the targets are racial others.

We saw this 30 years ago when he called for the return of the death penalty in the wake of accusations against the Central Park Five. We saw it during his presidential campaign, when he called for American soldiers to commit war crimes in the fight against the Islamic State. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump infamously said during a 2015 interview on “Fox & Friends.”

This is the moral code of a caveman. Or a Nazi.