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On the sixth anniversary of my sister Lisa’s death – posted 10/20/2015

October 21, 2015 1 comment

I wanted to acknowledge this date, remember Lise, and offer a poem. Lise loved the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser. One cherished memory I have is going with Lise to watch Muriel Rukeyser read her poems. I particularly remember her reading Ballad of Orange and Grape. I think Lise would have liked this poem.

Poem by Muriel Rukeyser

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined
values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other.
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves, To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

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Congressman Don Edwards: An American Original – posted 10/17/2015

October 17, 2015 Leave a comment

Former Congressman Don Edwards of California passed away on October 1. The event did not get much public attention although it should have. Don Edwards was a principled and effective advocate for social justice, equal rights, and environmental protection. That is so rare in a Congressman, especially now. In our era, the most forceful congressmen don’t even believe in government. They want to shut down the government for stupid reasons.

You almost never attach the term “heroic” to a Congressman but for Don Edwards it fit. He served in Congress from 1963 to 1995. During that time, he was a fierce protector of civil rights and liberties. He also played a key role in shepherding every major civil rights bill that passed through Congress.

Even more interesting than his political accomplishments was his personal and political evolution. He switched parties in the 60’s. He went from being a Republican to becoming a progressive Democrat. In his earlier political life, he had been, admittedly, a liberal Republican, a breed that is now as extinct as the dodo bird. I think it is interesting when a political person evolves. From my experience, that type of change is unusual. It seems to me that many more people stick to the politics of their birth family.

Born in San Jose into a Republican family, he went to Stanford University and then Stanford Law School. He was a top golfer. In 1934, he reached the finals of the California State Amateur Championship. Many years later, in 1950, he teamed up with professional golfer Marty Furgol to win the Pro-Am title at the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am held at Pebble Beach.

After law school, Edwards spent two years as a special agent with the FBI. During World War II, he served as an officer in the Navy, working in naval intelligence. He then followed his grandfather and father into the family land title business.

In the 1950’s, Edwards joined the California Young Republicans and he was elected president of that organization. By the time he was first elected to the House in 1962, he had changed parties and become a Democrat. Even then, he was disillusioned with how conservative the Republican Party had become.

Early in his legislative career, he played a critical role in convincing Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When he retired from Congress in 1995 he remarked about that time:

“It’s hard for some of you to remember…When I arrived [in Congress], black people couldn’t vote in large parts of the country, and if they did, they’d get hanged.”

About that time, Edwards also said:

“When I came here, the 11 states of the Old South practiced apartheid. There was a House Un-American Activities Committee. And the FBI was out of control threatening individual liberties.”

Edwards visited Mississippi and Alabama in 1964 where his son Leonard was working to register African-American voters. That experience had a significant effect on him. Edwards wrote Dr. King a letter in 1965 saying that his trip to Selma, Alabama showed him “the absolute necessity for immediate passage ” of the Civil Rights Act. He told King “we stand ready to support your efforts here in Washington”.

Edwards became chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. From that powerful position, he was the floor manager for many bills affecting minority rights and women’s rights. He successfully fought to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1982. At that time the Reagan Administration wanted to end the process by which states with past histories of discrimination had to have new election law “pre-cleared” by the Justice Department before they became effective. This is the same law the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2013 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder.

At the time, back in 1982, Edwards was quoted, saying:

“If you can’t vote, you are not a real citizen.”

Later in the 1980’s, he was arrested while protesting South African apartheid. The struggle against racism always remained close to Edwards’ heart.

Edwards had turned against the war in Vietnam and he had been the first House member to back Senator Eugene J. McCarthy’s anti-war campaign for President. That stand was controversial. It resulted in his only close re-election battle of his sixteen terms in Congress but he still won.

There are many fights in which Don Edwards engaged that deserve mention.

