Overcriminalization is not Conservative: Why Republican Senators Should Support S. 2123

 

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S. 2123, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), is inherently conservative because it benefits Americans while significantly reducing federal spending. The current changes to SRCA examined in the Senate aim to address the concerns of some legislators while keeping the substantive reforms to the nation’s broken justice system. If nothing is done, the price of maintaining a sufficient justice system will become far too costly.

Senate support originates from the SRCA sponsor, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and it is cosponsored by notable senators such as John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Rand Paul (R-KY).

SRCA is not a revolutionary new approach to the justice system but rather a measured application of years of reform experience onto the federal prison system. Thanks to months of education and study, conservative stalwarts like Senators Grassley and Lee lead efforts to push the issue. This is a major development after the demagoguery and falsehoods peddled by actors who neglect to offer their own proposals.

The new changes would remove any possibility that serious violent criminals will see any sentencing relief.

Costs

The criminal justice system in its current state is extremely costly to the United States budget. According to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, the Bureau of Prison’s budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 totaled $6.9 billion and represented 25 percent of the DOJ’s discretionary budget.

Comparatively, the BOP’s FY 2000 budget is only $3.8 billion and 18 percent of the DOJ’s discretionary budget. This doubled monetary increase damages the DOJ by preventing it from participating in other critical law enforcement programs.

Plans like SRCA prove to reduce costs as seen in states like Texas. When Texas spent $240 million up front in 2007, they closed 3 prisons and saved an estimated $3 billion with reforms that lowered the prison population while increasing public safety. With this overhaul, Texas lowered its prison population by more than 20%. Also, Texas crime plummeted to its lowest levels since 1968.

Impacts

By proposing a comprehensive plan, SRCA will have a significant impact on improving the justice community and will benefit all Americans. It provides for common-sense reform to prevent cruel and unusual punishment, decrease recidivism rates, and enhance public safety.

Today’s federal system spends significant amounts to imprison non-violent and low-level offenders rather than leaders of organized crime. According to an October 2011 U.S. Sentencing Commission Report to Congress, only 11 percent of those sentenced for drug offenses were “high-level suppliers or importers.” Only 7.1 percent were “organizers, leaders, or manufacturers.” However, 58.6 percent of those sentenced for drug offences were street-level dealers or below, and 27.8 percent were “couriers” or “mules.” These numbers depict the failure of the current system to target high-profile criminals it intended to incarcerate.

Recidivism rates in the U.S. are also daunting. 95 percent of federal prisoners will eventually  be released into the general public, but most of them lack  the tools to become rehabilitated members of society. SRCA creates a Recidivism Risk Assessment to determine risk levels for prisoners. Those with lower risk would receive credits to reduce their sentences by completing training programs proven to work in states like Texas.

Working to decrease recidivism enhances public safety. Prisoners return to the community with rehabilitation training and skills to help them contribute to society.  These are not “weak provisions;” they are smarter provisions that increase safety and decrease taxpayer costs.If anything, training requirements mean we are getting tougher, not softer on crime.

Consequences of Doing Nothing

As costs continue to increase exponentially in the federal prison system, less funds are available to assist other programs in DOJ. This increases the national debt and demands higher taxes to provide the average $30,000 per prisoner per year (with more than 215,000 people in federal prison during 2014). Prisoners lacking skills continue to be released into the community each year. Without any formal assistance to gain necessary capabilities to contribute to the community, these ex-prisoners return to prison due to lack of employability.

The vicious cycle of mass incarceration must end, and the conservative proposals within SRCA provide the most effective long-term solutions. These resolutions increase domestic security, decrease costs, and prevent crimes that are being unfairly punished-an inherently “conservative” ideal. I urge the Senate, especially conservatives, to support S.B. 2123 to reform the dysfunctional justice system.

