Let’s Put Prison Sentences on Probation

Judges share the blame for America’s burgeoning incarcerated population.

— by

john-kiriakouYou may have heard there’s a growing political movement against mass incarceration. Someone should clue in the judges.

In the past 30 years, federal judges have turned to imprisonment — as opposed to probation — as the punishment of choice for even minor crimes, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. During that same period, federal cases have tripled in number.

The Pew study reports that “nine in 10 federal offenders received prison sentences in 2014, up from less than half in 1980, as the use of probation steadily declined.” Despite the ballooning number of cases in that time, 2014 saw 2,300 fewer probation sentences than 1980.

Part of the fault lies with the draconian mandatory minimum sentences that Congress passed in the 1980s and 1990s as it ratcheted up the so-called war on drugs. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told a group at Harvard Law School in mid-January that these laws have had a “devastating effect on poor communities, and were a drastic and ineffective response to the drug scourge of the 1980s.”

Guantanamo-prisoner-detainee-hands-tied-torture-gitmo
Val Kerry / Flickr

That may be true, but it’s not the whole story.

Drug cases account for about 47 percent of all federal crimes, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, or BOP. What about the other 53 percent? Should all of those people really be in prison? I think not.

First, there are many kinds of federal prisons.

The worst and most violent prisoners — murderers and terrorists, for example — are in maximum-security penitentiaries, which hold about 12 percent of the BOP’s prisoners. While we can certainly have a discussion about the use of solitary confinement in these facilities — critics like the United Nations call it torture — few would dispute that these dangerous offenders should be held securely.

Medium-security prisons, which still have high walls and guard towers, hold another 30 percent of federal prisoners. These are generally the bank robbers, serious drug offenders, people in on gun charges, and the like. If these prisoners are well behaved, and if they have fewer than 20 years to go on a sentence, they’re eligible to move to a low-security prison.

Low-security prisons hold another 38 percent of federal prisoners. Most people with mandatory minimum drug sentences are here, as are nearly all of the BOP’s pedophiles. Most prisoners at this level are on their best behavior because they hope to be transferred to a minimum-security work camp (though child abusers and violent offenders are ineligible).

But here’s a question: If a crime is so minor that a person can be sentenced to a work camp, which is outside the prison walls, then why are these people in prison at all?

Blaming mandatory minimums goes only so far. Not all crimes have them. In fact, most don’t.

So why would a judge willingly take a parent away from his family, or out of the workforce? Why disrupt a community when probation is a legitimate punishment that the judge has the authority to levy?

While on probation, the offender could continue to work and support his family, pay taxes and restitution, and still make amends with society. It makes more sense. It’s worked in the past.

If judges are serious about reducing prison populations, they’ll sentence more offenders to probation.


OtherWords columnist John Kiriakou is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the winner of the 2015 PEN Center USA First Amendment award. OtherWords.org.

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Your Server Isn’t on the Menu

For women who make their living off tips, sexual harassment is a constant workplace peril.

By Marjorie E. Wood

Marjorie_Elizabeth_Wood

At a popular sit-down restaurant in Independence, Missouri, Allison waits tables for $3.60 an hour — the going rate for servers at her restaurant.

Advocates of raising the federal hourly tipped minimum wage of $2.13 up to the standard minimum wage — currently pegged at $7.25 — understand that living on tips is difficult. As Allison put it, “There are times when guests have left me one dollar or 50 cents just because they got angry at something.”

Sexual Harrassment and Tipped Workers
No Crop Photo/Flickr

In other words, tipped workers are financially insecure. According to the Economic Policy Institute, tipped workers are more than twice as likely to fall into poverty and nearly twice as likely to be on food stamps as the general population.

But there is another, less obvious, reason to abolish this sub-minimum wage, according to a new report from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC).

Not only are servers like Allison more likely to be poor — they are also highly likely to experience sexual harassment on the job. The new report found that a staggering 90 percent of tipped workers in the restaurant industry are sexually harassed.

