STOP STEPPING ON MY BREAKTHROUGH

Doing his best to sweet-talk electorally-ascendent liberals into hitching their wagon to the libertarian rickshaw, Brink Lindsey offers a list of shared victories in which liberals and libertarians can revel together:

an honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends. Most obviously, many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era–the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration–were championed by the political left.

If these are victories for libertarians, then this is a better argument for why libertarians should support liberals and leftists – the people who actually won each of these victories – than for why the left should turn libertarian. But it’s worth asking whether these markers of social progress even qualify as “libertarian breakthroughs” or “libertarian ends.”

The Jim Crow regime was undone in part by the elimination of the poll tax, a nasty law which restricts access to a government function to those able to pay for it and rewards those with more money to spend on their politics with more voice in them. What about undoing those laws qualifies as libertarian? The Jim Crow regime was undone in part by anti-discrimination laws that empower government to use regulation to limit the freedom of employers to employ a workforce that looks like themselves. Inflicting government intervention on market transactions is not exactly the libertarian m.o. Neither is government-mandated busing to integrate a public school system that if libertarians had their way wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Many libertarians no doubt break with Barry Goldwater and support the Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. But their support for good progressive law doesn’t demonstrate a fundamental affinity between liberalism and libertarianism. It simply demonstrates that even its devotees sometimes reject the maxim that “the government is best which governs least” when faced with the liberty-denying consequences of the “free market” whose “relentless dynamism” Lindsey urges liberals to recognize.

Libertarians may support freedom of the press from censorship, but they’re more likely to fret over how to sell off our publically-owned airwaves than how to ensure airtime for grassroots candidates. They may support a woman’s right to choose, but I wouldn’t count on their assistance in ensuring that women have the economic means to choose abortion or childbirth, or the educational resources to make informed choices. They may support the rights of the accused to a trial, but they’re not the first to line up to be taxed to pay for decent lawyers to represent them (then there are the ones who would like to replace the criminal justice system with a system of private torts). They may support allowing more immigrants into this country, but if you expect them to face down employers who exploit the fear of deportation to suppress the right to organize, you’ve got another think coming.

And though the Cato Institute won’t be joining Rick Santorum’s crusade against no-fault divorce any time soon, there’s no need for an earnest Ayn Rand devotee to support a right to divorce at all. After all, isn’t marriage a binding contract that the parties should know better than to get into lightly? Aside from the reality that it presides over marriage in the first place, why should government have any more right to stop consenting adults from entering contracts for lifelong marriage than it does to bar contracts for human organ sales or pennies-an-hour employment?

THE RIGHT WAY TO HONOR THE 4TH

is to extend the reach of Americans’ constitutional freedoms by enfranchising those who’ve had their civil rights wrongfully stripped from them over prior felony convictions. That’s exactly what Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has done in an Executive Order which goes into effect today. Now tens of thousands of Iowans (a quarter of whom are Black, though only a fiftieth of the state is) have the chance to exercise that most fundamental franchise, one which fosters opportunities to fight for the all too many others whose realization in this country remains deferred or denied. As the Des Moines Register wrote:

It is the right move. Convicts who have served their time should not forfeit such a fundamental constitutional right…Vilsack’s announcement, which came out of the blue Friday afternoon, stunned even close observers of the issue. It also angered critics, including Republican state legislators who saw it as a political calculation to add 50,000 or more likely Democratic voters to the rolls. Perhaps, but that sounds like support for denying ex-convicts constitutional rights to maintain a Republican edge in numbers…restitution [to victims] should eventually be paid in full, and the state has many tools at its disposal to push for compliance. The toolbox should not include denial of constitutional rights, however. The inability to vote is a visible brand ex-felons bear that labels them social outcasts, increasing the risk they might commit new crimes. The sooner convicted felons are allowed to participate in this civic responsibility, the better their odds of leading successful lives.

