Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

Human Rights Watch Details Ongoing U.S. Criminal Justice Abuses

Despite recent progress toward criminal justice reform, the United States continues to pursue policies that encourage mass incarceration and fail to rehabilitate offenders, according to a Human Rights Watch report presented to the United Nations Human Rights Committee earlier this year.

The international watchdog organization also detailed a spectrum of overreach and misconduct in the criminal justice system, including adult sentences for juvenile offenders and disproportionate sentencing based on race.

The U.S. juvenile detention system often tries young people as adults and metes out sentences that outweigh the crimes. The number of youth in prison has dropped by 50 percent since its peak in 2000, but over 5,000 juveniles remain incarcerated in adult jails and prisons nationwide.

Human Rights Watch raised specific concerns about disproportionate sentencing and racial profiling. While African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, African Americans are imprisoned on drug charges at six times the rate of white users.

Surprisingly, the Trump administration has taken some steps toward effective criminal justice reforms; President Trump signed the First Step Act into law in December. New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker said in statement that the bill would help “correct the ills of the failed War on Drugs.” The law includes provisions that increase good-time credits, move offenders closer to their homes, and expand skill-building programs.

But Human Rights Watch and other criminal justice advocacy groups vehemently opposed the measure, and last spring the group urged the House Judiciary Committee to vote no. Jasmine Tyler, Human Rights Watch’s U.S. advocacy director, explained that most of the text is “extremely problematic,” with the exception of few measures like retroactivity for equalizing powder cocaine and crack cocaine sentences.

Attorney General William Barr could also pose a threat to reform, the group says. Barr has a history of supporting initiatives, from harsher sentencing for crack cocaine to co-signing a report in favor of increasing incarceration in the 1990s, that are at odds with the First Step Act as well as broader criminal justice reform efforts.

Tyler also criticized the use of a “risk assessment based on a likely racist system” to place people into re-entry programs that “likely don’t exist.” According to Tyler, the law does not address the limited services and abysmal halfway-house conditions that many people returning to their communities face. As Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the committee, passing “back-end reform” without including “front-end reform” won’t meaningfully improve the federal system.

Prison Advocates Declare Win as Proposed Prison Phone Industry Merger Dies

Last year, two prison phone company giants, Securus and Inmate Calling Solutions (ICS) announced they planned to merge, sparking concerns of duopoly in an industry already dominated by a just a few major players. Such consolidation has long impacted poor people and those of color disproportionately, along with their families, as prison phone companies charge exorbitant rates for inmates who have few alternatives. If approved, the merger threatened to put more than three-quarters of the market in the hands of just two companies, Securus and Global Tel Link. But yesterday, Securus withdrew its application to buy ICS after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) indicated that they would not approve it.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai, normally not one to raise concerns over corporate consolidation, said in a statement that:

Based on a record of nearly one million documents comprised of 7.7 million pages of information submitted by the applicants, as well as arguments and evidence submitted by criminal justice advocates, consumer groups, and other commenters, FCC staff concluded that this deal posed significant competitive concerns and would not be in the public interest.

That line about the “criminal justice advocates” is important: groups such as the Prison Policy Institute, the Wright Petitioners, Worth Rises, and others have highlighted for months how the merger would affect prisoners, including through filings submitted to the FCC. Because the two largest companies in the industry would no longer be competing with each other, the merger would have likely meant even more expensive phone calls for prisoners and their families who only want to speak to each other while separated. Even now, without the merger, these calls can be incredibly expensive—sometimes up to a $1 per minute. These costs often fall on families of the incarcerated, who, like their imprisoned family member, tend to be very poor.

“Every day, these companies profit off of the separation of families and communities by exploiting the natural need for human connection. This win gets us closer to stopping them,” executive director of prisoner advocacy group Worth Rises Bianca Tylek said in a statement.

What’s next? Perhaps it’s time to make those prison phone calls free.

Maryland’s Failure to Connect Stalking with Gun Violence

Although Maryland boasts having some of the toughest gun control laws in the country, the state is missing a critical loophole in its approach to public safety: stalking. Maryland is the only state that rules this crime a misdemeanor, which means stalkers can still buy a gun after conviction. And the state has intimate knowledge of this fact.  

In July 2018, five people were murdered by a convicted stalker at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis. The perpetrator had pled guilty to criminal harassment of a former high school classmate in 2015 and attacked the newspaper because of its coverage of his sentencing. Five people paid the price because of one man’s anger toward women.