Surveying nearly 700 current and former restaurant workers, ROC — in partnership with Forward Together — found that customers, co-workers, and management regularly impose “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” on industry employees.

Women reported experiencing sexual harassment more often than men, with a majority of respondents encountering it on at least a weekly basis. Women were also more likely to say that sexual harassment was “an uncomfortable aspect of the work environment.”

Living on tips means that women — who make up two-thirds of all tipped restaurant servers — are forced to rely on customers for their income rather than on their employer.

This creates an environment, the report says, in which women must “please and curry favor with customers” for their livelihood. Often, that means tolerating unwanted sexual advances. So it’s no surprise that while the restaurant industry employs only 7 percent of American women, it generates more than a third of all federal sexual harassment claims.

Yet the phenomenon varies widely from state to state. Interestingly, the report found that in states that pay the same minimum wage to all workers — tipped and non-tipped alike — women were less likely to experience sexual harassment.

In so-called “$2.13 states,” however, tipped women workers were three times more likely to be told by management to “alter their appearance and to wear ‘sexier,’ more revealing clothing” than they were in states that had eliminated the tipped wage. And they were twice as likely to experience sexual harassment as women in states that have one minimum wage for all workers.

Men and non-tipped workers were also more likely to report being sexually harassed in $2.13 states.

What does all this add up to?

Eliminating the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers would do more than just improve women’s financial security. It would also create a safer, more equitable workplace where servers like Allison won’t have to tolerate inappropriate advances to make a living.

ROC is continuing to collect stories from tipped restaurant workers on its website at rocunited.org. If you’ve ever experienced sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, share your story with ROC.

It’s time to send a message to the industry and to policymakers that servers aren’t on the menu.

OtherWords columnist Marjorie E. Wood is a senior economic policy associate at the Institute for Policy Studies and the managing editor of Inequality.org. IPS-dc.org
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In Fact, Fairly Taxing the Rich Won’t Scare Them Away

Recent research debunks some of the most common arguments against raising taxes on the richest Americans.

— by Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati

Why do so many lawmakers in Congress oppose raising taxes on America’s wealthy, even just a little? The answer: We’ll never really know for sure.

Lawmakers might oppose tax hikes on the wealthy, for instance, because their rich campaign contributors don’t want to pay higher taxes. Or they might oppose bigger tax bills for millionaires simply because they don’t want to pay Uncle Sam a cent more of their own high-dollar incomes.

Lawmakers under the influence of either of these motives would, of course, never openly admit to them. How could they — and still survive politically? Simple political reality demands that wealth-friendly lawmakers must solemnly proffer much more noble rationales for why they want to shield rich people’s income from higher taxes.

Raising taxes on high incomes, we’ve been assured since long before the current budget-balancing debate, will discourage small business “job creators.” Higher taxes on the rich, we’re also told, always backfire and never generate the revenue anticipated.

Do these claims match up with facts on the ground? Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research earlier this month hosted a congressional briefing that sought to sort out those facts.

TaxTheRichThe briefing — titled Taxing the Wealthy: What Does the Research Show? — brought top academic tax analysts to Capitol Hill. The analysts had a good many facts to share, to the distinct unease of the apologists for the affluent who stopped by.

What do the facts tell us about those small business “job creators” who’ll suffer so, as friends of the fortunate claim, if tax rates on high incomes rise? The facts don’t show much potential suffering.

Just under 70 percent of American taxpayers making over $1 million a year, U.S. Treasury Department figures show, do indeed report small business income on their tax returns. But these millionaires who do report small business income average only around 5 percent of their income from small business operations.

In other words, we’re talking investment bankers with hobby ranches in Montana. The vast majority of taxpayers making more than $1 million a year aren’t small business folks creating good jobs in their own local communities.

But won’t those investment bankers just flee to lower-tax pastures if Congress opts to hike the tax rates on their incomes? Won’t that exodus just negate the revenue boost that raising taxes on the rich is supposed to create?

