Tag Archives: Brennan Center

Among The Many Things We Need To Rethink..

Political conventions and government structures that have been in place for many years–some since America’s founding–are proving increasingly dysfunctional. I’ve addressed a number of them in this blog: the Electoral College, partisan redistricting, the filibuster and many others are widely recognized to be counterproductive to 21st Century expectations about democratic fairness and effective governance.

We can add a number of other “resistant to change” elements to the list; as one of my sons recently reminded me, thanks to population shifts, the U.S. Senate is wildly unrepresentative. For example, of the  candidates who won election to the 114th Senate, the Democrats received 20 million more votes than the Republicans. For another, by 2040,  predictions are that nine states will be home to half of the country’s population: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. The populations of those states will be represented by eighteen Senators. The remaining fifty percent will be represented by eighty-two.

Short of revolution, it is unlikely that we are going to be able to change things like the Senate’s disproportionate representation or the Electoral College–at least, not any time soon. But there are other public policies and longtime practices that are amenable to evidence-based change. One example–recently the subject of analysis by the Brennan Center— is the use of cash bail, fees and fines in the criminal justice system

The past decade has seen a troubling and well-documented increase in fees and fines imposed on defendants by criminal courts. Today, many states and localities rely on these fees and fines to fund their court systems or even basic government operations.

A wealth of evidence has already shown that this system works against the goal of rehabilitation and creates a major barrier to people reentering society after a conviction. They are often unable to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in accumulated court debt. When debt leads to incarceration or license suspension, it becomes even harder to find a job or housing or to pay child support. There’s also little evidence that imposing onerous fees and fines improves public safety.

The study examined ten counties in the states of Texas, Florida, and New Mexico, and also looked at statewide data for those three states. The counties were chosen to ensure a variety of geographic, economic, political, and ethnic profiles, as well as in the way they collected and enforced their use of fees and fines.

Now, this first-of-its-kind analysis shows that in addition to thwarting rehabilitation and failing to improve public safety, criminal-court fees and fines also fail at efficiently raising revenue. The high costs of collection and enforcement are excluded from most assessments, meaning that actual revenues from fees and fines are far lower than what legislators expect. And because fees and fines are typically imposed without regard to a defendant’s ability to pay, jurisdictions have billions of dollars in unpaid court debt on the books that they are unlikely to ever collect. This debt hangs over the heads of defendants and grows every year.

States spend a lot of money chasing after fees that will never be paid, mostly because the people against whom they are levied don’t have the money to pay them. The researchers found that one New Mexico county spent at least $1.17 to collect every dollar of revenue it actually realized, losing money through the process.

Funds currently being expended to collect the uncollectible would be better used for efforts that can be shown to actually improve public safety.

While political scientists are trying to figure out how to rescue American democracy from permanent minority rule, we might start addressing issues like this one, which should be more manageable…

 

The First Order Of Election Business

Americans may not have settled on a candidate to oppose the madman in the White House, but there is widespread agreement that the 2020 election will be a critical test of our national character.

It will also be a test of our electoral structures. Just how democratic are our elections? How easily rigged?

I’m not even talking about the threat of Russian interference. I’m talking about the glaringly obvious susceptibility of our elections to corruption–gerrymandering, of course, but also voter ID laws, and other vote suppression tactics.

It took the Guardian rather than an American news operation to do a front-page story on research by the Brennan Center.

US election jurisdictions with histories of egregious voter discrimination have been purging voter rolls at a rate 40% beyond the national average, according to a watchdog report released on Thursday.

At least 17 million voters were purged nationwide between 2016 and 2018, according to a studyby the Brennan Center for Justice. The number was basically unchanged from the previous two-year period.

While the rate of voter purges elsewhere has declined slowly, jurisdictions released from federal oversight by a watershed 2013 supreme court ruling had purge rates “significantly higher” than jurisdictions not previously subjected to oversight, the Brennan Center found in a previous report.

That trend has continued, the watchdog said, with the disproportionate purging of voters resulting in an estimated 1.1 million fewer voters between 2016 and 2018.

It will come as no surprise that the increase in purges began almost immediately after Shelby County v Holder in 2013, a decision that eviscerated the section of the Voting Rights Act that had subjected counties with histories of voter discrimination to federal oversight. The ruling was incredibly naive–it reminded me of Lee Hamilton’s comment that the Supreme Court needs fewer graduates of elite law schools and more justices who’d run for county sheriff. It simply ignored evidence of contemporary voter suppression tactics– strict voter identification laws, partisan gerrymandering and aggressive voter purges.

Voter roll purges are regularly undertaken to account for voters who move or die. But critics say that aggressive and unfair purges of voter rolls in recent years – such as a purge of 107,000 voters in Georgia in 2017 by the then secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who was subsequently elected governor by the electorate he had culled – have warped democracy.

“As the country prepares for the 2020 election, election administrators should take steps to ensure that every eligible American can cast a ballot next November,” the Brennan Center said in a statement. “Election day is often too late to discover that a person has been wrongfully purged.”

