Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

New Mexico Bucks Criminal Justice Reform Trends, Moves Toward Harsher Penalties

Proponents of tough-on-crime policies aren’t throwing in the towel just yet.

In late January, the Republican-controlled New Mexico House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that would expand the number of violent felonies punishable under the state’s “three-strikes” law. Currently, New Mexico law mandates a life sentence for repeat offenders convicted of three separate violent felonies. The statute, if amended, would increase the number of felonies that qualify as “strikes” from five to more than 15 and add offenses like involuntary manslaughter and armed robbery to the list.

In recent years, California and other states have dialed back their three-strikes laws in an effort to reduce their prison populations. But New Mexico has headed in the opposite direction by moving to widen the scope of the law in an effort to keep more people, particularly repeat offenders, behind bars.

The bill’s supporters argue that the current law is inadequate and cite New Mexico’s higher than average rates of violent crime and a spate of high-profile cases in 2015—including the killing of two police officers and the shooting of a four-year-old girl during an alleged road-rage dispute—as evidence that people who commit violent crimes should be subject to harsher penalties, especially if they are repeat offenders.

The tough-on-crime proposals introduced during New Mexico’s current legislative session have struck some opponents as outdated, surfacing at a time when some states are retreating from the draconian laws that were mainstays of the 1990s. But the state’s current trajectory illustrates the difficulty of sustaining the momentum of criminal justice reform: When crime increases, punishment-oriented policies gain political traction.

In the days leading up to the January vote, Republican Representative Paul Pacheco, the bill’s sponsor and a former police officer, told the Albuquerque Journal that the tougher penalties would “incapacitat[e] a thin slice of criminal offenders to make New Mexico safer.”

However, critics have argued that the Pacheco bill would be an expensive undertaking that would have a negligible impact on crime rates. The plan would also eliminate judicial discretion from the sentencing equation: For example, one person convicted of three murders and another convicted of one act of involuntary manslaughter and two armed robberies would receive the same sentence.

In its assessment of the financial impact of the proposed bill, the New Mexico’s public defender agency concluded that the state’s habitual offender statute (which mandates extending a repeat offender’s sentence if the courts conclude that he or she continues to be a threat to public safety) has made the three-strikes law redundant.

Democrats control the state Senate in New Mexico, which makes it unlikely that Pacheco’s bill would become law during the 30-day legislative session that began in late January. But the sentencing proposal is just one of several pieces of “tough-on-crime” legislation being pushed by Republican Governor Susana Martinez and conservative state lawmakers prior to the November election.

Martinez made crime a centerpiece of her recent State of the State address, saying that,  “we need laws that are tough in substance, not just in sound bites.” Other pending bills include a constitutional amendment that would change state bail laws, a measure preserving mandatory minimum sentences, and a proposal that would classify law enforcement officers as a protected class under the New Mexico Hate Crimes Act.

In December, the Brennan Center published an analysis of crime rates in 30 major American cities from 2014 to 2015. Researchers found that while some cities saw rates for crimes like murder increase last year, the overall average crime rate for most areas remained unchanged over the two-year span. The national crime rate continues to be significantly lower than the historically high rates of the 1990s.

“Legislators are reacting to certain things that might be happening in their communities, but if we're talking about this historically, we're talking about very, very decreased crime rates since the 1990s,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior counsel for the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice told the Christian Science Monitor. “There may be pockets of crime in certain jurisdictions, but it's important to not have a knee-jerk reaction.”

Detroit Sick-Out Critics Frustrated They Can’t Blame it on the Teachers Union

For the past several months, teachers in Detroit have been organizing to protest their unsafe and underfunded public schools. These working conditions, the teachers argue, negatively impact both their ability to teach and students’ ability to learn. And students are indeed struggling: Detroit public school students consistently earn the lowest reading and math test scores compared to students in other urban districts across the country.

More recently, teachers have been calling in sick, forcing schools throughout the city to shut down. At first it was just a few schools at a time, but earlier this month the teachers escalated to larger, coordinated mass actions. On January 15, for example, 64 schools closed—more than half in the city—as teachers gathered to rally for more resources. Thirty-one thousand students had to stay home that day.

The mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, toured Detroit schools following the protests and reported seeing freezing children wearing winter coats in class, a dead mouse on the floor, and severely damaged facilities. Yet Duggan has limited power over Detroit’s schools; the district has been under state control for nearly seven years.  