Charles Varner, a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality, has been researching what typically happens when governments raise taxes on taxpayers of major means.

Varner and his colleagues looked closely at tax receipts in New Jersey and California after these two states enacted new “millionaire’s taxes” in 2004 and 2005. In California, the top tax rate rose from 9.3 to 10.3 percent. After the increase, out-migration of high-income Californians actually fell.

But California, skeptics might argue, occupies a great deal of territory. A deep pocket upset about a tax hike has to travel a good bit to leave California.

True enough, but deep pockets in New Jersey operate in a totally different environment. A New Jersey millionaire who works on Wall Street could easily have chosen to move into lower-tax New York State or Connecticut after New Jersey’s millionaire’s tax went into effect. A New Jersey millionaire working in Philadelphia could have chosen to relocate in lower-tax Pennsylvania.

But these New Jersey millionaires, in real life, opted overwhelmingly to stay put. Researchers, Stanford’s Varney explained at Northwestern University’s congressional briefing, have found similar patterns in Canada between provinces with different tax rates and in Switzerland between cantons.

None of this surprises Varney. Moving costs money, he notes. Relocating your stuff costs a lot, and few of us can pick up stakes and move without disrupting our networks of friends and clients.

Varney’s basic point: “Economies of place,” as he explains, remain “significant even for people at the top of the income distribution.”


OtherWords columnist Sam Pizzigati is an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow. His latest book is The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class. OtherWords.org

Ripe for Reduction

The pending budget deal must include long-overdue military spending cuts.

By Miriam Pemberton

Miriam Pemberton

Here we are on brink of a major historical moment. We’re beginning to wind down the longest period of war in our history. And we’re about to turn around a 13-year-long surge in Pentagon spending.

It’s not just longtime advocates for such changes like me who think so. William Lynn, a former Deputy Secretary of Defense who has lobbied for the military contractor Raytheon, likens this moment to the years right after World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War. In a recent speech at the U.S. Naval Institute, he suggested that big cuts to the military budget are in the cards.

But this isn’t the precipice that’s consuming Washington right now. Instead, the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the package of tax increases and spending cuts that will begin in January unless Congress agrees on a way to stop them, is the big buzzword.

Pentagon cuts are actually part of the “cliff” plan. You’d hardly know it — most of the talk is about “reforming” taxes (including tax cuts for the rich and corporations) and “reforming entitlements” (a euphemism for weakening the safety net). But without a new deal, we’ll be spending about $50 billion less on the military each year.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has referred to these cuts as “doomsday.” Really? Over 10 years these cuts, adjusted for inflation, would take our Pentagon budget back to where it was in 2006. As high, in other words, as it was at any time since World War II.

USAF-IraqThe “cliff” would cut the military budget to about 8 percent below where it is now. All those other wars (World War II, Vietnam, and so on) were followed by Pentagon budget downsizings many times higher. At that same Naval Institute forum where Lynn spoke, a former official overseeing the military budget at the Office of Management and Budget foresaw a 30 percent contraction in this budget during the decade before us.

The military cuts that would occur without a new budget-balancing deal are admittedly a bad way to run a government. For one thing, they come tied to equivalent cuts in nearly every other federal program — food safety inspections, job training, air traffic control, health care research, the whole gamut.

And for another, this “fiscal cliff” business is all about narrowing the deficit. But a majority of citizens made clear in that election we just had that they think creating jobs is more important right now than the budget deficit.

Cuts alone aren’t going to create those jobs. We must also redirect our tax dollars from things we don’t need — like Pentagon waste — into things we do — like clean energy and transportation.

And we can afford to do that because, we’re not broke. Our budget priorities just need fixing. In a recent report, my Institute for Policy Studies colleagues and I propose a framework for doing so. Our proposal includes $198 billion in yearly military cuts — from spending on things like wars we shouldn’t fight and weapon systems and overseas bases we don’t need.

