November 11, 2013
The Typhoon in the Philippines
The newspapers and television news report that the death toll in the Philippines from the strongest typhoon in recorded history could climb to 10,000 (or higher). I am reminded of the cynical but sadly often true observation: When one person close to you dies, it is a tragedy. When 10,000 people die in a distant land, it is a statistic. Even for us as Catholics who cherish the unique value and dignity of each individual, we can find it difficult to get our minds around loss of life at a large scale, and we struggle to feel an emotional connection with the victims of disasters occurring in exotic places.
When I spent a summer teaching in Rome in the Summer of 2007, I regularly watched “BBC World News” in the mornings and evenings, as it was one of two English-language stations available on our cable network (the other being, interestingly enough, “Al Jazeera Sports”). That was the summer of the 1-35 bridge collapse in the Twin Cities, which of course was a story of particular interest to those of us from the University of St. Thomas. But I remember being struck one morning when the BBC anchor announced, “Ten thousand people have died in Turkey as the heat wave continues. But, first, we go to our person on the scene at the bridge collapse in Minnesota.” (And, yes, the BBC indeed had a reporter — complete with BBC British accent — at the scene of the bridge collapse for live reports every half hour.) Ten thousand dead in Turkey. But the priority news story for the BBC was the bridge collapse in Minnesota at which thirteen lost their lives.
Now we can ridicule or disparage the BBC’s choice to highlight one story over the other, or we might attribute the choice to the race for ratings. But I think there is another way to understand that seemingly odd contrast. For those of us in the western developed world, we can more easily relate to the calamity of a collapsing highway bridge, plunging dozens of cars into the river — that is, we can imagine such a thing happening to us. We have more difficulty imagining ever being in a situation without easy access to cooling and clean water where scorching temperatures would cost thousands of lives.
Because our empathy and sympathy grows out of relationships, we naturally will have more for those with whom we are in relationship — or at least those with whom we identify in common experience and thus can envision a form of relationship. The Gospel of John reminds us that "God so loved the World," but it is so hard to love "the World" until we develop relationships within the Body of Christ.
The same is true for most of us in America when we see the images of destruction left by a typhoon on the other side of the globe. We pause to be shocked and sincerely express pity, but we lack the imagination to be deeply moved (for any length of time) by what we see. And I must confess that I have often been counted in that number — wanting to care and meaning to care, but lacking the connectedness to have the concern of relationship. While I want to do the right thing and lift up others in prayer and contribute to disaster relief, it may be hard to think with the mind of Christ about persons so far removed from me and my situation.
For me, not anymore. Or at least not today. My brother, Dan, was in a small city on the Filipino island of Biliran, which was directly in the path of Typhoon Haiyan. You’ve all seen the horrifying images of death and devastation coming out of Tacloban on the island of Leyte. The provincial capital of Naval on Biliran, where my brother was staying with his expecting fiancé, is just 50 miles to the west of Tacloban. We know Dan and Dayline were in Naval when the storm struck. We have not heard anything more from him in the few days since, nor has the State Department or the American embassy in Manila been able to offer us any word of his situation.
We prayerfully assume that they are both well and simply unable to get word out with electricity and communications down and likely to remain down for days or weeks more. We pray that they are able to persevere and find food and water as they wait for rescue and restoration. And in praying for my brother, whom I know, I can better envision the lives and plight of those around him in the wake of the typhoon.Catholic Relief Services is working with its partners to provide shelter and water to the tens of thousands in need in the Philippines. Please consider giving today: http://emergencies.crs.org/typhoon-haiyan-help-philippines-survive-and-recover/
November 06, 2013
Harry Hutchison: Responding to "How not to do Social Justice"
Well said but it is important to remember the lead role played by American citizens in the potential crackup of Obamacare. In what follows, I must confess that my analysis is far from original. In any case I think two things are worth noting given the problems emerging with respect to the Affordable Health Care Act.
First, Americans were only too willing to avoid the warnings offered by many analysts which suggested that the Affordable Health Care Act, representing the promise of Progressivism, would promise more than it could possibly deliver. Second, it is important to remember what Patrick J. Deneen has said about Tocqueville and the individualist roots of Progressivism which may explain why Americans were only too willing to believe, the often unbelievable promises of the law itself.