From Alyssa

The Boston Globe has an interesting article in its Ideas section today (The section is something the paper adopted a couple of years ago, and tends to include long-form essays on social problems and intellectual trends. It’s worth a check on Sundays.) about the evolution of women’s prisons, focusing on Massachusetts Correctional Institute Framingham, where I volunteered for three and a half years in high school. The piece examines the idea that women were considered unreformable, especially in earlier eras when many of them found themselves in prison for vice crimes, now mostly established. Even in more enlightened eras, and with the appointment of a woman as the head of the corrections system in Massachusetts, there has continued to be criticism of efforts that focus on rehabilitation.

While the time I spent at MCI Framingham, every other Saturday for those three years, was certainly eye-opening, it gives me more hope than the author of this article. I was working with a program called Girl Scouting Behind Bars, a special troop composed of girls from all over the Greater Boston area whose mothers were incarcerated. Our goal was to both give them some support they weren’t getting from foster parents and social workers through typical scouting activities, and to get them in contact with their mothers. The women who participated had to go through extensive detox, job training, and parenting programs before they could start coming to the Saturday meetings with their daughters. I remember them fondly: these women, mostly in prison for prostitution or drug-related crimes, were tough, often intelligent if not highly educated, and determined to turn their lives around. The parternship the Girl Scouts built with the prison was a productive one, at least it seemed that way to me at the time, and was happening in other states as well. Only one mother got out of prison in those three years, but lots more joined the program, and a lot of them told me that it had made them better parents. Obviously, it’s a tragedy that they had to go to prison, and leave their children in the hands of an often brutal state system to come to that realization, but it means that even in these circumstances, we’d found a way to do something right.

Ultimately, I think it’s a false distinction to say that rehabilitation means being soft on crime. I am still upset and angry with the woman whose twelve-year-old daughter, under extreme pressure from older boys in her neighborhood to have sex with a number of them, and trying to protect her younger situation from a less-than-ideal foster system, tried to kill herself. But I’m also still proud of another girl who brought up her grades and got herself into Boston Latin, a pair of sisters whose mother was the first to be released who excelled in school and in activities. If kids can not only survive, but thrive in extraordinary circumstances, maybe we can do some good with their parents as well. It certainly seems like we owe it to the children who will be in their care to focus on rehabilitation rather than on vengeance.

Watching the Gonzales Confirmation Hearing:

11:30: So far, the GOP Talking Points on the challenge to the vote count and the Gonzales nomination, respectively, seem to be “Don’t listen to them because they’re whining and you’ll just become confused,” and “He was just a lowly bureaucrat up against a Big Bad Justice Department.”

11:40 Gonzales: The abuses which we all object to, no one supports.

11:45 Gonzales: The Geneva Convention only works as a universal human rights standard if it only applies to some people.

11:54 Gonzales: At least we don’t cut people’s heads off. (Talk about defining deviancy down)

12:02 Gonzales: It’s not that I don’t offer my own opinions, it’s just that the Department of Justice is very persuasive.

12:07 Gonzales: If I didn’t mention in my memo to Bush on whether to execute this guy that his lawyer slept through the trial, it must be that we’d realized it was frivolous.

12:12: Senator Cornyn (R-TX): If people disagree with you on torture, it’s because they don’t want to win the war on terror as much as you.

12:13 Cornyn: They say you haven’t given you the documents you want, but they have given us these two file folders which seem to have lots of pages in them.

12:17 Gonzales: If there was a possibility of you all reading my candid advice, I might give different candid advice.

12:18 Senator Schumer (D-NY): Of course we need a little less liberty these days. Only, maybe not this much less. And could you at least talk to us about it?

12:27 Gonzales: The Executive Branch has no opinion on whether the Legislative Branch should be able to filibuster its nominees.

12:31 Senator Brownback (R-KS): We need to do more to lower recidivism rates by helping prisoners to function in society…with Jesus.

12:34 Brownback: Sure there’s a first amendment, but porn is really unpleasant. I’d like to recruit your wife to look into it.

12:37 Gonzales: I wasn’t calling my colleagues judicial activists for wanting to force minors to get parental permission for abortion, I was just saying their conclusions were judicial activism.

12:42 Gonzales: What do you mean did my redefinition of torture encourage abuse? The majority of prisoners have not been tortured.