The Brennan Center study points to the critical importance of Stacy Abrams’ new initiative. (Abrams, of course, was the Georgia gubernatorial candidate cheated out of a likely win by Brian Kemp.) As The Atlantic  has reported

Stacey Abrams was catapulted into the national spotlight in 2018, when the former state representative came within 54,000 votes of winning the Georgia governor’s race, in an election marred by extensive reports of voter suppression. But despite the wave of calls urging her to parlay that political stardom into a presidential (or Senate) bid, Abrams will instead focus on fighting voter suppression through a new initiative called Fair Fight 2020, which, as she put it, aims to“make certain that no one has to go through in 2020 what we went through in 2018.” …

“I think what her experience this past year revealed was, regardless of how dynamic of a candidate you are, how much mobilization that you implement—particularly to mobilize voters who may not vote regularly and could not or have not voted at all—the effort to suppress the vote was, in her case, insurmountable,” says Pearl Dowe, a professor of political science and African American studies at Emory University. “I think it would be a mistake for any presidential candidate not to think about it.”

American voters–and the American media–regularly focus on personalities, polls and other “horse race” metrics, giving short shrift to the systemic environment that all too often determines outcomes– and even shorter shrift to coverage of partisans who game those systems.

It isn’t just the anti-democratic Electoral College.

If Americans somehow manage to overwhelm these anti-democratic processes–if we manage to elect rational, ethical policymakers committed to fair elections, they’ll have their work cut out for them.

 

This Deserves Full-Throated Support

So long as Republicans continue to control the Senate–and a know-nothing buffoon continues to occupy and degrade the Oval Office–this bill is unlikely to become law.

That’s too bad, because it gets to the essence of our genuine “national emergency.”

The bill, which is known as H.R. 1, or the For the People Act, and was sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), would create a more responsive and representative government by making it easier for voters to cast a ballot and harder for lawmakers to gerrymander, by transforming how campaigns are funded to amplify the voices of ordinary Americans, and by bolstering election security and government ethics.

Rather than treating structural issues hindering democratic decision making in separate proposals, the bill addresses a number of the systemic weaknesses that enable political game-playing and “dirty tricks”–  voting rights, gerrymandering, campaign finance reform, and ethics.

The Brennan Center description of the measure (linked above) highlights several of the most important provisions–restoring the Voting Rights Act, ensuring that everyone in the country gets at least two weeks within which to cast an early ballot, campaign finance reforms, and a requirement that all voting machines have paper trails. Among the most important are measures affecting voter registration and discouraging gerrymandering:

Streamlining Voter Registration: H.R. 1 would bring Automatic and Same-Day Voter Registration to voters across the country. Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) is a transformative reform under which eligible voters are automatically registered when they provide information to the government at the DMV or other government agencies, unless they opt out. Since 2015, 15 states and the District of Columbia have approved AVR, leading to big gains in registration. If adopted nationwide, AVR could add as many as 50 million new voters to the rolls. Same-Day Registration (SDR) allows eligible voters to register at the polls on Election Day, making it less likely that voters will be disenfranchised by last-minute registration problems. It is already offered in 16 states. Combined with AVR, SDR would solve most of the serious registration problems voters experienced in 2016 and 2018….

Gerrymandering Reform. H.R. 1 would curb extreme partisan gerrymandering by ensuring that states draw congressional districts using independent redistricting commissions whose members represent diverse communities across the state, by establishing fair redistricting criteria, and by mandating greater transparency for the redistricting process.

Taken as a whole, this bill would make considerable progress toward ensuring fair elections with results that accurately reflect the will of the voters. In a sane world, opposing it would be tantamount to opposing motherhood and apple pie–so why do I say that Republicans will never let it see the light of day?

The answer to that (entirely rhetorical) question is obvious to anyone who follows political news: without gaming the system, today’s GOP cannot win enough votes to control the House or Senate. If not for the Electoral College, the party–at least as it exists today– would rarely if ever win the White House.

America desperately needs a grown-up GOP, one that’s able to compete for votes in fair elections. While we wait for the emergence of such a party, however, we need fair elections.

Passing this bill would be a major step in that direction.

Criminal Justice by the Numbers: The Moneyball Approach

“The approach is simple. First, government needs to figure out what works. Second, government should fund what works. Then, it should stop funding what doesn’t work.”

That, in a nutshell, is Peter Orszag’s summary of a recent, detailed set of recommendations  issued by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s law school. He calls it “the Moneyball approach”–going by statistical evidence rather than gut impressions.

The Brennan Center’s proposal, Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration, is a plan to link federal grant money to modern criminal justice goals – to use that grant money more strategically– to promote innovative crime-reduction policies nationwide and to reduce crime, incarceration and the costs of both.

The proposal, titled “Success-Oriented Funding,” would change the federal government’s $352 million Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, by focusing on the government’s current criteria for determining whether a grant has been successful.  (Fortunately, given the gridlock in Congress, It could be implemented by the DOJ– it wouldn’t require legislation.)

The fundamental premise of the program is that “what gets measured gets done.” If you are measuring the number of arrests, you’ll increase arrests. If you are measuring reductions in crime or recidivism, you’ll get reductions in crime and recidivism.

A blue-ribbon panel including prosecutors and defense lawyers, Republicans and Democrats, academics and officeholders has signed on to the proposal. As Orszag noted in the Forward:

Based on rough calculations, less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely. With so little performance data, it is impossible to say how many of the programs are effective. The consequences of failing to measure the impact of so many of our government programs — and of sometimes ignoring the data even when we do measure them — go well beyond wasting scarce tax dollars. Every time a young person participates in a program that doesn’t work but could have participated in one that does, that represents a human cost. And failing to do any good is by no means the worst sin possible: Some state and federal dollars flow to programs that actually harm the people who participate in them.

Figuring out what we taxpayers are paying for, and whether what we are paying for works.

Evidence. What a novel idea!