Deneen suggests that although the major figures of Progressivism would directly attack classical liberalism, a lucid understanding of Tocqueville’s analysis supports the conclusion that Progressivism arose not in spite of classical liberalism but because of its inherent and supreme emphasis upon, and cultivation of individualism. Whereas the idea of the individual is at least as old as Christianity, individualism within the context of Progressivism represents a new experience of self that arises with the diminution of a strong connection to a familial, social, religious, generational and cultural setting wherein change occurs relatively slowly consistent with a hierarchical (aristocratic?) society. With the onset of notions of highly individuated equality, Americans have (perhaps) experienced a new conception of the self—a self that emerges, unfettered by historical ties, as individuals are now defined by their membership in something larger—humanity itself. Liberated from embedded ties that ground us in quotidian reality, individuals crave unity—unity that is found within the pursuit of the ideal.
Liberated from membership in mediating groups, individuals seek forms of protection from the uncertainty that arises from the vagaries of human life. Thus understood the acclaimed conflict between individualism and the collective represents a false dichotomy because in reality unmediated individualism reinforces the state. The State grows on what it gives the individual (presumably affordable health care on demand at low costs) while diminishing the role of competing local institutions such as the church or family. The individual is seen as desperately alone and her only source of support is the State. If we are all, as individuals profoundly weak, alone and isolated, the State is obligated to support us in our autonomy and isolation as a fundamental requirement that is the fulfillment of a democratic commitment to individuality and equality. The Affordable Health Care Act was sold to individuals who were only too willing to believe the promise that this law would ultimately free them and us from the need to depend on our communities, churches, employers and other mediating institutions. Instead, it would free us to pursue our fulfillment (whatever that means) knowing that the existence of a “right” to healthcare would help us achieve the unachievable, the illusion of autonomy. Other casualties emerge include a pre-commitment to truth.
George Mason School of Law
November 05, 2013
How Not to Do Social Justice: The Obamacare Example
You knew that at some point that someone here on the Mirror of Justice just had to say something about what HHS Secretary Sebelius has now acknowledged to be the Obamacare “debacle.”
There will be ample time in the coming months to explore in more detail the underlying issues about affordable health care, health insurance options, access to physicians, controlling costs of health care (or not), whether Obamacare expands the availability of affordable health insurance as much as it contracts that availability, etc.
And it’s always possible that, after an initially disastrous unveiling, the new health care regime will evolve into a model of government-managed efficiency that strengthens the social safety net and enhances the health care system to the popular applause of the American people.
But as the shoes continue to drop, and the focus shifts from bad website tech to bad policy collateral effects, such a happy outcome seems increasingly unlikely.
Consider how quickly political fortunes are shifting. Just a couple of weeks ago, House Republicans were pilloried by the media and chastised by the public for shutting down the government and risking a default on the national debt service for the solitary and dominating purpose of undoing or at least revamping Obamacare.
But now and in the light of recent events, people are recalling that President Obama and the Senate Democrats were equally willing to shut down the government and risk a default rather than allow even the most modest adjustment to Obamacare. When House Republicans sought to save face by asking only for a delay in the individual mandate—which would have been parallel to the delay granted by President Obama to big business in providing more comprehensive health insurance benefits to employees—President Obama and the Democrats would have none of it. (Ironically, now President Obama is thinking of doing exactly that because of the web site failure, which I guess makes his hard-line against House Republicans and the consequential government shutdown all for naught.) When moderate Republican senators proposed at least abolishing the new tax on medical devices, which had been criticized by senators of both parties as undermining American innovation and increasing the cost of health care, President Obama and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid were immovable.
In sum, the public is coming around to the realization that President Obama and the Democrats are just as ideologically committed to Obamacare as the Republicans are ideologically opposed to it. To be sure, the Obamacare crack-up has not meant that Republicans are ticking up in popular approval. But President Obama and the Democrats are definitely ticking down.
Three-and-a-half years ago—right after it had been enacted on a straight Democratic-party-line vote—I predicted that Obamacare was unlikely to succeed and that the just cause of greater access to health care might be set-back rather than advanced by this irresponsible legislation. I argued that we should keep our attention on the matter of health care and diligently continue the search for genuine reform, because Obamacare was not prudent, was not economically viable, and was not politically sustainable. (That March, 2010 five-part series can be found here, here, here, here, and here). The points I made then remain salient today (mostly). But, again, there will be ample time in the coming months to return to these issues.