12:44 Gonzales: I don’t think we’re ever allowed to commit war crimes, but I’ll keep you posted.

12:45 Gonzales: The President hasn’t used his authority to disobey the law, but he has it.

Last summer, the New York Times magazine ran a cover story on “The New Hipublicans” – college Republican activists. The article, despite seeming to bend over backwards (likely cowed by the ever-present specter of “liberal media bias”) to paint the kids in as positive a light as possible, came under attack from all corners of the conservative press as another example of how out of touch the Times was when it came to conservatives. As I said at the time, if there was something leery and out of touch about the magazine’s coverage of conservative activists, it was an outgrowth of the Times‘ leery, out of touch approach to activists of any stripe, not to conservatives. One classic example would be the NYT cover story on the Howard Dean movement that so bugged me in December. Another would be today’s front-page piece on anachists, which introduces them by listing off protests at which they’ve been blamed for violence:

Self-described anarchists were blamed for inciting the violence in Seattle at a 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in which 500 people were arrested and several businesses damaged. They have been accused by the police of throwing rocks or threatening officers with liquid substances at demonstrations against the Republican convention in Philadelphia in 2000 and at an economic summit meeting in Miami last year. Now, as the Republican National Convention is about to begin in New York City, the police are bracing for the actions of this loosely aligned and often shadowy group of protesters, and consider them the great unknown factor in whether the demonstrations remain under control or veer toward violence and disorder.

No discussion, of course, of the role of New York City police in determining whether demonstrations veer towards violence and disorder. Instead we get this implication that civil disobedience is something to be ashamed of:

But even anarchists who are against violence are warning of trouble and admit that they are planning acts of civil disobedience…

And to top it off, a couple paragraphs for John Timoney, who oversaw the unfortunate violence of the police treatment of protesters in Philly and Miami, to blame it all on the activists without anybody to refute him.

Needless to say, a book like Starhawk’s Webs of Power gives a much more grounded, nuanced, relevant portrayal of anarchists and their relationships with other activists. Maybe someone at the Times should read it

Some prison guard unions have come under criticism, sometimes deserved, for narrowly pursuing their members’ short-term interests in a manner which put them at odds with broader social change movements. That’s what I’d call a craft union approach, and there’s a reason that craft unions never left the kind of impact on this country that the trade union movement – through broad-based organizing – has. Here’s a Madison prison guard local providing a powerful example of the potential of organizing with a broader social vision:

At a meeting recently with four correctional officers, the union’s strategy was laid out in a presentation that will serve as the bargaining unit’s negotiating road map…Far from the “nuts and bolts” wages and benefits, the correctional officers said they will attempt to identify budget problems, how they affect their jobs and why those problems are not the making of the rank-and-file officers. These problems, they say, should not be cited when the state makes what they claim are inadequate economic offers. The officers referred to 1997 Wisconsin Act 283, the state’s Truth in Sentencing Law, that provides for extended supervision and increased penalties for various offenses. The officers claim Wisconsin’s Truth in Sentencing Law was created from model legislation developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council. They say ALEC is a politically conservative organization which held seminars on criminal justice issues such as Truth in Sentencing. The officers say the seminars were sponsored by private sector businesses with an interest in corrections. They named Corrections Corporation of America, a prison-building company that houses Wisconsin inmates out of state, as having ties to ALEC.

…During the presentation, the correctional officers indicated that Truth in Sentencing had contributed greatly to the state’s overcrowding problems. They claimed that the law’s author, then Rep. Scott Walker, patterned Wisconsin’s law after the ALEC model, which was developed by a task force led by private sector firms such as CCA…The point of all this, officers said, is that the prison population explosion was caused in large part by a new law mandating lengthy sentences, and that law was influenced by private companies which directly benefit from greater prison populations. In fact, the officers pointed out, more than 3,000 Wisconsin inmates were incarcerated in out-of-state CCA facilities. Overcrowding is not to be taken lightly, the officers said. It’s a contributing factor to prison riots and other lesser incidents which greatly threaten the safety of employees and inmates alike. A so called “tough on crime” approach is not always productive, the officers said. “Wisconsin correctional institutions are becoming increasingly hostile due to inmate take-a-ways and inmate idleness,” they said. “These actions, by and large, have been enacted by legislators eager to be ‘tough on crime’ with little understanding of the potential ramifications in the correctional setting.”

