Rethinking budget priorities

In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof asks a simple question:  Prisons or Health Care?  We could expand that to ask the states, education or prisons?

At a time when there is no state that is not having trouble balancing its budget and cuts are being made to things like physical education and after school programs while class sizes are increasing, I haven’t heard anyone talk about cost we pay for incarceration.  And our prisons are also overcrowded.  There was a recent distrubance in the Middlesex County jail during which water pipes were destroyed leaving the prison uninhabitable.  We taxpayers will pay to reconstruct the jail, of course.

Why is no one talking about reducing the prison population as a way to save money?  We’ve known for a long time that the three strikes rule is great in baseball, but not so great when it comes to criminal justice, but I haven’t heard of anyone who has repealed their law.

To quote Kristof

It’s time for a fundamental re-evaluation of the criminal justice system, as legislation sponsored by Senator Jim Webb has called for, so that we’re no longer squandering money that would be far better spent on education or health. Consider a few facts:

¶The United States incarcerates people at nearly five times the world average. Of those sentenced to state prisons, 82 percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to one study.

¶California spends $216,000 annually on each inmate in the juvenile justice system. In contrast, it spends only $8,000 on each child attending the troubled Oakland public school system, according to the Urban Strategies Council.

¶For most of American history, we had incarceration rates similar to those in other countries. Then with the “war on drugs” and the focus on law and order in the 1970s, incarceration rates soared.

¶One in 10 black men ages 25 to 29 were imprisoned last year, partly because possession of crack cocaine (disproportionately used in black communities) draws sentences equivalent to having 100 times as much powder cocaine. Black men in the United States have a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, according to the Sentencing Project.

I think Jim Webb is becoming one of my favorite Senators.

Senator Webb has introduced legislation that would create a national commission to investigate criminal justice issues — for such a commission may be the best way to depoliticize the issue and give feckless politicians the cover they need to institute changes.

“There are only two possibilities here,” Mr. Webb said in introducing his bill, noting that America imprisons so many more people than other countries. “Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”

Opponents of universal health care and early childhood education say we can’t afford them. Granted, deficits are a real constraint and we can’t do everything, and prison reform won’t come near to fully financing health care reform. Still, would we rather use scarce resources to educate children and heal the sick, or to imprison people because they used drugs or stole a pair of socks?

Banks and Our Money

Are the banks using TARP money to – successfully – lobby the Senate?  Sure looks that way.  I first heard this story on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown when he interviewed Arianna Huffington.  But the best story  is by Ryan Grim on the Huffington Post.

The Senate on Thursday rejected an effort to stave off home foreclosures by a vote of 51 to 45. It was an overwhelming defeat, with the bill’s backers falling 15 votes short — a quarter of the Democratic caucus — of the 60 needed to cut off debate and move to a final vote.

The death of the bankruptcy reform measure — which would have allowed a small number of homeowners who met strict conditions to renegotiate mortgages under bankruptcy protection — is a major tactical win for the banking industry. But allowing the foreclosure crisis to continue unabated may end up being a failed strategy for the financial sector.

A little background from the Washington Post.

The measure would have allowed bankruptcy judges to modify troubled mortgages, lowering the interest rate or principal balance, a process known as a cramdown. Bankruptcy courts can already make those changes for a second home or investment property, but not a primary residence.

This would impact owners who are seeing home values drop to the point that the mortgages are larger than what the home is worth.  Sentator Richard Durbin was the primary sponsor and the bill was back, a little tepidly, by the Obama Administration. So back to Ryan Grim.

The Chamber of Commerce has deemed the vote a crucial one that will be heavily counted in its annual scorecard, and those who voted yes will pay a financial price from the Chamber and the banking industry.

Other Democrats stuck with the banks against the homeowners. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was wheeled into the chamber and pointed his finger in the air, signaling a yes vote, then dramatically swung it down, as if taunting the backers of the bill.

Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) all voted with the banks, as they told the Huffington Post they would. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) voted no, as did the new Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.), Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) voted no as well.

Earlier this week, Durbin concluded that banks that “frankly own the place.”

How much did the Senate go for?

The banking and real estate industry has funneled roughly $2,000,000 into Landrieu’s campaign coffers over her 12-year career, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The financial sector is Nelson’s biggest backer; he’s taken $1.4 million from banks and real estate interests and another $1.2 million from insurance firms. Tester has fielded roughly half a million in his two years in office. Lincoln has taken $1.3 million from banking and real estate interests.
Carper has raked in more than $1.5 million. Baucus, chair of the finance committee, has been on the receiving end of $3.5 million over his career. Specter has hauled in more than $4.5 million and Johnson has gotten some $2.5 million.

So don’t these Senators realize how we got into this mortgage mess to begin with?  I see crazy loans made way above a homes value even in good times whose owners are now in trouble.  Where are the mortgage bankers getting the money to lobby?  I thought they were in trouble and needed taxpayer help.  I say, no more bailout for any mortgage bank which lobbied against this bill.

By the way, there is also a list of Senators who voted their consciences:  Evan Bayh, Mark Warner, Jim Webb, and Ted Kaufman (who is not running for re-election).  We need to thank them for their votes.