These “sick-outs”—as they’re dubbed—have garnered great controversy. While plenty have expressed support for the teachers standing up for what they believe in, others say these educators are selfishly depriving students of their right to an education, and in some cases, free meals. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder said, “there are other venues and ways if people have issues. ... They shouldn’t be doing that at the expense of having kids not in class.”

Perhaps the group that is tripping over themselves the most is the so-called “pro-teacher but anti-union” cohort. It’s maddening for them that they can’t pin these sick-outs on the greedy scheming of the all-powerful teachers union. You know, the ones that just care about their salaries and pensions.

But the union did not spearhead these protests. The interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Ivy Bailey, has repeatedly said she does not support the sick-out approach. (She refuses to condemn the teachers, however, given what she says are extremely legitimate complaints that have gone long ignored.) 

Still, many, like the Detroit News editorial board, have framed their sick-out media coverage around individuals like Steve Conn, an “ousted union president.” By pinning these protests on a former union leader, rather than on the grassroots group of diverse teachers leading them the Detroit News aims to mislead its readers about the source and nature of, and motives behind, the sick-outs.  

Now, Detroit Public Schools (DPS) has even filed a lawsuit, singling out 28 defendants, including Steve Conn, Ivy Bailey, and the Detroit Federation of Teachers in its complaint. In the suit, according to Governing, DPS takes issue with Conn calling the teacher sick-outs a “huge victory.” The suit also notes that Bailey has not ruled out the possibility of a district-wide strike.

While the union is not leading the protests, it is certainly offering support. Here’s a video the American Federation of Teachers helped to produce on life inside Detroit’s deteriorating public schools:

West Virginia Supreme Court Ruling Paves Way for Right-to-Work

(Photo: Flickr/David Wilson)

A complicated political brawl in West Virginia came to a head Friday when the state’s highest court issued a ruling that all but ensures the passage of so-called right-to-work legislation there. The bill would ban unions in the private sector from requiring membership or dues as a condition of employment.

In its ruling Friday, the state supreme court ordered Governor Earl Ray Tomblin to appoint a Republican to fill a key state senate vacancy. The ruling concludes one chapter in a drama triggered by state senator Daniel Hall’s decision in the middle of the term to switch parties from Democrat to Republican, only to resign earlier this month. The state high court’s ruling essentially cements the GOP’s one-seat, veto-proof majority in the state senate.

The decision disappointed Democrats and the state’s labor unions, who had been relying on the state Supreme Court as their last chance to stop Republicans’ legislative push to pass right-to-work legislation, which labor allies say is merely an attack on unions. Last week the state Senate passed right-to-work legislation along party lines, and the Republican-controlled House is poised to vote on and presumably approve the bill in short order.  

The political push to make West Virginia a right-to-work state comes at a perilous time for the national labor movement as the United States Supreme Court is considering a case that would ban public sector unions from collecting mandatory fees from non-members, creating a potential for the right-to-work movement to spread into government employment. Court-watchers widely anticipate that the bench will rule against unions.

Though Governor Tomblin, a Democrat, has threatened to veto the bill, Republicans only need a simple majority in both chambers to override that veto. If the Supreme Court had ruled to give Democrats the authority to fill Hall’s vacant seat, Democrats could have then killed an override attempt in the state senate, and could have stopped right-to-work from becoming law.

West Virginia has the highest unemployment rates in the county and has struggled to rebound from economic downturns. Once a labor stronghold thanks to a booming coal mining industry, the state has seen its union power wane as its main industry tanked.

Seizing on the political opportunity, Republicans have made right-to-work a top priority in the current legislative session, arguing that the law would be a boon for business and for employment growth. The policy push has been aided by a “who’s who” of the conservative right: the state’s Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Heritage Foundation.

However, multiple liberal-leaning economic groups have discredited research the GOP and its allies have used to push the bill, pointing to faulty methodology and to the impossibility of singling out the impact of right-to-work on state economies.

Labor advocates say that right-to-work laws are thinly-veiled attempts to lower worker wages, increase corporate bottom-lines, and decimate unions all in one fell swoop.

“No matter how many studies you look at, there’s nothing that proves being a right to work state attracts employers,” Ken Hall, general secretary and treasurer of the Teamsters Union, told the Register-Herald. “This is not an issue that is good for West Virginia. This is absolutely, clearly being promoted by out-of-state interests, wealthy people and corporations to increase their profit.”

