Casey Schoeneberger, Faith in Public Life’s Media Relations Assistant, came to FPL from NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby’s Associate Program after studying economics at Saint Joseph’s University. She blogs about tax and budget issues on Bold Faith Type.
With states utilizing an increasing number of private prison contracts to purportedly ease budget shortfalls, the prison privatization debate has fallen squarely on Florida’s shoulders this week. Despite last year’s failed privatization efforts, the Florida legislature is once again considering awarding contracts to for-profit corporations that would put 29 facilities and up to 16,000 inmates in the hands of private corporations.
Since the bills were introduced, corrections officers, labor groups and public policy experts have expressed opposition to the state’s plans. They warned legislators that prison privatization would threaten public safety and put corrections employees out of work. Many who testified warned that private prison companies use inferior training and policies for their employees, and cut corners to save money.
Despite claims by private prison supporters that privatization plans save money, the benefits often fail to materialize for the state. Chris Kirkham at The Huffington Post explains:
Proponents have advanced the move as a cost-saving measure, a business-minded response to the state’s budget shortfall. But a series of studies and the experiences of several other states that have experimented with privatizing prison systems raise significant doubts about the cost savings that are supposed to accrue: Private prisons have tended to take control of the lowest-cost inmates, those lacking health problems and posing less risk of violence, while leaving states to contend with the harder cases.
While private prison corporations continue to benefit from America’s high incarceration rates and state budget shortfalls, people of faith are taking steps to ensure their congregation’s investments do not fund this growing, immoral industry.
While United Methodists have been caring for those imprisoned and fighting to lessen the number of people incarcerated, our church has been profiting from corporations making billions of dollars from the incarceration of people of color. It was a sickening realization. Profiting from stock in CCA and GEO Group is a betrayal of all that we stand for and believe in as United Methodists and followers of Jesus.
As Florida activists and the United Methodist Church has demonstrated, faith-based organizations combining forces with labor and human rights advocates is a key way for state groups to effectively insert a vital moral voice into this ongoing, contentious debate.
Last September, despite recanted eyewitness testimony and last-minute clemency appeals to the Georgia state Pardons and Paroles Board, Troy Davis was executed, sparking international outcry. It has been four months since that egregious sentence was carried out, but Davis’ killing created a new wave of anti-death penalty activism and is leading more and more people of faith to demand an end to state-sanctioned executions.
In a sign that state legislatures are finally taking notice, the Pennsylvania Senate recently “passed a resolution calling for a review of the fairness, equality and expenses of having a death penalty that is rarely used.” Although executions are rare in Pennsylvania, 208 inmates remain on death row.
In the typically conservative state of Montana, faith leaders are actively engaged in efforts to save Canadian-born Ronald Smith from death by lethal injection. Smith, convicted of the 1982 murders of two Blackfoot Indian men, is the only Canadian on death row in the U.S.. Eighty religious leaders gathered at a press conference last week to call both for clemency for Smith and the abolishment of Montana’s death penalty – a measure that has already passed the State House of Representatives.
I have seen no research that indicates that (the death penalty) acts as a deterrent to violent crime,” Rev. Franklin Brookhart, Bishop of Montana for the Anglican-affiliated Episcopal Church, argued in a letter to state legislators. “I cannot see how it makes us a better nation, that is, a more compassionate and fair society. And it clearly does not set a good example for individual conduct or moral maturity.
Just this week, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of death row inmate Cory Maples, who is awaiting execution in Alabama. Reflecting one of the most shocking examples of inadequate representation, Maples missed the opportunity to file an appeal due to mishandled mail and lawyers who failed to inform the court that they would no longer be managing his case.
In a rare display of empathy by the high court (Justice Alito called it “a veritable perfect storm of misfortune”), the Justices ruled 7-2 that Cory Maples deserved another hearing. Unfortunately, Justices Scalia and Thomas refused to join the broad majority.
Scalia, who has been called out by Catholic theologians for his misrepresentation of Catholic theology on this issue, said in his dissent that while the majority of justices may have ruled out of an “understandable sense of frustration,” the ruling would set a precedent to other death row inmates to challenge their sentence because of ineffective counsel. Instead of acknowledging the errors of the legal system, Scalia was more than ready put a man to death based on the errors of his inept legal counsel.
Andrew Cohen at the Atlantic explains Scalia’s dissent:
Justice Scalia wants certainty and finality on appeal — even if it means injustice to a capital defendant. Even Justice Alito’s litany of errors — eight of them! — wasn’t enough to convince Justice Scalia that Maples deserved more from his attorneys, the justice system, the High Court and the Constitution… This week we see how far lawyers must go in abandoning their capital clients before Justice Scalia will take notice and do something about it.