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A Conservative Replacement: Fixing the Affordable Care Act

obamacare-cartoon-hellerOne of the most hotly debated issues in the American political landscape today centers around the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially referred to as both the ACA and Obamacare. The ACA, passed by the 111th Congress and signed into law by President Obama in late-March 2010, is the most gargantuan overhauls of the American health-care system since President Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law in 1965. The arguments for and against Obamacare are very much divided along party and ideological lines, with liberals generally supporting the ACA and conservatives feverishly opposing it. The overtly partisan divide that generally accompanies Obamacare created great waves of disagreement in Congress, with the most recent government shutdown engendered by an attempt by House Republicans to defund the act to undermine several of its crucial provisions. With the advent of the first Republican Senate in eight years, the ACA looks like it will be run through the mill once more.

Financial implications are inherent within any sweeping legislation like universal health care. There are two major funding models that are used to varying degrees around the world to pay for universal health care. The ACA is based on a model called compulsory insurance. Compulsory insurance is the equivalent of a government mandate to buy health insurance. This is enforced by legislation in which people can incur fines and penalties for not purchasing health insurance. In Obamacare, people who failed to purchase insurance by May 1st of this year had to pay a tax penalty. One of the only circumstances that this penalty can be avoided is if the income of the applicant is so low that they are not required by law to file for taxes.     Another model of funding for universal health care is called single payer. Single payer health insurance is a system in which the government settles all costs from health insurance, as opposed to health insurance being paid for directly by the insurers. The government gets the money from a fund that US citizens pay into through taxes. The taxes paid in a single payer health care system effectively replace the premiums that were paid for by private insurers. Proponents of a single payer health care system argue that this is a cheaper alternative to privatized health care in that insurers are free from paying for the overhead costs of health insurance companies, therefore paying less through a tax than they would through an insurance premium.

The ACA has come under fierce opposition from many people, mostly conservatives, who typically value personal responsibility over government intervention. A major result of Obamacare is the introduction of new taxes. In order to compensate for the tens of millions of people who have recently been insured, new taxes on high-earners have been introduced. The Affordable Care Act has also increased patient demand. With an increase in the amount of insured Americans, the usage of health benefits has also increased. With the increased usage of health benefits, a shortage of health care professionals, longer waiting lines, and crowded emergency rooms are inevitable. Another effect of Obamacare is that it is an overly complex law that is rife with red tape, regulations, and confusion. A recent poll by the Kaiser Foundation shows that 47% of people view the law unfavorable, while 35% view it in a favorable light. It can be argued that the initial confusion over the ACA has waned, but a majority of people still view the law unfavorably. Some view it as a complicated and unnecessary addition to an already complicated and inefficient health care system, and resent the fact that the government has mandated that they purchase health insurance. Also, insurance premiums have increased as a result of more people having insurance. This puts considerable stress on small business owners who provide health care for their employees, but fail to qualify for the aforementioned tax credits and government subsidies.

There is a solution to the health care issue that plagues this country. It is imperative that we look after the most vulnerable in our society first, and people that lack any kind of health insurance are definitely the most susceptible to massive debts that they simply cannot afford to accrue. The first step is obviously to repeal some key portions of the Affordable Care Act that put undue stress on the lower class, such as the individual mandate. The second step would be to implement a catastrophic health care coverage for every eligible citizen. Doctor visits don’t kill the family budget; unforeseen and gigantic medical problems are bankrupting the lower class and the uninsured. If a medical problem in the family becomes too costly or expensive, government should be there to incur a substantial portion of the costs, or all of the costs after a deductible. Finally, allowing people to buy insurance across state lines would drive down costs as well, making insurance more affordable for all. These simple changes would drastically improve the Affordable Care Act. It is imperative that we make these changes before it is too late.