  • he pushed the Equal Rights Amendment through the House in 1972 only to see it fall three states short of approval
  • he was an effective member of the Judiciary Committee during the Watergate-era and he voted in favor of all articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon
  • he played a key role in eliminating the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1975
  • in 1986, he prominently opposed the nomination of William Rehnquist to become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, citing Rehnquist’s past dismal record on the fight against racism. To quote Edwards about Rehnquist: “He is a relic of a shameful era in our history when the law was perverted into an instrument for segregating society. He should not be confirmed to our highest judicial office.”
  • he played a big role in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 as well as the Fair Housing Amendments Act
  • he helped push through the Civil Rights Act of 1991 which expanded legal recourse for job discrimination

Edwards was an ardent environmentalist. He authored the bill that established the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. That was the first urban national wildlife refuge in the United States. The bill preserved a wide swath of South Bay wetlands for fish, wildlife and public recreation. The refuge covered 30,000 acres and it provides a resting spot for migratory birds. There are also other wildlife preserves on the Central Coast of California that bear Edwards’ name.

Representative Zoe Lofgren, a former Edwards’ staffer and his successor in Congress, tells a story that captures Edwards’ reputation for standing up for the underdog. Congress used to routinely fire all the mostly African-American food service workers on Capitol Hill as a budget fix. The workers would appeal to Edwards for help even though he was not on the congressional committee that handled that issue. The workers knew who their friend would be.

While he remained a savvy legislator, Edwards was very respected by all for his gentlemanliness and his civility. He had strong relationships with legislators from both parties. When he retired, the late Republican Congressman Henry Hyde had this to say:

“He is relentlessly liberal but that’s not a vice. The battle for the fullest expression of civil liberties is losing a general, not a foot soldier.”

Even though Edwards had been an FBI agent, he had a contentious relationship with the former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. As one of his first acts in Congress, he had forced through an audit of the FBI that challenged the agency’s bookkeeping. That had not endeared him to Hoover. The Washington Post reported a funny story about the Hoover-Edwards relationship. After several years in Congress, Edwards publicly considered stepping down and not running again. That caught Hoover’s attention and he wrote a memo about Edwards’ impending departure from Congress. On the memo was a handwritten comment: “Good riddance.” it was signed with the FBI Director’s initial “H”. Somehow that document made its way to Edwards. Edwards kept a framed copy of that Hoover document in his office.

When Edwards retired at age 80, he was quoted on what he wanted at that point.

“We haven’t been able to have a dog for the last 25 years.”

Don Edwards was an American original. He served California and the nation with integrity and distinction. He set a very high standard as a legislator.

Criminalizing Poverty in New Hampshire – posted 10/4/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 10/7/2015

October 4, 2015 3 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on October 7, 2015 under the title “The Crime of Poverty”.

In a new investigative report, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Hampshire found that Circuit Court judges in our state are jailing debtors who have no ability to pay fines or fees they owe. Instead of inquiring into whether they are “willfully” failing to pay, judges are locking poor people away.

The practice is reminiscent of debtor’s prison, an institution with deep historical roots in America and England. Back in the 19th century, jailing debtors who were unable to pay a court-ordered judgment was a common legal practice. Debtors typically worked off their debt or they had to find some outside source of funds to pay off the amount owed in order to get out of jail.

Charles Dickens went through the experience of having his father and the rest of his family incarcerated in Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison when he was 12 years old. Dickens had to leave school to work in a factory to help support his family. His father’s time in the debtor’s prison was traumatic for the whole family and it had a shattering psychological impact on the young boy. Of that time, Dickens later wrote:

“… My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation…that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life.”

In his work Dickens repeatedly wrote about debtor’s prison, most notably in his novel, Little Dorrit. The long shadow that family experience cast for Dickens is instructive about the human cost that is being inflicted on debtors right now.

The ACLU-NH found the practice of jailing debtors who had an inability to pay is systemic and not caused by rogue judges. In their report, they found nine judges in ten different circuit courts throughout the state jailing debtors who had no ability to pay their fines.

As pointed out by the ACLU-NH, debtor’s prison is supposed to be illegal. That law is well-established by both U.S. Supreme Court precedent and by state statute and rules. The law states that before an individual can be incarcerated for failure to pay a fine or fee, the court must meaningfully inquire into the reasons for failure to pay and it must determine that the individual is “willfully” refusing to pay despite having sufficient resources. The law prohibits courts from jailing individuals who simply cannot afford to pay.

The ACLU-NH also notes that both the federal and state constitution require representation by counsel if the judge is considering jailing for failure to pay a fine or fee in a criminal case. The ACLU-NH found that judges in New Hampshire were not conducting a meaningful ability-to-pay hearing. The word they use to describe current process was interesting – hyper-expedient. Neither were judges appointing counsel for poor people they were sending to jail.