For today, one lesson emerges most clearly for anyone advocating social justice initiatives: Be scrupulously honest. If there will be winners and losers under a proposal, admit as much. If enactment of a government program or regulation will restrict freedom of choice by citizens to a certain menu of options approved by the government, be willing to say so. If intervention by the government will have economic effects, such as increasing the costs of products, don't pretend otherwise. If advancing the common good will require sacrifices by the many in order to provide better for the few, be forthright in defending that result.
If instead, you mislead the people about what will come, even for what you believe to be a higher cause, then the public cynicism and popular backlash may do more than damage your cause in a political sense. It may set back the cause of social justice altogether and dissolve the common good into a battle of special interests seeking advantage in the aftermath of failure. By overreaching—and by being disingenuous as you overreach—the most vulnerable in our society may suffer the most when the house of cards collapses and public faith in civil society is weakened.
Peggy Noonan’s column today on the prevarications that accompanied the adoption of Obamacare makes this general point more specific in this context:
They said if you liked your insurance you could keep your insurance—but that’s not true. It was never true! They said if you liked your doctor you could keep your doctor—but that’s not true. It was never true! They said they would cover everyone who needed it, and instead people who had coverage are losing it—millions of them! They said they would make insurance less expensive—but it’s more expensive! Premium shock, deductible shock. They said don’t worry, your health information will be secure, but instead the whole setup looks like a hacker’s holiday. Bad guys are apparently already going for your private information.
October 31, 2013
Now This is Getting Ridiculous: NSA Spying on the Pope
A few months ago (here), I suggested that we should be troubled by the growth of the "Surveillance State" in the United States as an affront to human dignity, which demand appropriate respect for privacy and confidentiality. As the Catholic Catechism says, even beyond the special protection of professional secrets, “private information prejudicial to another is not to be divulged without a grave and proportionate reason.”
Now we learn (here) that even Pope Francis is apparently a suspect in the eyes of the National Security Agency, which intercepted telephone calls from his villa during the Vatican Conclave at which he was elected pontiff. To the government's assurances that it abides by strict constraints in conducting its surveillance and that abuses are rare, wiretapping bishops and cardinals serves as a contradicting response.
October 18, 2013
You Have to Have a Plan!
Good intentions, aspirational ideas, holy motives cannot be translated into real progress for the common good or the advancement of God's Kingdom without a plan.
Whether one is a lawyer or law student working for social justice, a minister promoting a new apostolate, a social worker empowering the impoverished, an educator enlightening a class, or, yes, an elected member of the polity advancing a political agenda, one must have a plan. And that plan must include a realistic assessment of the prospects for success and how the plan will come not only to a climax but to a conclusion.
In Chapter 6 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers:
'That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and what you are to wear. Surely life is more than food, and the body more than clothing!
26 Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they are?
27 Can any of you, however much you worry, add one single cubit to your span of life?
28 And why worry about clothing? Think of the flowers growing in the fields; they never have to work or spin;
29 yet I assure you that not even Solomon in all his royal robes was clothed like one of these.
30 Now if that is how God clothes the wild flowers growing in the field which are there today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, will he not much more look after you, you who have so little faith?
31 So do not worry; do not say, "What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What are we to wear?"
32 It is the gentiles who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all.
33 Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on God's saving justice, and all these other things will be given you as well.
34 So do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.'
Some over the ages have miscontrued this passage to mean that good intentions and prayerful resolve are all that a follower of Christ needs for any venture. Evangelicals are wont to describe a person with that attitude as "so Heavenly minded that he is of no earthly good."
Jesus was speaking about inward-focused worry, that is, selfish pursuits of material things and especially about how those who become obsessed with these things are then torn by anxiety for the future. Worry, particularly for selfish reasons, may be a sin. But planning remains a must. Keeping our focus on God and recognizing that all else must be subordinated to God’s Kingdom is not an invitation to ignore the future consequences of our actions in this life.
As the nineteenth century Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, J. C. Ryle explains this passage, “Prudent provision for the future is right; wearing, corroding, self-tormenting anxiety is wrong.”Let us pray that “prudent provision for the future” will become the watchword for our leaders, in government as well as in ministry.