Errol says that while I haven’t convinced him

that felon disenfranchisement is unconstitutional, irrational, or undemocratic, I am convinced that the purging of elible voters from voting rolls because the state is too lazy to double-check a list is all of those things.

Whichever side you fall on on the first question, this is good news for those concerned with constitutionality, rationality, and democracy:

Florida’s top election officials conceded Tuesday that they will take no legal action to force the state’s 67 election supervisors to remove nearly 48,000 voters who have been identified by the state as potentially ineligible to vote. This means the fate of these voters, some of whom appear to have been wrongly placed on the list, will be up to the election supervisor in each county, many of whom have been hesitant so far to remove any voter from the rolls. Some supervisors have said they were unsure if they had the time or staff needed to independently verify the background of voters prior to this fall’s elections, but other supervisors have moved ahead anyway.

Hesitant they should be.

America Coming Together Spokesman Jim Jordan on hiring felons:

Given that the president and the vice president have three DUI arrests between them, we assume that they both believe in forgiveness and second chances.

It’s a funny comment, but there’s a very serious point to be made about the classed and racialized construction of felons by media and political elites who themselves benefit from the sickening double standards towards crime in this country. For the Bushes and Cheneys, second, and third, and fourth chances will always be available, as will be the chance to condescend to those with far less agregious crimes and only empty promises when it comes to rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

More on felons and the political process: The Associated Press apparently did some research, discovered that America Coming Together (ACT), one of the largest national groups sending canvassers out to register and educate voters for the election, had hired some former felons, and they were shocked – just shocked. ACT’s response, to their credit, has been defending its policy:

We believe it’s important to give people a second chance,” Elleithee said. “The fact that they are willing to do this work is a fairly serious indication that they want to become productive members of society.”

RNC Chair Ed Gillespie, shamefully but unsurprisingly, is claiming that having been convicted of a felony should disqualify Americans from handling official documents with private information. His essential contention – that the democratic process is too pure to be sullied by the involvement of those with crimminal records – should be all too familiar to those who saw it marshalled by a slew of dKos posters to defend Arizona’s disenfranchisement of felons in the name of keeping Nader off the ballot.

More power to ACT for hiring everyone who’s prepared and qualified for the hard, urgent work of empowering people to make demands of our democracy. I know I’ve found few people as excited about that work here in Florida as those felons who’ve been purged from the process. Everyone (almost) claims to want to see those who’ve served their time productively and smoothly reintegrated into society. Except not into my neighborhood. Not into my workplace. Not into my democracy.

A Dkos poster replies to me:

If you think drug laws are unfair, work to change the drug laws so that drug offenders are no longer convicted felons.
But don’t let convicted felons have a position of fiduciary trust in the voting process. Let them have jobs, apartments, let them vote, yes. If this bothers you, ask yourself: would you want a convicted felon (and I don’t mean a drug offender; I mean a child molester, white-collar criminal, or gunpoint robber) to be president? I wouldn’t. Sure, maybe his rehibilitation made him especially wise, but I wouldn’t want to take a chance. The risk is just too great. And where did Nader or the firm he hired find 19 convicted felons to put on payroll? Did they recruit especially for that demographic?

Would I vote for a convicted felon for President? Well, it would depend on what his platform was, who he was running against, and (to a lesser extent) the circumstances under which he became a convicted felon. Would I want to be denied the chance to vote for that candidate by having him purged from the ballot? Sure as hell not, no matter who he is.

For those who don’t know, the proportion of convicted felons among young men of color in many communities in this country – including some here in Florida, where I’ve been registering voters the past few weeks – is as high as one in four. So no, you don’t have to be looking to find them. As for fiduciary trust, there’s no justification for barring felons as a class (and let’s be honest about the size and demographic of the class we’re talking about) from working for the government, from voting, or from working to give those who desire the chance to exercise their democratic right to sign their name to a petition. What the process needs is oversight of signatures as they come in, not purges of the people who collect them.

