August 2011

  • August 9, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Inimai M. Chettiar, Policy Counsel, and Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director, at the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Gupta directs the ACLU’s Center for Justice and its Safe and Fair Initiative to End Overincarceration. Ms. Chettiar serves as national legislative counsel for the initiative and has published scholarshipon using economic analysis to promote social justice. They are primary authors of the ACLU’s new report, “Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Communities.

    There isn’t an American who hasn’t felt the devastating effects of the Great Recession. And just when most of us thought it couldn’t get any worse, the S&P downgrade of the federal government’s Treasury debt last Friday sent shocks through the country and the world, increasing talk about a double-dip recession and creating sharp declines on Wall Street yesterday reminiscent of the 2008 market crash. A downgrade of state and municipality debts could also follow.

    The scarcity of funds in American households and the resulting decline in government revenues have forced lawmakers to think twice before spending precious taxpayer dollars. Some states have enacted laws in the name of saving money that have been incredibly short sighted – like cutting funding for public and higher education or increasing financial burdens on the poor. These types of policies may save small amounts of money in the short run, but will have devastating effects on our children’s futures and prevent individuals on the margins from contributing to society.

    Among all this economic tragedy, however, there is a silver lining. As detailed by a new ACLU report released today, several states have enacted cost-effective laws cutting their unnecessary overreliance and massive spending on prisons while continuing to protect the safety of our communities. This is especially good news considering that state and federal governments spend about $70 billion annually on prisons and corrections. Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674 percent, outpacing the growth of other government expenditures.

    Our report, entitled Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Public Safety, highlights six states - Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio - that recently passed significant bipartisan reforms to reduce their prison populations and budgets. These states also experienced declines in their crime rates while these new policies were in place. If states that are as “tough on crime” as Texas, Mississippi, and South Carolina can engage in more rational criminal justice policymaking and recognize that mass incarceration is not necessary to protect public safety, there is no reason for other states not to follow suit.

  • August 8, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    With Congress on recess, its Tea Party freshmen members are planning for their return in September, and their new targets for obstruction include federal judicial nominations and other executive appointments, The Daily Beast reports.

    “In the fall, the group plans to band together to oppose judicial nominees it believes are too favorable to increasing the size and influence of government, creating a standoff that could strain an already understaffed court system,” the article explains.

    Meanwhile, for the remainder of the summer, the “ragtag band of proud obstructionists” will stick around Washington in order to prevent any formal recess, and block President Obama from making recess appointments of judicial and other nominees who have already been victims of longstanding obstruction. (But see two explanations for why this strategy may not prevent Obama from making recess appointments).

    Obstruction of judicial nominees has already hit historic levels: Before the Senate recessed it confirmed just four of the 24 nominees that had been fully vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and most of which were voted out of the committee without any reported opposition.

  • August 8, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    As an increasing number of economists suggests the nation’s wobbly economy may yet be heading into another recession, the effects of the Great Recession continue to do great damage to government funding of legal services.

    The cuts to such services are coming at a time when an increasing number of people need them, whether they are homeowners trying to cope with foreclosure, renters struggling to deal with evictions, or workers fighting employment discrimination.  

    On the federal level, the House Appropriations Committee is pushing for a 26 percent cut in funding to Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the nation’s largest provider of funding for civil legal services for low-income people. Cuts to LSC funding made by Congress in spring, along with cuts at the state level, have further hampered the ability of organizations to help low-income people access justice.   

    For example, Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) has announced that it “would close three of its branch offices and significantly reduce staff and services around the State due to severe funding cuts," the Xpress Mountain of Asheville and Western North Carolina reports. The shuttering of offices will affect more than “100,000 households – including more than 30,000 children,” who are eligible for the services.

    Celeste Harris, chair of the LANC board of directors, told the Xpress Mountain:

    New Jersey has also seen major slashes to its legal aid services. “From 2008 to 2010, Legal Services of New Jersey has seen its budget cut by 35 percent, from $72 million to $47 million, and lost nearly half of its staff attorneys as a result. In the 2011 budget, funding was slashed by another third; the 2012 budget signed by the governor included the additional $10 million cut,” Shore News Today reports.

    The article notes that some lawmakers in the New Jersey Assembly are urging the governor to reconsider the $10 million cut.

    State Sen. Jeff Van Drew said, “I’ve always been fiscally conservative, but without this funding there will be deeper cuts to an overburdened system. People cannot have their day in court on issues that affect their everyday lives without access to representation.”   

    During a recent event hosted by ACS and the Center for American Progress on the growing need for legal services, ACS Executive Director Caroline Fredrickson noted that even at the current legal aid services funding rates, more than 80 percent of low-income Americans have no access to legal assistance.

    “Sadly this crisis has been made only worse by the unemployment rate in this country and foreclosure problem,” Fredrickson said. “And at $284 per hour, which is the national average billing rate for attorneys, it is no surprise that many are priced out of access to justice.”

    In a recent ACS Book Talk feature, Corey Shdaimah, a law professor at the University of Maryland, asks, “If we can shore up corporations and financial institutions, why can’t we shore up people, communities, and their faith in our legal system? In the U.S., access to justice without lawyers is largely a hollow promise.”

  • August 8, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    The alarming number of federal court vacancies left behind during Congress’s month-long August recess continues to garner media coverage, including two stories published inThe New York Times this weekend.

    One story in The Times focuses on President Obama’s diverse judicial nominees and the Senate’s delay in confirming these candidates, continuing the momentum of recent coverage of this issue by NPR, Politico, Roll Call and The Wall Street Journal Law Blog.

    "Obama is nominating many more diverse nominees than his predecessors ... strikingly so," American Constitution Society Executive Director Caroline Fredrickson told NPR. "But the nominees are not getting confirmed with the same kind of success."

    In a second article in The New York Times Magazine about the dynamic between Supreme Court justices, Emily Bazelon highlights the issue of federal judicial nominations, noting that the federal bench has “had more than 80 vacancies for more than two years, a historical record.”

    She writes:

  • August 5, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Seeking divine guidance for answers to the ongoing effects of the Great Recession, or possibly to shake-up the 2012 Republican presidential race, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is set to headline a Christian evangelical rally tomorrow at the Houston Texans’ football stadium.

    The event, dubbed “The Response: a call to prayer for a nation in crisis,” is being backed by major Religious Right players, such as the American Family Association and TV preacher John Hagee, and will likely feature the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins.

    In a video message on The Response’s website, a grinning Gov. Perry says, in part:

    I’m inviting you to join your fellow Americans in a day of prayer and fasting on behalf of our nation. As an elected leader, I’m all too aware of government’s limitations when it comes to fixin things that are spiritual in nature. That’s where prayer comes in. And we need it more than ever, with the economy in trouble, communities in crisis, and people adrift in a sea of moral relativism. We need God’s help. That’s why I’m calling on Americans to pray and fast, like Jesus did, and as God called the Israelites to do in the book of Joel.

    Beyond urging Americans to flock to the Texas football stadium for a day of evangelical Christian festivities, he’s also reached out to other governors to join. The Washington Post notes that only Kan. Gov. Sam Brownback, a longtime Christian Right warrior, is apparently the only one, so far, to have accepted the invitation.  

    The Post article also notes that groups concerned about protecting the First Amendment principle that calls for a certain amount of separation between government and religion are trying to raise awareness of the governor’s religious endeavor, and the ideals it is promoting -- ones that are not inclusive of an increasingly diverse America.

    The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State told The Post, “Governor Perry’s decision to sponsor a ‘Christians-only’ prayer rally is bad enough. That he turned to an array of intolerant religious extremists to put it on for him is even worse.”