Maryland Democrats have since aimed to close this loophole. In January, Senators Susan Lee and Sarah Elfreth of Montgomery and Annapolis, respectively, introduced a bill that would prohibit stalkers from owning firearms. Since then the bill has gained 10 cosponsors, and legislators conducted a hearing on it in the House on March 21.

While the measure is a step in the right direction, it’s still not getting to the root of the problem. The true problem is that stalking is not considered enough of a threat.

According to a report by the Center for American Progress, stalking remains dangerous and prominent—even in states with harsher penalties. Around one in six women and one in 19 men have experienced stalking in their lifetime. Eighty-one percent of women who are being stalked by a former or intimate partner have been physically abused before. Seventy-six percent of murdered women were stalked the year before with a majority of stalkers being a former intimate partner. Escalation of violence is a clear pattern in stalking cases, and allowing stalkers to purchase guns is killing people.

In response, nine states have prohibited people convicted of misdemeanor stalking charges from purchasing a gun. But Maryland is not on that list. Instead, the Old Line State has focused on passing other legislation in regards to gun control, including: a red flag provision that allows family members and law enforcement to temporarily confiscate firearms; a ban on the sale and possession of bump stocks; and a requirement of domestic violence convicts to surrender their guns.

Maryland can begin to rectify this loophole in its gun restriction laws by passing the bill by Senators Lee and Elfreth. However, to truly address the problem, the state needs to look at diversifying the definition of stalking to include felony charges. Only then will there be less violent attacks like the one in the Capital Gazette newsroom.  

Inventor of the World Wide Web Speaks Out about Online Misinformation

No, we’re not talking about Al Gore. Thirty years ago, on March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, then a researcher at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory, sent a proposal to his boss for a protocol to access information on the internet. That protocol would become the World Wide Web, the near-universally adopted standard by which information is exchanged over the internet. But at the time, his boss returned his proposal with only three words scribbled at the top: “Vague but exciting.”

Berners-Lee presciently envisioned many of the concepts that are today foundational to the internet. For instance, he always knew it had to be free. There was actually a competing internet standard called “Gopher” being developed at the University of Minnesota that was initially more popular than the World Wide Web, but it collapsed in part because the university did not guarantee that it would never implement licensing fees as CERN did.

Of course, Berners-Lee never initially imagined that the web would become the phenomenon it is today. In a recent wide-ranging conversation with The Washington Post, he discussed the rapid spread of misinformation on the web that was weaponized by Russia during the 2016 campaign and exacerbated crises like the genocide in Myanmar.

The explosion of misinformation caught him off guard just as it did everyone else. Up until recently, Berners-Lee said, he told people who alerted him to bad things on the web that those things were there just because “the web is a mirror of humanity, [and] if you look at humanity, you will find bad people,” so just “don’t browse the garbage websites.”

Berners-Lee has now concluded that if the web is a mirror of humanity, it’s at the very least a distorted mirror. After the Brexit vote and the Trump election, he said he took a “big step back,” realizing that “it’s not just about there being junk out there that we all should ignore,” he said, but about “clever, advanced operators” manipulating people for their own destructive ends.

The internet’s amplification of those darker aspects of human nature is impossible to ignore. Technology has indeed brought us together. One disturbing conclusion may be that as we come together, we may not like who we are.

Another Way to Police the Poor

On Monday, The New York Times reported that the federal government was exploring ways to use social media to crack down on instances of disability fraud, even as applications for disability benefits fall.

This is not the first time that the government has looked to social media to investigate welfare fraud—in fact, such an intrusion of privacy is actually quite key to the history of public assistance programs. Back in the 1960s, welfare officials would regularly make unannounced home visits (sometimes even “midnight raids”) to women receiving traditional cash benefits to see if they lived in accordance with welfare eligibility rules. If there was, for example, evidence of a “man in the house” (no matter the casualness of the relationship), the woman would be denied her benefits.

While raids and inspections like these have generally been ruled unconstitutional, the state has turned to the internet to regulate the poor. It’s not uncommon for state governments to scan social media for instances of “welfare fraud,” which is, it is necessary to note, exceedingly rare.

The Department of Social and Health Services in Washington state is very clear on its website that it “focus[es] on the use of social media to identify EBT card misuse.” What they likely mean is that extremely poor people will often try to sell their measly food stamp funds—which can only be used to purchase food—in order to get a smaller amount of cash. This investigative program is operated by a federal grant that created a partnership between the federal Office of Family Assistance and law enforcement “to hire additional investigators and carry out online sting operations.” Indeed, Washington’s DSHS even celebrated the arrest of someone trying to trade their drugs for EBT funds. The agency’s press release began ominously, “Note to would-be food benefits traffickers. You’re being watched.”