Despite Scalia’ (and Thomas’s) disappointing dissent, people of faith across the United States continue the march forward to bring an end to the death penalty and these blatant miscarriages of justice.
Last week we covered the release of “Profiting from Poverty”, an extensive report detailing the unscrupulous tactics payday lending companies use to make astronomical profits (on the backs of the poor). Now it has come to light that in at least one state, payday lending companies are threatening churches that are educating their communities on the dangers of payday loans.
In Missouri, the faith community is working to gather 90,000 petition signatures to get an initiative on the ballot that which would cap payday loan interest rates at 36 percent. (Current law allows payday loan rates to be as high at 1,950 percent).
The law firm that sent the letters on behalf of payday lending companies argues that they were simply meant to serve as an “educational tool”.
Barb Shelly at the Kansas City Star describes the letters’ contents and the accuracy of threats against these claiming congregations:
The letter from the Texas law firm, Anthony & Middlebrook, advised churches in bold letters that “strict statutes carrying criminal penalties apply to the collection of signatures for an initiative petition.
That’s true, of course, if one distributes a false affidavit or signs someone else’s name to a petition. No one has accused the payday loan opponents of doing any of those things.
The letter also warns churches that their tax-exempt status could be threatened if they engage in lobbying or attempts to influence legislation. The letter interprets “influencing legislation” to include “supporting or encouraging action with respect to the (payday lending) petition.”
That is intimidation, pure and simple. Federal tax law does prohibit churches and charities from supporting or opposing candidates. It also says that those groups must limit advocacy activities on behalf of a particular cause so that they don’t constitute “a substantial part” of an organization’s total activities.
But nothing in any law prohibits churches from speaking out on important issues, and individual church members are free to participate in political and issue campaigns as much as they wish.
Thankfully, the threatening letters aren’t causing congregations to back down. Even more educational events, forums, and petition gatherings are planned for the upcoming week. The payday lenders immoral, dishonest attacks suggest that the faith community’s efforts are making a difference.
Constrained by the limits of the shameful 2011 debt-ceiling budget deal, the Obama Administration is warning progressive groups that they won’t appreciate the cuts facing human needs programs. Community health centers, childcare assistance and anti-hunger programs (to name a few) stand to be severely impacted by cuts in 2013. The potential consequences of these cuts cannot be underestimated and many difficult moral decisions lie ahead for policymakers.
It’s important to remember that we’re in this situation because Congressional Republicans threatened to crash the economy on purpose if the White House didn’t agree to draconian cuts. Nonetheless, leaders of both parties must be held accountable for their moral (or immoral) budget priorities.
As word spread about the draconian cuts facing cities and towns in 2013, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sounded off yesterday about Congress and its failed response to America’s budget crisis:
We’ll be monitoring budget proposals in the coming weeks to see which programs face the biggest brunt of cuts and sound the alarm if the budget fails to maintain critical protections for poor and vulnerable people.
As if the working poor weren’t facing enough assaults on their livelihoods during this extended period of high unemployment, a new report from National People’s Action details the dangerous effects payday lending companies — which make high-risk, high-interest, short-term loans — have on low-income communities.
One of the report’s key findings:
Payday lenders take at the very least $3.4 billion from our communities every year in fees alone. This figure represents some $3.1 billion in wealth stripped from desperate borrowers -money that could have gone to buy needed groceries or school supplies- to pump up the payday lenders’ fat bottom lines.
While payday lenders prey on the most vulnerable and drive the poor into never ending cycles of indebtedness, the lending institutions reap huge profits by borrowing from big banks like Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, US Bank and Bank of America at extremely low interest rates, “which they in turn lend out as payday loans charging between 260% and 570% APR”.
As the “Profiting off Poverty” report details, these companies continue to make record-breaking profits by setting up in neighborhoods isolated from traditional banking options. With more payday lending locations than McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S., these companies gladly admit that they are often the only available line of credit for people in poverty:
Many Americans with access to mainstream banking services and credit cards may never step foot into a payday loan shop. However, an estimated 25.6% of all American households representing 39 million adults are either “unbanked” (7.7% of all households) or “underbanked” (17.9% of households). Also, significant racial and ethnic disparities exist in terms of access to mainstream financial services; 53% of African-Americans, 43% of Hispanics, and 44% of Native Americans are either unbanked or underbanked.
Lenders take advantage of the fact that their exorbitant compound interest rates quickly skyrocket into an almost inescapable debt if borrowers fall behind in payment at all. Unsuspecting individuals are left handing over their paychecks to lenders for astronomical interest payments instead of saving for a more secure future. As building savings is a crucial tool in the fight against poverty, payday lending institutions make that task virtually impossible.
To learn about how you and your congregation can fight these predatory lending practices, be sure and check out these great faith-based resources from the Center for Responsible Lending.