Republicans counter that right-to-work laws stimulate the economy. “States that have passed [right-to-work] have signaled to potential employers that they want job growth in their state and [West Virginia] is in no position to turn away this growth,” the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce said. “New and innovative policies are necessary to compete in today’s job market and if [right-to-work] has an impact, we need to pass it.”

If West Virginia Republicans succeed, the state will become the 26th in the nation to sanction right-to-work laws—meaning that more than half the nation’s legislatures have embraced anti-union policies.

This story has been updated. 

Sanders College Tour Spotlights Black Student Power

Independent senator and Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders has launched a tour of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), in an apparent bid to reach out to young black voters who so far favor Hillary Clinton in the polls.

In visiting HBCUs, Sanders is casting the spotlight on institutions that have given black students, who have been protesting racial discrimination on campuses across the country, a vital safe space. As Darrick Hamilton wrote in the Fall 2015 issue of The American Prospect, HBCUs provide “safe and nurturing spaces for thousands of students,” but “are at risk of extinction” due to fiscal shortfalls.

After facing criticism from black voters that Sanders has a racial injustice blind spot, the campaign took drastic action last August by releasing a lengthy and detailed racial justice policy platform. “It is an outrage that in these early years of the 21st century we are seeing intolerable acts of violence being perpetrated by police and racist acts of terrorism by white supremacists,” it reads.

Sanders’s education platform, which calls for tuition-free and debt-free colleges, appears tailor-made to draw support from college students and may also resonate particularly with black students at severely underfunded HBCUs. Despite gains in wealth, employment, and education, the racial wealth gap persists, making college affordability a big problem within the black community, as Hamilton explains in the Prospect.

Because young college students played a crucial role in helping elect and re-elect President Barack Obama, it’s little wonder that the Sanders campaign has selected HBCUs for his next campaign tour.

HBCUs still matter to black students, notes Hamilton in the Prospect: “Given ... the ongoing societal presumption of black inferiority maintained by many college faculty and administrators, HBCUs have not outlived their purpose—indeed, their need calls for greater strengthening.”

LGBT Coalition Joins Calls to Stop Immigration Raids

The Obama administration faces mounting pressure from increasingly diverse quarters to halt the practice of controversial raids to deport undocumented immigrants.

The latest group to join the chorus of those demanding an end to the recent raids is a coalition of three-dozen lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender groups, which sent a letter Thursday to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Johnson has said that “enforcement operations such as these will continue to occur as appropriate.” Two days of raids were carried out the first weekend of January and resulted so far in the detention of more than 120 people, most of them from Central America.

The negative impacts of the raids “are even more harrowing for LGBTQ immigrants that already report higher levels of violence and discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity,” stated the letter, which was signed by the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and Pride at Work, among others.

Earlier this week, nearly 150 House Democrats also sent a letter to the Obama administration, urging the president to stop the deportations and to “start working towards a solution that provides a practical and humane response to the mothers and children from Central America fleeing for their lives.”

The administration has defended the raids and deportations as necessary to deter an uptick in illegal border crossings in the months prior to the raids. Administration officials say the focus of the operations has been on immigrants who had “exhausted appropriate legal remedies” and have already been ordered to leave the country.

The dispute between Obama and members of his own party over immigration raids has also spilled over onto the presidential campaign trail. Senator Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley both condemned the raids last week, and Hillary Rodham Clinton chimed in on Monday, saying “the raids have sown fear and division in immigrant communities across the country.”

But the administration can at least count on support for its actions from the Republican candidates: After the plans for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids were leaked to the press late in December, Donald Trump tweeted, “Wow, because of the pressure put on by me, ICE TO LAUNCH LARGE SCALE DEPORTATION RAIDS. It’s about time!” 

Bernie Trolls Hillary in Response to Single-Payer Attacks

As Senator Bernie Sanders’s polling numbers surge in Iowa and New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is going on the offensive.

Clinton is attempting to spin Sanders’s longtime support for a single-payer health-care system as a radical idea that would harm the middle class—and one that has no realistic funding source. And it’s quickly turning into the fiercest debate between the two candidates in a primary that so far has been short on drama.

Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, accused Sanders of wanting to do away Medicare and Medicaid, which she said would “strip millions and millions of people of their health insurance.” That’s a stretch, given that a single-payer system would actually expand those programs to all Americans.