Even the most progressive of local governments—like that of the District of Columbia—devote substantial attention and resources to cracking down on the ever-elusive welfare fraud. The reason that “program integrity”—the fancy way to talk about fraud—is such a priority even for progressives is so that they can pre-empt conservative arguments about people who use welfare who are seen as undeserving. (I would argue that’s not a battle that can be won.)

The federal government scanning disability recipients’ social media goes a step further than checking Craigslist or the Facebook marketplace. Under the new plan that the administration is developing, federal officials would look for evidence on personal social media pages to determine whether a person receiving disability insurance is disabled. Distasteful as the proposal is, it is also ridiculous—not to mention offensive—to assume that disability (especially mental illness) can be so easily detected.

“Just because someone posted a photograph of them golfing or going fishing in February of 2019 does not mean that the activity occurred in 2019,” Lisa D. Ekman, chairwoman of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, told the Times. And regardless, the experience of disability is so varied and personal it should not be up to the government to decide whether a person is or is not actually disabled enough for them to work. Laughably, the Trump administration pointed to telework—which some of its agencies are actively reducing—as a reason that fewer people should receive disability benefits. (Telework, of course, is not a possibility in every job—especially low-wage jobs.)

The dichotomy between those who are deserving and undeserving of public benefits, with the government as arbiter, lies at the foundation of the American social safety net. The plan to police personal social media accounts is an invasion of privacy—but it’s nothing that low-income people haven’t always experienced.

Americans at Odds with Trump Policies -- and Priorities

Trump's policy agenda is losing traction among the American public as he begins his third year in office, according to a January Pew Research Center report. From the economy to health care to the environment, voters find themselves increasingly at odds with both the president’s priorities and apparent solutions.

As in years past, the economy ranks first among voters’ policy concerns. But since the end of the Great Recession, that concern has dropped, from 87 percent of voters saying the economy was their biggest priority to 70 percent today. During Trump’s time in office alone, that number has dropped 5 percentage points.

Despite this shift, Trump has made economic recovery a centerpiece of his domestic agenda—often in unpopular ways. He has damaged relationships with key partners, such as China, Mexico, and Canada, by threatening trade wars and undermining trade agreements.

Yet Americans clearly do not approve of his supposed solutions. Over the past two years, support for NAFTA has gone up by 7 percentage points. Meanwhile, fewer voters are concerned about China’s presence than anytime in the past 15 years. 

Trump has also put immigration and terrorism at the top of his domestic agenda, often conflating the two through dog-whistle Islamophobia. Once again, voters don’t seem to be buying it. While immigration remains an important issue for Americans, the percentage of people concerned about terrorism is at its lowest since the September 11 attacks. From the time of Trump’s inauguration, this share has dropped nine points, from 76 to 67 percent. It would not be surprising if this percentage dropped even more due to the recent shutdown negotiations with Congress. Few outside of Trump’s base approved of the president’s hard-line approach regarding the border wall. Even now, less than 40 percent view his national emergency declaration favorably.

Meanwhile, due in part to Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act, more Americans view health care as their biggest concern than at any point since 2008. It’s not hard to see why: Since taking office, Trump has worked to undercut Obamacare at every turn, from attacking protections for patients with pre-existing conditions to allowing higher premiums that undercut the individual mandate. In response, the public made health care the most important issue for the midterm 2018 elections. Approval of Obamacare has even increased.  

Finally, in spite of the administration’s fervent climate denial, protecting the environment saw the most dramatic rise on Americans’ list of priorities. Over the past two years, Trump has waged a vicious war against environmental policy and climate science, empowering fossil-fuel interests, undermining the scientific consensus on climate change, and withdrawing from the critical Paris Agreement, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Trump also gutted the budget and staff of the Environmental Protection Agency, giving polluters an increasingly free reign to defy federal regulations. However, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, most people want more regulation to protect the planet, not less. In this sense, the president is failing the citizens of the U.S. by not helping air and water quality and maintaining enough natural habitat. This is why legislation such as the Green New Deal has arisen in Congress.

Overall, people want change, but not the kind that Trump wants to deliver. 

Why Doesn't South Carolina Care about Climate Change?

Democrats in South Carolina do not prioritize climate change as much as Democratic voters in other 2020 primary and caucus states do, according to a new survey published by the Environmental Defense Action Fund.

And three major hurricanes since 2016 and several devastating floods apparently have not convinced Palmetto State progressives either, much less Democrats who tend to be more conservative than their counterparts in other early primary states.