September 09, 2013
Social Justice, Economic Literacy, and the Minimum Wage
One of the challenges to achieving social justice by including a significant measure of government regulation of the private sector is to ensure that the secondary economic effects are considered in advance and do not threaten to undermine the primary effects sought to be achieved. Until recent years, the bishops in the United States had a tendency to endorse government-centric platforms for social justice with little attention to or awareness of economic incentives, disincentives, collateral consequences, etc. In more recent years, the bishops have appreciated the necessary prudential judgment that goes into evaluating the right mix of public and private, government and charitable, regulatory and market elements toward the end of reducing poverty and enhancing human thriving.
Yesterday's guest column on the economic consequences of increasing the minimum wages in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Michael J. McIlhon, who teaches economics at Augsburg and Century Colleges here in the Twin Cities, ought to be required reading for anyone who aspires to "economic literacy" in public policy discussions.
McIlhon cites the "11th Commandment" in economics, which is "Thou shalt ever do only one thing." The point is that by doing one thing, one inevitably does another as well (and another and another). If the government mandates that employers provide health insurance to full-time employees, especially an expensive menu of prescribed coverage, while the result may be that some employees receive health care who did not have it previously, the other result will be that employers to remain competitive in labor costs will move more employees to part-time status and hire fewer full-time employees. If the government requires that employers provide guaranteed leave for health or childbirth reasons, fortunate employees may enjoy that new benefit, while the employer likely will have to make adjustments in benefits or salaries or in overall number of employees to offset that cost.
And if the government increases the minimum wage that must be paid to employees on the lowest end of the pay scale, who overwhelmingly are those with less education and lower skill sets, some employees will receive higher wages while other employees will be laid off and still other potential employees will never be hired. Indeed, as even advocates of a minimum wage generally must acknowledge, the calculation for the benefits to some of the increase always must include the number of jobs to be lost and not created as a consequence of increasing the cost of unskilled, low productivity labor.
Thus, while economists tend to differ about a lot of things, there is near unanimity that, as McIlhon describes it, "a minimum wage is a very bad antipoverty tool, poorly focused with some ugly side effects":
The National Bureau of Economic Research recently published work in which the authors find “no compelling evidence” that minimum wages raise household incomes. They found that the “disemployment effects” on some household incomes (the loss of a job or the inability to find a job at higher mandated wages) more than offset the income effects in other households of higher wages for those who manage to keep their jobs. Since both these effects are concentrated in lower-income households, the authors conclude that minimum wages simply redistribute income among low-income families, that they “help to raise the level of income above the poverty line in some families, but push income below the poverty line in others.”
Indeed, the problem with a raise in a minimum wage is worse than the immediate effect of simply redistributing income among the poor. By thereby suppressing the labor market for uneducated, low skill workers, many people and especially teenagers will be left unemployed and deprived of the experience and skills training of a low-wage job as "the first rung on the productivity ladder."
Again, you can read the rest of this lesson in economic literacy here.
August 29, 2013
Syria: An Interventionist Questions This Proposed Intervention
I tend to be an interventionist when it comes to American foreign policy and our place and responsibility in the world. In a dangerous world inhabited by tyrants who abuse their own people and threaten others, the one nation in the world with the greatest power to do something about it has a moral obligation to do something about it ― at least when it can do so effectively.
Of course, military force should be employed only when diplomatic efforts fail ― although diplomatic talks should not become mere cover for a tyrant to buy more time while continuing to massacre his people and shore up defenses against a military engagement. And, to be sure, discretion and judgment are required, so as to be able to evaluate when the introduction of American force has a good chance of both immediate and long-term success or instead has the potential to make things worse. I do appreciate that people of good faith and good judgment will make different calls, and indeed many on the Mirror of Justice would conclude that military intervention almost inevitably makes things worse. Mindful of pragmatic concerns, I nevertheless think it often important to take direct action to achieve clear goals. As I’ve said before, we should pray for peace ― but we should not accept the false peace of international indifference and passivity.