Clinton’s top staffers have also blasted Sanders for not specifying how much he would spend on such a plan, which is estimated to cost as much as $15 trillion.

The Clinton camp's choice of single-payer as its main line of attack on Sanders has prompted some Democrats to cry hypocrisy. They point back to 2008, when Clinton assailed Barack Obama for attacking her on single-payer. "Since when do Democrats attack one another on universal health care?" she asked at the time.

In response to Clinton's decision to reverse course and attack a longtime Democratic health-care policy priority, Sanders posted this sarcastic Twitter troll yesterday.

As the Iowa Democratic Caucus rapidly approaches, the tit for tat will only get nastier.

Planned Parenthood Endorses Hillary Clinton

On Sunday, January 10, in Manchester, New Hampshire, Planned Parenthood Action Fund will formally endorse Hillary Clinton for president—its first-ever primary endorsement. Planned Parenthood says it plans to spend at least $20 million on this election.

The national women’s health organization has thrown itself ever more forcefully into politics since its president, Cecile Richards, took over in 2006.  

The Planned Parenthood endorsement comes on the heels of a Clinton endorsement by NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC, a national abortion rights group. In 2008, NARAL endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary.

“We're proud to endorse Hillary Clinton for President of the United States,” said Richards in a statement. “No other candidate in our nation’s history has demonstrated such a strong commitment to women or such a clear record on behalf of women’s health and rights. This is about so much more than Planned Parenthood. Health care for an entire generation is at stake."

Clinton, Richards, and Planned Parenthood took to Twitter after news of the forthcoming endorsement was released:





Reproductive rights are set to be a major issue in this next election. Just this week, House Republicans voted yet again to defund Planned Parenthood, in large part because they are hoping Obama’s inevitable veto will galvanize anti-abortion voters on the campaign trail. Last year was a rocky one for Planned Parenthood, which sustained months of attacks after a conservative group accused the abortion provider of illegally profiting off of fetal tissue, a charge Planned Parenthood denied.

Obama Orders More Research on Gun Violence. But Will Congress Interfere?

For years, one of the federal obstacles that has most frustrated gun safety advocates is an old prohibition on gun violence research. Without robust data on the impact of guns, safety advocates say, policymakers are unable to respond effectively to the epidemic of gun violence plaguing the nation.

On Tuesday, President Obama issued an executive order that not only tackles that problem head on but also reforms and expands background checks on firearm sales and commits $500 million towards increasing mental health access. Most importantly, the order directs the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, and Justice to develop and increase research into gun safety technology.

Prior to this executive order, Congress had stymied effective gun violence research. In 1996, Arkansas Republican Jay Dickey (who has since reversed his position) added a rider to a budget bill that stripped the Centers for Disease Control of its funding for gun violence research.  After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Obama ordered the CDC to begin researching gun violence prevention, but the agency still lacked funding and remained fearful of a backlash from Congress.

The research component of the new executive order bypasses the CDC by assigning those three federal departments the task of researching safety technology. These new technologies aim to minimize accidental discharges and trace lost or stolen guns.

After Obama’s emotional speech on his executive orders, Republicans were quick to weigh in. “No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment,” said Speaker Paul Ryan in a statement. “We will conduct vigilant oversight. His executive order will no doubt be challenged in the courts.”

Though Congress seems poised to fight Obama on gun control, advocates applauded the move. But, without Congress pushing for the CDC to research the gun violence epidemic, Obama’s order directing the three departments to research safety technologies can only go so far.

According to Ted Alcorn, the research director at Everytown—a nonprofit organization aimed at ending gun violence—researching gun violence is of life-and-death importance. “We won’t identify and implement measures that put a true dent in our country’s extraordinary rate of gun deaths,” he told The American Prospect, “without broad, sustained investment in research.”

Last-Ditch House Bill Would Defund Planned Parenthood

In a last-ditch effort, House Republicans are set to vote Wednesday on a bill that would include a provision to defund Planned Parenthood. The vote comes just weeks after Congress passed its $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that included no cuts to Planned Parenthood, despite months of conservative pledges to defund the abortion provider.

House Republicans expect that President Barack Obama would veto any bill they pass. But they also hope that such a veto—which would come just days before Obama’s final State of the Union address—would elevate abortion issues on the campaign trail and galvanize Republican primary voters more broadly. As Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life Committee, explained in The New York Timesthis bill would be a way to show voters that there is “a pathway” to defunding Planned Parenthood, so long as a pro-life leader is elected to the White House.