These steps would get us that 30 percent contraction, which would bring this new century’s defense downsizing in line with the ones of the previous century. It’s an essential step toward building the sustainable jobs base we need.


Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, is a contributor to the new Institute for Policy Studies report We’re Not BrokeA commonsense guide to avoiding the fiscal swindle while making the United States more equitable, green, and secure. IPS-dc.org.
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How Sandy Reveals the GDP’s Twisted Logic

Extreme weather doesn’t boost the economy.

— By John Talberth and Daphne Wysham

As he waded knee-deep in an Atlantic City street, pummeled by Superstorm Sandy’s winds, CNN’s Chief Business Correspondent Ali Velshi declared that it was too early to tell whether Sandy would be a plus or a minus for the U.S. economy.

The authorities are starting to tabulate the stupendous toll in Sandy’s wake — in lost lives, homes, businesses, infrastructure, and water pollution. While they crunch numbers, Velshi’s callous viewpoint is flowing naturally from the twisted logic of using the gross domestic product (GDP) as the economy’s most ubiquitous measure of economic well-being. GDP counts everything we spend money on as a plus. So it follows that the $50 billion (and counting) we’ll spend burying the dead, and replacing lost homes and businesses will make us “better off.”

Take University of Maryland Economist Peter Morici. Back when the cleanup estimates stood at $20 billion, he was already predicting that the multiplier effect of that money being spent on post-Sandy construction would yield a positive economic impact of as much as $36 billion. Morici also predicted an additional $10 billion in benefits from replacing hurricane-damaged structures, and another $12 billion in “delayed spending” that will come in once those countless uprooted people get settled again.

Doesn’t your gut tell you that this arithmetic is suspect? Yet we continue to be seduced by what mainstream economists and the media tell us: Whenever the GDP grows, we’re better off. Well, listen to your gut. The GDP doesn’t reflect our well-being. It doesn’t count the things we value most, such as having enough family time or good health. It merely tabulates the cost of things we buy. The GDP is like a giant calorie counter that tabulates how many calories are in that plate of French fries. It doesn’t tell us if we’re better or worse off as a result of eating those greasy fries or an apple.

In fact, so much of what is counted in the GDP are so-called “defensive expenditures” that merely keep us treading water rather than moving forward or getting back to where we were. Consider the not-so-hypothetical act of cleaning up after the latest extreme weather event. No matter how much cleaning up after the storm costs, much of what we’ve lost is irreplaceable. That’s something GDP entirely overlooks.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gets this point. That’s why he said: “We will rebuild it…But for those of us who are my age, it won’t be the same…because many of the iconic things that made it what it was are now gone and washed into the ocean.”

Fortunately, great headway has been made on new metrics that are far more sophisticated than GDP. One such metric, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) assesses whether our economy is really growing or not. It takes into account spending that doesn’t make us better off, along with growth or contraction of the amount of built, human, social, and natural capital on which all economic activity ultimately depends.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was the first state leader to implement the GPI. Vermont has embraced this yardstick as well, and the roster of state and international initiatives is growing daily.

The contrast between the two metrics is striking. While GDP has grown significantly over the past 25 years — over 60 percent in our own nation — GPI growth studies in multiple countries all show a similar trend: Genuine progress has stagnated as the negative costs of air and water pollution, lost leisure time, commuting, highway accidents, loss of forests and wetlands, climate disasters, unemployment and underemployment are canceling out gains associated with increased economic activity.

In his last annual economic report, President Barack Obama concluded that the nation must move beyond GDP and develop “new indicators of societal well-being.” Ben Bernanke agrees. In August, the Bush-appointed Fed Chairman called for “better and more-direct measurements of economic well-being, the ultimate objective of our policy decisions.”

But as long as the GDP remains enshrined as our standard indicator, its twisted logic will continue to affirm that we’re better off with more frequent and deadly disasters like Sandy.


John Talberth, PhD is The Center for Sustainable Economy‘s president and senior economist. Daphne Wysham is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow.
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