And I can provide the bona fides to demonstrate that my support for an interventionist foreign policy as a moral foreign policy has not been seasonal, depending on which party occupies the White House. Being a Republican, I nonetheless praised President Clinton’s intervention for human rights reasons in Kosovo (questioning only the delay and the restriction to an air campaign as allowing too many more innocents to die before the end). On the Mirror of Justice, I’ve supported President Obama’s intervention for humanitarian reasons in Libya, in a posting I openly titled “Thanking President Obama for Saving Lives in Libya.” Again, my only criticisms were that the intervention was late in coming and was not sufficiently targeted to remove the tyrant (although fortunately that came later).
Indeed, as part of that earlier posting, I noted that near the end of his life, Pope John Paul II began to establish the case for military intervention for humanitarian reasons:
[A]n offense against human rights is an offense against the conscience of humanity as such, an offense against humanity itself. The duty of protecting these rights therefore extends beyond the geographical and political borders within which they are violated. Crimes against humanity cannot be considered an internal affair of a nation. . . .
Clearly, when a civilian population risks being overcome by the attacks of an unjust aggressor and political efforts and non-violent defence prove to be of no avail, it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor. These measures however must be limited in time and precise in their aims. They must be carried out in full respect for international law, guaranteed by an authority that is internationally recognized and, in any event, never left to the outcome of armed intervention alone.
All that being said, I am quite uneasy with President Obama’s move toward military force being applied in Syria. For the life of me (and I fear for the lives of many others in Syria and perhaps in the United States armed forces), I cannot figure out the actual substance of this President’s foreign policy toward Syria or how launching missile strikes or dropping bombs from planes for a couple of days will advance that policy.
Now if President Obama had a coherent Middle East foreign policy that promised to remove the tyrannical Assad regime and now had highlighted the atrocities against civilians including the use of chemical weapons as the immediate provocation for taking more direct steps toward that end, I might well be on board. But he doesn’t, and he hasn’t.
And it may well be too late. Two or three years ago, direct American support for the then-largely secular rebel movements might have toppled the Assad regime and replaced it with a moderate government that would resist radicalization and oppose terrorists. But as the civil war has dragged on and on, as the United States and the so-called “international community” has dithered, and as the civilian population has been battered, slaughtered, and displaced, the opposition to Assad has become radicalized and increasingly composed of extremist elements affiliated with terrorists.
So why are we thinking about doing anything militarily at this point?
Is it just because President Obama feels the need to do something? As K.T. McFarland writes, “It’s understandable that we want to ‘do something.’” But that’s no justification for military action.
Is it because President Obama has laid down so many “red lines” that keep being crossed that he has boxed himself into a corner from which he cannot now escape? George Will cynically writes that military intervention here “will not be to decisively alter events, which we cannot do, in a nation vital to U.S. interests, which Syria is not. Rather, its purpose will be to rescue Obama from his words.” Now I don’t share George Will’s view that it is not possible to “decisively alter events” (although it certainly is much more difficult now after years of delay). But surely few believe that the limited military response that President Obama apparently is planning will actually change the course of events on the ground in Syria.
Is an air campaign over Syria designed to prevent the Assad regime from further use of chemical weapons? That in itself would be a laudable goal. But it is far from clear that a quick in-and-out air campaign could have that effect. For one thing, the present thinking is that American forces could not target chemical weapons caches for fear of their accidental release. Destroying helicopters might degrade the regime's ability to use chemical weapons, but probably not much. Chemical weapons can be fired from small mobile missile launchers. To truly be sure that we had eliminated chemical weapons, we probably need boots on the ground. And President Obama will not take that bold step. No one believes that option is even on the table.
In sum, I hear lots of strong words emanating from the White House about lines being crossed, and international law being violated, and messages needing to be sent. But I hear very little that hangs together as a strategic policy for Syria generally or a specific plan of military action that makes a difference. A couple of days of bombings simply doesn’t qualify.So, for now at least and until a better policy and plan are articulated, count me as one interventionist who says ― not this time, not this place, and not for this reason.
August 16, 2013
The Return of Prosecutorial Discretion? Attorney General Holder and the War on Drugs
The ABA Journal trumpets Attorney General Holder's announcement of a change in prosecutorial behavior toward those charged with drug crimes as a "Sweeping reversal of the War on Drugs" (here).
Rather than something new or novel, however, this simply heralds the return of something old and long-neglected: prosecutorial discretion.