An overwhelming majority of Democrats in New Hampshire, Nevada, California, and Iowa (80 percent and higher) say they are “more likely to support candidates who back the Green New Deal and favor 100 percent clean energy sources by 2050.” In South Carolina, that figure is slightly lower.  

Meanwhile, Iowa, the other Republican state in the survey, has the highest percentage of voters (at 88 percent for the Green New Deal and 87 percent for clean energy by 2050) who are likely to prioritize climate change as the presidential campaign season progresses.

South Carolinians do not deny the reality of climate change: Only 3 percent of the state’s voters deny its existence, according to a poll published by Winthrop College in December. Rather, South Carolinians don’t believe climate change is a major priority. They like to imagine that the crisis doesn’t affect them and that the state hasn’t experienced any of the consequences yet.

But South Carolina is on the front lines of the climate crisis. A Climate Central study found that floods that used to happen once every 100 years now happen every 11 years, the number of days with dangerously high temperatures is increasing, and mosquitoes are multiplying faster and spreading diseases for more than half the year—the biggest increase since the 1980s. Sea-level rise is higher than the global average.

Even though these developments might be hard to detect, there devastating effects of climate change are everywhere in South Carolina. Historic floods have ruined agricultural fields and roads, destroyed homes, and killed loved ones.  

So why isn’t everyone on board with mitigating climate change? Perhaps because people worry about other issues more. Southerners overall care more about immigration, with political corruption and racism rounding out the top three key issues for the region, according to a December survey by Winthrop College. Environmental policies do not even make the list. Climate change is also low on the list of national public policy priorities: A January Pew Research Center survey found that climate is near the bottom of key issues for Americans, as it has been for nearly a decade, along with global trade and improving transportation.

Democrats Stand to Benefit as More Young Republicans Embrace Progressive Values

The Pew Research Center released a survey in January highlighting the left-leaning values of Generation Z. While most of Gen Z has yet to reach voting age, its members are now 13-to-21 years old, those who identify as Republican hold more progressive values than Republican millennials, Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, or the Silent Generation. If these trends hold, they could presage a broader disillusionment with a GOP in thrall with its right wing. A Democratic Party that actively embraces its progressive youth would be well-situated to make inroads with this group.

Generation Z and millennials share common perspectives, and both generations are more progressive than their elders. Both generations hold negative views of President Donald Trump's job performance, believe that government should be more involved in problem solving, and think that racial and ethnic diversity is good for society. 

Overall, Generation Z has little enthusiasm for Trump’s tenure in office. Only 30 percent of them approve of his job performance, compared to 29 percent of millennials, 38 percent of Gen Xers, 43 percent of boomers, and 54 percent of the Silent Generation. Although Trump remains very popular among older Republicans, a smaller majority of Gen Zers support him. 

Younger generations have more positive views of the role of government: 53 percent of Generation Z respondents believe that ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government in Washington. Gen Z Republicans share this optimism: They are much more likely than older generations to believe that government should work to solve problems. Most older Republicans responded that the government does too much; problem-solving, they feel, should be left to businesses and individuals. 

Gen Z is even closing the partisan gap on divisive issues like race, immigration, gender, and climate. Generation Z Republicans are notably more aware of social inequities compared to previous generations: 43 percent of Gen Z Republicans surveyed believe that African Americans are treated less fairly than whites compared to 30 percent of millennials. Roughly 20 percent of Gen Xers, boomers and silent Republicans believe that blacks are treated unfairly. 

Of the Gen Z Republicans surveyed, 41 percent believe that application forms should include gender options besides just male or female while only 27 percent of millennial, 17 percent of Generation X, and 16 percent of both boomers and silent generation Republicans do.

And on climate, only 18 percent of young Republicans attribute the Earth’s warming to natural patterns rather than human influences; while 30 percent of millennials, 36 percent of Gen Xers, 42 percent of boomers, and 41 percent of silent generation Republicans do.

It’s hard to know whether this leftward tilt will persist as Generation Z Republicans reach voting age, but it’s a trend that bears watching. If the GOP continues to stoke fears about immigration and racial and ethnic diversity; downplay the importance of gender; and sow doubt about climate change, the Democratic Party’s progressive values may be much more appealing.

How Unpaid Internships Reinforce the Racial Wealth Gap

When discussing racism in the United States, few statistics are more revealing than the racial wealth gap. According to the Economic Policy Institute, median household wealth for white families is 12 times higher than that of black families. This disparity makes it much harder for black households to weather crises like unemployment or medical emergencies, or to invest in the future. And while there are many drivers of this gap, often neglected is the role of unpaid internships, which have grown steadily more pervasive in recent years.   

