Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Following up on…

--Prison reform: Back in October, I wrote about Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) and his attempts to prioritize prison reform. In a December 12 blog entry, Bradford Plumer (who originally reported on Webb’s efforts for The New Republic) points us toward a relevant U.S. News and World Report feature from Alex Kingsbury concerning the highest prisoner re-entry rate in American history. Kingsbury notes that the term “re-entry” signifies a shift in prisoner reintegration strategies:

“Whereas rehabilitation assumed that individuals could change on their own, re-entry focuses on educating employers and communities about how they can help the offender on the outside. It aims to break though the red tape that has historically delayed social services for felons and to prevent the snags—like drug treatment programs that reject offenders who have been clean only a short time—that keep them from making a healthy return to society.
“In practice, that means synchronizing many different social and correctional services while offenders are still inmates and continuing that assistance after their release. Re-entry programs don't necessarily require more funding, just better coordination of existing resources like job training and stable housing. “Rehab is focused on the individual offender; re-entry is about communities, families, children, coworkers, and neighbors," says Amy Solomon, a criminal justice researcher at the Urban Institute.”

Kingsbury goes on to cite Kansas’ various re-entry programs as a positive model, where ex-convicts receive services that are designed to help them not only merely avoid recidivism, but also, for example, transition into steady employment with a livable wage. The results have been encouraging: since 2003, when the programs began, “the number of parole absconders has fallen by a third and recidivism has been cut in half.” Moreover, Plumer finds in a February 3 entry that in 2007, several states created oversight committees and/or enacted reform measures for their criminal justice systems. There is certainly a lot of room of improvement thanks to the tough-on-crime mentality, but all of this information is encouraging, and perhaps suggests a future broad-based change in American prison policies.

--Mike Huckabee and William Jennings Bryan: In writing about the differences between Huckabee and Bryan, I praised (and relied upon) Georgetown University professor of history Michael Kazin’s biography on Bryan. A few days after I posted my entry, I came across Kazin’s recent article for the start-up Washington Independent on how the two greatly differ. It goes without saying that his argument is stronger and more eloquent than mine. He also demonstrates that I was wrong on one point. While I wrote that “Bryan actively sought to apply his evangelical Christianity—largely based upon the Social Gospel—to the public square,” Kazin finds the following:

“How to apply one’s faith to public life has always been a controversial matter. In 1896, Bryan’s Republican opponents lambasted him for using the Crucifixion as a metaphor for his monetary policy. But neither in that campaign, nor during his two other races for president (1900 and 1908), did he ever, like Huckabee, advertise himself as ‘a Christian leader,’ give sermons in churches or call for amending the Constitution to fit ‘God’s standards.’

For Bryan, who idolized Thomas Jefferson, the separation between church and state was absolute. As an exponent of the Social Gospel, he used the Bible to justify aid to the poor and scorn for the rich – not to install his faith into law. What’s more, he needed the votes of Catholics and Jews, and so avoided taking positions that would alienate them” (emphasis mine).

I forgot to bear in mind that Jefferson and Jesus were the primary influences upon Bryan’s politics—bad writing on my part. Anyway, the essay, like the biography, is well worth the time.

--Also regarding the Huckabee/Bryan post: In the comments section, I received criticism for 1) relying on Arkansas Times reporter Ernest Dumas’ “facile” analysis of FairTax (as opposed to that of Boston University Department of Economics chair Laurence J. Kotlikoff, a FairTax proponent); and 2) personally characterizing the FairTax plan as “wildly regressive.” The first criticism is a bit puzzling, because while Dumas obviously isn’t an economist, his negative appraisal of FairTax considers the same arguments that many economic experts have forwarded, including those of Bruce Bartlett. I realize that FairTax proponents haven’t exactly warmed to Bartlett’s critiques (and, therefore, would find fault with Dumas), but I’m not sure how that makes Dumas unqualified to write about the subject. Journalists are capable of writing competently about economic issues without possessing doctoral-level expertise, even if we sometimes find fault with their positions.

As for FairTax’s regressive nature, the Annenberg Political Fact Check’s examination of the plan’s numbers is quite compelling. At the end, they write:

We don’t actually call the FairTax “regressive,” as AFT [Americans for Fair Taxation, who support the plan] implies that we do. We reiterate, however, that those earning between $15,000 (or perhaps as much as about $24,000 – see our addition to the “Who Really Pays” portion of our article above) and $200,000 per year – virtually all middle-class Americans – would pay a higher share of the tax burden under this proposal. Those earning more would see their share drop, as even AFT economists admit” (italics in original).

When citizens in higher-income brackets would pay less in taxes while those in lower to middle-income brackets would face tax increases, I would say that qualifies as a regressive policy proposal. The AFPC was generous in refusing to use the “r-word,” but the above paragraph makes a clear point regardless.

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