Huddled Masses: Fixing Our Broken Immigration System

Statue of Liberty at Sunrise

America is a nation of immigrants; most Americans are only a few generations removed from being immigrants themselves. However, a pervasive anti-immigration sentiment seems to dominate American political rhetoric lately. On July 1, 2014, a mob of protesters in Murrieta, California stood in the center of a street to block three buses filled with approximately 140 immigrants. The flag-waving protesters, 300 in number and rabidly chanting, “go back home,” were enough to reroute the fleet. Disturbingly, this xenophobia was directed at legal immigrants. In the wake of President Obama’s executive order on immigration, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) has taken up the mantle of being the Senate’s leading anti-immigration crusader. In a recent interview detailing his plans to destroy any semblance of a coherent immigration system, Sessions tipped his hand: “One thing that’s accepted almost without debate is that we need more of those workers, and that’s not accurate.” The basic assumption that Sessions and his ilk operate under is patently false: we do need these immigrants, and it is precisely these immigrants that will solidify America’s leadership in the twenty-first century global marketplace.

The centerpiece of immigration reform should be a clear and obtainable path to legal citizenship, unhampered by long lines or bumbling bureaucracy. A separate federal department that solely handles immigration, perhaps titled the Department of Immigration (DOI), should head these efforts. The DOI would manage all aspects of the immigration process, from visas to family immigration to distribution of green cards and other paths to legal status. Centralizing these efforts would drastically pare down the bureaucracy involved with the current distribution of immigration services across several federal departments. The DOI would then be able to dictate an immigration policy that stimulates economic growth. An economically driven immigration system that appeals to work-driven immigrants is essential. The Department of Immigration would employ policy experts and the like to tackle problems facing our current system. One area that the DOI would certainly curtail is the process of reunification. According to current immigration code, families that immigrate here are allowed to reunite with not only their nuclear family members, but extended family as well. While the reunification of nuclear families is important, the endless immigration of extended and non-nuclear family members is a problem. Extended family members do not provide the kind of economic benefit that work-driven immigrants and their families offer. Moreover, this creates a chain effect, wherein a steady stream of family members come to seek citizenship, and clog up the line for more qualified immigrants. Work-driven immigrants should be at the front of the line in a new immigration system.

States should play a large role in enhancing the effectiveness of these comprehensive immigration reforms. People that place complete border security ahead of comprehensive immigration reform are misguided; there will be no green light indicating when the border is completely secured. With the advent of nascent technology, we can control the borders in new ways that do not rely on crocodiles and moats. Ideally, states would be given block grants to secure their borders in ways that make the most sense. An idea that caught on recently is surveillance via unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with cameras and radar. The best combination would be virtual and physical borders in tandem with increased border patrol staffing. Another area in which states should be given flexibility is allocation of welfare and other government entitlements. Even though immigrants are net contributors to major entitlement programs like Medicare, a central tenet of an economically driven immigration system is the assurance that immigrants are growing our economy, not hampering prosperity. As a result, states should be given the ultimate flexibility as to how they would distribute welfare resources to immigrants. Lastly, states should be given the ultimate authority to enforce immigration policies. With most of the burden of enforcement vested in the Department of Homeland Security, states are at a comparative disadvantage when it comes to enforcing immigration policy. Ultimate harmony between the federal government and state and local governments is essential in securing our borders and restoring the rule of law. Empowering the states to have relative autonomy in securing the borders, welfare distribution, and enforcing the rule of law should be a key facet in comprehensive immigration reform.

As a nation, we are a far cry from the days of Ellis Island and an immigration policy that benefits both immigrants and the United States. As mentioned before, America is a nation of immigrants. We are drawn here by the promises of freedom, personal responsibility, individual liberty, and pursuit of the American Dream. Unfortunately, America’s natural gravitation towards compassion is lost in the immigration debate. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) was right when he spoke about immigration in a 2012 speech. Decrying the treatment of illegal immigration as a strictly law and order issue, Rubio definitely tugged at the heartstrings: “These are real people. These are human beings who have children, and hopes, and dreams. These are people that are doing what virtually any of us would do if our children were hungry, if their countries were dangerous, if they had no hope for their future.” Comprehensive immigration reform is one way that we can honor the core principles that make America the greatest nation on earth. Our policies and our citizens need to welcome immigrants to revitalize America, and to take her in a new direction. Making fundamental and sweeping changes to current immigration legislation will be difficult both politically and structurally, but it must be done to secure future prosperity for America and her citizens. It’s time to honor the Statue of Liberty, and honor the promise of the American Dream. It’s time lift our lamp beside the golden door before it is too late.