Between 500,000 and one million Americans intern for free every year, including as many as half of all graduating college seniors. And with good reason: Studies show that internship experience enhances marketability in the job search, with 60 percent of employers expressing preference for hiring applicants with internships on their resume according to one survey. Some 90 percent of employers say students should have one or two internships before they graduate.

Exploitation in these programs is rife and under the Trump administration, it’s only gotten worse. Early last year, the Labor Department rolled out new guidelines for unpaid internships, thereby making it easier for companies to employ workers without paying them. And unlike traditional workers, unpaid interns are not covered by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Civil Rights Act. In fact, outside of Oregon, New York City, and Washington, D.C., they’re not protected against sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Even so, internships have increasingly become a critical gatekeeper in many growing industries, one that often shuts out low-income and minority applicants. A 2016 report from Intern Bridge, an internship research and consulting firm, found that women were 77 percent more likely to be engaged in an unpaid internship than men. Another report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that students in majoring in more diverse fields like journalism, fashion merchandising, and human development were more likely to apply for unpaid internships than students in majors dominated by white males, such as business, engineering, and computer science.

Lacking significant household wealth, families of color in particular often struggle to ensure their child doesn’t go into debt for college or working an unpaid internship. As a result, these students leave school with a less comprehensive resume than their peers who were able to take various internships throughout college.

One area where this barrier is at least beginning to erode is Congress, where unpaid internships have long been pervasive—on both side of the aisle. A 2017 report from my organization, Pay Our Interns, found that only 8 percent of Republican House representatives and 3 percent of Democratic reps actually pay their interns. Last year, the House and Senate passed spending bills that included intern pay for the first time. Yet even with this protection, NPR reports that many members of Congress have been slow to advertise internships with pay, instead waiting for federal guidelines to appear on using the new appropriations. And away from Capitol Hill, unpaid internships remain commonplace in government at the federal, state, and local level. 

Experts have identified increasing incomes of black people as one of the critical ways to narrow the wealth gap. While addressing income disparities, it’s essential that we simultaneously address the current inequitable structure that students use to build experience. Unpaid internships only further opportunities for those who can afford to take them, while leaving those who can’t behind. Dismantling the unpaid internships structure is just one of the multiple steps that need to be taken to accomplish racial and economic equality and one that the federal government should play.

No student should be forced to take out a loan to intern at the White House. Internships are the backbone of successful careers; they provide students with the foundation for a successful career in their respective industry. Unpaid opportunities essentially block a subset of students from applying and weaken their starting salary outcomes after graduation.

African American and Hispanic Unemployment Rates Continue High

There have been nationwide improvements in job prospects for African American and Hispanic workers, but unemployment rates remain high compared to white workers in states across the country. 

The Economic Policy Institute’s research shows that 12 states and the District of Columbia have a black unemployment rate at least twice the white unemployment rate: The highest African American unemployment rate in the country was in the District at 12.4 percent. (For whites in the city, it was 2 percent.) The District of Columbia also had the highest black unemployment rate during the previous eight quarters.

The highest African American unemployment rate was in Illinois at 9.3 percent, followed by Louisiana, 8.5 percent; Alabama, 7.1 percent; and New York, 7 percent. (African American unemployment rate estimates are available for 22 states and the District of Columbia.)

Where are the lowest unemployment rates for African Americans? Massachusetts and Virginia, both at 3.8 percent.

Nebraska had the highest Hispanic state unemployment rate at 5.9 percent. Connecticut came up next with a 5.7 percent rate. Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Washington state all had rates of 5.6 percent. The Hispanic unemployment rate was lower than the rates for whites in two states: In Colorado, Hispanic workers unemployment rate was 2.3 percent, and the rate for white workers, 2.9 percent; while in Georgia, Hispanic workers’ unemployment rate was slightly lower than whites, at 2.8 percent compared to 3 percent for white workers. (Hispanic unemployment rate estimates are available for 24 states and the District of Columbia.)

West Virginia has the highest unemployment rate for whites at 5 percent; the lowest is Hawaii’s 1.2 percent.  

In September, the national unemployment rate was 3.7 percent, down from 4 percent at the end of the second quarter of 2018. Nationally in the third quarter of 2018, African American workers had the highest unemployment rate, at 6.3 percent, followed by Hispanics, 4.5 percent; whites, 3.2 percent; and Asians, 3 percent.