An outrageous and deeply cynical comment by Kos, who should know better:

In addition to suspect signatures, entire reams of signatures can be invalidated if the person collecting them is a felon. Turns out that out of the 122 paid people who gathered the Nader signatures, at least 19 are confirmed felons. One of them was convicted for forgery. Considering that these same felonious petitioners were also soliciting signatures for an anti-immigrant initiative and an effort to invalidate Arizona’s clean election law, invalidating those petitioners and their signatures may actually serve triple duty, helping defeat Nader’s cynical presidential effort AND two nasty Republican-backed ballot efforts.

Not much new to say about this. Voting for Ralph Nader is, I firmly believe the wrong choice for someone concerned with progressive change in this country to make, and overlooks the tremendous difference between the greater and lesser of the two evils for those most directly affected by government policy be it creating jobs, protecting the right to organize, keeping bigotry out of the constitution, or sustaining the earth. But how should Kerry supporters respond? By organizing voters behind the Democratic candidate, and organizing the candidate behind a progressive agenda which co-opts Nader’s issues rather than demeaning his supporters. Not by drawing from the other side’s playbook by seeking out ways to disenfranchise voters by narrowing their democratic choices. Kos, unfortunately does this and descends one step further by lauding Democrats for taking advantage of this country’s abysmal treatment of former convicts, a group whose make-up (in case Kos has forgotten) is disproportionately minority, disproportionately poor, and shamefully swelled with first-time non-violent drug offenders. Felon disenfranchisement is the closest parallel this country maintains to a poll tax. Progressives should be working to undo it, not to exploit it for electoral gambits.

This Washington Post article dramatizes the controversy over posthumous DNA testing of executed convicts. The arguments for this are intuitive and compelling – the death penalty is one of the most controversial pieces of American social policy, and testing – even when it comes too late to save the life of a falsely accused individual – represents a scientific approach to study one its most contentious empirical questions: Does the death penalty claim innocent victims? As one forensic scientist argues:

Although Blake suspects Coleman is guilty based on his earlier work, he is also steadfast in his belief that the public has the right to know the truth. “I’m not anti-death penalty; I’m pro-democracy,” he said in an interview. “How can the state take the position that this is not worth inquiring into? Why not find out once and for all?”

The opposition, while it gets a good deal of space over the lengthy article, fails to offer much of a counter-argument. Mostly it runs like this:

John Eastman, a Chapman University law professor, said that post-conviction DNA testing is not always “about a particular guy being innocent, but an effort to open the door to build a case against the death penalty.”
Much like police who knock on someone’s door with a search warrant often do so trying to build a case against a suspect. But we don’t therefore render evidence inadmissible – we evaluate how persuasive it is.

In the case of Joseph Roger O’Dell III, executed in Virginia in 1997 for a rape and murder, a prosecuting attorney bluntly argued in court in 1998 that if posthumous DNA results exonerated O’Dell, “it would be shouted from the rooftops that . . . Virginia executed an innocent man.”

I certainly hope it would be. Because there would be fairly persuasive evidence to that effect.

…a number acknowledge that they remain opposed to what they see as baseless testing, in large part out of concern for the victims’ relatives, who have waited years — sometimes decades — for closure.

I find it hard to believe that victims of violent crime – let alone their communities – are better served by leaving unexplored evidence that might suggest that the one executed didn’t do it. For “closure” to trump truth in a life and death situation like this is unconscionable.

Legal experts say that the costs of testing, which run into thousands of dollars, contribute to the resistance.

The death penalty, incidentally, isn’t cheap – even when compared to life imprisonment.

Ultimately, no one articulates an argument against using the methods available to explore the full truth about the death penalty that’s markedly more persuasive than

Tom Scott, a Grundy lawyer who prosecuted Coleman, believes Warner should “let sleeping dogs lie.”