The ACLU-NH report included several representative personal stories. In one case, Alejandra Corro, a 22-year-old single mother of two very young children, stole assorted infant clothing from Sears. She took the clothing for her children. Ms. Corro pled guilty and the court fined her $1000 with $500 suspended. The court added a $120 penalty assessment so the total owed was $620. The court authorized Ms. Corro to pay off the balance through 62 hours of community service.

Some time after that, Ms. Corro’s apartment burned. She had to move in with her mother. When she returned to court, she had only completed 20 of the required 62 hours but she stated the intention to complete the rest. Her previously appointed public defender tried to assist Ms. Corro but the court denied her request for an ability-to-pay hearing as well as her request for counsel. The court ruled that if Ms. Corro could not pay the remaining $420 she owed that day, she would be sent to Valley Street Jail in Manchester for nine days.

With the help of her public defender and the ACLU-NH, who filed an emergency petition, Ms. Corro only served one night in jail.

Another story in the report highlighted a homeless man named Dennis Suprenant who had been charged with misdemeanor conduct after a vehicle accident. Because Suprenant was indigent, he obtained a public defender to represent him on the charge. While his case was pending, the state’s Office of Cost Containment sent Suprenant notices about his non-payment of public defender attorney’s fees. Unlike some states, New Hampshire bills poor people for public defender services.

At a review hearing in February 2014, the court ordered Suprenant to pay $302.50 in its entirety by the end of the day or he had to go to jail. Suprenant’s public defender informed the court that the judge’s order would cause Suprenant to lose a job he had obtained two weeks earlier. Suprenant had, in fact, been making some positive strides in his life. He had entered drug treatment, graduated from a drug rehabilitation program, obtained his GED and started the job. The public defender argued jail would set back Suprenant to where he was before.

The judge responded by amending his order. He required Suprenant to pay all the money in his possession — $90. He then ordered that the remaining balance – $212 – be paid in less than two days. The court ordered that if the remaining $212 was not paid in two days, Suprenant was going to jail at Valley Street where he would be held until the amount was paid in full. How someone who was indigent would come up with that money while he was in jail remains a mystery.

The Public Defender and the ACLU-NH filed an emergency petition that resulted in the judge’s order being stayed.

I do not think these stories are unusual. Other than the fact that Ms. Corro and Mr. Suprenant ultimately got counsel, their stories reflect a strong national trend. All over the country, poor people are being jailed for failure to pay an increasing array of fees and fines associated with minor offenses and their rights are routinely ignored. These collateral costs follow offenders around and make it much harder for them to turn their lives around. Advocates have been calling it the criminalization of poverty.

National Public Radio (NPR) has reported that since 2010, forty-eight states have increased criminal and civil court fees. Offenders are now being charged for a long list of government services that were once free, including ones that are constitutionally required.

NPR found at least forty-one states charge inmates room and board for prison stays. Forty-four states bill offenders for their own probation and parole supervision. In forty-nine states there is a fee for electronic bracelets monitoring offenders when they are out of jail. At least forty-three states now bill defendants for public defenders. Inmates everywhere in the U.S. are charged unreasonably high fees for telephone calls from jail. As NPR reported, these fees often add up to hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. NPR estimated that between 80 to 85% of inmates now leave prison owing debt for court-imposed costs, restitution, fines and fees.

While state officials commendably responded to the ACLU-NH report and expressed a commitment to ending debtor’s prison, they do not appear to be seeing the big picture. We need to consider whether it is fair and just to shift the costs of running the criminal justice system onto the backs of some very poor people. All the fees and fines imposed on them make their lives and their reentry into society much harder. The New Hampshire Legislature should adequately fund the court system so that impoverished people who have committed a crime but who want to change and improve their lives are not unjustly burdened with debt they cannot pay.

Also, it makes no economic sense to jail people who cannot afford to pay fees or fines. The cost to the state for court proceedings and for housing people in jails far exceed the amount that defendants are charged as the ACLU-NH report argued.

The deeper moral issue here is the way our society treats our poor and vulnerable people. Where is our Charles Dickens to tell their stories and to speak for them in this time and place?