Education is Not a Handout

Obama wants more handouts in a society too reliant on the welfare state.
Obama wants more handouts in a society too reliant on the welfare state.

Obama’s community college subsidy proposal is asinine and destined to fail. While addressing a crowd in Tennessee last month, President Obama claimed that free tuition at community colleges would pave the way for an adept workforce. However, a report from the National Center for Education Statistics claims: “only one in five students who attend community college earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.” Obama’s goal is clear: adding more “skilled workers” to the workforce in order to promote upward social mobility. Liberal pundits believe that subsidies will bolster education; however this is a fallacy because most students in the bottom half of the income distribution are already eligible for federal grant aid. According to a report from the Community College Research Center in 2012, 62% of community colleges paid all or some tuition. The government should focus on reducing the rising costs at four-year universities before handing out more free money.

Interestingly, Obama’s proposal derives from the “Tennessee Promise,” a turbulent statute in the state of Tennessee. For instance, community college graduation rates across the United States are low to begin with. In Tennessee, the average graduation rate is 13%, with some community colleges having as low as 6%. Thus, liberals are right on one aspect: there will be a greater access to higher education; however, it will be unattainable due to the low graduation rates in community colleges. With low graduation rates in community colleges and a national average time until graduation of three years, the American College Promise will fail.

Apart from in-school success, an estimated $60 billion in spending over the next ten years remains unpopular with the middle and upper class. How will free community college alleviate the burdensome costs of attending a four-year university? It won’t. Obama thinks he hit a home run with this proposal, but conservatives view it as striking out. Essentially, placing more students in struggling community colleges won’t significantly increase graduation rates as Obama promises. Instead of lying to the American people, rolling up his sleeves and working with Congress to provide states more flexibility with education is a start.

Why doesn’t the president work to eradicate the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Program? This program has been disastrous in the states mainly because courses in the arts have been deeply cut. As a result, students pursuing careers outside the STEM Program are unable to take classes that would be beneficial.

The United States should always strive to become more competitive in education. Funding, investing in teachers, and placing a focus on state over federal control are what generate innovative educational policies. Rather than expanding the welfare state, where individuals depend on the government for years, the U.S. education focus should be rewarding those who worked extremely hard and achieved exceptional grades in high school. Education is not listed anywhere in the Constitution and is certainly a privilege, not a right.

Email the author @ ss3764a@student.american.edu

Image from: imgflip.com


Exiling the Homeless, One Spike at a Time

For many, metropolitan centers symbolize the American dream. Towering sky scrapers and animated streets display the gorgeous outputs of capitalism. Interestingly enough, American metropolitan centers weren’t always hotbeds of wealth and success. A series of metropolitan policy changes and technological advances precipitates today’s scenic downtown image. Policy reformation involved exiling homeless populations to ensure downtown locations as a playground for wealthy and middle class Americans.

Previously, cities like Detroit, Cleveland, New York, and other industrial centers housed factories that employed millions of diverse Americans, even during the malaise of segregation. Following improved technology, factories replaced employment with automation, and opportunity diminished. The mass production of the automobile and extension of the railroad enabled white Americans, or anyone with substantial finances, to relocate their homes outside of urban centers. Similarly, factories fled the urban landscape for the suburbs and anti-labor union lands in the South. While the affluent enjoyed their suburban lives, metropolitan centers experienced declining tax revenue, virtually no employment opportunity, and large minority populations that lacked the social mobility to follow their employers into the suburbs.  Soon enough, the “Rust Belt” and other industrial economies crumbled.