In statement issued on Monday, Dawn Laguens, the vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said it is “appalling” that Republicans are looking to roll back women’s access to preventative health care in their first week back in session. She notes this will be the 114th Congress’s 20th vote to cut women’s access to reproductive care.

“Last year, Congress voted 19 times to attack reproductive health care including seven previous votes to cut Planned Parenthood funding and five Congressional committees spending taxpayer money to investigate Planned Parenthood,” said Laguens.

According to conservative activists, today’s House vote against Planned Parenthood will likely be the last one we see until the presidential election is over. There will still be Congressional hearings about fetal tissue donation throughout 2016, and the Supreme Court will be ruling on the most high-stakes abortion-rights case in a generation, so Planned Parenthood will no doubt continue to make headlines this year.

But Republicans attacks on Planned Parenthood could backfire on the GOP. No fewer than 14 recent national polls demonstrate strong, majority support for Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights. In swing states, too, pollsters found that the majority of voters strongly support Planned Parenthood. By a two-to-one margin, voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire said they were less likely to vote to re-elect their senators if they voted to defund the organization.

In Free Speech Turnabout, Public Officials Seek to Silence Students

A spate of student protests over racial discrimination on college campuses this fall and winter has triggered a backlash from critics who cast student demands as an affront to free speech.

But a dustup this week over legislation introduced in the Missouri legislature suggests that students’ own First Amendment protections may be at risk. On Wednesday, Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin, a Republican, withdrew proposed legislation that had sought to revoke the scholarships of student athletes who boycotted campus games.

The bill was a not-so-subtle response to a November boycott by the Mizzou football team that played a key role in forcing the resignations of then-University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe and of school Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. In a recent interview with CBS Sports, Brattin called the student athletes’ protest a “knee-jerk reaction” and “completely horrific.”

A controversial figure whose previous bills include a plan to restrict what items could be purchased using food stamps, Brattin introduced the bill with state Representative Kurt Bahr, another Republican. Pre-filed while the legislature was out of session as H.B. 1743 last week, the bill demanded that “any college athlete on scholarship who refuses to play for a reason unrelated to health shall have his or her scholarship revoked,” and called for fines to be issued against “any member of coaching staff” who supported or otherwise enabled an athlete’s decision to go on strike.

Brattin’s bill was immediately assailed by legal experts and activists alike, who called it a violation of students’ First Amendment rights.

“Rep. Brattin’s proposed law is not only a thinly-veiled attempt at keeping black athletes in line, it is also a violation of Missouri’s own constitution,” wrote lawyer and former Las Vegas Sun reporter Steve Silver in a blog post on Monday. “Revoking a scholarship if an athlete elects to strike as a form of protest certainly seems like a strong way of the government impairing speech.”

Brattin isn’t the only public official who stands accused this week of trampling on student activists’ free speech. In the wake of unrest in Baltimore following the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, City Public Schools CEO Gregory Thornton has taken what some call draconian steps to prevent violence as the six officers charged with Gray’s death go on trial. (The first of those trials ended in a hung jury Wednesday.)

As the city anxiously awaited the trial’s outcome earlier this week, Thornton sent a letter home to parents that spelled out school administrators’  expectations for students in the days following the jury’s ruling.

As reported by the Washington Post, Thornton’s letter stated that  “student walkouts, vandalism, civil disorder, and any form of violence are not acceptable under any circumstances.” This quickly drew the ire of civil-rights activists who accused Thornton of attempting to silence students under the guise of safety and security.

“This letter offensively and dangerously conflates the productive and affirming acts of students with criminal acts that not at all contributed to the advancement of our city,” said a Facebook post by the student group City Bloc, which has been active in organizing student protests at the Baltimore City Hall and around the city. “We will no longer tolerate this constant criminalization of our voices.”

The controversy spotlights an intensifying national debate between students protesting unfair treatment and discrimination, and a growing chorus of politicians, media pundits, and school administrators who have taken to categorizing their actions as disruptive and dangerous. The clash over civil rights versus free speech echoes some GOP politicians’ attempts to demonize the Black Lives Matter movement as an instigator of violence and crime.

It’s a familiar pattern when civil-rights activists speak up, wrote journalist Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker last month.

“The default for avoiding discussion of racism,” wrote Cobb, “is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract—free speech, respectful participation in class—as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights.”