As reported by the ABA Journal, speaking to the ABA House of Delegates, Mr. Holder addressed the problem of over-incarceration for non-violent offenses by outlining a new program:
The new "Smart on Crime" program will encourage U.S. attorneys to charge defendants only with crimes "for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins," said Holder.
A few nay-sayers (see here) already have attacked the proposal as another example of the Obama Administration's overreaching in unilaterally revising laws with which it disagrees or aspects of which it finds inconvenient. But this episode is nothing like the more dubious actions of the administration in delaying the statutory deadlines for implementation of various aspects of Obamacare or specially excepting members of Congress and their staffs from being covered by the insurance exchanges in Obamacare as the statute requires -- changes made by administrative fiat without approval by Congress. (For George Will's cogent summary of the case against the administration on its lawlessness as to Obamacare, see here.)
No legal, moral, or professional obligation requires a prosecutor -- wielding the awesome power of government to subject a person to captivity -- to charge someone whenever a plausible case can be made that he or she has committed a crime, much less to seek the highest charge (with the highest attendant sentence) that the facts could support. Indeed, there was a time when a prosecutor, as a matter of wise discretion, would choose not to file a charge at all, when the circumstances were extenuating or a criminal solution was not in the best interests of all of those involved in an episode.
In other words, there was a time when the exercise of prosecutorial discretion fairly and impartially was thought to be essential to the promotion of justice (just as was the regular exercise of executive clemency to ameliorate the harshness of the law -- but the story of this administration's failure to exercise that power belongs to another day). (For a five-year-old Mirror of Justice posting on prosecutorial discretion, see here.)
Attorney General Holder is to be commended for taking this step as leader of the nation's federal prosecutors. And in doing so, he is supported by a broad and bipartisan coalition, including Senators Leahy and Durbin, on the Democratic side, and Senators Lee and Rand and former Attorney General Ed Meese, on the Republican side. While there will be (and already are) those who will castigate this move away from the past policy as a left-wing assault on law and order, a growing number of my fellow conservatives are awakening to the disaster of a policy that has made the United States the world leader in percentage of its citizens being held in custody.
I only wish that Attorney General Holder would apply this new ethos of prosecutorial discretion beyond the low-level drug offender -- and he need look no further than the 15-year sentence recently imposed on Edward Young of Kentucky, who had committed small-time property crimes, for inadvertently possessing seven shotgun shells that he found when helping the neighbor widow dispose of her husband's belongings. And that irrational charge and sentence was obtained by one of Mr. Holder's United States Attorneys. The Young case is now on appeal -- and so there is still time for the Justice Department to do the right thing in that case.
I'm also proud to say that my colleague here at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, Nekima Levy-Pounds, has long been one of those decrying prosecutorial overzealousness, mandatory minimum sentences, and the foolish, debilitating, and bankrupt policy of over-incarceration of young, non-violent offenders. In Professor Levy-Pounds's scholarly work, she has emphasized that current drug-sentencing practices disparately impacts poor women of color and children. For example, she reports that excessive incarceration of African-American women who had a peripheral role in drug offenses wreak havoc on the family and leave children parentless, setting the stage for the next generation of offenders and another cycle of incarceration. You can read her work here, here, and here. It is gratifying to see her work and that of so many other scholars, attorneys, and public officials of faith and compassion has borne fruit in the new federal prosecution policy.
August 13, 2013
Seven Shot Guns Shells, No Weapons, But 15 Years in Prison
In Sunday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof tells a story that capsulizes the insanity of the ongoing and widespread scandal of prosecutorial overzealousness, crushing mandatory minimum sentences, excessive incarceration, and the general decline of true justice in our criminal justice system: Edward Young, a husband and father of four, who had been convicted of non-violent property crimes in his youth, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for inadvertently taking possession of seven shotgun shells when assisting the next-door neighbor in inventorying her property after her husband died.
Here's an excerpt from Mr. Kristof’s column, the rest of which is available here:
[A] neighbor died, and his widow, Neva Mumpower, asked Young to help sell her husband’s belongings. He later found, mixed in among them, seven shotgun shells, and he put them aside so that his children wouldn’t find them. . . .