After the decimation of “downtown,” cities, starting with Los Angeles (L.A.), reformed metropolitan policy to regain tax revenue they once gleaned from corporations and wealthy or middle class Americans. Many whites viewed “downtown,” their former workplace and home, as an impoverished habitat for unrespectable people, e.g. minorities. Essentially, L.A. tasked itself with removing minority and homeless communities that populated center city. Urban planning, in which metropolitan governments invoked eminent domain to destroy neighborhoods and replace them with grandiose commercial settings, effectively placed minorities into the L.A. periphery. To distinctly separate the periphery from downtown, further policy implications created a hardened downtown core restricting low-income persons from successfully populating center city. Soon, wealthy whites and the middle class flushed back into L.A., creating the crystalline “downtown” image associated with places like Manhattan, Inner Harbor, and the Chicago Loop in exchange for a violent undertone from displaced minorities struggling in peripheries. Some cities, such as Detroit and Cleveland, never emerged from the doldrums; however, many others adopted the L.A. blueprint and waged political war against the homeless and low-income communities to create ritzy urban life.

Exemplifying policy displacing the homeless, metropolitan centers expel vagrants with “homeless spikes.” Homeless spikes are geometric formations attached to flat surfaces, typically in the shape of a spike or pyramid, that make it impossible to sit or lie comfortably. Metropolitan governments add homeless spikes to surfaces on street corners, alleyways, and underneath bridges, effectively barring the homeless from vesting in public space. In many cases, governments argue that anti-homeless policies intend to “cut-costs,” such as the elimination of public bathrooms. Actually, adding homeless spikes to infrastructure is more costly than not doing so. Therefore, homeless spikes are the most visible component of metropolitan policy that intentionally exiles the homeless; governments embody more costs to do so.

Through an economic lens, homeless spikes are simply a form of intergovernmental competition. Essential to conservatism are laissez faire economics and small-government attitudes. Private entities must compete with one another, and the victors will reap the benefits from profits. In a sense, homeless spikes are methods in which metropolitan governments compete with one another: in order to display the most “presentable” downtown image, neighboring cities will deploy homeless spikes to portray order and prestige. Whichever city rids of its homeless population will take on a “more-respectable” image, and its local economy will reap the benefits from increased residency, tax revenue, and transactions. By laissez faire, homeless spikes are the product of competition, where metropolitan centers with the financial capacity to implement homeless spikes should do so to improve their market product. The federal government, on the other hand, should not interfere.

Although homeless spikes make sense for a free market, they infringe upon the integral conservative belief in equal opportunity. Equal opportunity is the belief that a person willing to relentlessly pursue his or her goals is entitled to the opportunity to do so. Homeless spikes, however, eliminate equal opportunity for the homeless. Since conservatives tout the idea of equal opportunity, some view the homeless as the people unwilling to relentlessly pursue their goals, or as downright lazy. In most cases, labeling the homeless as lazy is damn wrong. Homeless men and women are tasked with demanding inconveniences on a daily basis, such as finding clean running water or their next meal. While finding sustainable employment may be the key to eating and drinking, minimum wage jobs still do not guarantee the financial sustainability for acquiring housing. Whether the homeless should have housing is not in question; most conservatives believe that the homeless have to earn the financial capacity for housing. The issue is that homeless spikes prevent the homeless from residing in cities as vagrants, making it impossible to find long-term employment and sustainability, which conservatives believe is the panacea for eliminating homelessness.

Essentially, the crux of the homeless spike debate is as follows: if the largest employment opportunity exists in metropolitan centers, and the homeless need to reside in metropolitan centers to find jobs, why is the government exiling them? Vagrant men and women who travel to cities for employment cannot reside in public space, even temporarily. Homeless spikes, along with geometrically uncomfortable bus benches, excessive park sprinkler systems, vagrancy laws (laws permitting incarceration of people residing in public space), and the overall privatization of public space (including restrooms) make it impossible for a willing homeless person to find a job in a metropolitan center. A true conservative sees homeless spikes, and policy with similar intentions, as the rupturing of personal liberties. “Big government” is not one that bans homeless spikes, but one that consistently polices public space and punishes those who revel in it. Regardless of the economic point of view and the inherent competition between neighboring cities, equal opportunity is a falsehood in the presence of homeless spikes.