The United States attorney [for the Eastern District of Tennessee], William Killian, went after Young — even though none of Young’s past crimes involved a gun, even though Young had no shotgun or other weapon to go with the seven shells, and even though, by all accounts, he had no idea that he was violating the law when he helped Mrs. Mumpower sell her husband’s belongings.
In May, a federal judge, acknowledging that the case was Dickensian but saying that he had no leeway under the law, sentenced Young to serve a minimum of 15 years in federal prison. . . .
Young is particularly close to his children, ages 6 to 16. After back problems and rheumatoid arthritis left him disabled, he was a stay-at-home dad while his wife worked in a doctor’s office. When the judge announced the sentence, the children all burst into tears.
One more interrupted life and one more dismantled family, for no rational purpose or reason other than because a prosecutor can get a conviction and a long sentence. The result of these practices is hundreds of thousands of damaged or destroyed lives in this country, both the lives of the men (mostly) and women convicted of non-violent crimes who languish in prison for lengthy terms and the lives of their spouses and children who suffer the trauma of seeing loved ones stolen away for years and lose the support, emotional and financial, of that person. Talk about a policy that offends "family values"!
For those like me who are on the conservative end of the political spectrum, we should be ashamed of the way in which the politicians that we support have avoided serious engagement with the problem of crime and building a healthy society by advocating and implementing a criminal justice system that constantly ratchets up prison sentences. Yes, we should be tough on crime, especially violent crime, but justice must be tempered with mercy or at least common-sense appreciation of the greater harm to young men and women who grow up without parents because they have been shipped off to remote prisons for petty and non-violent offenses.
And those on the political left are not off the hook. While the scourge of mandatory minimum sentences and no-tolerance prosecute-to-the-limit policies may have originated primarily with conservatives, liberals have been oh so quick to demonstrate their tough-on-crime bona-fides by voting for and implementing the same policies. Notably, the prosecution of Edward Young for innocent possession of seven shot gun shells and subjecting him to a 15-year prison sentence was the work of United States Attorney William Killian, a long-time Democrat who was appointed by President Obama. Attorney General Holder may have announced a new policy for federal prosecutors to sidestep mandatory minimums for some crimes, but apparently the memo came too late for Mr. Young.
In sum, we are all complicit in this prosecute-the-highest-charge and imprison-to-the-max ethos that is undermining social justice and dragging down a generation of Americans.
When election season comes upon us again in just a few more months, be sure to ask the candidates what they think about the United States having the distinction of having the highest proportion of prisoners in the entire world (here). And ask what they intend to do about it.
Whether this is framed as a moral question, which we as Catholics in the legal system must confront, or an economic question, given the huge financial costs of building prisons and housing prisoner, we should not accept the same pablum and unthinking tough on crime rhetoric from those who are entrusted with setting criminal justice policy in this country.
July 25, 2013
Bipartisan Effort by Politicians to Enhance Human Dignity -- Yes, It's Really True!
For those who cynically believe that our elected officials are hopelessly divided by party and generally focused on materialistic concerns that fail to consider higher ideals, yesterday's vote in the House of Representatives to restrain surveillance of Americans by the National Security Agency is an example of the best in political deliberation and courage.
As the New York Times reports (the whole article is available here):
The 205-to-217 vote was far closer than expected and came after a brief but impassioned debate over citizens’ right to privacy and the steps the government must take to protect national security. It was a rare instance in which a classified intelligence program was openly discussed on the House floor, and disagreements over the program led to some unusual coalitions.
Conservative Republicans leery of what they see as Obama administration abuses of power teamed up with liberal Democrats long opposed to intrusive intelligence programs. The Obama administration made common cause with the House Republican leadership to try to block it.
I've blogged previously here at Mirror of Justice about why we should be gravely concerned about our government collecting massive amounts of information, from which government agents could assemble a detailed dossier on a person, thus effectively treating all of us as future criminal suspects. Catholic teaching affirms the moral weight of privacy and confidentiality, as a matter of respect for human dignity.
Although the political leadership of both parties -- from President Obama to House Speaker Boehner -- would prefer that we simply fall in line and accept that the NSA's sweeping surveillance is good for us, the vote in the House shows that a growing number of our representatives, responding to a growing number of Americans, are demanding a thorough examination and a full-fledged debate. We will hear more in the future.